Sunday, 20 March 2016

I’ve brushed up my Shakespeare - all 37 plays done and dusted. So I’m one up on the new artistic director of The Globe!

A Midsummer Night's Dream
The introduction to my Kindle edition of the The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare informs us that few people nowadays read the three parts of Henry VI unless they’ve set themselves the task of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays “like an obstacle course.” Well, I recently completed that obstacle course - and I thoroughly enjoyed Henry VI, Pts. 1, 2 & 3. I think the first Shakespeare play I read was Julius Caesar, for O-level, so getting from its opening line - “Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home” - to the last lines of Henry VIII - “All the best men are ours; for 'tis ill hap,/ If they hold when their ladies bid 'em clap” (which were presumably written by collaborator, John Fletcher) took me half a century.

Having read all of Shakespeare, I am ahead of the new artistic director of the Globe Theatre, Emma Rice, who leaves the Cornish theatre company, Kneehigh, to take up her new role next month:  “I have tried to sit down with Shakespeare but it doesn’t work. I get very sleepy and then suddenly I want to listen to The Archers.” I was reminded of the bit in the Mike Leigh television drama, Abigail’s Party, when Ange’s husband Laurence refers to the Collected Works of Shakespeare on his bookshelf: “Our nation's culture. Not something you can actually read, of course.” So, in 40 years we’ve gone from poking mild fun at people who revere Shakespeare without having read him, to appointing one of them as artistic director of the Globe Theatre. Dumbing down? No fear!

Fortunately, though, despite her lack of acquaintance with the actual plays (apart from Cymbeline, which she has produced - well done, you!), Ms Rice is an admirer: “He was the greatest poet, writer and storyteller of all time. It is an adventure for me … I’ve got the world of Shakespeare to discover and to enjoy.” How nice for you, dear! Nothing like learning on the job.

Ms Rice’s angle (you have to have an angle to get on these days) appears to be Wimmin. Shockingly, only 16% of the characters in Shakespeare possess a vagina. So Emma (Em?) is going to redress the balance by casting female actors in male roles. Maybe one of the Archers' characters in a storyline about one of Lynda Snell’s amateur dramatic productions mentioned that in olden times all the women’s parts were played my men, and Emma thought, “Hey, sisters, I’ve got a great idea…?” Anyway, as Em notes, “if anybody bended gender it was Shakespeare.” What’s the betting that the Globe stage will be graced by a transgender actor before too long? In case we’re in any doubt that Emma is obsessive about Wimmin, her first season will see a staging of Cymbeline (i.e. the one play she definitely knows) - only it’ll be retitled Imogen, because, you see, the main character is Cymbeline's daughter, Imogen. Because, that’s really important, right? And she doesn’t see why Gloucester in King Lear (hey, why not retitle it Three Sisters? What - Chekhov? No, doesn’t ring a bell) shouldn’t be played by a woman. Actually, there’s nothing to stop you giving the role to a heavily-accented lesbian Kenyan dwarf with a hare-lip and a club-foot - it would make the Guardian and the BBC's pants stick out. (Oops - bit of a gender-specific image there.)

In the unlikely event that Emma can tear herself away from radio soap operas long enough to bother actually, you know, reading the plays (Pro-Plus might help, love), she might discover that Shakespeare plays are absolutely stuffed with superb roles for women, and they don’t all droop around wanly like Ophelia: most of them are tough, resourceful, wisecracking, strong-willed, powerful women who are usually much brighter than the men - and in amongst the lovely, soft, ultra-feminine ones are some truly terrifying “unsexed” monsters, and quite a few lovable old dears (nurses, innkeepers and suchlike) and some benevolent aged wise women. Okay, I realise getting Emma to read the plays might be asking too much, but here’s a Wikipedia list (I suspect Wikipedia is more her level) of notable female Shakespearian characters:

Beatrice, in Much Ado About Nothing
Bianca, in The Taming of the Shrew
Celia, in As You Like It
Cleopatra, in Antony and Cleopatra
Cordelia, in King Lear
Cressida, in Troilus and Cressida
Desdemona, in Othello
Gertrude, in Hamlet
Goneril, in King Lear
Hermia, in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Helena, in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Hero, in Much Ado About Nothing
Hermione, in A Winter's Tale
Hippolyta, in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Imogen, in Cymbeline
Isabella, in Measure for Measure
Julia, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet
Katherina, in The Taming of the Shrew
Lady Macbeth, in Macbeth
Lavinia Andronicus, in Titus Andronicus
Miranda, in The Tempest
Olivia, in Twelfth Night
Ophelia, in Hamlet
Portia, in The Merchant of Venice
The Princess of France, in Love's Labour's Lost
Regan, in King Lear
Rosalind, in As You Like It
Tamora, in Titus Andronicus
Three Witches, in Macbeth
Titania, in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Viola, in Twelfth Night
Volumnia, in Coriolanus

