Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Macbeth (1974/5)

Among actors, Macbeth has always been considered an unlucky play, and not without reason. When Olivier played the title part in 1937, he narrowly escaped death when part of the scenery collapsed and demolished the chair in which he had just been sitting. In a 1942 production starring and directed by John Gielgud there were no fewer than four fatalities. Two of the witches, the actor playing Duncan and the designer all died in the course of the run. The set was then repainted and used for a light comedy, whereupon the lead actor in that production also died.

Fortunately, nothing so serious blighted Trevor Nunn’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, first seen at Stratford in late 1974, which transferred to London in early ’75. But it was not without incident. Nicol Williamson, playing Macbeth to Mirren’s Lady Macbeth, refused to rehearse. ‘I think his plan, if there was such a thing, was to hold back until the first night and then just let it explode,’ Mirren recalls. There was no love lost between the principals: he was ‘just horrible to me… he hated me,’ she says now. I don’t know – perhaps they had smoothed over their differences by the time of the London run – but I saw the London version twice, both times in a state of heightened emotional awareness brought on by my having developed a massive crush on Ms M, and I wasn’t conscious of animosity between the leads so much as chemistry of a very different kind. One felt this was a characteristically modern reading, playing up the sexual co-dependence of the Macbeths’ marriage.

The idea is surely in the play, and it has a long history. In 1884, Sarah Bernhard upset straight-laced Victorian critics by dwelling on the lady’s ‘insidious erotic influence’. AC Bradley railed against this interpretation in his 1904 lectures on Shakespeare:
... there is not the faintest trace in the play of the idea occasionally met with, and to some extent embodied in Madame Bernhard’s impersonation of Lady Macbeth, that her hold upon her husband lay in seductive attractions deliberately exercised. Shakespeare was not unskilled or squeamish in indicating such ideas.
Yet ‘seductive attractions’ were precisely what Mirren’s Lady Macbeth used to further her ambitions. Her body would be the reward for an obediently performed murder. Associations between sex and violence were established from the beginning. When we first saw Lady Macbeth, reading her husband’s letter (I.v), she held it in her right hand while toying with a small dagger in her left. Then, as she invoked the ‘Spirits | That tend on mortal thoughts’, inviting them to ‘unsex me here’, she used the dagger to draw blood from her arm. The lines of soliloquy that follow were carefully delivered: ‘Come to my woman’s breasts | And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers…’

When Williamson entered, Mirren threw herself with unequivocal affection into his arms, sensing ‘the future in the instant’. Greeting his wife with ‘My dearest love’, Williamson held her for what seemed like minutes before breaking the embrace to speak the next line. Her conversational tone at ‘Your face, my Thane’ troubled some critics (‘she giggles, as if he had just seen the gas bill’ – Wardle) but suggested an easy relationship between them as he entrusted ‘this night’s great business’ into her ‘dispatch’.

Act I scene vii, where Macbeth prevaricates before the murder of Duncan, seems to me highly charged with eroticism, even on the page, as Lady Macbeth taunts her husband with lack of manliness: ‘From this time | Such I account thy love.’ Macbeth declares he will ‘do all that may become a man’, to which she responds, ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’. Williamson and Mirren intensified their intimacy at this point.

There was symmetry between I.v – Macbeth, back from the war, greeting his wife with ‘My dearest love’ – and II.ii, as Mirren received Williamson with a jubilant cry of ‘My husband!’ and an ecstatic hug after he’d killed Duncan.

In this production the sexual dynamics of the marriage were exposed to view, so that Lady Macbeth’s decline began at the point where the frisson goes out of the relationship. As Irving Wardle wrote of the Stratford production, ‘Up to the coronation, Miss Mirren is sex triumphant; afterwards, her collapse begins from the sense of being sexually discarded.’ To be precise, no sooner has Lady Macbeth entered ‘as Queen’ (III.i) than Macbeth orders her out of the room to plot the murder of Banquo without her aid. In III.ii she asks ‘why do you keep alone, | Of sorriest fancies your companions making?’ At the exhortation to ‘sleek o’er your rugged looks’, Mirren offered her embrace to Williamson, but engrossed in his own thoughts, he ignored her, and she dropped her arms.

And yet this kind of reading can be overdone. Bernard Levin, in a column written around this time, made a right charlie of himself by obsessing about Ms Mirren’s mammaries. In I.vii, as in I.v, Lady Macbeth references her breasts; but the context as before is that of breast-feeding:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.
Coleridge’s gloss on these lines is of interest:
… though usually thought to prove a merciless and unwomanly nature, [this passage] proves the direct opposite: she brings it as the most solemn enforcement to Macbeth of the solemnity of his promise to undertake the plot against Duncan. Had she so sworn, she would have done that which was most horrible to her feelings, rather than break the oath…
The thematic associations of maternity, fecundity and dynasty have to be present. After all, the original prophecy that drives the plot is that Macbeth shall be king, but Banquo’s issue, not Macbeth’s, will later occupy the throne.

