Monday, 26 November 2012

The Tempest (2010)

Do we become what we are, or are we what we become?

In the 1970s, when I was first aware of Helen Mirren, I wouldn’t have predicted the future she has made for herself. Nor, perhaps, would she. In a revealing interview she gave to Sean French in 1989, she looked back on a hoped-for future in European arthouse cinema:

What I wanted to do was to make films in France, in French. My own personal taste has been more towards European than American film. I don’t basically like American films. I think they’re fairly stupid, most of them. So I even went to the extent of renting a flat in Paris and getting an agent. But of course it was totally impractical. I mean why would anyone employ me, who couldn’t speak French very well, as opposed to some wonderful French actresses?

In the Seventies, if I’d thought about it, I would probably have imagined the 60-something Mirren dominating the British stage as a theatrical grande dame. I still think her time could be better spent, and her interpretative talents better used, on the stage than making “fairly stupid” – no, correct that, utterly stupid – Hollywood films like National Treasure: Book of Secrets or Love Ranch. In those days we used to hear the term “serious actress” a lot; Clive James applied it to Mirren in his withering review of her first encounter with Michael Parkinson. (The great and the good also used to talk about “serious music”, which meant classical music, i.e. the only music to be taken seriously.) In a way Mirren was ahead of her time in resisting the categorization implied by the term:

Journalists are always asking me, begging me, down on their knees, to say “I’m not a sex symbol, I’m a serious actress,” please say it, please say it. And I’ve always categorically refused to say that because I’ve always felt that you don’t have to talk about your work in that sense. You just do it. (Observer interview, 1989)

The peculiar impact of the early stage and TV work that I’ve discussed here came from a fearlessness in the face of contradiction and category distinctions; it lent freshness to her classic roles; even in period dress, her Shakespeare seemed to be of the moment. That could have translated into film, especially if we’d had a vibrant home-grown film industry, but it didn’t. I recall reading an interview with John Fowles in the late Seventies somewhere (was it in Isis, the Oxford student magazine?) where he said that Mirren was his personal choice to play the French Lieutenant’s Woman on screen. But the backers wouldn’t wear it, of course, it had to be a bankable American star – it had to be the mistress of funny foreign accents, it had to be Meryl Streep.

So this blog has ended up revolving two thoughts. The first is that I feel no great enthusiasm for the Mirren of 2012 with her homes in Los Angeles, London and Italy, Mirren the go-to interviewee for soundbites on every subject under the sun, purveyor of bland truisms served up for American TV stations, Mirren the red-carpet regular, to the women who congregate on the many fansites now devoted to her a poster-girl for the childless (or ‘child-free’) by choice. Doubtless the fault is mine, and the consequential loss mine too. Having failed to become, I remain what I was, still (in memory) dawdling outside the flat in Fulham I once identified after she surprisingly responded to a teenage fan by including her address in the letter.

And then there’s a thought about a thought of hers. You might call it the ‘Shakespeare in Love’ fantasy. Repeatedly she has said that Shakespeare would have written better female parts if he’d been writing for real women, not for boy-actresses. It was a sentiment echoed by Sir Harold Hobson in his famous verdict on her Lady Macbeth: “I really do regret that Shakespeare never knew Miss Mirren. We would then have had a different play.” Although in recent years she has been rarely seen in the English classics, there is one exception, and it allowed her to refashion Shakespeare in her own image. In 2010 she appeared in Julie Taymor’s film adaptation of The Tempest. In order to reclaim one of the plum roles in Shakespeare, Prospero was recast as ‘Prospera’. This required some rewriting of the protagonist’s backstory. We learn that the original Duke of Milan had encouraged his wife’s interest in magic, but when he died and left Milan to her, her brother Antonio spread rumours that she was a witch and had her banished. As the editors of the latest Arden edition observe, “this intriguing shift makes Prospera, Duchess of Milan, more clearly an alter ego of Sycorax” and “Shakespeare’s emphasis on confinement broadened to include the patriarchal entrapment of women”. I like this movie a lot. Shot in the volcanic landscape of Hawaii, it’s visually stunning, as a filmic Tempest should be. Some of the casting is strong (Ben Whishaw as Ariel, Felicity Jones as Miranda), some less so (Reeve Carney as Ferdinand, and Russell Brand as Trinculo, who’s a lot funnier in a lengthy riff included on the DVD extras than he is in the film). But, bestriding the action, the stand-outs are Djimon Hounsou, in a superbly physical performance as Caliban, and Mirren herself, alternating solicitude for her daughter with the calm exercise of power over her enemies.

The question that hung in the air as Beth Gibbons sang the play’s Epilogue over the end-credits was this: couldn’t one find a fresh take on the play without having to rewrite it? What if Prospero’s magic powers include gender-bending? He might live on the island as a woman, Teiresias-like, only reverting to his old self when he reveals himself to the courtiers at the end: “I will discase me and myself present | As I was sometime Milan” (5.1.85-6). Until she encounters the “brave new world” of the shipwrecked gentry, Miranda has no fixed concept of manhood, having only her father and Caliban as examples.

Of the making of books about Shakespeare there is no end, and an ever-fruitful topic is the gender assumptions that underlie the plays and poems. Are they the product of an androgynous sensibility – in which case Mirren-style revisionism is wide of the mark – or do they proceed from a benighted Elizabethan mindset which needs to be corrected for the twenty-first century? One day I may add to the termite mound of Shakespearean criticism by writing about these things, but for the moment let your indulgence set me free.

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.  

Sean French, “The tabloids’ thespian”, Observer, 27 August 1989
Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T Vaughan, “Introduction” to The Tempest, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series, revised edn (2011)

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Cymbeline (1983)

By William Shakespeare (c1610)
Recorded July/August 1982
BBC TV, 10 July 1983

Sometime in 1611 Simon Forman, astrologer, quack, womaniser and ardent theatre-goer, made an entry in his ‘Bock of Plaies and Notes thereof’. He’d just been to see a play about ‘Cymbalin king of England’. We don’t know where – it was probably at the Globe, where he also saw Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale – but we can be sure it was Shakespeare’s play that he saw, for he records the plot in great detail. Frustratingly, that is all he sets down. The aspects of the production that would interest us – the staging, the acting style, the audience reaction – go unmentioned. What his account does show, and in this he may have been a typical member of the audience, is that he was swept up in the plot, not stopping to notice either the poetry or the characterisation.

Four hundred years later, Cymbeline still seems plot-heavy: a succession of strange and fabulous events strung together with the intention of evoking shock and awe, an unsatisfactory retread of themes that Shakespeare had dealt with rather better before. Sexual jealousy had been treated with a comic outcome in Much Ado About Nothing, with tragic results in Othello. Here we are closer to the anti-realism of the Jacobean masque. I’m attracted to Frances Yates’s approach (although I’m not sure it finds much favour with modern scholars.) She viewed the play in historical terms, as a court entertainment, its contrived plot designed to flatter King James and his heir, Prince Henry, on whose young shoulders rested hopes for a Greater Britain and European peace under Protestant hegemony. Why, in the play, do the Romans land in Wales, not the most obvious point of arrival for a march on ‘Lud’s town’? Because the young prince had recently been invested as Prince of Wales and because Milford Haven was the port at which Henry Tudor had landed in 1485 to establish the Tudor dynasty, a dynasty to which James I was keen to claim his own succession.

Once again, the ‘female’ lead adopts male disguise. But unlike Julia (Two Gentlemen of Verona), Portia (Merchant of Venice) or Rosalind (As You Like It), Imogen is a more assertive presence before she dons male attire. In his last treatment of the cross-dressed heroine, Shakespeare seems, in Michael Shapiro’s words, “to reverse his usual polarities by having an assertive female character become a shy and vulnerable boy”. If All’s Well That Ends Well canvassed the possibility of the heroine as free agent, in Cymbeline I sense a resurgent conflict between psychological realism, which is hospitable to Free Will, and Romance, which is deterministic, a genre where characterisation is subordinated to the working out of a providential plot.

