Sunday, 29 May 2011

To Prepare or Not To Prepare.......

Well, I don't know what it was that hit me last weekend, but I'm very glad it seems to be on its way out, helped, I'm sure, by all your good wishes.  I haven't even felt up to any decent convalescent reading, so I can't make myself feel better by making the rest of you jealous with the tales of all the good reading time I've had.  Still, showing off would not be good for my soul, I'm sure, so maybe it's better that way.  To be perfectly honest, I still feel as if I am a Bear of very little brain, so excuse me if what I write over the next few days makes very little sense indeed.  And the first person who says, "So what's different?" gets knocked straight off my Christmas card list.

Something which caught my attention in last weekend"s papers, and which I had intended to raise then, was an article about the need to prepare, to do your homework, as it were, before you take yourself off to any sort of cultural event.  I should have made a note of it at the time, but I was rushing out to go to Stratford and thought I would come back to it on the Sunday.  Of course, I didn't, so I may not be quoting the opinions with any accuracy but it was quite simply because I was going over to Stratford that it caught my attention and I thought I would ask what you thought about it.

As far as I remember, the gist of the argument was that if you were going to a play or an art exhibition or a concert it was pretty much your duty to have done some preparation before you went so that you could fully appreciate the work being laid before you.  So, if you were on your way to a concert you should have listened to the music beforehand so that you could judge the quality and interpretation of the specific performance you heard.  If going to an exhibition you should have researched the artist's portfolio and the context in which s/he was painting.  And, if you were going to the theatre you should have attempted to read the play before you went.

As I say, this struck a chord with me at the time, because I was just on my way to see the RSC's production of Philip Massinger's play of 1632, The City Madam and earlier in the week I had picked up a copy of the programme precisely so that I could read the scholarly articles which the Company always commissions over a pre-preformance lunch.  These articles don't give away the story, but they do cast light on the particular aspects of the play and its original context that the director has seen as important.  I find that they help to focus my mind on the world in which I am going to spend the next three hours before I ever take my seat and I do feel as if I enjoy the whole experience the more for having put some effort into it.  However, a couple of weeks prior to that I had been at a discussion with the director of another of this season's offerings, the 're-imagined' Cardenio, where the director, Greg Doran, had specifically asked that we shouldn't read the play itself before we saw it.  I probably respect Greg Doran more than any other theatre director around, so I hastily stuffed my newly purchased copy in my bag and haven't taken it out since.  I don't see the production for another month or so.

I can't really comment on the concert aspect because I've been going to classical performances now on a regular basis for over fifty years and it is very rare indeed that I go to hear a piece of music I don't already know.  If I do, it's likely to be something new that isn't available to listen to beforehand anyway.  I have, however, recently been to see the Jan Gossaert exhibition at the National Gallery (post to follow) and for various reasons wasn't able to read up about the artist's work or life beforehand.  I did pop into the Gallery prior to going to the exhibition itself with the intention of picking up the catalogue to read through over an early lunch but it was so vast that I couldn't even face the thought of lugging it round the exhibition with me and so ended up not buying it until I was ready to come home.  And I'm sorry about that because I'm certain that if I had had more context into which I could have placed Gossaert's work I would have got a lot more out of the paintings themselves.  Preparation would have helped.

So, where do you stand?  Do you prefer to go to these things 'blind'?  Do you feel the need, or the duty, to have done some preparatory homework?  Or do you laugh at the very idea of having the time to research before you experience a great cultural event?  I'm interested to know.

Sunday, 22 May 2011


Driving back from Stratford yesterday I realised that I was beginning to ache all over.  This morning it's worse.  It looks like summer flu.  I don't want to infect anyone, so I will see you all next week.


Friday, 20 May 2011

The Merchant of Las Vegas

Two or three weeks ago I went over to Stratford to hear Patrick Stewart talk about playing Shylock.  In many respects the discussion was general, partly because he is coming to the role this year for the fifth time, but also because the current production, which had its press night earlier this week, has been shrouded in mystery and the director, Rupert Goold, was very keen that the overall concept of the production shouldn't get out too soon.  As you can imagine that set all of us off trying to find out what we were going to be watching and it wasn't long before someone managed to discover that shock horror the central setting was a casino in Las Vegas.  I'll pause while you all recoil in dismay.

Certainly, all the members of my two Shakespeare classes took several deep breaths before letting me know in no uncertain terms what they thought of the idea.  I have to admit that I wasn't exactly cheering from the gallery myself, although I could see certain similarities between the financial situations explored in the play and the careless way in which money is won and lost in the world of the multimillion Las Vegas gambler.  However, on Monday one of class went to see a preview and the following morning I got an e-mail quite simply raving about it, saying it was the best production of the play she had ever seen and that once she'd got used to the idea she thought the concept was sheer brilliance.

