Favourite blogs for The Shakespeare apocrypha

Blogs » All entries

August 15, 2012

Blog moved

This blog has now moved to my new website http://charlottemathieson.wordpress.com/

Please update your links and feeds!


July 30, 2012

Blog Relocation

Writing about web page http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/bardathon/

Today, I post my last entry on this iteration of The Bardathon. This blog began in April 2006, commissioned by the CAPITAL Centre at the University of Warwick to cover the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival. Some 500-odd posts later, I'm about to take up a permanent position as a lecturer at the University of Nottingham, and with some sense of sadness, I'm transferring my entries to a new blogging host at http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/bardathon .

I'd like to thank the team at Warwick Blogs for their help over the years in keeping The Bardathon up and running. I'll be leaving everything to date archived here as, unfortunately, I haven't been able to take all of your comments with me, and I don't want to lose the insightful criticism embedded there; and I want to ensure that print citations to the blog continue to work.

Please do go over to http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/bardathon to begin following. There's even a handy Subscribe by e-mail box in the top right corner. I'll also be extending the scope of the blog to reflect my wider work in early modern performance - there'll be more reviews of books and films, as well as the continued chronicle of all live performances of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that I manage to attend.

Thank you for reading, and please do continue!

Peter
@drpetekirwan (that's right, I'm on Twitter too)


July 29, 2012

Isles of Wonder

Writing about web page http://www.london2012.com/spectators/ceremonies/opening-ceremony/

There's so much been written on the London 2012 Opening Ceremony that I certainly don't feel the need to talk at length about the event. Suffice to say, I thought it was a bold and wonderful opening, celebratory while keeping its tongue at least partly in its cheek, self-deprecating and triumphant. The Bond/Queen and Bean sections were theatrical coups; the internet/music sequence had a baffling and unnecessary narrative which, thankfully, didn't detract from a fabulous celebration of Britain's achievements in music and film; the tribute to children's literature was gorgeous and the political statement justly felt; and I thought the cauldron looked terrific and the choice of the final torchbearers a great touch.

My compatriot Jem Bloomfield has written eloquently about the Shakespeare contribution - Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, speaking Caliban's lines from The Tempest, 'be not afeard', and I thought I'd add my tuppence worth. I'm not interested so much in where these words came from as what they were doing in Brunel's mouth at this particular moment.

Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Among all the furore over certain groups branding the ceremony too "leftie" (especially the idiotic Aidan Burley MP), I felt particularly bemused, as this section of the ceremony left a slightly sour taste in my mouth on account of its presentation of more conservative values. Was this a celebration? We watched a halcyon vision of Britain's bucolic past torn apart by industrialists, who removed the landscape in choroegraphed, machine-like movements, creating a smoking industrial landscape that forged the Olympic rings out of the ashes of the countryside. It's an oddly ambivalent moment to celebrate, and the ceremony seemed to know this. The evocation of Lord of the Rings imagery, the confusion of the Revolution and the groups it brought together, wandering lost among the smokestacks (rather like the paddy-field farmer in the cartoon introduction to Have I Got News For You), the wealthy industrialists becoming rich at the expense of the faceless masses; it was, in many ways, a nightmarish opening. I'm not quite sure what the fireworks-spewing rings at the conclusion of this sequence were meant to say, exactly - don't worry, the destruction of the countryside was worth it if we get to hold the Olympics? The wealthy have made all this possible? To my mind, it works best in the context of the entire show, where those values were thrown into contrast with the NHS sequence that so outraged Conservatives and Republicans.

What was most remarkable about Branagh's performance, to my mind, was the glimpses we got of him walking round, smoking a cigar and smirking at the Revolution he had instigated. Narratively, I suppose I would have liked to see a little more sense of this spiralling out of control, the "What have I wrought?" moment. But perhaps this was implicit enough in the lines with which he began the show. In Brunel's mouth, the words of Caliban's speech became the capitalist dream that Cheek by Jowl played with in their Russian-language production.

[A]nd then in dreaming,
The clouds, methought, would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

It was the riches that Brunel longed for, that provided the drive and inspiration that led him, Saruman-like, to tear up his country's green spaces. Where the nature of the riches Caliban imagines are left deliciously open to interpretation, Brunel's were material. I couldn't help but be reminded of Caliban's much later line:

Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash.

When Stephano and Trinculo are presented with riches that have appeared magically from the air/Ariel, Caliban is the one awake to their true nature. Perhaps I'm over-reading, but I can't help but feel that it's in the last line of the earlier speech that the difference between Brunel and Caliban can be seen. Caiban "cried to dream again". His instant recourse is to the imaginative world, not to an attempt to realise or own the music he has heard. It is at other points in the play that he attempts to take action, to disastrous effect. Brunel, conversely, immediately aimed to turn his dream of riches into a reality. His usurpation of the "isle of wonder" may not be the same as Prospero's, but the march of industrial capitalism at the expense of nature is, of course, a staple trope and one associated with the coloniser (see Avatar and a million better books and films).

To debate whether Brunel was 'Caliban' or 'Prospero' in this fantasy, however, is something of a red herring. The point is about appropriation, with Brunel colonising and disrupting Caliban's words just as he subsequently did to the landscape. In looking to the artificial clouds that hovered in the stadium and praying for riches to fall from them, Danny Boyle both literalised the image and rendered it a tagline for a capitalist dream. I'm not sure we were meant to celebrate this, exactly, but Branagh made it feel terrifyingly appropriate.


July 23, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Henry V @ BBC2

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91rf

It remains to Thea Sharrock to steer the BBC's Hollow Crown series to a dignified and lavish conclusion with Henry V, which brings Tom Hiddleston's young king to worldly maturity and sees the return of most of the actors whose parts have transcended individual films (although not York/Aumerle nor, curiously, Falstaff's Boy). As was the case with Richard Eyre's Henry IV films, this production is defined by its sincerity and seriousness, unfortunately to a fault. In its depiction of war, Sharrock steers away from politics and consequence to offer a more superficial overview of the war experience that concentrates in micro-close-up indiscriminately on the suffering of all individuals, taking the easy route of demonstrating that War Is Bad through the earnestly agonised faces and pathos-laden deaths of name characters, rather than critiquing the processes that created the situation in the first place.

That's not to say that there isn't a great deal to like about this film, particularly in the performances. Anton Lesser is a weary, quiet Exeter, rivetting in his tired glare at Jeremie Covillaut's Montjoy and a calm presence who stalks the edges of the battlefield and the king's chambers alike. Owen Teale is a serious-minded Fluellen, brusque but fair, and with a propensity to help his struggling underlings. Melanie Thierry and Geraldine Chaplin allow their dignity to dissolve into giggling during the French-speaking scene, and Lambert Wilson offers an austere reading of the King of France, framed by a huge faded tapestry (which the pedant in me thinks would probaby have been much more brightly coloured at the time, but I digress).

In this version of history, everyone is a human being and everyone is individually characterised. This means that we see on every face the pain of war, the slog and tiredness experienced whether by kings or the lowest footsoldier. It becomes somewhat relentless; Paul Ritter's Pistol sobs into his hands at the side of the battlefield, pulled up short by the carnage he sees; Fluellen dismounts from his horse to help a stumbling soldier through the mud while another soldier struggles to hold up a tattered St. George's flag; and the French nobles cradle their dying partners while promising to report back to the King. Most notably, Paterson Joseph's York is foregrounded early on as a particularly close friend of Henry V, picked out for special attention during the "band of brothers" speech and seen helping rescue the beleagured king on the battlefield in slow motion. His death occurs as he comes to the aid of the Boy, shot unawares by a French soldier who is subsequently shot by Exeter's man. York dies in the arms of the sobbing boy in a moment emblematic of the production's overall intentions - to emphasise war as the individual experience of tragedy.

Henry V

This is entirely valid as a reading but, as with Henry IV Part 2, it becomes rather monotonous, a montage of individual moments of sadness that don't coalesce in a coherent way. It looks and sounds stunning, but it doesn't offer much beyond the presentation of the material in a fairly superficial way. That is perhaps most true of the Chorus. John Hurt offers a clear, erudite reading of the speeches, but as a voiceover while scenes - the funeral of Henry V that opens the film, the sight of a majestic English ship crossing the channel - are fully visualised. Surely the purpose of the Chorus, however, is to evoke what cannot be realised, to articulate the performativity of the actors, rather than to act as the narration to literal depictions of events. The film's priorities are to emphasise grand speeches and the pain of war rather than engage with the play's more complex issues.

This is made apparent in the choice of cuts and interpretations. The opening involvement of the bishops in inciting Henry to war is cut to reduce their agency, and Henry's rationale for attacking France is accepted as just. The sequence of the traitors is entirely excised, preserving the English army as unfactionalised; a decision aided by the removal of the scene of the four captains. With the exception of Montjoy, the French get very little screen time other than what is necessary to establish them as opponents and imply the selfish motivations that allow Henry to make tough decisions. Most bizarrely, however, the killing of the boys is omitted, and Henry's decision to have the French prisoners killed comes as an outburst following the report of York's death.

Similarly, humour is mitigated at every turn. Any mention of leeks is studiously avoided, Falstaff's death is illustrated with a brief picture of a fading Simon Russell Beale, and the touching scene that remains between Julie Walters' Mistress Quickly and the other Eastcheap survivors is full of tears and serious recrimination, as well as a few laughs through tears. Bardolph's final situation is, however, played out at full length - York catches him running away with a crucifix, and Henry is brought to the tree where Bardolph has already been hanged, only to be greeted with a series of misty flashbacks of their prior connections. The fact that he is already dead, of course, relieves Henry of individual responsibility for his death, and thus Bardolph becomes simply another burden for the troubled king to bear.

Tom Hiddleston

Yet there is a great deal to love here. The battle scenes are extremely well done on the relatively small budget, drawing on Gladiator (a counterattack led from the trees by Fluellen), Braveheart (the massing soldiers) and Lord of the Rings (the storming of Harfleur smacks of Helm's Deep). The extreme cuts to the text allow the battles to contain their own miniature storylines and characteristics, from the boiling water poured on the English at Harfleur to the repeated digging-in and raising of defences at Agincourt. Sharrock's direction and emphasis on individual experience means that we see these battles through individual eyes, and Hiddleston is absolutely the right Henry for this approach. The two set-piece speeches are delivered naturally to small groups rather than as rhetorical announcements to an entire army. For "Once more unto the breach", he finds individual yeomen, including one cowering in panic next to the walls, and whispers his lines quietly to him, drawing the terrified soldier out of his foetal position with soothing blue eyes and calm words. "Band of brothers", meanwhile, takes the situation of the text literally and sees Henry speak as an individual to the small group of nobles (York, Westmorland, Erpingham, Exeter etc.) who are already in conversation, rather than opening up his promises to address the crowds. It's a distinctive and unusual arrangement of the speeches which works well in this context.

Hiddleston is a fine Henry V, troubled throughout by the pain of his soldiers and keen to engage with them. He's exemplary of the caring monarch, murmuring under his hood about how well Pistol's name suits him as the aggrieved soldier stomps away, and bursting into fury at Montjoy's last appearance. He is pious, spending considerable time on his knees either side of the battle, and charming in his encounter with Katherine. It's a solid, conventional reading of the king, but the camera allows Hiddleston to make the most of his facial expressions, emphasising the emotional reach in a way made more difficult on stage.

In an interesting final gambit, we see the face of the Boy who survived this version of the story come to Henry V's funeral and then, in a jump cut, transform into John Hurt, who wanders around an empty throne room clutching a tattered piece of an English flag. Interestingly, part of the penultimate line, "which oft our stage hath shown" is cut, presumably in honest reference to the fact that the BBC has not repeatedly shown the Henry VI trilogy. Yet the ethos of the series is disrupted in a final direct-to-camera address, asking the audience to accept the telling; followed by a historical message explaining that Henry died of dysentry. The shift to an odd docu-drama approach in the last moments fits oddly; it is the first time the audience is asked to accept a real king rather than a performed one. It's a moment which, again, sacrifices tonal consistency in favour of the quick emotional connection, the grown-up Boy gazing at the camera and asking the audience to remember them.

The Hollow Crown has created four accessible, straightforward Shakespeare films that are conservative in their readings, rich in production value and push the history plays as mood pieces, with individual emotion wrung out of every character. They will be hugely useful as teaching resources, and they are eminently watchable television. I wish the BBC had had the guts to do something more interesting with them though; make use of the format (Rupert Goold was the most inventive in this respect, but this was far more restrained technically than, say, his Macbeth) or take the opportunity to challenge the narratives of nationalism and conflict that were raised but not addressed in this series. The films are beautiful, but smack to me of Shakespeare to be seen and appreciated rather than to be engaged with or provoke conversation. While they are in many ways a resounding success, creating a Shakespeare that will reach the broadest possible audience and latch onto public mood broadly celebratory of individual achievement and ideas of the home nation in an Olympic year, it's perhaps also a missed opportunity for the exact same reasons.


July 15, 2012

Dickens's buildings and the partial perspective

What do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why?

This was the question with which Lynda Nead began her keynote at Dickens and the Visual Imagination this week, and one which I kept coming back to over the last few days, with a couple of instances prompting further reflection on Nead's talk.

The first instance was watching David Lean's Great Expectations, having realised this week that I've never seen the film in full; crucially though, I felt as though I had because its key images are so familiar - as Nead said, it's so much a part of our visual imagination of Dickens. On reaching the scene in which Pip arrives in London for the first time, I was reminded of an instance a few years ago when my memory of the text had become confused by memory of the film, which previously I'd seen fragments of in undergraduate lectures. At the time, I was writing a section of my PhD thesis on arrivals into London, and dug out Great Expectations intending to write about Pip's entrance into London and the foreboding vision of the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral that looms over his arrival. Upon re-reading the book, I was surprised to find that the episode is only a slight, brief mention in which Pip recounts "I saw the great black dome of St Paul's bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison" (chapter 20); a mere handful of words for what had become, for me, a strikingly visual image.

Pip

Image of Pip's arrival in London in Lean's Great Expectations

I was convinced that the episode was textually described in far more vivid and lengthy detail; it wasn't the text, but the image from Lean's film that I had in mind. The image had mingled into my memory of the text to create a new, composite image existing, for me, somewhere between text and film. Nead spoke this week about how the visual imagination isn't so much a process of "geological layering" but rather one of creative transformation which explodes the boundaries of both text and image and creates new imaginative forms in its wake; it's a description that seemed more than fitting for my memory of Great Expectations.

In watching Great Expectations this week I was particularly attentive to a further point of Nead's talk, in which she noted that we never see a complete vision of the exterior of Miss Havisham's house, only partial fragments - the clock tower, the gate, the steps. We might think that we have a complete vision of the house, but in fact this is largely constructed through the house's interior; so powerful are the images of Miss Havisham's rooms that they work to build a vision of the house from the inside out.

