All entries for Friday 29 April 2005

April 29, 2005

essay

More fragments of essay stuff here, just in case my computer goes tits-up. You know the score, no one is reading this anyway.

Map a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. You should include at least two specimen scenes, an outline of the whole film, and an account of your aims and strategies.

Although there have been a great deal of famous and authoritative film adaptations of most of Shakespeare’s best-loved tragedies and comedies, involving some of the world’s greatest directors and actors, Troilus and Cressida is one of the few remaining examples of the playwright’s truly great works of which have, as yet, been largely ignored by the movie industry. This is particularly surprising when we consider that Troilus and Cressida, with its biting political satire and bleak cynicism, is widely considered by critics to be the most ‘modern’ of Shakespeare’s plays in its outlook, and also the fact that that it is unique within the playwright’s because its popularity and performance history as an unabridged text is almost exclusively limited to the Twentieth Century.

Of course, a few of versions of the play do exist on film – most notably, two different ones made by the BBC, the first in 1966, directed by Michael Croft and Bernard Hepton, and the second in 1981, directed by Jonathan Miller – but neither appear to have been particularly critically acclaimed. I would certainly not call them failures, as they are in no way bad interpretations of the text (in fact, I felt that Miller’s choice of casting Jack Birkett, a cabaret performer, as Thersites was particularly interesting), but I felt the main thing that was wrong with both productions was that they felt less like ‘films’ and more like recordings of theatre. To my mind, this is clearly a problem in a world in which recent films like Baz Luhrmann’s inventive and fast-paced Romeo and Juliet, or Michael Almereyda’s drastic modernization of Hamlet are now considered the norm in discussions of modern Shakespearian adaptations for film. No matter how good the interpretation of the text is, the methods used for staging in the theatre are no longer wholly appropriate for staging on the big screen.

With this in mind, I would certainly cite the urgency and strong visual spectacle of these two plays as influences for any adaptation of my own, as well as two other very recent treatments of Shakespearean tragedy; Julie Taymor’s Titus and Richard Loncraine’s Richard III. These four films are all much shorter than conventional theatre performances – and rightly so, given the different expectations of a film-going public. Their directors’ strength lies in the fact that they are not afraid in their streamlining to try and capture the spirit of Shakespeare’s plays by drastically cutting scenes or even moving lines around. Also, all four directors use the relative freedom of being able to shoot scenes that would be logistically impossible in the theatre in order to create memorable images that are at once entirely filmic and entirely Shakespearean – the expansive, Daliesque picture of the aftermath of Lavinia’s rape in Titus, for example, or Richard’s darkly comic descent into hell at the end of Richard III.

The greatest strength of these films, though, and one which I would aim to emulate in my own effort, is that they do not go to extremes in their attitude towards the texts themselves, either by trying to completely update them into modern parlance (as with the recent Hollywood adaptations of the comedies, such as Ten Things I Hate About You) or remain completely faithful (as with Kenneth Branagh’s well-meaning but clumsy four-hour unabridged version of Hamlet). In many ways, what becomes apparent with these four films is that, when the text is used and engaged with instead of treated as either too untranslatable to keep or too sacred to change, it lends itself conveniently to a modern setting. In Almereyda’s Hamlet, for example, it appears eminently suitable that Ophelia is wearing a wire for her arranged meeting with Hamlet in Act III Scene I, because it is a much more effective way for Polonius and Claudius to spy on them than standing behind an arras – and in the same way, it does not seem strange for the gang members in Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet to call their guns ‘swords’, because that is the name of the company that makes them.

