Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Country Wife (1977)

By William Wycherley (1675)
BBC TV, 13 February 1977

Mrs Margery Pinchwife is a character that will last for ever, I should hope; and even when the original is no more, if that should ever be, while self-will, curiosity, art, and ignorance are to be found in the same person, it will be just as good as just as intelligible as ever in the description.
– William Hazlitt
The character has lasted, even surviving bowdlerisation during a couple of centuries when Wycherley’s variety of bawdy was considered indecent for public consumption. As we meet her in Act II, the “country wife” of the title (Mirren, in this TV production) is recently returned from her first visit to the London theatre, allowing the playwright to put a little self-referential joke into her mouth:
Indeed, I was a-weary of the play, but I liked hugeously the actors; they are the goodliest, properest men…
Like any good comedy, The Country Wife is constructed as an intricate mechanism. Three plots interlock. The first concerns the notorious rake Horner (Anthony Andrews), “one of the lewdest fellows in town”, who causes a false rumour to be spread about that he has been rendered impotent by a bungled treatment for the pox. This gives him free access to the ladies of the town, whose husbands suspect he is no threat to them. The second centres on the maniacally jealous Pinchwife (Bernard Cribbins), who has married an innocent country girl in the belief that she will not turn out to be a “jill-flirt”, a “gadder” and a “magpie” like all town-wives. Mayhem ensues as Pinchwife’s best-laid plans to frustrate Margery’s open and amorous inclinations only drive her into the arms of the libidinous Horner, who is determined to cuckold the old fool. In the third plot, a ridiculous fop and would-be wit, Sparkish (Michael Cochrane), loses the hand of Pinchwife’s sister Alithea (Ciaran Madden) to the more resourceful, and deserving, Harcourt (Jeremy Clyde). The three plotlines converge in the last Act, where Margery Pinchwife’s final recourse to dissimulation implies that she is learning the ways of the city even if she must remain a country wife, “for I can’t, like a city one, be rid of my musty husband and do what I list.”

Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr recently, Helen Mirren ventured the opinion that Shakespeare would have written better female parts had he been writing for women performers, not boys.* It’s a good discussion point, although I’m not sure I believe it. I’m not even sure she believes it herself. In an earlier interview, the one that accompanies the DVD boxset of her television work, she talks with enthusiasm of the Jacobean tragedians and how they created fabulous women’s parts. She’d played three of them: Castiza in The Revenger’s Tragedy, Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling and the title role in The Duchess of Malfi. Well, of course, these parts were all written for, and originally created by, male actors. It was only with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that professional actresses were welcome on the English stage. After a visit to the playhouse on 3 January 1661, Pepys recorded in his diary that that day was “the first time that ever I saw Women come upon the stage.” Eighty years later, once actresses’ place was firmly established, Colley Cibber assumed that their predecessors, the young men of “effeminate aspect”, those “ungain Hoydens” en travesti, must have been incapable of “Grace or Master Strokes of Action”. But the likelihood is that the boy actors of Elizabethan and Jacobean London made a decent fist of it, much as, in Japanese kabuki theatre to this day, there are male performers who specialise in playing women’s parts with uncanny verisimilitude. A spectator who saw Othello performed by the King’s Men in 1610 was totally convinced by the acting of the boy playing Desdemona:
…killed by her husband, in death she moved us especially when, as she lay in her bed, her face alone implored the pity of the audience.
So Wycherley belonged to the first generation of British dramatists who had the luxury of writing with professional actresses in mind. Mirren feels that, in creating the character of Margery Pinchwife, he didn’t use this to his advantage:
It’s an interesting role. She’s a little bit of a pawn, and everyone else is being funny around her, and she’s just being very sweet and innocent in the middle of it all. I don’t love those Restoration comedies, actually. They’re funny, but they’re threaded through with such cynicism and cruelty, and the women’s characters are rather cruelly treated in general, although they’re great women’s characters. But the writing is usually coming at them from a slightly cruel standpoint, and I don’t love them. You know, you’re either a beautiful young innocent or you’re a corrupt old bag, and there’s nothing in between. (Interview, 2007).
If there was any scope for characterisation “in between” we could rely on Mirren to find it, and she may well have done so in her take on the part. Margery is a “pawn” in the power struggle between men, but she’s also one of the few characters to emerge with any dignity at the end. Her admiration for the town gallants and obvious interest in sex – comedy-rich sources of outrage to her husband – suggest that she is not quite as “innocent” as she seems. Cruelty is certainly there: when Pinchwife dictates a letter that Margery must send to halt any further dealings with Horner, he reinforces his authority over her with threats of violence that, to us, are anything but comic. On the other hand, what follows immediately is his come-uppance: a delicious monologue where Margery dupes him by secretly composing a love letter to “poor, dear Mr Horner” and substituting one letter for the other. In Mirren’s reading, this is nicely executed and full of imaginative details, as she alternately writes furiously and gazes dreamily into space.

