Monthly Archives: April 2013

Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios; Ubu Roi, Silk Street Theatre, Barbican


I’m usually wary of Macbeth. It’s the witches, really: how do you stage them when for a modern audience a witch connotes not terror, but trick or treat?

The current production at the Trafalgar Studios confronts this issue head on by creating a dystopic vision of a war-torn Scotland that is partly post-nuclear, partly first-world war. It’s cleverly done, because dystopia manages the bridge between the politically realistic story of the rise of a charismatic tyrant, and the supernatural and the strange. The witches appear in vests and combats in gas masks (they later nightmarishly double up as Banquo’s killers in pig masks); the audience is assaulted by sounds of battle. The killing of Lady Macduff was a prolonged strangling that was properly shocking. This is not a polite production; this is physical.

James McAvoy was a splendid Macbeth; his trajectory from warrior to unhinged king was pitched perfectly.  The absolute stillness he managed during the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow’ was astounding (as was the speech by Jamie Ballard’s Macduff when he is told of his family’s slaughter).  So often the bodily grotesque is assigned to the witches, but here McAvoy internalises it. This Macbeth throws up in a toilet at the realisation that he is going to kill Duncan. In act four scene one Double Double Toil and Trouble is omitted as the witches cede centre stage to Macbeth, as he greedily drinks the potion and almost vomits out the three prophecies himself. I’ve seen a couple of Hamlets where he is possessed by his father’s ghost, but this was Macbeth truly inhabited by a demonic other.

The fact that director Jamie Lloyd cut the eye of newt and toe of frog stuff is interesting. Modern audiences want to be scared, but we don’t believe in the supernatural, so terror has to be found elsewhere. But for centuries, witches were the stars of the show, combining that frisson of the uncanny with absolute spectacle. Macbeth was first performed in 1606-7; two years later Ben Jonson used witches in The Masque of Queens (1609). Just as the demented energies of the antimasque became the most popular bits of the genre, so Shakespeare’s witches came to dominate theatrical performances of the Scottish play. Thomas Middleton added material from his own The Witch to Macbeth, probably in 1616, but it was in the Restoration that audiences really went mad for the weird sisters. Pepys saw Macbeth nine times between 1664 and 1669, almost certainly the Davenant rewrite in which Hecate and the three witches get bigger billing and where Macbeth turns into a theatrical and musical extravaganza. The memoirs of John Downes, book-keeper and prompter at Davenant’s company, Roscius Anglicanus, or an Historical Review of the Stage, published in 1708, recalls of a performance in 1671: 

“The Tragedy of Macbeth, alter’d by Sir William Davenant; being drest in all it’s Finery, as new Cloath’s, new Scenes, Machines, as flyings for the Witches; with all the Singing and Dancing in it: THE first Compos’d by Mr, Lock, the other by Mr,Channell and Mr,Joseph Preist; it being all Excellently perform’d, being in the nature of an Opera, it Reconpenc’d double the Expence.”  In this context I suspect Purcell’s decision to give the witches so much stage time in Dido and Aeneas (1689) was absolutely on trend.Ubu

Witches are all very well, but you can’t get much more grotesque than Ubu Roi. Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play is best known for ripping up conventions in order to épater la bourgeoisie, but it’s hardly a subtle piece of dramatic writing.  It’s a savage, adolescent, Rabelaisian take on Macbeth – the fat, filthy, power-crazed Père and Mère Ubu wreak havoc as they kill to get their hands on the kingdom, and it’s been staged as a not-very-subtle satire on power and corruption around the world.

I love Cheek By Jowl’s productions – they did a wonderful French-language version of Andromaque a couple of years ago and a sensational ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore last year, so I knew that this, like Lloyd’s Macbeth, would be a very physical piece. This French-language production begins with a lengthy framing device whereby a teenage boy trains the camera on everything that is viscous. Bodily fluids are seen close up, from the tiny piece of snot in his father’s nostril to the meat in the kitchen and the smallest smear of shit on the bathroom mat. Director Declan Donnellan channels Buñuel as the bourgeois dinner party fragments into the Jarry text. The host and hostess become Père and Mère Ubu, killing King Wenceslas and going to war with the Czar of Russia, all the while interspersed with the polite soirée. The Polish king having his brains mashed with a kitchen blender was particularly inspired bit of staging. The whole thing, you feel, is part of the teenage boy’s imagination and loathing; but in the end, the stage strewn with debris, he quietly joins the adults at dinner.  Masterful.