So, it was with a great deal of interest that I went over to Stratford on Wednesday to hear Rupert Goold talk about the play and explain why he'd taken the decision not only to set it in America, but also to play it in American accents.  Of course, there is the argument that East Coast American vowels are closer to those of the Elizabethans than are current English ones and that such a decision makes the speech more authentic, but what was more interesting was what he had to say about the stress patterns involved and how the American speech rhythms emphasise the verse forms far more than the British rhythms do.  I have to admit that I hadn't thought about that before, but once he demonstrated it was easy to see what he was talking about, especially where there is some form of antithesis being evoked.  Try doing 'to be or not to be' in an American accent and you'll see what I mean.  Goold also cited other highly successful productions of the play that have been set in very specific places.  There was one situated in Weimar Germany and another located in the time and location of the early Rothschilds.  In siting the play in the gambling capital of the world he has been able to emphasise the risks that both our own society and that of many of Shakespeare's contemporaries have been prepared to take with money - often, it should be said, with other people's money.

And of course, there is that other great financial parallel - rising inflation and its social consequences.  In medieval England prices had remained pretty much stable for three hundred years, but in the sixteenth century inflation was rampant and by the time this play was written the cost of living had doubled in a matter of years.  Lacking twenty-four hour news programmes to analyse the situation for them, the English were understandably annoyed (actually they would probably have been even more annoyed if they had had twenty-four hour analysis) and their answer was all too often to blame the problem on the foreigners coming into the country, who were, as they saw it, taking their jobs and their wages.  If you think the cry of 'British jobs for British workers' is a twenty-first century slogan, think again.  In the early 1590s the pamphleteers were doing great business raising feelings against Flemish workers in London in just the same way as voices are raised about EU immigration today.  It's easy to see both where the impulse behind the Shylock situation came from and its modern day parallels.

By the time Goold had got this far, and with Val's ringing endorsements in my ear, I was beginning to be won over and the next point he made tipped the scales completely in his favour.  He noted that this is a play that has no character in it that you can actually like and this is the first time that I have come across someone else who has the same problems that I do with Portia.  Now, I know that Portia gets a raw deal from her father.  In this production the whole business with the caskets is turned into a game show.  Choose the right box and get the beautiful girl - and, of course, the money that goes with her!  That's a production choice which seems to me to sum up the whole situation nicely.  However, her bad luck in the matter of fathers can't hide the fact that Portia is as ardent a racist as any of them.  Look at the trial scene closely some time.  She knows Shylock's name and yet she refers to him all the time as 'Jew', you can hear the contempt not simply for the individual, but for his entire race, and it is Portia who, having 'deprived' Shylock of his pound of flesh, suddenly ratchets proceedings up a notch with her 'Tarry Jew, the law hath yet another hold on you'.  She is enjoying this.  There were whispers of discontent in the audience on Wednesday at this point, but I was silently cheering.  I have always avoided directing The Merchant not because of Shylock and the antisemitic issues, but because I have never known what to do with Portia or, perhaps it would be truer to say, because I have never had the courage to play her as I have wanted to and has Goold clearly has taken the risk of doing.

So, all in all this looks set fair to be a very interesting theatrical experience indeed.  Press night was Thursday and the only review I've seen was very positive.  Unfortunately, I'm not seeing it until August, so it will be sometime before I can come back and report here on what I find.  If anyone else is going sooner then I would be fascinated to hear what you think.  

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Trick of the Dark ~ Val McDermid

For some reason I simply can't imagine I missed the publication of Val McDermid's latest stand alone novel, Trick of the Dark and consequently I've only just got round to reading it.  Never mind, If I'd read it on publication I wouldn't have had the pleasure of curling up over it during the past few evenings although, as usual where McDermid is concerned, now that I've finished it I feel completely bereft.  I don't know any other writer of crime fiction who is as good in her one off fiction as she is in her series work.  Much as I look forward to a new Tony Hill novel this autumn, McDermid is the one writer who doesn't elicit a groan with the announcement of a non-series publication.  Her last novel, A Darker Domain, which recalled memories all too vivid of the social devastation of the Miners' Strike, was brilliant and this latest is just as good.

Charlie Flint is a senior lecturer in Clinical Psychology and Psychological Profiling accredited by the Home Office to work with the police as a profiler.  Or rather she was.  All that is now in limbo as her suitability is called into question following a trial that has gone spectacularly wrong.  Brought in to give her opinion as to whether or not the accused had committed the crime for which he was indicted, she (correctly as it turns out) states that she thinks he was not.  However, despite her warning that while he may not have killed on this occasion he is likely to in future, the accused is set free and goes on to kill four times before he is brought up before the courts again.  In as spectacular piece of unfairness as you could imagine, Charlie is publicly held to blame for this and while the General Medical Council considers her position she is banned from practising.