I feel that this sense of Shakespeare’s universality of language and theme of is particularly pertinent to my reading of Troilus and Cressida. The main ideas that Shakespeare explores in this play, such as the cult of hero-worship around the warriors like Achilles and Ajax, the political pragmatism of Ulysses, the seedy voyeurism of Pandarus and the questionable legitimacy of the Trojan War as a whole each have obvious parallels with 21st Century Britain. Our celebrity-obsessed culture still has young, masculine heroes like Achilles, only they are now professional footballers. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Ulysses’ cynical Realpolitik echoes our own suspicions about ‘spin’ in modern government and, of course, our country has recently been involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were waged with surprisingly little justification or popular support. Of course, reading the play as pure political satire, and simply substituting Troy for Iraq, and the Shakespearian characters for crude caricatures of leading figures in society would be fun but nonetheless counterproductive in this instance, not only because the film would date very quickly, but also because there would be a risk of glibly over-simplifying the complex political issues of the day, which would not constitute a thoughtful and measured interpretation of Shakespeare’s text.

That said, I do feel that the attitudes Shakespeare presents in this play, especially towards exposing the myth of the traditional warrior hero and the hypocrisy of warmongering politicians, are so fundamental to any interpretation and, indeed, so particular in their relevance to contemporary political and social issues, that it would be ridiculous not to take advantage of them in some way. Again, in striking this balance between clever satire and outright caricature, I would take the lead in my approach from the four modern Shakespearean adaptations mentioned above. Each of them is very carefully set in a kind of imaginary Twentieth Century hyper-reality – a world that is based on actuality but not clumsily overt in its allusions. Loncraine’s Richard III nods to 1930’s London, and Taymor’s Titus evokes Fascist Italy, but neither explicitly mentions these locations or seriously attempts to equate, say, Richard III with the early Windsor monarchs or Saturninus with Mussolini. Nevertheless, by situating them in a recognisable world that is not too recognisable, the directors are able to use the setting to provide us with clues about plot and character within the play (we see the allusions to fascism and immediately associate Saturninus with corruption and evil) and, at the same time, use the characters and situations within the play to make a comment upon the reality (equating the calculating and ruthless megalomaniac Richard III with the modern British monarchy in order to raise questions about its role in society). To this end then, my aim is to set the play in a Troy which has echoes of the modern Middle East, but does not specifically mention Iraq, and subtly hint at the likes of Bush, Blair and Beckham while still explicitly retaining the Shakespearian complexity of character.

I would argue that, though the progress of technology means that our conception of what the actual fighting of a war entails is obviously worlds apart from Shakespeare’s conception, the attitudes of all of the characters towards war in Troilus and Cressida, whether they be general, soldier or civilian, translate very well into our modern sensibility. For example, although the likes of Agamemnon, Nestor and Menelaus are physically in Troy in Shakespeare’s text, in one sense they are not there at all, as they are not involved in combat. Certainly, in a modern day war, the leaders of the coalition forces would remain at home and do not fight, and so my idea was to have the generals quite obviously back in Greece, dressed in suits and sitting in a kind of ‘situation room’ which enabled them to make their decisions and interact with their soldiers via telephone and satellite link-up. I wanted here to really emphasise the fact that, in Shakespeare, Agamemnon and Menelaus are not warriors as they are in Homer’s Iliad, but essentially politicians, and drive home the irony of lines such as Agamemnon’s bravado to Aeneas when the Trojans issue their challenge; “…one meets Hector, if none else, I am he.”

Of course, this alienation of the generals from the action would not work in every scene, as some plot devices require the physical interaction between characters (for instance, the rather disturbing scene in Act IV Scene VI in which Cressida is kissed by all of the Greek commanders) – but it could be made clear in these instances that the commanders had perhaps flown out to Troy. There are certainly enough ways around any problem with this given the reliance of today’s warfare upon the idea of being able to transmit information instantaneously and easily interact with people halfway around the world. Even in Act V, in which, for example, Paris is seen fighting with Menelaus, or Nestor says to Diomedes ‘So, so, we draw together’, I feel that these short sequences could be cut, and the speeches made by Agamemnon, Nestor and Menelaus could be delivered from some kind of vantage point from which they are watching the battle on television screens – and any encouragement they give to the soldiers could be relayed over the telephone.