But if I had suspicions that the production was emphasising one aspect of the play at the expense of others, I couldn’t resist the many memorable details in Mirren’s performance:

- After Duncan’s murder (II.ii), using a napkin of purest white, Mirren tried to wipe off the blood but she was unable to clean either her own hands or Macbeth’s; they left the stage still bloodstained.

- In II.iii Lady Macbeth faints. Nunn had devised some business to motivate this. Duncan’s catafalque was brought down the stage and Mirren, confronted with the result of their crime, perhaps reminded of her ‘father as he slept’, broke down under the strain. Her hysterical outburst was interrupted by Williamson, who took her by the shoulders, turned her round and led her to the door.

- In the banquet scene (III.iv), after Macbeth had addressed a stool for minutes on end, a white-clad Mirren rushed to sit on it. (The entire production was in blacks and whites, as if viewed in silhouette.) Afterwards, fighting for control, she moved compulsively about the room as she reacted to Macbeth’s raptness in the face of Banquo’s ghost, at one point clinging to the back of a chair to regain her self-possession.

- In the sleepwalking scene (V.i), the Doctor and Gentlewoman treated her as a disturbed child implicated in a business she didn’t understand. Marvin Rosenberg summarises:
Mirren wore a stark white robe as she acted out the movement to her desk, from which she took her paper. She turned half-front as she began to speak, still seated, working hard at her hand washing. She seemed to lick or spit on a handful of robe which she rubbed fiercely against her palms. She was wildly urgent in the scene, her anxiety-ridden voice returning to the tones of childhood.
Nunn’s aim in the original staging, so he told the company’s historian Sally Beauman, had been to confine the awesome spaces of the Stratford stage, producing ‘a chamber stage within the proscenium’. This was Mirren’s first production after a year of intermittent travelling with the Peter Brook company. In November 1974 she’d had a letter published in The Guardian complaining that the RSC’s expenditure on costumes, sets and staging had become ‘excessive, unnecessary and destructive to the art of Theatre’. I suppose if you’d spent the previous months performing on a bare carpet in African villages and Native American reservations, any of the trappings of European theatre would seem extravagant. Whether as a result of her protests (which were not well received by a company management suspicious of unauthorised contact with the press) or an unrelated design re-think, the production was notably sparser by the time it reached London. No set now, just massive ebony furniture dragged about by black-cowled scene shifters, which seemed to trap the actors within its confines. Williamson by the end was clambering up and down a pile of furniture, like a chimpanzee in a cage, spitting out his ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech. Irving Wardle listed the changes in his review of the London production:
Gone are John Napier’s heavy ecclesiastical furnishings, the traverse curtain shadow plays, spotlit asides, coronation pageantry, and the witches swinging on chandeliers. In their place, Trevor Nunn bases his production on the naked physical properties of the stage. It is like moving from an Italian cathedral to a primitive Methodist chapel.
Macbeth is the shortest of the Shakespeare tragedies. The brevity and speed of the play are astonishing, especially when played, as it was in the 1975 production, without interval in two hours flat. Lady Macbeth's sinewy, unmetaphorical language, so often rooted in the colloquialisms of Shakespeare’s day, was a perfect fit for the unforced style of verse delivery that Mirren had learnt from her RSC mentors. Although histories of the play usually give preference to Nunn’s later production with Judi Dench as the Lady, I will always cherish this one.


Sally Beauman, The Royal Shakespeare Company (1982)
AC Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)
ST Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Raysor (1930)
Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers (1987)
Bernard Levin, ‘Bringing the followers of Thespis back into the temple’, Times, 3 December 1974
Helen Mirren, In the Frame (2007)
Helen Mirren, ‘Stage set for an empty pageant?’ [Letters], Guardian, 13 November 1974
Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth (1978)
Irving Wardle, ‘A Christian tragedy’, Times, 30 October 1974
Irving Wardle, ‘Macbeth’, Times, 6 March 1975

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Apple Cart (1975)

By George Bernard Shaw (1929).
BBC TV, 19 January 1975.

It’s hard to imagine now, but in the 1970s the BBC had a series called ‘Play of the Month’. One Sunday every month, two hours of prime time viewing on BBC1 (and remember there were only two BBC TV channels in those days) were devoted to a single classic drama. For those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go to the theatre, it must have been their only exposure to Chekhov, Ibsen or Shakespeare. God knows how people would stumble across that kind of education nowadays.

