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Illyria Online

Tamburlaine (RSC, 29 August 2018)

Juliano Zaffino

 © RSC,  Tamburlaine

© RSC, Tamburlaine

Tamburlaine has for years been one of my favourite plays-I've-never-seen, having read Christopher Marlowe's two-part epic for an undergrad paper. Approaching Michael Boyd's condensed production I was filled with trepidation; excitement to see this rarely-performed piece of brutality, disappointment that it was being directed by an old white dude (especially after Kim Sykes' incredible production of Dido, Queen of Carthage in 2017, and a season so far defined by female directors for every show in both the RST and the Swan), and uncertainty that I would enjoy it as much in performance (three and a bit hours later) as I did on the page.

 © Ellie Kurttz, RSC (David Rubin as Techelles, Zainab Hasan as Anippe, Rosy McEwen as Zenocrate, Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine, Ralph Davis as Agydas, Salman Akhtar as Capolin, Riad Richie as Usumcasane, and Naveed Khan as Kasap)

© Ellie Kurttz, RSC (David Rubin as Techelles, Zainab Hasan as Anippe, Rosy McEwen as Zenocrate, Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine, Ralph Davis as Agydas, Salman Akhtar as Capolin, Riad Richie as Usumcasane, and Naveed Khan as Kasap)

This production is one of the strongest I have ever seen, at the RSC or elsewhere. My reservations towards Michael Boyd were clearly misplaced, given the cast's overall excellence and (perhaps only relative) diversity, and the sheer boldness and creative fearlessness that defines the production as a whole. Heavily- and very well-edited, each part of the play lasts about an hour and a half and straddles the interval, meaty and action-packed and lacking any fat – every word, every gesture and moment of stillness or silence is necessary and brutal, from the initial capture (if that's the right word) of Zenocrate, to the various usurpations, the slaughter of the virgins, the wars, the torture of enemies, the burning of the religious books. The slaughter of the virgins was especially visceral, gasp-inducing and with an incredible use of the spectacular set and the buckets-of-blood motif.

 © Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Yasmin Taheri as Virgin of Damascus)

© Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Yasmin Taheri as Virgin of Damascus)

Boyd has selected such an incredible cast that it will be hard to pick favourites, and has done some incredible work with role doubling (and tripling, quadrupling...), for instance Mycetes, Soldan, Almeda and Amasia, all played to tragicomic perfection by Mark Hadfield, who unifies these significant comparable characters and, on occasion, draws attention to the convention, the theatre and the absurdity. Rosy McEwen, meanwhile, following a chilling and too-believable performance as Zenocrate, becomes Tamburlaine's nemesis Callapine for much of the second half, a shift from his constant companion to his constant thorn, and a brilliant way to get even more use out of an incredible performer.

 © Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine and Mark Hadfield as Mycetes)

© Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine and Mark Hadfield as Mycetes)

The use of multirole seemed to make an interesting comment on karma and the nature of power struggles, never so clearly than at the end of part one and the start of part two, where the dead Bajazeth, Zabina and the King of Arabia (Sagar I M Arya, Debbie Korley and Ralph Davis respectively, three of the strongest members of the very strong cast) rise, stare menacingly after Tamburlaine to the sound of tense percussion, and stalk off-stage, returning after the interval to crown themselves as their next characters, further enemies of Tamburlaine: the King of Trebizon, the King of Syria and Orcanes, respectively.

 © Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Sagar I M Arya as King of Trebizon, Ralph Davis as Orcanes, and Debbie Korley as King of Syria)

© Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Sagar I M Arya as King of Trebizon, Ralph Davis as Orcanes, and Debbie Korley as King of Syria)

Later, when this trio are captured (along with James Clyde's King of Jerusalem) by Tamburlaine, they draw his carriage and face further torture, a devastating portrayal of people animalised by individuals and regimes and a mystifyingly cruel world. Tamburlaine's accumulation of crowns and gold, in the cage-as-carriage that had once imprisoned Bajazeth, is the perfect call-back to the gold backdrop used briefly at the play's beginning (see first photo above), a deceptive indication of Tamburlaine's wealth. This new gold then shows Tamburlaine finally embodying the powers he always laid claim to, ever the self-fulfilling prophecy.

 © Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Sagar I M Arya as King of Trebizon, Ralph Davis as Orcanes, Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine, James Clyde as King of Jerusalem, and Debbie Korley as King of Syria)

© Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Sagar I M Arya as King of Trebizon, Ralph Davis as Orcanes, Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine, James Clyde as King of Jerusalem, and Debbie Korley as King of Syria)

Tamburlaine himself of course carries the play, a constant focaliser, and there is no better than Jude Owusu, commanding and charismatic and a true "terror to the world", each word effortlessly communicated not just through his arresting voice but through the body, a testament to the voice and text work done by Alison Bomber. The audience are not once allowed to escape Owusu's illusion, never doubting his absolute command over the course of his meteoric rise. Even at his most atrocious we are on his side, wholly and devotedly. 

 © Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Raj Bajaj as Calyphas, Rosy McEwen as Zenocrate, and Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine)

© Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Raj Bajaj as Calyphas, Rosy McEwen as Zenocrate, and Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine)

One of the most impressive aspects of the show is Tom Piper's design, black and metallic and imposing, sparse enough to evince many places, removed from time, open to multiplicities. James Jones' work as composer and musical director, crafting the most intense and thumping percussive score (oft accompanied by a violin), well synchronised with idiosyncratic and ominous and imposing movement from Liz Raniken. Every aspect of the show comes together for a slick bloodbath, an unforgiving meditation on absolute power and ambition, a self-made god, in a play written at a time not unlike ours, where people are kept down by powers greater than them, made to think that the rich and the powerful have a godlike hold on the hierarchies of the world. In Michael Boyd and his company's very competent hands, Marlowe's notorious play has never been such vital viewing, and may not be again for quite some time.

 © Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Vivienne Smith as Ebea, Debbie Korley as Zabina, and Shamia Chalabi as the Turkish Messenger)

© Ellie Kurttz, RSC (Vivienne Smith as Ebea, Debbie Korley as Zabina, and Shamia Chalabi as the Turkish Messenger)

The Merry Wives Of Windsor (RSC, 27 August 2018)

Juliano Zaffino

 © RSC,  The Merry Wives Of Windsor

© RSC, The Merry Wives Of Windsor

Fiona Laird's irreverent 2018 production of William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives Of Windsor is perhaps one of the clearest examples of a near-perfect production of a terrible, terrible play. Shakespeare, despite the general consensus, was not a supreme and faultless genius and Merry Wives is unreservedly amongst his worst works, between textual issues and the unbearable existence of Falstaff, the lack of anything human and meaningful, the excess of dick jokes. It is, bluntly, a lemon.

 © Manuel Harlan, RSC (Jonathan Cullen as Dr Caius and Stevie Basaula as John Rugby)

© Manuel Harlan, RSC (Jonathan Cullen as Dr Caius and Stevie Basaula as John Rugby)

But in Laird's hands, the production is beautifully disrespectful to Shakespeare (for the most part), avoiding the blind awe and forced gravitas often ascribed to him and his works. The blatant "TOWIE" inspired marketing is a stroke of genius, perfectly setting the tone for the lavishness, the melodrama, the outrageousness, the modernity (and, in many ways, the triviality inherent to the play). A play with no stakes is made bearable by its instant zany humour, a montage introducing every single character in all their stock glory full of physical humour, scored by cute, twee, chintzy, pseudo-Victorian instrumentation which shifts suddenly to thumping modern electronica.

 © Manuel Harlan, RSC (Karen Fishwick as Anne Page and Luke Newberry as Fenton)

© Manuel Harlan, RSC (Karen Fishwick as Anne Page and Luke Newberry as Fenton)

A strong ensemble nails the comedy and the fun. Karen Fishwick's Anne Page and Luke Newberry's Fenton are an adorable and hopeless couple who you're rooting for even as you're scornfully scoffing at; Tim Samuels' constant look of bemused and/or overwhelmed uncertainty made Shallow one of the funniest characters, along with both David Acton's Sir Hugh Evans and Jonathan Cullen's Dr Caius, a double-act for the ages. Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter was by turns hilarious and endearing, a combination not dissimilar from the loveable idiot Mistress Quickly, played to perfection by Ishia Bennison. And then Bardolph, Nym, and Robin (Charlotte Josephine, Josh Finan, and Nima Taleghani, respectively), small roles that they are, were each relatable, imbued with personality and, even more so, scores of laughs.

 © Manuel Harlan, RSC (Jonathan Cullen as Dr Caius, Tim Samuels as Shallow, Tom Padley as Slender, Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter, and Paul Dodds as George Page)

© Manuel Harlan, RSC (Jonathan Cullen as Dr Caius, Tim Samuels as Shallow, Tom Padley as Slender, Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter, and Paul Dodds as George Page)

Surely the critical anticipation is on Falstaff, the bafflingly-beloved misogynistic oaf, and surely David Troughton is a natural Falstaff (especially following his turn as the absurd and bleakly comic Titus Andronicus in 2017). But the real stars of the show are the eponymous wives – merry indeed – Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly as Mistresses Page and Ford, laughable and loveable, a scheming due showcasing the very best in women-supporting-women, each triumphing (hand-in-hand) against husbands, conspirators and, most of all, the intolerable Falstaff.

 © Manuel Harlan, RSC (Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford, Ishia Bennison as Mistress Quickly and Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Page)

© Manuel Harlan, RSC (Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford, Ishia Bennison as Mistress Quickly and Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Page)

I do have two key issues with this production that keep it just outside of arms' reach of perfection. The first is the questionable framing device opening the play, featuring the pre-recorded voice of (vomit) William Shakespeare receiving a letter (yup) from Queen Elizabeth (yup) requesting a new play about Falstaff be written in less than two weeks, to be performed for her personal pleasure. Aside from peddling a popular myth, this device also perpetuates problematic notions of Shakespeare's supposed genius, his status as a national (and nationalistic) figure, and establishes from the very beginning a reverence for Shakespeare that has no place in the rest of the production. The other issue, more widespread not just in the production, not just in the RSC's repertoire for the past few years, but in theatre (and especially comedy) on the whole, is the use of excessive effeminacy and camp for laughs, coding characters as secretly gay or at the very least laughably femme, for cheap and universal laughs. And some of the "gay jokes" work (the Caius/Nym resolution, for instance), but most of it is tired, boring, frustrating.

 © Manuel Harlan, RSC (David Troughton as Sir John Falstaff and Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford)

© Manuel Harlan, RSC (David Troughton as Sir John Falstaff and Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford)

In terms of production, Lez Brotherston's design is perfect, a combination of the quaint and the modern, doing the absolute most with its scant components to create multiple spaces cleanly and entertainingly (such as Mistress Ford's poolside garden), integrated flawlessly with Tim Mitchell's lighting. Director Fiona Laird also provides the exquisite music for the production, while Sam Spencer-Lane's choreography made the most of the large cast, the clever design, and the mostly electronic soundtrack. Concluding with a farcical denouement, some bona fide spectacle theatre and, finally, a feel-good dance number, this is a production that overcomes its problematic opening and bouts of weakness, cementing itself as the most entertaining production to play on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's stage in recent memory.

 © Manuel Harlan, RSC (The Company)

© Manuel Harlan, RSC (The Company)

Romeo & Juliet (RSC, 1 May 2018)

Juliano Zaffino

 © RSC,  Romeo & Juliet

© RSC, Romeo & Juliet

Following on from one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, Macbeth, the RSC have staged the next in their current season, Shakespeare's most famous tragedy/play in general, the one that everyone knows (even if it's just through Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes' teenage performances): Romeo & Juliet. Erica Whyman has brilliantly directed a play burdened by its own legacy, and I found myself actually enjoying most of the performance, despite my general antipathy towards the play, and the apathy I had towards the marketing campaign. (That's not necessarily an insult – it's not that I hated their marketing, but rather that it felt uninspiring and uninspired... but that's another story entirely.) This is a production that made me smile, and that's not always a given with Shakespeare.

 © Topher McGrillis, RSC (Nima Taleghani as Abraham + The Company)

© Topher McGrillis, RSC (Nima Taleghani as Abraham + The Company)

Karen Fishwick is the most compelling Juliet, full of strength and a genuinely commanding presence, asserting not only her character's independent will but also the value of a character like Juliet even now, centuries later, at a time where debates about female agency are taking centre stage more and more. On the other hand, Bally Gill’s Romeo, while convincing in his shared scenes with Juliet, doesn’t always hit the mark elsewhere.

 © Topher McGrillis, RSC (Karen Fishwick as Juliet + Bally Gill as Romeo)

© Topher McGrillis, RSC (Karen Fishwick as Juliet + Bally Gill as Romeo)

Meanwhile, Mariam Haque played a sympathetic and on-edge Lady Capulet, a trauma survivor who struggles to stand up for herself and her daughter, and Sakuntala Ramanee's turn as an imposing Lady Montague was characterised by her taking on the lines and role traditionally given to Lord Montague, the latter eventually fading into nothingness.

 © Topher McGrillis, RSC (Sakuntala Ramanee as Lady Capulet + Josh Finan as Benvolio)

© Topher McGrillis, RSC (Sakuntala Ramanee as Lady Capulet + Josh Finan as Benvolio)

But the real stand-out performances come from another trio: Ishia Bennison’s hilarious and endearing Nurse, Beth Cordingly’s surprisingly multi-dimensional and emotive Prince Escalus, and Raif Clarke’s funny, charming, loveable Peter, the ultimate protagonist of this production.

 © Topher McGrillis, RSC (Beth Cordingly as Escalus + The Company)

© Topher McGrillis, RSC (Beth Cordingly as Escalus + The Company)

The production has a lot to say about queering Shakespeare. Josh Finan’s Benvolio is a great performance, devoted romantically to Romeo, but unfortunately his gravitas and significance feels thrown away in the second half. The queering of this character spoke to me, obviously (let's be honest – what self-respecting gay doesn't have a story of helpless devotion and unrequited love for a straight friend?) but I felt that, logically, they should have replaced Balthasar with Benvolio in those later scenes to really take that portrayal all the way home, and to allow Benvolio a more personally and dramatically rewarding arc.

 © Topher McGrillis, RSC (Josh Finan as Benvolio + Bally Gill as Romeo)

© Topher McGrillis, RSC (Josh Finan as Benvolio + Bally Gill as Romeo)

Unfortunately, I was disappointed with Charlotte Josephine’s Mercutio; queering the role was a great choice and I was excited to see the result, and indeed the gender-swap worked powerfully. Yet I felt this was overshadowed by a confused portrayal, overly frantic and perhaps offensively manic, with no apparent psychological depth or impetus; though I am sure it was not Josephine or Whyman's intention, it felt like a parody of manic depression played out on the stage. I came away let down by the reading of the character, but still excited to see Josephine, a clear talent, grapple with other Shakespearean roles in the future. I hope she'll be back at the RSC soon, and preferably as Hamlet.

 © Topher McGrillis, RSC (Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio + Josh Finan as Benvolio)

© Topher McGrillis, RSC (Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio + Josh Finan as Benvolio)

On the whole, the set is beautifully designed by Tom Piper, with lighting by Charles Balfour, and excellent compositions from Sophie Cotton; each of these strengths for the production is attentively sown together with Ayse Tashkiran’s captivating movement direction. The greatest weakness for the production seems to be its slightly over-long running time: it's a deeply held belief that "two hours' traffic" means what it says. Ultimately this was a production characterised by tenderness from its creative team, love pouring out of almost every creative decision; noticeably driven by its empowering female presence, this is a vibrant and energetic production that screams loudly that there is a lot of beauty in life – even if sometimes the beauty is lost a little in the chaos.

