Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Other work (1963-83)


  • Hamlet (Shakespeare), Scala Theatre, London, 1963 – “a citizen” [first role with National Youth Theatre]
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare), Queen’s Theatre, London, 1964 – Helena
  • The Ortolan (Michael Meyer), University Theatre, Manchester, 1966 – role? [first role with Century Theatre Company]
  • Long Day's Journey Into Night (O’Neill), University Theatre, Manchester, 1966 – Cathleen
  • Charley's Aunt (Brandon Thomas), University Theatre, Manchester, 1966 – Kitty
  • The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare), University Theatre, Manchester, 1967 – Nerissa
  • Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (Halliwell), Empire, Sunderland, 1967 – role?  
  • The Revenger's Tragedy (Middleton/Tourneur), Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1967; Aldwych Theatre, London, 1969 – Castiza [first role with Royal Shakespeare Company]
  • Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare), Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1968; Aldwych Theatre, London, 1969 – Hero
  • The Silver Tassie (O’Casey), Aldwych Theatre, London, 1969 – Susie
  • Bartholomew Fair (Jonson), Aldwych Theatre, London, 1969 – Win-the-Fight Littlewit
  • Richard III (Shakespeare), Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1970 – Lady Anne
  • Enemies (Gorky), Aldwych Theatre, London, 1971 – Tatyana
  • The Man of Mode (Etherege), Aldwych Theatre, London, 1971 – Harriet
  • The Balcony (Genet), Aldwych Theatre, London, 1971 – Elayne
  • Peter Brook/International Centre for Theatre Research, Paris, Africa, USA, 1972-3
  • Henry VI, Parts I, II and III (Shakespeare), Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1977; Aldwych Theatre, 1978 – Queen Margaret
  • Faith Healer (Brian Friel), Royal Court Theatre, London, 1981 – Grace
  • Antony and Cleopatra (Shakespeare), The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1982; The Pit, London, 1983 – Cleopatra


  • Doing Her Own Thing, ITV, 1970 (documentary about the actress by John Goldschmidt)
  • Cousin Bette (Balzac), BBC, 1971 – Valerie
  • The Silver Collection (Susan Pleat), ITV, 1971 – Rachel
  • A Coffin for the Bride (Brian Clemens), ITV, 1974 – Stella McKenzie/Angie
  • Bellamira (Sedley), ITV, 1975 – title role
  • The Little Minister (Barrie), BBC, 1975 – Babbie
  • The Serpent Son (Aeschylus), BBC, 1979 – Cassandra
  • Blue Remembered Hills (Dennis Potter), BBC, 1979 – Angela
  • The Quiz Kid (JC Wilsher), ITV, 1979 – Joanne
  • Mrs Reinhardt (Edna O’Brien), BBC, 1981 – title role
  • Soft Targets (Poliakoff), BBC, 1982 – Celia


  • Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare), BBC World Service, 1975 – Beatrice


  • Press for Time, 1966 – Penelope Squires
  • The Extravaganza of Golgotha Smuts, 1967 – role?
  • Red Hot Shot [Colpo rovente], 1970 – role?
  • Caligula, 1979 – Caesonia
  • SOS Titanic, 1979 – May Sloan
  • Hussy, 1980 – Beaty
  • The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu, 1980 – Alice Rage
  • The Long Good Friday, 1980 – Victoria
  • Excalibur, 1981 – Morgana

This brings to an end my survey of Helen Mirren’s early work. I have written in detail about the performances, the plays and the films that most interest me; I leave it to others to write about the remainder. Why choose 1983 as a terminus? It seems to mark a hiatus, the break before the second, transatlantic phase of her career begins. Around this time she experienced her only extended period out of work, and this is also when she got the call from Hollywood to make 2010, Peter Hyams’s sequel to Kubrick’s masterful sci-fi epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a dreadful film, but it opened up the prospect of a new life, as she describes in her autobiography:

I arrived in Los Angeles and was given the keys to a brand-new Mustang convertible, and a second set of keys to a condo off the Sunset Strip. I was in heaven.

The 1983 General Election, which returned Thatcher to office with an increased majority, was also decisive, it seems: “I just did not like the direction my country and my city were going”.  If Ivan Waterman, her unauthorised biographer, is to be believed, her failure to scoop an Olivier Award in 1983 for her second – and, in her view, best – crack at Cleopatra was another factor. He quotes a bad-tempered rant (unsourced, like almost everything in his book):

I thought, Fuck it, that’s it, they obviously don’t want me. They don’t like me. They hate what I do. I’ll go somewhere else. I didn’t have much acclaim. I wasn’t being asked to do any work in England. Nobody was actually asking me to do anything. Suddenly Hollywood seemed a way of saying, “Fuck you, England.”   

