Hamlet v Lady M: Dawn of Long Lost

Since last Wednesday, I have had the pleasure of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s company, sitting in on their rehearsals, conducting interviews with Austin Tichenor, one of their managing partners, actors, writers and directors (Little Britain’s ‘write the feem toon sing the feem toon’ refrain springs to mind), and even share a beer over a game of basketball. This is all in the run up to the premiere of their tenth play William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) which opens at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. on Thursday 21st April 2016. This is the first a series of posts detailing my research trip to Washington.

Long Lost Shakes (as the RSC abbreviates it on Twitter) can be seen as both a spiritual successor to, and stylistic departure from, their first and most famous play, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). That piece, which premiered thirty-five years ago, began life as a two-man truncated version of Romeo and Juliet and an equally reduced Hamlet. This was partly inspired by Tom Stoppard’s own 15-Minute Hamlet, although there’s betters that effort by performing the play in under 3 minutes and, for an encore, going even faster and, finally, doing the whole thing… BACKWARDS! Honed at renaissance festivals in their native California, the RSC combined these with further material encompassing the rest of Shakespeare’s canon when they decided to play the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1981. The rest is most certainly not silence. Complete Works became London’s longest-running comedy, running for nine years in London’s West End at the Criterion Theatre. They have since produced eight new shows, reducing such weighty subjects as American history, comedy, sports, Hollywood, Christmas and the Bible, along with multiple radio and television appearances. Thus, I found myself sitting in on my very first rehearsal on Thursday 14th April 2016, quite literally pinching myself.

‘Let him roar again’: When the Reduced Shakespeare Company met Godzilla

The company’s newest work is perhaps their most ambitious yet. Without giving too much away, if Complete Works was a play about the attempt of three actors to stage every single Shakespeare play, Long Lost Shakes depicts the reality of three actors staging such a fantasy. Conceived in the Folger Shakespeare Library vaults, Austin Tichenor and his co-Managing Partner, Reed Martin, were told by Folger directors and librarians that the academic holy grail for Shakespeareans would be a play written in Shakespeare’s own hand. In typically anarchic and irreverent form, the two men naturally decided to do it themselves. The play, then, is their most strongly narrative yet, following a ‘merry war betwixt’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Puck and The Tempest‘s Ariel. Such creative collisions fuel both the story and satire, with these two Shakespearean spirits facilitating inspired combinations as Lady Macbeth chiding Hamlet for his indecisiveness and Beatrice and Kate convincing Juliet that there’s more to life than boys.

‘Within this wooden O’: The spectacular Folger Theatre

I’m writing about the RSC for the first chapter of my PhD thesis on Shakespeare’s legacy across 21st century American pop culture. This research trip also happens to be my first parentless foray into the US and, put it this way, last time I was here, my primary interest was Sea World. I should probably watch Blackfish. As such, it’s been eye-opening to view the RSC’s high octane, self-confessed cartoonish take on Shakespeare, answering Orsino’s call in Twelfth Night to ‘give me excess of it’. This is sugar-coated, fast-food Shakespeare, delivering the playwright’s greatest hits thick and fast, whilst uncovering a couple of b-sides too. Tichenor describes the play as expansion as much as reduction, given the elevation of characters like The Comedy of Errors’ Dromio into becoming Juliet’s love interest. This has chimed with my experience of American life and pop culture, cramming cinemas, sports arenas, burger joints and bowling alleys into a single space of claustrophobic, technicolor superabundance. My interviews with Tichenor and the dubious decision to experience an American cinema-going experience by putting myself through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for a second time, also led me to see a bizarre but perhaps apt correlation between the RSC’s latest work and Zack Snyder’s critically panned superhero flick.

‘Tell me, dost thou bleed?’: Batman and Superman engage in some mid-air ballet.

I’ll leave the B v S reviews to more experienced film goers but, for the record, first time around, I found it to be a bizarre yet fun explosion of a film, saved by the excellence of Ben Affleck’s brutal, battered Batman and Jeremy Iron’s sardonic, sharp-tongued Alfred Pennyworth. Second time around, the film merely washed over me, highly unmemorable and a mash-up movie clearly yearning to be a Batman solo effort. In conversation with Tichenor, however, we found ourselves discussing the ‘excess of it’ all, and a clear desire on the part of these filmmakers to meet the audience’s demand, not simply to for their heroes thwart evil schemes, but to see them trade blows with each other. Given the surfeit of superheroes we’re about to see onscreen, which is quickly starting to feel inescapable, directors and writers are clearly trying to find new ways to keep their potentially saturated audiences coming back for more. It is something which provides the entire premise of the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War, the poster of which is a carbon copy of B v S, merely trading Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill’s chiselled profiles, nose-to-nose, for those of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America.

Spot the difference:

A surfeit of superheroes

The link was made when Tichenor informed me that, once the idea for envisaging how a lost Shakespeare play might look onstage was hatched, they decided to also make it his first play, focusing on the idea of a teenage Shakespeare cramming all his ideas into one mammoth text before realising that he could milk this across thirty-nine. The cast list of Long Lost Shakes runs to a colossal 47 characters played by – you guessed it – three actors. You may think that sounds excessive. Or you may consider that, within the theatrical world, outside the immediate mainstream, such radical, left-field ideas are to be taken for granted. Then realise that this number is measly in comparison to the ludicrous total of 67 players reported to feature in the daddy of all pop culture behemoths: Marvel’s forthcoming two-part film Avengers: Infinity War.

There’s something very American about this admirably brash desire to cram so many characters within one space. It’s certainly one of the primary criticisms levelled at B v S. Many suggested that the movie could work better as either a Batman or Superman solo film or that it would certainly have been aided by holding off on the inclusion of further Justice League players such as Wonder Woman and the Flash, in an attempt by DC to kickstart their own Cinematic Universe. I found more of the film’s failures to be narrative and tone-based, with too little light provided by Superman to contrast Batman’s shade. However, it’s fascinating that the very factors which resulted in this film’s downfall fuel the delights and success of the RSC’s latest offering.

The number of brilliant examples are too long to list, but a particular highlight must be when Lady Macbeth is conjured by Ariel onstage to drum Hamlet into action. Telling him “we’ll be here all night”, insisting “no, no pausing, Hamlet!” and, brilliantly rationalising that ‘you tend to be a ‘not to be’ Hamlet; / I need you to be a ‘to be’ Hamlet’, Tichenor explained to me that they want to explore how adding and subtracting characters from particular characters from different plays would speed up or slow down the drama. For instance, if Lady Macbeth was dropped into Hamlet, it’s clear that this ‘mean motivator’, as Ariel calls her, would have the whole revenge plot tied up in a trice, given how well her charms and enterprise convince Macbeth to act. After all, he is just as initially hesitant to kill a king as Hamlet.

‘Mirthful comic shows’: Just some of Kill Shakespeare’s key players

Tichenor certainly saw the similarity between their’s and Hollywood’s endless quest to build worlds which encompass such collisions and mash-ups. He’s even admitted to me that the RSC were, in part, inspired by an actual comic book rendering of Shakespeare’s canon, Kill Shakespeare, which sees a plethora of his characters team up, Avengers-style, to murder their author. Why, then, does the RSC’s formula work where DC’s failed catastrophically and where, I fear, Marvel may fall in the future? Perhaps it’s to do with the way Tichenor and Martin, as writers, construct these combinations as isolated pleasures, offering their audience a taste of what such scenes might look like in a parallel Shakespearean universe, before returning to the narrative through-line of Puck and Ariel’s power struggle to determine who is the better magician. Again, the essence of the RSC’s success and DC’s failings are narrative based. Had B v S possessed a similar anchor, an identifiably human figure – something which the RSC’s comic triad always contains – then the tower-toppling spectacle of the film’s titular showdown may have carried more dramatic weight. There are no shortage of options: Lois Lane on Superman’s side and Alfred Pennyworth on Batman’s are just two names which spring to mind. Imagine an alternative movie, seen through the eyes of Lane’s journalist, reporting on the carnage and human cost of the film’s devastation whilst Alfred adds much needed, world-weary humour and perspective on the addition of alien beings to his planet. If Zack Snyder needs any tips on how to successfully enmesh cultural icons, I suggest he swings by the Folger Theatre from April 21st to May 8th to see how it’s done.