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Oliver Cromwell: the state funeral of a divisive leader

ImageIt was a coronation of sorts. After Oliver Cromwell died on 3 September 1658, the effigy of the Lord Protector lay in state in Somerset House In one hand was a sceptre, in the other an orb. And just above his head, on a small velvet cushion, was a crown.

We could easily have had King Oliver. Cromwell had been offered the crown by Parliament in February that year. He refused it, but was king in all but name. When he died, his funeral was consciously modelled on the ceremony for King James I, the last previous head of state to die peacefully. Cromwell was buried at speed. The Diary of Thomas Burton records that his body “although thus bound up and laid in the coffin, swelled and bursted, from whence came such filth, that raised such a deadly and noisome stink, that it was found prudent to bury him immediately, which was done in as private a manner as possible.”

However, a state funeral was required, and it was lavish.  London came to a standstill. The procession included knights marshall, ‘poor men’ of Westminster, porters, drummers, trumpeters, the household kitchen, the committees of the army and navy, the counting-house staff and park keepers, watermen, fire-makers, pastry-makers, larder and pantry staff, butter and cellar servants, yeomen, water-bailiffs,  musicians, civil servants (including Milton), officers of the army and navy, surgeons, lawyers, ambassadors, and the great lords of England.

The effigy of the body was conveyed with utmost reverence. The Publick Intelligencer (Thomason / 116:E.760[17], 152, 22nd-29th November 1658) reported: “The whole Ceremony was managed with very great State to Westminster, many thousands of people being Spectators. At the Westgate of the Abby Church, the Herse with the Effigies thereon, was taken off the Carriage by those ten Gentlemen who removed it before, who passing on to enter the Church, the Canopy of State was by the same persons borne over it again; and in this magnificent manner they carried it up to the East end of the Abbey; and placed it in that Noble Structure which was raised there on purpose to receive it; where it is to remain for some time, exposed to publick view.”


Red-coated soldiers had kept the crowds from getting in the way of the cortege, but not everyone mourned. The royalist diarist John Evelyn was positively gleeful: “It was the most joyful funeral I ever saw; for there were none that cried but dogs, which the soldiers hooted away with a barbarous noise, drinking and taking tobacco in the streets as they went.”

Peacetime did not come easily to Cromwell. “He could never make the adjustment from war where the objective was always clear and the victory unambiguous,” says John Morrill, one of the foremost historians of the period. “The pragmatism and compromise of the political arena constantly dismayed him and ground him down.”

Andrew Marvell’s poem Upon The Death of the Lord Protector certainly has great difficulty eulogising Cromwell as a peacetime leader; so much difficulty, that he has to borrow the image of the halcyon to invoke mourning by his peacetime subjects – a royalist image most often used to describe the pre-war years of Personal Rule. To some extent Marvell is the prisoner of his own genre of Cromwell poems; the great leader as sublime force, as seen in his Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland:

“So restless Cromwell could not cease/In the inglorious arts of peace,

But through adventurous war/Urged his active star.

And, like the three-forked lighting, first/Breaking through the clouds where it was nursed,

Did thorough his own side/His fiery way divide.”

It’s a classic ideological trick to mobilise martial patriotism at a leader’s funeral, and this is what Marvell does in his elegy. Cromwell can only be mourned as a soldier:

“Thee, many ages hence in martial verse/Shall the English soldier, ere he charge, rehearse,

Singing of thee, inflame themselves to fight,/And with the name of Cromwell, armies fright.”

At the end of the poem Marvell invokes the succession (“And Richard yet, where his great parent led,/Beats on the rugged track”) but that succession was far from glorious. Richard Cromwell, Oliver’s son, was weak and unable to mediate tensions between the army and civilian politicians. England’s short-lived republican experiment soon collapsed and Charles II entered London on 29 May 1660. Cromwell’s body was exhumed and hung, his head  cut off in conscious imitation of the regicide. As for Marvell, his Cromwell poems were nearly lost to us; they were deleted from his Miscellaneous Poems of 1681 while the book was at the press, but remained in obscure manuscript.