Poetry was somewhat of a casualty in the 1983 BBC production, which made heavy cuts to the text. For example, we lost these crisp lines where Imogen, exiled from the court, contemplates a new life abroad, prefiguring the vision of international harmony with which the play ends (and strangely prophetic of our love-hate relationship with Europe in the twentieth century):

I’th’world’s volume
Our Britain seems as of it but not in’t,
In a great pool a swan’s nest. Prithee think
There’s livers out of Britain. (3.4.138-41)

As Imogen, Mirren gave an impassioned performance, but as she admits in the DVD interview accompanying the reissue of her BBC work, she had an uphill task. The play contains one of the toughest challenges in all Shakespeare, “horrendously difficult… the hardest, hardest scene in the world to play.” Imogen, recovering from the effects of a sleeping potion, wakes up next to a dead body. From the clothing she supposes it to be the headless corpse of her husband, Posthumus; in fact, it is that of the oafish Cloten, who has put on the other man’s clothes. Implausibly, she then confirms the misidentification by enumerating the body parts (“I know the shape of’s leg; this is his hand”, 4.2.310). Mirren played this more literally than other actresses; where others have delivered these lines turned away, only half-looking at the body, she went so far as to nod with an increasing, terrifying certainty as she proceeded with the identification. Roger Warren suggests that, while other readings may be more convincing, “it takes great courage to play the scene Mirren’s way, and it makes the valuable point that what is factually untrue is nevertheless horribly real for Imogen.” In similar vein, the line “Give colour to my pale cheek with thy blood” (4.2.331) was literalized by following a stage direction in the Oxford Complete Works, “She smears her face with blood”; other editions suggest “Falls on the body” or “She embraces the body”.
Mirren says that her approach to Shakespeare is to look for her own “secret story… what is it speaking to me about?” From this she derives her “internal energy”. In Cymbeline the story concerned “learning about love, learning all the fault-lines in love and how to repair them”. Certainly, the director, Elijah Moshinsky, was concerned to present Imogen as a fallible character. When Giacomo, her husband’s false ‘friend’, whispered poison in her ear (“I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure”, 1.3.136), she almost fell for his seductive charm, almost allowed him to kiss her before breaking away.

If Forman heard ‘poetry’ on stage in 1611, he doesn’t record the fact. “Hang there like fruit, my soul, | Till the tree die” (5.4.263-4) – Posthumus’s words of reconciliation addressed to the wife whom he has wronged: Tennyson considered these to be “the tenderest lines in Shakespeare” There is much else to admire in the play’s tissue of language. I have always loved Guiderius’s elegy to the supposedly dead Imogen/Fidele, which I first encountered in the musical setting by Stephen Sondheim:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. (4.2.259-64)

Jonathan Bate points out that the final couplet acquires additional meaning when one realises that, in the Warwickshire dialect of Shakespeare’s day, a flowering dandelion was a ‘golden lad’ while one about to disperse its seeds was a ‘chimney-sweeper’.* Proof – and conspiracy theorists still demand proof – that the author of the ‘Shakespeare’ plays was originally a country boy and not some toff in a stately home. But the couplet also tells us something about interpretation. You don’t need the footnote about Warwickshire dialect to appreciate those lines; the contrast of light and dark, of the exalted jeunesse dorée and the begrimed working man, is already pregnant with metaphor. Yet, coincident with vague and ambiguous signification, with intimations of death as universal leveller, the lines are actuated subterraneously by a precise, directed image which roots us in the realities of field and hedgerow. If I labour this point it’s because elsewhere, in my efforts to explicate popular song, I am attacked for marring people’s listening pleasure by suggesting that lyrics can have precise meanings that complement – but do not cancel out – the subjective meanings that all of us bring to our experience of the arts. It’s always a smart move if the defence counsel can call in Shakespeare as an expert witness.

Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World As A Stage (2008)
Michael Shapiro, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages (1994)
Roger Warren, Staging Shakespeare’s Late Plays (1990)
Frances A Yates, Shakespeare’s Last Plays: A New Approach (1975)
*Bate as quoted in Bryson, p192. I’ve been unable to locate Bryson’s exact source for this. Anyone know, apart from the man himself? 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

All's Well That Ends Well (1967)

By William Shakespeare (c1604-5)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, June 1967

Helena, the low-born daughter of a famous physician, loves Bertram, the young Count of Roussillon and ward of the King of France. He, however, is indifferent to her. The King is dying of a fistula and Helena effects a cure using a prescription left by her late father. As reward the King allows Helena to choose a husband from among the court nobles. She, of course, chooses Bertram. He devises a supposedly impossible condition to prevent consummation of marriage with someone he considers his social inferior: that she may not call him husband until she can get the ring from his finger and is with child by him. Bertram has set his sights meanwhile on bedding Diana, daughter of a Widow of Florence. Helena reveals to Diana that she is already married to Bertram and they agree that Helena will impersonate Diana in the bedroom (the so-called “bed-trick”). Bertram is caught out when a pregnant Helena reveals all before the King. Where Shakespeare comedies usually end in betrothal(s), this play concludes with the attested consummation of a marriage already solemnized.

Rightly has it been called a “problem play”. All’s well that ends well  or is it? The problems start with the title. It’s capable of several interpretations, but one there’s no escaping is that a desirable end can justify the questionable means used to achieve it. Helena quotes the proverb directly on two occasions (IV.iv, V.i), but in justifying the bed-trick to the Widow, she is more explicit, arguing that there can be “wicked meaning in a lawful deed, | And lawful meaning in a wicked act” (IV.i).

Bertram is an unlikeable figure, with no obvious redeeming features, and the play does little to endear him to us. Even in the final scene, he is still wriggling: he calls Diana a “common gamester” and continues to set conditions to his love (if we can call it that) for Helena. The apology is perfunctory, and his final lines are addressed to the King rather than to the woman he has wronged. Has he learnt anything?

Helena, in a different way, struggles to earn our respect; it’s hard to understand her unwavering passion for someone so undeserving. And what are we to make of a woman who will go to such lengths to entrap a man who manifestly doesn’t want her? On the plus side, she’s considerably more reflective than other Shakespeare heroines (see her soliloquy before Parolles’ entrance in I.i) and she’s a healer, a proxy medic long before women could enter the professions, who has a fascinating scene with the King (II.i) when she convinces him of the efficacy of her powers: often played quasi-erotically (as in the BBC TV production), it explores the limits of the doctor-patient, analyst-analysand relationship.

Character is subordinated to plot, so that, unlike in earlier Shakespeare comedies, the resolution feels more like the squaring-off of a mythic pattern than the outcome of motivated behaviour. Ted Hughes suggested that All’s Well and Measure for Measure are re-enactments of the Venus and Adonis myth, but that Shakespeare “had difficulty in making his women real” because “the secularized characters of Helena and Isabella, with their human histories which the audience observes from the outside, are inadequately insulated from their mythic roles, which continue to galvanize them from the inside.” The high incidence of rhyming couplets in All’s Well (about 19 per cent of the whole) also lends a sententious tone to many speeches, as if the characters, taking their cue from the play’s title, are speaking in proverbs.

When faced with something we don’t like in Shakespeare, there’s a reflex to assume the text has been corrupted in some way, lines are missing, the text was reworked by another hand, or there was another hand in the original composition. The cynicism (or is it plain pragmatism?) that seeps into this play aligns it with the city comedies of his contemporaries. Perhaps we look in vain for a magnanimity or generosity of spirit that we expect to find in the Bard. One explanation, recently advanced in the pages of the TLS in the teeth of strong opposition, is that the play was co-written by Thomas Middleton. Another is to re-date composition to later in the decade, so that its fable-like tone brings it within range of The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline.

These objections notwithstanding, All’s Well has always found admirers. Defying the Victorians’ distaste for the play, Bernard Shaw viewed the play in Ibsenite terms, with Helena redrawn as a sort of 1890s New Woman. He praised Shakespeare’s “intellectual experiment, repeated nearly three hundred years later in A Doll’s House, of making the hero a perfectly ordinary young man, whose unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality make him cut a very mean figure in the atmosphere created by the nobler nature of his wife.”

And those admirers have increased in recent years. In her introduction to the Oxford edition, Susan Snyder relates this upsurge of interest to the “modernist penchant for irony” and trends in criticism “which value the very dislocations and gaps that distressed earlier organicist critics.” Directors, she suggests, now “see opportunity in the discord of modes, the signs of class and gender ideologies in conflict, that were only defects for earlier generations.” Furthermore, the “upsetting of the gender role system created by having the woman rather than the man take the sexual initiative” has brought new attention to the play as argument continues on whether Shakespeare can be recruited as a proto-feminist or must, regretfully, be dismissed as a man of his time.  

John Barton’s 1967 production, in which Helen Mirren played Diana, was one of the best received of the post-war era. John Peter welcomed a “sure-footed and thoughtful revival of a flawed but unjustly neglected play”. “A step-child of the theatre, neither heart-rending nor heart-warming” it might be, but still able to project a “scattered experimental brilliance”. He admired Timothy O’Brien’s set, which evoked the “full Caroline spendour of ruffs, cloaks and tall hats”. The whole production had a “flowing, consistent style of sophistication and rich baroque grace”, while the clarity of the verse-speaking was “flawless throughout”.

The Illustrated London News found the production “blessedly direct”, an effect achieved at the cost of cutting some 500 lines, including the whole of III.iv, and telescoping and transposing scenes elsewhere.

