Friday, December 07, 2007


It doesn't get much better than this:

Saturday, December 01, 2007


Been unable to type as a consequence of operation on my hand - but soon back to normal, so finish of Othello coming - don't hold your breath though.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

In black and white 2:

2. Is this a question of Politics or Theatre?

I left off last time with a question – could Iago be played by a black actor?

It is a question with its origins in a debate that took place way back in the 70s when they were casting the first filmed version of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ – Norman Jewison the director, had cast a white Jesus and a black Judas . There was a bit of an outcry at the ‘negative image’ created by such a casting (remember, we are at a time when race issues were to the forefront of politics in a number of countries).

Quite rightly Mr Jewison pointed out that the ‘political correctness’ of those protesting was blinding them to the ‘unprejudiced’ nature of the casting – and that those objecting were, at best, misguided: What is trying to stop a black man from playing a major role in a major filmed musical on the grounds of the colour of a his skin if it is not prejudice?

I think this highlights the problem of political correctness and acting Othello – and also gives the best answer to the problem – to deny any actor the right to play any character in the play on the grounds of their race (and I’d add gender and culture) is just plane wrong – it is a denial of our common humanity and a clear example of prejudice.

It is also a common mistake ‘in understanding’ of the nature of theatre: Nothing on the stage is real – everything is illusion (and isn’t): All the World’s a Stage.

Shakespeare knew all about the illusions of life and the stage and one place he tackles it is in ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream”. His rude mechanicals hang on to the need to ‘bring moonlight’ into the hall they are to perform in – and they have to give the ‘lion’ a speech of denial – don’t be fooled, he’s really a man, not a man eater. Shakespeare is taking a quick kick at the literal minded (and dangerous) Puritans – but also exploiting what for many people at the time was an essential question – what is the nature of reality and the connection between the life we lead and what we really are?

No doubt exists in my mind that Othello is was meant to be looked on as a potential ‘everyman/everywoman’. (I also think the same of Shylock.)

There is a correction in the above paragraph is has been turned to was as I have pointed out elsewhere, the text we have inherited is incomplete: The director, actors and audience do not miraculously shed the contemporary when they enter the theatre – despite the illusions of costumes and design, the obscuring quaintness of some of the language and tedious programme briefs, today is ever present.

I live in a country, Romania, where once performances of Shakespeare could carry a revolutionary message – when Ian McKellen brought his Richard III to Bucharest, the audience knew it was about dictatorship and corrupt political government – just like that of Ceausescu’s.

Whilst not wishing to limit theatre to this potential political dimension, it is a legitimate concern at times and a legitimate function of ‘theatre’. Brecht, after all, did exist. The casting of a white man as Othello can be symptomatic of political and social oppression. How Brecht would have challenged such oppression in the theatre I cannot say – but I can be certain he would have challenged it.

But Stanislavski also existed. And Eisenstein. Russia, during iconoclastic, revolutionary times producing icons for the future of almost the oldest profession in its newest manifestation.

How we got to modern Hollywood from such noble ancestors beggars belief, but we did (sorry – I actually enjoy a lot of the output of Hollywood, but I’ve got my low-grade-intellectual hat on at the moment).

Film, as it appears in Western popular entertainment, promotes a deceptive realism. If a character is meant to be ‘Afro-American’ he has to be played by ‘a person of colour’. The only exception I can think of to this in recent cinema is Antony Hopkins – who played (excellently) an ‘interesting’ part in a ‘worthy’ film about a ‘black’ man whose skin colour was light enough for him to pass as ‘white’ and who eventually gets accused of racism against black students.

Mr Hopkins, of course, also did a brilliant job as Othello in the BBC Shakespeare.

With the majority of people’s exposure to acting and storytelling (and, I suspect, Shakespeare) being essentially ‘filmic’, it is not surprising that a recent conversation I had with one young man, to whom I had lent Orson Welles’ film version of the play, started with the question – “Why didn’t they cast a black actor as Othello?” He went on to say you could tell Othello was wearing makeup.

I wonder if he would ask the same question about a stage performance?

If he lived in the USA most likely – combine the political realities with the deceptive film reality and expectations would be casting to ‘type’.

Over in Britain there has been a tradition of black actors playing Othello (from Paul Robeson onwards) at the same time as more traditional castings such as Laurence Olivier (in a controversial blacked-up performance).

But then again, British theatre productions owe a much stronger debt to Brecht than to almost any other practical theatre theoretician. It is one of those delicious ironies that an approach to theatre designed to focus the audience on social and political issues can result in magnificent musical dross like ‘Cats’ – which, in case you didn’t realise it, employed some of the greatest of Britain’s Shakespearean talent in its original production.

So, to return to my question, is this issue one of Politics, or Theatre?


You have to make a choice – Politics or Theatre: Power or Imagination.

They are not the only choices available nor, necessarily, the most important; neither are they mutually exclusive, but they are certainly potent and polarising.

But what about the acting?

Friday, October 12, 2007

In black and white: A question of Othello?

I’ve been looking at Othello – or rather, I’ve been looking at the skin of Othello. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve watched several versions of the play on DVD and, as a result of a point raised by in a comment (by Ian Thal), I have been not so concerned about the issues raised by the play’s text as about whether a white actor can still ‘black up’ and play the lead.

The answer is obvious – of course they ‘can’ - but then a more troubling word SHOULD replaces the can.

The more I thought about the question, the greater the tangle of ideas became, spreading out wider and wider through many aspects of both theatre and modern life. Three key questions did emerge however:

1. What effect does the social environment an audience lives in have?
2. Is this a question of Politics or Theatre?
3. Is this about typecasting?

I’ll try to tackle each of these issues in turn over my next three posts.

1. What effect does the social environment an audience lives in have?

There is no doubt in my mind that the social context is important to all performances of all plays – that performing Othello, for example in Northern Cyprus will have a considerably different impact from performing it in Moscow; a performance in a Burnley High School for a bunch of very mixed-race-and-religion teenagers, will not carry the same meaning as exactly the same production performed in a pub in Buxton.