The choice of dramatist in January 1975 (sandwiched between Colditz and the Ten O’Clock News) was less fortunate: GB Shaw. Oh dear. Let’s check in at this point with the greatest English theatre critic of the twentieth century:
In most writers, style is a welcome, an invitation, a letting down of the drawbridge between the artist and the world. Shaw had no time for such ruses. Unlike most of his countrymen, he abominated charm, which he regarded as evidence of chronic temperamental weakness… His puritan, muscular, moor-tramping soul (superbly mirrored in Higgins’s hymn to the intellect in Pygmalion) bred in him a loathing of all things, whether poems or gadgets, that were designed to comfort the human condition without actively trying to improve it. (Kenneth Tynan, ‘The Demolition Expert’, Observer, 22 July 1956).*
The Apple Cart is two hours of pompous prating, relieved only by an amorous episode in the middle where it flashes into half-life. In a future England, the Cabinet arrives en masse at King Magnus’s palace to deliver an ultimatum. Either the King accepts his limitations as a constitutional monarch and ceases meddling in politics or the Prime Minister will go to the country on a monarchy-democracy issue. Ultimately, the King capitulates, but not before he has struck terror into their hearts by threatening to abdicate in order to stand for Parliament in an upcoming Election. Meanwhile, in a farcical twist, the American ambassador seeks audience, bringing the joyous news that the USA has cancelled the Declaration of Independence and, like a prodigal son, decided to return to the Empire. What in 1929 was topically provocative – the Prime Minister foresees an outcome where the ‘real centre of gravity… will shift either west to Washington or east to Moscow’ – remained tangentially so in Cold War Britain, which I suppose explains the BBC’s decision to flog this very dead horse in 1975.

Between all the politicking of Acts One and Two comes an ‘Interlude’, where the King (Nigel Davenport) relaxes in the boudoir of his mistress, Orinthia (Helen Mirren). More talk ensues, only this time the tone is lighter, the banter more flirtatious. Orinthia speaks to him as an equal. She believes she is far above the common herd and entitled by innate rank to displace the Queen (Prunella Scales) as his consort. ‘I am one of Nature’s queens,’ she declares. ‘If you do not [know it], you are not one of Nature’s kings.’ By turns possessive, imperious, haughty, the character is unshakeably convinced of her own ‘greatness’:
Give me a goddess’s work to do; and I will do it. I will even stoop to a queen’s work if you will share the throne with me. But do not pretend that people become great by doing great things. They do great things because they are great, if the great things come along. But they are great just the same when the great things do not come along.
Tradition records that Shaw modelled the character of Orinthia on that of Mrs Patrick Campbell, who had created the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (a rather better play than this one). Shaw had passionate, but it seems unconsummated, feelings for the actress, which he later translated into the relationship of King and mistress in The Apple Cart. This may explain why the ‘Orinthia interlude’ crackles when the rest of the play drags. But it also needs an actress as beguiling as Mrs Campbell was in her heyday. (In the original British production of 1929 that role fell to the 41-year-old Edith Evans.)

It must be a pretty difficult part to play. Helen Mirren adopted her ripest RP accents, to make of Orinthia a stagey, self-dramatizing hetaira: a heroine in her own eyes, even as the King deflates her by telling her she belongs to ‘fairyland’. It shouldn’t work, but it did, probably because, under or behind the verbiage, there was a physicality about her performance that none of the other actors were able to bring to their roles. Seeing it that Sunday night in 1975, I was hooked. I still am.
*Cf. Clive James’s advice to the aspiring critic:
Any youngster who wants to get into this business should find a copy of Tynan’s first book, He That Plays the King, and do what I did – sit down and read it aloud paragraph by paragraph. It will soon be seen that his sometimes pedestrian radical opinions were far outstripped by his perceptions, which moved like lightning to energize almost every sentence. (Clive James, North Face of Soho: Unreliable Memoirs Volume IV, 2006, p215).

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Changeling (1974)

By Thomas Middleton and William Rowley (c1623).
BBC TV, 20 January 1974.

Scholarship holds that Rowley wrote the subplot and the opening and closing scenes of this play, and Middleton the remainder of the main plot. The subplot, in which Antonio (the ‘changeling’ of the title) pretends to be a madman to gain access to Isabella, wife of the keeper of an asylum, is tedious in the extreme – and painful to modern audiences, given our much improved understanding of mental illness. (In the BBC production the subplot was edited to the point of incomprehensibility, but it was of interest to see Kenneth Cranham, Mirren’s sometime boyfriend, in the role of Antonio.)