Philip Hope-Wallace praised the “extreme honesty, lucidity and sound interpretation” of Barton’s production but found the first half “dull”. Estelle Kohler’s Helena, although “charming”, had “little enough to offer of special radiance or sparkle and when not quite sure of herself tended to simper and to squeak”. For him the “first breakthrough” of the evening came when Diana duped Ian Richardson’s Bertram (scene IV.ii). According to the Sunday Telegraph, Bertram came across as “rather endearingly clumsy and over-eager as he trie[d] to seduce Diana across an awkward and uncomfortable travelling trunk.” She seemed to succumb to his entreaties, but then chose her moment to make her demand of him. Mirren let Richardson embrace her, then said unexpectedly, “Give me that ring”. Not for the first time in the play, the immature Bertram was outwitted by a more resourceful female:

It is an honour ‘longing to our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy i’th’world
In me to lose.

                              Mine honour’s such a ring.
My chastity’s the jewel of our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy i’th’world
In me to lose. Thus your own proper wisdom
Brings in the champion honour on my part
Against your vain assault.

Helen Mirren complains that there are no parts for older women in Shakespeare (other than Cleopatra), but perhaps she should return to this play? Bernard Shaw, for whom Mirren professes an admiration I find hard to share, declared that the dowager Countess of Roussillon, Bertram’s mother, was “the most beautiful old woman’s part ever written”. JL Styan wrote in 1984:

The Countess of Rousillon is the maternal grande dame of the play’s events and Helena’s fortunes, the still centre which gives the audience faith that all will yet be well. This gracious part has never failed any actress in the distinguished line of those that have played her in recent times. (p24)

Over the years, that line has included Celia Johnson, Peggy Ashcroft and Judi Dench (Dames all). Why not add Dame Helen to an impressive roll-call?

Russell Fraser, ‘Introduction’ to New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of the play (1985)
Philip Hope-Wallace, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well at Stratford-on-Avon,’ Guardian, 2 June 1967
Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992)
Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith, ‘Many hands: a new Shakespeare collaboration?’, TLS, 20 April 2012
John Peter, ‘Producer’s triumph over material’, The Times, 2 June 1967
Susan Snyder, ‘Introduction’ to Oxford Shakespeare edition of the play (1993)
JL Styan, All’s Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare in Performance (1984)
Brian Vickers and Marcus Dahl, ‘What is infirm… All’s Well That Ends Well: an attribution rejected’, TLS, 11 May 2012

Photograph by Tom Holte. F. and Mig Holte Collection (© Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Roaring Girl (1983)

By Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (c1608)
Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre, London, 1983

The Roaring Girl is a play you are more likely to encounter on an undergraduate reading list than in a London theatre, so all credit to the RSC for dusting it down and giving it one of the few productions it can have received in three and a half centuries. Director Barry Kyle was on a mission to rescue Jacobean drama from the condescension with which it was sometimes treated. As he told Christopher Warman, “a number of Jacobean works are as good as the worst ten of Shakespeare. Some are better.” The director was passionate in defence of The Roaring Girl: “This is a documentary in that it tells a story. It is a social examination of life, an original plot and not a rehash, as much of Shakespeare’s work is.” In reviving this little-known ‘city comedy’, the company had nevertheless to keep an eye on box-office receipts, and it was presented in repertoire with a surer bet, The Taming of the Shrew. In combination the plays offered differing views of the role of women in early modern England.

The Roaring Girl is unusual in being based on a living character. Mary Frith, better known as Moll Cutpurse, was a notorious London figure, who dressed in men’s clothes throughout her life and was an early convert to pipe-smoking. She earned her living by pickpocketing, prostitution and tavern-keeping. The play presents a somewhat sanitised version, with Moll using her ‘outsider’ status to effect good in the lives of those around her. In the main plot, the young hero Sebastian Wengrave is thwarted in his desire to marry the blameless Mary Fitzallard by his covetous father, who views her dowry as insufficient. In a subplot, various gallants dally with the (less than faithful) wives of London shopkeepers. Moll features in both plots. Sebastian hits on the idea of pretending that he has transferred his affections to Moll, knowing that his father will be so outraged at the prospect of a “monster with two trinkets” [testicles] for a daughter-in-law he will sanction the marriage to Mary out of sheer relief. Moll plays along, ensuring the true lovers are finally united. Meanwhile, she exposes fraudulent beggars and fights a duel with the reptilian Laxton, who has lecherous designs on her. It’s all good fun but, on the page at least, one comes away with the impression that Middleton and Dekker were the sort of collaborators who rarely met. Each episode, satisfying and amusing in itself, is set up and resolved within a scene or two, with only Moll’s vitality to hold the structure together. 
Moll rejects the conventional subordination required of a wife:

I have the head now of myself, and am man enough for a woman: marriage is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden loses one head, and has a worse i’th’place.

In fact, although she encourages others to tie the knot, she declares that marriage is not for her:

LORD NOLAND                  When wilt marry?
MOLL Who, I, my lord? I’ll tell you when, i’faith.
When you shall hear
Gallants void from sergeants’ fear,
Honesty and truth unslandered,
Woman manned but never pandered,
Cheats booted but not coached,
Vessels older ere they’re broached:
If my mind be then not varied,
Next day following I’ll be married.
LORD NOLAND This sounds like doomsday.
MOLL                                  Then were marriage best,
For if I should repent, I were soon at rest.

Reviewing the RSC production, Robert Cushman shared Kyle’s enthusiasm for the era but not his high opinion of this play: “The worst of Shakespeare [Two Gentlemen of Verona was his example] stands a better chance on stage than the best of his contemporaries: not through genius, but through competence”. The dramatists’ roaring girl “probably bears about the same relation to the original as Lionel Bart’s Fagin to Dickens’s.” He continued:

She is the comic spirit personified – a transvestite blend of Falstaff and Cupid – but playing a personification presents difficulties, and Helen Mirren’s performance is almost submerged in the general rough-and-tumble. Either Miss Mirren should be more rumbustious or the production less.

Michael Billington was more upbeat. The production “vindicate[d] Kyle’s one-man campaign to explore the byways as well as the highways of English drama.” Moll is “the moral centre of this jovially ramshackle play”. She “stands for honest dealing in a society based on deception… Dashingly played by Helen Mirren, with sleeves rolled up to her armpits and leather thongs round her wrist, this Moll has a sinister-punk appearance and a heart as big as Waterloo Station.”  Michael Coveney also praised a Mirren who “swaggered through the action with radiant singularity of purpose, filling in areas of light and shade that even Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker omitted.”

However, Francis King thought the play was a “corpse which would have been better “left to moulder in its grave”. Mirren’s roaring girl, “handsome in breeches and radiating spunkiness and jollity”, provided much-needed relief from “three hours of bone-aching tedium”:

But not even this highly intelligent actress can make psychological sense of a woman who remains on good terms with the rogues of London and yet constantly frustrates them in their villainy, and who associates freely with men and yet all but kills one of them when he makes an attempt on her virtue. 

“The case for Middleton the comic artist remains unproved”. Such was Irving Wardle’s verdict:

As Helen Mirren plays her, fetchingly putting down the assembled male talent in a Jacobean jump suit, [Moll] has little more dramatic substance than a principal boy. She certainly radiates mirth… But as her triumphs are so inevitable and the surrounding characters so sketchily drawn, much of the fun seems to be happening in the far distance.

Crucially, in turning the real Moll into a dramatic figure, the playwrights removed the economic base. More than one theatre critic picked up on this in 1983. She does not pretend to be a man, so how, in a culture where a woman was a daughter, a wife or a widow, does she survive? Sir Alexander (Sebastian’s father) assumes her to be a whore and a thief since, if she abjures marriage, these are the options for self-employment at the bottom of the social pile. It’s never explained how she acquired the detailed knowledge of thieves’ cant which she deploys to dazzling effect in Act V scene 1. Yet the authors insist on both her chastity and her honesty. In his ‘Epistle to the Comic Play-Readers’ appended to the 1611 edition, Middleton admits that they’ve added some literary polish to their source material:

Worse things, I must needs confess, the world has taxed her for than has been written of her; but ‘tis the excellency of a writer to leave things better than he finds ‘em.

Mary Beth Rose compares the end of this play with the conclusions of Shakespeare’s transvestite comedies. At the end of the latter,

the heroine gladly sheds her disguise with its accompanying freedoms… in order to accept the customary social role of wife, thereby allowing the play’s androgynous vision to remain spiritual and symbolic without awakening the audience’s dissatisfaction or desire for social change.

The temporariness of disguise makes this possible. But Moll’s is not a temporary disguise, so although The Roaring Girl achieves comic resolution in marriage (which Moll has helped to effect), she herself ends the play unchanged, the catalyst in a chemical reaction. Unlike Rosalind or Viola, Moll, despite her make attire, makes no attempt to conceal her identity. The other characters know she is a woman. To quote Rose again:

She therefore assumes the social and psychological freedom of the traditional disguised heroine without providing the corresponding reassurance implicit in the heroine’s eventual erotic transformation.   