Going stir crazy, Charlie is almost relieved to receive a mysterious package in her morning post containing cuttings about the murder of a man on his wedding day and the subsequent trial and conviction of two of his business associates.  The case is especially intriguing as it involves people she knew during her student days in Oxford and so, encouraged by her partner, Maria, she decides to follow up the case simply to give her something else to occupy her mind.

Gradually it becomes apparent that the package has been sent to her by the mother of the bride, her old Oxford tutor, Corinna, and when Charlie challenges her about this she confesses that she has indeed deliberately set out to involve Charlie because she is convinced that the wrong people have been convicted.  Her daughter, Magda, far from being the traditional grieving widow, has taken up very rapidly with another ex-student, Jennifer (Jay) Stewart and is now living with her.   Corinna, although uncomfortable with her daughter's apparently overnight conversion to lesbianism, is actually far more concerned because she claims she has reason to believe that Jay has committed murder in the past in order to get something she desperately desires and is certain that she has done so again in this instance.  She challenges Charlie to find out the truth of the situation, throwing out the bait that by proving there has been a miscarriage of justice in this case, Charlie will be able to redeem herself in the eyes of the public, the police and her academic peers.

As much to get the persistent Corinna off her back,  Charlie agrees to at least look at the evidence, the more so because it allows her to be in Oxford and near to the enigmatic Lisa Kirk, a woman she has recently met and who is exercising a hold over her that even she realises is too strong to be healthy.  And from there everything else unfolds.  But I am saying not a word more.  You need to read this for yourself.  But I strongly suggest you don't pick it up unless you have a couple of days when you don't have to meet any other commitments.  While there were one or two plot points I was a bit sceptical about, the characters are fascinatingly drawn and I was throughly involved from the first page.  This is vintage Mcdermid and I can't recommend it too strongly.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

To Believe or not To Believe...........

First an apology.  There was some sort of blip in the Blogger world at the back end of last week and as a consequence a number of comments were wiped out.  That really annoys me, as I would hate to think that anyone believed I had deleted their comment as unacceptable.  I do do that from time to time, but not with any of these.  I have no way of knowing just how many people were involved, but if one of them was YOU, then please accept my apologies.

Secondly, a blowing of my own trumpet.  I did what I said I would do last Sunday and cancelled one of my library tickets.  As a result my bookshelves are slightly less bowed in the middle and I am feeling a little less guilty about the number of library books that appeared to have taken up permanent residence here.  I have also reduced the number of reservations I have on my other two tickets to the number of books I could actually take out at any one time.  It is so embarrassing when ten books turn up at once and you only have space for eight of them on your ticket.  Which do you leave behind?  Quite how long I will be able to maintain this part of the resolution I don't know, but at the moment I am being really good.  (And also, really smug, but we won't go there for the moment.)

There were a number of things that I wanted to write about this morning but if I try to rattle them all off I will end up saying very little about nothing. So, a relatively short post about one of them and then I'll pick up on the others later in the week.  Over breakfast this morning I was reading a review of a new book by Harold Bloom, called The Anatomy of Influence.  In it the reviewer, John Carey, a distinguish British scholar, writes:

He regards Shakespearian characters as real people, who exist outside the plays. Hamlet, for example, has a will of his own and “rebels against apprenticeship to Shakespeare”. Those who object that Hamlet is just a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination are quickly dismissed: “I brush aside all academic critics — dryasdusts and moldyfigs.” As real people, the characters are free to become quite different from anything Shakespeare wrote. Bloom’s Falstaff is “an incessant and powerful thinker” and his Hamlet “knows everything”.
Apparently Bloom once wrote a fantasy novel, and in these creative misreadings he becomes a fantasist rather than a critic. His imagination also gives him access to secrets of the characters’ sex lives omitted from the plays. He knows that the marriage of Othello and Desdemona was never consummated, and that Macbeth was prone to premature ejaculation (at least, that is what he seems to mean when he discloses that Macbeth is “sexually baffled in his enormous desire for his wife”).

I have read very little of Bloom's work; he is not as feted on this side of the Atlantic as I believe he is in the US, and if this is representative of his views, then I can't see me reading very much more.  It is, of course, possible that there has been an editorial slip and that what he really intended to say was that Falstaff is “an incessant and powerful drinker” but given the other examples I suspect not.  I'm not denying that Falstaff did a fair bit of thinking, but let's face it, it did him no good at all given the way that he completely misread the situation between himself and Prince Hal.  And, if it is true that Hamlet knows everything, how come we have the perpetual question of to be or not to be hanging around in our heads?  However, should it be the case that Macbeth was indeed prone to premature ejaculation, then I suppose that does at least give us an answer to the worrying dilemma of how many children had Lady Macbeth.  We should be grateful for small mercies.