‘Dumbshows and noise’: The RSC’s Austin Tichenor, Reed Martin and Teddy Spencer

To hear more about my research and the RSC’s new play, listen to Austin Tichenor’s interview with me for the most recent addition of their weekly Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast: http://www.reducedshakespeare.com/2016/04/episode-488-studying-reduced-shakespeare

‘A Dagger of the Mind’: Depicting Witchcraft in ‘The Witch’ and ‘Macbeth’

I challenge you to find a current film more relentlessly disturbing and erudite in the art of true horror than The Witch. My interest was piqued primarily by two things in the promotional trailer. First, the sight of the film’s (mostly) silent star, the goat Black Phillip, rearing strangely in the film’s trailer, calling to mind Caryl Churchill’s exploration of animal possession in Vinegar Tom, a name shared by the play’s titular cat. Second, there’s the distinct absence of an obvious witch, suggesting that this was a film playing with the audience’s expectations of who or what that word might mean, rather than resorting to jump scares and gore as in so many modern supernatural flicks (here’s looking at you The Conjuring). Indeed, the main question which the film frequently poses and effectively left me pondering as I exited a disturbingly dark and sparse auditorium was to what the film’s title had been alluding. Witches do appear in The Witch and the film ends with the character most often accused of sorcery being borne aloft to join her newfound coven, but director Robert Eggers is clearly more interested in the way the whispers and speculation of witchcraft invade a close-knit family and tear them apart, creating the most claustrophobic film I’ve seen since Under The Skin or Kill List.

Another interesting and unusual aspect of The Witch is its use of archaic speech that is distinctly Elizabethan or Jacobean in flavour, giving the film both a sense of authenticity and theatricality, reminding me of Ben Wheatley’s equally chilling and subtle A Field in England. Post-credits, we discover that the film’s plot was largely based on real accounts of witchcraft in New England, its setting, to which the family have moved, having been banished from a colony (for unspecified reasons) and left England. In the age of torture porn and jump-scares galore, it was refreshing to see a horror movie that so clearly invested in the substance of its source material, rather than focusing primarily on surface level aesthetics. The theatricality was drawn from the fact that the language, substituting ‘you’ and ‘they’ for ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ had a clearly Shakespearean sound that imbued the film with a dark, archaic grandeur. Many contemporary tales which explore witchcraft have some vague resemblance to Macbeth, but The Witch stretches these beyond the images of covens, rooky woods and bloodshed, to the film’s central family unit and, particularly, the relationship between the mother and father. Their interaction certainly echoes Lady Macbeth’s dominant hold over her husband, with similar questions asked of his virility, masculinity and stability. The father, who is perhaps one of the film’s more sympathetic characters, also veers between uncertainty surrounding his paternal responsibilities, violent action and, ultimately, recognition of his own fatal flaws.

Much critical reception for The Witch has compared it to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and such allusions seem apt, given that the film seems as interested, if not more, in the persecution and fear surrounding witches as the depiction of their exact form and activities. Personally, the reason it resonated on a specifically Shakespearean level was to do with that absence of contemporary speech patterns, rooting the action resolutely in the past and making the fear of witchcraft legitimate and believable to a modern audience when placed in its original context. Given that today’s audience cannot be chilled by the actions of Macbeth’s Weird Sisters in the same, direct sense (given that Shakespeare’s audience saw witchcraft as a real and believable threat) other measures must be taken to make these figures as menacing and malignant as the play suggests. One legitimate approach is to suggest that the Witches are a figment of Macbeth’s imagination, brought on by post-traumatic stress or subconscious desire for power, as last year’s film adaptation suggested, framing Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth as a damaged soldier of war seeing apparitions on the battlefield. In his review of The Witch, film critic Mark Kermode suggested that you get from The Witch what you put into it, stating further that the reason for the supernatural appearances throughout are left deliberately ambiguous and may perhaps be due to the failing crops which the family rely on for sustenance. This is something which, in the film’s actual New England setting, could lead to hallucinations, such as those experienced by the family. Whether or not this was the director’s intention, the ambiguous presentation of witches as part of a character’s imagination or subconscious is a far more effective way to get underneath an audience’s skin, something true for both Macbeth and The Witch.

This also brings me to another point of Jacobean resonance which the film threw up. One of The Witch’s finest scenes comes at its climax when Thomasin, the film’s central character, having murdering her deranged mother in self-defence, enters into their cabin to commune with their goat, Black Phillip, whom she believes has been communicating with her now diseased twin siblings. Just as it seems to have been a delusion, Black Phillip speaks (although we mercifully never see this but simply hear his dulcet, devilish tones) and tempts her down the path of sin and indulgence. The line that stayed with me above all others was when he asked her ‘woulds’t thou like to live deliciously?’ There was such decadence and relish in this utterance, that I couldn’t help but be reminded of Doctor Faustus’s seductive Mephistopheles tempting Faustus towards eternal damnation with the promise of riches, power and perverse self-betterment. There is also the dreadful sense that, as with Mephistopheles’s reminder that ‘hell hath no limits nor is circumscribed / For where we are is hell and where hell is must we ever be’, hell and witches are as real as the family of The Witch want them to be. Thomasin is made a witch by the mistrust and grief of her family, finally consorting with the devil only when every family member has rejected her and, in turn, died.

If I had to market The Witch, I’d bill it a Shakespearean take on The Exorcist. That classic horror film plays on similar primal fears, namely the possession of young children and, undoubtedly the most disturbing parts of The Witch involve the innocent souls of either children or animals. Trust me, you won’t look at goats or rabbits in the same way for a while. Perhaps the film’s most distressing scene involves the death of Caleb, the elder son, who returns naked from the wood and clearly under the influence of witchcraft. The family attempt to drive the evil spirits out, succeeded only to see him undergo an angelic transformation, speaking words of beauty to Christ, his saviour, and then falling still. His death acts as a catalyst for the chaos which engulfs the remainder of the film, much as Lady Macbeth’s chilling promise to her husband that she would have taken their new born child and ‘plucked my nipple from his boneless gums […] And dashed the brains out’ for the sake of advancement. Both share this loss of children and, in fact, The Witch somewhat echoes this gory image conjured by Shakespeare. Later, the mother, Katherine, hallucinates that her lost son and baby appear before her, and she breast-feeds the infant, only for the camera to cut back after a cacophony of images and show that is actually a crow pecking at her bare nipple.

My enthusiasm for a horror movie more interested in imagery, depth of character and concealment than sensationalism is drawn from my recent efforts to stage a horror-inflected production of Macbeth, primarily influenced by The Shining and American Horror Story. This interpretation will explore Lady Macbeth as a witch-like figure herself, with the audacious casting decision of amalgamating her role with that of Hecate, the Queen of the Witches, who is most often cut from performances. That’s a subject for another blog and another time but I can safely say that, if return to that project in the future, The Witch will be uppermost in my thoughts.

‘I Enact What You Disown’: Updating Greek Tragedy through Meta-Narrative and Cinematic Theatre / Part One: Medea

Part One: Medea at The Almeida Theatre

Wednesday 4th November 2015

It is telling that some of the most radical and moving theatre on the London West End at the moment was created by playwrights millennia old. Shakespeare may retain his place as the most revered and revived playwright of the English language but, where some directors and writers find his plays either unsuitable for adaptation into contemporary language, as the negative (and unjustified) reaction to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s recent launch of Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare suggests, or see his gender politics as limiting and anachronistic, many are turning to Ancient Greeks for inspiration. In her review of the Almeida’s current production of Medea, for instance, Susannah Clapp asks whether ‘Homer [has] become our new Shakespeare? Are the ancients our new contemporaries? As the stage increasingly turns to classical Greek writers for echoes of our current torments […] the most common resonance has often seemed vengeance, the locking of generations into feud’.

In a generation where the young appear increasingly disconnected from their elders, and indeed each other, through the gulf created by ever-developing technology, this prevalent theme seems increasingly relevant. By turning to the writers who predate and influenced Shakespeare’s interwoven narratives of extreme violence, cruelty, domestic tragedy and satirical farce, London audiences are currently being exposed to the root of why these types of stories continue to fascinate our morbid sensibilities and, most significantly of all, each of the three excellent Greek modernisations which I had the privilege of seeing last week, acknowledged and challenged such fascination within their various adaptational practices.

A tale of three Medeas: Kate Fleetwood (right), Helen McCory (centre) and Rachel Stirling (left) in the title role.

In this first part of a trilogy of blog posts, of which I hope Aeschylus would be proud, I begin with Euripides’s Medea, presented in a new version by award-winning feminist writer Rachel Cusk at the Almeida Theatre. The obvious Shakespeare inter-text on display here is Macbeth. This is not least because, like Helen McCory, who played the part in last year’s adaptation by Ben Power at the National, Kate Fleetwood seemed to bring much of her prior experience as Lady Macbeth to the role. While the National’s version chose to keep his modern context more ambitious and aligned Medea explicitly with Lady Macbeth through the retention of her communication with Hecate and the spirits, this production eschewed such supernatural connotations and recast Medea as twenty-first century writer who struggles to deal with life as a single mother since her actor husband, Jason, left her for a younger model. In this way, the aesthetic was more similar to Headlong’s 2012 production, adapted by Mike Bartlett, which made the play’s contemporary resonance almost cloyingly explicit through the bold design of a two story house onstage and pop culture references scattered throughout the script. The fundamental differences that make the Almeida’s Medea superior to either is threefold: it’s meta-theatricality, script and central performance.

