Rising by sin

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On Friday, I was privileged to see a final dress rehearsal of King’s Shakespeare Company’s production of Measure for Measure.  Performed as a cabaret, the production is set in Weimar Germany, and the songs make this a production to remember.  They are fast, witty, tuneful and memorable expressions of the interior lives of the main characters, and they add a depth of meaning to a play which is otherwise confusing.  It is impressive how much intellectual heft and coherence the cabaret setting gives to the play.
The production is directed by Lauren O’Hara, with music by Henry Keynes Carpenter, and the cast includes:  Rhia Abbott, Henry Keynes Carpenter, Hannah Elsy, Freddie Fullerton, Serena Grasso, William Holyhead, and Rupert Sadler.   The production is only on for five nights, tomorrow Monday 21 July to Friday 25 July 2014, at the Bierkeller in Bristol. Go see it if you are anywhere nearby.
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Lucy Corley has a review  here.

The old man

The actor Richard Burton famously played Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1953.    The following story is from a profile of Burton written by journalist John McPhee in 1963 for Time Magazine, and recounted in the current New Yorker  (“Elicitation”, 7 April 2014, p.57):

He [Burton] had completed about 60 performances and the box office was beginning to slide when the house manager came to his dressing room one evening and said, “Be especially good tonight.  The old man’s out front.”
“What old man?”
“He comes once a year,” said the house manager. “He stays for one act and he leaves.”
“For God’s sake, what old man?”
“Churchill.”
As Burton spoke his first line – “A little more than kin, and less than kind” – he was startled to hear deep identical mutterings from the front row.  Churchill continued to follow him line for line, a dramaturgical beagle, his face a thunderhead when something had been cut.  “I tried to shake him off,” remembers Burton.  “I went fast and I went slow, but he was right there.”  Churchill was right there to the end, in fact, when Burton took 18 curtain calls and Churchill told a reporter that “it was as exciting and virile a performance of Hamlet as I can remember.”  Years later, when Winston Churchill – The Valiant Years was under preparation for television, its producers asked Sir Winston who he thought should do the voice of Churchill.  “Get that boy from the Old Vic,” said the old man.
They got that boy from the Old Vic.

Police report: "Romeo and Juliet" scam

Police report of “Romeo and Juliet” Confidence Scam:
Location of crime:  Upstairs Foyer, Greenwood Theatre, Guy’s Campus, King’s College London.
Date of crime:  Evenings of 5th, 6th, 7th February 2014.  The crime may also have been “rehearsed” before these dates on unwitting spectators.
Financial sponsors:  A group calling itself King’s College London English Literary Society.
Nature of crime:  Deconstruction of playwright’s text without single reference to post-colonial or feminist perspectives.   Co-conspirator “The Friar” tore out pages of “Romeo and Juliet” text to manifest true nature of crime.
Key victims:  William Shakespeare, women.
Perpetrator:  Unknown.   Calls himself “The Director”.   Identity: Elusive.  Real identity unknown.  May use pseudonyms: W. Nash, Rookie Monster, DPR, Edward Snowden.
Known Co-conspirators:  Marcus “The Friar” Bazley, Hillary “The Counsellor” Chua, Laura “Juliet” Deering, Jackie “Lady Capulet” Edwards, Matthew “Romeo” Hodson.  Others involved in supporting the scam thought to be:  Catherine Walters, Elena Gillies, Emma Lawrence, Aja Garrod, Aggi Cantril, Sophie Omar, and Kate Gardener.  Notes found at crime scene indicate others may also have assisted, almost certainly without realizing the consequences.
Modus Operandi:  Perp takes out-of-copyright play text, reducing number of characters, even using unwitting mark in audience to play role in deception.  Play cut down and cut up, and done as crime scene investigation, with scenes “reconstructed” by “actors”.  Legal counsel present to narrate events and give illusion of objectivity.
Perp uses intelligence and wit to produce amusing, clever, and sophisticated version of play, which is used as a “script” that is then executed (“performed”) by co-conspirators in front of marks.   Performance of script of professional standard, and very realistic.  Thus, marks easily deceived and soon suspend disbelief.    Only one of the known co-conspirators is believed to actually make his living in theatre.  Remaining co-conspirators possibly being groomed.
Co-conspirators take on “roles” to execute script.  Thus, “The Friar” is a Cockney ex-junkie offering life advice to the other conspirators, along with marriage ceremonies and store-and-forward messaging services;   “Romeo” is a lovestruck young man, writing dreamily in his Moleskine; “Lady Capulet” is a tyrant of the household interior, a dictator of the domestic.  The different “roles” cleverly interleave, and jointly enable confidence scam.  Indeed, witnesses report that the acting was so intense that it approached the threshold of caricature, but without ever crossing  that threshold,  making the performances thrilling to watch.  Co-conspirators all appear to be under direct influence of Perp.
Co-conspirators use a variety of names, including real names, to confuse audience about when co-conspirators are “acting” in their “roles”, and when not.   Humour and wit used to distract attention of audience from reconstruction of double suicide, following madness of young love, set amongst inter-gang warfare in inner-city Italy.
Toying with nature of “acting” indicates this is crime of real sophistication by people with extensive experience in deception and illusion.   Perp and co-conspirators may have worked in Elizabethan theatre before.  Crime shows many hallmarks of two known literary deceivers and wits with Elizabethan previous, Thomas Nashe and Kit Marlowe.  Neither likely involved:  Nashe believed deceased, Marlowe either deceased (Deptford Regional Office view) or living in exile in Italy.
Production involves post-coitus scene, drugs, violence, suicide, and death.  No rock and roll, but.   One person injured by vicious slap.   Music deployed very effectively to “set the scene” and relax audience in preparation for confidence scam, and at various times during the operation to manipulate emotions of marks.
Use of Barber’s Adagio for Strings obviously intended as subtle allusion to FDR’s funeral and Oliver Stone’s film about Vietnam.  This double allusion should allay concerns of English Department about absence of references to post-colonial oppression and the wickedness of US global hegemony, as well as providing a warm glow of self-satisfaction to the one person who caught the allusions.
Related scams:  West Side Story, High School Musical.
Known beneficiaries of scam:

  1. Perp and co-conspirators
  2. KCL English Literary Society
  3. Greenwood Theatre
  4. King’s College London
  5. The Horseshoe Inn, Melior Street, London
  6. The London theatre world
  7. The audience.

Progress of investigation:  Police seeking the 132 witnesses to garner further information.
Public warning:  These people are armed with professional acting skills and are very dangerous.   Perp may be serial dramaturge, intent on career in intelligent theatre or deception.  Co-conspirators capable of superb acting at the highest level.
Deptford Regional Office reports rumour that next confidence scam may take place in Copenhagen.
Conspirators also believed to hold raucous after-play parties to celebrate success of scam, involving alcohol, tobacco, witty conversation, and profound arguments about the existence of God and the nature of relationships.  Kit Marlowe would feel at home.  US State Department Advisory:  Americans visiting London particularly at risk.
Note:  Potential side-effects of scam include reviews written as police-reports, pretentiously imitating style of the production itself.

Writing Shakespeare 2

I have previously argued that merely from a reading of the text of Shakespeare’s plays, it is clear that the author of the plays is William Shakespeare.  Only he has the regional, professional, religious and family background needed to have written the specific words we find there.  Garry Wills now has an interesting analysis in this vein, drawing particularly on the use of boy actors for women’s parts (required by the law at the time), and the constraints this created for playwrights.  I am reminded of the constraints that writers of TV soap-operas work under.

Those who doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare are working, usually, from a false and modern premise. They are thinking of the modern playwright, a full-time literary fellow who writes a drama and then tries to find people who will put it on—an agent to shop it around, a producer to put up the money, a theater as its venue, a director, actors, designers of sets and costumes, musicians and dancers if the play calls for them, and so on. Sometimes a successful playwright sets up an arrangement with a particular company (Eugene O’Neill and the Province- town Players) or director (Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan), but the process still begins with the writer creating his script, before elements are fitted around it, depending on things like which directors or actors are available for and desirous of doing the play. Producers complain that it is almost impossible to assemble the ideal cast for all the roles as the author envisioned them in his isolated act of creation. The modern writer owns the play by copyright and can publish it on his or her own, whether produced or not. None of these things was true of dramatic production in Shakespeare’s time.
Continue reading ‘Writing Shakespeare 2’

Hamlet by the Moskva

The re-assignment last week of Vladislav Surkov, formerly Chief of Staff for the Russian President, following the opposition protests, reminded me of the fascinating profile of Mr Surkov in the London Review of Books by Peter Pomerantsev two months ago.  The profile ended with a sinister interpretation of Hamlet:

‘Life in Russia,’ the journalist told me in the democratic bar, ‘has got better but leaves a shitty aftertaste.’ We had a drink. ‘Have you noticed that Surkov never seems to get older? His face has no wrinkles.’ We had more drinks. We talked about Surkov’s obsession with Hamlet. My companion recalled an interpretation of the play suggested by a literature professor turned rock producer (a very Moscow trajectory).
‘Who’s the central figure in Hamlet?’ she asked. ‘Who’s the demiurge manipulating the whole situation?’
I said I didn’t know.
‘It’s Fortinbras, the crown prince of Norway, who takes over Denmark at the end. Horatio and the visiting players are in his employ: their mission is to tip Hamlet over the edge and foment conflict in Elsinore. Look at the play again. Hamlet’s father killed Fortinbras’s father, he has every motive for revenge. We know Hamlet’s father was a bad king, we’re told both Horatio and the players have been away for years: essentially they left to get away from Hamlet the father. Could they have been with Fortinbras in Norway? At the end of the play Horatio talks to Fortinbras like a spy delivering his end-of-mission report. Knowing young Hamlet’s unstable nature they hired the players to provoke him into a series of actions that will bring down Elsinore’s rulers. This is why everyone can see the ghost at the start. Then when only Hamlet sees him later he is hallucinating. To Muscovites it’s obvious. We’re so much closer to Shakespeare’s world here.’ On the map of civilisation, Moscow – with its cloak and dagger politics (designer cloak, diamond-studded dagger), its poisoned spies, baron-bureaucrats and exiled oligarchs who plan revolutions from abroad, its Cecil-Surkovs whispering into the ears of power, its Raleigh-Khodorkovskys imprisoned in the Tower – is somewhere near Elsinore.

Reference:
Peter Pomerantsev [2011]:  Putin’s Rasputin. London Review of Books, 33 (20): 3-6 (2011-10-20).

Ein Deutsche Hamlet


Earlier this month, I caught Schaubuhne Berlin’s Hamlet at the Barbican London.  What an amazing ride!  This was Hamlet as a comedy – contemporary, knowing, witty, and alive.   I imagine the experience is the closest we could come to a modern version of the experience that Shakespeare’s own audience would have had.  The play was presented in German (mostly), with English surtitles.
The performance began with the words from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, ending with “and perchance to dream”.  Was all that followed, then, a dream?   We were confronted with grainy, silent black and white images of people in dark formal dress, like newsreels of pre-war Eastern Europeans.  Again, was this a deliberate allusion, perhaps a reminder of the last time we all were happy innocents prior to a great crime.   Only after some time did we realize that the film we were seeing was not some collection of past newsreels, but live shots of the actors at the back of the stage, taken by young Hamlet wielding a hand-held video camera.
The first scene of the play then was the burial of old Hamlet, with lots of theatrical dirt and hose-pipe rain.    The dirt and often the rain were present throughout the performance, like some muck that stuck to everyone regardless of how often they cleaned it off.  The funeral degenerated into farce, and then the real fun began: the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude was presented as a typical Balkan wedding, with kitschy music, belly dancing, drunken announcers, and even  –  a very funny touch of realism here – someone firing off a machine gun.  We learn this was Laertes!
Much of the humour, in the German theatrical tradition perhaps, was slapstick and not to my taste.  Why did Hamlet have to wear a fatsuit, for example?   Some of the humour, however, was witty and clever.  Three times the actors turned to the audience, the house lights going up, and we then became part of the action.  The best of these times was during the late soliloquy of Claudius (Act 3, scene 3) – when he seems to confess:  “O my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven.”  Claudius played this scene as an episode of a Jerry Springer show, coming down as the compere into the audience to ask our opinions of the offence.
Several times, too, the actors pretended to lose their place or forget their words (in German), so looked up to the English surtitles to see what they should be saying next.  Similarly, great fun was had when the court was informed that Hamlet intended to stage a play.  Well, Claudius was informed, not so much a play as a theatre-piece (“theaterstuck”); Claudius repeated this word with all the disdain one can imagine a man of his age and class having for avant-garde theatre.  This was very funny.   Even the final death scene, although mostly serious, was played for laughs, with all us knowing that it was an act and not for real.
Because the cast was small (six actors), there was much doubling.   A different coloured wig transformed Gertrude to Ophelia, and the transformation of the actress, Judith Rosmair, from a middle-aged, Jacqueline Kennedy-lookalike  to teenage girl was immensely convincing.  Her voice, her words, her stance, her mannerisms, her movements – all changed, and instantly.  And how clever to allude to Mrs Kennedy-Onassis when portraying Gertrude!  Hamlet was played by Lars Eidinger.
This was “Hamlet” done brilliantly, original and thought-provoking.   And immensely funny.   Superb!
Any earlier review of the Berlin production is here.  And a Liverpudlian blog devoted to Hamlet is here.
(HT: Benjamin Leitch.)