But, oh yes, there is a 'but' hidden away in here.  There is an issue here.  If we are going to believe in a character and the way in which they behave within the novel concerned, then they do have to have a reality to them that allows that belief.  They have to be three dimensional enough for the reader to accept that they could do what they do within the confines of a human life.  If a writer plies their craft well enough for us to laud a book with praise then surely one of the things they must have achieved is the creation of a set of characters that behave in a consistent and recognisably human way?  So, if a writer does his or her job supremely well is there not a chance that caught up within the power of the reading experience we might not, just for a moment, forget that there is no such person as Elizabeth Bennett, or that annoying as he is in his worst excesses, I am not going to be able to take Dickens' Pip and bash his head against a wall to knock some sense into it?

It's a fine line.  And it is the reader's line to draw.  If John Carey's reading of Harold Bloom's work is correct then Mr Bloom seems to draw it a lot further over than I do.  But you may feel differently and it would be interesting to hear your opinions.  Is it acceptable to project a life beyond the page for a character or should we confine our discussions to those facts that the author gives us?  And, I suppose, a second question could be should that be just the 'original' author, given how many characters find a second existence in the pages of writers' works.

As a postscript I should tell you the story of a discussion my Mom and I had before she died.  We had both been reading the Harry Potter series and she was as big a fan as I am.  However, I must have been waxing too lyrical on this particular occasion, because I distinctly remember her saying to me in a very concerned voice, "Annie, they're not actually real, you know."  Perhaps she thought I was going to leave my car parked outside her house and try and fly home on her kitchen broom.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Every Breath You Take ~ Michelle Spring

I've had a number of false starts this week with books by crime writers I hadn't encountered before.  As an article in last weekend's Sunday Times pointed out, everyone and his dog is writing crime fiction these days and, in the case of some of the books I've tried over the past few days, the authors would have been best advised to leave their dogs to get on with it.

A good crime novel is not easy to write.  It has to excel in terms of both plot and character.  The former has to be believable while at the same time having enough suspense to keep the reader turning the pages and the latter have to have psychological reality despite the fact that some of them at least will, of necessity, eventually have to be shown to be distinctly flawed human beings.  It isn't enough to excel in one area.  To write even readable crime fiction you have to be good at both.  To write outstanding crime fiction you have to be a master at both.

Well, Michelle Spring isn't exactly a master as yet, but at least her first novel featuring the private investigator, Laura Principal, Every Breath You Take, kept me reading until the end and was satisfying enough to send me back for a second helping.  Running for Shelter is on the shelf waiting.

Laura Principal, once an academic herself, now shares a weekend cottage with her friend Helen, a librarian at Eastern University.  When financial considerations force them into taking a third into their arrangement Monica Harcourt, the art lecturer who applies, leaves Laura feeling uneasy.  However, as Helen does not seem concerned by Monica's jumpy behaviour, Laura decides to go ahead with the arrangement and calls in to Monica's Cambridge home to finalise the agreement.  Glancing in through a lighted window she sees the artist tied up and brutally assaulted.  It seems that whatever Monica had been so concerned about has finally caught up with her.  In the days that follow Laura is forced to track down Monica's assailant not only in an attempt to bring about justice but also to protect herself, Helen and Helen's daughter, Ginny, as they receive threats that they may become targets of the attacker themselves.  Tracing back Monica's time at the University, Laura discovers that there have been several lecturers who appear to have been targeted in ways that have left them at best uncomfortable and at worst, unable to continue in the profession they had loved.  The misconduct that she eventually uncovers is unpalatable to say the least, but is it what lies at the heart of the mystery, or is there something else behind the attacks?  As all the best summaries say - now read on.

In terms of plot and character Spring doesn't do too badly.  I felt the plot was brought together very well.  I thought I knew who the killer was and was wrong, but even so I didn't feel as if the plot that was eventually revealed was misleading or in anyway implausible.  Indeed as an ex-acadmic myself, I'm afraid I knew that given the right characters it was all too credible.  However, I did have some qualms not so much about who the assailant turned out to be, but about the depth of characterisation that that person had been given.  (I'm having to be careful here, because I got the gender wrong, so I don't want to use singular pronouns.)  They had been so lightly sketched in that they didn't seem to have anything other than a supernumerary role until the very end of the book.  I don't think this is fair on the reader.  To pull an unexpected rabbit out of the hat at the end of a story is all very well and good, but it does have to be a rabbit that has at least been hopping about in full view for a reasonable amount of time.   I hope that that is a failing which will have been corrected in later books because otherwise I did enjoy this and it would be comforting to be able to think that some good had eventually come out of an otherwise rather substandard week's reading.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Sir Thomas More ~ By Just About Every Jacobethan Writer Going.