TS Eliot famously praised the play in his essay of 1927 on Thomas Middleton, asserting that it “deserves to be remembered chiefly by its real – perpetually real – and human figure of Moll.” In his view, it was the “one comedy which more than any Elizabethan comedy realizes a free and noble womanhood”. In those two sentences lies the character’s ambiguity. Not only is she poised between male and female, she hovers between realism (“perpetually real”) and idealization (“free and noble womanhood”). However earthy her language, however appealing she is to modern feminist sensibilities, however vigorously she is played by a modern actress, she remains a cipher, a fairytale character almost (albeit several notches up from Wardle’s pantomime “principal boy”). As Marjorie Garber observes, Moll “is not really anti-social or disturbingly transgressive to a modern reader, though she stands as a placeholder for the energies of transgression”.  Whether a “placeholder” can come to life on the stage or is best left on the reading list is a question for another day.


Michael Billington, ‘Nothing like a dame’, Guardian, 27 April 1983
Michael Coveney, review, Financial Times, 27 April 1983
Robert Cushman, ‘The rumpscuttle’, Observer, 1 May 1983
TS Eliot, ‘Thomas Middleton’ (1927) in Selected Essays (1951)
Marjorie Garber, ‘The logic of the transvestite: The Roaring Girl (1608)’, in Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, ed. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass (1991), 221-34
Francis King, ‘Common woman’, Sunday Telegraph, 1 May 1983
Mary Beth Rose, ‘Women in men’s clothing: apparel and social stability in The Roaring Girl’, English Literary Renaissance 14 (1984), 367-91
Irving Wardle, ‘Distant echo of Jacobean mirth’, The Times, 27 April 1983
Christopher Warman, ‘Moll who took her role seriously’, The Times, 23 April 1983

Monday, 30 July 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (1980/81)

By John Webster (c1613)

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1980
The Round House, London, 1981

Jacobean tragedy has risen enormously in public esteem since the era when George Bernard Shaw railed against “the opacity that prevented Webster, the Tussaud laureate, from appreciating his own stupidity”. Even TS Eliot’s famous lines – “Webster was much possessed by death | And saw the skull beneath the skin” – may seem too limiting. Now we want every Jacobean to be one of us. In The Duchess of Malfi, the widowed Duchess, having assured her brothers that she will never remarry, promptly does so, choosing a man who is her social inferior, the steward Antonio. This defiance of male authority leads inexorably to her grisly end, orchestrated by the sinister hit-man Bosola, an ex-galley slave. For Helen Mirren in 1981, it was a “play for today”: 

It is essentially a feminist play about a woman who is fighting for her autonomy. I see the Duchess as a radical who adheres to her beliefs so totally that she is prepared to be murdered for them. There’s still moral outrage against people who step out of line. Look at the fuss Princess Margaret caused by getting divorced. Many people no longer look on her as part of the Royal Family. (Quoted in Colvin.)

Adrian Noble’s production, which opened in Manchester, was widely praised. The Guardian relished Mirren’s “passionate playing of the Duchess, all graceful lechery and looks of such intensity that they could not only kill but, in all probability, raise the dead as well… Marrying beneath yourself is not the sort of thing, these days, that would get you murdered by your brothers, even if they had got their eyes on your property.” But it happens “in this twitching world of Webster’s where everything is enhanced and heightened to a morbid degree. And the staging is so intense and the playing so powerful… that it actually seems not only credible but also natural, inevitable that people should carry on in this bizarre way.”

The Observer noted that the production “seems to owe little to currently approved trends, since it is neither puritanically simple nor outrageously ornate… (Its) final achievement is that it duplicates the precarious balancing of Webster’s forces, admitting a fascination in cruelty, but never wallowing in it.”

The Times told us to

banish all expectations of decadence elegance and baroque chambers of horrors. So far as characterisation is concerned, this is a tough, extrovert reading of the play, with characters in the early scenes as unbent as it is possible for them to be in Jacobean tragedy… No liberties are taken with the text, but the sensation is of seeing the play afresh.

This critic was impressed by a “ragged Bob Hoskins, whose Bosola does look as if he is straight off the galleys”. As for Mirren’s Duchess,

she rises by visible degrees to the grand scale, presenting every phase of her courtship an clandestine married life in vivid emotional detail before the horrors descend. When they do, she exhibits all the physical collapse of total despair before regaining human dignity. Again, nothing heroic is imposed on the character; everything has been thoroughly imagined.

When the production transferred to London, doubts set in about the later scenes, but The Times critic remained enthusiastic:

There are passages in the torment scenes when Helen Mirren lapses into a dull intensity that taxes the attention, but the whole shape of the performance, from the joyous games to the willing embrace of death, constructs an image of nobility with authentic human materials... The Duchess is more than usually isolated as the only figure combining virtue and power.  

Michael Billington found potency in these later scenes:

The virtue of playing up the horror is that it makes the inherent moral goodness of the Duchess an even more powerful moral antidote. Helen Mirren also plays her excellently as a woman of strong sexual instincts who yet has a reassuring nobility of character.

For Robert Cushman, likewise, the performance grew stronger as the events unfolded:

Helen Mirren starts out a trifle cool, especially when choosing a husband; she is better at giving orders than at giving herself. But she rises to the prison sequences. Her actual execution – with the strangling of her maid as its electric coda – is superbly done.

Words like “strength” and “virtue” occur again and again in these reviews, but where we locate strength or virtue is not necessarily where the original audience would have found it. What once were vices are now widely seen as virtues. In fact, for a secular society, the Seven Deadly Sins can be recalibrated. Pride becomes “self-respect”. Wrath is “being honest about your emotions”. Envy gets a makeover as “drive” or “competitive spirit”; Gluttony is now “treating yourself”, Avarice “taking care of business” and Sloth “chilling out”. As for Lust – that familiar topic of Cosmopolitan features – the Duchess’s brother voices a prevalent Renaissance prejudice about widows, a suspicion that, having known one man, they will be over-eager to take another to the marital bed: “… they are most luxurious | Will wed twice.”  

The scholar Lisa Jardine observes that the “sensual strain” in Middleton’s Beatrice-Joanna or Webster’s Duchess is designedly a marker of their “guilt”:

In the eyes of the Jacobean audience they are above all culpable, and their strength – the ways in which they direct the action, scheme and orchestrate, evade the consequences of their impulsive decisions, and ultimately face resolutely the final outcome – need to be seen in this context.   

Where we, and the actresses who take on the role, applaud the Duchess’s assertiveness in yielding to that “sensual strain” in Act One, selecting a new partner and “fighting for her autonomy”, the boy actor who first played her may have elicited very different reactions in a seventeenth-century audience. The Duchess is constantly judged by the play’s other characters and any of those judgements was a plausible contemporary response. Antonio, the lovestruck steward, paints an idealised Petrarchan portrait of her: her look “speaketh so divine a continence, | As cuts off all lascivious, and vain hope.” To her ambitious brothers she is “loose, i’th’hilts: | Grown a notorious strumpet.” Her maidservant Cariola is at a loss to explain her behaviour:  

Whether the spirit of greatness, or of woman
Reign most in her, I know not, but it shows
A fearful madness: I owe her much of pity.

All the characters are agreed that her “strength” manifests itself only later, in patient endurance of her allotted fate:

FERDINAND How doth our sister Duchess bear herself
In her imprisonment?
BOSOLA                              Nobly: I’ll describe her:
She’s sad, as one long us’d to it: and she seems
Rather to welcome the end of misery
Than shun it: a behaviour so noble,
As gives a majesty to adversity:
You may discern the shape of loveliness
More perfect in her tears, than in her smiles.

This raises an interesting question. When a text floats free of its historical context, is it our duty to put it back into that context, or to place it in our own context, regardless of what the original “meaning” may have been? Here, emphases may differ between theatre practitioners and academic critics, the latter more concerned with reconstructing historical “meaning”. And what of the dramatist himself? Do we see his attitudes as historically determined, or do we say, as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, that “he was not of an age, but for all time”, gifted with a breadth of vision that transcended his circumstances? Sure it is that Webster makes the Duchess a sympathetic figure, aided by his skills in fashioning dramatic architecture and muscular, speakable verse. Quality writing is a stuff that endures, even over centuries and across languages. But do we credit Webster, as we do Shakespeare, with a capacity, if not to challenge, at least to call into question, the status quo? Should we regard these dramatists as ethical futurologists, the counterparts of those Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of science fiction who anticipated aeroplanes and televisions, inventions unrealisable in their day but thinkable to those with minds capacious enough?