Another aspect of modern life and, again, technological advances which I feel would be useful in exploring Shakespeare’s themes and attitudes is the civilian reliance upon the media, not just in war correspondence but in everyday life. I find the idea of warriors like Achilles and Ajax being the celebrities of their day very interesting, especially if we apply our modern notions of celebrity to them. The stories of Paris and Helen, Troilus and Cressida and Achilles and Ajax, were they happening today, would saturate newspapers, glossy magazines, television news bulletins and the internet, and so a modern adaptation of the play would be able to take advantage of this and convey information about all of the characters in a myriad of different ways. One effective way of highlighting the ubiquity of the media is to make Thersites a tabloid journalist – this would explain Achilles referring to him as a ‘privileged man’ in terms of his being allowed to offend people. In my interpretation, Thersites would deliver his big speeches (the one at the very beginning of Act II Scene III, for example, or the one in Act V Scene I about Achilles and Ajax having ‘too much blood and too little brain’) by typing them into a laptop computer and sending them to his editor in an e-mail at the end.

Furthermore, this idea of an intrusive media sits very well with the blatant voyeurism displayed by almost all of the characters at some point during the action. There is an example of this in the specimen scene which I have submitted for Act I Scene II, in which Pandarus and Cressida watch the parade on television and read about the warriors in the newspapers – but I also wanted to modern technology to permeate every scene of the play. For example, I envisaged Act V Scene II (the scene in which Troilus watches Cressida betray him) alternating between Diomedes and Cressida in Calchas’ tent (which, of course, would not be a tent in the film, more a kind of compound), and Ulysses and Troilus in some kind of observation room within the Greek camp, where they watch the scene via security cameras. I wanted to make it clear that all of the characters within the play are fully aware that the world is a very claustrophobic place, constantly watching and casting judgement upon them, and intruding upon their privacy, and that this is one of the reasons why the love between the two title characters becomes corrupted.

The other issue that must take on a different slant when viewed from a modern perspective is the problem with masculine sexuality in this play. Though, of course, there was no cultural reference point for homosexuality in Shakespeare’s time, his treatment of Achilles and Patroclus makes it clear that they are in a sexual relationship (note Thersites’ reference to Patroclus as “Achilles’ brach” in Act II Scene I, for example). Even without this overt relationship, the nature of the Classical Greek masculine warrior, and his desire to penetrate the male body with his sword has obvious sexual connotations, which are exploited to the full in Shakespeare’s language. Of course, this homoerotic undercurrent has been noticed and extensively highlighted and explored by many directors, notably Ian Judge and his 1996 RSC production, which featured a camp, leather-clad Achilles and a communal bath scene involving the Trojan soldiers, but I would argue that it is not enough simply to make Achilles or even Patroclus into homosexual caricature. Again, I would make the analogy with a very specific aspect of modern celebrity which I have mentioned above – the popular conception of the professional sportsman.

Indeed, despite the apparent modern acceptance of homosexuality in Western culture by all but the most extreme right-wing religious zealots, it is true that professional sport, and football in particular, remains very similar in its attitude to the world of Achilles and Ajax. For example, I would argue that, right up until Hector’s death, the Greek and Trojan soldiers are fighting a war that is very like a professional game – a soldier goes to battle with his comrades, fights but does not get killed, and is rewarded at the end of the day for the extent to which ‘his sword is bloodied and his helm…hacked’. The culture in both sport and war in this context both requires a homoerotic undercurrent to facilitate the solidarity of the men against their opponents, but is also part of a highly homophobic culture, of which men who desire other men in any other way but to beat them cannot be a part – it is no coincidence that, at the time of writing, there are no openly gay professional footballers or managers, and that the acceptance of homosexuals into the army is still a much-debated issue. In my adaptation, I would certainly wish to explore, if only conceptually, the correlation between these worlds and their warped male sexuality, looking in particular at the death of Hector and the silence surrounding the obvious relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.