I went over to Stratford last week to hear John Jowett, one of the Professors at the Shakespeare Institute, talk about his new edition of the Jacobethan play Sir Thomas More.  Jacobethan because in this instance the most recent dating evidence suggests that while it was originally written around 1599 in Elizabeth's reign, it was then completely revised in 1604 after James had come to the throne.

For all sorts of technical reasons (such as there are large chunks of the original version missing!) it is the revised text that John has been working with.  And anyway, it is the revised text that is the really interesting one.  There is evidence in it of the hands (quite literally, the only existing copy is a hand-written manuscript) of at least four playwrights we can identify, plus A N Other whom we cannot, but who is probably not a recognised playwright, who is coyly know as Hand C.  And of course, the truly remarkable fact is that one of those playwrights is William Shakespeare.

Have you worked out what that means?  The manuscript is hand-written.  Shakespeare's scenes are in his own hand.  He touched those very pages.  Which is more than you or I can do, because this treasure of English Literature is stored in the British Library never to be seen by the likes of you or me and even if you're the likes of John, you only get to see a bit of it at a time and you definitely don't get to touch it at all. John likened working with it to being in the presence of a holy relic.  Oh yes!

As far as I can gather the story goes something like this.  The play must have been commissioned by one of the Elizabethan theatre companies.  We don't have any evidence as to which one it was, although there is no reference to it in Henslowe's diaries so it most likely wasn't The Admiral's Men.  It was probably written in the first instance by Anthony Munday, one of those contemporaries of Shakespeare you don't come across very often.  However, like all plays at this time, before it could be played or printed it had to be licensed by The Master of the Revels, the Sixteenth Century equivalent of the modern day censure.

From what evidence we have Sir Edmund Tilney was good at his job.  He doesn't appear to have taken the red pencil to scripts willy-nilly.  He would ask for a couple of lines to be altered rather than cutting whole scenes.  So, there must have been real problems with this text for him to have demanded the wholesale re-write that appears to have taken place.

Leave out the insurrection wholly and the cause thereof, he writes at the beginning of the copy that was sent to him, and begin with Sir Thomas More at the Mayor's sessions, with a report afterwards of his good service done being Sheriff of London upon a mutiny against the Lombards - only a short report, and not otherwise, at your own perils.

Sections of the play were parcelled out to different writers, possibly by Hand C, whoever he may have been.  Those people who are really good at this sort of thing can detect the work of Henry Chettle, Thomas Haywood, Thomas Dekker and, of course, William Shakespeare.  They appear to have worked independently of each other, which causes problems when you try and put the whole thing together, problems that Hand C seems to have tried to eliminate by adding his own occasional links.  The whole thing must have been a nightmare to edit and it would take someone of John's patience and scholarship to come anywhere near a satisfactory text.

His edition has just been published by Arden and I for one am going to put a weekend aside as soon as possible to get really into all the intricacies of the play and its history.  I am also going to try and access the on-line facsimile of the manuscript, although at the moment I'm having difficulty locating it.  I want to see Shakespeare's hand for myself.

Eureka!  I found it, or at least part of it.  You can access a 'pop-up' of one of the pages Shakespeare wrote here

and get access to a facsimile of parts of the manuscript in an edition prepared in 1911 by W W Greg here.  

You can actually download the Greg edition onto your Kindle, but if you do be prepared for the fact that the images of the original manuscript give a whole new meaning to the word illegible!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Eyes Bigger Than......

I have just come in from a long walk during which I have taken a momentous decision;  I am going to give up one of my library tickets.  I am going to go into my local library tomorrow morning, surrender my card and ask them to delete it from the system.

No, I haven't had a brainstorm, nor have I taken leave of my senses.  What I am trying to do is curb the habit I have of ordering far more books through the library system than I could ever hope to read in the time I'm allowed to keep them.  Actually, I shouldn't call it a habit, it's far worse than that; it's an addiction.  Not only do said books weigh down my book shelves until they are at breaking point, but while those books are sitting on my shelves they're not on the library's shelves available for other people who do have the time and the desire to read them.  It has to stop.

Because of the way our library system works I have three different tickets which in total allow me to borrow forty books, most of them for up to three months at a time.  Forty books, and that's not counting the ones that I can have on reserve.  You can see the problem, can't you?  The Booker long list comes out - I order the lot.  One of the papers does a 'books of the year' or 'summer reading' article - another dozen or so join the list.  And blogging!  Oh don't get me onto the effects blogging has on this.  Oh yes, you're the ones who are really to blame.  None of this is my fault.  It's you lot out there, leading me into bad habits, that are at the root of the problem.  You're a bad influence, that's what you are.  I should have known better than to keep company with any of you.