Great Expectations

The interior of Miss Havisham's house

This resonated strongly with the theme of Andrew Sanders's talk on Dickens's rooms, in which it was notable that so many of the illustrations from the novels depict interiors; rarely (at least, from what I can think), do we see exteriors of the houses. And today, as I was reading Julian Wolfreys' Writing London, these ideas came to mind again. Discussing a passage from Our Mutual Friend, he notes the resistance to the whole, complete vision in Dickens's architectural description: 'the entire architectural meaning is brought into question, deconstructed as it is into a series of ambiguously architectural details... The eye is moved from piece to piece, but the gaze is ultimately refused an overall meaning, a monumental, organized presence on which it can fix' (p. 150)

How often does Dickens give us a description of the exterior of a house? When are we given the complete perspective of the whole, or is Nead's idea of Lean's construction of Satis House from "inside-out" true also of the written descriptions in Dickens's novels? How often are buildings constructed only from within or with a view to partiality?

And, to reorient Nead's question, what do we imagine when we think of Dickens's houses, and why? That is to say, what role does film play in the visual imagination of Dickens's buildings? Where do film/tv adaptations give us the complete exterior perspective that the text denies, and how does this play into our visual idea of Dickens's houses and other architectural forms?

***

David Lean, Great Expectations (1946)

Julian Wolfreys, Writing London: The Trace of the Urban Text from Blake to Dickens (Palgrave, 1998)


July 14, 2012

The Hollow Crown: 2 Henry IV @ BBC2

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91qj

Part Three of the BBC's Hollow Crown series, again directed by Richard Eyre, concludes the Henry IV plays. Once again it is a lavish, visually rich, sensitively acted interpretation, with a great deal to recommend it. But where 1 Henry IV was full of life, variety, powerhouse acting and intelligent use of televisual conventions, 2 Henry IV is quite frankly very, very dull.

It's not the fault of any of the performers. Tom Hiddleston is melancholy and brooding as an increasingly conflicted Hal; Simon Russell Beale is moving as the wounded, desperate Falstaff; and the rest of the company are uniformly game in following Eyre's interpretation. The difficult with this version is that everyone seems depressed. All humour has been stripped out of the scenes, replaced by sentimental music and the overwhelming sense of age and decrepitude approaching. Yet even Chimes at Midnight, which popularised this as a reading of the Henry IV plays, had some fun along the way. Considering that so much of Henry IV is funny - Hal and Poins disguised as servants (cut), Shallow and Silence providing country nostalgia (here located in a frozen, wintry setting), the recruitment of the soldiers, the bickering between Falstaff and the Justice - Eyre seems determined to wrench Meaning from every glance, a tear from every encounter. In this world, everyone knows what is coming and is not looking forward to a world of change.

The recruitment scene is a case in point. It's very difficult not to play this as comedy, and there are clear attempts to draw a laugh as the reluctant soldiers push each other, bark loudly or are simply cast very small (Wart). But the scene is so quiet and sober that the laughs simply don't come across. Instead, the climax is Feeble stepping forward to be pricked, making a stand for stoic acceptance while violins begin stirring underneath. The point is made - that there is nobility in the pathetic attempts of the amateur soldier to find courage. But the lack of comedic contrast deprives it of its force, and instead the scene seems simply to be attempting to get to this point.

Similarly, Eastcheap is tainted throughout by sadness. The opening arrest of Falstaff by Julie Walters's excellent Mistress Quickly begins promisingly, with two amusing constables attempting to draw sword and Falstaff defending himself, while Tom Georgeson's Bardolph flaps and Quickly hangs on Falstaff's shoulder, finally pulling them all down into the mud. But as Geoffrey Palmer's austere Lord Chief Justice demands to know the cause, the scene becomes all sincerity, with Quickly genuinely pleading and Falstaff defending himself, before talking her back into his grace. Beale's Falstaff is wonderful at suggesting the desperate sadness that underpins a man who knows he is far past his prime, but he lacks the sparkle of wit that makes his manipulation of the hostess so sharp. His liaison with Maxine Peake's relatively lively Doll Tearsheet sees her rolling on top of him, but he quickly getting to a point of tiredness, murmuring "I'm old" as she rolls off him, leaving even this scene in a mood of morbid reflection. Hal and Poins, listening above, burst through the ceiling and thoroughly castigate the old man before marching out in anger, leaving Falstaff and the two women sat sorrowfully on the bed. There is no banter, no engagement, nothing to come down from - it is as if Falstaff's rejection hda already occurred, and the two hours of this film is merely playing out an already established fact.

The mood is, of course, not entirely inappropriate to the whole of the play. Jeremy Irons is, once again, riveting as the fading King. In an early scene, he rolls dice compulsively as he tells his sons to make peace with their brother, playing out his anxiety in a telling gesture. The highlight of the film is his midnight stroll around the castle, walking past silent guards and speaking his troubles out loud, before grandly opening the doors to the throne room and announcing "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown". His illness is apparent throughout, and he enters convulsions immediately after the report of John's victory is received. As he moves towards his end, his reconciliation with Hal is deeply felt and moving as he finally succumbs and falls into his son's arms.

Hiddleston's admirers are served by a faintly homoerotic first appearance in a bathing room, as he and Poins (David Dawson) lounge in towels and receive Bardolph. Yet from the start, there is no fun left in Hal, no relapse into enjoyment of prodigality. He tells Poins in all sincerity of his sadness for his father, and after taking the crown from his father's bedside he moves to the throne, sits in it and weeps openly. Elsewhere, everything is tears. Alun Armstrong's Northumberland weeps next to a lake. The three younger sons of Henry stand heads bowed before the Lord Chief Justice. The rebels accept their defeat in a mood of initial shock but ultimate acceptance. And the "chimes at midnight" moment sees Falstaff gazing into the middle distance of his own mortality, while even Shallow doesn't see the humour in the memories he evokes.

A bit of life is found in a kinetic chase scene as horsemen track down the fleeing soldiers who make up the remanants of the rebels, cutting them down along the way and sending Dominic Rowan's Coleville rolling down a bank into the sword of the straggling Falstaff. Henry Faber offers a sincere and earnest John, who takes great pains to convince the rebels first before James Laurenson's Westmoreland delivers the crushing order in a tent as soldiers surround the rebels. This breath of fresh air helps alleviate the monotony of tone, albeit even the normally amusing capture of Coleville is played dead straight.

The scourging of Eastcheap is intercut with Falstaff's disgrace, the women pullled away by their hair, and again the jokes omitted. Paul Ritter's Pistol is poorly served throughout by heavily cut scenes and a refusal to allow him to dominate the scene in the way the early records suggest, rendering his scenes relatively without impact, though he puts up a spirited fight in the final scene as the soldiers press in. However, the turning away of Falstaff is quite wonderful. Falstaff pushes through the crowds and past the soldiers creating a corridor to stand centrally with Hal. Hiddleston is utterly straight-faced, speaking down at the tiny knight and whispering harshly to him before raising his voice to ensure all the onlookers get the benefit of his renouncement. Yet it is Beale who shines here. He desperately tries to retain some hope, preparing a joke which is quashed before he opens his mouth, and ends the interview weeping openly before staggering away, leaning heavily on a cane, and finally being picked up by a rush of guards. The scene - and film - closes on Falstaff as he is dragged out into the open, the time slowing to a halt as Falstaff's face freezes in a look of utter sorrow.

Eyre's refusal to find variety or humour in the film works to its detriment. While the film does its essential job - demonstrate the mechanisms by which Hal casts off his fellows and becomes a sober king - the journey feels as if it has already been completed, and instead these are the final tickings of Falstaff's life, the slow drawing out of an inevitable conclusion. Beautifully shot and well performed, and often deeply moving (especially Beale) - but it's not enough to perform this play at one note.


King John (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/king-john/

The RSC's King John is playing in rep with Richard III and A Soldier in Every Son: The Rise of the Aztecs as part of the "Nations at War" strand of this season's work. It's a fascinating notional concept, but one thing that Maria Aberg's fresh reimagining of King John didn't emphasise was a sense of war. This was the most domestic take on the play I've yet seen, a rich and inventive study of a key central relationship around which infighting and politicking provided background colour. A nation may have been at war, but surprisingly, this John seemed to be more concerned with love.

Although the setting was not pinned down precisely, the legwarmers, neon shirts and music located John broadly in the '80s, painting a deliberately unflattering portrait of English popular entertainment. The kinds of behaviours that might, for lack of a better phrase, be popularly associated with a working-class Friday night out were here the default mode of the 'nobility': karaoke, miniskirts and cheap booze combined to suggest a society living for the weekend, oblivious to external pressures and ultimately torn apart when those pressures became unavoidable. It's a typical appropriation of this particular period, but more usually explicitly associated with the Falklands, Thatcherism and strikes, the messy and cruel realities which the era developed increasingly committed ways of avoiding. Here, though, specific political resonances were avoided, with the production instead concentrating on the mindset of avoidance, the surrender to crude pleasure that could only be momentary.

This was clearest in the scene which will undoubtedly maintain the production in some semblance of notoriety, and which reportedly caused walkouts on other nights. As Natalie Klamar's Blanche and Oliver Pearce's Dauphin prepared for marriage, she changed into fairy skirt and platform boots, he into a light lounge suit. The guests arrived in hideously 'fab' costumes, and the wedding played out as the crassest form of Albert Square party. The two kings kicked off the karaoke party, which quickly developed into a full-cast rendition of "I Say a Little Prayer" before segueing into the theme from Dirty Dancing, to which the married couple danced the full routine. The audience appeared to be divided between those in helpless hysterics and those sitting absolutely stoney-faced. It was a bravura performance and, from my point of view, thoroughly enjoyable; its indulgence was the point. As Susie Trayling's immaculate Constance finally crashed the party, sitting on the floor looking with derision at John Stahl's topless French King and the stag party rejects that followed Lewis, the point that the recourse to marriage and celebration failed to address the serious political issues at stake was finely made.

Perhaps surprisingly, this was a production that, through drastic reinvention, kept uncovering aspects of the text often concealed in more straightforward productions. The war scenes of the closing acts were conflated into a series of voices spoken from around the galleries: the encounter with Melun, Chatillon's interview with Lewis about the drowning of the French troops, and the Bastard hearing the news of John's poisoning were cut across each other, creating a mosaic of voices that deprioritised the political events in favour of retelling the story from John's point of view. With Alex Waldmann's John staggering on stage, the war played out as fragmented reports and motionless noises, the loss of men reduced to a meaningless number. As the voices built to a climax and John's staggering reached its peak, the lights suddenly went up and music sounded. Waldmann broke into a desperate and committed dance, throwing himself into pure movement which, as it went on, began gradually breaking down into coughs and choking. He staggered on for a while until he finally collapsed on the steps of the stage, slowly dying. John's hedonism and avoidance were brought into a single climactic moment of realisation, another extraordinary performative moment that summed up the character's journey in a kinetic and deeply moving sequence. The textual justification came in the young Prince's plaintive "'Tis strange that death should sing", here tying this peculiar detail to the character's overall arc.

Waldmann was a young and reckless king, openly sexual in his behaviour (including slapping his mother's backside) and entering a rhetorical relationship of love with the Bastard, who he held closely throughout. He was most at home joking in front of the Faulconbridges or leading the wedding celebrations that ended in debauchery. After delivering his speech to the besieged city via a standing microphone, he punched the air in celebration for the benefit of his cheering supporters. Dynamic and charismatic, he was not the John familiar from history but yet this king made sense. His weaknesses were those of youth, of thinking before speaking and of reacting with his mouth rather than his head. This pushed Siobhan Redmond's poised and elegant Elinor into the background, she enjoying the public flirtation with her son but politically operating more as a force of support than a leader. John was active in war and peace, and quick to crack a joke, even after the parodic ritual re-communication by Paola Dionisotti's Pandulph, played to Phantom of the Opera-esque organ music, when he jumped up and immediately began ignoring the cardinal.

Dionisotti was a powerful presence, with pursed lips and a slight smile that belied her confidence in her authority. Striding around the stage in sunglasses and trouser suit, Pandulph was a force not to be taken lightly, but who was finally sidelined in the Dauphin's rants. As the only really 'external' character, Pandulph was a reminder of what the other characters were overlooking in their selfish and inward-focused pursuits; she was the representation of consequence.

The boldest decision was the casting of Pippa Nixon as the Bastard, a role greatly expanded by conflation with Hubert. The role thus became even more of a co-lead, and the play was oriented around their relationship. In stocking and short dress, Nixon was a dynamic presence throughout. Lively and anarchic, always sitting or standing outside of the formal patterns, she riled everyone around her (particularly Mark Jax's astounded Austria). Her gender lent extraordinary resonance to the play's constant talk of love. Early on, she opened her hoodie and placed a hand on her upper chest, deliberately distracting John while her brother put forward his case. As the play progressed, the two entered a relationship that was deeply tactile but never reduced to mere sex; John was utterly dependent on the Bastard, holding her and staring deep into her eyes as he placed his love and trust in her, and she recapitulated her devotion to him. John was the Bastard's connection to the playworld, for she spent most of the first half talking to the audience. The other actors would freeze for her soliloquies, and she fully inhabited the Lord of Misrule role by taking over and narrating or undercutting the action. Yet John captured all her attention, and provided the focus that drew her further into events.

The commission to murder Arthur was given in the heat of battle, as the bloody-armed Bastard met John in a spirit of high energy, and the snappy back and forth between the two spoke of two minds already in tune. Yet confronted with the child, the Bastard was finally forced to engage with someone other than John. Attempting to handcuff the child, but ending sprawled across the floor with him bound by his active pleading, Nixon captured in a physical and enervated way the struggle of conscience. The two practically wrestled, and Nixon's energy became rooted in a fixed point of the stage, turning inward into her own conflict. As she returned to John, the terrified energy of both - she at her failure to carry out his order, he at his penance for what he believed had taken place - was channelled into a deeply disturbing sequence as John, enraged and terrified, grabbed hold of the woman he 'loved' and proceeded to enact an abortive rape on her, wrenching at her breasts and pinning her to the floor as she sobbed in simultaneous pain and regret. Although he subsequently apologised, it was a disquieting insight into the darkest aspect of this king's compulsive behaviour - he needed to feel and consume, his drives geared towards destruction that would easily consume those around him also. His behaviours were simply unsustainable.

At its motif, the production continually revisited the notion of release. The second half began with the Bastard entering and belting out (not fantastically, but adequately) a solo number as John sat behind her, at the climax of which confetti cannons went off in the rafters and the background scenery - an enormous balloon cage - collapsed, sending beach-ball sized balloons around the auditorium which remained for the rest of the production, being kicked out of the way as the scowling English lords made their way around the stage. A steep staircase dominated the upstage area, down which Arthur gingerly made his way before jumping; a mirror actor stood at the top of the steps and threw themselves off and away from the audience as Arthur collapsed amid the balloons. And Pandulph's re-communion of John threw all the tricks of pageantry and austere music at the king in an effort to enforce submission.

The other performances were largely fine, with a young cast pulling out some great moments. Iain Batchelor was a nervy, preppy Robert Faulconbridge; Joshua Jenkins stood out as a youthful and keen Essex, taking on a Poins-like relationship with John; and Edmund Kingsley made a fine impression as Chatillon, wearing light pink lounge suit and addressing his superiors on both sides with a nervous formality. He drew some of the evening's biggest laughs when he returned to the French court with a plastic bag full of London souvenirs. Jax's Austria was a threatening presence, made all the more ridiculous when wearing a horned stag party hat, and the Dauphin was great fun in his superficial flirations and complaints. The group moments were less impressive, with the Chorus representing the people of Angiers far too choreographed and stylised to be compelling. In the play's quieter, more traditional moments, Trayling delivered a fine lament as Constance; however, to my mind, the production didn't show enough interest in these aspects. The problem with such a noisy production is that moments of quietness felt underprepared by comparison. Much of the play was actually quite slow, a slowness mitigated by the visual interest for most of the production but which came out to the production's detriment when the bag of tricks was temporarily withdrawn.