And that is a very partial list, to which one would add the following: Margaret of Anjou, infinitely tougher and more “manly” than her pallid little wimp of a husband, Henry VI, Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Queen Elizabeth (wife of Edward IV) in Richard III, Constance in King John, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, Mistress Quickly in Merry Wives of Windsor (and elsewhere), Marina in Pericles, Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Joan la Pucelle (i.e. Joan of Arc) in 1Henry IV.

Let’s just forget about monkeying around with the gender balance in Shakespeare plays - there are so many great roles for women, there’s absolutely no need to even think about it. And there are several obviously homosexual characters (in case you're thinking of gaying up some of the roles), and there’s enough cross-dressing to gladden the heart of any metropolitan left-liberal cultural Marxist. What about parking your silly modern notions and prejudices, and just getting the best actors available, sticking ‘em in vaguely period costumes (you are allowed to choose any period up to 1914 - no SS uniforms or council estate hoodies, please), and letting the words do the rest. They’re really not bad, the words.

I found that reading the whole of Shakespeare only began to feel like a duty towards the end, when I was faced with the eight or nine plays I hadn't much fancied reading from the start. As I reported here, I gave up on Comedy of Errors, having found Love's Labour's Lost a real chore. But then I bought Shakespeare the Thinker by Oxford Professor of English, A.D. Nuttall, (who, sadly, died two months before the book was published in April 2007). Nuttall looks at all the plays in roughly chronological order by examining what they tell us about their author's beliefs, attitudes and knowledge. I found Nuttall's approach extraordinarily illuminating (Frank Kermode described him as "probably the most philosophically minded of modern literary critics", which may be why I responded so readily to his book) and it revived my flagging spirits: helped by its numerous insights, I reread Love's Labour's Lost, and loved it, and sailed through Comedy of Errors at the second attempt, again with great enjoyment.

I only found myself getting "very sleepy" while reading Merry Wives of Windsor (which, legend has it, had to be written in 12 days when Queen Elizabeth demanded a play about Falstaff in love - it's awful), and sections of Henry VIII (Shakespeare's final play, and I chose to blame the boring bits on his collaborator). Titus Andronicus was too revoltingly blood-soaked, even for this former horror writer, and I found Pericles unpleasant - especially the brothel scenes. I couldn't really understand what Troilus and Cressida was about, and the way it just sort of peters out annoyed me - but, armed with Nuttall, I'll give it another go. And I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the comedies - especially A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the utterly enchanting As You Like It,  featuring the distinctly strange wooing in the Forest of Arden of thick posh wrestler Orlando by super-smart duke's daughter, Rosalind (disguised as a bloke, inevitably, and using the name Ganymede - the name of the boy abducted by Zeus during one of his paedophiliac phases): it is quite bonkers, but utterly enchanting (yes, I know I sound like some old opera queen - but it's truly wonderful).

Despite writing that I preferred reading Shakespeare to seeing the plays performed (here), I now actually want to see at least a dozen of the plays on stage, especially the comedies. But not if they've been "artistically directed" by Emma Rice!


  1. Reading all 37 plays-very impressive.

    1. May I congratulate Lord Gronmark of the Ilk for his selection of the photograph above. Diana Rigg and Marianne Faithfull if I'm not mistaken. A veritable midsummer night's dream.

    2. or is that Helen Mirren ?

    3. You've got it! Marianne Faithfull acted on the stage in Three Sisters in 1967 and Girl on a Motorcycle in 1968, but not in the 1968 film of Midsummer Night's Dream - which can be viewed in its entirety here:

  2. Gawd! I thought we had seen the last of "wimmin". However, in passing, did you know that the Achilleian museum in Corfu states that Shakespeare wrote a play called "The Vampires". Now, I didn't know that, did you?

    1. I suspect the Arts, Academia and the wilder reaches of the urban Left will never be free of Wimmin - self-righteous outrage is evidently a powerfully addictive drug, and, given that most of them are from the educated, subsidised middle classes, it's their one chance to claim membership of an oppressed minority. Never heard of The Vampires (wouldn't mind reading it, though - his supernatural stuff, whether benign or malignant, is usually strong), but discover I should probably read "The Two Noble Kinsmen", which, it seems, is generally accepted as another Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration. A completist's work is never done.