A decade and a half earlier, she’d felt more optimistic about her future. The Guardian reported in 1969:

Miss Helen Mirren… has always set herself targets, and her target today is that in 10 years’ time she will be accepted as a significant classical actress of our time. If, in 1979, the RSC is the sort of ensemble company she would like it to be, then she has no doubts that she will still be a member of it, God willing. Otherwise it will be a life of guest appearances with Paul Scofield, Eric Porter, Judi Dench et al. “And that,” says the very sexy, very ambitious, and occasionally self-deriding Miss Mirren, “would be quaite naice.” (Ian Woodward, “A very leading lady”, Guardian, 4 September 1969.)

Call me old-fashioned, but, of the two personalities on offer here, I rather prefer the wide-eyed thespian of 1969.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Collection (1976)

By Harold Pinter (1961).
Granada Television, 5 December 1976.

Pinteresque (adj.) Resembling or characteristic of his plays.… Pinter’s plays are typically characterized by implications of threat and strong feeling produced through colloquial language, apparent triviality, and long pauses. (Oxford English Dictionary)

Harold Pinter is the only modern dramatist to enter the dictionary. Which is ironic, in a way, since his plays use a smaller vocabulary than those of his contemporaries – little more than a thousand words, on some estimates. It’s the spaces between the words that count as much as the words themselves. And how actors love to insinuate themselves into those spaces!

Among British actors none came bigger or more actorly than Lord ‘Larry’ Olivier. In 1975, still smarting from the protracted labour-pains of establishing the National Theatre on the South Bank, Olivier was offered the chance by ITV to choose six of the best plays of the twentieth century and produce them for television, directing and/or acting in as many of them as he pleased. His first choice fell on Pinter’s The Collection, written originally for TV in 1961, later adapted for the stage, which he now brought back to the small screen. “It’s a brilliant little play… the best Pinter has ever done,” Olivier enthused to The Guardian:

I saw the one Ralph [Richardson] and John [Gielgud] are in [No Man’s Land], and I didn’t think it had any depth to it, just is marvellous mood-dialogue, but this – I thought when I first saw it, ‘That is a really waggish piece’, and the more we worked in it, the more depths we found in it.

The Collection is a four-hander. Olivier plays Harry, a middle-aged – we presume gay – couturier who lives with a younger man, Bill (Malcolm McDowell). Bill is visited by another man, James (Alan Bates), who accuses Bill of having an affair with James’s wife, Stella (played by Mirren), while the two were on a business trip in Leeds. Stella first confirms the story, then seems to deny it. Bill keeps changing his story. Bill and James grapple on the floor: as the two men fight over one woman, there are undercurrents of homoerotic attraction between them. Harry seethes with resentment that his “slum slug” of a protégé may have betrayed him. In Pinter’s world, ‘truth’ will not out. At the end we still do not know what happened in that hotel room in Leeds.

The Times was impressed:

Michael Apted directed these memorable faces through a faultless round of confident charm (in attack), lowered eyelids (to acknowledge a passing defeat) and dilated pupils (to denote rage and the likelihood of physical violence). As the fourth of this rag trade quartet, Olivier had little to bite on until the dénouement, but the bite, when it came, was swift, fierce and clean. There was, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, a good deal less to all this than met the eye. But what met the eye was certainly good.

Olivier personally edited the text by reading all the parts aloud and selected the actors he wanted to work with. This is a man who, less than two years earlier, was in the grips of a wasting muscular disease that left him helpless, having endured a coronary and pneumonia before that, and cancer before that. Now, according to one of his biographers, he “returned to an Olivier as vigorous as ever, lost in a blur of auditioning, cutting, editing, dubbing, directing and acting.”

As Stella, Mirren radiates the sphinx-like unknowability required of her character. Except for one interpolated scene in a dress shop, we never see her outside her apartment, where her most loyal companion is a beautiful white Persian kitten. “Definitive Pinter performances,” the Sunday Times declared of Mirren and Bates. She had only one scene with the Grand Old Man, of which The Listener commented: “In [Harry’s] scene with Stella (Helen Mirren, delicious as ever), his voice acquired a special register of plumminess”. That “plumminess” risked tipping over into caricature, as Mirren later recalled:

I’m not easily overawed, but if anyone had the potential to frighten me, it was Olivier. But he was wonderful. Within hours we were simply colleagues, fast becoming friends. I even plucked up the nerve to tell him I thought he was overdoing it in one scene, getting a bit hammy; far from chewing me out, as I half expected, he immediately thanked me, said he thought I was absolutely right, and toned it down. (Quoted in Holden, p440)

As usual, Clive James, then The Observer’s TV critic, praised the actress while bad-mouthing the play: “Helen Mirren’s patent abundance of flesh and blood only served to emphasise how her lines lacked both these substances”. The play itself he found “diaphanous”.