We laugh at the way the eighteenth century “improved” Shakespeare, rewriting plays to conform to the classical unities or giving King Lear a happy ending. But there was a mad consistency in such modernisation that may be lacking in our pick-and-mix approaches. Viewing The Duchess of Malfi today, we suspend our historical sense in the early part of the play, flattering ourselves that the Duchess is a Cosmo girl in a “feminist” play and reassuring ourselves of the continued “relevance” of a 400-year-old text. Then we reimpose the sense of history later, as we must if we are to accept the plot development and the climax. We accept that behaviour such as the Duchess’s can only end badly for an aristocrat in early modern Europe; but not as badly as the play depicts, since widows enjoyed privileges of action not available to wives or unmarried women. The grand guignol conclusion, the stage piled high with corpses – these things we accept (if we accept them at all and the last Act is not to be played for laughs) as literary conventions, a Jacobean ratcheting-up of the mechanisms of Elizabethan revenge tragedy.   


Michael Billington, “Duchess of Malfi”, Guardian, 2 April 1981
Clare Colvin, “Mirren in Malfi”, Observer, 29 March 1981
Robert Cushman, “Malfi and Merchant”, Observer, 5 April 1981
Lisa Jardine, “The Duchess of Malfi: a case study in the literary representation of women”, in Teaching the Text, ed. Susanne Kappeler and Norman Bryson (1983)
Robin Thornber, “Duchess of Malfi”, Guardian, 17 September 1980
Irving Wardle, “Clearing the vital hurdle boldly: Webster in Manchester,” Times, 17 September 1980
Irving Wardle, “Duchess of Malfi: Round House”, Times, 2 April 1981

[Photo credit: Photostage]

Monday, 9 July 2012

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968/81)

By William Shakespeare (c1595)

National Youth Theatre, 1964
Feature film, 1968
BBC television, 1981

On 29 September 1662 Samuel Pepys attended the King’s Theatre for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’d never seen the play before, nor ever would again, as he confided to his diary, ‘for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life’. The only redeeming features were ‘some good dancing and some handsome women’. Even allowing that the version he saw was probably much truncated, I know what he means. I’ve never seen a satisfactory production of this play. It usually comes out too frothy and pretty. The ideal Dream would present it as a comedy surrounded by a penumbra of troubled seriousness. Over the years there have been critical revaluations that push in that direction. In the 1960s Jan Kott, in a reading that influenced Peter Brook’s famous production at the end of that decade, found darkness not just at the edges but everywhere in the play. Relating Bottom’s dream to Goya’s Caprichos, he saw bestiality and miscegenation in Titania’s sleeping with an ass. He saw masochism in Helena’s submissiveness to her scornful lover (‘The more you beat me, I will fawn on you: | Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me…’) As he rightly said, the wood is not a benign place. When Titania beds down for the night, her attendants must ward off all manner of creepy-crawlies. These include the selfsame creatures that contribute their ‘poison’d entrails’ to the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth. The fairies are not the wisps of gossamer who stream through Max Reinhardt’s Hollywood film of the 1930s but something more equivocal. In the realm of fairy, Oberon’s and Puck’s ability to do good lies in their capacity to withhold mischief.

Mischief, not black magic. Kott went too far. After all, a strong body of opinion holds that Shakespeare’s play was written originally for an aristocratic wedding celebration and its elements contrived to flatter that audience, which may have included the Queen – ‘our imperial vot’ress’, in Oberon’s phrase. So ‘light entertainment’ was surely what was called for? But, if so, they’d commissioned a playwright incapable of turning out ephemera or trivia. ‘Sedimented within the verbal texture of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, writes Louis Adrian Montrose, in another of the influential essays on the text, ‘are traces of those forms of sexual and familial violence which the play would suppress.’ The play is marbled with what he calls ‘anxious misogyny’, right from the opening scene, where Duke Theseus has bridled the Amazon queen Hippolyta and Egeus threatens an ‘honour killing’ for his rebellious daughter who refuses to marry the man he has chosen for her.

‘But at the same time that the play reaffirms essential elements of a patriarchal ideology, it also calls that reaffirmation in question’ (Montrose again). As so often in Shakespeare’s comedies, the strongest characters are the female ones. The young men, Demetrius and Lysander, are barely differentiated, which makes it easier for them to undergo random transformations under the influence of the fairies’ love-juice. The two heroines, Hermia and Helena, remain constant in their affections (to their young men, if not to each other). Hermia, no ingénue she, knows her own mind, asserting the claims of romantic love over arranged marriage. And by Act IV the patriarchal imperative has softened. While her father continues to demand that the ‘law’ run its course, the Duke overrules him and permits the lovers to wed.

So all is set up for a comedy resolution in marriage. But is the symmetry perfect? This troubles me. Lysander is restored to his true love (Hermia) after Puck has administered the antidote. Yet Demetrius, apparently denied or judged not to be in need of the antidote, remains to the end under the influence of ‘love-in-idleness’, the fairy Rohypnol. He says he has reverted to his first romantic inclination – his heart to Helena is now ‘home return’d’ (III.ii.172, cf. IV.i.173) – but who’s to say it isn’t the drug talking?

None of these problems (if such they be) is resolved by the various productions in which Helen Mirren appeared. She played Helena with the National Youth Theatre in a 1964 production (‘bad casting as Helena is supposed to be tall and thin and I was short and fattish’, she wrote later) and Hermia in Peter Hall’s 1968 film, then returned as Titania in the 1981 BBC TV version. Of these, the latter captures best the psychosexual ambiguities I refer to, but even this fell short of what it might be.

Hall’s film was made on location in and around a country house, Compton Verney in Warwickshire. Visually beautiful, it suggests a house party of hip youngsters, togged out in Sixties dress. Faces daubed with mud may evoke the ‘dank and dirty ground’ of Shakespeare’s text, but the look remains if anything too beautiful. Helena, played in the later BBC production as a stereotype ‘librarian’ in granny glasses, is here rendered by Diana Rigg, an actress who was far more lusted after in the Sixties than the then relatively unknown Helen Mirren. Hall used disruptive ‘jump cuts’ to present illusion, while employing a hand-held camera to give simulated ‘reality’. By ‘post-synching’ all the dialogue, he got around the difficulties in those days of location filming and put the emphasis back on the text. As he told Roger Manvell, ‘This is not a film from a stage production or a film based on the play. It attempts to bend the medium of the film to reveal the full quality of the text.’

In her autobiography, Mirren says of Titania: ‘It was a role I had always wanted to play but which had eluded me, though I had played both Hermia and Helena, neither of which appealed to me.’ She explains that the BBC production came at a difficult time for her: her father had just died suddenly and she ‘found it almost impossible to act’. What helped her through, she recalls, was a great director (Elijah Moshinsky), the rest of the cast and a spectacular, character-forming wig made out of ‘pure, unbleached, very long, fine white-blonde hair’. In her book about the BBC Shakespeare series, Susan Willis comments on how Moshinsky’s camera ‘lovingly lingers [on Mirren] in mid-pool or mid-bower’. The production, as if bathed in aqueous solution, is dominated by a prominent water-feature, part of the set, through which Titania’s slightly ragged train must wade. Puck is a jagged-toothed punk, like an escapee from A Clockwork Orange. These are pointers in the right direction. Perhaps the Beeb could do it better now? A recent Richard II on television shows how much more fluent production styles have become in the last thirty years and how this ‘insipid ridiculous play’ might be reclaimed for a new generation of viewers.  

Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1967)
Roger Manvell, Shakespeare and the Film (1971)
Helen Mirren, In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures (2007)
Louis Adrian Montrose, ‘Shaping fantasies: figurations of gender and power in Elizabethan culture’ (1983), in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: New Casebooks, ed Richard Dutton (1996)
Susan Willis, The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making the Televised Canon (1991)

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Savage Messiah (1972)

When Ken Russell died in 2011, British cinema lost one of its true originals. His work was infuriating, often tasteless, but never boring. As Mark Kermode has said, he ‘proved that British cinema didn't have to be about kitchen-sink realism—it could be every bit as flamboyant as Fellini.’

Savage Messiah, released in 1972, is less flamboyant than most. I always thought it one of his more successful feature films, perhaps because the low budget (he financed the movie himself) forced him to rein in his imagination. That said, it’s still full of trademark Russell pyrotechnics. In telling the story of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the French sculptor who died virtually unknown in the trenches of the First World War, the director couldn’t resist turning the volume up to 11 in every scene. Gaudier – a one-dimensional turn by newcomer Scott Antony – does little but rant and jump about a lot while proclaiming his genius. The standout performance in the film comes from Dorothy Tutin as Sophie Brzeska, the Polish woman twice his age with whom Gaudier lived for the last five years of his life. Until watching the film again recently, I’d forgotten what an accomplished actress she was. She alone provides any light and shade.

So Sophie is the most interesting character in the scenario – which left Russell with a problem in setting out to tell Gaudier’s story. One suspects he recognised that. The film ends with a long sequence representing the posthumous exhibition of Gaudier’s work. As the camera lingers over those sensuous forms, forms inclined to abstraction yet still recognisably human or animal, you realise for the first time what a damn fine sculptor he was. This realisation goes some way to answering the question that has dogged the viewer up to that point: why would anyone make a biopic about someone so irritating? I say only ‘some way’. For me, Russell’s best work was on TV, especially in the superlative Song of Summer, his portrait of the troubled relationship between composer Frederick Delius and his amanuensis, Eric Fenby. The Delius film succeeds where Savage Messiah (arguably) fails, in that it forces you to take seriously a second-rate creative artist whom you didn’t rate before you saw the film.