And the cost of Cromwell’s funeral? £1 in 1658 is worth £118 using the retail price index. The money allotted to cover Cromwell’s funeral was £60,000, which equates to £7.1m in current terms. It’s a huge sum and, neatly, it appears to be the going rate nowadays for public obsequies. But then, Cromwell was the head of state.


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Highbury book group/Anthony Quinn, Half Of The Human Race


Anthony Quinn’s Half Of The Human Race is the story of the relationship between Will Maitland and Connie Callaway, set just before the First World War in an upper-middle class London. The two meet by chance; Will is a professional cricketer, Constance a would-be doctor whose father’s death has removed any possibility of medical training. As her activism in the suffrage movement begins to move from quiet dissent to outright law-breaking, Connie’s political views appear to make the relationship a non-starter.

Call it the Mantel effect, but historical fiction has suddenly become a reputable genre. I doubt Tony Quinn considers himself a historical novelist – indeed, it’s odd that Hilary Mantel has been put in that category on the strength of two books about the Tudors and one on the French revolution – but it is a proper literary challenge to evoke a sense of pre-war Britain without it lapsing into sub-Downton nostalgia. Half Of The Human Race pulls it off. I recommend it strongly to anyone partial to Arnold Bennett and to anyone who enjoys writing with a good sense of place – this is set largely around the streets and squares of Mornington Crescent and the Caledonian Road. It’s just as well I loved it, because I’ve known Tony for a long time. And since we were discussing it for book club, we invited him along to talk.

Having the author in the room is a slightly odd experience. We were on our best behaviour, so the collective dynamic changed entirely; there was no chat about our children, no moaning about the week’s domestic catastrophes. Questions to Tony largely centred on character, motivation and why he was attracted to the early women’s movement as a topic. One of the characters, Tam, is a cricketer who knowing his prowess is failing at the end of his career, eventually commits suicide. This, said Tony, is more common than many realise – cricket has one of the highest suicide rates of any sport. Cricket doesn’t function here as a literary filter of masculinity (thank goodness – Don Delillo’s baseball setpiece in Underworld left me cold) but as wide-angled social framing. Before the First World War it truly was a game for the masses and cricketers were celebrities on cigarette cards.

“While I was writing Half Of The Human Race I agonised now and then about whether the cricket might alienate women readers, or whether suffrage might turn the blokes off,” Tony told me afterwards. “But in the end you just have to write the book you want to write.”

Even if writers pretend otherwise, he says, they all love to have their work assessed. “To have those characters you dreamed up, the situations you put them in, sometimes the very phrases they speak, quoted back at you is validating, sometimes even invigorating. I’m occasionally surprised when some detail I’ve forgotten is picked up.”

To a large extent, writing makes you lose a layer of skin. “I used to write newspaper reviews in which I’d casually dismiss this or that novel, and doubtless hurt the writer in doing so,” he reflects. “I hardly review books anymore, partly because I’m writing myself but also because I know from the inside the painful slog a writer goes through.”

At the end of every book group evening we write our thoughts about the text under discussion and score it out of ten. This makes it sound very earnest when in fact we’re pretty wine-based. (Actually, the reviews log would be a social historian’s dream in a few decades; it ramblingly records not just what we think about books but reactions to current events, London culture, food, fashion and everything in between. I wish I could come across the seventeenth-century equivalent for my academic research; all I’ve got to go on in terms of reader response is Dorothy Osborne’s letters. But I digress.) We’ve done everything from Trollope to Toynbee and have taken in graphic novels and poetry. In case you’re wondering, the top-scoring book ever was Brideshead Revisited and the lowest was the execrable nonsense that was Fifty Shades, but the latter actually prompted one of our best debates, which was duly recorded. We didn’t score Half Of The Human Race with Tony present, but our reviews, even read in the sober light of day, were effusive.

There was only one criticism. The design of the hardback (below left) is beautiful; it’s taken from an original poster and is in the suffragette colours of white, green and purple. However, the paperback cover  – not Tony’s decision – pictures a couple in silhouette in romantic pose and is, well, a bit sappy.  It’s also a shockingly bad visual spoiler (oops – I just gave away the ending). Do yourself an aesthetic favour and fork out for the hardback.



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