 © Topher McGrillis, RSC (The Company)

© Topher McGrillis, RSC (The Company)

The Whole (Psychological) Histories, Adventures and Fortunes of Périclès, Prince de Tyr

Juliano Zaffino

 © Cheek By Jowl,  Périclès, Cheek By Jowl  [programme image used to create banner image]

© Cheek By Jowl, Périclès, Cheek By Jowl [programme image used to create banner image]

*The following contains spoilers for Cheek By Jowl’s 2018 production of Périclès, Prince de Tyr.*


The Whole (Psychological) Histories, Adventures and Fortunes of Périclès, Prince de Tyr

By anyone’s standards Pericles, Prince of Tyre is an obscure Shakespearean play; even in a large class for an MA in Shakespeare Studies, it would not raise any eyebrows to declare “I have never seen Pericles before”, the way it might with something like Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet. It is performed infrequently by the RSC, the Globe and the National, and often not on the main-house stages of the respective theatres. (Shortly after writing this sentence, the National Theatre announced a new season, including a production of Pericles in the Olivier Theatre - however, it seems to be in a more musical version aimed primarily at younger audiences.) It’s a problematic play for many reasons: the surviving text is rife with issues; the play was excluded from the First Folio (and thus had some difficulty being inducted into “The Canon”); the play is visibly co-authored and, unlike many other instances of Shakespearean collaboration, the text’s composition was divided distinctly in two parts, so that Shakespeare wrote the final three acts and his collaborator – now generally accepted to be George Wilkins – wrote the first two. George Wilkins’ unsavoury reputation hasn’t helped the play either, especially amongst those who deify Shakespeare and consider such collaboration beneath The Great Genius; similarly, as the play is regarded as out-of-fashion for its time, and not of the highest artistic quality, many have argued historically (and, in some pockets, contemporarily) that Shakespeare The Great Genius could not possibly have created such a work. The structure of the play, its episodic nature, its seeming archaisms, its uncertain genre as mostly a romance and/or tragicomedy, its geographic and chronological and narrative sprawl – all of these set Pericles aside from Shakespeare’s canon, with perhaps a single clear exception: The Winter’s Tale.

In 2017, Cheek By Jowl toured a powerful production of The Winter’s Tale, visually bold and beautifully performed, with a lacklustre (but pertinent) fourth act being the sole let-down of a superlative production. Their focus was largely on the psychodrama that binds Leontes, Hermione, Mamillius and, eventually, certainly, Perdita – the drama and trauma of abandonment and neglect. Leontes clings to his queen like one who cannot bear to be shunned, even in his imagination, and acts petty, childlike, behaviour replicated in Mamillius’ behaviour as father teaches son and cycles of abuse and trauma perpetuate. Here trauma is a force that can make and break not just a person, or persons and their relationships, but pacts and kingdoms and systems beyond the everyday. As Leontes’ psychological issues lead him further into paranoia, his increasing unhinged state mirrors the unhinged nation state and the chaos of the world, culminating in a destabilising show-trial and the collapse of a set-piece to convey the distinction between the contrasting freedom of Bohemia.

 © Johan Persson, Cheek By Jowl ( The Winter's Tale )

© Johan Persson, Cheek By Jowl (The Winter's Tale)

Now in 2018, Cheek By Jowl’s French company tours Pericles as Périclès, Prince de Tyr, marking Cheek By Jowl’s first French production of one of Shakespeare’s plays. It seems that director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod (also the Artistic Directors of Cheek By Jowl) can’t shake the indelible psychodrama of Shakespeare’s “late plays”, for in Périclès they draw attention to the psychological frailty of Périclès and the trauma that his continued loss perpetrates on his consciousness. This production is set in a hospital room, a catatonic Périclès (Christophe Grégoire) present almost always on the stage. This framing narrative displaces and replaces the archaic Gower, and thus presents the life of Pericles as something more human than fiction. We first see Périclès prone, manoeuvred by a medical team, and then visited by what seems to be his family: wife, daughter and son-in-law. And then, as if the sound of roaring waves plunges us into his memory, we see the first scene of Pericles play out, Périclès in conversation with Antiochus (Xavier Boffier) played by the same actor who plays the son-in-law in the hospital room (who may or not be Lysimaque, whom this actor also plays). The scenes of Pericles play out in this fashion, with the doctors and Périclès’ family members – never changing costumes – taking the roles of others in flashback scenes. Périclès himself takes on two other roles, as Cleon and “Le Maître”, the man who runs the brothel – while this does complicate the nature of the narrative structure (more on this later), it does emphasise the fact that each actor plays not just the protagonists of the play but also its many antagonists, marring the lines between virtue and vice, a key theme throughout the play.

And yet for all that, trauma is surely the zenith theme, shared by every character in this production. Thaïsa (Camille Cayol), having washed up on the shore at Ephesus, is so shaken by her experience that she pledges herself to Diana, turning away from her painful memory and supposed loss. Marina (Valentine Catzéflis), surviving continual attempts at debasement in the brothel, stays resolute, and turns to prayer and, more significantly, the conversion of others, such as both Lysimaque and Bout; her trauma is an opportunity to better not just her own life but the lives of those around her. Elsewhere, the doctor in the hospital (Cécile Leterme), who also plays the doctor aboard the ship (as well as Simonide, Cérimon, and Diane), is seemingly a minister to the traumatised, constantly appearing, as a doctor would, in places where she is able to facilitate some semblance of healing. The nurses (Guillaume Pottier and Martin Nikonoff) play fishermen, knights, and gentlemen, almost always treading a line between neutrality and assisting others. Trauma orbits Pericles and its characters, and in this production – from the cuts to the multirole casting – trauma is compacted and nuanced, sometimes repressed, sometimes dealt with, sometimes a force for good and sometimes bad, but rarely ever does it seem to be healed. The trauma that permeates Périclès/ Pericles cannot be reconciled until the trauma of Périclès/ Pericles is reconciled.

 © Patrick Baldwin, Cheek By Jowl ( Périclès, Prince de Tyr)

© Patrick Baldwin, Cheek By Jowl (Périclès, Prince de Tyr)

What is most difficult about this production is the intentional ambiguity of its main characters: are we really watching the frail Périclès and his family, or is this some other man who is imagining that this was his life? If it is Périclès, are these flashbacks happening within his mind, detached from those around him? Or are these people performing with and for him, helping him to relive the trauma in order to cure it? As Périclès himself performs other roles, the identity of the man in the bed – and whether or not he is performing – is obscured. Much of the trauma of the play is imagined and therefore inherently psychological, as Pericles, Thaisa and Marina all live, despite the certainty they may have about each other’s deaths; highlighting the psychological effects of trauma which is self-inflicted by the psyche in the first place serves the depth of this production well. The man in the bed, Périclès or not, is traumatised by something that has happened to him; when the drama of the flashbacks has died down, he either slumps and stares blankly ahead, or else curls up and shrieks. He is straitjacketed at one point, sedated another. He does not talk to his visitors or to the doctor. Ostensibly it seems that, if this is Périclès, it is the Périclès on the ship off Mytilene in the fifth act, who having suffered too much loss with the supposed death of Marina, has receded into himself and talks to no one until, through Marina’s recollections, he is stirred to life. In this sense, performing the flashbacks to cure him is not a far cry from what actually happens within the play, where the shadowed past is brought to light by the revelation of truth and the reunion of family. This no doubt is troubled by the ending of this production, wherein Périclès, emotionally embracing wife and child, slumps once more, and is dragged to his bed by the nurses. This final scene is indistinguishable from the beginning of the play, as if no progress, medical or narrative, has been made.

There are some other observations to be made about the production. As an English-speaker, watching a French-language production, in England, of a play written in (early modern) English by the most well known English playwright, nationhood and multiculturalism (and the timeliness of old art) immediately struck me as important concerns. This is a play about sea voyages, the threat and safety of borders, the pursuit of refuge, the ravages of famine. Performed in the age of Brexit and Trump – the age in which the United Kingdom bombs Syria, displacing its citizens while refusing to take in its refugees – the linguistic reclaiming of Shakespeare seemed not only a fitting choice but also an added layer of dramatic prowess. Further, Shakespeare’s play was significantly cut to facilitate not just the translation but also the framing device, though this was not done to its detriment: rather the production seemed at once fast-paced and yet suited to the play’s fractured, episodic composition.

Confining the action of the play to a sea-blue hospital room was another strong choice, enforcing the psychodrama and the way that Périclès is trapped not just physically in his condition but also mentally, while also obscuring the lines between towns and nations and their peoples. The hospital room provides options for clear staging, from swinging doors conveying a storm to gurneys used for transporting people; a waiting room on the edge of stage left used sometimes to alienate those who are not present in flashbacks, and other times to convey the crossing of distance from Périclès and his bed to whoever or whatever is on the other side (such as Marina, towards the end of the first scene of act five). The lighting and sound were the best indicators of setting: fluorescent light and generic radio chatter located the action in the hospital room, strips of neon light cast the brothel in a sinful light, while the sound of breaking waves could signal being on the coast, and the mad flickering of lights and the sound of swelling wind conveyed the storm. Yet the sound was also inextricably tied with Périclès’ state of mind: vaguely modern techno music (accompanied by some provocative pseudo-strip-tease dancing) established the otherness of Pentapolis and his initial discomfort, while a more traditional, generic chanson of sorts (coupled with even more provocative, but much more reciprocal, dancing) established his comfort with Thaïsa.

 © Patrick Baldwin, Cheek By Jowl ( Périclès, Prince de Tyr)

© Patrick Baldwin, Cheek By Jowl (Périclès, Prince de Tyr)

Every element of the production seemed to take consideration of Périclès’ mental state, and worked to establish, accentuate, or clarify it at that time. Regardless of what might be thought and written about some of the common themes (and shared insidiousness) of Shakespeare’s “late plays”, Cheek By Jowl find their own idiosyncratic way of exploring these links, not on Shakespeare’s terms or scholarly terms but on performative ones, perhaps as a result of Declan Donnellan’s work in The Actor and the Target. For surely these damaged, imperfect portrayals of Shakespeare’s characters are amongst the most believable, and thus even the wildest of plots can be made human, grounded as it is in psychological realism. It is ultimately unclear whether the man in the hospital bed has truly, personally endured these traumas; but it is undeniable that, psychologically, he has.


Périclès, Prince de Tyr continues its run at the Barbican until 21 April 2018, and will transfer to the Oxford Playhouse from 24 – 28 April, after which it will tour to France, Spain and Italy in May and June. Information and tickets are available here. The production will also be live-streamed online, for free, on 19 April 2018.


*My initial micro-review of Périclès, Prince de Tyr, posted online after seeing the performance at the Barbican on 18 April, is as follows: “Cheek By Jowl’s French language production of ‘Périclès, Prince de Tyr’ is more astounding than I ever could have hoped. Reinventing the narrative through a clever and simple framing device, this production (as with Cheek By Jowl’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in 2017) focuses on psychodrama, but this time integrates the study of trauma into every aspect of the play’s execution. Christophe Grégoire is a powerful and moving Périclès, frail and damaged as he is, and Camille Cayol is the most magnetic, emotive, unpredictable, compelling Thaïsa one could conjure. Through bold stage design, sound, and lighting, a hospital room becomes many countries, many seas, many ships sailed to and fro in the play’s sprawling narrative. While I have reservations about some of the multirole casting (specifically, Grégoire playing Cleon and ‘“Le Maître” rather than just Périclès) and how it affected the sharpness of the production, this is easily one of the most thoughtful and urgent and rewarding Shakespearean productions I’ve seen. If you can see it at the Barbican in the next three days, or at the Oxford Playhouse next week, or in France/Spain/Italy from May-June, then go! Otherwise tune into their free online live-stream tonight.”*

 Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).

Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).

‘Macbeth means Macbeth’: National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, and "collective consciousness"

Juliano Zaffino

 © National Theatre,  Macbeth  (Image Left); RSC,  Macbeth  (Image Right)

© National Theatre, Macbeth (Image Left); RSC, Macbeth (Image Right)

*The following contains spoilers for both the National Theatre’s and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Macbeth.*


‘Macbeth means Macbeth’: National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, and "collective consciousness"

“Brexit means Brexit” means, in words somewhat more meaningful and somehow less cryptic, “what’s done cannot be undone”. If you are asking why suddenly Macbeth is the Shakespearean play-of-the-moment (as post-Brexit King Lear has been, as post-Trump Julius Caesar has been), perhaps it’s in this idea of irrevocability. The dice have been cast and the verdict is in, final, even as it seems that democracy has been established by being perverted, disrespected; there is no undo button, no way out, and no chance of turning back time. Time, the plot, the fate of the nation: all arrow-like rushing to their inevitable targets. The National Theatre’s Macbeth, which had its first preview on 26 February 2018, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth, which had its first preview on 14 March 2018 (after their original first preview on 13 March was cancelled with just over 24 hours notice), were of course bound to be run through the comparison mill. Which is better? Which director – Rufus Norris for the NT and Polly Findlay for the RSC – has better executed the play? Which leading actor – Rory Kinnear for the NT and Christopher Eccleston for the RSC – best captures Macbeth’s oscillations? Which Lady Macbeth – Anne-Marie Duff for the NT and Niamh Cusack for the RSC – is more compelling? When the National Theatre’s press performance passed on 4 March, the reviews were dismal; when the RSC’s press performance passed on 20 March, the reviews were mixed. And so the focus of the conversation has largely shifted: which production/director/actor is worse, and why? For which theatrical superpower should we use our best put-downs (not to mention our least-inspired Shakespearean puns) to convey our disdain?

The fact is that these productions are by-and-large incomparable with one another. The colossus of the Olivier stage has supposedly blighted the NT for some time (when convenient for the critics, mostly), and in the case of these productions proves a stark contrast from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, most of which was walled-off, the action brought out almost entirely into the thrust stage. Rufus Norris has tapped into the public consciousness to consider the politics of our age, specifying in the programme that the setting of the play is ‘now, after a civil war’; the garbage that litters the set, the concrete blocks of the Macbeths’ dwellings, the ruinous set pieces and pervasive sense of decay all point towards some post-apocalyptic generality. Perhaps the murderers are another clue, young and seemingly witless; when Macbeth is giving them their task, the first murderer, a young denim-clad woman, gasps with glee when he hands her a can of something – a lager perhaps, or even a soda: something common signified as a luxury in the murderer’s unexpected excitement. A generation left behind by the wars of their elders live only to be accessorised by said elders.

 © Brinkhoff and Moegenburg, National Theatre

© Brinkhoff and Moegenburg, National Theatre

The essays written for the NT’s programme reveal some of the impetus behind Rufus Norris’ directorial vision, as well as the general matter at hand: why Macbeth, and why now? Dr Paul Prescott – who ‘arranged and edited the text’ for the NT’s production – convincingly tells us that ‘adaptations of Macbeth thrive in times of suspicion, paranoia and fear’, and ‘have also succeeded in any context in which status and survival are experienced as zero-sum games’. No doubt these boxes are ticked in the post-Brexit, post-truth world, a world of online surveillance and data leaks, where data and the masses are weaponised, where many are beset with hopelessness in response to systematic inequalities. But it doesn’t end there: according to Marianne Novy’s essay, ‘American Google gives 43,800 hits for comparisons between Lady Macbeth and Margaret Thatcher and 115,000 hits for comparisons to Hillary Clinton, as of January 2018’. As she rightly points out, ‘neither of these women persuaded a husband to kill a ruler’, so ‘why do so many political writers make this leap?’ In the #MeToo and #TimesUp age, wherein Theresa May is letting women down on this side of the Atlantic and Hillary Clinton recently lost the US election to a less-qualified and incomparably dangerous man on the other side, it is unsurprising that there is more focus on one of the few Shakespearean plays to present a complex, compelling and dynamic woman (especially as she is one of his rare older female characters).