In the main plot, Beatrice-Joanna, (Helen Mirren) daughter of the Governor of Alicant, is betrothed to Alonzo de Piracquo, but she loves another, Alsemero. To rid herself of the unwelcome fiancĂ© she employs De Flores (Stanley Baker), a servant in her father’s employ, to murder him, assuming that he can be paid off in gold. What she doesn’t reckon with is that the ‘dog-faced’ villain, who lusts after his beautiful mistress, is looking for payment of another kind. As TS Eliot wrote,
Such a plot is, to a modern mind, absurd; and the consequent tragedy seems a fuss about nothing. But The Changeling is not merely contingent for its effect upon our acceptance of Elizabethan good form or convention; it is, in fact, no more dependent upon the convention of its epoch than a play like A Doll’s House. Underneath the convention there is the stratum of truth permanent in human nature. The tragedy of The Changeling is an eternal tragedy, as permanent as Oedipus or Antony and Cleopatra; it is the tragedy of the not naturally bad but irresponsible and undeveloped nature, caught in the consequences of its own action.
This seems right, and it’s best demonstrated in the critical scene (III.iv) right in the middle of the play where De Flores, having despatched Piracquo, comes to claim his prize. The writing rises to its highest level – not by accident are the play’s most quoted lines to be found in this scene – as Middleton ratchets up the dramatic irony. The first touch is that De Flores produces the victim’s severed finger, still wearing the ring that Beatrice was required to send her fiancĂ© as a love-token. Beatrice reacts with maidenly prudery: ‘Bless me! What hast thou done?’ It should be the first intimation for this ‘irresponsible and undeveloped nature’ that actions have consequences, consequences that she can neither predict nor control. Several times she mistakes his purpose, raising her offer finally to 3,000 florins. De Flores meanwhile must adjust his expectations to the developing situation. He begins the scene assuming that she knows what he wants. When she persists in misunderstanding, he is forced to make his intention plain, evoking from Beatrice her famous lines of self-delusion:
Why, ’tis impossible thou canst be so wicked,
Or shelter such a cunning cruelty,
To make his death the murderer of my honour!
Thy language is so bold and vicious,
I cannot see which way I can forgive it
With any modesty.
This is the turning point of the scene. From here in, De Flores convinces her that as ‘a woman dipp’d in blood’ she is implicated in this crime as much as he is and must yield before his sexual blackmail. Then she finds her loathing of the man turning into its opposite. But in the cumbersome plot machinations of Act Four, involving virginity tests and the use of a body-double, she continues to believe she can recuperate some notion of ‘modesty’, even having transgressed the norms of her society. As NW Bawcutt wrote in an introduction to the play,
She is completely unaware of the real significance of the deed she instigates because in her egotism she is aware of morality only as it protects her and not as it restrains her, and one of the lessons of the play is that these two aspects of morality are inseparable.
Mirren herself finds other qualities in the character:
I’d love to do a modern-day version of The Changeling because I think it’s a fascinating story of someone who is so repulsed, utterly repulsed by someone but actually finishes up completely obsessed by them. I mean he’s ugly; he’s physically ugly. He’s also lower class – he’s the servant – so she can’t see him even as a human being, but he sees himself very much as a human being and he is absolutely obsessed by her. There’s a wonderful story about class. (Interview, 2007).
The Changeling was one of our set texts for English A-level in 1974, so the BBC broadcast was happily timed for this sixth-former. Rarely did text leap off the page with such immediacy. Mirren’s performance as Beatrice-Joanna is, I think, my favourite of her early TV roles. She combined lofty insouciance with determination and scattergun sensuality, a bundle of disparate qualities which are undoubtedly there in the character. And what Una Ellis-Fermor, writing of Beatrice back in 1936, had called the ‘snipe-like darts of her mind’ found their equivalent in the intelligence with which the actress approached her characterisation. Plus, in voluminous flounced gown, absurd wig and veil, she looked great.

Monday, 8 August 2011




Welcome, new readers. This is a blog dedicated to one of the greatest actresses of our time and someone I’ve admired ever since I first set eyes on her as a moonstruck schoolboy in 1974. My plan, over the coming months, is to look back at some of her career highlights. The emphasis will be on her early work, to about 1980, hence the subtitle ‘Becoming Helen Mirren’. I go back to that time, not just because my most vivid memories of her are the earliest, not just because back in the day she was kind enough to answer the self-obsessed scribblings of an adolescent fan, but because I feel no one quite knew – not least Mirren herself – what she would become in the next thirty years. Who in 1974 would have confidently predicted that this self-declared Trotskyite would end up a Dame of the British Empire and a global brand so recognisable that she has only to step out in a bikini or utter an expletive in a TV interview for the Twittersphere to go into meltdown?

Well, perhaps there was one person who foresaw all. In her autobiography, Mirren describes visiting a palm-reader in a back street of Golders Green. This would have been about 1968. ‘He was an Indian man, more like an accountant than a mystic,’ she recalls. He told her that she’d be successful in life but would see her greatest success later, after the age of 45: ‘Not something you want to hear at the age of 23… I realised that I did not want to know what the future held. I wanted my life to be an adventure.’