Perhaps the most Pinteresque of all performances was that of the white kitten. Its part is precisely notated, as you would expect from this dramatist. The cat’s part consists entirely of pauses (or pawsies). It is there to be “nuzzled” (the word occurs several times in the stage directions). After the filming, Mirren got to keep the cat, which was later “hijacked” by her parents, and the actress has a charming anecdote in her memoirs about the “psychic connection” that developed between her father, Basil Mirren, and Flossie, this “prima donna” among cats.


Elkan Allan, ‘Pick of the day: new peak for Olivier’, Sunday Times, 5 December 1976
Peter Fiddick, ‘The Olivier collection’, Guardian, 3 December 1976
Anthony Holden, Olivier (1988)
Clive James, ‘Television: last of the Romans’, Observer, 12 December 1976
Harold Pinter, Plays: Two (1977)
David Pryce-Jones, ‘Television: classic fantasy’, The Listener, 16 December 1976
Michael Ratcliffe, ‘Television’s own Olivier theatre’, Times, 6 December 1976     

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1970)

By William Shakespeare (c1590)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, July 1970
Aldwych Theatre, London, December 1970

There are swimming pools in Verona and Milan; cigars and coffee at the Duke’s; outlawed hippies in the forest. Fashions vary between bikini and maxi; the Duke wears gown and mortarboard. Silvia is serenaded by a pop group. Sir Eglamour seems to be a Rover Scout. (Illustrated London News, 8.8.70)

The play was The Two Gentlemen of Verona at Stratford in 1970. As the reader may have guessed, it was a modern-dress production. Directors always feel a need to dress this play up, feeling that it can’t be done straight. The impulse is usually to turn it into a musical. I remember a student production at Oxford in the late Seventies, where ‘Caz’ Phillips (now better known as Caryl Phillips, distinguished novelist and essayist) directed an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular, stuffed to the gills with tricksy stage business and visual gags.

Does it have to be that way?  The version in the BBC Shakespeare series showed that it can be played straight, even if the results were pretty wooden. Generally agreed to be Shakespeare’s first play, Two Gentlemen anticipates themes that the dramatist would return to later. It also features his first of many cross-dressed heroines – Julia, played in the 1970 RSC production by Helen Mirren.

Reviewing the RSC’s version for The Times, Irving Wardle suggested that “the play deals with a specifically Elizabethan contest between love and friendship” and, as a result, “it appears more confused and implausible to us than it would have done to Shakespeare’s public.” Certainly it has to be taken in the context of a Renaissance debate which often privileged male friendship above the demands of heterosexuality. This is why putting the play into modern dress poses particular problems: in our culture, men who address one another as “my loving Proteus” and “sweet Valentine” are assumed to be more than good friends.

In the play the friendship in question is put under pressure when the aptly named ‘Proteus’ abandons his first love, Julia, and falls for Silvia, to whom Valentine is engaged. Julia disguises herself as a page, ‘Sebastian’, and pursues her loved one to Milan, where she enters the service of the unwitting Proteus and witnesses his infidelity. The action concludes in a scene, notoriously difficult to bring off in the theatre, where Proteus threatens to rape Silvia if she will not yield to him voluntarily; whereupon Valentine displays the depth of his ‘friendship’ by offering to hand Silvia over to him. The resultant tension is resolved in what Stanley Wells has called “the least plausible of Shakespeare’s happy endings” – the original couples are paired off, all “jars” dissolved in “triumphs, mirth and rare solemnity”.

Already present in this first play (although it’s hard to believe there weren’t other apprentice works lost to us) was a power of language that drew the envy of his contemporaries. Perhaps, as much as 3 Henry VI, it was this play that incited the author of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) to lay into the new arriviste, this “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you”. Here was a poetry ripe to be placed in the service of stagecraft:

For Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews,
Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,
Make tigers tame and huge leviathans
Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands. (III.ii.77-80)

How those lines demand to be spoken, as Hamlet would have wished, “trippingly on the tongue”!

Joy Leslie Gibson, in her study of ‘the Elizabethan boy player’, draws attention to another feature of Shakespeare’s writing established from the outset. Today’s actresses phrase speeches in their own way: having bigger rib-cages than Shakespeare’s boy players, they don’t need to take as many breaths as a smaller boy would. In the speeches she analyses, it’s possible to break the blank verse, or the prose, into small phrases, capable of being spoken by a boy without destroying the sense. Particularly in the earlier plays, Gibson notes, the verse for the women’s parts is very accented, giving the maximum help to the boy player. Julia’s speech beginning “Nay would I were so angered with the same” (I.ii.102-) is a case in point.