No shortage of talent fed into Savage Messiah. The poet Christopher Logue wrote the screenplay, based on HS Ede’s biography of the sculptor. Derek Jarman was set designer and Lindsay Kemp turns in a cameo role as Gaudier’s pal Angus Corky. And then there’s Helen Mirren playing a suffragette and occasional arsonist, an upper-class rebel at odds with her class (at least until the outbreak of war shocks her back into her default mode of jingoism). The character of ‘Gosh’ Boyle is inspired by an unnamed figure in Ede’s biography, a girl whom Gaudier noticed admiring his ‘Wrestler’ sculpture in a gallery. He spoke to her and found her ‘intelligent’, neither ‘prudish’ nor ‘hypocritical’, but ‘dashing and brilliant’. At the outset she informed him that ‘she had no pretensions of being a pure woman, and that she had felt very much annoyed with some man who had lectured her on the beauty of virginity.’ Sophie, the sculptor’s complaisant companion, let it be known that she had no objection to Gaudier making love to this woman so long as she could stand behind a screen while the event took place. This incident, inevitably, is picked up in Russell’s film, as are the model’s unformed ambitions as artist and performer:
[She] went to Paris for a few weeks, and came back with sensational tales of how she had danced naked, greatly to the delight of the artists there; how Isadora Duncan had wanted to meet her, and how several theatres had offered to engage her. Also Modigliani had wanted to sleep with her, but she had refused because he drank and had no money.    
In the film we see her pose for Gaudier, who has been employed to produce a sculpture of her father, an army officer. The scene that follows was evidently suggested by an incident elsewhere in Ede’s biography where Gaudier is commissioned to make a bust of one Major Smythies:

The Major watched the building up of his head with great interest, but objected to everything, as is, perhaps not surprising: his nose was too flat, his forehead too high, and so on. At first Gaudier took no notice, but after a bit changed his tactics. ‘I believe you’re right. See, I will alter it.’ And taking up some clay, he proceeded to make the alteration. After Major Smythies had gone, Zosik protested against his being so weak-minded as to be deflected in his own vision by an outsider.
‘Poor Zosik,’ said Pik. ‘to be so blind. I only took up a little clay and put it on the bust so as to satisfy him, and then, when he wasn’t looking, took it off again, and he never noticed.’  
(‘Pik’ and ‘Zosik’ were the affectionate names that Gaudier and Sophie used to each other.)

Reviewing the film in The New Yorker, veteran critic Pauline Kael put her finger on Russell’s problem:
He’s not trying to deal with the age any of his subjects lived in, or the appetites and satisfactions of that age, or the vision of a particular artist; but is always turning something from the artists’ lives into something else – a whopping irony, a phallic joke, a plushy big scene.
It was a ‘plushy big scene’ in this movie that provided the young Helen Mirren with one of her most eye-catching on-screen moments. Mirren’s performance is unbuttoned, in every sense. She descends a grand staircase delivering an artistic credo while wearing nothing but a necklace and a pair of shoes: ‘I don’t care what I do as long as it’s creative. I want to leave something behind me that was never there before.’ My memory of this scene from first seeing the film in the 1970s was that the nudity, however pleasurable, was entirely gratuitous. Watching it again now, I’m not so sure. If anything was expendable it was the preceding scene, set in the fictional ‘Vortex Club’ – Gaudier was one of the leading lights of ‘Vorticism’ – where Russell requires Mirren to sing. This versatile performer has many qualities, but it has to be said that she is better at descending staircases than she is at singing. In fact, she convincingly plays an artist’s model, with the right amount of disinhibition. Just as the ‘suffragette’ was costumed in Edwardian dress, so the ‘model’ was costumed in her birthday suit.


HS Ede, Savage Messiah (1931, reissued 1971)
Joseph A Gomez, Ken Russell: The Adaptor as Creator (1976)
Pauline Kael, ‘Hyperbole and Narcissus’, The New Yorker, 18 November 1972 

Monday, 14 May 2012

Hamlet (1970/76)

By William Shakespeare (c1600)

‘I believe kids shouldn’t be taught Shakespeare,’ Helen Mirren told the Guardian in an interview last year. ‘They should experience it first by seeing a great production.’ Her own first experience probably wasn’t a great production. It was an amateur Hamlet in Southend-on-Sea, not far from Westcliff-on-Sea where she grew up. Nonetheless, she ‘walked out of that theatre at the end in another world.’ Nowadays, as I’ve often had cause to remark in this blog, she regrets how few parts there are in Shakespeare for older women. ‘I don't want to play Gertrude,’ she confided to the Guardian. ‘I want to play Hamlet.’

Well, she never did play the brooding Prince. She could have done; there were precedents. It’s the only heroic male role in Shakespeare that has been regularly acted by women, in a tradition stretching back to Mrs Siddons and Sarah Bernhardt. This is the tradition that Leopold Bloom muses on in Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘Male impersonator. Perhaps he was a woman. Why Ophelia committed suicide?’ Victorian critics were particularly scathing of Mme Bernhardt’s Hamlet, commenting that her attempts at masculinity, such as cocking her legs up on a couch, her ‘manly stride’ and ‘gruff howlings’, resulted in the portrait of an ‘angy elderly woman’ rather than a ‘young and emotional man’.

Mirren did, however, achieve the unusual double of playing both Ophelia and Gertrude in the same production. Celestino Coronado’s 1976 film, made in seven days on a tiny budget of £2,500, was not so much ‘art house’ as ‘art school’. A production for the Royal College of Art, it took literally Hamlet’s speech to Gertrude concerning the ‘counterfeit presentment of two brothers’ by splitting the role of Hamlet into two. Identical twins Anthony and David Meyer battle with each other like the twin souls in Faust’s breast. Since they also play the Ghost, every opportunity within the text for doubling and mirroring is seized on. The Ghost cradles Gertrude while Hamlet admonishes her. Ophelia is deleted from ‘The Mousetrap’ scene, so Hamlet’s lines to her (‘country matters’ etc) are conflated with those he speaks to his mother. Gertrude, asleep, morphs into the drowned Ophelia on her funeral bier. Graham Holderness characterises Mirren’s two roles:
Ophelia is played as a ‘dumb blonde’ erotically passive and slow of wit. Gertrude is played as a mature and powerful woman, confident in her overt sensuality. But the two can pass into one another and exchange identities.
Running at little more than an hour, the film offers a Hamlet cut down, cut up and reassembled. Quentin Crisp, the ‘naked civil servant’, eyeing the world through a monocle, sets the tone for the whole as a hilariously camp Polonius. Not for the first time, Mirren seems to be sidelined in a play about boys and their bodies (see my comments on Troilus and Cressida). It’s all very balletic -- not surprisingly given Coronado’s former association with the Lindsay Kemp Circus -- and rather weird. As Russell Davies observed,
You do not have to be one of the in-crowd to guess that this is a sort of Homo-let. And of course you can’t make a Homo-let without breaking a few eggs – hence the inevitable messy elisions between soliloquies.
Yet, as befits a film dedicated to Pasolini, it’s undoubtedly cinematic. In the words of another critic, Derek Malcolm:
The whole thing looks quite extraordinary, even though it uses photographic tricks that are now threatening to become clichés and sometimes gets too overwrought for clarity of expression. Mirren in particular speaks her lines with biting eloquence and is so stunningly shot in colour that she rivets the attention throughout.
While I wouldn’t go as far as Kenneth Rothwell, who suggests that ‘Coronado was employing a new paradigm for interrogating the play’s mysteries, which have kept themselves inviolate for centuries’, I found the doubling device a provocative way of dramatising what others have tried to tease out by psychoanalytic tools.