All four of the locations chosen above are known to me – I’ve lived and/or worked in each of them. A white actor blacked up would have a varying significance to each member of the audience in each of those locations – but a more generalised reaction is likely to occur.

I suspect few in Moscow would even be aware of an issue existing – it would be considered ‘OK’. There is a frequently-aired-on-TV classic film about Pushkin where the main role is played by a famous Russian stage actor, blacked-up. I find it strange that, in a deeply racist modern Russia, the National Poet is not only thought to have been dark skinned, but to have had slave ancestry: A white actor playing him is ‘normal’ – and his mixed race origin almost a source of pride. Shakespeare’s plays are considered classics and what matters is the quality of the actor – and the idea of quality acting in Russia is something I will return to in a latter post.

Northern Cyprus is somewhat different: Essentially a Muslim country, the location of the setting of the second half of Othello and very ‘British’ in many respects. Again, I have a sneaking suspicion that there would be little impact in the white actor Othello – as long as he ‘Blacked-up’ and didn’t go for the last-year’s-trend of lighter skinned muslim-ish Othello (after the Ottoman envoy picture). I can even imagine Turkish actors happily blacking up to play the part themselves (the ‘uncircumcised dog’ line would have to be cut though)!

What both of these societies have, which they would bring to the performance, is a different focus from modern American and British society with regards to social issues and colour. The word black does not carry the same resonance – in Russia a ‘black’ is anyone who is not essentially fair-skinned: Georgians are blacks to the Muscovite, as are Chechens, and people from Dagestan.

On Cyprus, Greekness and Turkishness are far more relevant than skin colour – Religion, language and culture are so much ‘at issue’ that Othello’s skin could be viewed almost as a tone rather than a colour: In Gazimagusa (former Venetian stronghold on the island) he would be a representative of a defeated European Christian colonial power, and his otherness just an aspect of a greater weakness and disunity which soon resulted in the Ottoman takeover.

The two locations in England bring up a whole set of different attitudes and there is a greater blur between the political and social concerns people will bring to a performance.

Colour and religion are connected in the UK – and the issue of Othello’s ethnicity carries a greater weight, with a different distribution, than in many other societies (including, I suspect, ‘Christian’ USA). Othello has to be ‘surface other’ – he can be other ‘olive’ he can be other ’black’ – but other is essential. But Othello must also be ‘us’ – homo – in both the sense of humankind and oneness: He is ‘yin and yang’ – he is innocence and experience: Angel and devil.

He is homo-genius and homo-simpleton!

In the contemporary mixed race, mixed religion, mixed-gender school, Othello becomes an internet of issues and concerns – a white male actor assuming skin colour is not a ‘nigger minstrel’ – and is; he is both a unity of Britishness and a relic of Elizabethan Englishness and ‘Blackamoor’ attitude.

A ‘black’ male actor – let us say with Caribbean antecedents – looses some of that friction but replaces it with others – race and mixed marriage is strangely brought more to the fore – a white actor, albeit with a black face, is still a white actor – a real black actor is black! In cosmopolitan London this might not signify – in working-class, mixed race Burnley, with its strong far-right nationalisms, it does.

And modern DNA analysis is digging up all sorts of skeletons – African genes brought into Britain with the Romans – and happily bouncing around in the gene pool of the whole of the British Isles ever since. Not to mention the realisation that a sizeable proportion of the 50’s immigrants from Jamaica and the other colonies were carrying not only the slave bloodline but that of the white slave masters mixed forcibly together.

Popular television programmes and national educational requirements mean that some of the audience in this school would know these things – and, hopefully, apply them to the questions raised by the play and its casting.

But what if the actor is neither ‘white’ male nor ‘black’ male – but Pakistani male? Or Jewish? Or Chinese? Each and every one represented in that school audience.

Surely all have a right to an Othello?

A couple of hours car drive away and you could be sitting the pub in front of the Opera House in Buxton during the summer festival – watching a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello (the Opera House would have Verdi’s take – where the question of painted singers doesn’t even raise a butterfly’s wind beat of doubt). Here you are much more likely to have a middleclass, ‘educated’ audience – used to theatre conventions and aware of the ‘classic’ issues – with a degree of respect for the traditions and an eagerness for novelty.

Would race feature in their thoughts more than gender? Is this a question of prejudice or of class? Good and evil in battle for the soul or greed and materialism as a source of the contemporary decline in culture and standards?

Yes, there would be a nod in the direction of should they/shouldn’t they black-up – but after all, this is the theatre – suspension of disbelief and all that – not to mention our own sophistication and the real issues of the play.

I know I am oversimplifying all four potential audiences - but there is a degree of truth (at least as I have witnessed) in all four representations.

As for answering the question, “Should a white actor black up to play Othello?” Well, I think I’ve got as far as yes – and no.

More intriguing a question is, “Could a black actor play Iago?”

(To be continued.)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Friday, October 05, 2007

Oh, the horror, the horror!

At first sight there isn’t much to connect Stephen King with Shakespeare – maybe even at second sight. But I was watching the BBC Othello yesterday when one of those ‘ermmm’ thoughts struck: Iago and Mr. Gaunt.

Mr. Gaunt, from King’s ‘Needful Things’, is unashamedly and unequivocally, a devil: ‘The Gaunt-thing hissed and shook its claws at them,” (pg 780 in my paperback version). He appears, however, a friendly, helpful, elderly man to almost all – delusion and reality.

Iago? Is he a devil or is he a man? Is he a human gone bad or a personification of evil? That’s one debate that’s not going to go away – but the unanswerability of the questions is key to the play – and as I keep trying to persuade people, Shakespeare’s greatness is in the questions he raises and not in any answers he doesn’t provide.

This is also the weakness of King – we get an answer - an ending (sort of happy) and a tag – it’s all starting again, which is so formulaic it is almost a sign of compulsive writing disorder. Evil is defeatable, the American dream is fightable for, small communities just need the right man to protect them, or else . . . blah, blah, blah.