All in all, whatever her own reservations about the part, a very engaging performance: sign of a talent for comedy that she’d used in The Bed Before Yesterday and would draw on much later in Calendar Girls.

* Sir Harold Hobson seems to have agreed with her on this. In his cringeworthy review of her Lady Macbeth, he wrote: ‘When the stage was occupied only by Macbeth himself, Macduff and so on, I was wishing the author would get rid of them and let us see what was happening to this marvellous actress. I really do regret that Shakespeare never knew Miss Mirren. We would then have had a different play.’

Colley Cibber, Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740)
William Hazlitt, ‘On Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar’ (1819)
Elizabeth Howe, The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660-1700 (1992)

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Miss Julie (1971)

By August Strindberg (1888).

Translated by Michael Meyer.

RSC, The Place, London, 1971.

Miss Julie (Helen
Mirren), the daughter of a Swedish count, attempts to escape an existence
cramped by social mores and have a little fun by dancing at the servants’
annual midsummer party. She is drawn to a senior servant, a valet named Jean
(Donal McCann), who is particularly well-travelled, well-mannered and
well-read. The action takes place in the kitchen of Miss Julie’s father’s
manor; here Jean’s fiancée, a servant named Christine (Heather Canning), cooks
and sometimes sleeps while Jean and Miss Julie talk. On this night, behaviour
between Miss Julie and Jean which was previously a flirtatious contest for
power rapidly escalates to a relationship that is fully consummated. Over the
course of the play, Miss Julie and Jean battle for control, which swings back
and forth between them until Jean convinces her that the only way to escape her
predicament is to commit suicide. Throughout the play the Count is an unseen
presence, represented on stage by his boots, an authority figure who is both
Miss Julie’s father and Jean’s employer. [Summary adapted from Wikipedia].

A hundred years after his death, Strindberg is still a
revolutionary. Actors are often baffled by the inconsequentiality of his
dialogue. Characters talk not only to
each other but also past each other.
In the preface to Miss Julie he said
that his aim was to avoid “symmetrical dialogue” in pursuit of the realism of “psychological
process”. There should be no interval, he went on, no pause to give the
spectator “time to reflect and thereby withdraw from the suggestive influence
of the author-hypnotist”. If people can listen to a parliamentary debate for
ninety minutes, they should be able to endure a play of similar length. More
prescriptions follow in the opening stage directions. Make-up should be
minimal. He favoured sidelighting over footlights, an auditorium in complete
darkness during the performance, and actors with the courage to turn their
backs to the audience throughout an important scene. First and foremost, the
action should be played out on “a small
stage and a small auditorium”.

Some of this was followed through in Robin Phillips’s
production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1971. The original venue was
The Place, the headquarters of the Contemporary Dance Theatre, which the RSC
had hired to create a theatre space seating 330 people, for a limited season.
According to company historian Sally Beauman, “the audience sat on tiers of
wooden benches, perched above the acting space rather like students in a
medical theatre watching the demonstration of an operation”. This came
somewhere close to Strindberg’s ideal of an “intimate theatre”; certainly there
was no room here for the dramatist’s particular bête noire, theatre boxes “with their tittering diners and ladies
nibbling at cold collations”. Later, the cast and set were transferred to
Pinewood Studios and the whole production filmed, enabling it to be seen by