While the plot was sidelined (the nobles were almost indistinguishable from one another and the war story given very little attention), this was a clear and accessible King John. Ultimately, though, it was all about the central relationship. The climax to the penultimate scene saw the Bastard declaring her fortitude to hear John's sufferings with the words "I am no woman" repeated three times, setting up an emotional conclusion that saw the Bastard finally confront her human connection to John. The final scene was played with just John, Henry and the Bastard on stage, and John died in the Bastard's arms to her screams. It was a deeply moving conclusion that completed the Bastard's arc, showing her entirely exhausted by her devotion to John, she drawn in by his charisma and connection yet finally abandoned. This was not an easy King John, and no doubt one that will divide its audience, but the freshness and tight emotional focus of the production dug something genuinely new, yet entirely in the spirit of the play, from a too-neglected text.


July 11, 2012

Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 2)

Follow-up to Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 1) from Charlotte's Research blog

Day 2 of Dickens and the Visual Imagination took us to the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Artin London. The wonderful cavern of an underground library provided the perfect setting for a day of papers that focused more specifically on art and film historians' perspectives on Dickens.

The day began with Lynda Nead's keynote "'To let in the sunlight': Dickens, Lean and the Chiaroscuro of Postwar Britain", a fascinating analysis of David Lean's 1946 Great Expectations. Nead started with some stimulating questions that pushed at the wider frameworks of the conference: what do we mean by "the visual imagination"? What is our "visual imagination" of Dickens: what do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why? Nead began by thinking about how we read the relationship between text and film, arguing for a reciprocal relationship in which neither text nor film is privileged but rather seeing adaptation as a process of creative transformation evolving new forms and opportunities - this, she suggested, might offer one way in which to understand the concept of a visual imagination. With this in mind Nead moved on to read Lean's Great Expectations in the context of postwar Britain, providing a detailed analysis of a selection of stills from the film which focused on the complexity of Lean's use of black and white.

great expectations

The use of chiaroscuro - the interplay between light and shadow- constructs a subtle "language of shadow" which achieves a rich depth to images, and constructs an aesthetic of decay and ruin which was highly resonant with the postwar Britain in which the film was produced. Nead seemed to be suggesting that the aesthetic language of the film is not "Dickensian" as such, but rather creates a visual language of its own that very much belonged to the moment in which the film was made.

The next panel on Perception and Perspective began with Andrew Mangham's paper (read by Greg Tate) on Dickens, Hogarth and Perspective, an interesting analysis that took Dickens's references to Hogarth in the preface to Oliver Twist as a starting-point for identifying a Hogarthian sense of visual perspective in Dickens's realism. Janice Carlisle followed with an exploration of Great Expectations and JMW Turner's painting; this worked towards centring Estella in the novel's visual economy, particularly in terms of how Estella constructs Pip as artist. Aleza Tadri-Friedman presented on "Art Appreciation and Visual Perception in Dombey and Son", considering the recurrence of art throughout the novel with a particular focus on how the transgressive Edith Granger is positioned within wider debates about art and perception in the nineteenth century; in another indicative text-illustration reading, Tadri-Friedman looked at the interplay between the narrative construction of Edith through Dombey and Carker, and the illustration that accompanies one key scene in this narrative.

Dombey and Son

Panel 2 explored Dickens and Painting, beginning with Dehn Gilmore's "Reading the Dickensian Gallery" which suggested ways in which art and artistic vocabulary in Dickens might offer a new way of understanding Dickens's relationship to his early reviewers. Pat Hardy's Dickens and Portraits looked at the ways in which Dickens employs the language of portrait painting, focusing on Bleak House which represents a key moment in engaging with ideas around portraiture, exploring key ideas about physiognomy and using this not only as a way in which to read individuals, but also with an interest in how people see one another. Vincent Alessi finished with a paper on the influence of Dickens on Vincent van Gogh, offering a complex examination of van Gogh's development as a painter and analysing particular paintings of or influenced by Dickens.

The day concluded with a final keynote presentation by Kate Flint on the subject of "Pavement Art". Flint began with a short story by Dickens, "His Brown Paper Parcel" ("Somebody's Luggage"; All the Year Round, 1862 Christmas edition), in which the narrator is a pavement artist: why, Flint asked, would such a figure be so interesting to Dickens? In what followed, Flint offered a wonderfully rich exploration of pavement artists in the nineteenth century and explored the questions raised through this unique form of visual culture. Pavement art occupies an interesting, often contradictory, space: it is emphemeral yet immobile/immoveable; outside of institutions and the marketplace, yet necessarily public and invites the viewer to participate in a form of artistic patronage; often produces a copied image but never produces a definitive replica and depends upon being constantly reproduced; creates delight amongst its audience through the process of its creation more than in existing as a finished product. Pavement art troubles and challenges the definition of art and artist, and in turn raises complex questions about the relationship between author and art work, raising issues of ownership and authorship, creation and performance, and the position of art in the public sphere- all especially important to Dickens at a time when he was touring the country performing extracts of his own work in his final years. Ideas were raised here too about the mobility of the artist and the circulation of art, resonating with the rise in print circulation throughout the nineteenth century and Flint picked up on this relationship, as well as questions around the legitimacy of wandering and loitering.

Pavement Artist

Illustration of a pavement artist from The Graphic, September 1874

Flint's talk provided a stimulating end to the day, and in its analysis of a different form of culture also spoke to some of the issues that Lynda Nead had raised in questioning the idea of the visual imagination: there was here an idea about how we might define the visual imagination as being, like pavement art, something transient, ephemeral and almost impossible to truly grasp, something forged and re-forged in different contexts and places, resisting (or defeated by) the permanence of the art forms that it tries to get a hold of, and always part of a process of creative transformation that evolves, adapts, and opens up new possibilites for interpretation.


Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 1)

Writing about web page http://www.ias.surrey.ac.uk/workshops/dickens/

Dickens

Dickens's Dream, Robert William Buss (1875)

This two-day conference at the University of Surrey and the Paul Mellon Centre in London gave a fascinating array of responses to the idea of Dickens and the visual imagination, from Dickens's engagement with visual material, the interplay between text and image in his writing, and the lasting influence of Dickens in visual culture.

The conference began with Andrew Sanders's keynote on "Dickens's Rooms". Sanders covered a myriad of rooms - prison cells, grand rooms, poor rooms, ship berths, empty rooms, and many more - often drawing on both written description and accompanying illustrations, the latter often playing against or revealing more about the text, particulary in the inclusion of objects, portraits, and the interplay of light and shadow within rooms. Sanders's discussion focused particularly on class and characterisation, offering some suggestive insights about the wider textual resonances of small details of rooms.

David Copperfield

Illustration "I am hospitably received by Mr Peggotty" from David Copperfield

The first panel I attended took London as its theme. Christine Corton presented on "London Fog: from the Verbal to the Visual", exploring the particular visual resonances of the fog metaphors that Dickens frequently employs in his writing on London - such as the variety of different colours that the fog takes (the "pea-souper" of Bleak House, for example). This gave a greater complexity to the use of fog as a metaphor for ambivalence, and revealed the changing nature of fog throughout Dickens's writings. The murkiness of London was also present in Ursula Kluwick's paper on "The Dickensian Thames in Word and Image" which looked at the interplay between visual and verbal representations of the River Thames in Dickens's writing. The river frequently features as dirty and unhygenic, echoing contemporary concern over the condition of the river by those calling for sanitary reform; it is also used as a metaphor for the moral corruption of London, although takes on a contradictory, more pleasant appearance in rural scenes. However, Kluwick noted that in accompanying illustrations the river is often less prominent, obscuring these issues to suggest ambivalence at facing up to the state of London.

Old Curiosity Shop

Illustration of Quilp's death from The Old Curiosity Shop

A final paper in this panel by Estelle Murail took us above the city to look at the influence of sketches and panoramas on Dickens's cityscapes. Sketches and panoramas are different forms of urban representation, the former a detailed close-up of particular sites whilst the latter provides a sweeping vision of the city recreated in an all-encompassing visual experience. A panorama by Rudolph Ackermann challenges this, as Ackermann incorporated detailed sketches into his construction of the panorama, and Murail used this as a basis to explore how Dickens's writing also challenges the distinction between the two modes of viewing the city, moving between panoramic perspective and the detail of a sketch. Murail finished with some indicative ideas about the function of technologies of vision in the new landscape of modernity, drawing on Wolfgang Schivelbusch's ideas about the urban panorama teaching a particular mode of vision that served as preparatory for the panoramic perspectives of the railway journey.

The next panel focused on architecture and interiors, starting with a paper by Emma Gray on Victorian domestic interiors in Dickens's writing. Emma spoke last year at my conference on Rural Geographies of Gender and Space 1840-1920, and it was interesting to hear her discussion of country houses such as Tyntesfield and Hughenden Manor in the context of Dickens's writing. Gray suggested that Dickens's depictions of domestic interiors often resonate with the work of distinguished decorators JG Crace & Son, and she analysed scenes such as the redecoration of Dombey's house in Dombey and Son and the handling of the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend through contemporary fashions in home decoration. Clare Pettitt considered Dickens's response to visual material during his time in Italy in the mid-1840s, suggesting that his viewing of Baroque art and architecture effected a profound stylistic change in his work of the period, opening up a new understanding of historical time and mode through which to understand the present through reference to the past. Dominic James finished the panel with a paper that considered the depiction of gothic art and architecture in The Old Curiosity Shop, in which the contemporary ambivalence to the gothic revival is revealed in complex and contradictory ways.

A second keynote by Sambudha Sen concluded the day. In a paper titled "City Sketches, Panoramas and the Dickensian Aesthetic", Sen explored how Dickens constructed an urban aesthetic heavily influenced by visal technologies such as sketches and panoramas. Discussion focused on Bleak House which Sen argued demonstrates an impulse to grasp visual modes of representing London, constructing a spatial aesthetic that contrast with Thackeray's Vanity Fair in which time provides depth and organisation to social experience. This provided a rich and detailed reading with which to finish the first day of the conference, and I'll be thinking more on Sen's reading as I come to revise work on Bleak House this week.

The first day also provided two opportunities to enjoy visual material associated with Dickens. At the University of Surrey we viewed "Dickens Illustrated", an exhibition of illustrations from and inspired by Dickens's works - a nice opportunity to see a huge range of editions of Dickens's works, from the earliest editions illustrated by Phiz to more recent childrens' books and comics inspired by his writing. After the conference, we headed to a reception at the Watts Gallery in Compton, where an exhibition on Dickens and the Artists is currently on display, exploring the influence of Dickens on artists of the 19th century such as the image of the conference, Buss's "Dickens's Dream". This was an excellent end to the day, and apt preparation for the art history focus of day 2, on which more in my next post.

watts.png

"The Watts Gallery is a place where the past meets the future,

where myth joins reality,

where the principle of beauty embraces the facts of truth"

(Andrew Motion)


July 09, 2012

Troilus and Cressida (1623 Theatre) @ Online

Writing about web page http://www.unclepandarus.com

A fascinating experiment from my friends at 1623 Theatre began in earnest today. At the website www.unclepandarus.com, a coughing, bearded soldier is delivering daily video updates from an underground bunker. In the aftermath of a nuclear war that killed ten billion souls, fought between two rival powers over a celebrity called Helen, Pandarus is leaving messages to warn future generations of humanity against the evils of war by narrating the story of his niece Cressida and her love Troilus.

The videos are, so far, only a couple of minutes long apiece, but the website is packed out with "Pandarus"'s other materials - photos and videos that build up the picture of a post-nuclear world, and links to Japanese websites that promote Pandarus's sense of a better world. It'll be fascinating to see how the project progresses, and I urge you to keep an eye on it.


July 08, 2012

The Hollow Crown: 1 Henry IV @ BBC

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91pm

The second episode in the BBC's Hollow Crown series offers a stand-alone, prudently cut version of Henry IV Part 1, and immediately it is clear that the central plays of the second tetralogy are in good hands with Richard Eyre. One of my complaints in my review of Rupert Goold's Richard II was that production's rather 'clean' medieval world, which couldn't quite shake the studio-set feel for much of its length and seemed surprisingly sparsely populated. Eyre's film, conversely, begins in an Eastcheap filled to bursting with prostitutes, drunks, servants, shopkeepers and beggars, richly detailed and thoroughly evocative. The sprawling Boar's Head Tavern establishes this play a world away from the crisp backgrounds of Richard II, with a lived-in world providing genuine depth and colour to the central plot.

The visual quotation of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight is apparent throughout, from Jeremy Irons's Henry's central raised dais to the nooks and crannies of the inn, to the arrangement of bodies for the play extempore. Yet Eyre's use of the film is homage rather than plagiarism, drawing on what makes Welles's film so evocative (the bustle and neat characterisation) but creating something distinctive.

Key to this is a quite exceptional cast, headed up by Tom Hiddleston's Hal. Striding through the Board's Head as if bathed in a constant halo, Hiddleston exudes easy charm and handsome cool, taller than almost everyone else by a head and wearing a leather jacket a cut finer than anyone else's. His willingness to be part of this world - playing football with passing children, winking at prostitutes - is constantly undercut by his clear distinction from everyone else, even the slightly unshaven and grinning Poins. Beautifully, his "I know you all" soliloquy is spoken in voiceover as he walks through the tavern away from his friend, nodding and smiling at the patrons while sad eyes reflect his thoughts.

He appears in direct contrast to Simon Russell Beale's Falstaff. Beale is an inspired and unique choice. Shorter than most of his companions, and effete in his manners, Beale plays Falstaff with an earnest and ingratiating insecurity, his confidence alternating with moments of nervousness. The play extempore is suggested with some desperation as Falstaff notes Hal's pained reaction to the news of Worcester's flight; as the young Prince rubs his forehead and begins falling back towards a resumption of his responsibility, Falstaff pulls at his elbow and pleads for a play, attempting to cling onto the Prince a little longer. The play is uproarious and beautifully entertaining, with lively crowd responses and Julie Walters' Mistress Quickly toing and froing. Hiddleston and Beale have a whale of a time impersonating Irons and Hiddleston respectively; Hiddleston apes Irons's distinctive accent, and is trumped by Beale affecting a poncey version of Hiddleston's swagger. Yet as Falstaff concludes his defence, he drops his accent and swagger, and the little man looks up at his Prince with appealing eyes, begging for acceptance. Crucially, Hal pauses for a long time and then, finally, averts his eyes in shame as he admits "I do. I will". Played as an admission rather than an attack, Eyre's versions of the characters are set apart as affectionate and emotionally tied. This is a Falstaff that we are prepared, from very early on, to see wounded.

The detail of the tavern scenes is delicious, with bowling, dancing and drinking happening in corners. Hal's mockery of Hotspur's valiance is played out in a corner as a sideshow while Falstaff enters; the impression is of a full environment which we only follow parts of. Characters emerge in tiny points: Mistress Quickly nervously running back and forth from the door; Maxine Peake's Doll Tearsheet entering into a pre-practised routine with Hal for winding up the sheriff by sitting astride him and shoving his hand up her skirts, and then later passing Falstaff's bill to him with the clear implication of her inability to read (to Hal's sympathetic gaze); and the always exceptional John Heffernan as a gurning and nodding Francis, achingly moving in a cruel instant as Poins and Hal roared with laughter in his face at a final "Anon, anon sir".