Firstly, one of the play’s many striking monologues forced us to confront the very reason for Medea’s continued popularity and, as director Rupert Goold notes in the programme ‘what is it about women who kill that so excites our dramatic heritage’, making clear reference to his previous experience of directing Fleetwood as the aforementioned Lady Macbeth, who similarly declares her commitment to filicide:

I have given suck, and know

How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dash’d the brains out […] 

Not So Innocent Smoothie: The striking publicity design for the Almeida’s Medea.

As the play enters its final stages, the audience’s anticipation of the moment of murder grows. In any production of Medea this is palpable and unavoidable: the publicity (see above) of Fleetwood as inverted ‘domestic goddess’ with her hand in a blender atop a chopping board with berries in the other hand screams with the ‘dark glamour’ that Goold also references in his notes. Where Bartlett and Power chose to return to the play’s potent power for violent awakening, giving the audience it’s cathartic climax and release of energy, Rachel Cusk denies us this, merely showing Fleetwood taking her children downstairs and then re-emerging to shovel dirt on top of the exit, whilst an androgynous messenger character recounts the action from above. This has received criticism from many reviewers, but I personally found this absence of violence to be far more chilling than an explicit display of it onstage. It is an old adage, but the best horror narratives, from Lavinia’s offstage rape in Titus Andronicus to Alien’s gradual reveal of its titular monster, have continually demonstrated over centuries that unseen violence is far more terrifying than blood and guts, forcing the audience to imagine the horrors just out of sight. Cusk’s script performed a similar feat. She went further by turning this morbid fascination onto the audience itself, in Medea’s own words, delivered with a chilling sneer by Fleetwood:

I feel it, your unhonoured truth,

Like a boulder on my back.

It gives you a thrill to watch me suffer.

The less I pretend the more of a kick you get.

I enact what you disown about yourselves.

I take the punishment you’ve avoided.

That’s why you watch me.

That’s why you’re here.

The second reason for this production’s superiority to Headlong’s or the National’s is its status as a female-written adaptation. While Bartlett and Powers’s respective versions were compelling, topical and poetic, Cusk seem to climb inside Medea’s psychology completely and, as a result, presented a three-dimensional character who drew our sympathy and pity much more than horror or incomprehension. I went into the show unaware of the writer’s gender, wanting to avoid any potential preconceptions, but it seemed obvious on the show’s end that a male adaptation would’ve been unable to distance itself from Medea’s ‘dark glamour’ in the way in which this version achieved. Male writers have a tendency to fetishize female figures of Medea’s elemental power and it was thus refreshing to see one of literature’s greatest women not presented as a ‘femme fatale’ or victimised ‘man-hater’, but as what she truly is: a wronged partner dealing with acute emotional distress.

This would not have been possible without the third factor. Fleetwood’s performance captured the middle-ground between Rachel Stirling’s modern and inverted domesticity for Headlong and Helen McCory’s Lady M-driven witch-like performance, which as a friend noted to me, made her appear to be acting in an entirely different play to the rest of the cast. Fleetwood’s two best assets as a performer, her sonorous voice and piercing gaze, were used to full effect throughout the play. Her Lady Macbeth ranks as my favourite interpretation of that role, so I expected her to be excellent here, but I will admit that the level of vulnerability she brought to the role pleasantly surprised me, given how forceful and dominating she was as Lady M. Finally, Rupert Goold has already shown how adept he is at adapting Shakespeare’s plays for screen, through Macbeth and Richard II, so it was unsurprising that the play’s set, costume and music lent the production a filmic tone which enhanced Medea’s cinematic scope as a narrative.

Blood Meridan: The vivid blend of domestic setting and cinematic backdrop which brought Rachel Cusk’s stunning adaptation to life.

Medea has always been my favourite Greek tragedy. Amongst the many of those tales which survive today, it is the one which has always spoken to me of an individual’s specific struggle through circumstances outside their control that spiral into a decision beyond comprehension. Goold is right when he points towards theatre’s fascination with female murderers but the narrative transcends gender boundaries and forces the viewer, because of the play’s singular focus, to confront their own personal circumstances and address the domestic trauma which Medea faces. This is why the play survives and flourishes in a modern context. Regardless of her horrifying actions, Medea asks a question to which we can all relate: how do you survive the most personal of betrayals? In this specific adaptation, Cusk’s script, Fleetwood’s performance and the enduring power of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ allowed Medea to become one of us; confronting our black and deep desires and those most problematic fascinations with her, making the trauma more relatable and contemporary than ever.

Medea is playing at the Almeida Theatre from 25th September to 14th November 2015.

In the Belly of the Beast: Measure for Measure as ‘dark farce’ at the Young Vic

‘It’s one thing to be tempted / Another thing to fall’, the back of the programme for the Young Vic’s current production of Measure for Measure warns, and this iteration of Shakespeare’s notoriously difficult and genre-bending ‘problem play’ certainly tempts its audience into falling for the various figures of filth and moral ambiguity which populate the text. Measure is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult, in terms of balance between comedy and tragedy, given how much each act seems to shift from some of the Bard’s bawdiest, brothel-set moments to the psychosexual trauma of the play’s centrepiece scene: Angelo’s attempted and enforced seduction of Isabella.

Exit pursued by a bawd: The Globe’s farcical, summertime take on Measure for Measure.

The Globe’s recent production chose to largely eschew Measure’s complex undertones in favour of a more traditional take on Shakespeare’s play as a ‘city comedy’, more akin to the work of his contemporaries, placing strong focus on the comic triad of Lucio, Pompey and Master Froth. A clear point of distinction between that production and this was the complete absence of Mistress Overdone, who is mentioned her but didn’t feature at all, thanks to the savage edit of the play down to an interval-free two hour cut that ensured the intensity never let up.

The reason for this is perhaps the play’s most original entry into the pantheon of Shakespearean modernisations: an innovative use of live-action film shot behind the main stage. This saw the actors delivering monologues and asides direct to camera and, most thrillingly of all, used a door between the front and back of the stage and back, through which characters had to be ‘buzzed in’ through to Pompey’s brothel during the play’s chaotic fourth act. By having the action filmed behind the stage, the audience was given insight into new perspectives and levels of detail within the brothel, as well as allowing characters to enter unannounced at moments that would be impossible onstage, most notably the hilariously dim-witted and deadpan Froth (Raphael Sowole). It also meant that actors could chase each other through these two sections of the stage, such as Lucio’s pursuit of the disguised Duke Vincentio, helping the action to match the high octane and fast-paced final acts which are typical of his comedies. Another aspect of play’s striking design was the use of blow-up sex dolls, which remained omnipresent throughout the course of the show, being constantly shifted around by the actors and used to particularly comic effect by Bronx-accented Pompey (Tom Edden) during his monologue in which he describes his various customers, grabbing a doll to represent each individual.

Duke Vincentio (Zubin Varla) and Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) showcase the Young Vic’s innovative use of stage and screen.

However, as innovative and excellent as the design aught to be for contemporary Shakespeare to work, the acting needs match this in order to convince the audience that the play’s language and values are not outdated or archaic. Thankfully, this production was full to the brim with stand-out performances, from the central characters like a particularly paranoid, twitchy and Bane-sounding Duke (Zubin Varla) down to the supporting cast, such as the aforementioned Froth. The show’s ‘big name’, Romola Garai, also didn’t disappoint, delivering a particularly spunky Isabella, making her much better, for my money, than Maria Gale’s rather meek and passive interpretation of the role at the Globe. Too often, Isabella seems to fade into the background of Measure, with many productions making it appear that the Duke and Provost save her, rather than her possessing direct agency, so it was thrilling to see Garai shout, scream and literally wrestle her way through the pile of sex dolls and masculine filth which surrounded her, emerging as a fearless feminist warrior. This was brilliantly offset by a genuinely nasty Angelo (Paul Ready), whose bookish demeanour and Puritan motivations made him more pitiful than directly repellent, which worked well in a production that acknowledged what play’s true nature, rather than trying to make it explicitly comic or tragic: a dark farce. This was exemplified by a Glaswegian Lucio (John Mackay), who is often cast as Measure’s true villain. He began as a comedic figure of fun, before gradually evolving into a leering and menacing character, to the point where he appeared to genuinely suspect the true identity of the Duke’s disguised Friar, threateningly looming over him, making his ultimate punishment all the more satisfying for the audience.

A fiery Isabella (Romola Garai) in rehearsal.