In emphasising his economy of means, Strindberg pointed out
that the plot of Miss Julie would
have sufficed for a five-act play. With most plays of this era we wouldn’t wish
them to be longer than they are; indeed, lines, whole speeches even, are often
cut in modern productions of fin-de-siècle
drama. Yet here, in the compression-chamber of a one-acter, nothing seems

The production, as seen on film, captured the fluctuating
power relations between the principals which are the play’s strength. McCann’s
Jean is a somewhat empty vessel but Mirren’s Miss Julie is brimming with
contradictory impulses. Imperatives alternate with seductive entreaties as she
leads him on, then knocks him back, exploiting her power over him as his employer,
her ascendancy over him as his social superior, and her mesmerising effect as
an attractive woman. “Kiss my shoe!” she orders at one point. He meekly
obliges. “Je ne suis qu’un homme,” he confesses as she removes a speck of dirt
from his eye with rather more physical contact than is necessary. She “plays
games far too seriously” for his liking.

Further into the play we learn of a back-story about
power-play in her parents’ generation. Her mother, a proponent of women’s
rights, never wanted to marry and, when prevailed on to do so, contrived to
keep control of her own finances. She brought up her daughter to know
everything a boy knows. “I’d learnt from her to hate and mistrust men,” says
Miss Julie. “She hated men… and I promised her I’d never be the slave to any
man”. When Miss Julie briefly became engaged herself, she humiliated her fiancé
as her “slave”, forcing him to jump over her riding crop like a trained dog.
The death-instinct also runs deep in her family. Her father is a failed suicide.
When Jean kills her greenfinch (a shocking scene even if only hinted at), she
begs him to “kill me too!” before launching into an extraordinary speech where
the roles are reversed again. Now she is his destroyer: “I think I could drink
from your skull,” she says, carefully measuring out the words. The bell rings,
announcing the Count’s return. At once Jean slips into his livery and back into
his old subservience. “I can’t order you,” he tells Miss Julie, as she looks to
him for command.

The play is still notable for its pioneering sexual realism.
In the words of Strindberg’s biographer, Michael Meyer:

Before Strindberg, sex in drama
is something in which only married people or wicked people indulge… Miss
Julie’s tragedy is that she does not want to make love with Jean; she does not
want to sleep with him; she wants – there is no other word for it – to be
fucked by him, like an animal. When it has happened, she despises herself for
having allowed it, and him for having done it; but she knows she will want him
again; so she sees no alternative but suicide.

No alternative? My problem with this play is the ending.
“It’s horrible,” says Jean, his final line in the play, “but it’s the only
possible ending.” Is Miss Julie’s (implied) suicide a motivated outcome of what
has gone before? Is it not a melodramatic nemesis for such a complex character?
In his preface to the play, Strindberg represents the class conflict between
mistress and servant as a confrontation of old and new ways of being; an “old
warrior nobility” is disappearing in favour of a “new neurotic or intellectual
nobility”. Burdened as she is with an inherited and fatal sense of upper-class
conscience, his heroine, finally, “cannot live without honour”. I would prefer
something more open-ended; but to call for it is probably to misunderstand
Strindberg’s determinism, which understands Miss Julie as

a victim of the discord which a
mother’s ‘crime’ implanted in a family; a victim of the errors of her age, of
circumstances, and of her own flawed constitution, all of which add up to the
equivalent of the old concept of Destiny or the Universal Law.(Preface to Miss Julie

Benedict Nightingale, one of Helen Mirren’s most perceptive
critics among the London press corps, recognised that this was a breakthrough
performance for her. Maybe “the rivets joining her ideas together still
sometimes showed”, but in general

she brought what was becoming her
trademark full-bloodedness to the role, raging and roaring in upper-class
contempt at Jean… but it was the character’s psychosexuality that mainly
preoccupied her. Her hands quivered, kneaded her handkerchief, flailed
frantically, blindly, at her wooer, as if her body was in a state of civil war,
in terror and disgust driving her away from him and then, with a sort of
morbid, self-destructive fascination, to him, into his arms and into his power.