Both Iago and Mr Gaunt work by constructing a false trail – trails that could, at first sight, seem simple jests – tricks and practical jokes which rely on the witless participation of others: King gives us Brian Rusk, Shakespeare, Rodrigo. Both use the weaknesses of their agents, but there is a difference in their victims.

Othello, Desdemona, innocents in black and white, do nothing to further their own destruction in the way Mr. Gaunt’s customers do – they do not, of their own free will, enter the shop. Iago is not playing with people’s bodies so much as with their souls: Whether he knows it is not at issue – he appears motivated by greed, jealousy and spite; he seeks Othello’s mental torture and physical destruction, not his soul’s damnation – but that is what Iago (almost?) achieves.

Gaunt is single-minded in his exploitation of a weakness in a culture – the pursuit of happiness at the expense of life and liberty. There is no chance of resisting because you have already made the choice – you are already damned and Gaunt simple takes you all the way. This dreadful inevitability is a criticism of American materialism and its pernicious effect on everyone from young children to religious leaders, from the town drunk to the town councillor. (Is this sounding as much like ‘sixties hippy’ to you as it is to me?)

At the heart of Shakespeare’s play is the impossibility of giving up free choice – no matter how many times you watch it, you think ‘ don’t believe him’, ‘don’t drink that extra cup’, ‘don’t . . .’: At no point is there an inevitability. Iago, right to the end, doesn’t think there is – in the final act he says he has either succeeded, or he hasn’t.

It seems to me that this is what makes Othello a tragedy – the possibility of an alternative.

It also seems to me to be the thing that makes Mr King’s book a Horror – the simple chain of cause and effect is inescapable.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A girdle round about the Earth

How can I not think of the lines from A Midsummer Nights Dream on the 50th birthday of Sputnik?

And this is a taster of the company I work fors progress into the Space Age - gives a perspective I think to some of the things they get me to do!!!!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Faustus Site and Performance

The BBC and OU have joined together to do a performance this Sunday.

Good site for exploring one of Shakey's rivals - and sources.

This should be available on line!

Click on the title above or on this:


Thursday, September 06, 2007

Me at work!

Results of Shakey and You!

Click on the above or see me here too:

All the World's a Stage:

To Be:

Romeo and Juliet:

Voice of an Angel

(Well, maybe not!)

That's me to the right on stage leading the recent international workshop on texts held in Timisoara.

Click on the link to the name and you can hear me hamming my way through a couple of Shakespeare texts for Librivox.

Can't excuse myself really, but very limited equipment and somewhat rushed - still authentic Farrar.

(Willy Russel did say once that I was a, "King Actor - just like Orsen Welles: Maybe not good, but loud enought to do the BIG parts!"

Saturday, September 01, 2007

From a Southern Scot!


Just in case you don't read the comments - that veritable son of the New Dutch Flatlands has come up with a great link:

Which is something to do with the National Theatre (English version) and has the old man working on Richard the Third.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Right Royal for Free!

You just drop into a site and find things.

The RSC has video to watch - interviews, extracts, bits and bobs.

Why didn't I know that?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ambience and Accident

I'm just coming out of a week of workshop and performance with a mixed group of enthusiastic amateurs and (what I like to refer to as) proto-professionals.

What started off as a performance of a cut down Shakespeare, ended as a most interesting experiment in the application of 'ambience' and 'accident' to a variety of text extracts. The basis remained Shakespeare - as reflected in the 'All the World's a Stage' speech which both started and ended the performance.

On Friday evening, as the sun set, we promenaded the texts in front of an invited audience - in the local botanical garden, a public place which hadn't been closed to 'the public'. Most definitely intended as (as one participant phrased it) a work in progress, resonance and echo, bright bombs of ideas and dud squibs have been infecting my waking thoughts since.

The strongest image I come up with is that of Seurat's, 'La Grande Jatte'.

In that remarkable work, individuals, pairs and small groups are placed in a man adapted landscape: So too with our texts.

Monologue, dialogue and more extended extracts from scenes were placed in a landscape which evolved out of the mixture of human decision and selection, and the more powerful vagaries of natural growth working on a genetic ‘text’.

This is a rational/real-isation ‘After the fact’, but so much of what happens in theatre is precisely thus - no excuse needed.

Environment and text interacted far more powerfully than I anticipated (or hoped for). Indeed, I am not sure I was consciously aware of the potential when I started on the workshops.

What the gardens were originally chosen for – backdrop and oddness, colour and outdoorness, time and light - soon transformed the scenes.

The strongest effect, in performance, was to unify. Under the green wood, along the paths, confined in the fenced space; but much stronger in feeling was the awareness of people – the park was full of humans – like La Grande Jatte on a Sunday morning.

These people were sitting, talking, walking, playing guitar, watching the children – and the ‘actors’ were no different – they too were in the playground, a natural part of the park: Truly, all the world had become the stage.

Each text was given a relevance – and the extracts became caught moments of other people’s conversations.

Caesar was just walking along the footpath amongst a group of friends and between the park people when from another path, across the formality of a flowered bed, the soothsayer shouted her warning – a moment only, then passed on – not time to catch more than an awareness of other people’s lives.

Later, on a zigzag Chinese bridge, over a dry pond, Oberon has just parted from Titania – and calls for Puck to fetch the magic flower – a dog barks as he mentions the singing of the mermaid, children are noisily playing, a family, pushing a child in a buggy stop and watch, then move on – a man with his children had watched the actors ‘rehearsing’ a previous scene – time looped.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Once more unto the breech!

About to start a week intense directing-workshop sessions hopefully resulting in a promenade performance of a cut down version of either 'The Dream' or 'The Tempest'.
The weather is obliging us with appropriate storms and sunny bouts - not to mention national warnings about floods - so both seem appropriate choices.
At the moment the intention is to do the work in English - but we might have to shift to Romanian if the actors ain't up to the language - I don't want to have them 'parrot' what I say.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Performing Again

Not often I have the chance - but a couple of weeks ago I did my best to drag some willing Romanians into Shakey's world.