In contrast, the court scenes are deeply formal and played as high drama. Irons draws on Falstaff's reference to the king as a lion, constantly coiled or springing from his throne to pace his chamber and snarl in his underlings' faces. He is a deeply troubled king - although the film opens in Eastcheap, the scene is interspersed with Henry receiving reports of war and musing on his son, presenting Eastcheap almost as the nightmarish realisation of his fears regarding Hal. His choler is quick to rise, but he is not entirely in control. Confronting David Hayman's Worcester on the battlefield, Henry is overcome and forced to stagger to the side and vomit while Hal steps up to deliver his own challenge. The dynamic between the two is visceral; in their first meeting, Hal wears an informal cap and stands with a half smile on his face; until Henry dashes away the hat and, following a smirk on "I shall be more myself", slaps his son hard across the face. It is this point of violence that brings Hal to a realisation of the severity of his father's disappointment, causing him to ascent to the dais in protestation of his own worth.

Henry is similarly violent with the Northerners, played here with Northumbrian accents. Alun Armstrong is a background presence as Northumberland, but Hayman seethes with malice as a forward Worcester, stepping forward and shouting at his king very quickly with entirely inappropriate rage, causing his immediate banishment. Both men are overshadowed, however, by a fine and nunaced performance by Joe Armstrong as Hotspur. Hotspur is, here, almost entirely without guile, building into a full-blooded rant as he describes the fop who demanded his prisoners, much to Henry's amusement. It is only, however, as Henry notices him exchange a non-too-subtle glance with his father, intended to be private, that he snarls defiance at the young man. Hotspur's rage bursts out in defiance before the doors of the hall have even closed behind him, to Henry's clear consternation. The subsequent scene between the three Northern relations, played in a splendid corridor, is one of the most gripping sections of the film, as they attempt to keep Hotspur quiet and their conversation concealed from the surrounding guards, ending up making a whispered agreement in an alcove.

The younger Armstrong continues to be impressive throughout, initially in a complex scene with Michelle Dockery's Kate that presents the couple as deeply in love yet bound by abuse; he troublingly covers her mouth, pushes her violently to the bed and talks down to her, yet she presents a formidable match and refuses to bow to him. The sense of an unequal relationship is stressed further in the appearance of a servant who openly sneaks peeks at Kate's naked back while she puts on a dressing gown, unchecked by Hotspur; the evenness of their relationship is qualified by a sense of Kate's objectification. Their united front is shown more clearly in the Welsh singing scene, as while the rest close their eyes and listen to Alex Clatworthy's beautiful song, the two begin groping each other and sneak off giggling to conduct their own farewell. In the final duel with Hal, Hotspur has the better of the battle throughout, but takes too much vaunting pleasure in anticipation of his victory, taking time to raise his sword to finish him and allowing Hal to thrust a dagger into his side.

If the film has a real weakness, it is one of sentiment. Falstaff's 'honour' soliloquy is played as a rather melancholy voiceover as Falstaff wanders through the battlefield preparations, stumbling and sad. It is an evocative reading but robs the speech of all its humour. The music acts as too much of a pointer, signposting with a heavy-handed lack of ambiguity when the audience is meant to really start listening to the words and ensuring that nothing is missed. Better are the battle scenes, cleverly shot to make the most of the television budget and giving a surprisingly impressive sense of scale; but also demonstrating the brutality of war commented on by Falstaff, as men pummel each other in the mud and grind weapons into faces.

As the film draws to its close, the shift in allegiances is clear; a wounded Hal is escorted through a field littered wth bodies by his brother, on whom he leans strongly, walking away from Falstaff, who shrugs with an indication of wounded pride. Yet the two brothers look aghast at their father as he stumbles over his closing lines, clearly in pain and already fading (another nod to Welles). A burning battlefield, a sober Falstaff (who mourns the loss of his bottle when Hal angrily smashes it in the middle of the battle) and a Prince beginning to realise the weight of his own participation in state affairs - it's not a groundbreaking rendition of the play, but a richly detailed, beautifully presented and intelligently performed one. One only hopes that Part II can live up to it.


July 05, 2012

'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place, c.1851"; paper at MIVSS, 29th June

On Friday 29th June, I presented a paper at the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar which focused on the theme of "Victorian Things Revisited" (full conference write-up here). My paper "'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place, c. 1851" represents a new direction in my work, developing a gradually emerging interest in material culture and the ways in which objects can be reconsidered in the context of space and mobility.

The paper originated in some research on Bleak House last summer, when I began to think more about the significance of the Great Exhibition for the national-global relations in the novel. I was particularly interested in some images by George Cruikshank (below), and the many questions they open up around the relationship between people, things, and place. As I blogged at the time, in looking at these images one can't help but recall the central question of Bleak House: "what connexion can there be [...] between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!”

cruikshank20all20the20world202.jpg

gcruic.jpg

Cruikshank's images illustrate the text of Henry Mayhew's comic novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and family who came up to London to 'enjoy themselves' and to see the Great Exhibition, and it was this that formed the focus of my paper. Most attention to this text has focused on the glimpses Mayhew gives us of the Exhibition, where we find an interest in the objects on display, the new people present in an internationalised London, and the potential social good of the Exhibition (against the backdrop of Mayhew's other work of the same year, London Labour and the London Poor). But what interested me most was the way in which the narrative surrounding this also demonstrates a continual interest in things, people, and place, and their changing relations to one another. As the Sandboys family make their way to and around London, they encounter a continual stream of comic accidents and misfortunes in which people and things repeatedly surface and come into contact in unexpected ways. In particular, it's the connections forged through the mobility of people and things, and the implications for the space of the nation, which emerges as a key question of the text.

The wider framework for this reading, which I'm still teasing out somewhat, is the move towards thinking about objects in the context of global networks of mobility. This has emerged particularly in the context of imperial networks of commodities, and John Plotz's Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move is a fascinating study of objects "on the move", suggesting that pieces of "portable property" become resonant repositories of national identity in an increasingly global, mobile world. Plotz's main concern is with objects moving out from Britain, and his reading of "reverse portability" is concerned primarily with identifying an "imperial panic" raised by objects coming into Britain. I think, though, there's a lot more to be said about the circulation of objects (both British and foreign) within Britain not just as producing an adverse imperial reaction but also for the narratives of national identity, and physical traces of national space, that mobile objects create. There is, too, further scope for thinking about the ways in which objects function within a world being physically reshaped through mobile networks; objects make visible the abstract concept of a compressing world space, leave tangible traces of the connectedness of the nation to wider networks of mobility.

These are ideas that I'll be exploring as I develop the paper further, and the discussion that followed was extremely helpful in shaping some of the directions this will take. I'll be thinking more about 1851 alongside Bleak House, another novel written in the wake of the Great Exhibition and similarly preoccupied with the connections between people and things on the move; I was reminded, though, that there's the potential for connections to work as a more positive, benevolent force in Dickens, whereas my reading of Mayhew focused more on the anxiety surrounding these interactions. There's also more to be said around ideas about bodies and/as places/things: my discussion of body-thing interactions started to stray into ideas around embodiment and of the body-as-place, with feminist geography theory lurking in the background; in my next reading of the text I'll be thinking more about the mobility of the gendered body and the more nuanced readings of place/space relations that this might open up.

I'm entering into discussions of objects from the perspective of someone more familiar with ideas around space and mobility rather than material culture and I've still got a way to go with fully drawing out the nuances of these arguments - and I'm aware that a lot more reading (and re-reading) on material culture awaits - but I'm excited by the wealth of ideas this has opened up; it feels like this work will be productive both in terms of the perspectives on objects and material culture that it provides, and for refreshing my thinking on mobility and space.


July 02, 2012

Victorian Things Revisited @ Keele University, 29th June 2012

This meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar focused on the theme of "Victorian Things Revisited", seeking to explore where the "material turn" has taken us in Victorian Studies and what new possibilities for research still remain. Throughout the day, each of the 6 presenters approached the theme of material culture from a different angle, demonstrating the rich diversity of approaches to material culture and opening up many new possibilities for new directions in this research.

The day started with a panel comprising of myself and Mary Addyman, a first-year PhD student also based in the Department of English here at Warwick. I gave a paper titled "'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place c. 1851", which I'll write about in a separate post as the panel generated a lot of ideas that I want to follow up in more detail. Mary's paper explored new research into the collection of Richard and Henry Cuming, a father and son who collected a vast array of objects from the 1780s to 1900, including geological and archaelogical artefacts, art, textiles, ceramics, Egyptian objects, and objects representative of British social history - including everyday packaging. The disorganisation and variety of the Cuming collection goes against our usual understanding of the Victorians as systematic collectors imposing order in a disordered world, but Mary sought to find a more nuanced reading of the way in which this disorganised mode of collecting might be read, thinking about the collector recording his place in the world and the sense of responsibility to future generations involved in this accumulation and preservation of the present. Mary ended by considering the temporality of collecting, drawing out some fascinating links between collecting and geology.

Bear

Image from Southwark Collections

In the second panel, two papers centred around objects that sit at the intersection between bodies and things and trouble the binaries between living and dead, natural and artificial. Julia Courtney (Open University) raised the question of "Living Things?" in her paper on Victorian taxidermy. This focused first on taxidemied animals and birds that are posed in scenes that recreate their "natural" environments, and then on animals that are anthropomorphised in artificial scenes, such as a scene of mice sat at a table playing cards. This raised interesting questions about the relationship between bodies and things, the point at which a body becomes a "thing", and by what means the status of "thing" is ascribed. Courtney also thought about the differences in cultural appreciation for taxidermied animals, comparing the Victorian fashion for and fascination with taxidermy as something that evokes a pleasurable response, versus the rather more reluctant way in which taxidermy is viewed - with humour? disgust?- today.

Card players

Walter Potter's Red Squirrels Playing Cards, c.1871

Courtney was followed by Michael Lee (Leeds Met) whose body-object discussions took a literary turn in a paper on "Eating Things in Lewis Carroll". Lee began with a theoretical exploration of the different conceptualisations of things and objects, raising the question "what kind of a thing is food?" His subsequent discussion of Alice in Wonderland suggested that through Carroll's use of food the borders between different types of things are blurred: food is a social thing which moves within a network of circulation that supercedes the human. Food also troubles the boundaries of body/thing and life/death: the body itself has the potential to be a thing that can be consumed, moving from subject to object status. In networks of consumption, Lee suggested, everything is edible and everything is social.

In the final panel of the day we moved towards science and industry. Stella Pratt-Smith's paper "Material, Manufactured, Modern: the Science of Victorian 'Thing' Culture" posited a more thorough understanding of the relationship between science and material culture: science was not just one aspect of Victorian material culture but central to allowing that material culture to come about. Her paper demonstrated how putting Victorian things into the contexts of their production, exploring and understanding how things were made, is not only illuminating for our understanding of particular Victorian objects but also for interpreting the significance of the Victorians' fascination with things. Pratt-Smith's discussion of the science of various objects, such as the development of purple dyes that held a particular allure and new glass technologies, provided a fascinating insight into the scientific developments fuelling material culture. This was particularly interesting in light of the recent Transforming Objects conference: Stella referred to Jim Mussell's discussion of chlorodyne (and I must thank Stella for her generous mention of this blog in her talk and handout!), and I was also reminded of Eugenia Gonzalez's talk on narratives of doll production.

Stephen Etheridge (Huddersfield) finished the day with a paper on "Brass Instruments, Bandsmen and Working-Class Identity: Brass Bands in the Southern Pennines and the creation of working-class identity, 1840-1900". Etheridge began by noting the overly romanticised notion of brass bands as symbolic of northern working-class culture, but moved in to offer a more nuanced understanding of the role of brass bands in the Southern Pennine region and the various ways in which bands featured as a centre-point of masculine working-class identity. Etheridge noted the strong community element of this identity: bandsmen forged a strong group identity within their band and were well known within the local community, and this was strengthened by the competitiveness between bands from different towns. But there was also a particularly strong individual identity forged through relation to one's own instrument: after the death of a player the instrument would feature as a strong reminder of the individual, often proudly displayed in his memory - we were also shown the image of a gravestone decorated with a trombone engraving. Here again the intersections between people and object, life and death, and the permanence of objects in comparison with the mortality of people - taking us full circle to the ideas raised about collections in Mary's paper.

There were many interconnections arising throughout these papers, more than I could hope to cover here, and I was struck by how such a diverse range of perspectives on material culture could simultaneously raise so many points of interaction. This was interdisciplinarity at its best - balancing breadth and depth, generating new ideas without losing particularity or focus, and enabling stimulating and lively discussion in each of the question sessions. The day revealed material culture to be a thriving area of study with many possibilities for new directions and approaches, suggesting that this is an area which we can keep visiting and revisiting for some time to come.


June 30, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Richard II @ BBC HD

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s90j1

The most exciting element of the BBC's Shakespeare Unlocked is off to a storming start. Rupert Goold's film of Richard II, divorced of the gimmickry and attention deficit lack of focus that characterises his stage work (sometimes to wonderful effect, sometimes disastrously) is a slick, subtle, well acted and creative adaptation of a rarely filmed play that manages the tricky feat of providing something that will be of use to educators for years to come, while also matching perfectly the BBC's current aesthetic requirements for big budget primetime period drama.

Initially, the film looks as if it has borrowed its sets and costume from Merlin, but while it never quite shakes its studio feel in the bulk of the interior scenes (it simply looks a little too clean), the misty exteriors and stunning use of beach locations give this film a sense of breadth, if not scale - the gesture towards a Welsh army is a welcome visual flourish, but these lanscapes are otherwise sparsely populated. The kinetic camerawork, however, keeps attention throughout, and visually this is a varied feast, with Goold digging into his bag of cinematic tricks (flashbacks, slow motion, montage) to fit a wordy play to a fast medium.

With that said, this is a traditional looking film, aiming (with the exception of the BBC's now-standard colour-blind casting) for period accuracy, including the retention of faintly ridiculous medieval hats. The advantage of the setting is that it creates plausible settings for scenes that might otherwise be hard to imagine, such as the temporary lists set up in a field for Mowbray and Bolingbroke's duel, or the narrow corridors down which Richard makes his descent, the camera spinning dizzyingly as it evokes Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Ben Whishaw in the title role is excellent. Softly spoken and high-pitched, Whishaw's Richard is a gentle king, with undertones (never made explicit) of homosexuality in his lingering touches of male servants in his tent. His extravagances are manifest - a monkey cackles in the temporary tent set up behind the Coventry lists, and he rides to his final arraignment on a miniature pony. He goes through numerous costume changes throughout the film, his pale pinks and yellows contrasting with Bolingbroke's dark robes. Yet while this Richard is in love with ritual and ceremony, he is frequently out of control; such as the moment in which he pulls Aumerle aside atop the battlements to ask if he has done the right thing, or in his flashes of panic immediately before he halts the opening duel. There is power in him, demonstrated particularly as he shows unexpected prowess against a murderer in his final scene.