At this point, with most of my chief aims and interpretations dealt with, perhaps the best method of showing what I intend to do with my interpretation of the play into film is to refer to the specimen scenes which I have chosen. Though they are heavily annotated in red, and hopefully are explained adequately within themselves, I will go through them very briefly here as well. Firstly, I intended with the prologue to create the same kind of memorable and colourful immediacy as, say, Loncraine in his opening to Richard III, with the tank that smashes through the wall. I also felt, though, it was important for this opening to provide a literal visual translation for the verbal imagery which Shakespeare creates, because it is only here that we are given the back-story to the events which take place, which it is crucial for an audience to understand. I also felt that using Thersites to deliver the prologue in character was more effective than simply a disembodied voice, because it sets his character up as the journalist and commentator which he will become as the film continues. Finally, I wanted to use the loud, stirring war music and fast, constantly changing camera shots as the Prologue went on in order to create a sense of urgency and excitement, which could then be ironically deflated by the first shot of Troilus in Act I Scene I sighing over a picture of Cressida (on the front of a glossy magazine, of course) and complaining that he does not want to fight.

With regard to the other two sections, I wanted to choose scenes from the beginning and the end of the play which I feel roughly included all the elements of my interpretation which I have discussed – the use of the media, the homoerotic undercurrents, the detachment of the generals and the fallacy of the honourable warrior. I wanted the murder of Hector to be ignominious, uncomfortable and dishonourable – I was particularly attracted to the idea that the Myrmidons beat to death rather than shoot him, and that they all do the deed at once, like the assassination of Caesar, but then it is Achilles who takes all the glory for himself. I felt that the culture on display here of the complete, ritual humiliation of the helpless prisoner had very potent parallels with the recent photographic evidence of soldiers’ abuse of prisoners in Iraq, hopefully conveying the horror of the violence without sensationalising it.

Although this by no means constitutes a full interpretation of the play, and I am aware that there are issues with regard to making it into a film which I have left out (for example, the presentation of Helen and the difficulty of making Ulysses’ huge philosophical speeches relevant to a modern audience), I would hope that this essay and the extracts provided give a general feel of my treatment of Troilus and Cressida and, at least, allowed me to explore some of the issues raised in this difficult but ultimately intellectually rewarding play.


Guitar chords – Quand Vous Mourez De Nos Amours by Rufus Wainwright

This is one of the bonus tracks off the new album – I don't think I've ever really liked a song sung in a different language before but I really like this one – I've managed to work out with my poor A level French that the title means When You Die Of Our Loves, and can tell roughly what it's about. Tune is quite easy, I've just worked out the chords in about 10 minutes, so if they're wrong that's why.

G Am D G

G Em C G
Quand vous mourez de nos amours

Am D Em
J’irai planter dans le jardin

Am G D
Fleur à fleurir de beau matin
G Em C B
Moitié métal, moitié papier

G Em Am
Pour me blesser un peu le pied

G Em Am
Mourez de mort très douce
G Am D G
Qu’une fleur pousse

G Am D G

Quand vous mourez de nos amours
J’en ferai sur l’air de ce temps
Chanson chanteuse pour sept ans
Vous l’entendrez, vous l’apprendrez
Et vos lèvres m’en seront gré
Mourez de mort très lasse
Que je la fasse

Quand vous mourez de nos amours
J’en ferai deux livres si beaux
Qu’ils vous serviront de tombeau
Et m’y coucherai à mon tour
Car je mourrai le míme jour
Mourez de mort très tendre
à les attendre

Quand vous mourez de nos amours
J’irai me pendre avec la clef
Au crochet des bonheurs bâclés
Et les chemins par nous conquis
Nul ne saura jamais par qui
Mourez de mort exquise
Que je le dise

Quand vous mourez de nos amours
Si trop peu vous reste de moi
Ne me demandez pas pourquoi
Dans les mensonges qui suivraient
Nous ne serions ni beaux ni vrais
Mourez de mort très vive
Que je vous suive


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