This wasn’t Mirren’s first Hamlet, or her last. In 1970 she was Ophelia to Alan Howard’s Prince in a Trevor Nunn production for the RSC. Nunn had intended a plain anti-illusionistic design that would concentrate attention on the actors and the words, but according to company historian Sally Beauman, he was landed with
an oppressive chamber set, roofed and walled with Venetian blinds which could, theoretically, convert the entire staging from white to black in the twinkling of an eye… a set that brandished the play’s moral extremes in the audience’s face.
Again there was doubling. Ophelia and Laertes were ‘flirtatious doubles, almost twins in their matching fur-trimmed doublets, playing duets on the lute with Polonius looking on’ (Showalter). Mirren ‘did Ophelia’s madness without self-indulgence and to good effect’ (Hope-Wallace). This Ophelia, ‘victim of the same false society Hamlet hates’, follows him into madness ‘so that she too may tell it the truth’ (Bryden). The Evening News was impressed:
It seems only yesterday that Helen Mirren was in the Youth Theatre, but here she is playing Ophelia with originality and maturity and even accompanying her sad songs on the mandolin [sic]. Both these young ill-starred lovers, Hamlet and Ophelia, have the ability to draw compassion from us.
Ophelia is so often seen as an absence. She appears in only five of the play’s twenty scenes. We know little of what passed between her and Hamlet before the play opens. She doesn’t struggle with moral choices, as he does. ‘I think nothing, my lord,’ she tells him – a line that he chooses to interpret in the bawdy sense – but which the Gentleman echoes without irony when faced with the mad Ophelia, commenting that ‘her speech is nothing’, mere ‘unshaped use’. Mirren’s Ophelia was no shrinking violet. She was not prepared to go quietly:
The only one to break through this charmed circle of classicism is Helen Mirren as one of the most spirited Ophelias for many a year. In a tastefully low-key production, she stands out as one unwilling to lower her voice. (Barnes)
This Ophelia was not innocent but she was trusting. Describing the last scene between Mirren and Howard, one reviewer was prompted to speculate
whether Ophelia and Hamlet went to bed and, if so, whether the Prince did so out of lust or love. His ‘I loved thee not’ and her ‘I was the more deceived’ come across as a brutal wish to indicate the former and give the scene an added poignancy. It also accounts for the extreme lewdness of the song recital Ophelia treats the court to before her suicide. (Roberts)
In 1994 Mirren appeared in another movie version, Prince of Jutland, a French-British-Danish-German co-production directed by Gabriel Axel, based on the ancient Viking saga by Saxo-Grammaticus that was one of Shakespeare’s sources. Christian Bale played the title role (called Amled here), with support from Gabriel Byrne, Brian Cox and a very young Kate Beckinsale. Mirren was Geruth, Amled’s mother. The story differs somewhat from Shakespeare, and the differences bring into focus how Shakespeare (or the lost play of Hamlet that was supposedly another of his sources) fused the saga material onto the conventions of Elizabethan revenge drama. In the film, Geruth, having learnt of her new husband’s treachery, conspires with her son to bring about the usurper’s downfall. Amled survives to be crowned, but, in this rather endearing low-budget production, where his subjects seem to comprise a handful of downtrodden peasants from central casting, it’s difficult to see why the crown is considered a prize worth fighting over. Mirren sails through all this, regal as ever (notwithstanding yet another gratuitous nude scene). The music score, by Per Nørgaard, is noteworthy. 


Anon, ‘Oh, what a wild and wonderful Hamlet!’ Evening News, 5 June 1970
Elaine Aston, Sarah Bernhardt: A French Actress on the English Stage (1989)
Clive Barnes, review of RSC Hamlet, New York Times, 3 August 1970
Sally Beauman, The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades (1982)
Ronald Bryden, ‘Nunn’s Hamlet: a report from the kitchen’, Observer, 7 June 1970
Russell Davies, ‘Cinema: Swordplay’, Observer, 5 February 1978
Ryan Gilbey, ‘Helen Mirren: “I want to play Hamlet!”’ Guardian, 3 March 2011
Graham Holderness, Visual Shakespeare: Essays in Film and Television (2001)
Philip Hope-Wallace, ‘Hamlet at Stratford’, Guardian, 6 June 1970
Derek Malcolm, ‘London Film Festival: Hamlet’, Guardian, 30 November 1976
Peter Roberts, review of RSC Hamlet, Plays and Players, July 1970
Kenneth Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television (2004)
Elaine Showalter, ‘Representing Ophelia: women, madness, and the responsibilities of feminist criticism’, in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Parker and Hartman (1985)

[with thanks to]

Monday, 23 April 2012

Troilus and Cressida (1968/9)

By William Shakespeare (1602)

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, August 1968
Aldwych Theatre, London, August 1969

‘Many actresses will tell you that Cressida is Shakespeare’s most rewarding part for a woman. She is certainly very modern: witty, astute, basically honest, ironic and self-sufficient.’ So wrote Norman Rodway, who played a scrofula-ridden Thersites in John Barton’s 1968 production ofTroilus and Cressida. Cressida on this occasion was Helen Mirren, in one of her earliest outings with the RSC. She doesn’t share her fellow cast member’s faith. In her autobiography, while admitting she ‘was not really ready for this but steamed ahead anyway’, she complains that the part is ‘underwritten’.

Is it? ‘Underwritten’ in Barton’s version, perhaps: that’s the impression you get from the reviews. I’m less sure about Shakespeare’s original, which (not for the first or last time) suffered not a little at the hands of a director Big on Ideas. Or, to be more precise, wary of Big Ideas. Or big on the idea that Shakespeare was wary of Big Ideas:
We use abstract words like Honour, Fame, Beauty and Truth to sanction what we do and give ourselves a sense of order and meaning. We need these to smooth over the confusion of life, and to avoid acknowledging the chaos within ourselves. (From Director’s rehearsal notes, published in theatre programme for the Stratford production, 1968.)
Troilus and Cressida has been classed among the ‘Problem Plays’, and rightly so. It’s hard to know what the focus of Shakespeare’s attention was in this unusually wordy play, but I suspect it’s not the title characters. They serve to illustrate three themes that collide and mesh, each subjected to a critical scrutiny that borders on a cynicism we don’t associate with this author. Unlike Antony and Cleopatra, this pair are not the cynosure of neighbouring eyes. In thematic first place there’s the ‘just war’: one scene entirely devoted to the embattled Trojans arguing among themselves poses the question – is fair Helen worth fighting over? Second into the critical frame is the unquestioned virtue of heroism, subject for argument in the rival Greek camp as Achilles, the legendary hero, sulks in his tent, only to be lured on to the battlefield finally to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus. And third comes romantic love: an inspiration for Paris and for Troilus, reduced to a tawdry transaction by Cressida’s conniving uncle, Pandarus. Over it all preside two contrasting voices of commentary: the foul-mouthed Thersites, for whom the whole spectacle is nothing but ‘wars and lechery’, and the high-minded Ulysses, who refuses to ‘beg’ a kiss when Cressida is ‘kissed in general’ by the laddish Greeks.

Barton’s interest was what the Daily Telegraph coyly termed ‘peculiar doings which wasted a great deal of stage time’, mostly centred on Achilles (Alan Howard), who was portrayed as a prancing drag queen, wearing a blond wig and glittery nightdress. Reviewing the Stratford production, Harold Hobson fretted that Cressida was being written out of the script:
It would be pleasant to say that Miss Mirren has actually increased her celebrity this week; but Mr Barton's production, which presses upon the very limits of provocation, gives her no chance to do so.
It is hardly too much to say that Mr Barton sees this most disputed of Shakespeare's tragedies, not as Troilus and Cressida, but as Achilles and Perversion. There are times when the performance appears to be on the point of developing into a homosexual orgy in the midst of which poor Cressida's physical allure and moral delinquency seem a tedious interruption of the main sensational business of the evening, which is to show Achilles as a startling kind of male whore.
If Cressida was a casualty of this simplification of the play, opinion divided on what Mirren made of the part she was left with. Irving Wardle saw in her performance ‘a sensual child who is on the point of seducing her uncle before Troilus takes her, and who moves over with equal facility to Diomedes.’ Gareth Lloyd Evans complained that this ‘bouncy’ Cressida ‘jumps upon her lines like a teenage pop singer’. When Troilus begged Pandarus for ‘swift transportance to those fields | Where I may wallow in the lily-beds | Proposed for the deserver’, Benedict Nightingale responded that even
… her most fanciful admirer couldn’t reasonably compare Helen Mirren with a lily-bed. She’d be better described as a Trojan teeny-bopper; a flirt, a tease, who falls on her back and satirically opens her legs – a rather easy and superficial way of suggesting wantonness. Miss Mirren has nothing to do with the Cressida described by Ulysses, the only voice in the play we can trust. He tells us that ‘her wanton spirits look out at every joint and motion of her body’. Why are English actresses invariably so unaware of the joints, not to mention the motions, of their bodies?
The determination to update the play, in spirit, if not in staging terms, may plausibly be traced back to Jan Kott, the Polish scholar whose book Shakespeare Our Contemporary exerted a sizeable influence on Peter Brook and other RSC directors in the Sixties. Kott describes Cressida as ‘a teenage girl of the mid twentieth century. She is cynical, or rather would-be cynical. She has seen too much. She is bitter and ironic. She is passionate, afraid of her passion and ashamed to admit it.’ Simon Trussler duly noted that Barton’s production ‘mirrors the late sixties as surely as Peter Hall's version was attuned to the earlier years of the decade.’