Richard is strongest in his uncertainty. The lengthy beach scene, played against a gorgeous Welsh backdrop, gives full weight to a range of characters including Tom Goodman-Hill's wearied bearer of bad news and Tom Hughes's painfully young Aumerle, who are led by Richard even in his weakness, drooping alongside him as he sits in the sand. Richard veers from euphoria to rage in an instant, casting Aumerle into the waves on hearing of York's treachery only seconds after laughing in careless confidence. We get to see less of him in his happy state, but the impression is one of peace; he sits with his retainers, swinging his legs from a country bridge; and after Gaunt's death, carelessly fingers golden goblets even as York rails at him. Yet he is equally fabulous in his darker moments, as when he stands in golden armour on the battlements in the deposition scene flanked by outlines of angels.

Opposed to him is Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke, supported by the gruff and deliciously cold David Morrissey as Northumberland (Hotspur is one of the casualties necessary in order to ensure a 2 hours 20 minutes running time). Kinnear's conflicted, measured antihero is compelling throughout, whether glaring at James Purefoy's grizzled Mowbray, standing at the back of the invading crowd looking up at Richard or sobbing as he grabbed a handful of sand before marching into the waves to the ship that would carry him to banishment. His attempts to retain control during Richard's tour de force performance in the arraignment scene (including lying full-length on the floor) will bear multiple rewatched, as king and soldier conflict with cousin and subject in one face. Later, flashbacks of their intimacy continue to haunt him.

I very much feel the series has missed a trick, however, by not cross-casting the roles that continue into the next film. While I'm sure Jeremy Irons and Alun Armstrong will do fantastic jobs as Henry IV and Northumberland, a little grey make-up to Kinnear and Morrissey would surely have done the required work, and I would have loved to see them continue their subtle explorations of the characters. And it would have been an interesting connection to see Hotspur introduced here before stepping up to a major role in the next film.

The other performances are too numerous to discuss in detail, but the quality is consistent throughout. I was particularly moved by David Bradley's brief appearance - practically a cameo - as the Gardener. While the Northern accent perhaps unnecessarily suggests an attempt at comic relief, what stands out in Bradley's performance is the haunted look in his eyes as he kneels before the Queen in a carefully topiaried garden and sets her world crumbling about her; in one brief gaze of the camera, we see a synecdoche of the entire human cost of the play's political shifts. And unsurprisingly, Patrick Stewart is outstanding as Gaunt. The "This sceptr'd isle" speech is performed in close-up, Stewart's forehead clammy with sweat and his shirt opened. Weak in body but powerful in voice, Gaunt offers a genuine threat to Richard, a threat acknowledged by the King as he grabs the dying man's lapels and hoists him up in rage. Next to these, David Suchet's York makes less of an impact, but steadies the film throughout, a voice of at least partial integrity.

My one complaint about the film is that it perhaps takes itself slightly too seriously, particularly in the final betrayal subplot which is played po-faced, losing the inherent comedy of the conflict between the Yorks, and much of the sardonic humour that can be found in the earlier interactions between Richard and his favourites. I confess that, instead, I found the beheadings of Bushy and Green - their heads plunging straight into a river from the bloodied stumps left behind on the bridge - funnier than they were presumably intended to be, the gore contrasting wildly with the cleanness elsewhere. This is compensated for, however, by the intelligent decision to expand Aumerle's role. Aumerle is approached with the offer of money and status in a tavern, and subsequently joins the murder party who come to Richard. Whishaw languishes in a dank cave, and it is Aumerle who, while Richard struggles with a goon, fires the crossbow that transfixes his former liege. Bolingbroke's bitterness towards the young man who drags in the coffin completes the scene played ten minutes earlier when Aumerle is granted his reprieve.

Only right at the end does the director make his presence strongly felt. Nobles arrive spilling bags of bloodied heads over the the floor, and the camera cuts to Bolingbroke's face, sweating as he stammers out thanks. Lucian Msamati's Carlisle is thrown to the floor, bloodied and barely able to see out of one eye. And when Richard's coffin is broken open, he is naked except for a loincloth, arms spread as far from the body as the coffin will allow and legs bent together to one side in the traditional crucifixion pose (made unnecessarily explicit by a slow pan up to a hanging crucifix in the eaves). Invited here to reflect on the necessity of Richard's sacrifice, the audience is left with the impression of sympathy for Richard, even as we reflect on the loss of control that Bolingbroke is already experiencing; a fitting platform to move on to 1 Henry IV.

Interestingly, Derek Jacobi's documentary on the play which started immediately after this broadcast, started with the same speech as Goold's film "Let us sit upon the ground". This is, apparently, the play of reflection, and despair. Realised wonderfully here, Goold has reclaimed the play as a modern and fascinating one, which Jacobi pursued in his choice of images of Berlusconi, Hussain and Gaddafi. Jacobi's documentary (until it got to the De Vere rubbish) was also the best yet of the series in terms of its use of performance history and archives; hopefully, the pairings of new films and documentaries are going to keep providing the richest material. It's a wonderful contribution to the season, and roll on 1 Henry IV.


June 29, 2012

Free Teaching Shakespeare webinar

Writing about web page http://www.teachingshakespeare.ac.uk/

For readers interested in Shakespearean pedagogy, there's now a very exciting new resource that I'm touting on behalf of my former colleagues at the University of Warwick. "Teaching Shakespeare" is a collaboration between Warwick and the Royal Shakespeare Company, creating a package of interactive resources, guides and videos for use by teachers of Shakespeare. They're hosting a free taster webinar on Sunday 8th July, which you can sign up for now. Enjoy!


June 28, 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (Stage on Screen) @ Greenwich Theatre [on DVD]

Writing about web page http://www.stageonscreen.com/the-duchess-of-malfi.php

A much briefer review to accompany my earlier piece on Stage on Screen's production of Doctor Faustus, this time of Elizabeth Freestone's The Duchess of Malfi. Cross-cast with the same company's Volpone, Freestone's take on Malfi is more straightforward than either, treating the play as a chamber piece in a lengthy full text (2hrs 40 mins) that will appeal to teachers looking for a solid recording of the play to use in classes, but never quite grips in its own right as a piece of theatre.

That's not to say there's anything wrong with the production. Set in a 1930s Europe, the production captures the tension of an approaching war and the politicking going on behind the scenes as a nation attempts to deal with its internal squabbles while simultaneously preparing itself to face the world. This is most clear as Mark Hadfield's Cardinal prepares himself to take on an active role in the conflict, adopting a uniform reminiscent of Italian fascists and wearing it with ease.

Freestone's production is centred around three fine performances. Aislin McGuckin's Duchess is a complex and inviting figure, seductive in her early scenes with Antonio and independent throughout. With Antonio she shows a confidence and allure that is entertaining even as it illustrates her immediate dominance over her environment; her recourse to mockery of her social status only serves to reaffirm it, to Antonio's pleasure. Her gradual unravelling at the hands of her brothers is realised extremely effectively, particularly in the scene of the madmen torturing her. Surrounded by singing, staring men in straitjackets, some of whom escape their confines and run straight at her, she is reduced to a sobbing wreck, yet still with a strained dignity that allows us to see her resolve even as it is tested to breaking point. Her final death, stretched out on the floor as two men pull long cords around her neck, leaving her splayed centrestage, is particularly traumatic.

Tim Steed gives an intense performance as Ferdinand, brooding and internalised, but lashing out at those around him. As the lycanthropia takes over, he becomes ever more dissociated from those around him, culminating in a fascinating image as he lies splayed across the floor promising that he will escort snails. Without moving into full animalistic performance, Steed's take on Ferdinand served to gradually dehumanise the character, turning him into a physical being barely capable of relating to those around him.

The play is dominated, however, by Tim Treloar's Bosola. Always active, Bosola's busy industry keeps him the centre of attention whenever he is on stage. Treloar kept a delicate balance throughout between the self-interested confidence that allows the character to be so useful to the play's sundry villains, and a compelling personal integrity that emerges particularly in his emotional breakdown over the Duchess's body. Physically formidable, and with a confidence of voice that enhanced his presence, the battle becomes almost one of equals as he takes on his superiors.

In some ways, that is perhaps the problem. With so many dominant men throughout the play, there is less range and variety of pace and tone than there could have been. This is perhaps one of the rare times when the screen aspect of Stage on Screen does not lend itself to nuance; with the actors performing to the live audience, the stage projection of their voices and gestures neuters the variation on the more intimate medium, giving an impression of uniform confidence and volume when clearer arcs for the characters would be desirable.

Nonetheless there is a great deal to enjoy here. The messy deaths of the Duchess's children, including one stabbed in a pram, are particularly disquieting; but the Echo scene, as Edmund Kingsley defies superstition and then shivers at the pertinent replies of the Duchess-like Echo, manages to both chill and move. Brigid Zengeni's Julia was also strong, barely able to keep her hands of Bosola as she ripped his shirt off during their love scene, and shocked as she tasted something unfortunate on the Cardinal's Bible before he shoved the book into her face and practically smothered her with it.

My disappointment with the production as a whole comes from its entirely predictable nature; it's a faithful, straightforward and fairly obvious interpretation. That is also its strength; we lack a good teaching resource for Malfi, and Stage on Screen's production fills a necessary gap. The formality of its setting and the consistent quality of the performances make this a slightly earnest enterprise, but thoroughly worthwhile in its scope, and the production works as a tragedy of intrigue and coiled tension.

Compared to Faustus, the interview material here is exceptional, with a much wider range of creatives interviewed, and individual interviews with the cast which make it much easier to select material. Where Freestone primarily described her own directorial career in the other interview, here she offers fantastic insights into the structure of the play and Webster's treatment of women, pointing out that the women are sidelined early on in the play, leaving the final scenes focused on the male characters (her entire male company were required for the final scene). The many crew interviews give insights into a range of roles within the production, though there is still sometimes a sense of this acting as careers advice for would-be stage mangers (for example). It's remarkable, however, that even the DSM and ASM get screentime, and telling about the essentially collaborative nature of this project. What elevates this set of DVDs, however, is the general attention to the play in the interview material, which makes the education packs well worth the extra expense.


June 25, 2012

Julius Caesar (RSC/Illuminations) @ BBC4

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01k7lv5/Julius_Caesar/

I've not yet had a chance to see the RSC's new production of Julius Caesar, directed by Gregory Doran and currently playing in Stratford. The concept behind the production is fascinating, if not without its problems - an all-black British cast, performing the play as set in an unnamed modern African state. In a year characterised by the welcoming of other nations to the UK with their own versions of Shakespeare, I have my reservations about a British company "doing" Africa, particularly in a form that elides continental difference with a range of aspects. These are reservations rather than deep-rooted complaints, but worth flagging.

The design of this televised version on BBC4 was fascinating. Rather than film the stage play from live performance, the extraordinary digital theatre company Illuminations (who have previously worked with the RSC on a range of productions, including Doran's own Hamlet) began in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the thrust stage, but then moved to a range of interior locations. In a rundown world of brick corridors, flamelit rooms and clay earth floors, a sense of claustrophobic heat was created that stoked a growing sense of pressure as the film moved towards its inevitable mid-point climax. The decision to create a version of a production geared specifically for film alongside - rather than subsequent to - the theatrical production is an innovative one, finding a fascinatingly different medium for the story that gave greater priority to the environment of the play and to the psychologising of characters.

What the locations did lack was a sense of the bustle of the city. An opening carnival began the production in vibrant mood, with revellers (bolstered by a crowd of extras) singing and dancing in praise of Caesar, evoking African carnivals. The fullness of this section, set on a live stage surrounded by a typical RSC audience, allowed noise and colour to dominate from the start, creating a volatile and dangerous world in which revelers and police could talk back to one another and a spirit of celebration could barely be contained. Moving to the 'real' locations, the mood changed significantly. Large spaces dwarved the actors, who increasingly appeared in relative isolation, whispering in echoing chambers or losing themselves down winding back corridors.

This lost something in an impression of a busy public world; the conspirators needed little extra room in order to whisper conspiratorially, and the danger of being overheard was non-existent. In this sparsely populated world, the conspirators lacked pressure. This was most notable in the staging of the assassination, performed on a pair of escalators in what appeared to be a deserted palace. Rome itself appeared to be dead already, and its rulers acting out the dying breaths of an empire. What we gained, in this scene in particular, was something far bloodier than possible onstage - the noises of the daggers plunging into Caesar's body were unpleasantly fleshy.

The camerawork was strongest, instead, in the extreme close-ups, particularly in the lingering focus on the face of Patterson Joseph's Brutus. Particularly as Brutus moved around his open-plan home, waiting for the conspirators to arrive and reading the parchments that had been passed into the house, he whispered his words to himself, internalising his conflict and working through his self-justification with direct reference to the camera, his confidante. This allowed the viewer a route into an otherwise calculating Brutus, who in public scenes disappeared behind his own persona, and presented a cold, immovable front among the other conspirators, including the passionate Cassius (Cyril Nri). Even moments of apparent exterior engagement could be made personal; Caesar's ghost appeared as a reflection in his lamp, allowing the production to maintain ambiguity over the extent to which the ghost was real or simply a manifestation of Brutus' guilt.

Similarly, the appearance of Ray Fearon's Antony after the assassination was emphasised as a turning point; appearing silhouetted and blurred, he slowly emerged into focus and an ominous underscore of music (a rare use of non-diegetic sound) accompanied his unspoken (but heard by the audience) misgivings as he appraoched the scene. Fearon, however, utilised the full dynamic range offered by the camera. Leaning over Caesar's body, abandoned on the escalator, his voice rose to a roar as he faced up into an overhead light.

The action returned to the RST stage for the orations scene, where again the use of extras in a much more confined space created an energy that elevated the performances. Fearon choreographed the crowd masterfully, screaming for attention over the chaotic shouting and whipping the crowd into a fervour. It was in this scene, particularly, that the setting lent itself well to the play; without the veneer of Roman civility, Doran was able to present more clearly the cross-purpose shouting, the unbridled energy of the mob that Antony needed to direct rather than create, and the emotional outpouring that accompanied the unveiling of Caesar's body.

In another stylistic shift, the beginnings of the war were imagined as gang violence, partially recorded on camera phones in an instance of 'happy slapping'. Cinna the Poet was bound in a tyre, doused in petrol and set on fire; while Octavius and Antony's prisoners were bagged and shot in the head as the newly formed triumvirate haggled over lives. Again, there was a problem in that these scenes - moving away from the lively noise of the stage - were simply quieter, and the murder of Cinna happened too calmly to keep up the momentum of the riled crowd. Far better was the emotional argument between Cassius and Brutus in the latter's tent, particularly as Cassius raised his robe and demanded Brutus kill him, to Brutus's shock and disgust. These scenes of intimacy were the production's strength throughout, including in the early meeting of the lead conspirators with Joseph Mydell's Casca in a men's washroom, where the older man lingered over his insinuations and innuendos as he washed his hands and looked pointedly at Brutus and Cassius in turn.

The closing scenes saw the war played out in small encounters in stairwells, corridors and dead ends, and again a relative lack of ambient noise meant that it was hard to get a sense of a full scale war taking place. In the close-ups of deaths, of Antony and Octavius (Ivanno Jeremiah) walking down corridors already bristling with tension, and in the tears of Brutus as he looked down at his dead soldiers, the medium succeeded rather at evoking the personal struggle of war.