As with many effective modernisations of Shakespeare’s work, the production made excellent and often hilarious use of contemporary music, opening with a pulsing electronic score that proclaimed that we were about enter into ‘the belly of the beast’. The eclectic blend, which must be credited to Paul Arditti’s sound design, then moved through classical arias, before juxtaposing gangsta rap for bong-smoking brothel scenes with a typically bonkers rendition of Alanis Morisette’s ‘You Outta Know’ to introduce Mariana (Cath Whitefield). She addressed the song’s chorus directly to the audience via her iPhone, with the particularly visceral line, ‘are you thinking of me when you fuck her?’, appearing tailor-made for Mariana’s deranged anguish and inexplicable longing for the man who abandoned her: Angelo.

A slimy Angelo (Paul Ready) attempts to coerce Isabella (Romola Garai) into sleeping with him in return for her brother’s pardon, during the play’s early climax.

Overall, the production perfectly addressed the ‘problems’ with Shakespeare’s so-called problem play by making these central to its aesthetic and message: the virtuous possess deep-seated and base desires and, equally, the morally bankrupt members of society are worth our close attention and potential sympathy, rather than ignorance and dismissal. Combined with a brilliant score, innovate design and bold performances, I cannot recommend highly enough that you should beg, borrow or steal a ticket to what is one of the strongest Shakespearean productions of the year.

This Blasted Heath

If things seem a bit slow on here at the moment, it’s because all of my current energies are being put into a new and exciting project and blog of which I am part – ‘This Blasted Heath’. This creative-critical exploration of Shakespeare, Beckett and Cormac McCarthy through dystopia is being funded by Warwick University’s Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL to its friends). Each week we’re posting new thoughts at our dedicated blog ‘This Blasted Heath’, so head over to https://thisblastedblog.wordpress.com/ to keep up to date and read what we’ve been working on so far. Also hit us up on Twitter @ThisBlstedHeath and find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thisblastedheath. I will return here soon, with some dystopian thoughts (The Walter White Whale is currently in the planning stages… so stay tuned for that!)

Strange Bedfellows: Cormac McCarthy’s Lester Ballard as the Appalachian Caliban

In The Tempest, Trinculo concludes in Act 2 Scene 2 prior to throwing himself under Caliban’s gabardine, that ‘misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows’ (2.2.20-2). Whilst reading Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, which centres around the descent into madness and depravity of Lester Ballard, these words seemed ominously resonant. McCarthy, throughout the course of his third novel, places the reader within a highly uncomfortable quandary. Ballard commits progressively heinous deeds, eventually becoming a serial killer and necrophiliac, and yet McCarthy confronts us with a lonely character who seeks companionship and is driven towards such deeds by the rejection of his society. It is this ‘misery’, which Trinculo describes, which forces Ballard to acquaint himself with such ‘strange bedfellows’. James Franco, who directed an excellent film adaption of the novel last year, supports this idea, explaining that:

‘I wanted Lester to be likeable, not because I would ever condone what he does if he were a real person, but because I needed him to be A) watchable, meaning I wanted the audience to be shocked by the material, but I didn’t want them to be repelled, and humor is a powerful weapon when eliciting the sympathy of the audience, and B) I wanted Lester to represent something more universal, not just a monster running around in the woods, but someone, albeit a deranged someone, who wants what we all want: to love and be loved’.

At the beginning of The Tempest, Shakespeare places the audience in a similar position. Whilst Caliban is immediately positioned as a rejected outsider, reminding Prospero that ‘when thou cam’st first / Thou strok’st me and made much of me’ (1.2.334-5), his intended actions of violence also establish him as a would-be rapist, one who ‘dist seek to violate / The honour of my child’ (1.2.348-9). In one of the boldest moves of his career, Shakespeare builds a sympathetic figure out from this point of origin, challenging his audience to empathise with a creature who would commit the most heinous acts of violation and attempt to understand his intentions for doing so.

Djimon Hounsou as Caliban in the 2010 film adaptation of ‘The Tempest’.

 

It is in this tradition that McCarthy crafts Ballard. The novel also opens with him repeatedly telling invading landowners that ‘I want you to get your goddamn ass off my property’ (p.8), which is made even more Tempest-esque in the film, through the added detail he gives that ‘this is my Daddy’s land!’, recalling the iconic words of ‘this island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother’ (1.2.332). The narrative then depicts Ballard in a constant and unspoken battle against the man who takes his land, John Greer, who the outcast Ballard views as the actual outsider. When Ballard finally confronts Greer near the book’s conclusion, he shoots him twice, but fails to kill him, with Greer disabling him by shooting off his arm, an injury which leaves him bedridden and at the mercy of a group of men who discover what Ballard has been doing many of the local women. Ballard, in this way, cam be seen as direct descendant of both the Shakespearean tradition of having the audience feel conflicted sympathy towards a social outsider, who victimises and is also made victim (Caliban, Malvolio, Angelo) and the Gothic tradition of monsters as the products of society (Frankenstein’s Monster).

Clearly, Caliban and Ballard’s sins do differ, in that Shakespeare never gives direct evidence of Caliban having raped Miranda. The play certainly suggests that Caliban did attempt to, given how he admits, unabashed, that ‘thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans’ (1.2.351-2). However he again contrasts this explosion of violent admission with the inert riposte to Miranda that ‘you taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse’ (1.2.364-5). Ballard is presented as a similarly problematic individual. McCarthy romanticises his treatment of the first victim – ‘he poured into that waxen ear everything he’d ever thought of sayin to a woman. Who could say she did not hear him?’ (p.84). He washes her, warms her, dresses her, shops for her, in a way in which none of the other victims are described.

Once the fire, which burns down the barn in which lives, reclaims her body, it is as though the perverse ‘romance’ of the deed is lost for him. Indeed, the later account of where Ballard is about to rape another young girl, only to be forced to return to her later, described how ‘she was cold and wooden with death’ (p.144). This contrast her ‘still warm lips’ (p.143) charts Ballard’s desperate and depraved attempts to instill the act of necrophilia with human warmth. It also follows, I believe, the path intended by Caliban. His original intentions, monstrous as they become, are to learn from Miranda, borne out of a desire for companionship, with her kindness mutating within him into lust.

‘This island’s mine’: Caliban confronts Propsera and Miranda in Helen Taymor’s film adaptation.

For such a diabolical creation, McCarthy lets Ballard off fairly easily – indeed, ‘he was never indicted for any crime (p.183). He returns his protagonist to a quintessence of dust by having him, post-mortem, laid out upon a medical table and dissected by students as his final punishment. The final verb referring to Ballard’s remains is ‘scraped’ – ‘Ballard was scraped from the table into a plastic bag’ (p.184). McCarthy also makes the intriguing decision of contrasting Ballard with the man with whom he is eventually incarcerated: a ‘demented gentleman who used to open folks’ skulls and eat the brains inside with a spoon (p.183). Described three times within a single paragraph as a ‘crazy man’, McCarthy offers the chilling possibility that Ballard is sane by comparison. He frames this other man’s deeds in a comically macabre fashion, telling the reader that ‘the hasp of his metal door was secured with a bent spoon and Ballard once asked if it were the same spoon the crazy man had used to eat the brains with’ (p.183). In doing so, I believe McCarthy intends to leave us with the lasting image of Ballard as a recognisably human monster when set next to this brain-eating Hammer Horror figure.

‘Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows’: Scott Haze as Lester Ballard in James Franco’s 2013 film adaption. This scene depicts Ballard attempting to carry home the body of his first victim.

Both Child of God and The Tempest present these problematic questions that many dismiss as dangerous and idle, in that there is clearly no grounds whatsoever for empathy with humans who plan or commit deeds such as those undertaken by Ballard and Caliban. However, I would argue, like James Franco, that by presenting these issues through their fiction, McCarthy and Shakespeare allow us to confront these monstrous figures and attempt to understand their psychology. A monster is far more dangerous if it is unknowable and writers such as these equip us with the necessary tools to combat and prevent real-life atrocities.

‘There Is A World Elsewhere’ – Fathers, Daughters and The Antagonist of Time in Interstellar

Make no mistake, Interstellar is a special film. It joins the pantheon of great science fiction movies, taking its place alongside Alien2001: A Space OdysseyStar Wars and Blade Runner, managing to pay homage to each, whilst remaining resolutely its own piece of work. This is due, in part, to how earthbound the film remains, something which is noticeably absent in even the best recent examples of sci-fi. Interstellar presents the horrific vacuum of space and struggles between mankind on foreign planets in a far more nail-biting manner than anything within Prometheus, whilst its emotional depth, character development and sheer cinematic pomp are more engaging than Gravity. I managed to avoid spoilers and reviews (the only way to see a Christopher Nolan film properly) and having seen it last night and read some reviews subsequently, the uniting thought amongst film-goers seems to be that, for all the scientific accuracy and splendour that the film displays, it is the perceived betrayal of a father abandoning his daughter for the future of mankind that resonates most powerfully with audiences.