What else? Marina Warner argues that a ‘belief in witches erupts in times of crisis’, evoking (in my mind at least) a concern adjacent to #MeToo. Women have had enough; women are addressing corrupt institutions and demanding both change and justice. The old guard – mostly men – are quaking. Shouts of a “witch hunt” have tried to smear this campaign, though are mostly dismissed as the desperate final cries of a dying behemoth. (As an aside, my own memory of this phrase is arguing with a 27 year-old man, who vehemently claimed that this ‘witch hunt’ was ‘getting out of hand’, that women were ‘making it up’, as a TV news channel behind him bore the headline: “LOUIS CK ADMITS TO SEXUAL MISCONDUCT”. You can’t make this stuff up.)

The NT Macbeth is a clear product of the times we live in. Norris has clearly heeded Lady Macbeth’s advice: ‘to beguile the time, look like the time’. Arguably Polly Findlay also listened to Lady Macbeth’s words, but with an alternative interpretation underpinning the RSC’s Macbeth. Findlay’s modern vision certainly looks like the time – its focus on modern horror films roots it in an aesthetic presence, while the horror and suspense certainly work to beguile a modern audience mostly familiar with Macbeth. The final moments between Macbeth and Macduff are weirdly reminiscent of Macbeth (/Washizu)’s final moments in the Kurosawa film adaptation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood (1957), in which Macbeth is pierced by dozens of arrows and remains alive, screaming, still clinging to life and power. There is the horror of the supernatural foe, like Halloween’s Mike Meyers (and reminiscent of Randy’s posthumous hypothesis on the killer in Scream 3); the monster who will not be vanquished by any human means. But Findlay flips the image beautifully, so that the immortal one in that moment is Macduff, beaten within an inch of his life but virtually unharmed, laughing, as Macbeth puts off the inevitable. It is only when Macbeth declares ‘enough’ that he stops for Macduff to finish him.

 © Akira Kurosawa; Toho Studios

© Akira Kurosawa; Toho Studios

Aside from horror, the other key focus of Findlay’s production is time itself, as a force, as an inevitability, as some Twilight Zone of obscurity and inherent beguilement – thus inherently bound to the horror, which does after all depend upon the coinciding of terror and timing. The modern setting mostly confined to the thrust (and thus brought closer, film-like, to the audience), the 80s-like special-effects that announce the witches, the suspenseful, eerie strings screeching at the most unlikely moments, the unexpected blackout when Banquo is murdered – all of this contributes to the feel of the staged horror film. In this sense, perhaps there is some similarity to the work of Ivo Van Hove that some reviewers have noted. The pseudo title-card projections that appear throughout the play, marking six distinct moments, give the production a Tarantino vibe. This puts to mind Kill Bill, another bloody tale, and one told with a non-linear approach to time and narrative; one of the title-cards that Findlay uses, pulling directly from the text, is ‘when the battle’s lost and won’ while another reads ‘the future in the instant’. Lady Macbeth is on-stage before the play begins, reading Macbeth’s letter; we then see things happening in order, until Lady Macbeth’s reading of the letter is separated from her response, again disrupting chronology.

The focus on time is a largely technical one, with chronological and geographical indicators (“NOW”; “LATER”; “FIFE”) projected below the title-cards, and beneath that a glaring red digital timer that begins – counting down two hours – when Macbeth kills Duncan, the moment at which the arrow is unloosed and the course for Macbeth (and Macbeth) is set. The eeriest effect is how the timer jumps forward by such minor increments, at times when the audience is distracted with the action elsewhere, so that not even a time-obsessed audience member monitoring his watch at five minute intervals can tell where and how the time is slipping away. The technical execution is flawlessly done so that Macbeth’s final lifeblood bursts from his jugular as the timer reaches 00:00:00. Then, in a textually altered, partially cut conclusion, Malcolm is crowned in slow-motion as Fleance comes forward, sword in hand and stood slightly off to the side, a reminder of what is to come. The timer goes back up, slowly at first, and then almost all-at-once, resting once again on the two-hour mark. The witches return for an ominous line-repeat, and the play ends in a dramatic, unsettling blackout.

 © Richard Davenport, RSC

© Richard Davenport, RSC

If it’s a heavy-handed way to consider the cyclicality of the bloodshed (‘blood will have blood’, after all), the cycle of violence and the succession of kings (eventually leading to Shakespeare’s then-ruling monarch, King James I), it’s a necessary one. It hammers home the point, and is the pièce-de-résistance of an abstraction of the horror: the inescapability of the loop that horror films depend on, and that such films as Happy Death Day have recently condensed and capitalised on. As a time-nerd (who once wrote an essay on Macbeth, time travel, and temporal causality loops), the final image in Findlay’s production to me epitomises the play’s paradox, that the beginning of the loop must be its end; the knowledge of Macbeth’s future precipitates his actions and, self-fulfilling, leads through every moment right up to his death. And so every action depends on something that follows just as much as something that precedes it. ‘The time is free’: when Macbeth dies, the loop is broken, the paradox conquered. ‘What’s done cannot be undone’: Fleance’s ascent to the throne is inevitable, merely a matter of time, the end of the next loop and the beginning of another. The repetition of history and man’s helplessness against that force is the truest horror.

 © Richard Davenport, RSC

© Richard Davenport, RSC

If the first comparison to be made is between productions and motivations, the analysis speaks for itself; the lack of analysis made into the NT production indicates the struggle, for though it is clear that the post-Brexit, post-Trump, #MeToo, “witch hunt” amalgam played on the minds of those involved, it is unclear how the production really bore those themes to fruition. Tokenistic set-dressing and minor references do not imply the kind of cohesion that is necessary to convey a specific vision or reading. Meanwhile at the RSC the themes are to be found clearly within the text and the production merely brings them to the forefront; so (as I will discuss further) despite certain criticism levelled at Polly Findlay and her “interference” with Shakespeare, it is worth noting that she seems to trust the text and its contents a lot more than Norris does. And unsurprisingly – though trying to make this play explicitly about the political “now” (after a post-Brexit civil war, of course) in half-measured gestures without any holistic view or clear reliance on the text – Norris is not tarnished with the same critical brush.

***

It is no surprise that the actor playing the titular role is often a key interest for reviewers (and, evidently, for general theatre-goers, given how well the RSC’s Macbeth has sold with Eccleston in the lead). Rory Kinnear at the National Theatre and Christopher Eccleston at the RSC seemed poised to provide a head-to-head for the ages, and reviewers have been generally favourable for both performances, describing them as stranded by their productions. Perhaps this is somewhat true of Kinnear, who has the emotional earnestness needed for the more heart-breaking soliloquies as well as the just-shy-of-manliness that makes Lady Macbeth’s question ‘are you a man?’ seem all the more relevant.

 © Tristram Kenton, National Theatre

© Tristram Kenton, National Theatre

Meanwhile Eccleston lacks emotional depth; he is every bit the soldier, but his emotion is unbelievable, his madness cringe-worthy. When he hears of his wife’s death he appears as a gold-struck magpie and sounds as one amused by some pun or a light news story; the gulf between his physical and vocal performances is distracting and, unfortunately, detrimental to the production as a whole. And that says nothing of the constant stepping on other people’s lines, the delayed responses, the unfortunate flubs (“the last syllacle of recorded time”, in the matinee performance on 24 March). But one thing that cannot be said of Eccleston’s disappointing portrayal is blandness; Kinnear’s portrayal is beige carpet that you forget even as you look at it. Kinnear does not stand out as Macbeth; from what I’ve seen of his work previously in Young Marx, he is a competent actor with a quick wit and an emotional deftness of hand, and as I have said the emotional honesty comes through. But there is nothing memorable in it, no moment that feels as though the actor has truly actualised his own embodiment of this character. Between the passiveness he induces, and the frustration that Eccleston invites, both productions have a glaring black hole at their hearts: their titular leads.

 © Richard Davenport, RSC

© Richard Davenport, RSC

Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind Macbeth and, on both of these occasions, a driving force behind Macbeth. In fact, in the case of the NT production, Anne-Marie Duff is the only driving force, the redeeming quality of the drabness. Duff is a talent nonpareil (as recently confirmed in my eyes by her stint in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle) and her desperately-yearning Lady Macbeth is one of the most sympathetic and understandable. When she reads the letter near the play’s beginning, surrounded by the littleness of her life, in her lack of pretence, I entirely believe that this is a woman who wants more – status and wealth maybe, but power and control mostly, the ability to influence, to make some kind of dent in the world around her. As she spends most of the later part of the play trying to clean up after Macbeth, to keep him in control, it becomes clear that, as the witches double-speak their prophecies, Lady Macbeth’s wish has been duplicitously granted, as if by a trickster genie. She got to exert control over her husband, and the result was that it sent him out-of-control, and so the only thing left within her control, in absolute terms, is her life. And from the blood smeared on the wall when Macbeth finds her body, we are to understand that she took that control, momentarily conquering the sleepwalking self, in order to end the struggle. She is like most of us, especially minorities, who in troubling times are made to feel the most powerless; and so her actions, the propulsion of the play, is cast in an unexpected clarity and a chilling relatability: the realisation that, actually, in her shoes, we’d probably do the same.

 © Brinkhoff and Moegenburg, National Theatre

© Brinkhoff and Moegenburg, National Theatre

Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth is no less powerful, though admittedly shares little with Duff’s. Where Duff’s desperation makes her solid and assured, Cusack is skittish and flighty, unpredictable and thus all the more terrifying. And while Duff is the meek wife wanting more, Lady Macbeth is already suited to a better life, and fits into any fancy garment as easily as her first, most casual outfit, eliciting a laugh as she kicks off her clacking heels to return the knives to King Duncan’s men. She is comfortable around the king and every other character, whether their status is above or below hers; she is a social butterfly with camouflage wings and a stinger, one who uses the femininity she would reject as a mask for the ambition that moves her. But this comparison led me to question: what motivates Cusack’s Lady Macbeth? Blind ambition is surely not enough – but this Lady Macbeth does not seem to be wanting for much. Which put me in mind of theatre’s other destructive would-be matriarch, Hedda Gabler, and led me to think that Cusack’s portrayal is of a woman bored to death with her life. While Hedda arguably suits Duff’s need to regain control over something, Cusack captures the insanity – in every unexpected jump, clap, laugh and outburst – that comes from being bored out of one’s mind, of wanting anything other than the status quo.

 © Richard Davenport, RSC

© Richard Davenport, RSC

This is a Lady Macbeth who is bitter about childlessness – unlike Duff’s, who seems grateful not to be raising children in such a hellhole – and who, without someone to channel her energies into moulding, makes her husband into a surrogate child. It is ultimately the death of Lady Macduff and her son that drives the point home: dragged off-stage to die, mouths covered, the audience only hears Young Macduff’s dying words some seconds later: ‘he has kill’d me, mother’ is spoken through speakers in the darkness, and then a light comes on through the Perspex screen above the stage, revealing Lady Macbeth at a desk – her husband’s presumably – with Lennox’s tape recorder in hand, playing the Young Macduff’s dying words over and over. At this moment of time’s subversion, where we hear these words after his death has been indicated, and before the play’s chronology suggests that Lady Macbeth herself could even hear them, Lady Macbeth goes insane. Partly this is because of time and the effect of the repetition, but mostly it is in the murder of an innocent child, which recalls for Lady Macbeth the lack that drove her to most of her actions. The duality of this realisation is too much for her psyche and, visible through the screen, she breaks down, screaming and crying as the words repeat, no longer a taped reproduction but a mental one, memorised and mimicked in the mind of Lady Macbeth until her demise.

Duff and Cusack are anomalies in their respective productions, shining far brighter than their cast-mates, including the respective leads. Perhaps this was intentional, a comment on how Lady Macbeth eclipses her husband; but this seems reaching. What is so problematic about this disparity is that both productions heavily relied on imagery of “The Macbeths” for their advertising campaigns and various production materials. Just look at the poster art for both productions: capitalising on the couple, each poster implies something about intimacy. Kinnear and Duff are physically together, Kinnear cradling himself under Duff’s chin, her head reclined. Eccleston and Cusack sit on the edge of, presumably, their marital bed. However, intimacy is rendered complex: Kinnear and Duff both have parted lips, suggesting the erotic, but the contrast between Kinnear’s gaze towards the camera and Duff’s upwards-stare, into the distance, implies some kind of difference between the two. Kinnear’s hand on Duff’s clavicle, in the foreground of the image, is imposing and restrictive, giving Duff nowhere to move. If this is intimacy, it is painful and pained, desperate. Meanwhile, Eccleston and Cusack sit a good foot apart, chaste and fully dressed in formal attire. The bed is made behind them, too. And in another parallel, both pictures present only half of each characters face (for the RSC, this applies to the version of the image used on the programme and poster, rather than the square version used online); to me this seems a comment about the duality of the pair, the unhealthy, symbiotic mass, two people necessarily co-dependent. This is the final nail in the coffin of “expectation”: the marketing for these two plays pins everything on this couple. But neither production features a pair compelling enough to carry the action alone, an unfortunate result given the all-star casting, and a sure reason for much of the critical disappointment. It is up to Duff and Cusack to make the most of what they have; and in the #MeToo age, Lady Macbeth would probably be far more interesting to stage and to watch anyway.

***

There are some notable directorial choices across the two productions that indicate some collective consciousness. The first that occurs to me is Malcolm played by Parth Thakerar at the NT and Luke Newberry at the RSC, is in both productions played very young (perhaps either side of twenty), really emphasising his unreadiness to lead anything. I think this also indicates a focus on the divide between young and old; Duncan and the old guard have little in common with these Malcolms, a divide especially noticeable in the NT production. At a time when there are accusations from those in my generation that our futures are being sabotaged by older generations, this choice seems inevitable. But Donalbain is a noteworthy contrast; while the RSC have Donalbain played by a young woman (Donna Banya), a doting caretaker for Duncan, the NT efface Donalbain completely. It all rests on Malcolm, whether because he is the only son of the throne, or the only child at all. And this leads on to the use of children in both productions; in the RSC there is an abundance of them, the three witches and Fleance and Young Macduff. But in the NT production there are no children; the witches are adults, and both Fleance and Young Macduff are played by female members of the company. For the RSC, children are the spectre haunting the stage as their absence haunts the main characters; for the NT, there is sheer barrenness. This is communicated nicely by a piece of serendipity: both productions feature dolls in the possession of the witches, but in the NT production these dolls are dismembered and strewn around the witches as belts and sashes of baby-doll-limbs.

Both productions portray Banquo (Kevin Harvey – NT; Raphael Sowole – RSC) and Fleance as persons of colour, which reminds me of the number of recent productions of Hamlet to feature black men in the role of Fortinbras. Perhaps this is unconscious coincidence; and given that these productions seem little concerned with questions of race, I can’t imagine what this would be intended to convey – except perhaps the idea of restitution and the establishment of a new guard. Elsewhere, neither choice for Macduff is particularly inspiring; Patrick O’Kane as the NT’s Macduff is basically an angrier and more menacing Macbeth, and coming across as more of a personal, annoying bane than a physical, imposing one. Arguably the RSC’s middle-class accountant dad Macduff (played by Edward Bennett) is worse, wet and unconvincing in his grief; while I get Findlay’s intention behind this man who is not battle-hardened being drawn towards it by circumstance, it does not make for believable or engaging theatre. The witches had little in common too; the NT’s witches are not in any way cohesive, distracting and confusing and in many cases unintelligible. For the RSC’s creepy little girl witches (with many a comparison to The Shining’s Grady twins already being made), innocence and the most perfectly mindless chanting makes them clear and effective (even if one of the three was virtually impossible to hear in act four, scene one). Another major similarity between the two productions was the choice to make everyone English rather than Scottish – I say this generally, as there were a variety of accents on display. Some actors in both productions seemed to try a Scottish accent in the first half of the play, giving up during the second. This is inevitable and not in itself a problem, even though the play is popularly referred to as “The Scottish Play”. What is a problem is, once again, marketing; the RSC, both in the lead-up to the production and after its opening, have used #TheScottishPlay on their social media channels to denote Macbeth. If you are removing the Scottishness of the play, it seems a weird (and potentially disappointing) marketing move to capitalise on its famous Scottishness. This is not about playing with audience’s expectations so much as thoughtlessly misleading them.