    2. I wouldn't have thought "The Vampires" would have been Shakespeare. As Restoration Tragedy I suppose it might have been a play, but the subject matter seems more 18/19th century Gothic, but then what do I know? I think the Greeks made it up out of the top of their heads...

  3. I looked up Emma Rice and had to take a Librium. The last time I took one was when I saw Mark Rylance, one of her predecessors at the Globe, wearing one of his ubiquitous "Espresso Bongo" hats and "Christ come to cleanse the Temple" expressions. God Save us from English theatricals blessed by genius!

    One of my favourite operas is Verdi's "Otello" and I have always meant to listen to his other two Shakespeare - based works, "Macbeth" and "Falstaff" [ the latter based on "Henry IV Pt 1 " and "Merry Wives"]. Might also explore "Beatrice et Benedict" ["Much Ado"] by Berlioz and "Romeo et Juliette" by Gounod. Very helpful post.

  4. I don't get Mark Rylance. Never have, never will. As for Berlioz's "Béatrice and Bénédict" - I wasn't even aware of its existence - I''m now listening to overture on YouTube and it sounds terrific - thanks for the recommendation.

    I'm also a big fan of Verdi's 'Otello" - especially if Montserrat Caballle is singing Desdemona:

  5. Actually it is Helen Mirren. I saw Mark Rylance's tedious production of the Tempest at the Globe a few years back and have avoided him ever since. The Rylance approach reminds me of what Frank Miles once said about critics who think that Emma should be viewed from the perspective of the gypsies - sorry - Travelling People who frighten Harriet and her friend as they stroll across the fields of Cobham, now mostly gated estates for Chelsea footballers. However, on a recent flight I ended up watching a film called Bridge of Spies and there is no doubt that the chap can act.

    1. I've said it before - but I never tire of repeating myself repetitively: it pains me that talented actors can't keep their political opinions to themselves, especially when expressing views which - no matter how extreme or deranged - will have no negative effect on their careers. Extreme left-wingers like Mark Rylance and Martin Freeman evidently imagine they're being jolly brave by expressing Marxist beliefs, when their actions won't cost them anything whatsoever. But what's really infuriating is that it means I can't enjoy their performances, because I find it almost impossible not to recall the fact that, in real life, they are total fucking fools whose political philosophy is founded on hatred and resentment and would, if implemented, result in rule by thugs and misery, poverty and enslavement for millions. I'm more forgiving of the tiny handful of conservative thespians who speak out, because they're actually risking their careers by doing so. Michael Kitchen is a hero of mine, because not only is he a terrific actor, but he never gives interviews. For all I know, he could be an admirer of the Taliban or Kim Jong-Un - but as I have no idea what he thinks about anything, I can simply enjoy his acting.

  6. If "Bongo" and his clan had to go to work in the morning and face people like Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner they would soon put a sock in it...big time. The old Hollywood studio system had its drawbacks, but the films in 30s, 40s and 50s were in a different class. A little benign autocracy never goes amiss.

  7. Just to avoid confusion and possible prosecution the word "bongo" [please note GCHQ and Hogan-Howe's OAP bashing squads] refers to a silly hat that Laurence Harvey wore in a film called "Espresso Bongo" and not to the repetitive bongo music that is making the dialogue inaudible in the current RSC production of "Hamlet" [which is set in West Africa and stars Paapa Essiedu as the gloomy one]. The music is composed by Jamiroquai [one of my favourite bands] percussionist Sola Akingbola who has also provided a calypso for the gravedigger's scene.

    1. Too late, SDG - I have contacted Police Scotland, so expected a visit from their ISMA (Inappropriate Social Media Activity) hit squad over the weekend. You might be interested to hear that the Broadway production of "Hamilton" - a smash-hit, apparently - boasts several black actors playing the Founding Fathers. Unfortunately, an advert asking specifically for more black actors for the production has been deemed racist by the authorities. Life has become very confusing.

  8. Sadly Ms Rice is on the way out.
    A little mix-up over the use of neon lights in Shakespeare productions.
    Or so they say.

    1. I cheered when I heard the news. I suggest the next round of interviews start with a series of questions designed to reveal whether or not the candidate is actually conversant with the works of Shakespeare, followed by another series of questions to weed out leftards determined to misuse the Globe to pursue some dreary "social justice" agenda.