So why write about Interstellar in relation to Shakespeare? For starters, Nolan is a film-maker who I believe Shakespeare would be today; creating blockbuster narratives about voyages, homecomings and blasted heaths which remain fundamentally grounded in a love of his artistic medium and about the mechanics of mankind and the family. The two contrasting settings of Interstellar, which are increasingly interwoven as the narrative progresses, also work on a Shakespearean level in terms of having a knowable, earthbound terrain (i.e. the court) juxtaposed with the vast, ethereal expanse of space in which dreams and nightmares become manifest (i.e. the forest). In this, space becomes not the final frontier, but the golden world of possibility, in which the human race pours its hopes for salvation into.

The crew aboard the spacecraft Endurace may voyage across barren landscapes of gargantuan tidal waves and frozen clouds, but the end of the film presents a colony that has managed to create an idyllic version of the pastoral landscape we view at the beginning of the film. Matthew McConaughey’s central character, Joseph Cooper, comments that he isn’t sure he likes the fact that they’ve tried to recreate Earth, preferring to look forward. The film’s final shot presents Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) returning to the camp on a habitable world elsewhere, devoid of the hostility that nature has previously presented. It is possibly the most resoundingly positive conclusion of any Nolan film I have ever seen and works in the same way as plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, in that the central characters, having entered the liminal space of the pastoral, have learnt and grown from their experiences within it, bringing back knowledge and wisdom in the hope of bettering the world of the previously established order.

The poetic refrain of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ that punctuates Interstellar, also supplies a strong literary message within the film, appropriating Thomas’s words about his dying father for mankind on a larger scale, encouraging each individual to defiantly ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’. Whilst sending chills, as the film’s first act came to close, with the words spoken by an especially Lear-like Michael Cain (dream-casting) as the Endurance began his voyage, the words resonated most powerfully in the film’s two death-bed scenes. First, Professor John Brand (Cain) confesses to Murphy Cooper (Jessica Chastain) that the hope of her father ever returning, and indeed the existing population leaving Earth, were never realistic. This betrayal reminded me forcibly of Cordelia being reunited with her father in Act 5.1 of King Lear. In his conflicted words Brand sought to pass on his truth, whilst also seeking forgiveness, calling to mind Lear’s simultaneously pitiful and heartbreaking call for patience: ‘You must bear with me. Pray you now, forget and forgive: / I am old and foolish’ (5.1.88-90).

If this first scene inverts the structure of King Lear, by having the Cordelia-figure remain alive to view the death of the father, the second death-bed scene of the film retains the original construction, creating a climactic conclusion which conjures the pathos of Shakespearean tragedy. Cooper, having been miraculously rescued by NASA, awakes to find that his daughter, Murphy, has successfully led humanity’s exodus into the stars. However, thanks to the combination of Murphy being in stasis for many years, thus retaining his original appearance and physiology, despite now being over a hundred years old, and the severe gravitational time dilation imposed by the black hole through which they passed, Murphy (now played by Ellen Burstyn) is an old woman, about to die. Thanks to the inversions of time, Cooper kneels at the foot of his elderly daughter’s bed and hears her speak the words: ‘no parent should have to bury their child’. The closing lines of King Lear resonate strongly hear; truly ‘the oldest hath borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much nor live so long’ (5.3.348-90). Murphy has grown old, bearing the weight of mankind’s departure, whilst her immortal father bears still his youthful face and has fulfilled his dreams of exploring the stars, free from becoming part of what he describes at the start of Interstellar as the ‘Caretaker Generation’.

Ultimately, as Nolan has said himself in interviews about the film, the only true antagonist within Interstellar is time. This is certainly felt to powerful effect in what I found to be the most upsetting part of the film, in which Cooper, having been stranded on the tidal planet for two hours, during which time two decades have passed on Earth, is forced to watch his children grow into adults, through the video messages they have transmitted. The inversions of time and the way in which it manipulates the emotions of the crew makes the name of their ship, Endurance, chillingly accurate. It also made me think of Hermione’s statue in The Winter’s Tale, a scene in which, I believe, Shakespeare anticipated the cinematic punch of cryogenic freezing (Han & Leia, anyone?), through the way in which Hermione and Paula are prepared to sacrifice sixteen years of their lives in order to test Leontes and ultimately offer him salvation when his wife re-awakens from her supposed sleep. In a play in which Time itself appears as a Chorus, at the beginning of Act 4, I believe Nolan is once again indebted to Shakespeare in the creation of time as a physical character capable of transcending dimensions and moving the audience more profoundly than any human being.

Here is a closing poem that unites my thoughts on time, Interstellar and its possible Shakespearean links:

Hear my heart beat

Across time and space

Pacing itself

Moving as a snail

Seeking a home in your palm

A shell in which to nestle

This is the nature

Of all things

The best of all possible worlds

Blizzard persisting

Waves unrelenting

And yet we battle to make

The best of fair or foul weather

‘Thou Art My Warrior’: Questions of Alliegance and Power in Coriolanus and Homeland

Cabined, cribbed, confined

Am I. These four walls chatter

With gun shots and lost brides

Widowed in Corioles

Weeping in time for tea.

Something happened over there.

You don’t come back the same

And O mother, mother!

If you could see that

You have killed me mother

In sending me prematurely to

The cruel wars and filling my head

With white noise to drown out

The silence in your life.

I’m no blue-eyed Tommy Thumb,

But best beware his tommy gun

When I trot forth like a lamb

To the slaughter

Bleating out the refrains of convenient

Peace that place me in the crosshairs

Of my newfound martial coven.

Must I be mild-mannered

In the face of mealy-mouthed

Admin men who wouldn’t know a war

If it bit them from behind?

You bade me farewell from the cradle

To betrayal, cracking skulls as I go,

Left out to dry. But let it come

Down, down to the muddy ground.

Imagine my surprise to find alliance

In Volscian sighs

And words

And aches.

Foes forgetting lip-locked

Battles of yesteryear,

Looking on me with baleful eyes

And promising to seal our contract

In the blood and flame of

My homeland.

You shall say that

I was a monster.

Brain-washed in my devotion

To the enemy cause.

But anger’s my meat,

Mummy,

Not pride,

And as I reside

Here in this locked room

I long to flex the wings

You so carefully clipped,

Pulling me from a brother’s embrace

To come crawling back to

This nest of vipers.

My gracious silence,

It was your voice I heard

In the cries of Corioles,

You, my absent partner,

Who took forth my boy,

Declaring the final straw

When I flew away

One too many times.

Tell my laddie:

Think well on your Daddy.

Remember him by his former name

Not that title of conquest,

That ‘Coriolanus’,

Imprinting upon me

Those deathly deeds,

So that the world might hear

My nothings monstered.

To be thus is nothing.

You must not follow my road.

Don’t listen to Granny,

Avoid Mars

And be

Martius,

As your mater intended.

Ralph Fiennes, who directed and starred in the 2010 film adaptation of Coriolanus, believes that a ‘grim and lonely complexity’ is responsible for the central character’s modern resonance, further positing that he ‘is simultaneously opaque and unknowable; he’s neurotic, violent, degraded, and ennobled simultaneously’. In considering the US television series, Homeland, in relation to Coriolanus, these character traits are examined within the two principals: Carrie Mathison, a bipolar federal agent haunted by the implied personal failure she feels over the events of 9/11, and Nicholas Brody, a US marine who returns home, heralded as an American war hero, after being held as a prisoner of war for eight years by al-Qaeda, where he had switched sides by both secretly converting to Islam and being recruited as a enemy agent by his captors. Arin Keeble states that ‘Brody and Carrie’s deeply divided selves reflect wider American or Western divisions, illuminated or brought to the surface by 9/11’, just as the limitations imposed upon the female characters of Coriolanus and the mutual attraction between Coriolanus and Aufidius can be seen to emphasise the division within their own Roman and Volscian societies. By thus examining how the television series explores these characters within the context of the fallen American empire, evoking the shifting fortunes of early Rome, this study of Homeland seeks to illuminate the modernity of power dynamics within Coriolanus.

Graham Holderness refers to his search of ‘contemporary culture not just for signs of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, but also for signs of the Coriolanus figure, […] active in a number of different genres, notably in narratives that deal with post-9/11 warfare, and in the popular conventions of the spy thriller’ and Homeland’s success is built upon these two narrative types. Moreover, there are clear parallels between Brody and the Coriolanus figure, as both characters are much affected in civilian life by their time as a soldier. Indeed, Coriolanus’s declaration that ‘I had rather be their servant in my way / Than sway with them in theirs’ (II. 1. 199-200) could equally have been spoken by Brody, during the early stages of his reintegration into society.