Striking thing was where and when I performed.

Outdoors, in a courtyard (about the size of a typical pub courtyard), in daylight on a slight platform.

It was impossible not to 'talk' to the audience - when I did the 'monologues' they became multi-logues.

'To be or not,' is dialectic!

We assume Shakspere was being Rhetorical - but he isn't.

More work and thought needed on this one.

Friday, July 13, 2007

For the Actors:

Some notes on Elizabethan character

There are 3 key aspects to understanding the Shakespearean construction of character:

1. The belief in types;
2. The idea of reality;
3. The didactic purpose of art.

1. Types

In the ‘All the World’s a Stage’ speech, Jacques, ‘provides us with a series of little character sketches, all self-contained, each stage apparently deriving nothing from the age before.’ ([Greer) There are ‘rites of passage’ between roles – but the human being is seen as playing stock roles.

An important thing to understand at this point is that these ‘roles’ are not caricatures – Jacques might pencil-in some small details as illustration – but he does use the words ‘Acts’ to describe each period of time – the theatre is aiming to show a complete, not a partial, view. There will appear ‘several’ versions of a type on stage, and frequently one man in one play will act several parts.

If we look at the ‘act’, Soldier in Jacques speech, some interesting detail comes out – applicable to all the soldier roles in Shakespeare’s plays. He is expected to be bearded ‘like the pard’ – marking his masculinity in contrast to the earlier, almost effeminate lover, and marking his rough wildness in contrast with the ‘formal cut’ magistrate.

We might choose to believe ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ – but, ‘clothes maketh the man!’ – very much so in Elizabethan England where rules on how you dressed could determine your right to move through the country. ( I am tempted to suggest modern airport security checks are not much different.)

A beard, is a beard, is a beard – but can you grow one, how thick is it and do you cut it ? The talliban understand that quite clearly.

‘Jealous in honour’ – your soldier has to measure himself against others – he is seeking an almost Mafia-like purity of honour: Whether it is Pistol or Hotspur.

Sudden and quick in quarrel – how else can you be ‘macho’? There is a tiresome stream of quarrelling youth in Shakespeare’s History plays – frequently indulged by their elder relatives – it is, after all, an aspect expected in this role. It is an aspect disrespectful of rank and nationality; both the French Court and the English campfire display it.

What is genius in Shakespeare is not the ‘breaking out’ of the constraints of these characteristics, but the variation he manages to display within the boundaries – and the consequent depth he is able to take our capacity to reflect.

It is a concept of character that is also very useful in displaying sudden change – the change that so frustrates the method actor: Hal becomes, through the ‘rite of passage’ of coronation a new character type – King.

Falstaff, at the same time, possibly as a consequence of the realisation of his true role, turns to the final act – second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, etc.

This concept of character role extends into real life.

2. Reality

The comparison of ‘The World’ to ‘A Stage’ is a very common idea in the Renaissance – way back in the 15th Century, Pico Dello Mirandola, said at the very beginning of his ‘Oration of the Dignity of Man’,

I have read in the ancient writings of the Arabians that Abdala the Saracen on being asked what, on this stage, so to say, of the world, seemed to him most evocative of wonder, replied that there was nothing to be seen more marvellous than man.

(An alternative translation renders the phrase, ‘on this stage, so to say, of the world,’ as ‘in this theatre of the world.’)

And in Shakespeare’s time:

What is our life? A play of passion
Our Mirth the music of division;
Our mother’s wombs the tiring houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy;

(Sir Walter Ralegh)

Shakespeare himself constantly reminded his audience of this idea –

Antonio: I hold the world but as the world … a stage where every man must play his part, and mine a sad one.

Macbeth: Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage . . .

So what, in Ralegh’s terms, is dressed in the tiring house of the womb? What is it that, actor like, plays its part?

The Human Soul.

To quote Greer again:

The soul was not simply a static entity, like an invisible identity card, but a dynamic principle, the fire breathed by God into the clay. Just as the actor animated different trappings in different situations in the same play, and in different plays at different times, the soul animated the protean body through all its changes.

The body and all it goes through – whether it be ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, or ‘a little time to monarchise’ – is just the costume and action of a brief play – the reality, the living soul, endures before and after the illusion of performance.

But the soul is not accessible – you cannot cut it out, you cannot ask it directly – ‘there’s the rub’.

Like some Elizabethan cult of celebrity, the question was constantly asked – what is the actor really like? What does he use when he acts on the stage that truly reflects the real he?

In other words, what is illusion and what truth?

Method acting tends to look for the ‘true’ person within the uniqueness and isolation of individuality and personality – what actions and history have shaped and moulded this character.

To the Elizabethan this is to deny the fundamental principal of ‘free will’ – how could an outside force ‘shape’ and determine the free soul?

To the Elizabethan the question is, ‘What choices have been made?’

Because, to quote Ralegh further:

Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks who doth act amiss;

The theatre can be seen as not just a metaphor, but a real ‘acting out’ of the human situation. Shakespeare never lets go of the play between reality and illusion – and never lets his audience forget the freedom of choice being made – Hamlet’s ‘Thus conscience does make cowards (of us all)’ comes at the end of a question, ‘To Be or ….?’

Conscience is a product of the soul – which was believed to reside in the head - it is a ‘dynamic’ force that interacted with our thoughts giving humans the power to choose, always, between right and wrong.

And like in tennis, where the game is never lost until the last ball, the soul is able to reach god, is free to repent, even up to death.

One of the jobs of the theatre was to illuminate the constant choices being made in daily life and to illustrate the consequences: Art was needed to cut away the detritus of confusion, and the bare stage was a good place to do it.

3. Didactic Purpose

To suggest that Shakespeare and his team were only writing ‘entertainments’ is to miss the significance of the regular, constant and quite widespread attacks that were made on ‘the theatre’ at the time.