Before I discuss the most significant shared aspect of the play, I want to briefly mention Lady Macduff. She is in many ways an incidental character, paling in comparison to the only other major woman of the play. Yet in the RSC’s production, Mariam Haque not only holds her own but damn well stuns as Lady Macduff, treading the fine knife-edge between nervousness and terror, by turns funny and warm and hopeless in her conversation with Ross, and struggling to convince her son when she falsely tells him his father is dead.  This allows the jest of the moment to come out quite nicely – a moment of bleak humour rather than psychological abuse. And when Lennox appears and she reaches for her son and holds him, I believe in every way that she would die to protect her children, that some animalistic instinct might actually defeat Lennox – were she not so clearly outnumbered, and ultimately paralysed by fear. And so a moment of necessary plot (not particularly memorable in the NT production) becomes an emotional peak for the RSC production.

The “most significant shared aspect” to which I alluded earlier is the Porter, a role I generally have little care for and am rarely impressed by in performance. Both productions have heavily expanded the role of the Porter (Trevor Fox – NT; Michael Hodgson – RSC), increasing his stage presence and complicity in the action, giving him more lines, enfolding many of the minor parts; for instance both productions have him play the third murderer and actively intervene in the murder of Banquo and the escape of Fleance. To an extent, the Porter is a god-like rendering of The Dark Knight’s Joker, an “agent of chaos” whose purpose is to watch the world burn. But this does not feel sufficient, because he is a director not just of chaos but also of resolve; he enables the murder and madness of the plot purely to enable its ultimate resolution. In that he is perhaps Hecate-like (both productions also cut Hecate completely, widely regarded to be an invention of Thomas Middleton), the entity behind the witches and the prophecies; Machiavellian-like, the Porter becomes the maker of fate for everyone involved, the only one with real agency. The NT production renders him as a kind of homeless visionary-mercenary-investigator, a product of the apocalypse; the RSC’s Porter is ostensibly a janitor, present on-stage (alongside Lady Macbeth) even before the action begins, and never leaving the stage, therefore maintaining the most stage-time. In both productions, the Porter directly or indirectly allows Fleance to get away; the RSC’s Porter even points Macduff in the direction of a cowering Macbeth to enable the play’s conclusion, and is the one who actively sets the two-hour timer and marks its completion. The Porter chillingly tallies the deaths at the hands of the Macbeths, starting with Duncan, in chalk on the exposed brick wall, thus embodying something of an angel of death.

 © Richard Davenport, RSC

© Richard Davenport, RSC

The forces conspiring against us are not only human but banal, the persons in society with, relatively speaking, the lowest status. This goes directly against not just the nature of the play but also the nature of our current collective consciousness, which regards institutions and organisations as being the forces that control us, rather than an individual – let alone one with no status. What both Norris and Findlay have done is to create a world in which we should be wary of those who pretend to look like the lowest amongst us, who blend into the background, all the while conspiring against everyone, for his sake only.

***

The reviews that poured in for Rufus Norris’ production at the National Theatre have been, by and large, excruciatingly negative. As the Artistic Director of the NT, surely the expectations were greatly inflated for his production. And, as many reviewers are keen to point out, the play is only his second-ever Shakespeare, his first in twenty-five years. High expectations, an emphasis on a lack of Shakespearean output, and an almost palpable willingness for Norris to fail: a foreboding start. Further, given the trio of terrible reviews for productions on the Olivier’s stage last year (Common, Salome, and Saint George and the Dragon), the “Olivier curse” meme has propagated, continuing the notion that there is something inherently problematic with that stage that dooms 90% of directors and productions. In that sense, the odds were truly stacked against Norris. While his production was not spectacular, and certainly not up to the level of some of the recent work on the National’s other stages (Angels in America and Network in the Lyttleton Theatre and Mosquitoes in the Dorfman Theatre, for starters), it was certainly not deserving of the critical maiming it received.

Things have gone somewhat differently for Polly Findlay and the RSC, though much of the burden she faces in her reviews is the inevitable comparison with the National’s production, opening a good two weeks earlier. Although, on the whole, reviews for Findlay’s production have been kinder (in words and in star ratings), the fact is that reviewers have undeniably attacked Findlay for her concept. Reviewers – and some supposedly professional general opinion-peddlers – claim that the play is more about her than Shakespeare. I have seen it written, sometimes plainly and sometimes in code, that she should trust more in the play and in Shakespeare, that she should just “do the play”, that her role is something other than communicating a vision. To which I would respond: what the hell is the point? If Polly Findlay can’t make the play her own, why should she bother doing it? Why should anyone? Perhaps I’m the only one who is tired of seeing “just the play”, and feeling like pedestal-Shakespeare is mocking us all. I wonder for the role of the director as, increasingly, we are moving away from appreciating their vision and look for them to merely facilitate a text into performance. And very often with new writing, directors are all but invisible, critical focus aimed mostly at the writer, sometimes at the cast. I think with partial dread and intrigue of Shakespeare’s Globe, who later this year will mount a director-less production of Hamlet. Clearly (especially from their marketing) the focus is on "Writer: William Shakespeare". And though I do not think it is impossible or even a bad idea to try out, I worry that the director could be increasingly phased out of the process. This points towards a world of recital and re-enactment rather than production. If we “just do the play” forever, the play will never be anything more than a collection of dead words.

 © Shakespeare's Globe,  Hamlet

© Shakespeare's Globe, Hamlet

I don’t do “star ratings” here, because generally I find them unhelpful and restrictive. That some reviewers can assign the same star rating to these two disparate Macbeths, that most positive reviews generally settle on four stars to communicate that something is either outstanding or just-above-digestible, that productions like Follies at the NT and Imperium at the RSC are for some unclear reason ranked amongst the five-star club… for these reasons and more, I have no faith in ratings. But Polly Findlay and the RSC deserve praise for what they have done with the play; this is a production that makes the play accessible and hugely enjoyable without obscuring what the play is or what it is about. Despite a couple of lacklustre performances, Findlay’s vision is so strong and well-executed, capitalising on a number of prevalent themes and never erring beyond what the play gives her to work with, that it truly shines. This production sits with Blanche McIntyre’s Titus Andronicus (RSC, 2017), Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar (Bridge Theatre, 2018), and Findlay’s earlier foray into The Merchant of Venice (RSC, 2015) as some of the best big-budget Shakespeare to be staged in recent memory – with perhaps a special shout-out to Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night (NT, 2017) which, despite its shortcomings, was redeemed by both a gorgeous design and a knock-out performance from Tamsin Greig, once again challenging the oft-held prejudice against the Olivier’s stage. Findlay has her finger on the pulse; I hope her next foray into Shakespeare (or other early-modern drama, fingers crossed for Marlowe) will not be marred by the same unfortunate timing and comparisons, and that by then we will have a new vanguard of reviewers who care more about good theatre than about demonstrating their infinite deference and reverence for centuries-old texts and their long-dead playwrights.

***

So why Macbeth? And why now? Like Julius Caesar this play is ripe for the picking in contemporary productions but, unfortunately, feels a little lacking; the NT production attempted to tap into the zeitgeist to interpret the play but, in practice, fell short. The RSC steered largely clear of the political present and for the most part succeeded. But the collective, cultural consciousness of our times precipitates this simultaneity, and even if the execution is not flawless it still reveals much about where we see ourselves now in the map of history. We are at a breaking point, the early stages of a crisis, a society on the verge of collapse. Disarray and hopelessness are fostered and forced by the selfish amongst us in their own pursuits, personal or (more often) political, the Farages and Johnsons and Goves and Rees-Moggs who would stop at nothing for their agendas, who would not hesitate to destroy any peace or machine to get what they want: power, the chiefest desire of Macbeth, the thing that history and theatre warns us is hard to obtain and even harder to keep. The collective consciousness is split between those who recognise this, and those who don’t. Those who do are drawn, now more than ever, to Macbeth.

***

Macbeth continues its run at the National Theatre until 23 June 2018, and will tour the UK from September 2018. Information and tickets are available here. The production will also be broadcast live to cinemas on 10 May 2018.
Macbeth continues its run at the Royal Shakespeare Company until 18 September 2018, and will transfer to the Barbican in London from 15 October 2018 until 18 January 2019. The Stratford-Upon-Avon run is almost entirely sold-out but there is currently good availability throughout its run at the Barbican. Information and tickets are available here. The production will also be broadcast live to cinemas on 11 April 2018.


*My initial micro-review of both productions of Macbeth, posted online after seeing the performances on 20 March / 24 March 2018 (RSC) and 21 March 2018 (NT), is as follows: “Last week within 24 hours I saw two separate and very different productions of Macbeth. The RSC’s production was slick and beautifully executed by one of my directorial heroes, Polly Findlay, while the National Theatre’s was confusingly, hazily directed by Rufus Norris, and left me for the most part a little disinterested, unfortunately. It doesn’t deserve the critical assault it’s received but it was only average-at-best. On the other hand I could happily rave about the RSC’s production for time to come, given that it combined many of my favourite things (contemporary setting, horror films, and a clear focus on time) into a clear and cohesive and damn gripping production - even if Christopher Eccleston was lacklustre. Both shows are easily stolen by their respective Lady Macbeths, Niamh Cusack (RSC) and Anne-Marie Duff (NT). Both worth watching for different reasons. If you can only see one, make it the RSC’s. And if you can only see one Shakespeare play at all this year, if it’s not Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre, make sure it’s the RSC’s Macbeth.”*

 Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).

Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).

“Tabula Rasa”: The Duchess of Malfi, Girls & Boys, and Toxic Masculinity

Juliano Zaffino

 © RSC,  The Duchess of Malfi  (Image Left); Royal Court,  Girls & Boys  (Image Right)

© RSC, The Duchess of Malfi (Image Left); Royal Court, Girls & Boys (Image Right)

*Please be advised this article contains explicit information about the plot and staging of The Duchess of Malfi and Girls & Boys, and (oddly enough) spoilers about the Scream film franchise.*


“Tabula Rasa”: The Duchess of Malfi, Girls & Boys, and Toxic Masculinity

Björk’s most recent album, Utopia, is in her own words ‘about a love that’s even greater’. It is beautiful and hopeful, ascending (as one reviewer puts it) to ‘a paradise of her own design’, and yet it exists in relation to loss, to the wound of her previous album Vulnicura, now healing – maybe healed. As with Vulnicura, Utopia is concerned with the disintegration of a relationship and a family. The song “Tabula Rasa” holds much of the numb fury that seethed throughout Vulnicura; yet it is the most intensely hopeful track on the album. What seems like cutting passive aggression directed at her ex is a warning and a mantra: ‘clean plate: / tabula rasa for my children / let’s clean up: / break the chain of the fuckups of the fathers’. Björk mourns the loss not of the man but of the model image, replaced instead with the reality of a man who ‘led two lives’, who ‘steal[s] our light’, and she longs to see her children lead better lives. But, personal though this album and Björk’s work often are, there are greater stakes in this song. (I will refrain from going off on one just yet, but Sophie Collins’ stellar poetry collection Who Is Mary Sue? considers sharply how women’s writing is often perceived as too personal and thus supposedly of lesser merit…) Björk, definite article in hand, takes on our patriarchal world: “the fuckups of the fathers”. This song is a battle-cry for us all to escape the sins of the past, for women to rise up and resist, for children to grow better. It is an apology for the mistakes of an older generation, in particular the men; she is ‘embarrassed to pass this mess over’ to her children, to us.

 © Björk; Jesse Kanda

© Björk; Jesse Kanda

This is not about Björk (or Sophie Collins) but it is about a moment of junction just the same, a moment in theatre, shared between famed Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster, newly directed by Maria Aberg at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Girls & Boys, written by Dennis Kelly and directed by Lyndsey Turner at the Royal Court. These are plays written four-hundred years apart, directed over a hundred miles away from one another, in completely separate institutions with completely separate aims, and they are seeing the same “fuckups of the fathers” as Björk. They are considering the women who, to quote Björk, ‘rise’, and to somewhat paraphrase Björk, those who ‘just take it lying down’. This is about toxic masculinity and the women who orbit it, consciously or no, and the blood that they are steeped in.

Macbeth tells us that ‘blood will have blood’ and he is right; the play, of course, begins and ends in bloodshed, with the promise of further bloodshed to come for Fleance to install his line on the Scottish throne. There is a cycle of violence, biblical, “eye for an eye”. Somewhere, somehow, someone must break the cycle. Who has the power and authority to break the cycle? We do.

***

The funny thing is that neither play begins with blood. But both plays begin with toxic masculinity; where one is overt, the other is discrete, insidious. Toxic masculinity has, by its nature, existed pretty much perpetually; it has been written about, if not by name then by theme, since at the very least in a 1996 article by Ronald F. Levant. By name, a cursory search shows it is referenced directly – in the title – in a 2005 article by Terry A. Kupers. But it is now in the public consciousness in a new way. This is easily visible from looking at Google Trends information on the popularity of the search term; the peak of its popularity was in mid-February 2018, where it was over six times more “of interest” than in the corresponding part of February 2017.

But what is toxic masculinity? As a term since the 1990s, it has actively evolved, beginning as a descriptor for the effect of repressing masculinity, or the type of masculinity that is fostered without a male role model, always at the fault of women. Now, it is defined as a type of masculinity that is entrenched in old-world values, and harmful to those who exhibit it and to those in its radius; men as strong “alphas”, as breadwinners, sexually promiscuous and dominant, entirely self-dependent.

It is worth seeing how people differentiate between toxic masculinity and general masculinity or maleness. The two are not necessarily synonymous, and yet many refuse to see that. If you find yourself in the deeper (depressing) pits of reddit, you’ll see that the term is scoffed at by the sort of men who are themselves victims of toxic masculinity. We live in a world where men are so entrenched in a mythic past, an ideal of manhood vastly out-dated and evolutionarily surpassed, that they refuse to help even themselves. They would rather a hundred more mass shootings, a thousand more murders of ex-girlfriends, mothers, daughters, sisters… no death outweighing the meme.

***

The problem of toxic masculinity begins with men, and so do both of these plays. In The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess, played by Joan Iyiola, drags a bull carcass on stage; the stage is designed by Naomi Dawson to look like a brutalist gymnasium from your worst nightmares, a bare and restrictive environment that screams hypermasculinity. The Duchess is watched by her brothers, Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) and the Cardinal (Chris New), as she single-handedly outmans the pair of them, dressed as they are in a salmon-pink suit for Ferdinand and something resembling a golfing outfit for the Cardinal (topped off with white shoes, white tight gloves and an easily-missed clerical dog-collar. These are not archetypal manly-men; Ferdinand, in the “girly” colour, is smartly dressed in a casual way, not quite a dandy but what some might call metropolitan. Meanwhile the Cardinal, a golf-player, does not exactly ooze athleticism, playing what is widely thought to be a more leisurely sport. His physical prowess is only ever situational; when the “chorus”, a group of muscle-men in work-out clothes, perform a charged movement routine to pulsing music beneath bright lights, the contrast could not be more clear.