There is another side to this as well.  I'm not really being discriminating enough in what I reserve.  Instead of taking the time to browse through a book or really read the reviews thoroughly I'm ordering things on a whim and then finding that I've spent time trying to get into a book that was never going to appeal to me in the first place, time that could have been better spent with books I had taken the trouble to find out more about.  Of course, some times there is a wonderful, serendipitous find, but not often enough to justify the continuation of my present approach.

So, I'm clearing the decks.  The ticket and the books associated with it go back to the library tomorrow.  I won't need more than one journey provided I pack the car boot carefully. And the new policy of keeping a wish list and only reserving book from it as I finish one in the pile begins.  One book finished, one book ordered and no more than a dozen in the house at anyone time.  I have the will power, I can do this.  If I repeat that often enough I might even begin to believe it.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Bell ~ Iris Murdoch

For reasons it's far too complicated to go into, our Monday Reading Group this month discussed Iris Murdoch's 1958 novel The Bell.  I went through a Murdoch phase a couple of decades ago and read her first three novels, but got distracted at that point and so never reached this, her fourth novel, described to me on Monday as 'the first one with real people in it'.  Perhaps that is a clue as to why I gave up on her previously.  I really can't remember.  For most of the group, however, this was at least a second and in one case, a fourth read and having spent last weekend in Murdoch's enclosed lay community at Imber, I can see why.

After a couple of false starts last week with novels where the writing was either so ordinary or so sloppy that I simply couldn't go any further, to enter a world so precisely and so effective described as the one we are introduced to here was a sheer joy.  I don't think you would ever call Murdoch a poetic writer, but there is an almost mathematical definitiveness in the way in which she lays out her setting and her characters before the reader.  As someone remarked, you could walk the paths around the lake which is central to the novel without any fear of getting lost and if you ran into one of the characters in the course of your walk you would know exactly who it was you had met before you even spoke to them.

Imber is an enclosed lay community attached to an Abbey of Medieval foundation and it is towards this claustrophobic environment that Dora, one of the two protagonists, is travelling as the book opens.  Dora, a young woman in her early twenties, is returning to her estranged husband, Paul, several years her senior, who is researching in the Abbey's archives.  Dora is young not only in years but in maturity - witness the fact that she is returning to Paul rather than ditching him completely.  Dora may be a blunderer who does wrong things even if for the right reasons, but she does not deserve Paul who is manipulative and in many ways an inadequate human being.  The word that is used most often in relation to him is 'violent' and although he is never physically so, mentally and emotionally he is a bully.

If Dora is always acting before really thinking, then the other chief protagonist, Michael is the exact opposite.  Many of the disasters that occur during the course of the novel might have been avoided if only Michael, the putative leader of this group, had acted rather than thought so protractedly about whether or not he ought to act.  In a weekend spent considering the role of equivocation in Macbeth, Michael was yet another character who was persistently saying one thing while meaning something else, although in the main the person he was trying to fool was himself.

One of the questions we inevitably found ourselves posing on Monday was whether or not the book had dated and while I think that would be too harsh a criticism, it is true that Michael's dilemma must have been viewed in a very different way by the original 1958 readers to that which is likely to pertain today.  At the time the book was written both the social and legal attitude towards homosexuals was different to today, even if we may not have progressed as far along the road in terms of rebuffing any prejudice as we might like.  Michael's sexual orientation torments him, especially as his greatest desire is to enter the priesthood.  As far as we are aware he has done nothing about fulfilling his sexuality until he is trapped by a fourteen year old boy in the school where he is teaching.  There is no doubt that Nick is the one who does the seducing and who then, seemingly for the pure pleasure of destroying another human being, denounces Michael as his lover.  Ten years on, Nick, who now seems bent on destroying himself through drink, is sent to the community in an attempt to save him from his inner demons and Michael is now forced to face again the reality of who he is in the midst of a world that will condemn what lies at the core of his identity out of hand.

During the few summer weeks that the novel's plot spans both Michael and Dora have to learn certain harsh truths about themselves and, like the bell which gives the book its title, they have to recognise that brilliantly projected new starts are rarely able in reality to live up to the promise of the dream.  I can certainly see why some of the other members of the group had returned to this book more than once and I'm very glad that I have been reintroduced to Murdoch's work.  I shall definitely be going back for more.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Macbeth ~ Royal Shakespeare Company

The new RSC season has started and all is once again well with my world.  I am never completely happy unless I have a parcel of theatre tickets sitting in my bureau waiting to be used and if they are tickets for the theatres in Stratford well then all the better.  I started off this season's theatregoing last Saturday with a visit to the new Main House to see Macbeth.