For the closing moment, the final rally of the people, Antony emerged one last time onto the main RST stage. What came clear throughout this film is that, perhaps oddly, it was the more limited environment of the live theatrical production that best evoked the clamour, noise and heat of the charged African political setting. In the push to realise it more literally, the play became far more of a psychological drama at the expense of a sense of the larger picture. Nonetheless, it's a fantastic experiment and one I hope the RSC repeats in future years; to create something specifically geared to film that complements a theatrical production is a bold endeavour that respects the advantages and possibilities of the different media, and provided a fascinating platform for a worthwhile production.


June 24, 2012

Doctor Faustus (Stage on Screen) @ Greenwich Theatre [on DVD]

Writing about web page http://www.stageonscreen.com/doctor-faustus.php

The Stage on Screen project is a simple idea; so simple, perhaps, that one wonders why the market hasn't already been cornered. Four productions of early canonical plays (Volpone, Dr Faustus, The Duchess of Malfi and The School for Scandal) were specially commissioned, directed by Elizabeth Freestone and performed to live audiences at Greenwich Theatre. High-quality recordings of the productions were made during the live run and subsequently released on DVD with extensive bonus discs offering behind-the-scenes information, educational resources and contributor interviews. The project's remit is educational; yet the productions stand alone as entertaining, professional versions of the plays. The care and attention taken to recording means that the plays suffer none of the editing problems that occasionally interrupt the live broadcast series such as NT Live, yet the audible presence of an audience retains the sense of liveness and coherence that keeps a production distinctly theatrical.

Faustus is a play particularly in need of a good screen version, as the Burton/Taylor Oxford University version still only available on Region 1 DVD. Freestone's production is a stylish take on the play's A-text, drawing on visual tropes of gothic literature to create an air of foreboding and, on occasion, out-and-out terror.

The production's aesthetic evokes late 18th/early 19th century Europe, with Frankenstein the most obvious point of reference. Imagining Faustus as Victor Frankenstein works well; here, Gareth Kennerley's Faustus is a nervy over-reacher, a young man whose own arrogance blinds him to the destruction he is bringing down on his own head. The circular stage is partially surrounded by wooden library shelves, full of books and charts, and a ladder allows access to an upper level where a telescope stands mounted. Faustus is the new man of science, rendering his laughing scorn of Mephistopholes' 'old wives' tales' all the more pointed; it is not that he does not believe in the creature he is speaking to, but rather is inclined to rational, ordered explanations. It is to science that he is drawn, as in Mephistopholes' conjuration of an astrological map to explain the cosmos.

Shelley's life and work pervade the production. Right from the start, Faustus is besieged by overconfident young men, throwing their books and ideas at him and drowning him in words. Valdes and Cornelius (Samuel Collings and Adam Redmore) evoke the 'Young Romantics', appearing with ruffled hair and louche manners, swaggering through Faustus's study and pulling out his assorted bottles. The supernatural elements, meanwhile, move in a stiff, unskilled way, their zombified physicality exaggerated by white make-up and slow, shouted speech. The notable exception to this is the masque of the Seven Deadly Sins - descending the ladder into his own study, robed figures grab at him and pull him under, writhing and squirming about the stage as they await their turn to claw at Faustus. As soon as Faustus scrambles back up the ladder, a simple hand movement from Guy Burgess's Lucifer snaps the writhing bodies back into rigid order. Interestingly, there is a sense of visual repetition as the 'invisible' Faustus later moves among the monks and cardinals in the Pope's presence, surrounded by bodies that he is unable to fully engage with.

The near-human is thrown into relief by the more overtly horrific throughout. As Faustus begins his conjuring, his companions retreat into the shadows and then flee altogether. Freestone allows the tension to build after each mention of Mephistopholes, the lights focused entirely in a tight circle on the magician with the rest of the stage in black. Eventually, after a long pause and Faustus's own sigh of nervous relief, lightning flashes and thunder rolls as the silhouette of a horned monster appears on the top level. Faustus screams from his prostrate position on the floor before the apparition finally disappears. Later, Lucifer appears in the same position; rigid and dominant, the impression of monstrosity is maintained by Beelzebub's realisation as a mask on the back of Lucifer's own head.

In this context, of course, Tim Treloar's Mephistopholes evokes Lewis in his monk costume. Treloar is an uncomfortable presence throughout the production. Where other recent actors of the role have played up the more ingratiating aspects of the character, Treloar is prickly throughout. Following the first monstrous appearance of the character, he enters hooded and barking lines at full volume from under his cowl. Faustus kneels before the furious spirit, cowed by his bile. Treloar moves throughout with rigidity and purpose, making measured turns and pointed, deliberate gestures. Once he has the bloody paper of Faustus's contract he loosens up, but maintains the otherworldly attitude throughout, allowing him to move between the occasional moment of silliness (puppeteering a skull to reply to one of Faustus's relentless questions) immediately to terrifying rage, as when asked to explain who made the world.

The film insists throughout that its audience pay attention to the controlling nature of the devils. Things that a stage audience may miss, such as Lucifer's gestures of control, are here focused on in extreme close-up, foregrounding the framers of the action rather than their object. In particular, the first sensual parade of spirits offered to Faustus saw three spirits appear and circle him, treating him as a puppet and iconicising him as a Christ-figure. The fast jump-cutting, however, keeps returning to a close-up on Mephistopholes as he hinted at a smile, showing the spirit in control even at this early stage.

The comedy is less successful, although the recorded laughter suggests that it came across better in live performance. The subtler humour works best, as in the moment where Mephistopholes allows his ranting at the summons from Robin and Rafe to drop for a moment as he and the Vintner nod 'Alright' to each other; or in his forgetting to make himself invisible before the Horse-Course sees him, to which he mutters "Oh, for fu...". The scenes of the comedians feel tired and drawn out, however; particularly as Robin and Rafe turn slowly into an ape and dog in a Jekyll-and-Hyde style energetic transformation sequence, ending with the ape riding the dog and attempting to hump him. The jokes played on the Pope are simply done, but their tiredness here feels deliberate, emphasising the pettiness of the tricks played by the smug, invisible Faustus.

The quieter battle between Joanna Christie's young, scantily-clad Evil Angel and Jonathan Battersby's slow-moving Good Angel pervades the production, including in one interpolated scene where the Evil Angel smilingly empties a box of sand from the raised space into Faustus's study; the fact that this is a battle against time is always clear. The apparent shared identity of the two with, respectively, Helen of Troy and the Old Man helps keep the battle polarised; Faustus is pulled continually between two forces. Kennerley is a nervous, self-doubting figure throughout, attempting to persuade himself as much as the audience of his confidence in his own control. His moments of terror are quickly trampled down by the myriad devils, and it is only in the play's closing moments that he is forced to confront the reality of his situation. Mephistopholes grabs Faustus by the face, promising him that all shall be done that can be done, and Faustus's attraction to Helen sees the two of them kiss repeatedly as the Good Angel/Old Man enters and looks on; the battle, in this image, is won.

A striking follow-up scene sees the Old Man attacked and killed by jumping spirits that slash him mercilessly until he falls into a lonely spotlight. Yet the lights shift to a stream coming in from the upstage door, and the music changes from an eerie whistle to choral chanting, as the Old Man gets to his feet and walks into the light. As the positions polarise, the stage is set for the final scene. An isolated Faustus begins tearing apart his study, sobbing and throwing books and papers to the floor. Once more, the production returns to the image of the disillusioned young scientist, drinking hard and babbling about the Monster coming for him. Faustus's pleas that he has been a student here for many years sound poignant coming from a younger man, casting his actions as those of reckless youth rather than informed evil. Yet Mephistopholes' final vaunts are not just those of victory over an impressionable mind, but also of a victory against God; he becomes to weep, and conquers his tears by shaking a fist at the Heaven that he knows he will never see again. Faustus's end pleasingly mirrors the initial dance of the spirits that entertained Faustus; the same spirits emerge and dance around him, dragging him to the upstage door as Lucifer appears above. In a final moment of pause, Faustus reaches out for Mephistopholes before being pulled out offstage, to Mephistopholes' wide-eyed expression of something not quite clear - shock? Surprise? Horror? Whichever it is, the sense is one of unfitness; this damnation is neither easy nor straightforward.

One of the strongest moments, however, comes very early on, as the two masters of the university shiver in the cold outside Faustus's study and hear, from Wagner, how Faustus is meeting with Valdes and Cornelius. The two react with shock, and whisper in fear to one another. In this short sequence, Freestone captures something of the wider society within which Faustus operates; the terror of a world threatened by the horrors he is creating. Returning to Frankenstein, this Faustus warns of the dangers of over-reaching, of personal arrogance in the thirst for knowledge. The evocation of the 19th century battles between science and faith, religious fervour and rationalism, creates a meaningful context for the battle over an arrogant soul.

DVD Extras

The education pack I was sent for review contains three discs. One, the 'Mastershot' DVD, shows the entire production from a fixed, wide shot camera angle, which isn't a great deal of fun to watch but which I can see value in for teaching purposes. The other disc includes oddly fuzzy direct-to-camera interviews with cast and creatives. Freestone's own contains rather too much personal anecdote considering the length (does it really matter how she became a director?) but she makes some useful comments about the search for textual evidence and her desire to make the play about the conflict between Man and Devil, rather than Man and Man (explaining something of Treloar's performance). Production and Costume Designer Neil Irish offers some practical notes on how to recycle materials, but is so brief as to be fairly unhelpful. Wayne Dowdeswell offers some of the best material as the lighting designer, walking through his process and giving some fantastic notes on how set and light combine to create thematic effects. This interview also includes lighting plots and diagrams, making it a genuinely exciting resource, especially for practical theatre courses.

The most impressive aspect, in terms of value, is a half hour interview with cast members, which offer personal insights into verse speaking and approaches to character. These are interesting and yield some individual points of interest, but a little basic overall for the level at which I teach; more about what it's like to be an actor then on the specifics of the production. I can't help but feel that some academic insight would have been a really invaluable addition to this disc, or perhaps an 'outside' perspective on what this production brings to the play's performance history.

The main value of the package is all in the first disc, and given the step up in pricing for the education packs (+£10 RRP, +£30 on Amazon), I'd only recommend the basic DVD for most - it's the edited film that is most useful.


June 15, 2012

Early Career Victorianists and Social Media

Writing about web page http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13555502.2012.689504

A quick post to note that this blog has been featured in an article on "Early Career Victorianists and Social Media: Impact, Audience and Online Identities" (due to appear in an issue of the Journal of Victorian Culture published later this year, but available online now).

Written by Amber Regis (who blogs over at Looking Glasses at Odd Corners), the article explores the ways in which a new generation of Victorian studies academics are utilising blogs and twitter in their research and career development. Along with Bob Nicholson and Paul Dobraszczyk, I was interviewed on my use of social media and appear in the finished article in a section discussing the value of blogging for academic practice. Throughout the article, Amber discusses issues of Impact and the REF, the value of Twitter for academic communities, and the ways in which we craft online identities.

The article is one of a pair on social media, accompanied by Rohan Maitzen's "Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Pratice"; Rohan blogs at Novel Readings and writes here about the many ways in which blogging has served to enhance her teaching and research. Both articles provide valuable discussion of the new forms of academic practice that are opening up new possibilities and changing the ways in which we think, write, and research. I'm proud to be a part of this new academic community and grateful that I was able to participate in this discussion - many thanks to Amber for including me in the article.


June 13, 2012

"I am a stranger here": An East End Exploration @ Spitalfields Music Festival, June 2012

"Have you any distinct idea of Spitalfields, dear reader? A general one, no doubt you havean impression that there are certain squalid streets, lying like narrow black trenches, far below the steeples, somewhere about London,—towards the East, perhaps..." (Dickens, "Spitalfields")

"I am a stranger here": An East End Exploration took us where many an urban observer has been before, through the crooked streets, marketplaces, and bustling thoroughfares that so intrigued Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Arthur Morrison, and many more since. Yet unlike many of these narratives, this walking tour sought to capture the diverse complexity of Spitalfields' history, presenting the multiple perspectives that comprise the myriad identities of the area. Lead through the streets by Alan Gilbey - lifelong East Ender and excellent guide - and an energetic supporting cast of actors, this was part tour, part theatre, part history, that continued to inform, amuse and entertain for the two hours that we walked the streets on a cold and drizzly Sunday afternoon.

spitalfield_market.jpgTaking the role of "social explorers", we moved between locations which each revealed a different perspective on the region. Having learnt about the origin of the name Spitalfields - a contraction of "Hospital Fields", as the area originally lay in empty land behind a hospital - we started with a heavily gated building and the story of the Huguenots, French Protestant refugees who brought the silk industry into the area in the 17th century; the building we stood at was one where imported goods were moved after shipping, away from the docks but just outside the city bounds. This was the first in a long tradition of textile manufacturers, and as we moved into Petticoat Lane we heard about the Jewish community that came to populate the region from the late 17th century, bringing in weaving expertise and establishing the Sunday markets. From there, it was swiftly past the multistory car park that stands on the site where Jack the Ripper murdered his last victim (this was emphatically not a Jack-the-Ripper tour), and on into one of the narrow, crooked streets that characterizes our idea of the nineteenth-century slum; for by the Victorian era, Spitalfields had declined to become one of the nation's biggest social problems, seemingly beyond all hope and the subject of many social commentaries. One such text, Jack London's The People of the Abyss, provided vivid illustration of this theme, and several passages from the text were read and performed at various sites throughout the tour, giving a continuous narrative (and temporal) thread to our understanding of the space.

As we reached Brick Lane, the final parts of the region's history unfolded with stories about the Bangladeshi community developing in the later 20th century, bringing new cultural influences to the area whilst retaining the textile industry. All around us, though, was the contemporary history of an area that has been regenerated in recent years through an influx of artists that gave the region a trendy urban edge which is now becoming increasingly mainstream, causing the artists to move on and out; meanwhile, the city encroaches ever closer as buildings start to be bought up for office space (although happily, just last week the old fruit and wool exchange was saved from conversion into an office block).

spitalfields_church.gifThe tour came to an end in a church where we encountered stories about the Salvation Army's attempts to save the poor, and then for the last half hour we had the opportunity to hear more stories of the streets. Alan Gilbey recounted his own experience of growing up in the area, focusing on the 1980s when a group of teenagers were encouraged to write about their life in the East End, eventually forming a published collection which marked a significant shift in the narrative history of Spitalfields; no longer narrated by the urban explorer, the people constructed their own accounts of Spitalfields life. The final part of the tour continued this theme: in the format of speed-networking/dating, we moved between tables where actors inhabited the role of different characters to each tell a 5-minute story about an aspect of Spitalfields life: stories included the matchgirls' and sailors strikes of the late 19th century, a more complex account of the different groups and communities that have inhabited Spitalfields, a story about the Salvation Army, and the bandstand at the centre of a park. It was an imaginative and effective end to the tour, a chance to explore more of the detail behind the bigger narratives.

The tour was a highly enjoyable experience, excellently well organised and performed. For me, it was a useful opportunity to hear a different set of perspectives on a region that, just a couple of weeks ago, I'd attended a conference about. It's also very helpful to have finally been on a walking tour and I'll be thinking more about the experience as I work more on thoughts about literary urban tours.

The tour was part of Spitalfields Music Festival which is still running until 23rd June and has an exciting line-up of events over the next week; the tour has now ended, but Alan Gilbey runs East End history walks which, if this experience was anything to go by, I'd highly recommend checking out.