 © Helen Maybanks, RSC

© Helen Maybanks, RSC

Throughout the play these muscle men will transform as the Duchess’ position alters; performing for her as the muscle men, they stand around her as one panting mass. Then, as things begin to sour and her status is called into question, they take on an appearance akin to storm ninjas, pseudo-military, a reassuring presence when it seems that the Duchess is in control and then an increasingly imposing force as Ferdinand’s conspiracy closes in around her. When they come for her, Orlando Gough’s intense score once again swelling frantically, she squares up to them, forearms out in a bodybuilder’s gesture, shouting in a deep pitch in their faces, able to hold her own, an equal to them.

 © Helen Maybanks, RSC

© Helen Maybanks, RSC

Their final form is as the madmen who sing and scream and try to drive the Duchess crazy – again, however, she identifies with them, their misery and insanity suited to the insanity of her current situation. As ever, these are dangerous men who watch her, and though she does not fear them, they are a harbinger of her imminent demise, a sign that things have gone too far. Perhaps a comment is being made here, that toxic masculinity unchecked is a ticket to lunacy and a danger to society. Indeed, when her executioners are summoned, they are madmen too, dressed the same, acting the same. In their faces, they do not appear out of the ordinary at all.

The other men serve as noteworthy contrasts. Antonio (Paul Woodson), whom the Duchess falls in love with, never attempts any kind of masculine energy; he is geeky, professional in a shirt and tie, spectacled, softly-spoken. Perhaps this also angers Ferdinand, who tries and fails to “be a man”. Antonio’s friend Delio (Greg Barnett) is another outlier; he too is more gentle in nature and is never seen in relation to a woman, only to Antonio; but during a rare moment of shared male intimacy, a hug between the two of them, they punctuate the hug with the well-known triple-slap of the “man-hug”. The only other moment of male intimacy, between the brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal, is undercut by the clear unease between the two of them, by Ferdinand’s simultaneous resistance and need to be treated with gentle affection. And then there is Bosola (Nicolas Tennant), the play’s conniver, whom we instantly see as a man’s man, a “bloke”, and yet inevitably one who is past his prime, out of shape, out of favour, and more often than not out of breath. Bosola is a relic of what masculinity might have been, and he drives almost all of the murderous action of the play and, ultimately, is briefly rendered the final survivor – but more on this later.

There are, technically speaking, no men in Girls & Boys – just Carey Mulligan, billed as “Performer”, telling the story of her life, or more specifically how she met her husband, what led her to that moment and what followed, everything that has brought her here, onto this stage, talking to us. But this does not mean that men are absent. Her narration of past events paints a beautiful and clear picture of her husband, someone ambiguous at first who becomes likeable and then, ultimately, deplorable. Part of this is found and bound in the text, in Kelly’s hilarious description of this man, the Performer’s yet-to-be-husband, who she meets when he insults two female models, the pair of them having feigned interest in him to cut a queue. The Performer is amazed by his wit and his awareness of what these women are doing; at the same time she is unaware that she is complicit in a misogynistic response. Though the women are selfish and spoiled, it is an old trick that he deploys, alienating the women from those around them, drawing attention to their appearances, and then insulting them, likening having sex with them to an ‘act of necrophilia’. Funny stuff in the moment, mostly in the way Mulligan tells it; but by the end of the play you are guilty, kicking yourself because you didn’t see it coming.

Elsewhere, Mulligan’s descriptions and impersonations of her husband are responsible for how we see men; when she tells him about her first pregnancy, she describes his reaction: ‘the stuff that his muscles were made of suddenly became liquid. He started… wobbling, just gently wobbling. And then he sort of… folded down, he just concertinaed down onto the sofa, collapsing in on himself. Crumbling. And then he starts… to shake’. Put aside her reaction for the time being, the terror, how she shifts in a second from wanting this baby ‘badly’ to deciding ‘there and then to have an abortion’. She hinges so greatly on his wishes that she would compromise this newfound need in herself for him – but put that aside. Her description of his “crumbling” is stunning in its composition and its delivery, the constant restating and the interspersed ellipses, trying to articulate a weakness in a man that she does not have the vocabulary for. When Mulligan describes this “concertina”, something in her body bends ever so slightly one way that you can envisage it, this man bending under the slightest pressure. That she can communicate so much about this man in her own physicality is testament not just to her skill, but to the dynamism of gender, the fact that the human body can understand what the mind does not, man or woman.

 © Marc Brenner, Royal Court

© Marc Brenner, Royal Court

Later, when things have gone ‘properly wrong’, she is going to divorce him and take her children; at this point he has ‘spiralled’ from losing his job, become ‘disgusting… this talking, moving dirty-puddle of a man’, no longer a ‘doer’. She approaches him, hoping he will fight for her to stay, and asks for the divorce; his response is blood-chilling. ‘I want you to listen to me – there will never be a time when you have my kids and I don’t. You are not taking them from me as well, that will never happen, I will never let that happen, do you understand that?’ The tone shifts, yes, but so does Mulligan’s physicality, suddenly imposing, violent in its stillness, stood at full height, tone clipped, face all but snarling with menace. If you have been through or around a messy divorce you might recognise this sort of behaviour, and that makes it all the more horrifying. The unreality of this man, often endearing but now seemingly irredeemable, is finally cemented when he says to his wife, the Performer, a newly-accomplished producer of documentary films, ‘don’t you have an award speech to prepare?’ She sees this as ‘the truth’ about ‘the reason he was destroying [their] life together’, a terrifying predisposition to self-destruction founded on feelings of inferiority, his inability to be the breadwinner, out-earned and out-shined by his wife. Mulligan physicalises this transformation to horrifying effect as her Performer prepares us for what is to come.

***

These men do not exist in a vacuum. What matters most in unpacking this problem is how women are positioned both in opposition and in apposition to these men. Indeed both productions present nuanced female characters who do not exist solely for the benefit, love, or gratification of men. The Duchess, following her strong first appearance, is clad in gloriously chic outfits and owns the space, constantly commanding those around her – verbally dispatching her controlling brothers, commanding her waiting-woman Cariola (Amanda Hadingue), and then both verbally and physically seducing her steward Antonio. The Duchess is a self-possessed woman who gets what she wants without ever seeming spoiled or – perish the thought – unlikeable. Indeed the moments between her and Cariola are some of the most compelling in this production; there is a natural tenderness, an intimacy almost entirely out of place. None of the heterosexual relationships that we see involve such honest closeness; even for the Duchess and Antonio, when they are intimate, it is always rushed, verging on paranoid. The Cardinal does not show an iota of warmth to Julia. But the Duchess and Cariola are often alone together, and talk together as equals despite their different statuses, and hold each other as family should, comforting and loving each other. In the moments before their separate deaths, they cling to one another despite themselves. There are few examples of moving, three-dimensional female friendships in much of the popular early modern dramatic canon, but Aberg teases everything out of this one to beautiful effect. There are few moments more harrowing in this play than when Cariola pleads to die with her mistress, and the Duchess wildly protests such a thing. That neither can live without the other; that the Duchess knows there is no hope for her but some for her waiting-woman, and dies holding on to that hope.

 © Helen Maybanks, RSC

© Helen Maybanks, RSC

Cariola is an anomaly in herself – dressed stylishly, but never enough to upstage the Duchess, her role is also combined with that of the Old Woman (in Webster’s original text), so that she is the one who has an exchange with Bosola in which she charges him: ‘you are still abusing women’. This one line, prescient as it is, seems incongruous to the play and will certainly prompt some viewers – even those familiar with the play – to dig out their copies of the text and check if this is textually verbatim. It is. And with a line that can be said to no less effect four-hundred years later, in a production that is overtly concerned with the female struggle in a world consumed by toxic masculinity, it is a crucial line. To give it to Cariola, who dies pleading for her life and lying about being betrothed and pregnant to sway her executioners, and who lives entirely in service of her mistress, the woman of the lowest social class of the three women who appear in the production, the only woman we do not see in any romantic or sexual relationship, a woman who is even derided – casually, but derided just the same – by the Duchess and Antonio… it is no accident that Cariola takes this line. When the women are dead and their bodies removed, and there are no more women to abuse, the four men will abuse each other, until there is nothing left at all.

Julia (Aretha Ayeh) is no less fascinating – we see her first as youthful, denim-clad and idealistic having snuck away from her husband to be with the Cardinal. The audience is not asked to pass any judgement on this adulterer; our first impression of her husband is of some old fool, while we can see very clearly that the Cardinal is a manipulative and angry little man who has ensnared Julia and lashes out at her for being so ensnared. Only a few moments into their first on-stage meeting, he rapes her, taking one white glove off (with his teeth) to do so, Julia crying the while. She is another product of violence, who later staggers onstage like a bewildered Blanche Dubois, powerfully singing ‘I Put A Spell On You’ upstage, to the accompaniment of crashing drums, as the Duchess and Antonio dance downstage, blissfully unaware. The song is about control, about having control over another person; the song is also about witchcraft, and numerous people accuse the Duchess of such. But the song, sung by Julia, seemingly about the Duchess, is a jarring moment, highlighting if anything the delusion of ownership, establishing the tragic stakes for when – after discovering that the Cardinal had the Duchess, Cariola, and two of the Duchess’ children murdered – Julia herself is murdered, by a poisoned bible no less. Julia, perhaps the most deluded, is the last to go. I will consider this triptych of murders further; first, I return to the Performer, and her performance of independent womanhood.

Girls & Boys is a one-woman show; it doesn’t get more independent than that. There are scenes – many of them – about her relationship with her husband, and just as many scenes about her children, domestic scenes that when they first begin are initially uncomfortable and unexpected, the domestic scene hidden behind a panel for the first ten minutes of the play. But from the moment Mulligan appears, dressed in red flowy trousers and a dark yellow top, hair scraped back out of her face, feet bare and a shoulder’s length apart, there is something inherently “masculine” (or at least what we would call masculine) about the Performer and how she carries herself. As if she is used to not being taken seriously. Few female characters come up in the story of the Performer’s past, but one is particularly prevalent and, in some ways, reminiscent of the Cariola-Duchess bond; the Performer’s boss, Veronica.

The Performer looks up to Veronica, and describes her admiration for the ‘legend’ Veronica at each opportunity when Veronica comes up. She is praised for her work and her demeanour: the Performer says of her ‘I thought you are now and always will be my hero’. A relation built on mutual respect amongst women and not quid-pro-quo, not in any way impacted by men. But Veronica leaves the business in time; ‘fifty-two years old and she adopts this beautiful, beautiful little girl and gets the hell out’, to much derision from the Performer’s colleagues, who ‘snide’ about her toughness, and then her childlessness, and then for getting a child. No matter what she does she is openly disparaged by her staff. The key detail is almost buried: ‘the judging – men and women, by the way – the judging’. Men and women are complicit in the cruelty that Veronica faces, just as the Performer is complicit in the casual misogyny her future husband exhibits when she first meets him at the airport.

It is no coincidence either that she has two children, a boy and a girl (Danny and Leanne). Leanne is the other female character in the play and though she is not portrayed by an actor, she comes to life, endearing in her smart-ass insistence that she be allowed to build a Shard out of mud in her bedroom. In this first domestic scene we see that she is smart, rebellious, funny, and interested in creating. In other scenes she is sensitive and aware that she is treated differently from her brother, that more is expected from her. She is described as caring and protective, and in so many other ways that are evocative of classic femininity and, in particular, motherhood. A mini-me, perhaps, which explains the obvious fondness that the Performer has whenever she mentions Leanne, her firstborn.

 © Marc Brenner, Royal Court

© Marc Brenner, Royal Court

Danny, on the other hand, is a different case – as an infant in the first scene he has made a mess of his food and at one point even hits his mother. In later scenes, he destroys his sister’s ceramic chicken and laughs about it, and then in a pretend game insists on destroying an imaginary tower created in Leanne’s pretend game, with bombs and guns, and then insists on going to war and blowing everybody up. You can almost see Leanne being made to feel smaller beneath Danny’s vindictive streak, embodying these violent “male impulses”. In that very first scene, when the Performer upsets Danny by being strict after he hits her, she tries to soothe him, rocking him back and forth, saying softly ‘I know, mummy’s terrible… I’m a terrible mother, I’m evil, I am, I’m the worst mother in the world, I know’. The blame is not placed on the father or the malicious little shit but on her. In A Doll’s House Torvald tells Nora that ‘almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother’, who has poisoned the home and the very breath her children draw in. It seems that this meme – that the mother is solely responsible for the faults of the child – is alive and kicking in a barely evolved iteration. And so the Performer’s two children, the play’s title, its themes, all illuminate the central point, which is that the battle at hand is everyone’s, girls and boys alike. We must all acknowledge that men and women both tread a nervous tightrope as they try to keep themselves above the toxic flood.

***

In The Duchess of Malfi, the flood is made manifest in blood. Macbeth warned us that “blood will have blood”, while in Webster’s play, Ferdinand says that the Duchess’ ‘witch-craft lies in her rank blood’, an echo of Vittoria’s statement in The White Devil, ‘my greatest sin lay in my blood’. There is in this, to a modern ear, a sense of how religion has systematically denigrated women; there is also the allusion to female blood, especially menstrual blood, and how that is used to oppress and dismiss women today and always. The Duchess’ blood is never spilled, so when she defiantly proclaims ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’, this and any sin she may have – but more importantly the witchcraft and strength that sets her apart – remains in her body. Strangulation, like smothering, is an oppressive death, confining the victim, unlike the wound which opens them up. But perhaps there is some strength in how she dies with her power still inside her – a greatness that allows her to transcend the final bloodbath like an angel-avenger, that reminds us also of the arbitrariness of her murder, that though she is denigrated for her blood there is no attempt to actually shed it.

The central expression of toxic masculinity in Aberg’s production is blood, and the aforementioned progression from Duchess to Cariola to Julia’s death, a progression both expedient and terrible, is very much wrapped up in that expression. Each death serves as a moment of anagnorisis; the Duchess is aware of what is to come, has come to terms with the misogyny which she is ensconced in. More than that, she kneels in a pool of blood that has been slowly pooling on-stage after Ferdinand, surrounded by a chorus of howling men, stabs the bull-carcass the Duchess had dragged on-stage at the beginning, penetrating and opening a wound between its upheld legs. This blood is slowly soaking the Duchess’ dress; though stoic and prepared, there is a moment of hesitation. Then the strangulation begins, and the Duchess is dragged through the blood, gasping and gesturing wildly. Though her death is technically bloodless, the blood here becomes the symbol of female struggle and misogynistic oppression, a direct consequence of toxic masculinity, the thing that was promised by the blood that had been shed before. It is the logical beginning and end of the cycle, which soaks and covers her as knowledge, awareness of what the world is and what it means.

 © Helen Maybanks, RSC

© Helen Maybanks, RSC

Cariola is more resistant: she pleads for her life, sure, but she also attacks the executioner, biting one of them, in her bid to escape from them, crawling (and sliding) through the same blood that her mistress struggled through moments earlier. There is no luck, and she dies fighting, having greatly bloodied and exhausted her executioners in the process. Julia, meanwhile, is the most surprising; poisoned by the Cardinal’s bible and thrown to the ground, bloodied, she attacks the Cardinal, who until this point had for the most part avoided the blood, only stepping in it when necessity called. But she pulls him down with her and – unlike Cariola, fighting the men to escape them – pursues the Cardinal, crawling after him like some bloody horror, and he is left skittering away desperately. Perhaps this is a sign of her desperation and dependence on him, that even in death she seems to cling to him. Or maybe, more likely, she has simply had enough, and wants her final actions to be of resistance, and more than that to expose the Cardinal to the bloody truth, the horror of the world that he thrives and murders in, that he will – in due time – himself fall victim to; after all, he will soon be coated thickly in that very same blood, in much the same spot where Julia herself dies.