East of my day's circle


I have written before about Robert Southwell SJ, poet, martyr and Shakespeare’s cousin, and quoted some of his poems.  Southwell (c. 1561-1595) was an English Jesuit from an aristocratic family, whose mother had been a governess and friend of Queen Elizabeth I.  He left England illegally to study for the priesthood and returned — again illegally — to live and minister in secret to England’s oppressed Catholic population.  He was captured, tortured by Elizabeth’s sadistic religious police, subjected to a show trial, and publicly executed.
Southwell was a poet of fine sensitivity, and drew on his Jesuit spiritual training to become the first English poet to develop personation (or subjectivity), a psychologically-real description of the interior self.   His cousin Will Shakespeare was to adopt this idea in his poetry and plays, so that (for example) we learn about Hamlet’s internal mental deliberations, not only about his public actions and conversations.  The late Anne Sweeney argued that Southwell developed personation in his poetry as a direct result of completing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Lopez of Loyala, a process of meditation and self-reflection which all Jesuits undertake. In her words (p. 80):

The core experience of the Ignatian Exercises was the reading and learning of the hidden self, the exercisant learning to define his reponses according to a Christian morality that would then moderate his behaviour. After a powerfully imagined involvement in, say, Christ’s birth, he was required to withdraw the mind’s eye from the scene before him and redirect it into himself to analyse with care the feelings thereby aroused.”

It would be interesting to know if Ignatius himself drew on literary models from (eg) Basque, Catalan or Spanish in devising the Exercises.

Living underground and on the run, Southwell wrote poetry for a community unable to obtain prayer books or to easily hear preachers;  poetry was thus a substitute for sermons and for personal spiritual counselling, and a form of prayer and spiritual meditation.  His poetry is also strongly visual.
Because the Jesuit mission to England during Elizabeth’s reign was forced underground it is not surprising that Jesuit priests mostly lived in the homes of rich or noble Catholics, or Catholic sympathizers, sometimes hidden in secret chambers.    It is more surprising that there were still English nobles willing to risk everything (their wealth, their titles, their freedom, their homeland, their lives) to hide these priests.   One such family was that of Philip Howard, the 20th Earl of Arundel (1557-1595), who was 10 years a prisoner of Elizabeth I, refusing to recant Catholicism, and who died in prison without ever meeting his own son.   Howard’s wife, Anne Dacre (1557-1630), was also a staunch Catholic.  The earldom of Arundel is the oldest extant earldom in the English peerage, dating from 1138.
The Howard’s London house on the Thames was one of the noble houses which sheltered Robert Southwell for several years.    The location of their home, between the present-day Australian High Commission and Temple Tube station,  is commemorated in the names of streets and buildings in the area:  Arundel Street, Surrey Street, Maltravers Street (all names associated with the Arundel family), Arundel House, Arundel Great Court Building, the former Swissotel Howard Hotel, and the former Norfolk Hotel (now the Norfolk Building in King’s College London) in Surrey Street.    Maltravers Street is currently the location for a nightly mobile soup kitchen.   Of course, in Elizabethan times the Thames was wider here, the Embankment only being built in the 19th century.   One can still find steps in some of the side streets leading to the Thames descending at the edge where the previous riverbank used to be, for instance on Milford Lane.
Southwell also, it seems, spent time in the London house of his cousin Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624), who was also Shakespeare’s patron and cousin.    Southampton’s house then was a short walk away, in modern-day Chancery Lane, on the east side of Lincoln’s Inn fields.   Southampton was part of the rebellion of Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601) against Elizabeth in February 1601. The London house of Essex was also along the Thames, downstream and adjacent to that of the Howard family.  The street names there also recall this history:  Essex Street, Devereaux Court.
Supporters of Essex, chiefly brothers of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (1564-1632), paid for a performance of Shakespeare’s play, Richard II, the evening before the rebellion.   Percy was married to Dorothy Devereaux (1564-1619), sister of Robert, and was regarded as a Catholic sympathizer.  Percy also employed Thomas Harriott (1560-1621), a member of the matherati. Given the physical proximity of these noble villas, it is likely too that Southwell and Harriott met and knew each other.
And, weirdly, Essex and Norfolk are adjacent streets in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, too (close by and parallel to Orchard Street).
References:
The image is Shown a plan of Arundel House, the London home of the Earls of Arundel, as it was in 1792 (from the British Library).  The church shown in the upper right corner is St. Clement Danes, now the home church of the Royal Air Force.
Christopher Devlin [1956]: The Life of Robert Southwell: Poet and Martyr.  New York, NY, USA:  Farrar, Straus and Cudahy.
Robert Southwell [2007]:  Collected Poems. Edited by Peter Davidson and Anne Sweeney.  Manchester, UK:  Fyfield Books.
Anne R. Sweeney [2006]: Robert Southwell: Snow in Arcadia:  Redrawing the English Lyric Landscape 1586-1595. Manchester, UK:  Manchester University Press.