Henry V (Theatre Delicatessen) @ Marylebone Gardens

Writing about web page http://www.theatredelicatessen.co.uk/?page_id=1404

In the year of the London Olympics – and even more noticable in a week where England faced off against France in their opening match of the European Championships – it is perhaps unsurprising that the schedules are crowded with Henry V, including the productions by Propeller and the Globe as well as the BBC’s new screen version. The young company Theatre Delicatessen might have taken a risk in producing yet another version, but the company’s USP of unique, found performance spaces demanded attention, presenting into the bargain a fresh and enthusiastic take on the play.

Theatre Delicatessen work in collaboration with corporate partners to re-energise disused or unconventional spaces, in this case occupying and transforming Marylebone Gardens, the old BBC headquarters. We were met on arrival by a corporal who gathered audience members, called us to attention and criticised our sloppy salutes, and were then passed to a private who led us down back corridors and stairwells, past bunks and uniform stores, into a large bunker environment where squaddies were already sat at a long table playing cards, bunks decorated with photographs lined the walls and sandbags lay scattered. A radio room burbled sections of 1 Henry IV as if news reports; and medical bays and an altar indicated other areas of an army barracks. In this low-ceilinged, dimly lit room, the claustrophobia of the waiting room of war was evocatively recreated, aided by the wonderful soundscape provided by Fergus Waldron and The Lab Collective, where explosions and planes sounded convincingly overhead and music subtly manipulated tone.

The immersiveness of the environment was not total. The charade of the audience’s ‘role’ within proceedings was limited to the pre-show and interval (“you have 15 minutes mess time”), but beyond the fact that audience members were sat comfortably on sandbags or bunks, the performance itself was functionally traverse. Director Roland Smith used the space well, creating multiple smaller areas within the bunker and moving fluidly between scenes. The small office rooms leading off from the main space allowed commanders to emerge at will and, in one powerful instance, served as a makeshift execution room for a French prisoner, a flash seen through a narrow window as gunshots were fired. A large spiral staircase in the centre of the space gave the impression of higher levels, which lent the battle scenes in particular a vulnerable feel – soldiers ran up screaming into the unknown, and the medics left behind listened in terror as explosions grew louder. The ceiling opened up at one end of the room, allowing the company to stage a French propaganda drop with a deafening roar of engines followed by a deluge of anti-English pamphlets falling from the sky; and later, a helicopter was waved down to collect the French princess. The sense of connected spaces usefully turned the events of the play into a slice-of-life representation, a perspective on war rather than its entirety.

If the environment did not quite offer the soldiers-eye view for the audience that the company seemed to want, it did offer intimacy, which became crucial. Zimmy Ryan’s Boy, in particular, built up a close relationship with the audience over successive scenes, and the decision to turn the Boy into a medic left behind while the rest of the soldiers rushed off to battle added further pathos to his execution by two hooded French advance soldiers who crept into the room. The Boy was also responsible for attempting to heal a wounded French soldier, who turned out to be Pistol’s easy capture, the latter pinning down the confused man as he cried out on his gurney. The fact that the bunker best represented itself in these scenes (as opposed to its refiguring elsewhere as tavern, field of battle, court etc.) rendered these scenes the production’s most successful, building up a sense of the soldier as individual, cut off through the messy practicalities of war.

This personal perspective was the production’s priority, made explicit in a moving programme note by Smith that spoke of one of his closest friends, killed in conflict while fighting for peace. What this did mean was that the production was more unproblematically nationalistic than many others. While the Eastcheap crew were drunken louts (increasingly a standard decision), the production remained very firmly on the side of the English, keeping antagonism alive between the two armies at all times and refusing to dwell on French losses, or to problematise Henry’s wooing of Katherine. The emphasis here was on the suffering of the individual soldier caused by war, but didn’t challenge the necessity of that war or the English claims to France.

The cuts primarily reflected this simplification of the play’s issues with nationalism. Gone were Macmorris and Jamy; gone too, more surprisingly, was Fluellen and Pistol’s final encounter as well as the bulk of Fluellen’s argument with Williams. The occlusion of the Welsh, Scottish and Irish narratives was surprising to me, but it did help maintain the moral coherence of the English army. Similarly, Bardolph’s execution was passed over quickly, whereas the execution of the traitors was played out in full. The cuts allowed Philip Desmueles’s Henry freedom to be a passionate and honest king, whose variation was less between tyranny and camaraderie than it was between professionalism and honesty; this was a king led by his heart, but able to manage his facial expressions and reserve as required.

The tensions throughout were well-maintained. Henry and Alexander Guiney’s Montjoy loathed each other from first sight, and Henry gave Montjoy a tennis ball rather than a purse as labour for his pains. Similarly, Neil Connolly’s Governor of Harfleur had to tea his hand away from Henry’s firm grip, storming off in disgust at the loss of his town. More of the tensions came out in the Eastcheap crowd, however, where Connolly’s Nym and Liam Smith’s Pistol came to early blows over Margaret-Ann Bain’s chavvy Hostess, who swigged from a can of special brew before using it as a vase for the flowers offered by Nym. The setting was of Falk.lands-era warfare; thus, the civilians captured something of that period’s St. George’s flag-waving nationalism, while the soldiers wore berets and camouflage. In this setting, the careful management of the traitors and of the common men was particularly obvious, foregrounding a sense of Henry’s absolute authority.

The verse speaking was the production’s disappointment, despite some standout performances; Christopher Tester’s Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, was beautifully articulate, while Liam Smith offered a quiet, dignified French King. Too much was thrown away in favour of conversational accessibility, however; Guiney’s Chorus appeared to be speaking prose rather than verse, setting the scene well but reducing the scenes to their functional rather than rhetorical value.

Yet there was much else to enjoy. The wooing scene between Henry and Laura Martin-Simpson’s Katherine reminded me for the first time ever of Kate and Petruchio’s initial negotiations, particularly as Katherine bit Henry’s tongue as they shared their first (unfashionable) kiss. This lively exchange established a sense of the union of the countries as something desirable for both sides, yet allowed Katherine sufficient agency to dictate her own terms. Elsewhere, Henry’s execution of the traitors prompted a long, specific engagement with Tester’s Scroop, who stood central on the stage while the other traitors kneeled and simply wept as Henry outlined his crimes at great length.

Tester’s excellent Fluellen provided the comic relief, particularly in his forced reconciliation with Chris Polick’s Michael Williams, as Henry forced the two of them to shake hands. The two French women (Martin-Simpson and Jessica Guise as Alice) shared this role in their two brief scenes, but the comedy remained largely contained in favour of celebration of Henry’s victories.

The production was overlong, even with the cuts, yet the fascinating use of space and the thoroughly entertaining performances made for an enjoyable Henry V. I would have liked to have seen a more immersive use made of the set and audience, and a clearer sense of what the production itself was trying to say. Certainly, the Chorus’s final gesture towards the Henry VI trilogy suggested that there was at least a sense of patriotism and national pride being undermined, but this was deferred until after the event as the Chorus cleared the stage, rather than interrupting Henry’s victory. Yet while the play itself may have been partly responsible for maintaining certain attitudes, the space acted as a point of destabilisation of meaning, acting to alert us to our own level of engagement and forcing response. In that sense, this remained an important Henry V.


June 12, 2012

Dickens and London exhibition @ Museum of London, June 2012

Writing about web page http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Explore-online/Past/Dickens-London/Default.htm

The Museum of London has been celebrating the Dickens bicentenary with an exhibition on the author's connections with the city. Given the wealth of associations betweeen Dickens and London in his life, works and on-going legacy, this exhibition promised much and it certainly did provide an impressive range of material relating to Dickens and Victorian London. Ultimately, though, I felt this didn't quite deliver what it could have done.

We began with biography, looking at paintings and photographs of Dickens, his friends and family, before moving into the main part of the exhibition which was organised thematically, commencing with Dickens and the theatre. Playbills, puppets, a model theatre and costumes illuminated Dickens's lifelong interest in the theatre, and playbooks of theatrical adaptations of Dickens's works demonstrated the two-way direction of this engagement.

Dickens

"Dickens's Dream"; Robert William Buss, 1870

From there it was on to Dickens and the home, where we were told about Victorian ideals of domesticity and Dickens's strength of attraction to the idea of the home. The painting Dickens's Dream was brought to life in an animated film, whilst Dickens's letters, a selection of household objects, and contemporary paintings provided visual illustration of the ideas being raised. A section on Progress had a particular focus on transport and communication technology - a particular highlight for me was a wonderful selection of photographs showing "the coming of the railway" into city spaces - and we finished with Life and Death, exploring Victorian ideas of mourning and Dickens's last years.

Throughout, many (if not most) of the artefacts on display were from the Victorian period more generally, rather than specifically related to Dickens, providing a visual exploration of Dickens's life and times. This wasn't altogether a bad thing: amongst the objects on display were an ornately carved piano and model railway train that were displayed at the Great Exhibition, pieces of telegraph cable, all of which were rather more interesting than many of the truly "Dickensian" objects - whilst his writing desk made for reasonably interesting viewing, Dickens's soup ladle did not. The paintings also offered interesting points for discussion and nicely drew out some of the links being made throughout the exhibition. It was also especially valuable to see so many manuscript and proof copies of the novels: Dombey and Son, Bleak House, and David Copperfield were among the copies on display, and whilst these were safely stowed behind glass cabinets, plastic-bound replica versions of the periodical issues were available at benches throughout. I particularly enjoyed seeing the performance copies of the texts that Dickens used in the readings he gave in his later years: a copy of Oliver Twist was heavily annotated with Dickens's performance notes, "Action!", "Mystery", "Terror to the end!"

manuscript

Whilst this was all nicely done, I felt that the links between the material on display, and between Dickens and London, could have been much more strongly drawn out. The visual material made for pleasant viewing, and gave a decent enough overview of Victorian life, but it didn't feel like it particularly added anything to the idea of Dickens and his works; with the exception of the Dickens letters and manuscripts, this could have been any exhibition about Victorian life. Similarly, the connections between Dickens and London felt underexplored; much of this could have been an exhibition about Dickens more generally, and there was little that really explained what this was adding specifically to an understanding of Dickens and London. I felt this all lacked an overarching narrative that really drew out the potential connections of the objects and texts on display, and that used these objects to offer something more to the understanding of Dickens.

I suspect that this lack of narrative arose from a focus on the design of the exhibition space which sought to "recreat[e] the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projections" so as to take the viewer "on a haunting journey to discover the city that inspired his writings." The dark, dimly-lit space was decorated with big letters, moons and stars hanging from the ceiling, supposedly aiming to replicate the idea that we were going on one of Dickens's famous night-walks around the city. It was a nice touch but added little to the experience; in so far as it attempted to provide a narrative journey through the exhibits this was definitely a case of style over substance.

The exhibition made for interesting viewing, but I left feeling rather underwhelmed with what the exhibition had achieved, and the sense that it could have been more given the subject at hand. This was rather emphasised when we went on to explore the rest of the Museum of London: it is a rich resource of artefacts from the prehistoric period to the present day, and the eighteenth and nineteenth century collections which I spent most time in present a wealth of material and much more successfully draw together themes, ideas, and narratives. Although the Dickens and London exhibition has now closed, I'd highly recommend a visit to the rest of the museum.


June 10, 2012

The Bloody Banquet (Blood and Thunder Theatre Company) @ The Shakespeare Institute

Writing about web page http://bloodandthundertheatre.org.uk/#/productions/4560980158

Thomas Dekker's The Bloody Banquet (possibly written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton) has not been performed, to my knowledge, since the seventeenth century. It was a pleasure, therefore, to be involved in a major new revival of the play in the form of a one-off staged reading in Stratford-upon-Avon, as part of the Stratford Fringe.

Blood and Thunder specialise in the gorier end of the early modern repertory, and The Bloody Banquet fits right in. The play is an unusual mix of romance (lost children, reunited families, a pastoral escape) and chamber murder tragedy in the mould of The Changeling. The deaths come suddenly and unexpectedly in the second act, and the pattern of betrayals, disposal of hitherto loyal servants and passionate decisions felt interestingly modern.

Unusually for this blog, I'm talking about a production that I was actually in - playing Lodovico (who, in this production, ended up being one of the usurping King's wetworks men), a Shepherd and a Servant, and in practice serving to manage a lot of the scene transitions and body disposal. That does mean I didn't get an overview of the reading, so I'll just confine myself here to a few observations.

The play is full of fantastic villains. Peter Malin's Roxano emerged as one of the play's most fascinating characters. Spending much of the first half in disguise, Roxano was a consummate game-player, an amoral manipulator of events in the manner of Bosola, Vasques or Deflores. The same group of characters was similarly revisited in Matt Kubus's portrayal of Mazeres, one of Roxano's initial employers and probably the closest the play has to a total villain (although even here, driven by something that he conceives of as love for Amphridote, in another echo of Deflores). The characterisation across the board was fascinating; in Marc Alden Taylor's hands, Zenarchus became a deeply conflicted figure, displaying his beautiful mother (Kelley Costigan's Queen of Cilicia) to his best friend Tymethes (Jose A. Perez Diez) and acting towards the death/distraction of both of his sister Amphridote's (Rachel Stewart) lovers. Steve Quick found a quietness in the tyrannical Armatrites that prevented the character from being merely a blustering tyrant, particularly in his delicious exposure of his Queen's lies about her fidelity, pausing for effect as he embraced her with compliments then unleashed his accusation of "Whore". The Queen herself, object of all men's affections, was similarly quiet in this production, making her sudden execution of Tymethes all the more unexpected. The play's 'money shot' - the Queen demurely eating Tymethes' head - employed a melon in place of Diez's skull and provided a grim image, particularly as (so I hear reported) Costigan slowly pulled a hair out of the red pulp.

The opening plot is hugely underwritten. The opening scenes set up the flight of the Queen of Lydia from the coup that unseats her husband, and Emma Hartland cut a striking image carrying two swaddled babies and fleeing from the ravaging soldiers Richard Nunn and Brendan Lovett. The treachery and redemption of Lapyrus (Mike Connell), nephew the King of Lydia (Patrick Kincaid) allowed for a nice bit of staging with Lapyrus pulled by branches from a pit (behind a rostrum), then slowly lifting his face as he reached solid ground to meet his uncle's gaze; but it still seems surprising to me that this group of characters is then not revisited until the final scene. Director Maria Jeffries chose to cut the dumbshows, instead staging the expository choruses as walkthroughs with characters introducing themselves, which hopefully helped clarify the plot; but perhaps served to point up how briefly several of the scenes are dealt with, such as the loss of one of the Queen of Lydia's children and the rescue of another by two shepherds (myself and Dale Forder).

The first half set up; the second half tore down. I had the impression of a running joke as Sertorio and Lodovico (Forder and myself) were repeatedly called in by Armatrites to pull bodies off stage; having carried off Tymethes, Mazeres, Zenarches and Amphridote, one became particularly aware of the speed and frequency of killing. While the reading was done in basic costume and with only necessary props (although the resources of the company meant that these were far more impressive than normal for a staged reading), but a fine reaction was reserved for the appearance of a rack of bloody limbs. The final unveiling of the returning Lydian King and his men also prompted laughter, and Armatrites had the opportunity for a final display of hubris as he executed his Queen and died on his knees.