Both characters find themselves thrust into a political spotlight with which they do not feel fully at ease. The celebrity status which this confers upon Brody during the early stages of his homecoming reflects Foakes’s description of how Coriolanus is ‘what we would now call a celebrity when he returns to Rome. Brutus describes the ‘popular throngs’ who fill the streets to catch a glimpse of him after his triumph at Corioles’. Thus, ‘in making a god of him […] the people reinforce his basic isolation from them in his limited perception of the value of life as centred in war’, observed equally in a specific moment that captures the isolated Brody, suffering from post-traumatic stress and struggling to deal with reporters at his door. Seeing them gathered outside, alone in his family’s house, he experiences a memory of his early captivity in a tiny, bare room. Curling up against the wall in his bedroom, this depiction of the cowering Brody is juxtaposed with a mirror image of the scene within the corner of his cell, depicting him as a prisoner in his own home. His initial reaction to this level of attention, recreating his ordeal and retreating into the past, away from the ravening press, suggests that Brody echoes Coriolanus’s yearning to ‘have my wounds to heal again / Than to hear say how I got them’ (II. 2. 67-8).

Significantly, once Brody becomes reintegrated into society and embraces his celebrity identity somewhat, through television interviews and public appearances, the memory of war impacts upon him in a different, more destructive, way through his increasing sense of inertia, observed predominantly in the relationship with his wife, Jess. Berry argues that, ‘so long as the war-situation exists, Coriolanus can resolve the issues of war, sex, identity’ and, as the audience similarly observes Brody in his home for the first time, absent from the war which ‘gives him a personal model, and a pursuit’,  the resultant problem can be clearly seen. For instance, during one of the first season’s depictions of their sexual relationship, Brody is shown masturbating in front of his wife, whom he tells, ‘it’s better if you don’t’, when she offers to perform the act herself. This emotional and physical separation is confirmed by Brody’s subsequent inability to share the comfort of their bed, instead sleeping on the floor, imitating his incarceration, unable to escape the past, even through his wife.

Consequently, instead of being the foundation of his rehabilitation, this absence of shared understanding within Brody’s marriage leads him to seek other relationships, notably with Carrie, based on mutual empowerment and animalistic fulfilment. During the third episode of the second season, the matriarchal figure of the Vice-President’s wife tells Jess that, ‘you’re a beautiful woman, Nick is so charismatic. You’re a great American story that’s just beginning’. The destruction of this stereotypical power couple is one of the narrative elements of Homeland that evokes Coriolanus most strongly, frequently engaging in the technique of presenting individuals in ideal situations or locations that mask their discontent. This is most apparent in the relationship between Brody and Jess, the wife who, like Virgilia, ‘represents a reality which ultimately “transcends the political and personal” and at the same time becomes a point of reference from which we can judge the action’. Jess offers the broken Brody his humanity, thus fulfilling the role of his ‘gracious silence’ (I. 1. 171).

Jessica and Mike in Homeland, as played by Morena Baccarn and Diego Klattenhoff.

However, she is notably less silent and, given her affair with Brody’s best friend, Mike, when she presumes Brody to be dead, does not keep the same promise made by Virgilia to venture ‘not over the threshold til my lord returns from the wars’ (I. 3. 77-8). This may widen the fissure within their relationship but fundamentally, as in Coriolanus, this is due to Brody being unable to recognise his wife’s value to him, because of his conditioning as a soldier and his subsequent experience of warfare. Thus, ‘the intensity and passion and lyricism that belong to his loving self have already been transferred into his image of himself as a warrior’. As Brody recognises when they agree to separate, he tried ‘to deal with everything that happened. But that was beyond me. I was fucked up when I left for Iraq. We all were’. This a prime example of Homeland’s status as Shakespearean appropriation. In the ‘powerful portrayal of inner conflict in the realm of politics, domestic life and identity’, the play reflects the cultural legacy of Shakespeare’s ability to address similar complex psychological issues when public and private life collide, through the failure of both Coriolanus and Brody’s relationships with their wives and the consequent creation of alternative power couples.

In the episode ‘Representative Brody’, he is offered the opportunity to run for office as a Congressman, but Jess discourages him from doing so, in order to prioritise the stability of the family life that she wants them to rebuild, telling him that ‘we’ll never see you, it’ll be like you’re leaving us all over again’.  By comparing her husband’s potential absence as a politician to the one that resulted from his military career, Jess unconsciously perpetuates her husband’s fundamental image of himself as a warrior. In contrast, having been initially wary of politics, Brody is determined to ‘make a difference’, partly due to orders from his al-Qaeda masters, but also because of his continuing sense of inertia, as seen when he tells Mike that ‘I’m either parading around like a toy soldier or doing the fucking laundry’. Brody conveys his sense of emasculation due to this double role of military poster boy and house husband, declaring that, ‘I need to be of service. I need to do something that matters’. Coriolanus similarly expresses frustration at his torpid state, whereby he is discontented to ‘idly sit / To hear my nothings monstered’ (II. 2. 74-5). Brody, the ‘marine without a mission’, can only achieve his potential, and embark upon his quest for fulfilment and identity by rejecting both his wife’s anxiety about ‘his bloody brow’ (I. 3. 39) and the ‘deeper, more sensitive level’ to him than ‘perhaps even consciously – he ever will admit’.

Elizabeth Gaines in Homeland, as played by Linda Purl

Another Shakespearean archetype that informs Homeland is the influential matriarch, here the Volumnia-like figure of Elizabeth Gaines, who appears in only three episodes of the first season, but acts as a string-puller, gradually grooming Brody, first at his friend’s funeral, and then with an invitation to her dinner party, where her wish for him to run for office becomes explicit. She admits, upon his arrival that, ‘I have a plan for everyone’, and in this sense, Gaines is able to harness Brody’s potential where his wife cannot. Brody’s motivation to become a politician is complicated, and it is unclear whether he chooses to do so out of patriotism or because he is being forced by Abu Nazir, the leader of the terrorist cell which has ‘turned’ him. As a result, the character of Brody represents not only the conflict between a wife who values his safety, alongside those who prioritise the status of his masculinity, but also evokes the power struggle between America and the Middle-East, who are both trying to acquire him as an asset.

Interpreted in this way, Brody’s role as a side-switcher serves a similar function to that of Coriolanus between Rome and Volsci, demonstrating the importance of a powerful individual’s relationship with their motherland, particularly in the way in which Homeland’s post 9/11 America is depicted as a paranoid, hyper-aware state that relies upon the compliance and control of its citizens. This is not unlike Coriolanus’s Rome or, indeed Macbeth’s Scotland, where Ross laments, due to the diabolic and transgressive actions of one individual: ‘alas, poor county, / Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot / Be called our mother, but our grave’ (IV. 3. 164-6). Both Coriolanus and Brody’s relationships with their countries thus represent how, in order to understand the legacy of Shakespeare’s couples, it is important to appreciate the various definitions of what the mother figure represents within Shakespeare. Ross’s connection of his ‘poor country’ to ‘our mother’ makes that link explicit and demonstrates how the severance of this relationship, as observed in both Coriolanus and Homeland, ultimately results in the destruction of the individual. Like Volumnia and Elizabeth, the mother country endures and, as suggested by Janet Adelman, ‘enact[s] the paradox through which the son is never more the mother’s creature than when he attempts to escape her.’

Brody’s confession tape.

In the second season of Homeland, the action becomes principally linked with the emerging status of Carrie and Brody as an alternative form of power couple, supported by Keeble’s argument that ‘at the heart of Homeland is a stark and resonant conflictedness in the portrayal of the two central protagonists, who mirror and reflect each other in many ways’. The focus shifts from Brody’s reintegration into society to explore how he behaves when labelled as ‘a traitor to the people’ (III. 3. 66) by the CIA. Like Coriolanus, an outcast from Rome, offering his services to his enemy, Aufidius, when Brody is similarly rejected by his family and his country, he too seeks solace with the enemy. Thus, Carrie can be seen as analogous with the character of Aufidius.

For Brody, ‘there is a world elsewhere’ (III. 3. 136). However, in order to understand his increasing attraction towards Carrie, and why it strengthens a contemporary understanding of Coriolanus’s search for fulfilment through his relationship with Aufidius, it is important to note the point at which, during the final episode of the first season, Brody admits to his own fractured identity. In a recording, filmed as an intended suicide note, before attempting to carry out al-Qaeda’s orders to assassinate the Vice-President and other prominent members of the US administration as a suicide bomber, he states that:

‘As a Marine, I swore an oath to defend the United States against enemies both foreign and domestic. My action this day is against such domestic enemies – the Vice-President and members of his National Security team, who I know to be liars and war criminals.’

Brody perceives that America will interpret his action of betrayal as one of personal weakness, whereby ‘people will say that I was broken’. This echoes Coriolanus’s mediation upon ‘the slippery turns’ (IV. 4. 12) of his world, whereby ‘friends now fast sworn […] shall within this hour / On the dissension of a doit, break out / To bitterest enmity’ (IV. 4. 16-8). Whilst this recording shows Brody declaring that ‘People will say that I was turned into a terrorist, taught to hate my country. I love my country’, the fact that he juxtaposes this with the domestic threat that his country faces, in order to justify his actions of terrorism, is a further reflection of Coriolanus’s paradoxical assertion that ‘my love’s upon / this enemy town’ (IV. 4. 23-4).