There is no visible blood Girls & Boys; the set is completely off-white, perhaps a slight blue-tinge from the lights, with occasional bits of colour – an orange, a toy, smashed ceramic – interspersed throughout the domestic scenes. But there is blood, a lot of it, bubbling in the narrative and you don’t even realise. There is a real powerful cruelty to this play that I wasn’t expecting, and it comes at the end of the sixth “flashback” scene where the Performer is interacting with her children, the same scene mentioned above where Danny bombs his sister’s skyscraper. In the midst of a sibling argument the Performer very unexpectedly turns to the audience – she has never done this during these scenes, only in the direct “chats” that intersperse the scenes – and says unprompted ‘I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead’. It’s a punch in the gut for sure, vertiginous; and things begin to click into place. In that moment you realise she is not telling the story of how she met her husband but of how her children died. And you understand that she is alone, that her past is buried, like the domestic set itself, behind the same blank stage-wall that she stands in front of. The next chat begins some thirty seconds later with a confession: ‘I don’t remember exactly when things with us started to go properly wrong – I just remember suddenly finding myself in it’. The audience is propelled helplessly in her situation, overwhelmed, burdened by the knowledge that her husband is increasingly toxic and her children are dead and their father has not appeared in a single memory.

 © Marc Brenner, Royal Court

© Marc Brenner, Royal Court

Several scenes and chats later the Performer is facing the audience, hesitant for the first time, and says ‘this is the hard bit. This is the bit that’s been coming and I think maybe you’ve known it’s been coming, but it is here now’. Suppressing the emotion, strong in the face of hundreds of strangers, peering out through the box of the stage, through the frame of lights surrounding her stage, she confirms our fears: ‘my children were stabbed to death’. Their father – her now ex-husband – comes to her new home, convinces the babysitter to leave, and kills his young son first in his bedroom, and then his daughter, who according to the Performer and her understanding of the crime-scene analysis, was pursued from the bedroom and killed at the front door. The death is measured in blood, and described in such meticulous detail that it is hard to fully focus (and it is still hard now to write about). The father cuts his son’s heart: ‘the wound to the heart was enormous, especially for a heart of that size, leading to a catastrophic loss of blood… The blood would have been shocking… I think it would’ve shocked him even as he did it.’ (Incidentally, when Ferdinand stabs the bull-carcass in Duchess and the blood begins to ooze, his initial reaction is shock.) His movement in killing his daughter is then tracked by ‘a bloody hand-mark, a smear on the bedroom door-frame consistent with someone moving at speed’; now the Performer lists the eight stab wounds to her daughter, pointing absently at each one… ‘and then he slit her throat to make sure’. The blood of her daughter is not described but in the visceral description of these nine separate wounds – especially the slit throat – the blood seeps in through the gaps in the imagination. All that’s left is for the man to shower the blood off of him, and then get dressed back into his bloody clothes. He throws himself off the roof after twenty-three minutes alone with those bloody bodies, and survives the fall, more broken than bloodied.

Ferdinand observes that Bosola has an ‘inclination to shed blood’, unaware even when it happens that he too has the same, that this is what the Performer calls ‘a thing that we do, this… incomprehensible violence thing… [a] male impulse’. This observation angers her husband, as surely it angers many men today; every “campaigner” claiming #NotAllMen, and the “Meninist” movement in general, will scream blindly, interspersed with threats of rape and murder, that not every man is violent and saying “that is sexist, you stupid cunt”. This is the world that we live in. A world founded on male bloodshed, predicated on its own renewal. The Performer muses on the constitution of society, on an academic’s supposition that society is created to enable and empower men; after everything she concludes that ‘we didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop them’. Part of toxic masculinity is the belief in the subservience of women, that women should be controlled by men. It is present in Duchess, as you have already seen; in Girls & Boys, the Performer analyses the phenomenon of ‘family annihilation’, perpetrated mostly by men (‘that’s not an opinion or a viewpoint or a controversial statement for you to ponder, it is just a cold, hard fact – 95% of the people who do this are men’), and determines that the ultimate root cause is control: losing control… exerting control… denying control to others’. Toxic masculinity insists on a mythical superiority – and by many today it is claimed to be biological, psychological, sociological, biblical, universal – but it is none of these things. It is a romanticised version of something that never even was. And it is destroying people, families, social orders, and fundamental societal conventions closely mirrored by the sorts of theatrical conventions broken by the dead Duchess, soaked in blood and still roaming, and the uncomfortable lapse (or collapse?) that happens when Carey Mulligan, still holding an imaginary child, turns to an audience that contextually she should not be acknowledging at this moment, and tells them that her children are dead.

Writing this, the horror film franchise Scream, by Wes Craven, has seemed especially relevant. There are thematic and formal similarities between revenge tragedies such as Duchess, and horror films such as Scream. But Scream, from the 90s onwards, has been speaking to our current age. It is a film about toxic masculinity, about a young man named Billy Loomis who, angry at his father for failing as a role model and cheating on his mother (leading to the disintegration of his family), kills the woman his father was cheating with: Maureen Roberts Prescott. Fast-forward, and he is dating Sidney, Maureen’s daughter, and begins a mass-murder rampage that he intends to culminate with Sidney, her father, and a number of other people caught in the crosshairs. His response to the wrongs of his father is to annihilate someone else’s family. Sidney also must pay for the sins of her mother, as women throughout history must. (In later films, she is paying for those sins, as well as the sins of Billy, and so many other men in her life.) Billy’s intention to justify his crimes by blaming them on the movies that inspired him is also relevant, in that men do as they have learnt but also never take the blame. The Performer’s son, Danny, is destructive like his father. “Blood will have blood”. Of course there is no shortage of blood in Scream, and the fake blood that Billy uses to convince Sidney, momentarily, of his innocence, in order to torture her with brief guilt, is a sign of the absolute remove he has from the awareness present in Duchess. This is also why he must be shot in the head: to completely excise the rot that exists in his brain. (Somewhat of a segue, the series is full of other men who murder because of their fragile masculinity; five of the seven killers are male, and of the two who are female, one is the mother of original killer Billy Loomis and is avenging her loss; in the first Scream, Sidney’s best [female] friend Tatum says it is ‘sexist’ to assume the killer is a male; all five of the male killers are young men, in some way emasculated.)

 © Wes Craven; Dimension FIlms

© Wes Craven; Dimension FIlms

A concern with toxic masculinity and its logical trajectory is as entrenched in our pop-culture as it is in our theatre, particularly in images of blood. Aberg and Turner (and Kelly) have accessed a current and urgent zeitgeist to flesh out the contents; spilling the blood, they carry on the work of exposing what is rotten, and what this rot is doing.

***

There is another qualm to consider, in the authorship of these plays. Neither John Webster nor Dennis Kelly are women. For Webster – who was writing in a time with few known female contemporary writers – perhaps it’s not too much of a problem; the play is mostly told from the perspective of men after all, and it’s Maria Aberg, a woman, who frames it in such a way that the experiences of women is brought to the forefront. But Dennis Kelly is a living playwright, contemporary to our times, and single-handedly wrote this tale of female experience, through the vehicle of the female voice, to whom he does not even attribute a name. Why is this his story to tell?

Of course, men do have a stake in stories of toxic masculinity, and men must consider the ways in which they are complicit, and do what is within their means to affect change. After all, feminism and most other types of progressivism require, at some point, the cooperation of those who belong in the category of oppressor. True equality cannot be won passively. And the story that Kelly tells is necessary and timely and urgent. Perhaps it’s the female team who bring it to life: visionary set designer Es Devlin, director Lyndsey Turner and assistant director Milli Bhatia, and of course the Performer herself, Carey Mulligan, who keeps the audience waiting for every next word, who turns the mood from humour to tragedy with such unexpected ease that you could (literally) hear a pin (or, in one case, a penny) drop, all throughout the auditorium.

 © Marc Brenner, Royal Court

© Marc Brenner, Royal Court

Again, I think of Björk. The song immediately preceding “Tabula Rasa” is “Sue Me”; the song is lyrically reminiscent of the closing track on Vulnicura, “Quicksand”, which begins the healing process following a difficult separation from her partner, finally considering the importance of female lineage. “Sue Me” is a direct reference to the custody battle between her and her ex-partner, deeply personal, and as with “Tabula Rasa” urges this man to think of the children, to free them from a legacy of hurt and hate: ‘he took it from his father / who took it from his father / who took it from his father/ let’s break this curse / so it won’t fall on our daughter / and her daughter / and her daughter’. But Björk’s intensely personal writing is speaking of the world more generally, speaking to the women and the men locked in these battles now and throughout time. “Let’s break this curse”, she pleads; let’s stop doing this same thing over and over. In this personal narrative Björk accesses a universal truth, that it is up to us all to move past it, men and women both.

This naturally brings me back to Sophie Collins, musing on Joanna Russ’ observation that men have often objected to the quality of female writing because of ‘what she wrote about’: herself, her life, or – god forbid – other women.

          I note that, in literary fiction, when a female writer’s female
          protagonist is considered up to scratch, she is often taken to be a
          thinly disguised version of the author’s non-idealised self.

          Something like: a woman who tries to invent in literature will fail,
          whereas a woman who succeeds in writing is believed to have done
          so to the extent that she has been able to accurately portray the
          details of her own life.

I am reminded also of Quote Unquote Collective’s Mouthpiece, written and performed by Amy Nostbakken & Norah Sadava. Using their own experiences of womanhood, they crafted and performed a single, fictional character, in a Mrs Dalloway day-in-the-life affair; but this one woman, crafted by two women, constructed personally from the microcosms of the everyday, speaks to a very universal (or universally western, middle-class, educated) experience of womanhood. That’s why the play is resonant. The female writers have created a female protagonist unlike themselves, “non-idealised” or not, that speaks truth to something that an audience may struggle even to articulate. The fact is that they live this experience and are undoubtedly better at channelling it than a man would be.

 © Joel Clifton, Quote Unquote Collective

© Joel Clifton, Quote Unquote Collective

So what of Dennis Kelly’s creation? He is not criticised in the same way that a female writer is; in such a way, perhaps the points he makes will leave more of an impression on those sexist minds who would reject such words if they were written by a female. On the other hand it is frustrating (and I say this as a writer who is drawn to female experiences and female voices, and a director who is keen to explore, foreground and facilitate those experiences and voices); why can’t this play, largely put together by incredible women, also have been written by one? I offer no answer or solution to this – I feel one of the reasons I can write this in the first place is because toxic masculinity concerns me too. So I offer only an awareness that Kelly has written a great work and this should not be detracted from on the grounds of his gender. And yet of course there is still much work to be done.

***

In Maria Aberg’s hands, the ending of Duchess differs from the text. Delio is denied his final lines and appearance, so that the play ends not with resolution or hope but with absolute death, a holocaust of blood-soaked corpses strewn about – the four men, actually. The children, Cariola, and Julia are already off-stage. Bosola’s final words, before death, diminish the world and its violence to ‘a kind of nothing’. The Duchess is there, conscious and watching even though she is dead, situated above the others, upstage, first in a seat and then eventually on the steps, watching passively as the violence decimates her familial line and her societal order. The ending of the play becomes a story in itself of a savage, cannibalistic male violence – blood for blood – a toxic masculinity that has left nothing in its wake but more blood, and an uneasy legacy. The Duchess has one surviving child after all, orphaned by this violence, maybe free to break the cycle; but his final appearance onstage, earlier in the play, is troubled. He appears and leaves in a salmon-pink outfit, horrifyingly reminiscent of his uncle Ferdinand. We are not to know if he can or will break the cycle; we know only that it is unlikely, that it will be hard, that he cannot do it alone.

 © Helen Maybanks, RSC

© Helen Maybanks, RSC

Girls & Boys is no more forgiving than Duchess. It seems prescient that the Performer’s husband does not die immediately; he lives as a reminder of her loss, as a continued torture to her. But also it puts him in prison, where he kills himself promptly. This confluence of prison and suicide perhaps comes quite strongly from a male writer, as these two elements are key components in the study of toxic masculinity. Much research done when “toxic masculinity” was a new term focused on prison culture; and today, we recognise the danger and prevalence that male suicide poses to our society. Many campaigners posit that male suicide is fostered by a toxic masculinity that puts unattainable expectations on some men, and makes it impossible for them to open up about how they feel. Lost and disappointed in themselves, they run out of options quickly and act with finality. The final bite in Girls & Boys is that, maybe, if you can move just far enough away from the Performer’s side of the story, and the emotional investment that has been established, just maybe there should be a little bit of sympathy for this parasite of a man. And that is something that men generally still need to realise: they too are victims of toxic masculinity, and feminism seeks to liberate them, too.

The play concludes with another of Mulligan’s memories, which prompts the question: what is the point of these flashback scenes, mostly domestic, and mostly full of discord? The Performer herself ponders: ‘I don’t know why when I do this it’s always moments of conflict… I mean it’s my imagination so you’d think I’d go for beautiful moments… like just sitting quietly with Danny asleep against me. And Leanne lying on my lap watching TV… maybe I don’t deserve… yet. Or earned? Or something’. In these domestic scenes we see the children playing out the same futility, perpetuating the cycle and the propensities of the genders that their parents represent: the caring and creative daughter and the selfish, violent son who destroys everything that his sister builds. The future generation is without hope if we don’t do something about it soon enough, if we just leave them on their own to follow our lead. And maybe the Performer isn’t hopeful enough yet. But the very final flashback is that exact scene she longs for, domestic bliss, sans father, rewarding and hopeful and peaceful. The final thing you see is the off-white furniture and props, her own tabula rasa, suddenly come to vibrant, colourful life, a miraculous feat of lighting wizardry. Perhaps she can be free from the horror and the anguish in her past. In this new version of the past, there is hope for both of her children and for her too. So even though the play is painful in its very composition, even though the Performer cannot really go back, we are given something to cling to. In order to face the outside world when the curtain call is over, I think we should cling on for dear life.

 © Marc Brenner, Royal Court

© Marc Brenner, Royal Court

With the current rise of activism and awareness of gender issues such as toxic masculinity, even as we live in bleak and terrible political times, there is some cause to be hopeful, even amidst all this blood. And Björk is hopeful in “Tabula Rasa”; ‘it is time: / the world is listening’, she tells us, before closing the song with insistence, telling her daughter, telling the unknown but fondly imagined listener ‘you are strong / you are strong’. The Duchess of Malfi and Girls & Boys have presented and bloodily dissected the questions, the problems, the way that the world has been built up and is so often blown apart. The answer is implied, and the real tragedy of these plays is that no one ever sees it, at least not in time; Björk sees it. “Break the chain” – establish a new order. Men and women alike must learn and improve, or face the same bloody consequences.

***

The Duchess of Malfi continues its run at the Royal Shakespeare Company until 3 August 2018. Information and tickets are available here.
Girls & Boys has finished its run at the Royal Court; hopefully, for the good of the world, it will be revived, transferred or toured. In the meantime, information about the production is available here.
Björk’s ninth studio album, Utopia, is available from most good music stores and streaming services. It was released on gorgeous vinyl here.
Sophie Collins’ debut collection of poems, Who Is Mary Sue?, is available from most bookshops, or here. It was first published by Faber & Faber in 2018.
Mouthpiece first played in the UK in August 2017 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has since played again in Sheffield and London. It will be returning to the UK in May and June 2018 for more touring appearances. Further information here.