I saw very few of the performances in their entirety, so the above is based entirely on bits of shared stage time and the snippets of rehearsal I sat through. One thing seemed to be generally agreed on, however; it's a fine play, with compelling links to similar plays from the period and some truly memorable characters and moments. Pleasure to be involved in a reading of this nature too; I'm by no means an actor, but great to get a chance to see how a performance is put together from the inside.


June 02, 2012

Transforming Objects @ Northumbria University, 28–29th May

Writing about web page http://www.transformingobjects.blogspot.co.uk/

Transforming ObjectsThis two-day conference at the University of Northumbria brought new perspectives to the study of material culture by focusing on ideas around objects and transformation, both in terms of the movements of objects, and the processes of change that objects themselves might effect. Papers from a wide range of disciplines, covering the 18th-20th centuries, looked at a fascinating array of objects: shawls, tea, glass, medicines, art, feathers, paper, dolls, rags, post and clocks, were just a few of the things discussed.

The first panel on "Transforming Objects in Gaskell" opened up a rich discussion of material culture in Elizabeth Gaskell's works, initiating wider contexts of domesticity, industrialisation and imperialism that recurred throughout the following two days. Alison Lundie's paper on clothing and needlework in Gaskell looked at how character and identity can be interpreted through objects of domestic arts in Gaskell's works, and focused in particular on shawls which are especially desired garments; Lundie illustrated this with beautiful images of Gaskell's own shawls. Her discussion included Miss Matty's Indian shawl in Cranford, and the factory workers' shawls in Mary Barton; this intersected nicely with the next presenter Tara Puri, whose paper on "unstable objects" in North and South included Indian shawls as part of a wider discussion about symbols of middle-class domesticity which also included tea and calico. The relationship of these objects to the representation of Margaret Hale brought out ideas around bodily presence and sexuality, and the role of imperial objects in the constructiong of middle-class English femininity. Both papers hinted towards physical borders of the self, touch, and embodiment that, to me, resonated with Kate Smith's paper at the Spaces of Work conference I attended recently. With this paper in mind, I was particularly interested in two points Lundie had made in her discussion of shawls and Mary Barton - about how factory workers are referred to as "hands", and the references to literal hands in the text. I wondered afterwards (in a not entirely coherent comment!) about how ideas around hands might interplay, literally and metaphorically, with the use of shawls and other textiles.

An afternoon panel on "altering states" looked at the power of objects to transform from one state to another. James Mussell's paper on chlorodyne raised wider questions about framing of discussions of material culture and the secret lives of things: we come to know and understand the material world through the narratives we create about it, and uncovering material history is thus a process of "telling tales about the tales that were told" about objects. His narrative of chlorodyne was a fascinating exploration of the ways in which legal and medical discourses intersect with the physical experience of the body, highlighting that medicine's powerful transformative effects on the body is situated within a wider context of authoritative discourses that speak for the body. Mark Blacklock followed with a paper on "Hinton's cubes" and late-19th century theories of 4-dimensional space, which discussed the role of objects in altering conceptual thought and opened up ideas about the relationship between things and thought.

The next morning, I chaired a panel on "Transforming objects and the creation of nation" in which themes of travel and networks of circulation were central throughout. Ruth Scobie began with a paper on Elizabeth Montagu's feathered objects, featured in William Cowper's poem "On Mrs Montagu's Feather Hangings." As in the first panel, the intersection of femininity, domesticity and imperialism came to the surface here, but Scobie looked at how the feathers - as items obtained specifically through acts of violence - made particularly visible the tensions between exotic desirability and destructive violence inherent in colonial encounters. Emalee Beddoes' paper also looked at an imperial commodity within English national space, discussing tea advertisements as an emblem of Britishness in the 19th century. Advertising played a crucial role in normalising tea from exotic artefact to everyday domestic object. Middle-class femininity featured strongly in this, with adverts typically using women; if men featured in adverts, it was typically only in the context of the international, public sphere.

The next two papers turned from objects to travellers: Maria Grazia Messore discussed Daniel Defoe's A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, a piece of travel writing which seeks to construct an idea of English national identity through the process of travelling the nation, and particularly emphasises the importance of trade and the figure of the merchant in this identity. I was interested in the importance of the circuit in this delineation of national space: each route begins in and returns to London, thus insisting on the importance of London as the centre-point of the nation - but also, with London being the centre-point of an international network of trade, thus emphasising the signficance of the global in the idea of the nation. The final paper of this panel, by Fariha Shaikh, drew on emigrants' narratives to consider travellers' objects and the ways in which travelling objects construct ideas of space for the traveller. Shaikh noted that in emigrants' accounts, much attention is given to the physical positioning of objects and everything being in its right place, and she considered how this suggests a reconceptualisation of the journey space as not so much an invisible backdrop to the journey, but as a space to be worked through, experienced and reshaped by the traveller.

The final panel I attended gave a fascinating account of paper in its many and various forms. Claire Friend discussed the process of making paper in 18th century Edinburgh, from collecting the rags and scraps that were used as the basic material, to the finished product - of which there were over 300 types being made in Edinburgh alone. Eugenia Gonzalez then looked at objects made from paper: dolls, which often had faces made from papier-mâché. Gonzalez's paper explored narratives of doll production, i.e. books which informed their young readers of how dolls were made, again raising interesting questions about the intersection between objects and narrative processes, as well as the desire to know the secret histories of things and how they came to be. Katie McGettigan brought together several strands of discussion in a paper that considered the material form and circulation of the book, demonstrating Melville's engagement with the literary marketplace and the idea of book as object through a series of metaphoric connections between books and whales in the text.

Two keynote papers also provided stimulating ideas and perspectives on the conference theme. John Holmes spoke about the pre-Raphaelites and science, which proved to be a fascinating exploration (and demonstration) of interdisciplinarity in arguing that the pre-Raphaelites transformed what art could achieve through an engagement with science, which in turn transformed how science represented itself. Sarah Haggarty's paper returned to ideas of national circulation, space and time; I particularly enjoyed her comments on the postal service and its role in transforming the experience of time, in which individual sense of temporality depends upon a regulated, national system of circulation.

As well as the academic discussions that ensued from these excellent papers, a particular highlight for me was participating in the Roundtable discussion on blogging. The theme of our discussion was single- or multi-author blogging, but in the hour and a half we ranged over issues of academic identity, narrative voice, the importance of "impact", web presence, and the different forms that academic blogging might take. Lucinda Matthews-Jones, who chaired the roundtable, has done an excellent job of capturing the discussion in a blog post for JVC Online- which is itself a great example of a multi-author blog and well worth a read for Victorianists!

My thanks again to the conference organisers for inviting me to join the discussion, and for an extremely interesting two days of thinking about things! It's proved very timely as the next event of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies seminar is on the theme of "Victorian Things", and I'll be giving a paper titled "What connection can there be?: People, Objects and Places, c. 1851". The paper draws out some ideas around material culture, national/global networks, and the Great Exhibition, so the Transforming Objects conference has provided a useful stimulus for developing these thoughts.


May 29, 2012

The Merchant of Venice (Habima) @ Shakespeare's Globe. Part 2: The Production

Follow-up to The Merchant of Venice (Habima) @ Shakespeare's Globe. Part 1: Outer Frame from The Bardathon

It’s impossible to divorce context from production. Immediately after Dromgoole left the stage, still being applauded for his pre-emptive shutting down of protests, the actors of Habima emerged onto the Globe stage and called for a welcome, whipping the audience immediately into further applause, foot-stamping and cheering. After taking a bow, the actors, dressed as Renaissance-era Italians, donned bright red carnival masks and began singing, dancing and creating a festive atmosphere. This revelry continued as Jacob Cohen’s Shylock entered the stage and, in high spirits, the Christian carnival-makers surrounded him, pushed him to the ground and kicked him mercilessly in the stomach. Only at the point of violence did the crowd fall silent; but how easily the same jubilant ribaldry that had been targeted at Friends of Palestine was co-opted into the abuse of a Jew. Habima usefully pointed up the ease with which we are told what to think and can become implicated in abuse and suppression.

How many, I wonder, noticed the audacity of audience members who could shush a Palestinian protester and laugh at him as he was escorted out of the theatre to calls of “Piss off”; and then turn and nod sagely as a Jewish protester (in the trial scene) was silenced and mocked by Gratiano as he was escorted out? What has been learned from a production so concerned with suppression, if suppression is taking place within the auditorium?

Habima’s fine production of Merchant pulled no punches in its depiction of anti-Semitism, with both Shylock and Tubal manhandled and abused as a matter of course by a group of selfish and wasteful Christians. Alon Ophir’s Antonio, in particular, was sickening. This tyrannical figure refused to sit in Shylock’s chair, decorated with a Star of David, and grabbed the frail, elderly usurer by the throat as he vowed he would abuse him again. Even while trussed up in the trial scene, he leered down at Shylock, a smile of satisfaction playing on his lips as Shylock’s plans were thwarted.

The “bonds” of this production were made literal on two levels. Ropes and pulleys hung all around the set, used initially to demonstrate Portia’s (Hila Feldman) entrapment. Standing on a chair centre-stage, her six suitors gathered around the edges of the stage and held the ends of ropes attached to her corset, positioning her at the centre of a tangled web of controlling attachments. For the trial scene, Antonio was placed on the same chair, but stripped to his waist and clipped to ropes that snaked up the pillars and across the yard, literally strung up by bonds that linked the entire building. Into these same bonds Shylock was later forced, hanging limply amidst the jeering Christians.

The other bonds were physicalised as reams of computer printouts, contracts to be signed by Antonio in the first instance, but also by Bassanio, who was presented with a disturbingly realistic head representing Portia and an enormous wad of contracts, which he began scrutinising instead of kissing her, to her dismay. The focus of the men on letters and contracts was a running theme, revisited at the end as Nir Zelichowski’s Lorenzo failed to look once at Liraz Chamami’s Jessica once he had received news of his (his) good fortune. The massive contracts also became Shylock’s punishment, Gratiano draping them over Shylock and leaving him to stumble, slowly and blindly, offstage following the trial.

The prejudice running throughout the production was not always held up to adequate critique, however. While Portia and Nerissa’s dismissive attitude towards Jessica extended to even forgetting her name, Jessica’s disappearance at the production’s close left unresolved a growing problematisation that remained unclear. The biggest change to the text was the creation of a conflict between Jessica and Lorenzo that saw her threaten to leave him, and was alluded to throughout the ring incident as she screamed at her husband, but I was unclear as to exactly what she was objecting to, and the sadness she showed on hearing of her father’s misfortune was kept upstage and unremarked. Far more problematic was the treatment of the suitors. The establishment of these scenes was entirely amusing, as a team of sycophantic make-up artists and tailors dressed actors up in stereotypical national costume. However, Danny Leshman blacked up as Morocco, covering himself in black make-up which even rubbed off on Portia, to her disgust. The laughter at this was disturbing, and the production didn’t seem to have a point to make here about racism, leaving this problematic device uncriticised and, apparently, amusing to much of the audience. A similar, though less loaded, approach informed Yoav Donat’s appearance as Arragon, moustachioed and screaming “Ole!”

The casket scenes were otherwise amusing. Human actors played the caskets; for Morocco, an actor wore the gold casket on his head and carried the others; while Arragon and Bassanio were both presented with three independent caskets. Morocco removed the gold box from his man’s head to reveal the actor wearing a skull that snapped at his fingers. Arragon unveiled a fool carrying the poem in his mouth; and this fool subsequently sprang up and began mimicking the distraught suitor. The collective mockery of the foreign suitors by the assembled court and the Death/Fool heads fed into the critique of the Christians’ prejudice more broadly, but the cartoon caricatures of Morocco and Arragon stood in problematic contrast to the dignified Shylock.

Cohen, diminutive and quietly spoken, was a victim through and through, only taking command of the stage during the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech where he roared defiance at Salarino and Salerio (Leshman and Donat again, interestingly bringing the bodies of the three racially abused victims together) who backed up in shock at the effect of their ribbing. Elsewhere, the performance aimed for pathos. We were privy to his moans on discovering Jessica’s flight, and the production closed with Antonio casting a satisfied look over the abandoned stage and leaving, followed by Cohen emerging and taking a long, slow walk around the edges of the stage in utter silence. Similar pathos was aimed for in Jessica’s performance, as following her flight she was seen repeatedly in tears, ignored or scorned by the Christians.

Despite all of the above, this was for the most part a highly amusing production. The high energy of the Christians was combined with a physical inventiveness, particularly in the representation of gondolas by actors standing in a line and side-stepping in sync while one pretended to row. Tomer Sharon’s Launcelot was extremely entertaining throughout, debating freely with the audience in his first appearance, snogging the disembodied false head of Portia’s counterfeit, and interposing himself inconveniently between Jessica and Lorenzo. Yet he was also the only character who paid Jessica attention; immediately before the interval, he sat downstage with her and they watched together as Antonio pleaded with Shylock for succour.

A group next to me were aghast during the trial scene, crying out as Shylock went to take Antonio’s flesh, which rather spoke to the vulnerability of the strung-up bodies presented. The scene struggled to recover following the interventions from the pit of “Hath not a Palestinian eyes?” and the subsequent jeering of the crowd as more protesters were evicted; and perhaps because of this, the role of Portia and Nerissa, who were kept to one side of the stage, seemed relatively unimportant. I was drawn throughout the scene instead to Aviv Alush’s Gratiano, who moved freely about the stage and mocked Shylock mercilessly, as well as appealing to the Duke and Advocates who stood in the audience galleries. Alush’s overt prejudice throughout the scene, and Shylock’s slow collapse under his assault and the smug glares of Antonio, seemed to be far more important.

Rinat Matatov’s childlike Nerissa (strikingly reminiscent of Shirley Henderson) was a sometimes sullen, sometimes sparkling counterpart to Feldman’s upright Portia throughout. The servant took pleasure in bringing a knee to Gratiano’s groin following his loss of the ring, and in teasing her mistress about Bassanio in earlier scenes. Yet women were sidelined throughout this performance, left rather to punish their fickle men either directly by slapping or indirectly by walking out. Happy endings were denied as the banter and laddish mockery of women and foreigners found no place in Belmont, which demanded maturity. Yet as the men all fell to their rings and letters, devouring material possessions to the exclusion of their wives, it was clear that the selfish nature of these men would resist education.

Have I silenced the protests? Certainly the bulk of the protests were themselves silent, and for much of the first half I and those around me divided our attention between the action on stage and the silent stance of the group in the middle gallery with masking tape over their mouths, who did not reappear for the second half (perhaps removed). The performance of the protest in the pit and galleries drew the attention of all, and the actors themselves were clearly aware of it. Interestingly, however, the content of the protests during the performance was not directed at Habima themselves as far as I could see, concentrating on the broader “Free Palestine” message than challenging Habima’s own complicity in performing to Israeli-only groups in the settlements. By remaining silent and using few words, the protests insteade aimed to draw attention to their act of resistance, attention they maintained (even when rendered inactive) for the entire performance. The final applause of the company lasted a long while, a mutual celebration between audience and actors of the successful completion of the performance. Yet anyone watching carefully, who had listened to a production that spoke eloquently of the silencing of dissenting voices, should have had serious questions about the anger with which the performance’s own dissenters were greeted.