Brody has no love for the political establishment that attempts to recruit him as its candidate. Like Coriolanus, he idealises his purer role within the military and believes in a cause above the machinations of government, who disgust him still further by engaging in drone strikes, a remote type of warfare which he looks down on as an unworthy, indirect form of combat. This conflict between martial loyalty and domestic honesty also signifies Brody’s moments of acute discomfort within the series. His wounds, the most private part of his suffering, are frequently fetishised by observers and looked upon with mingled awe and horror. A principal example of this emerges during a poolside exchange between Brody and a group of political donors, one of whom tells his wife that ‘they didn’t just hold him, Buttercup, they broke his bones’, before she insensitively asks ‘what else did they do?’ As Brody departs, stripping off his shirt to climb into the pool with his son, he sees her staring at his scars and swiftly replaces the shirt. As with Coriolanus, where individuals ‘think / upon the wounds his body bears, which show / Like graves i’th’ holy churchyard’ (III. 3. 47-9), in a similar way, this increases Brody’s resentment towards the people, a sentiment he shares with Coriolanus on the latter’s return from Volsci, when he is much requested to show off his wounds and is regarded as ‘a thing of blood’ (II. 2. 107).

Significantly, Carrie treats these wounds in a more loving manner, caressing and kissing the marks of his torture when they share one of their first intimate encounters. This is perhaps a deeper level of fetishisation, but it is one within which Brody participates and feels himself to be an equal partner. Consequently, Brody and Carrie share the bond of experience, drawn together by their mutual attraction to danger and, as Carrie puts it, the ‘heightened’ moments of life. As Holderness suggests of Coriolanus and Aufidius, ‘clearly the wish to be the enemy when circumstances dictate is very strong for both parties. Each would rather be the other than accept the common lot of his own society’. This same connection, regardless of allegiance, find its legacy within Brody and Carrie, in a bond that ends as tragically as many of Shakespeare’s most iconic couples, when Brody is hanged in front of her at the end of the third season. Beforehand, Carrie and Brody’s status as star-crossed lovers is confirmed when she tells him that ‘I happen to believe one of the reasons I was put on this earth was for our paths to cross’. However, in my opinion, it is their early encounters that provide the strongest examples of instances where their specific attraction of opposites echoes Coriolanus and Aufidius’s relationship, most significantly because of the shared experience of war:

Brody

Where was it you said you served again? Baghdad?

Carrie

Yeah.

Brody

How come it’s so hard to talk about with people who weren’t there?

Carrie

I have a better question. How come it’s so hard to talk with anyone who wasn’t there about anything at all?

‘Aufidius is Martius’s true bride of battle, and his desire is only for him’ and, similarly, Brody’s desire to repair his own fractured identity leads to his perverse attraction towards Carrie. However, the relationship is not based solely upon equality and there are further echoes of Aufidius in Carrie’s continuing suspicion of Brody, although he disregards this to the extent that he confesses ‘I do feel used, and played, and lied to, but I also feel good’. In the finale of the second season, ‘The Choice’, Brody calls Carrie ‘my wounded warrior’, and this scene, contained within the idyll of her countryside cabin, represents an unusual moment of contentment for Brody. However, his intense attraction to this woman in whom he has placed his trust, and with whom he has found fulfilment in reconciling his private and public identities, is destroyed by her calculated choice between their relationship and her role at the CIA, who are pursuing Brody. With Hamlet-like pathos, he recognises that ‘there’s the rub’, as Carrie fails to reciprocate, choosing instead her loyalty to her work. Holderness describes how ‘Coriolanus’s desire for Aufidius is perverse but pure. Aufidius feels the same intense attachment, but it is contaminated by the will to win by any means. The latter is as pragmatic as the former is absolute. And their collision generates a modern tragedy’, words that could equally apply to Carrie and Brody’s ultimate failure as a power couple.

“Ocean of Oil” – The Shakespearean Seascape of ‘There Will Be Blood’

Back at Warwick this week, I’ve just embarked on a PhD, researching the influence of Shakespeare upon the work of the American author, Cormac McCarthy. Some of McCarthy’s novels have, of course, been turned into highly successful films, No Country For Old Men and The Road most prominently, whilst the man himself has also written for screen, albeit less successfully with the critically panned The Counsellor. So, this week on the blog, here’s my Shakespeare/McCarthy-influenced take on a film which was released the same year as No Country For Old Men and which bears the hallmarks of both writers in its language, themes and central character: There Will Be Blood.

 The name of this cinematic masterpiece calls to mind a slasher movie or Shakespearean tragedy – almost paraphrasing Macbeth’s horrific clarity at the nature of how quickly his violence has escalated – ‘it will have blood they say, blood will have blood’. Peter Bradshaw says, ‘that title is subtler than you think’ and he’s right; There Will Be Blood is more primarily concerned with another viscous liquid. Oil, and the depths to which man is prepared to sink in order to attain and posses it, is the film’s principal focus. This is shown to the audience through the eyes of Daniel Plainview, one of modern cinema’s greatest and most horrible creations. The character is both an Everyman and a diabolic, almost Satantic anti-hero, possessing the sympathetic fatal flaws of an Othello, whilst also embracing the impenetrable psychosis of an Iago. In his ‘I have a competition in me’ speech, the archaic phrasing of which is inherently Shakespearean, he admits that ‘I want no one else to succeed’, evoking Coleridge’s view of Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’. The entire film trades upon this ambiguity.

Sinking is a rather pertinent word to use, when considering the artistic execution of There Will Be Blood. For a film set predominantly in the deserts of the American South-West, like a Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, it is strangely oceanic in both its scope and tone. Its characters are frequently found submerged, either in oil, blood or, in one striking scene, water itself. Plainview speaks, at one point, of this ‘ocean of oil’ beneath his feet and is often shown bathed in its blackness. In the film’s first scene, the young H.W. Plainview is anointed with a thump print of newly-discovered oil. The message is clear – to the twentieth century man, oil is as much his lifeblood as that which runs through his veins. In anointing H.W. thus, the film, released in 2007, also reaches into the future faced by today’s generation, where dwindling oil supplies point towards a world in which countries will fight, not for religion or territory, but for control of oil supplies, somewhat explored by McCarthy in The Road.

The scene in which Plainview and the man he believes to be his brother swim in the ocean is one of the film’s more idyllic, other-worldly moments. As a wave breaks over him, Plainview appears cleansed, fixing a steely look towards the camera, presumably focusing upon this other man, realising that he is, in fact, a fake. Just two frames later, Plainview confronts the sleeping man, asking him to recall a key childhood memory. When the man is unable to do so, Plainview’s suspicions are confirmed and he shoots him dead. Clarity at last. Ironically, other characters attempt to cleanse Plainview throughout the narrative, notably his enemy, Eli Sunday, who washes him in the water of his sins. Plainview’s fatal flaw, like Othello, is his pride, but this is a distinctively modern pride, concerned with atheism and man’s relationship with a God who he deems to offer him no freewill. Plainview speaks of his hatred of most people, but God, or rather the illusion of God, is his greatest enemy. In the God-fearing origins of America, he is frequently placed in opposition to zealous men, epitomised by his desire, during the film’s climactic scene for Eli to denounce himself as ‘a false prophet’ and that ‘God is a superstition’. This is all he wants, the world to see with aching human clarity as he does.

For instance, during the ocean scene, he says that he longs to make enough money so as to ‘get away from everyone’. Plainview’s tragedy is an inability to escape the presence of God in a land where, to question faith is abnormal. To Plainview, God takes credit for man’s successes and innovations, as exhibited when he fails to allow Eli to bless the oil drill of which he has overseen construction. We see him sketching a design of the machine in the film’s opening scenes. No matter his wealth, his innovation, his blood-letting, Plainview appears as a man out of time, unable and unwilling to reconcile the religious views of others with his own extreme form of isolationism. The only creature he really shows any love towards is his adopted son and even here he ultimately admits to exploitation for personal benefit. As soon as he realises that he cannot create H.W. in his own image, Plainview abandons his boy, so consumed he is by self-love, and inherent opposition to anything that does not resemble himself.

The magnetic quality of There Will Be Blood is due to a powerful combination of visceral realism and a heightened register in which much modern cinema is afraid to explore, particular in Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, as Plainview, and Jonny Greenwood’s score. Even the names of the film’s central characters give it the quality of a Morality Play, with ‘Eli Sunday’ placed in opposition to ‘Plainview’. Here, the modern ‘Everyman’, who sees everything plainly, must battle the dominant forces of God and his disciples. In many ways, then, Plainview is a Miltonic character, cut from the cloth of Paradise Lost’s Satan, something which explains, I believe the films ability to form a bridge between the works of Shakespeare and Cormac McCarthy.