Lyrics from Björk’s album Utopia are taken from the album liner notes on the UK limited edition coloured vinyl release (tplp1381ltd).
Lines from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster are taken from the fourth edition of the text edited by Brian Gibbons, as published by A & C Black Publishers (London, 2001, reprinted 2005). I saw Maria Aberg’s production first on 1 March 2018, and again on 14 March 2018.
Lines from Girls & Boys by Dennis Kelly are taken from the script, published by Oberon Books in association with the Royal Court (London, 2018). I saw Lyndsey Turner’s production on 17 March 2018.
Lines from the titular poem in Sophie Collins’ collection Who Is Mary Sue? are taken from the first edition, published by Faber & Faber (London, 2018).
Mouthpiece, by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, is not referenced explicitly, but the script, published by Oberon Books (London, 2018), was consulted for this article. Comments about the individual experience of womanhood came from a Q&A that the writers gave after their performance in Sheffield on 3 March 2018.
Scream has been referenced from the archive of my own memory after a million viewings. Macbeth has been referenced (briefly) from memory.


*My initial micro-review of The Duchess of Malfi, posted online after the performance on 1 March 2018, is as follows: “I braved the blizzard last night to see the first preview performance of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ by John Webster at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, directed by the incomparable Maria Aberg, whose work has been inspiring me for nearly five years. I’d brave another dozen blizzards for this production. The talented cast never dip below “terrifyingly convincing”, with Amanda Hadingue as an endearing and passionate and fearsome Cariola, and lead by Joan Iyiola giving the performance of a lifetime as the daring, dauntless Duchess. Orlando Gough’s music brought to life by Musical Director David Ridley and played live to enormously atmospheric effect, was so fitting and powerful that I want to go back ASAP just to hear it again (those drums!). The stage design, courtesy of Naomi Dawson, brought the “toxic masculinity” of Malfi to painful life, and the use of blood in the second half was simply incredible. Also noteworthy is the brilliant movement (as ever) by Ayse Tashkiran, which especially in the second half became feverish and imposing. Ultimately this creative team has been brought into glorious union by Maria Aberg, easily topping her previous successes, and proving herself once more as one of our greatest directors. This staggering production of one of my favourite early modern revenge tragedies deserves a packed and celebratory run, and will hopefully seen by young audiences, who have so much to learn about this toxic patriarchal world.”*

 Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).

Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).

*My initial micro-review of Girls & Boys, posted online after the performance on 17 March 2018, is as follows: “On Saturday I was fortunate enough to catch the penultimate performance of Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys, directed by Lyndsey Turner, designed by Es Devlin and performed by Carey Mulligan, at the very brilliant Royal Court. This show hollowed me out and broke the husk that was left. I found myself struggling to hold back the sobs, such is the emotional force of this punchy story about a woman, her family, toxic masculinity, and the unexpected annihilation of lives. Mulligan performed the piece to flawless execution, captivating the whole room effortlessly for 90 minutes. Devlin’s design was (as always) a truly incredible complement to the production as a whole, its own expression of the themes and narrative. Quite simply one of the most effective, well-written, well-directed, well-performed pieces I’ve seen. The most urgent theatre-making and I only wish more people could see it in the near future.”*

 Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).

Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).

Liberty! Freedom! Fascism! Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre, London (2018)

Juliano Zaffino

 © Bridge Theatre,  Julius Caesar

© Bridge Theatre, Julius Caesar

*Please be advised this article contains explicit information about the plot and staging of both Julius Caesar, the play, and the specific production at the Bridge Theatre in London, which runs until mid-April 2018.*


Liberty! Freedom! Fascism! Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre, London (2018)

In June 2016, the United Kingdom was led astray by people who would say anything for their own political advancement. Immediately post-Brexit, the lies –from the side of a bus, from online campaigns, from the very mouths of politicians – became clear and the mood of the country for the near future was set. Divided, yes, with many people frustrated and hopeless, another group determined and hopeful, most everyone angry either way. Much of the press has become apoplectic, certain papers branding every man, woman and child who speaks out against Brexit a saboteur, a traitor to kin and crown and country.

In November 2016, the United States of America elected to their highest office a man deeply unqualified, a man with a history of sexual assault and misogyny, a man capitalising on another divided nation by exploiting the worst instincts of many of that nation’s peoples: racism, chiefly, with a healthy dose of Hillary-fuelled sexism, but also homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and anti-intellectualism, under the guise of supposed anti-establishment sentiment. This man, a rich businessman, despite being an archetype of that establishment, ran a campaign to drain the swamp and, confused or bigoted, Americans responded.

In the summer of 2017, the Public Theater in New York City made international headlines after a production of Julius Caesar depicting a Trump-like Caesar was protested against, after death-threats, after Trump’s voters felt as though a direct challenge had been made – on American soil! – against his life, and so against their democracy. During the preview performances of this show's run, comedian Kathy Griffin also made headlines for a tweet depicting Trump’s severed head, bloody, dangling from Griffin’s fist by his signature hair – the same hair, incidentally, that led to many of the Trump comparisons for the Public Theater’s production. Griffin was fired from CNN, criticised by many (including Melania Trump), and issued an apology shortly afterwards. Chelsea Clinton, of all people, even tweeted her disgust, making clear that “it is never funny to joke about killing a president”. Perhaps it is not funny – but what if it’s important to think about? Surely the Public Theater in contrast were not making light of the situation, but asking questions about what happens when the mood of a people drives assassinations, and what the fallout from that could be. Those who accused the Public Theater of “advocating” for Trump’s assassination clearly know little about the plot of Julius Caesar following the assassination. (Spoiler: it ends badly for the conspirators and, in many ways, for all of Rome.)

 © Joan Marcus (Public Theater,  Julius Caesar)

© Joan Marcus (Public Theater, Julius Caesar)

The Public Theater was not the only company to stage Caesar in the post-Brexit, post-Trump landscape. The Royal Shakespeare Company did so in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2017, in period-dress togas, avoiding any Trump-like associations while still referencing him by name (and by photo) in their programmes for the show. The politics of the show felt more general, a reflection on power and oration in our “Post-Truth” society. Director Angus Jackson used the theatre’s houselights extensively to include the audience, to draw them in and make them complicit; yet he also had a group of some dozen or so supernumerary actors comprising the Roman mob at various points, especially for Caesar’s funeral, swinging foolishly from one side to another as they heard what they wanted to from both sides, ultimately motivated by James Corrigan’s Marc Anthony, reading Caesar’s will. Later, he turns to the audience, showing the will to be merely a blank prop. The fickle people can be laughed at by an audience let in on the joke. We are no fools to be led astray!

Yet Stratford-Upon-Avon, a microcosm of the UK, voted in favour of Brexit 52:48. So who is Angus Jackson fooling, or flattering? Of the local audience his production was playing to most days, many were led astray, especially among the elderly populace, while many are simply Conservative through-and-through, clearly ignorant or apathetic to how their local economy depends on global tourism. But in this way, as in the period-dress, Jackson avoided anything too controversial in his staging. People could take from the production what they wished to: it is no coincidence that the #TeamBrutus and #TeamCaesar marketing campaign (somewhat irrelevant given Caesar is not really in any real political contention against Brutus), despite initially evoking the Twilight fandom’s “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” divide, also suggested the new age of democracy that we live in, where we are voting for people instead of parties. Caesar and Brutus are not aligned with any political party, and so spectators of the show and/or its advertising could make the associations they chose to. Better than being spoon-fed, perhaps, but unavoidably a cop-out.

All of this seems to build, quite directly, to the Bridge Theatre’s 2018 production of Julius Caesar, directed by veteran director and Artistic Director of the Bride Theatre, Nicholas Hytner. The second-ever show at this new landmark London theatre, it has been met with acclaim and mostly positive reviews, especially with regards to “The Pit”, the 300-person standing area that sets the stage for this unique in-the-round promenade production. The truth is that this production, full of great acting from the complete cast and exciting (read: terrifying) staging, excels because of the crazy world we have been living in since 2016, because of how people have responded (or failed to respond) to the issues of Brexit, Trump, nationalism, populism, fascism… the list of what defines our political present goes on. And this production makes the very most of our troubled times.

As you enter The Pit you are met with fun, rally-like music from a live band, and people selling drinks and snacks from carts, as well as pro-Caesar merchandise, complete with the catchphrase “Do This!” and a hat designed to replicate the famous “Make America Great Again” hat. The mood quickly sours from there. The fun and freedom that this staging allows becomes increasingly infringed upon, as the stage moves and locations shift, as characters come and go through the throng, as private spaces are established and the audience are brought uncomfortably close to the conspirators’ discussions. The stage crew as well as the cast instruct people firmly, moving them out of the way, often verging on unpleasantness. You are free to move as you like unless you are told otherwise.

 © Manuel Harlan (Bridge Theatre,  Julius Caesar)

© Manuel Harlan (Bridge Theatre, Julius Caesar)

Caesar’s arrival at the Senate-house is palpable in The Pit, the audience is left to wonder: how will they stage this in relation to our presence? What will become of us, the poor complicit groundlings? It’s all over quite quickly: shots are fired and a cry comes from the stage crew for everybody to get down. When Caesar is finally slumped, dead, and the conspirators, the crowd, and the crew are trying to catch their breath, conflicting information is given: some say to stand and evacuate, others say to stay crouched. Like a twitching mass, the audience hovers between the two states until things are (relatively) calm again. We see the conspirators reacting in real time, with Leila Farzad’s Decius Brutus proving surprisingly sympathetic, a nervous wreck after killing Caesar (who, elsewhere, is implied to be somewhat intimate with Decius). She is instantly filled with overwhelming horror at what she has been involved in. Whether or not we can talk about assassinating an elected leader is one thing; to see those directly involved weighing up the consequences themselves after the fact is another. It is clear that the case is hard-made for assassination; it is, in itself, an attack on freedom and democracy and will only breed further attacks, until liberty and freedom are beset on all sides by tyranny – the production is building to this.

Shouts and prodding are once again used by cast and crew to move the audience towards (and through) the funeral, individual characters taking on the role of director by constantly focalising attention; where the RSC used their supernumerary mob and houselights, the Bridge Theatre uses movement and space to convey changing tides, still relying on the relationship between cast and audience, and more even more than that on Shakespeare’s words themselves, to do most of the work. Ben Whishaw is obviously the sort of wise and brooding academic-Brutus that Alex Waldmann fell short of in the RSC’s production, and so his funeral speech does have some gravitas to it, measured and persuasive. Further, we see the mostly-female conspirators surrounding him (another contrast from the RSC’s predominantly white male cast), including Adjoa Andoh's fiery Casca and Michelle Fairley’s bold and bitter Cassius, who had been openly denigrated by David Calder’s misogynistic Caesar. But David Morrissey’s Marc Anthony adequately exposes the hypocrisy and immorality of the assassination and its motivations, aside from Caesar's flaws, thus shifting public perception.

The next moment of the production is life-changing. The short scene that ends the third act, the often inconsequential murder of Cinna the Poet (mistaken for Cinna the Conspirator) becomes the hinge upon which the two halves of the production rest. Pandemonium befalls The Pit: one crew member tells you to move back while another crew member behind you shouts to move forward, so that you are oscillating back and forth in a short space, stepping on your own feet and those of your fellow pit-dwellers; the space is dark, with occasional strobe effects and the overwhelming sound of shelling. The space is a war-zone and the killing of Cinna the Poet is a brutal and ultimate manifestation of the violence and chaos that has seeped into the space and an omen of the anarchy that is to come, the cost of war on the average citizen – and most audience members will miss seeing it entirely, either because of their position or because they are being jostled so much they’ve been literally turned around. (Anecdotally, I thought I had been hopelessly separated from my friend in the audience – it turns out she was next to me the whole time.)

This is immersive theatre, promenade theatre, sure. But some are complaining about the intensity, claiming that the production does not like the people in The Pit, and that the Bridge Theatre has in many ways failed its audience. But such complaints are reductive and miss the point: this is what happens when fascism is allowed to creep in. It's insidious but it's happening. Say goodbye to your “safe spaces”, to the illusion of freedom, to the things you thought you were getting on the ticket. You are a victim, held at the mercy of the machine. This is the fascist state and you are nothing more than a cog, collateral. The production must take the risk of alienating the audience completely in order to send that warning. This is a warning that says we have been here, as a species, and we keep on ending up back here, in these political struggles and these unsettling environments. And it is the everyday people, the voiceless ones, who suffer most, watching the World Stage (or the National Stage, or the Local Stage for that matter), perhaps entertained at first, and slowly horrified, still powerless to stop it. Perhaps an audience member could actually stop it, but to do so would be to destroy the theatre of it, something we are conditioned against, as we are conditioned to refrain from openly objecting to the state, as we are told by our press that dissent is treason, that questions are dangerous. We see all the consequences play out over the final forty minutes of the production, as we are taken deeper into the warzone that has escalated before our very eyes, the space unrecognisable at the end, littered by the dead. It is up to the people of The Pit to move past it.

This is a necessary production and resonates with its audience, especially its younger audiences, because it taps into the rage and hopelessness of today’s youth, who voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, who are overwhelmingly against such figures as Trump and Farage and Le Pen, a generation that understands the paradoxes of tolerance: that we must tolerate most everything except intolerance. This is a generation that openly fears an apocalyptic outcome to the rash idiocy of some older people who have forgotten the history they studied many years ago, who do not think about the future in the same time-frame as the young do. These are young people who understand that we must talk about these issues, that we must explore them, that we must be wary of becoming the nation represented in the Cinna the Poet scene: fractured, blind, cannibalistic, and primed to implode. Aware that we must open our eyes to the alarming way that a fascist state will render us worthless, helpless, alone.

You can book tickets to see this violently urgent production until April 15 here. NT Live is live-broadcasting this production to cinemas from March 22 - more info here.


*My initial micro-review, posted online after the performance on 25 January 2018, is as follows: “Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre is urgent and intense and compelling and everything that modern productions of Shakespeare should be. Go watch it from The Pit if you dare. And be amazed… it was the best Shakespeare I have ever seen. With masterful acting from Ben Whishaw (*swoon*), Wendy Kweh, David Calder, David Morrissey, Adjoa Andoh, and above all Michelle Fairley as the greatest, most refreshing Cassius in ages. Special mentions to Adjoa Andoh for a brutal, hilarious, imposing Casca and Leila Farzad as a complex and profoundly sympathetic Decius Brutus. Not a single member of the cast performed to a lesser standard than their star leads. Aside from wonderful performances and delivery of the verse, the production featured dynamic sound and music, lighting, and all-around stage design, expertly directed by Nicholas Hytner. And being in The Pit, as anxiety-inducing and ruthless as it was, made for the most compelling two hours, being jostled and surprised constantly, shifted around the space and brought into direct complicity with all of the action. Ultimately it was the Cinna the Poet scene that stuck in my mind the most, the moment at which I felt most hopelessly overwhelmed by the crazy world of the production...”*

 Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).

Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).

Posts Hidden for Editing

Juliano Zaffino

Illyria Online Readers:

Some essays posted to Illyria Online between 2016 and 2017 have been temporarily taken down to allow for their editing, to bring them in line with one another, and to ensure adequate referencing has been done. As these essays were initially written for academic purposes, the referencing does not always come across clearly for this digital, online medium.

Essays include:
- ‘Hic et Ubique’: Joyce and Eliot, Hamlet and Hamlet, Antiquity and Ubiquity [essay]
- To what extent do the three substantive early texts of Hamlet (Q1, Q2, F1) provide a reliable map against which to read and understand the relationship between Shakespeare plays with two substantive texts? [essay]
- ‘You all do know this mantle’: the dramaturgical necessity of reporting in Henry V, Julius Caesar and Hamlet [essay]
- ‘Observe his construction of it’: deception and misrecognition of the written word in Twelfth Night and King Lear [essay]
- The Un-Death Of The Author: The Complicated Relationship Between Scholarship, Criticism, and The New Oxford Shakespeare’s Authorship Companion [essay]
- (Re-)Sequencing Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Application [dissertation]

"What is, or was, a 'bad' quarto (with reference to The Merry Wives Of Windsor)?"

