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