The Puritan attacked because acting was seen as lying – imitating speech and actions taught people to be untruthful. Also attacked by the Puritan was the acting of female parts by males (still, and perhaps more, ‘mis-taken’ nowadays), which was seen as just plain evil.

The good councillors of the city of London – and a sizeable proportion of its citizens of worth – disapproved of the theatre not only because of the disease, lewdness and distraction from work engendered by the performances, but also because it raised questions of authority and power.

The need for companies to be ‘under the protection’ of some great Dignity was not only ‘protection’ from prosecution for vagabondage, but also a great way to secure self-censorship from the companies and keep them not ‘off’ the hot topics of the day (Politics and Religion), but within the right, state approved, view.

Plays were used in school to teach boys –serving both as a delight and an instruction. Pupils were taught to ‘read’ pagan classic texts, like Terence, as sources of insight into Christian morality – line by line.

Finally, Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Apologie for Poetry’ makes the didactic claim, as does Hamlet in his ‘mirror up to nature’ speech – which must surely be a typical Shakespearean ‘quote’ of Donatus on Comedy: ‘imitatio vitae, speculum consuetudinis, imago veritatis’ (an imitation of life, a mirror of manners, an image of truth).

What all of these things have in common is the belief that a public performance of a play, not only could, but would with certainty, instruct. It would present ‘a truth’, which the audience would believe and possibly act on. It would thus be a force – whether for good or evil depending on the content and the audience’s point of view.

Shakespeare wrote knowing he had a responsibility to portray ‘… the relation between God and man, of ways of behaviour both ideal and reprehensible, and the demonstration of ethical issues’ (Greer, pg. 28 ).

Another thing that is very special about Shakespeare is that he not only took this duty seriously – but seems to relish the role of teacher – and teacher of the groundlings: He focuses on the ‘uneducated’ on the un-schooled – but he never compromises or writes ‘down’.

In Henry V, the didactic responsibility (as outlined by Greer) gives an extra dimension to both the action and the actors’ performances. (I’m using Henry V as an example – but I think the idea is applicable to all of Shakespeare’s plays.)

The prologue makes a claim for the King – he is Godlike – the god happens to be ‘Mars’, but that would be seen by the Elizabethan’s as a metaphor for an aspect of the ‘True God’: Look at Michaelangelo’s portrayal of Christ in ‘The Last Judgement‘ in the Sistine Chapel, and you have your Mars/Henry. But also look at the portrait of Elizabeth in armour at Tilbury – that also is Henry.

The actor is playing the ‘role’ of King – but so too is the real King – he has also ‘assumed’ the God-given Role. When the prologue points out the stage is just a show – the audience know that the ‘theatre of the World’ is also just a show.

The prologue goes on to point out that the actors are ‘but ciphers’ - one person represents many – a very clear statement of the representative nature of the characters. Pistol is not the portrayal of a real human, but the distillation of many – his characteristics have been selected not on the basis of psychological truth, but verisimilitude. His purpose is to represent and illustrate.

Just as Shakespeare frequently uses blank verse to heighten the language, so he heightens characters – truth can only been seen through art. The real is to be found not in the slavish reproduction of the illusion of the world, but in the artistic recreation of the hidden truth.

Hamlet’s advice to the actors should not be read as a proto-Stanislavskian manifesto – it is an appeal against excess and illusion – but that illusion is as much the illusion of the world as of the stage.

Quotes from Greer:

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Gone You Tube

Just opened a group on You Tube! Quite exciting all this media madness.

Open to all - but note the topic - Romania and Shakspear - not just any old madness.

Hope to post me doing some bits soon.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sir Salman's Shakespeare

Not that I normally turn to the characters of a novel for insights into the characters of Shakespeare's plays, but . . .

Seeing as Sir Salmon (whoops - Sir loin all over again - make that Salman) has just been 'Sired', I dug out of the local British library a copy of 'Fury' - one of the more recent novels of a novelist I enjoyed reading when I lived in countries you could get hold of his books.

There, in the very first chapter, you have a 'doctoral thesis' on the importance of the inexplicable in Shakespeare - and as one character strokes the others finely wrought breast . . .

“. . . at the heart of each of the great tragedies were unanswerable questions about love . . .”

“Why did Hamlet, loving his father . . . delay his revenge while, loved by Ophelia, he destroyed her instead?”

'”and why was Macbeth, a man's man (sic) who loved his king and country, so easily led by the erotic but loveless Lady M. . . .?”

And now the really interesting one!

Othello lacked 'emotional intelligence'. “Othello's incredible stupidity about love, the moronic scale of the jealousy which leads him to murder” was because “Othello doesn't love Desdemona” - the books italics.

‘What?’ a thousand love-lorn loons honk!

But be patient – one thing experience has taught me is that quality writers putting such odd statements into the mouths of their characters usually have something hidden up their sleeves. Rushdie is no exception – he goes on:

He says he loves her “. . . but it can’t be true. Because if he loved her, the murder makes no sense. For me, Desdemona is Othello’s trophy wife, his most valuable and status-giving possession, the physical proof of his rise in a white man’s world.”


So, Othello is just a ‘Material Man’! Makes some sort of sense to me – especially at this end of the capitalist revolution, dot booms and bubbles all over the place (not to mention gold wearing Russian oligarchs, and the less wealthy, but no less ostentatious Romanian BMW-ers).

The ‘Black-eyed Peas’ song and video – ‘My Lumps’ - pops up at this point too. Although I never trust that lot to not be doing a deconstruction on the world – far too intelligent for their own good.

Rushdie’s character hasn’t finished there though:

Othello, as a Moor, is of the Islamic moral universe – “whose polarities are honour and shame. Desdemona’s death is an ‘honour killing’. She didn’t have to be guilty. The accusation was enough. The attack on her virtue was incompatible with Othello’s honour.”

And a nagging suspicion that this is a ‘true reading’ for the contemporary world creeps in – gone are the Romantics at last – get real.

And houses of cards come crashing down.