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood was filmed in the same Texan location as the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of No Country For Old Men, the film which beat it to Best Picture at the 2007 Academy Awards. Bradshaw makes an implicit connection to the Shakespearean tradition by stating that ‘crafted and stylised, Day-Lewis’s performance for me amounts to a sensual pleasure: like Olivier, he has apparently found the character by first hitting on externals, notably the voice, itself a startling invention’. Day-Lewis, who famously walked out of playing Hamlet, after attesting to seeing his father’s ghost, during Richard Eyre’s production at the National in 1989, has roots in Shakespeare and, I believe, these are clearly exhibited in the non-naturalistic playing of Plainview, whilst never been so self-conscious as to pull the audience out of the drama of the character. Beyond these surface-level comparisons, I believe what binds There Will Be Blood to Shakespeare and McCarthy most is its approach towards violence. Notably, the film’s closing image and line, delivered by Plainview, straddle the Titus Andronicus-esque boundary between horror and comedy. Sitting beside the body of Eli, his enemy finally vanquished, Plainview simply utters to his servant that ‘I’m finished’. The ambiguity of the line, as to whether it literally means that bloody murder is a common occurrence in his household, or if, like the film’s title, the meaning is subtler; with the death of his greatest rival, is Plainview finally admitting to his life, and its chief purpose, being over?

‘Shakespeare In The Park?’ – The (Marvel)lous Bard

Opening with 10cc’s I’m Not In Love, the choral breathing, heartbeat thuds and keyboard chimes, as if from another planet, simultaneously make Marvel’s latest blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy, the most earthbound and extraterrestrial of the studio’s output to date. By rooting the central narrative of an intergalactic rogue, Peter Quill, in the tragedy of this young boy losing his mother to cancer, soundtracked by one of the film’s many self-consciously iconic 1970s songs, the film pushes the heightened comic-strip meanings behind its creation closer to primal human drama in the most effective way seen since the ‘which boat is going to blow up’ climax of The Dark Knight.

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Guardians’ star-crossed lovers: Gamora and Peter Quill.

That Marvel have managed to achieved this level of depth and sheer warmth within a film that still plays upon their core strength of humour – and ultimately pushes this to the fore – makes this feat even more remarkable. I believe that part of this success, whereby the juxtaposition of intimate tragedy to grand comedy gives Guardians a tonal depth lacking in many of the studio’s other recent efforts, is down to the way in which the film deliberately chooses to distance itself from the wider arch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, instead aligning itself with a different kind of canon. This is a cultural one, though the pop culture references and the knowing winks to Quill’s lost past on Earth through the soundtrack and embedded references to the films which influenced it, as observed in a notable reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film thus offers both respectful homage and sardonic parody to the iconic culture which it absorbs, through specific instances within the script and its character archetypes. I believe that the way in which the film positions itself in this way, in relation to to the culture of which it is part bears Shakespeare’s mark. He similarly lifted aspects of past culture and reinvented them for contemporary situations, whilst keeping one eye on the future. Guardians is then, if you like, Marvel’s The Tempest, whereby it takes a group of rag-tag characters and throws them together within a futuristic location, in order to see how they will react together and what comedy and tragedy may arise from this situation. The Tempest is, within Shakespeare’s canon, a similarly self-referential piece of work, often believed to be Shakespeare’s meditation upon his own writing, whilst also being, like Guardians, a prime example of an artist working at the peak of their powers, when they choose to embrace both the light and darkness of their art form.

Marvel’s Caliban: An albino mutant adapted from Shakespeare’s own creation. Fun fact: the character was voiced by Michael Dobson (sadly not the Director of the Shakespeare Institute) in ‘X-Men: The Animated Series’.

Shakespeare’s influence on the Marvel Universe has already been well documented through the choice of specific directors along with the source material for the films themselves. Comic book history itself is ripe with Shakespearean allusion, with a character named Caliban appearing in X-Men and the RSC now selling the Manga Shakespeare series as a prominent form of accessible adaptation aimed at translating texts, viewed as distant for some readers, into a medium with which they can identify. Furthermore, Joss Whedon’s decision to direct Much Ado About Nothing after The Avengers provokes certain questions about whether or not, even on a subconscious level, there was relationship between the two projects beyond having simply shared many actors from Whedon’s ensemble. The New York Times reported, for instance, that ‘Whedon found that when he returned to postproduction work on “The Avengers,” he was far less conflicted about cutting down that film, and no longer felt like he was losing control of the project.’ The following quote from The Avengers suggests that Whedon’s shared interests informed each other, whilst also playing up the Shakespearean allusions of Marvel’s most Jacobean son, Thor:

THOR: Do not touch me again.

TONY STARK: Then don’t take my stuff.

THOR: You have no idea what you’re dealing with.

TONY STARK: Uh…Shakespeare in the park. Doth mother know, you weareth her drapes?

THOR: This is beyond you, metal man. Loki will face Asgardian justice.

Tony Stark’s reference to ‘Shakespeare in the park’, immediately draws attention both to the heightened tone and appearance of Thor, in contrast to his own, more naturalistic interpretation of the superhero stereotype, and also to the famous Shakespeare festival of the same name, held each summer in Central Park. It makes explicit the Shakespearean subtext of Thor itself, directed by Kenneth Branagh, in which Tom Hiddleston used both Cassio and Iago as touchstones for his performance as Loki. Chris Hemsworth, who has a comparatively less Shakespearean background to his Asgardian brother, recounts how Branagh gave him the St. Crispin’s Day monologue from Henry V and told him he needed to be ready to perform it on camera the next day as part of a ‘regal diction and cadence exercise’. The film even has its very own Falstaff in Thor’s ally, Volstagg, who’s indignant utterance of ‘do not mistake my appetite for apathy’ could be lifted straight from the vocabulary of the Fat Knight.

The Shakespearean DNA that makes up Guardians is found first in the trajectory of its protagonist, Peter Quill. Running out into the misty night air, after the universe has been shattered with his mother’s death, it’s almost possible to imagine him shouting, like Coriolanus, that ‘there is a world elsewhere’, and, hey presto, a spaceship beams him up, up and away. In being borne aloft, away from the disaster of his homeland and into a utopian space where comedy conceals danger lurking beneath, the beginning of Quill’s journey also reminded me of those that the lost children of Miranda and Perditia make, respectively, towards Prospero’s Island and Bohemia, in Shakespeare’s two late romances, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale. Throughout the film, Quill, like those two heroines, searches for an identity and purpose that has been shaped for him by others. The film concludes with Quill discovering that his father was not human, bringing the narrative full circle and explaining the truth behind his mother telling him on her deathbed that ‘your father was an angel composed of pure light’. Guardians introduces another convention of Shakespeare’s here by setting the protagonist on a new course of discovery, having found their own identity, much as Miranda seeks, having found her’s through love for Ferdinand and next attempting to discovering the mystery that is her father. Despite Prospero’s tale of betrayal at the beginning of the play, I feel as though Miranda still has a great deal to learn about her father beyond the end of the play and Perditia, must come to terms, even more trumatically, with the actions of Leontes. Quill’s father, who is not present at his wife’s deathbed, and does not sweep his son forth, is cut from this same Shakespearean cloth.

‘There is a world elsewhere’: The young Peter Quill looks skyward during the film’s unexpectedly poignant opening, as the alien ship tears him away from tragedy.

Quill is not the only character in the film that recalls Shakespeare. Drax the Destroyer, played by ex-wrestler Dave Bautista, speaks in a heightened tone reminiscent of Thor and Loki’s delivery, being responsible for the film’s wittiest moments due to his inability to understand metaphors. For instance, after being told that these metaphors go over his head, his reaction is to say that ‘nothing goes over my head!… My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it’. Bautista is probably the film’s surprise success as a performer, but this may be partly due to a Shakespearean grounding, as with Hemsworth’s preparation. Bautista explains that his ‘first acting lessons were Shakespeare. The first time I ever started working with a coach was doing scenes from Measure for Measure which were tough dramatic scenes. And then Taming of the Shrew, which required comedic timing’. Whether or not specific characters from these two plays contributed directly to the characterisation of Drax, the lines which Bautista delivers have the same pomp and circumstance of Thor and Loki. Ultimately, it’s just amusing to see aliens from far-off worlds speaking with the language of the Bard, whilst the perplexed humans of today, like Tony Stark and Peter Quill, gaze at them and wonder why they don’t speak more straight-forwardly, and then to compare this with how people who quote the Bard on a day-to-day basis are regarded with kindly bemusement by their less Shakespearean fellows.

Another choice morsel from the veritable quote bank that is Drax the Destroyer. I suppose it’s better than ‘you won’t like me when I’m angry’. Truly, he is the thinking man’s Hulk.