Sally Beauman, The
Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades

Michael Meyer, Strindberg: A Biography

Benedict Nightingale, ‘Life in the theatre’, in Helen Mirren: ‘Prime Suspect’ – A Celebration, ed. Amy Rennert

August Strindberg, Plays: One, tr.
Michael Meyer (1976)

Parkinson (1975)

February 1975. The Labour Party in government under Harold Wilson. It was the week of the Conservative leadership election that brought Margaret Thatcher to the top of her party. In The Observer, Clive James, whose weekly TV column was always the first thing one turned to on a Sunday morning, was engaged in his favourite sport, baiting Michael Parkinson:
This week’s number 2 lady superstar was Helen Mirren, who squared off against Parkinson (BBC1) in yet another doomed attempt to scale down her vitality within the limits of the medium’s butter-brained expectations. Parky kept referring to ‘your physical attributes’, apparently oblivious to the fact that his gesturing hands were busy grasping a pair of imaginary breasts. La Mirren bashfully dodged such frivolous questioning but seemed all unaware that no other form of questioning was available – as a serious actress she seemed to think that the true topic for the evening, serious acting, was somehow being purposely held back. The truth was, of course, that it had never been conceived of: whatever Parky might be, he isn’t devious. When she told him that Playboy was a disgusting magazine, there was no reply, the opinion doubtless having been dismissed as an aberration. She sneezed. Her shoulder-strap fell down. O! that I were a glove upon that hand! That I might touch those physical attributes!
(Clive James, Observer, 16 February 1975, Review section, p28)
Thirty years later, and the man himself is in apologetic mood:
… you can really admire someone, and long to meet them, only to be disappointed when you do. My first meeting with Helen Mirren was like that. I enjoyed her as an actress and thought she was a beguiling woman, an intriguing blend of intelligence and sex appeal. When she first came on the show she wore a revealing dress and carried an ostrich feather. This might have accounted for a clumsy line of questioning about whether or not her physical attributes stood in the way of being recognised as a serious actor. Ms Mirren bridled and wondered if I was asking if breasts prevented her from being taken seriously. I was wrong-footed and blundered on to a point where I could feel her hostility. We didn’t meet again until many years later, and we recalled that first meeting. Helen said she thought I behaved like a complete ass and I couldn’t disagree.
(Michael Parkinson, Parky: My Autobiography, pbk edn, 2009, p206)
I remember watching this interview when it was originally broadcast. I squirmed. The nation squirmed. Perhaps I squirmed more than most – an adolescent punch-drunk on literary studies, imagining myself some obscure vassal and Mirren my liege-lady:
She look’d as grand as doomsday and as grave;
And he, he reverenced his liege-lady there…
(Tennyson, ‘The Princess’)
It was hard to visualise Parky crammed into the stalls at The Other Place, Stratford, or peering down from the gods at the Aldwych. Cricket was his thing, surely, not Shakespeare? Since then, the whole interview has been issued on DVD (in a box set of her work for the BBC) and, inevitably, uploaded to YouTube.

It makes curious viewing now. These days Dame Helen is a frequent guest on chat shows. She comes across as amiable and relaxed. She’s happy to answer questions on any subject under the sun and can be relied on to deliver herself of headline-grabbing – and occasionally bonkers – opinions. She seems unfazed by, even prepared to laugh about, some of her past indiscretions, positively basking in the admiration that is now accorded her (and not averse to milking the applause, I notice, as she makes her entrance). In 1975 her younger self was much more suspicious of the publicity machine. And with good reason: in portraying her as “Stratford’s very own sex queen” (a notorious headline of the day), the British media were a threat. They could undermine the seriousness of purpose which radiates from all the work she did at the time (which was primarily in theatre – she had little profile as a film actress when this was recorded). Sure, the Parky interview is “sexist”, though not particularly so by the standards of the time, or the standards of his other interviews. What seemed to bug her was not so much the line of questioning as the fact that he refused to “spit it out” (as she put it). Euphemism was the enemy here. Once he’d embarked on a risky interview strategy, old-school gallantry held back the Greatest Living Yorkshireman from naming of parts.