Could Rushdie have opened up a new, rich vein worth pursuing – an Islamic Othello? Forget all the Christian focused culture clash papers – turn it on its head – Othello is a modern Muslim.

Honour killings are not just taking place in the streets of Lebanon – they are happening in today’s UK. They are not even Muslim-only territory – read Zorba the Greek and you’ll get a real sense of the rural Balkan world today – Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim. I won’t do more than touch on the hopefully resolved ‘Troubles’ of Northern Ireland.

I’ll leave you with some more thoughts on Shakespeare, our contemporary’s, character – thoughts I find deeply disturbing but so potent, reflective of much of the so-called love relationships of the modern world:

“She’s not even a person to him. He has reified her. She’s his Oscar-Barbie statuette. His doll.”

All quotes from Salman Rushdie, Fury, chap 1, Vintage 2002.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


Not everything you think, is true.

Does Makbeth meet fairies or witches?

In a previous post I explored Shakspear and the connection with King James and his little work on Witchcraft.

Now I have the picture of Makbeth's first meeting with the 'witches'. It is from the ‘source’ Shakey would have used for the main elements of the plot – Holinshed’s Chronicles (need to check that – that is what it said on the Internet site I borrowed the picture from).

Now, I don't know about you, but the rather refined looking ladies greeting the Elizabethan 'gents' in the picture above don't quite fit my 'vision' of Macbeth and Banquo's 'black and midnight hags'.

What worries me is that the woodcut might be much closer to Shakspear’s image, and possibly the original production’s costuming, than I would like.

Part of the problem is that I am not sure how to read the picture – there is an iconography here which I am not a party to.

The gent closest to us – Makbeth I’d guess by the way the witches are looking to him – has no armour on – or rather has one symbolic piece, the helmet (possibly a breastplate – but it looks more doublet to me). If he is the victorious body splitting general of Shakspear, he’s had a jolly good wash and got the grooms to work on his horse too. Is the helmet enough to tell the Elizabethan reader this is a military hero? If it is, would it be enough for the Globe’s groundlings?

I notice behind his head is a castle – with some active birds – must be Macbeth’s castle – although they don’t look like Martins to me, more like crows: Does suggest Shakspear looked closely at the picture though.

More crows flying around the ‘castle’ on the top of the head of one of the ‘witches’ too – although these could be clouds. Is that Elizabethan headgear? Maybe not – old fashioned hat? And this one is pretty ugly – broken nose by the looks of it.

Wouldn’t say the others were ugly though – and they don’t look particularly old either – quite smart, upright, well shaped.

I am reminded of Alice Nutter.

For those of you not familiar with the local history of the Pendle area of Lancashire, Alice was hanged for being a witch in the early 17th century: She was something of a lady – comparatively wealthy in fact, and not at all the ‘typical’ Halloween figure. She also just happened to be a catholic, which might have had something to do with the hanging. There were a number of other people (male and female) hanged at the same time – none of them quite of the same social standing.

The clothing on the witches is interesting – looks exotic – the woodcut cutter has taken pains over the patterns on the material – each different, each looking expensive, possibly silk or damask? This would make them stand out to the Elizabethans.

So, ‘from the farthest steep of India’? Spirits of some sort – hence the fairies.

Shakspear gives them beards – there is the slightest suggestion of such in the picture, from the attempt to create shadows. He has us meet them in weather very unlike that of the woodcut – which is quite pleasant. Certainly he takes us further – but how far would he have gone in production?

Nowhere near the broomstick riding cacklers of popular imagination I’d guess.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


The Play's the Thing!

(A nu-Author-ised Version)

The crowd’s quickly filing in through the doors and filling the courtyard of the Globe. A few dark clouds have loomed over since Hercules ran up the flagpole but the wiser, or at least more experienced, Groundlings know they're empty of threat.

A couple of young gents have tried muscling their way on to the stage - it's a new play and a great opportunity for the 'Gulls' to show off their feathers - but they must be new in town: The Globe doesn't allow that sort of thing. They're skulking off to one of the higher levels, faces reddening at the jeers of the apprentice boys.

The usual ladies are plying their trade - they'll need to be quick, the building is almost full and there’re signs of movement in the musicians’ box.

The noise inside is quite deafening, shouts of friends across the floor, apprentices greeting masters and their wives in the galleries running around, a few of the finer folk even higher. It's the new play by Shakspear, one of the actors - something about Hamlet. Several of the audience remember an old play, some even saw it across the river, but it didn't stick in their memories.

Most are expecting plenty of blood - the latest fashion, a good bit of revenge and a few jokes: All know they'll be plenty to talk about after - one of the delights of the new Globe is the arguments in the bars of the stews that take place regularly after one of Shakshaft's concoctions. Several of the crowd are just content to gaze around, mouths open, like dead codfish, stunned by the splendours of the new theatre.

The trumpets blast out and the apprentices cheer. A mix of hissing and hushing is followed by a drum role; the back curtain is thrown open, a couple of ordinance fire and a great loud march sets in.

Straight away the audience understands we’re in a court – some proud king is about to make his entrance, and four stage hands are carrying in the state – so, its official business, big declarations and lots of boasting expected.

In they come. A couple of lackeys in royal livery representing the hundreds of servants who could never fit on the stage, a priest or two, several courtiers – one of whom is an old man, (surely that’s the actor who was playing Caesar last Tuesday?) - there’s Shakspear at the back pretending to be a soldier – and in progresses the King with one of the older boys by his side as the Queen (Time they let him grow a beard and get out of that costume – it fitted him well when he did Titania a couple of year’s ago).

Where’s Burbadge?

Up in the balcony – dressed in black – several of the crowd took him for one of the Gulls who’d managed to sneak in – posing in black – quite a popular colour these days – but the regulation hat’s missing.

Is he a lover, or a puritan? Why’s he up there and not down on stage with the court? Amazing workmanship on that black doublet – rich whoever he is.

Cheers on the stage, echoed by the more roisterous in the crowd, as the King sits in his throne and the Queen takes a chair by his side.