Writing Shakespeare

Since the verified facts of Shakespeare’s life are so few, even a person normally skeptical of conspiracy theories could well consider it possible that the plays and poetry bearing the name of William Shakespeare were written by A. N. Other. But just who could have been that other?
Well, even with few verified facts about Shakespeare’s life, we can know some facts about the author of these texts by reading the texts themselves.  Whoever was the author must have spent a lot of time hanging about with actors, since knowledge of, and in-jokes about, acting and the theatre permeate the plays.  Also, whoever it was must have grown up in a rural district, not in a big city, since the author of the plays and the poetry knows a great deal about animals and plants, about rural life and its myths and customs, and rural pursuits.  Whoever it was also had close connections to Warwickshire, since the plays contain words specific to that area.
Also, whoever it was must have had close personal or family connections to the old religion (Catholicism), since many of the plays make detailed reference to, or indeed seem to be allegories of, the religious differences of the time (Wilson 2004, Asquith 2005). Whoever it was was close enough to the English court to write plays which discussed current political issues using historically-relevant allegories, yet not so close that these plays themselves or their performances (with just one exception) were seen as interventions in court intrigues.
Whoever it was also knew well the samizdat poetry of Robert Southwell, poet and Jesuit martyr, since some of the poetry and plays respond directly to Southwell’s poetry and prose (Wilson 2004, Klause 2008). To have responded to Southwell’s writing before 1595, as the writer of Shakespeare’s narrative poems and early plays did, required access to Southwell’s unpublished, illegal, dissident manuscripts.  Southwell and Shakespeare were cousins (Klause 2008 has a family tree).
And finally whoever it was was not a playwright or poet already known to us, since these texts differ stylistically from all other written work of the period, while exhibiting strong stylistic similarity among themselves.
There is only one candidate who fits all these criteria, and his name is William Shakespeare. Anyone seriously proposing an alternative to Shakespeare as the author of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry needs to explain how that person could have written poetry and plays with all the features described above. Every alternative theory so far advanced – Kit Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth I, et al. – falls at the factual hurdles created by the texts themselves.
Note: Klause [2008, p. 40] presents a genealogy which shows that Robert Southwell and William Shakespeare shared a great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Sir Robert Belknap (c. 1330-1401, Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas of England, 1377-1388) – Southwell through his mother, Bridget Copley, and Shakespeare through his mother, Mary Arden.  In addition, the great-great-grandfather, Sir John Gage, of Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, was also grandfather to Edward Gage, husband of Margaret Shelley, Southwell’s mother’s first cousin and, like his mother, a descendant of Sir Robert Belknap.  In the extended families of Elizabethan society, all three – Shakespeare, Southwell and Wriothesley – would have been seen as, and would have known each other as, cousins.   The bonds across such extended family relationships were strong.   Having lived in contemporary societies (in Southern Africa) where extended families still play a prominent role (Bourdillon 1976), the strong loyalty and close brotherhood engendered across such apparently-distant connections is perfectly understandable to me, if not yet to all Shakespeare scholars.
References:
Clare Asquith [2005]: Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.  UK: Public Affairs.
Michael F. Bourdillon [1976]: The Shona Peoples: An Ethnography of the Contemporary Shona, with Special Reference to their Religion. Shona Heritage Series. Gwelo, Rhodesia (now Gweru, Zimbabwe):  Mambo Press.
John Klause [2008]:  Shakespeare, the Earl and the Jesuit.  Madison, NJ, USA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Anne R. Sweeney [2006]: Robert Southwell: Snow in Arcadia:  Redrawing the English Lyric Landscape 1586-1595. Manchester, UK:  Manchester University Press.
Richard Wilson [2004]: Secret Shakespeare:  Studies in Theatre, Religion and Resistance. Manchester, UK:  Manchester University Press.