Those of you who read my piece last week about Michael Boyd's current production of Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company will recall that I was concerned that this performance might not hold together as a coherent whole, given that Boyd had said he was only playing the Shakespearian elements of the text and cutting out the passages by Thomas Middleton.  Well, I needn't have worried, the production is one of the best I've seen of this play and certainly hangs together as well as Macbeth ever can.  This is in part because, despite what he said, Boyd has still left in certain lines from the Middleton scenes.

Thus, we still have the prophecies that set the whole play in motion.  After all, if no one tells Macbeth that he is destined to be King then we might as well all head for the bar before curtain up and stay there.  But, there are no witches.  Instead Boyd gives us three ghostly children, a direct result of his production some years ago of a dramatised version of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.  Talking about this Boyd said that he had found those children more scary than any representation of the witches that he had ever seen and more appropriate as an image of terror for a modern audience.  And I would have to say that I agree with him, especially as those children then become the MacDuff babes who are later brutally slaughtered.  Believe me, no one was tempted to laugh.

And, we still have some of the Porter's lines, although they are assigned to Seyton and there is no indication of the Porter in the programme.  At first glance it might appear that these lines are kept just as an opportunity to remind the audience that this play was initially performed only months after the failed gunpowder plot and indeed we all came away having had the lesson that you should never return to a firework once lit hammered forcefully home.  However, there is a far more important reason why Boyd has to keep some of the Porter's speech and that is because he needs retain the reference to the equivocator.

There is a really interesting article in the programme by James Shapiro, one of our leading Shakespearian scholars, about the nature of equivocation and the way in which the use of the word changed as a result of the activities of Father Henry Garnet, the foremost Jesuit in England and a man who instructed Catholics how to mislead the authorities not by lying, but by evading the truth.  Garnet was hanged, disembowelled and cut into pieces on May 2nd 1606, the year in which this play was written and so the concept of equivocation would have been very much in the minds of that first audience.  As Shapiro says:

Before this time the word 'equivocation' had only been used by English writers to describe what happened when a word could be understood in more than one way, when its meaning was ambiguous or uncertain.  There was no sense of equivocating as deliberately misleading others in  sinister way or...of using a mixed proposition to express one part of a man's mind, and retain another.

That was not the case after Garnet's activities became well known.

Equivocation is at the heart of this production.  Macbeth tells only part of what has occurred in his letter to Lady Macbeth and they both then equivocate with their guests.  Macduff's wife tells her young son partial truths and Malcolm equivocates with the Thane of Fife himself.  Who is telling the truth? Who dares to tell the truth?  The other aspect of Jacobean England that is forceable brought home, especially through the set, is the fact that the country is still riven by the religious 'civil wars' of the Tudor period.  For the past sixty years it has been unsafe for one faction or another to make known their religious allegiance and who knew who could be trusted and who could not.  Neighbour could turn on neighbour, brother on brother.  The need for equivocation was something Shakespeare's audience would have understood only too well.

As far as it is possible, I thought Jonathan Slinger and Aislin McGuckin handled the main roles well.  I'm not certain that there is ever enough in the early part of the play to account for Macbeth's turn from loyal follower to traitorous renegade.  Those first scenes are appallingly underwritten and my own belief is that we don't have the full Shakespeare text.  I suspect that when the Middleton additions were tacked on it was to bring coherence to a version that had been cut down to fit the 'two hour traffic of our stage'.  Remember that they had to be off stage by five (by-laws were by-laws even in Shakespeare's day) and all the great tragedies would have had to be cut substantially to fit in with this requirement.  Luckily, we have managed to retain the complete Hamlet, Othello and (with certain caveats) Lear, but Macbeth, I think, is another matter.  Slinger came through the early scenes as well as any actor I've seen other than Ian McKellen and McGurkin's descent into madness was well defined.  I also liked the very bluff MacDuff of Aidan Kelly; I would have trusted him with my life any day of the week.

So, all in all, a success, which is more than you can say for most productions of Macbeth.  It's had very good press reviews as well, so if you live within reach of Stratford and feel you might want to see it, I would book quickly.  I think this may be one of those shows where tickets are hard to come by.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Making Connections ~ The Other

A librarian friend of mine is convinced that books talk to each other because she so often finds that a subject she has been reading about in one will then find echoes in whatever volume she picks up next.  Well, I certainly wouldn't want to disagree with her.  In fact, one of the reasons that I first took up blogging was precisely because I wanted somewhere that I could explore those connections as and when they arose, although then, as now, I was interested in connections across all disciplines rather than just in books.  My weekend decision to do a bit of weeding and try and get back to reading for more than just escapism prompted me to think about that early resolve again and so this is going to be the first of what I hope will be a series of posts about making connections and the 'added value' such thematic 'echoes' can bring to the enjoyment of a book, a play, a piece of music or a work of art.