One of the Groundlings bellows, just as he’s about to speak, “Watch out, there’s a black crow above your head!”

This gets a good laugh and gives Burbadge the chance to nod his acknowledgements to the adoring Globe. Great applause and stamping of feet, from some; hisses and shushes from others only stopped by a repeated trumpet clarion – the King rises and attention once again is drawn to the court.

Very few notice the thought behind the eyes of the soldier at the back – but there’ll be changes to the opening of the next performance, if the rest of the play goes well.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

I know not why . . .

So many of the anti-Semitic accusations against Shakespeare's play, 'The Merchant of Venice' rely on Antonio, the Merchant of the title, being seen as 'Innocent, Christian Victim' that I am surprised a lot more attention hasn't been focused on the validity of the assumption.

Actually, I am not surprised.

Antonio is such an anodyne wimp and Shylock such a dynamic powerhouse that any focus on the former at the expense of the later is bound to seem wasted: The same is true of Milton’s Satan – now there’s a scene stealer is ever there was one – poor old god left right out in the celestial cold.

And then there is the circular argument – Elizabethan England was anti-Semitic – we all know that – after all, Shylock’s portrayal is one of the main pieces of evidence isn’t it?

Strange then how many of the great Shylock performances of recent times crack the cliché and reveal not a ‘stereotype Jew’ but a very human, if flawed, character.

But there – you see – hoisted by my own petard - off the subject of Antonio and onto Shylock!

The play starts with Antonio walking on (as though through the streets of Venice) with some friends and he answers a question which must have been asked offstage – the conversation going something like,

Friend: Why are you so miserable? This sadness is very boring!

Antonio: In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.

Cue Romeo (Aye me . . .); Cue Hamlet. Oh the moans, the moans!

Any but the most drunken groundling jumps straight to the point – Melancholy: Quite a fashionable disease at the time – every self-respecting artist, musician or unemployed scholar (not to mention teenage lover) donned the black hat and sighed bad breath over his friends (sorry ladies, women had to go for the hysterics).

Antonio is striking a note of dissonance right from his first “oooooo th” – and there are more to come.

He continues:

It wearies me; you say it wearies you;

Get the feeling he couldn’t give a monkey’s?

But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,

What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born,

I am to learn;

And that’s a half line – cue for a big pause.

Plenty of time for the audience to answer his questions – black bile. Too much earthy heaviness – several potential causes: Several types – so, what’s unbalanced this guy: Unbalanced? Yep – he is suffering from an excess of bile, he is out of harmony with not only the world, but his maker.

And then he jumps in with,

And such a want-wit sadness makes of me

That I have much ado to know myself.

So Antonio has nailed his flag to the mast.

But hold on – Much Ado? Not about nothing surely? And, ‘want-wit’? And, not to know myself?

Either he is serious – as this bunch of friends think; or he is posing – as Gratiano suggests later in the scene.

An interrogation follows – following good Elizabethan medical theory.

As a melancholic, Antonio is under the influence of Saturn – he will exhibit sadness, contrariness and deliberation; earth is the dominant element with the attributes of cold, dry, black sourness. A quick look at Durer’s ‘Melancholia 1’ reveals the ‘gifts’ of Saturn – numbering, measuring counting (land and money) – all low, earthly occupations.

Salerio assumes this is where the source of the Antonio’s trouble lies – excessive worry over his material possessions. Solanio backs him up (both giving essential plot details). Salerio returns with more – jointly giving a total of over 30 lines on the worries of being a merchant. How many in that first London audience must have recognised their daily concerns. The recent discovery off the coast of Cornwall of a vast sunken treasure in silver and gold only adds weight to the assumptions of his friends.

Antonio denies the diagnosis – incidentally confirming his melancholic ‘strengths’ of counting, numbering and deliberation. But am I talking about the merchant or the moneylender? It certainly seems to me as though they are two sides of the same coin.

Solanio makes his second, wild guess – love!

Quickly, and contemptuously, dismissed (although many modern productions choose to ignore this dismissal and try to hang Antonio’s character on a secret homosexual love – I suppose it gives the modern method actor something to worry away at, even though it has nothing to do with what Shakespeare intended).

Solanio seems to give in at this point – you have inherited the sadness from nature – but he does bring up ‘two-headed Janus’ – which again suggests, to me, Shylock and Antonio as aspects of a single unity.

We have not got to a solution when Bassanio, Lorenzio and Gratiano enter – and instantly Solanio bids goodbye:

Fare ye well;

We leave you now with better company.

If Solanio has made the Melancholic diagnosis, then the cure includes companionship, unburdening of the heart, and peace of mind (and music and drama) – all designed to ‘lighten’ the humours and restore balance. He and Salerio are not doing too well – although they are trying – they have business to go to, and that is the last thing Antonio needs to be thinking about – so, a quick exit is called for.

Antonio, sourly, thanks them for their company and doesn’t fail to point out that they are ‘embracing the occasion’ to depart.

This is true – but what is the motive?

Well, that’s a very 20th Century question – Shakespeare, having set the scene of a Melancholic ‘Title’ character, now needs to move the plot on a bit – and introduce a second theme, friendship.

Bassanio is Antonio’s friend – Solanio and Salerio, like Romeo’s mother and father, withdraw to let friends talk and, hopefully, ‘unburden’.

But before that can happen, there is a last stab at the diagnosis – this time from a straight talking Gratiano.

He assumes ‘care’ about earthly things is the cause – and points out how greatly changed Antonio is.

This is one of those important indicators that slip through – how does Gratiano know? What is Antonio doing that is ‘changed’? Surely, like Hamlet, we have visual as well as reported indicators. Antonio must be in black – reduced in finery? Hence the constant assumption ‘material wealth’ is at the bottom of the Melancholy.

Antonio now comes out with the much quoted:

I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano –

A stage, where every man must play a part,

And mine a sad one.

This, of course, is the ‘All the World’s a Stage’ thought – it is, additionally, the ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable; Seems to me all the uses of this world’ of Hamlet.