Other reviewers were much more sympathetic to Mirren’s performance than Nightingale (who seems only to have become a Mirren convert in the Seventies). Robert Speaight thought that her Cressida, ’flexible and flirtatious, marked exactly the right distance between facility and faith’. WA Darlington praised her ‘very clear and original reading’, in his view well justifying her promotion within the company to leading parts:
She makes the girl shallow-pated rather than wicked and establishes this in her first scene with Pandarus. During her love-scenes with Troilus she convinces herself of her own sincerity and is all the more vehement in its defence because she really knows how little depth it has.
Frank Cox wrote that ‘Helen Mirren's Cressida is the most assuredly successful young performance for the RSC since Estelle Kohler's Juliet, intelligently sensual in manner, vulnerable in her attractiveness yet scorning to invite our sympathy for a failure which is not wholly beyond her means to prevent.’ JC Trewin, while regretting that she ‘has still to develop as a verse-speaker’, thought that she ‘expresses lucidly the mind of a girl who is every man's Cressida. At the moment her love for Troilus is true; but she can easily be deflected by the next man, and she recognises her own character.’

When Barton’s production moved from Stratford to London in 1969, there was scope for some fine tuning. Harold Hobson noticed a change:
At Stratford I scarcely noticed either Troilus or Cressida. Something has happened since then either to them or to me. Now they are quietly and impressively the exquisite counterpart to the play's excesses of agony and horror. Helen Mirren is excitingly seductive and treacherous as Cressida, and her momentary flashes of shame are very moving.
In an interview with The Guardian after the London opening, Mirren suggested that her own interpretation of the role had shifted in the interim:
For a while I deliberately played down my sexy qualities. This was my big mistake when I first played Cressida at Stratford last year: I fought against the sensualist, well, against the obvious sensualist, the open, free, sexy, ordinary, slightly silly girl. I wanted to make her intelligent and sharp and sexy, but neurotically sexy; something, in fact, she absolutely isn't. Now I don’t bother. I feel I no longer have to prove anything particularly about myself.
Normally, when writing about a production from forty years ago, one is dependent on contemporary reviews and productions stills. With this Troilus and Cressida we can do a little better. In 1970 ATV made a documentary about Helen Mirren, Doing Her Own Thing, a keen bit of talent-spotting on the part of director John Goldschmidt. The film doesn’t survive, alas, but there is an audio track in existence, and it includes a couple of clips from the 1969 production: scenes I.ii and III.ii (in extract). It sounds like a rather exaggerated, ‘actressy’ performance by modern standards (and by Mirren’s own later standards). In banter with her uncle in I.ii, this is a very pert, sassy Cressida, parading – or at least affecting – first-hand knowledge of the birds and the bees. It’s a characteristic of Cressida’s speeches that she seems to stumble into double entendre. She says something, apparently in innocence, which a man will take in the bawdiest sense (III.ii.133; IV.ii.27; IV.ii.38), causing her to backtrack (‘You smile and mock me, as if I meant naughtily’). In going for the ‘obvious sensualist’, from her first entrance, Mirren may have prepared us better for Cressida’s act of betrayal later, but was something lost?

Simon Schama, who as a young man watched her ‘sinuous’ Cressida from the gods, thought not. He still remembers her performance as ‘the only version of the part that made entirely credible her betrayal of moaning Troilus to the hard man Diomed’. Whatever the merits of Barton’s production and Mirren’s characterisation, that comment goes to the heart of the Cressida ‘problem’ in this ‘problem play’. Shakespeare’s original audience would have been more familiar with Cressida’s story, a medieval embroidery upon the Homeric original, than we are. Since her very name was a byword for infidelity, her behaviour in the Greek camp would have seemed to them a reversion to type after her loyal protestations in Troilus’s arms, and therefore less problematic. Modern audiences look to director and actress to find an emotional arc to carry us from the fervid leave-taking of IV.iv to her flirtatious arrival in the Greek camp in the scene immediately following. Barton’s production made a substantial cut in IV.iv (from Troilus’s ‘Nay, we must use expostulation kindly’ to Cressida’s ‘O Heaven! “be true” again!’, lines 60-76). As Ralph Berry observed, ‘the effect is to drain off some of the intensity of the parting and, indeed, to weaken the focus on the lovers.’ But the cut had another effect: it removed the exchange of love tokens. As earnest of their fidelity, Troilus gives Cressida a sleeve, she gives him a glove.

Why does this matter? In a useful article, Carol Rutter examines the staging possibilities for Act IV. On her reading, Cressida’s glove epitomises what she calls the play’s ‘politics of costume’ and preserves a staging hint for productions in our own time. In Shakespeare’s text the leave-taking which begins at IV.ii is interrupted by a short scene, a twelve-line exchange between Troilus and Paris that serves little dramatic purpose, before Cressida resumes her anguish in IV.iv. Most modern productions cut IV.iii, or move it elsewhere, in order to give Cressida a continuous ‘grief aria’. This was true of Barton’s later production of the play in 1976 and of Jonathan Miller’s TV version of 1981 where Suzanne Burden sobs uncontrollably like a child right up to her enforced departure from Pandarus’s house. Rutter speculates – plausibly, I’d say – that Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about staging, took Cressida offstage briefly in IV.iii to cover a costume change. At the start of IV.ii, as the lovers awake in cold early morning, she is presumably in night attire. By IV.iv (it is now ‘great morning’) she has resignedly changed into daywear. The glove she gives Troilus is therefore an item she has already put on or is about to put on – not, as rather improbably in Miller’s production, an item she produces from under the pillow while still languishing in her nightie. In Barton’s 1968 production, Mirren had no costume change in Act IV at all. Rutter suggests that the interruption created by IV.iii and the costume change ‘work together to unsettle Cressida’s speech’. Directors who ignore these clues (and cues) run the risk of producing ‘a sentimental reading of the scene which mis-directs Cressida later… Her costume tells a story the lines don’t. The lovers swear constancy. The clothes write inconstancy.’*

At their first meeting in IV.v Ulysses calls Cressida a ‘daughter of the game’. My hunch is that the costume change before then is her recognition that the game is up. Having grown to self-awareness in wartime, she has spent her entire life among men. We never see her interact with another woman. Recognising, with an access of self-disgust, that she’s a chattel in a war economy, she has become complicit in her own commodification. And as people do in extreme circumstances, she compartmentalises her life:
TROILUS What offends you, lady?

CRESSIDA Sir, mine own company.

TROILUS You cannot shun yourself.

CRESSIDA Let me go and try.
I have a kind of self resides with you,
But an unkind self that itself will leave
To be another’s fool. (III.ii)
The speaker of those extraordinary lines is a highly complex character. Not Shakespeare’s ‘most rewarding part for a woman’, perhaps, but far from ‘underwritten’ if the production will give her wings to fly.


*There have been as many responses to this problem as productions of the play. Rutter cites the solutions adopted in later RSC productions. Tylee gives earlier examples. In Tyrone Guthrie’s 1956 staging at the Old Vic, the parting became comic ‘with Troilus trying to pin Cressida into her clothes between her sobs’. William Poel’s ground-breaking production of 1912 ‘had an opportunist Edith Evans [in her stage debut] already busy with her hat in the mirror while Troilus tried to gain her attention.’


Ralph Berry, Changing Styles in Shakespeare (1981)

Frank Cox, ‘Troilus and Cressida’, Plays and Players, August 1969

WA Darlington, ‘Acting of Cressida clear and original’, Daily Telegraph, 9 August 1968

Harold Hobson, ‘Achilles’ fatal flaw’, Sunday Times, 11 August 1968

Harold Hobson, ‘Heroes, heels and hypocrites’, Sunday Times, 17 August 1969

Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (rev ed, 1967)

Gareth Lloyd Evans, ‘The reason why: the Royal Shakespeare season 1968 reviewed’,Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969), 135-144

Benedict Nightingale, ‘Nothing but wars and lechery’, New Statesman, 16 August 1968, p208

Norman Rodway, ‘Troilus and Cressida’, in Shakespeare in Perspective, II, ed Roger Sales (1985), 41-50

Carol Rutter, ‘Shakespeare, his designers and the politics of costume: handing over Cressida’s glove,‘ Essays in Theatre 12(2), 1994, 106-28

Simon Schama, ‘Helen Mirren talks to Simon Schama’, FT Magazine, 25 February 2011

Robert Speaight, ‘Shakespeare in Britain’, Shakespeare Quarterly 19, autumn 1968

JC Trewin, ‘A degenerate world’, Illustrated London News, 5 July 1969

Simon Trussler, ‘As modern as the sixties’, Tribune, 4 July 1969

Claire M Tylee, ‘The text of Cressida and every ticklish reader: Troilus and Cressida, the Greek camp scene’, Shakespeare Survey 41 (1989), 63-76

Irving Wardle, ‘Sex and warfare at Stratford’, The Times, 9 August 1968

Ian Woodward, ‘A very leading lady’, Guardian, 4 September 1969

[a selection of reviews may be found at]