Over the past few weeks I've gone back to some of my earliest dramatic roots and have been re-reading the Greek Tragedies.  One of the issues that has come up time and again has been the problems that the 5th Century BCE Athenians so obviously had with anyone who was in some way 'other'.  You might have thought that this would be predictably with someone who was foreign, but far more often it was  with someone who was female.  Pity then poor Medea, who being both foreign and female was on a hiding to nothing before she ever set foot in Greece.  OK, so what she did, killing not only her rival for Jason's love but also the children she, herself, had borne him, was perhaps not the ideal way to endear herself to the populous, but nevertheless she just didn't stand a chance. 

What happens to Medea, especially the way she is set aside by Jason when he wants to take another wife, and the attitude expressed towards her, epitomises the often expressed regret of the Greek male that women had to exist at all.  In a strictly patriarchal society and one which saw women as inferior beings, it was a source of great concern to the men of Athens that it was unavoidable that they had to consort with women in order to perpetuate their family through the production of a male heir.  You get the feeling that if it hadn't been blasphemy to say so they would have told Zeus he'd got it wrong somewhere.  All babies should spring fully formed out of their father's heads as Zeus's own child, Athena did - except, of course, such children should always be male.  They might be able to get rid of a foreigner, but the dreaded woman they had to keep about them.  

Coincidently (or not, as the case of the whispering books may be) I've also been doing a lot of work on The Taming of the Shrew this past few weeks.  It's proving quite a frustrating play to study, mainly because wherever you look for academic discussion you find only two subjects being given any great attention, the relationship between The Taming of the Shrew and The Taming of a Shrew and the question of how you interpret what happens to Kate in that final scene, where it seems she capitulates completely to Petruchio's mastery.  I might come back to the first of those issues at some point because I think the answer to why there are two very different but clearly related plays probably accounts, to some extent at least, for the disappointment brought about by the second, however, the interesting aspect of my study in relation to this particular set of connections was the extract I came across from Jack Holland's A Brief History of Misogyny printed in the programme for an RSC production of the play.

For men, women are the original 'Other' - the 'not you'...woman presents a...complex problem for those who designated her as 'the Other'.  She is 'the Other' that cannot be excluded.  Racists can avoid interaction with the despised group.  But intercourse with women is in the end unavoidable, even for misogynists...intimacy with her is as unavoidable as it is essential.  The very maintenance of human life and society depend upon it.

And there we have it again, this idea that there are some instances of 'otherhood' that you can avoid, but the 'otherhood' of gender is inescapable.  I'm not certain, by the way, that this is a particularly helpful approach towards understanding what is going on in either A Shrew or The Shrew as texts, but clearly there was one RSC director who thought that it might provide a way of approaching the play when it came to trying to make sense of it on the stage.

Then along came instance the third, Julia Spencer-Fleming's second book in her Clare Ferguson series, A Fountain Filled With Blood.  Spencer-Fleming is one of those crime writers whose works I shall not be throwing into the compost bin.  Not only is this second book definitely better than the first, but she is also a writer who offers you subjects that require some serious thinking on the part of the reader, demanding that they consider their own position in relation to whatever issue she has chosen to raise.  I suspect the fact that Clare is an Episcopalian Priest is not purely coincidental.

In this book the people who have been assaulted, and in one instance killed, are all homosexual.  Clare is convinced that this is not a coincidence and that the fact that they are hate crimes should be made public.  Russ Van Alstyne, the local Police Chief, disagrees, arguing that to do so could cause unnecessary panic.  However, eventually he admits to Clare that this may not have been his only reason for refusing to publicise the sexuality of the victims.

"I guess I'm afraid that, deep down, all my reasons for not issuing a general warning or going to the press with the gay-bashing idea are because of ... who the victims were.  Because I don't, you know, feel comfortable around gay guys."

"Bur Dr. Dvorak was - is - a friend of yours.  That doesn't make any sense."

"We were friends at work.  I knew who he was and what he was, but it never impinged on our relationship.  He never talked about Paul, just like I never talked about my wife.  The fact that he was gay was like having a friend at work who's Jewish, or vegetarian.  You know about it, but you don't have to think about it, because what you do together never intersects with that other part of the person's life."

Here then is the other side of 'otherness', the 'other' you can pretend doesn't worry you because you can avoid ever having to face what marks that person out as different.  (Or for that matter, what marks you out as different.  Difference works both ways, although we rarely manage to recognise the fact.)

It makes you think, doesn't it?  How many prejudices do we deny simply because we've never been put into a position where we've had to intersect or interact with the people who embody them?  If we found ourselves in Russ's position could we be that honest?  Unless I hie me to a nunnery, I have to acknowledge the gender 'other', but other 'others'?  I'm not so sure.