It is also a half line ending – and Gratiano, not taking this ‘feigned’ nonsense, leaps straight in, playing the fool.

Standard medical treatments are recommended – and an interesting accusation – some men wilfully take on the mantle of Melancholy in order to seem wise – and Antonio doesn’t actually deny this, but says he will talk more.

What are we to make of Antonio’s Melancholy?

Well, the first important point is that Antonio cannot be seen as an example of Christian virtue, in harmony with his maker.

Melancholy, whether feigned or real was an indication of dispair – one of the greater sins to your average Elizabethan – it represented a refusal to enter into a relationship with god.

Next there is the question of the type of Melancholy – and we have dismissed the major contenders – concern for business and love – which leaves us with two further possibilities, ‘The Intellectual’ (indicated by Gratiano) or one not mentioned – The Malcontent.

It was the Malcontent who, finding no place in the social system, joined the extreme religious sects – such as the Puritans or, in Elizabethan England, the Catholics.

And Angelo is most likely in black – just as Malvolio.

Antonio to the groundlings of The Globe, would be seen as a potential figure of fun – and a joke will be played on him which is as cruel as that played on Malvolio. Black humour certainly, arising from the black humor of bile.

But knowledge of this also prepares the audience to expect from Antonio statements of an extreme nature:

The perturbations of melancholy are for the most parte, sadde and fearful, and such as rise of them: as distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire, sometimes furious and sometimes merry in apparaunce, through a kinde of Sardonian, and false laughter, as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversities. Those which are sad and pensive, rise of that melancholick humour, which is the grossest part of the blood, whether it be iuice or excrement, not passing the naturall temper in heat whereof it partaketh, and is called cold in comparison onely. This for the most part is setled in the spleane, and with his vapours anoyeth the harte and passing vp to the brayne, counterfetteth terrible obiectes to the fantasie, and polluting both the substance, and spirits of the brayne, causeth it without externall occasion, to forge monstrous fictions, and terrible to the conceite, which the iudgement taking as they are presented by the disordered instrument, deliuer ouer to the hart, which hath no iudgement of discretion in it self, but giuing credite to the mistaken report of the braine, breaketh out into that inordinate passion, against reason.

- Timothy Bright, A Treatise of Melancholie, (1586), Facsimile Text Society, New York, 1940. p.102.

Taken in this light, the strong anti-jewish sentiments expressed by Antonio cannot be seen as inherent anti-Semitism either in the play or in the playwright.

(Appologies for the not quite right layout - Blogger ain't behaving!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

By Popular Demand

One of those quirky thoughts you get crossing over the bridge coming to work in the morning.

Shakespeare and Warhol have a lot in common.

Like the artist, Shakespeare took what was common in his culture and made people really look at it - not look 'new' so much as look deep.

There is tremendously little originality in Shakespeare in terms of philosophy or politics or plot.

No one looks at the plays in performance though for originality - especially nowadays when everyone has read the text before going into the cinema (whoops, should I have said theatre?).

You want to see a slant on your preconceptions: You want a push towards the edge for the thrill of it.

Must try to sleep more and think less.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


The play of departures!

Just finished the second half of the BBC Henry the Eighth: Jolly good too!

What struck me most was the number of departures - and no one given a bad end.

Written well after the events - in a Protestant country - out of the Tudor reign; and no blame to be seen.

Wolsey dies an honest Christian; Catholic Catherine dies a saint's death; Cranmer - to die at the stake under Catherine's daughter's yoke - is deeply holy and prophesies, at the christening of baby Elizabeth, nothing but glory - and virginity and death.

What was Shakey thinking?

Surely it was written for a court performance under James? It is a chamber piece - so much 'internal' - so protagonist free.

What vice there is, is that of ambition and court pettiness. There is no evil here.

It is the fall of angels. Foreshadows of Milton – Wolsey’s words at his end especially.

And what a production – as close to where it should be as the Beeb could get – genuine Tudor locations (so right for this chamber piece).

But still something missing?

Maybe the theatrical.

How intriguing that the original Globe burnt down during a performance of this play – the theatre itself rebelling at so strange a play?

Friday, May 11, 2007

'enery de aiff!

What a reputation the man has!

(Not Shakespeare this time - Good old 'King Henry'.)

Tudor playboy, musician, sportsman, passionate lover, wife killer, church destroyer, (and saviour) in one.

American WASPs are 'P' because of he.

And Shakespeare has a play with the title, 'Henry VIII'.

Well, it is also known as ‘The Famous History if King Henry the Eight’ but that’s far too long for the playbill and we already know the man is famous.

Not so the play.

I’ve just watched the first half of it in fact – from the BBC complete works.

Surprising really – intelligent matter. You don’t notice that when you read it – and I have only a vague remembrance of watching this performance back in 1979 so I only know it through a dutiful, once only, read.

You expect a different treatment of the characters – and much more vitriol against the Spanish (so far it is the French who have had to suffer a jolly good dose of Great English Xenophobia – can’t keep a respected enemy out of it). Catherine, Henry’s first wife, seems a most sympathetic character.

There is an ambiguity with Wolsey – everyone kicking at his common ancestry and ambition – but he is effective and another not exactly unsympathetic ‘representation’ (especially, one suspects, to a working class chap like Shakey).

And at this point there is a dreadful sense of fate weaving – a dark thread slipping into the cloth of gold.

Is there anything anyone could have done?

Which brings up the parallel with Romeo and Juliet: Several times there are little stage actions and theatrical moments that remind one of the earlier play. There is the masquers interrupting a feast, for example, and a man singling out a young woman – with talk of hands; there is the old worldly wise woman talking to the young girl who pretends an innocence not entirely believable, but not hypocritical.

But with R&J you know it didn’t have to be like that – here there is no escape – and it is not just a personal tragedy, it is National History.

(Image at the top is the 18 year old, newly crowned king: You start to think the poor bugger could have been manipulated into a marriage when you look at that!)