Juliano Zaffino

As with my previous post, this "essay" (/series of words) is adapted from a presentation made and delivered during my Shakespeare Studies MA, this time for the Textual Studies class. The brief was to answer the above question by providing a critical chronology pertaining to 'bad' quartos with specific focus on Irace, Marcus and Maguire, and to do so quickly! The presentation slides are screenshots (hence the black border), and each slide is here preceded by the spoken part of my presentation with which it corresponds. As ever, I apologise for any errors or oversights on my part, please be forgiving.

*

In order to discuss what is or what was a bad quarto, with specific reference to the first Quarto of Merry Wives, I’m going to take a chronological look at the critical appraisal of this issue, taking snapshots from the past century-or-so through to the present, focusing on and drawing attention to arguments by such critics as P.A. Daniels, W.W. Greg, Paul Werstein, Kathleen O. Irace, Leah Marcus and Laurie Maguire.

Daniels argues, in 1881, that the first Quarto and the Folio ‘each in turn convicts the other as imperfect’, and that it is impossible to determine whether they represent departures from one common original, or from two separate versions.

Greg seems highly influential, in that Irace, Marcus and Maguire all separately refer to him extensively in their later arguments. He sees both Q1 and F as ‘unoriginal’ texts, Q1 based on a text ‘shortened for stage representation’ while F is a revised version of Q1 which attempts to return to the “Original Text”.

I didn’t have time in preparing, and knew I wouldn’t have time in presenting, to cover adequately this period of time. Greg (and Pollard) continue to have a say, and Paul Werstine also comes into the mix. See also Hardin Craig in 1961 – Q1 is ‘both good and Shakespearean’? But it gets interesting again in 1994.

Irace insists on taking the ‘bad’ quartos seriously as ‘theatrical scripts in their own right’. She prioritises explanations for the shortness of the text that don’t undermine its value: simpler staging due to theatrical limitations and the improvement of pace.

Marcus says ‘The transvaluation of “bad” Shakespeare quartos is proceeding more slowly than for the similarly “bad” A text of Doctor Faustus: it seems that we as a culture demand far greater perfection of Shakespeare than we do of Marlowe. And, as most Shakespearean editors are still agreed, Q1 Merry Wives is one of the worst of the “bad” quartos.’ She takes issue with its “lack” of courtly associations, and with how action has been systematically relocated from one printed version to the next, though the alteration in place is not clear-cut. She sees the Quarto as one that “lacks” and “truncates”.

Marcus argues Q1 ‘needs to be considered as distinct from the folio rather than a mere corruption, vastly different in terms of its dramatic patterning and ideological functioning’. But for Marcus, Q is ‘merrier than’ F.

Maguire responds directly, at least twice, to Leah Marcus’ Unediting The Renaissance, and also refers often to Irace. Maguire draws on Greg’s reporter-adapter-reviser trio and expands on this systematically. Maguire presents a table examining such factors as external echoes, internal repetitions, formulaic constructions, insertions, omissions, speech length, stylometrics, unconformities, length, stage directions and speech prefixes to “diagnose” the play. With the evidence, Maguire determines it to have “a strong case for memorial reconstruction”.  Maguire concludes by preferring the term “suspect texts”, and states that her diagnostic tabulation precludes the ability to generalise, that these texts are not suspect in any uniform way.

Melchiori, in his introduction to the 2000 Arden Third Series edition of Merry Wives, he rehashes the history, reaffirms much of the work of Irace, Marcus and Maguire, and discredits work by those such as Eric Sams, who believed in the ‘bad quartos are early versions by Shakespeare’ argument. He sees Q1 as based on ‘an acting version for the stage’ (p.36) and goes on to confirm Gerald Johnson’s 1987 ‘plea for a fresh reappraisal of the relationship between Quarto and Folio in view of “[t]he probability that the Quarto represents a memorial reconstruction of an alternate, adapted version of the play”’ (p.41) So, nearly 100 years after Greg, we find the ‘bad’ quarto circle has become… a literal circle.

It seems like the general consensus has not changed in the intervening years – though, as with all things, I could well be mistaken. To take the easy route again: it is beyond the scope of this presentation… Which, the eagle-eyed amongst you may notice, has not yet addressed the actual question/title of the presentation.

So. What is or was a bad quarto? Now that the bare chronology has been laid out, we can see how ideas of what constitutes a bad quarto, as well as what contributes to its “badness”, have shifted over time to become less dismissive of what is now often referred to as the “short” Quartos. The idea of memorial reconstruction has fallen in and out of favour, and is accepted in a slightly different sense than it was first posited. A so-called ‘bad quarto’ can generally be characterised by its often “garbled” nature, its clear imperfections (independent of inference from later versions such as the Folio), and crucially a shortened text – though this aspect in particular can challenge the term “bad”, as there could be a causal relationship between the shorter nature of a text and dramatic or theatrical simplicity/suitability.

The argument now seems, more-or-less, to channel a lesser-known protagonist whom Maguire quotes in the preface to her book... "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Hamlet, TLN 1295-6).

*All references have been included within the presentation slides.*

Free Will Shakespeare: King Richard III, Determinism and/or Fatalism

Juliano Zaffino

The following “essay” is a very moderately tweaked version of a presentation given in a class for my Shakespeare Studies MA. The scope of the presentation was to discuss Richard III in a way that was both specifically engaged and broadly engaging.

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‘I have set my life upon a cast, / and I will stand the hazard of the die’ (V.iv.9-10).1 As part of Richard’s final speech in the play, almost immediately preceding his “silent” or dialogue-less death on stage, the metaphor for chance reveals much about Richard’s actions and demise; everything is a matter of chance, and yet it is Richard who has “set his life” on this chance. This paradox is what I intend to explore and unpick a little further. It ties in with questions of free will and agency – to what extent Richard chose his course – and ideologies of determinism, that all events are caused by preceding events, and fatalism, that humans are at mercy to the forces of fate. Such socio-philosophical concepts relate, in King Richard III, to questions of preordination and the divine right in the Elizabethan period.

           The difficulty in reconciling Richard with his fate is frequently expressed as a particular dichotomy: is he a Machiavellian villain or a tragic predestined prop? Perhaps he is both – a discussion of recurring themes in Richard’s speech and in the way others speak about Richard, and a brief note on performance history, will further illuminate this. This leads to further questions about what Marie-Hélène Besnault and Michel Bitot express as ‘the exploration and staging of physical and moral deformity’.2 Is Richard III physically deformed by fate, or as divine punishment for his villainy? What does the answer to that question say about moral deformity, expressed through Richard’s actions? To better understand both the relevance and the tension between these factors, one must first consider the monarchy’s relationship with fate and sovereignty – especially under the reign of Elizabeth I.

           As John Guy notes, Archbishop John Whitgift propagated the ‘divine right’ argument: ‘the state of government is named according to that which most ruleth, and beareth the government sway’.3 Or, to paraphrase Guy’s summation, Elizabeth derived her authority directly from God in church and state. Royal supremacy, the monarchy’s right to rule, is distinct from yet intertwined with the question of preordination; the succession of rule through the royal line, that it is divinely predetermined for Elizabeth to rule. The implications of this extend back throughout the history of the monarchy and so Richard III, last of the Plantagenets, had a part to play. As the sequence of King Richard III shows, Richard III had to be overthrown for the Tudor line – and, eventually, inevitably, Elizabeth – to sit on the throne. To say that Elizabeth was predestined for the throne is to say that Richard was predestined for demise. Patrick Collinson states that ‘royal and episcopal principles [of royal supremacy and monarchical episcopacy] have been brought to life and made to move about the stage’.4 In King Richard III, the titular monarch is the embodiment of this enactment, particularly when he is considered in relation to the theological notion of “free will”. So the question is: to what extent did Richard have free will, not just in Shakespeare’s play but also historically?

            Richard is certainly viewed by others as being in charge of his own destiny; in the play’s second scene, Anne says to him ‘thou wast provoked by thy bloody mind, / that never dream’st on aught but butcheries’  (I.ii.101-2). The causal link between bloody actions and a bloody mind suggested by “provoked” implies that Richard chooses to “butcher”. Similarly, Richard implies his own conscious will when he opens his address to the audience (and the play), as seen in the tonal shift between the first half, such as the lines ‘our bruised arms hung up for monuments, / our stern alarums changed to merry meetings’ (I.i.6-7), and the second half, starting with ‘But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks… I, that am rudely stamped… I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion, / Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature.’ (I.i.14-19). The inclusive pronoun “our” brings the audience into Richard’s conspiracy but also into pre-Tudor England; this is disrupted by the emphatic “but”, and the anaphoric “I, that am”, which foregrounds Richard’s otherness as well as his strong sense of identity and being, and shows Richard actively working against the collective.  Yet there seems to be a paradox here; Richard blames his otherness on deceitful or “dissembling Nature”, and even Anne’s claim suggests that Richard is forced into his actions by the very nature of who he is.

           Richard himself suggests powerlessness against fate when he says ‘all unavoided is doom of destiny’ (IV.iv.218). But Elizabeth’s reply is more telling than his claim: ‘true, when avoided grace makes destiny’ (IV.iv.219). A footnote in the James R Siemon’s Arden Edition of the play makes the (long yet eloquent) point that ‘referring to the controversial idea that one might reject God’s grace and make ones own damnable destiny, Queen Elizabeth counters both the emphasis on divine predestination in contemporary Calvinism and Richard’s assertion of irrefutable destiny by positioning the importance of the individual human will in accepting or rejecting God’s grace’.5 The consequence of this is two-fold: Richard makes his own choices, yes, but he is still within limits. His choices are limited by the circumstances of his life; his “Nature” and his lineage. Murder has been in Richard’s family, and indeed the royal line, for generations; we see Richard’s propensity for it when he, alone on stage, declares ‘I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl’ (I.iii.323), and ‘thus I clothe my naked villainy / with odds old ends, stol’n forth of Holy Writ, and seem a saint when most I play the devil’ (I.iii.335-7). Again the theme of deceitfulness recurs, interspersed with religious imagery; Richard is figuratively “pulling one over” on providence by pretending to adhere to it.

           Indeed, Richard directly expresses his tendency to feign submission to divine powers. In the presence of others, Richard’s true self is revealed. Buckingham, in front of the Mayor, says to Richard that the throne is ‘successively from blood to blood, / your right of birth, your empery, your own’ (III.vii.134-5). Buckingham is being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, performing for the Mayor. Richard also performs, deploying irony, referring to the young Prince as merely his ‘thoughts’ sovereign’ (III.i.2), and says of King Edward that ‘he may command me as my sovereign’ (III.i.108). The implication is that Edward and his line only govern Richard because Richard still allows it; sovereignty is both intangible and malleable, hence the certainty when Richard says ‘when I am King’ (III.i.194). For Richard, sovereignty is a performance: he refers to King Edward as ‘my most sovereign lord’ (II.i.53), and then says of Clarence’s murder that ‘God will revenge it’ (II.i.139). The lack of logic negates the possibility that Richard is being earnest; if he believed what he was saying, he would be setting himself up to fail. And yet that’s exactly what happened; thus the paradox that, in exercising free will, Richard further tempts fate.

            The way that Richard is punished by fate is made manifest most sharply in the figure of the former Queen Margaret, completing the story arc that began for her in Henry VI. She knows Richard for what he is, and says to the Duchess of York that Richard would: ‘worry lambs and lap their gentle blood’ (IV.iv.50). If we take the lamb to be Jesus, whose Eucharistic blood is consumed by Richard, then perhaps Margaret is making an anti-Catholic slur, marking Richard as opposed to the latterly-protestant view of Shakespeare’s England. Maybe Margaret is implying that Richard is a god-killer, like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, ‘the scourge of god’. Margaret is the only one who calls Richard a heretic with any conviction or vitriol, referring to him as ‘the foul defacer of God’s handiwork’ (IV.iv.53). God’s handiwork is nature, indicating Richard’s unnatural appearance, as well as the divinely ordered rule. She exclaims ‘O upright, just, and true-disposing God’ (IV.iv.55) – again, Richard is a usurper not just of the crown, but also of God himself. And yet the links between Margaret and Richard only further complicate the question; Margaret was cruel and murderous and is being punished, yet her curses against Richard, her wishes to see him brought to justice, are all actualised. Nicholas Grene asks ‘why divine providence should become’, then quoting Wilbur Sanders, ‘a supernatural agency under contractual obligation to exterminate the house of York’, serving the will of Margaret.6 Grene and Sanders ignore the futility of Margaret’s fulfilment; her time to thrive has long passed. But Margaret does serve as a sort of foreshadowing for Richard, the figure punished for attempting to transcend beyond God’s will; Richard ignores this warning, and Richard pays the price.

           It might be helpful to look at performance history for answers. Gillian Day’s exploration of Richard across five decades of performances at the RSC indicates a typical divide between portrayals of Richard’s character: the theatrical politician or the realist psycho-social victim.7 The theatrical politician is often a manifestation of the Machiavellian villain, while psycho-social realism would mostly paint Richard as a product of his surroundings: warped family history, “flawed belief structure”, fate and/or circumstance. Thus we see that same opposition realised, although often not simultaneously – Richard is actively portrayed as one or the other. Perhaps, as Gillian Day argues, the introduction of a “metatheatrical Richard”, somewhat aware of the performance, is a way to bridge this gap, and to invite the audience to judge Richard for themselves, giving the audience a semblance of the Free Will that is perhaps denied to Richard.

           King Richard III relates to Shakespeare’s earlier plays, the three parts of Henry VI, in the way that chronicle history is discordant with dramatic structure; I have been going on (and on) about the way that dramatizing this history problematizes a sociological and theological dichotomy that was perhaps unspeakably contentious at the time of King Richard III’s composition. This consideration of Shakespeare’s theological and political views may be outdated; as Dominique Goy-Blanquet sets out to show, ‘a more constructive starting point for research is the exploration of the technical problems raised by turning heavy narratives into performable plays, rather than of the political motives that could inspire a playwright’s representation of national history’.8 The technical problems are there and manifest; but the interrelation between the two, the way that history mapping onto performance reflects political tension, seems more useful in its breadth.

           Richard’s “free will”, however extensive (or not) it may be, is like him only ever the product of his surroundings; his attempts to be a fatalistic Machiavellian villain are undermined by his helplessness, for he is a prop insomuch as he is a catalyst for the instating of the Tudor line, the necessary end to that particular chapter in history. It is most helpful to maintain a determinist mind-set, to consider Richard as having a limited amount of free will. Either way, sovereignty has run the necessary course, eradicating all preceding lines so that the correct line (i.e. Elizabeth’s) could triumph. God works in mysterious ways.

 

Footnotes

1 William Shakespeare, King Richard III, ed. James R Siemon, The Arden Shakespeare – Third Series, reprinted 2015 (London: Bloomsbury, 2009)

2 Marie-Hélène Besnault and Michel Bitot, ‘Historical legacy and fiction: the poetical reinvention of King Richard III’, in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s History Plays, ed. Michael Hattaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 106 – 125 (p. 106)

3 John Guy, ‘The Elizabethan establishment and the ecclesiastical polity’, in The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and culture in the last decade, ed. John Guy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 126 – 149

4 Patrick Collinson, The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society 1559-1625, reprint 2003 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 1

5 see James R Siemon’s footnotes to King Richard III (edition as above), p. 351

6 Nicholas Grene, Shakespeare’s Serial History Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 130

7 Gillian Day, The Arden Shakespeare – Shakespeare at Stratford: King Richard III (London: Thomson Learning, 2002)

8 Dominique Goy-Blanquet, Shakespeare’s Early History Plays: From Chronicle to Stage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), synopsis on reverse of dust jacket.