Julia also has one of the most striking speeches in the play (IV.iv.149-63), one of those moments, much picked over by academics, when Shakespeare seems to hold up a mirror to gender ‘identity’:

Julia, disguised as a page, invents for her rival Silvia (now pursued by Julia’s fiancé, Proteus), a story that describes her apparent male self playing ‘the woman’s part’ in the clothes of her real female self. The layers insulating this story from reality enable her to reveal herself through her disguise, to express her deep grief at being abandoned, and to engender a sympathetic response from her onstage and offstage audience”. (Lenz et al, p13)

Whether we accept this as Shakespeare’s intention depends on how far he expected his audiences to suppress their awareness of the boy player before their eyes and to accept a “real female self” as Julia’s core identity. As the editor of the Arden edition points out, “the verbal equivocations about Julia’s gender are intensified in the final scene”, once Julia reveals herself (V.iv.98) yet remains in the costume of the boy page. Proteus, Valentine and Silvia now know her identity as a woman but when the Duke enters shortly afterwards he mistakes her for a “boy [who] hath grace in him”.

Robin Phillips, director of the 1970 production, recalls that he approached the play with reluctance: “When I was first asked to do it I thought, God, no, because I’d never read it and when I’d seen it done it was always in fey little Victorian versions.” But although he considered it “not mature Shakespeare”, he still found an “incredible depth” in the piece:

It’s a play about love and friendship – and just how important friendship is once love becomes involved. It’s about the awful problems of adolescence – and they are awful. I set it in a finishing school because I wanted to show these young people emerging into adults – they had left school in every sense.

Opinion was divided on this production. Ronald Bryden in The Observer found the production “intelligent and unstereotyped”; the update “fits pretty well and doesn’t get in the way of fine, traditional verse speaking” (at least by Ian Richardson as Proteus). Harold Hobson was also impressed. “A transfiguration. Through modern eyes it penetrates to ancient truth,” he declared:

It treats with masterly nonchalance the more absurd parts of the story, but where the verse is great it is greatly spoken. Whether grave or playful, Mr Phillips’ touch is unfaltering, to the play’s essence totally loyal.

He found “sudden stabs of tenderness” in Mirren’s grief as the deserted Julia.

The Guardian regretted the “many visual and thematic inconsistencies” introduced by updating the action but recognised that they were done in a “spirit of affection” for an immature play. Resisting the temptation to broaden the comedy too far, Phillips had acknowledged the play’s “serious purpose” in a production that was a “victory of professionalism over playfulness”. However, Mirren proved a stumbling block for this critic:

…at the moment [she] shoves and pushes too much. She seems to overact at every point and must learn to allow the audience to come to her occasionally rather than rush at them.

The Times was enamoured of the design, “a ramped set… dominated by a group of revolving screens which alternatively [sic] glow like huge golden doors and carry magnified silhouettes from behind” and a “cantilevered balcony jutting vacantly across the stage”. But this critic, too, was unconvinced by Mirren:

Lacking a firm centre, the play subsides into an unfocused series of separate moments and performances, some of them very good… some not so good, like Helen Mirren’s Julia, who overplays the early scenes of maidenly caprice beyond the limits of sympathy, and subsequently settles into a butcher-boy jauntiness.

When Wardle reviewed the show again for its transfer to London six months later, he revised his opinion about the production:

Since I first saw the show its detail has been very much enriched, particularly in ingenious use of the set… Performances and staging come together to establish a firm style that takes up a definite relationship to the play: fanciful and ironic, admitting that it is not a great work but turning that admission to advantage.  

This time he singled out Estelle Kohler’s Silvia for mention; Mirren’s Julia goes unremarked.

Shakespeare Survey noted that the production

opened with a tableau of the lovers in silhouette and a recorded echo-song ‘Who is Silvia? Who is Valentine? Who is Proteus? Who is Julia?’, but addressed itself, in the main, to a clarification, along plausible psychological lines, of Proteus’s misconduct.

Some of the capricious business required of Mirren is recorded in this review. Julia sucked chewing-gum in I.ii, her thumb in II,vii, and rolled on her back to say, “Now kiss, embrace, contend, do what you will” (I.ii.126).

The Illustrated London News settled for grudging praise:

While nobody would be hyperbolical about the production, it is far better than one might have 
feared, occasional silliness apart… Call it, in general, a night of calm make-believe, rightly expressed by such players as Mr Richardson, Helen Mirren and Peter Egan [as Valentine].


Ronald Bryden, “Theatre: Germany’s Tragedy”, The Observer, 26 July 1970
William C Carroll, ‘Introduction’ to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series (2004)
Judith Cook, Directors’ Theatre (1974)
Joy Leslie Gibson, Squeaking Cleopatras: The Elizabethan Boy Player (2000)
Harold Hobson, “Theatre: Rebel in trouble,” Sunday Times, 26 July 1970
Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz et al, ‘Introduction’ to The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed Lenz et al (1980)
Gareth Lloyd Evans, “Two Gentlemen of Verona at Stratford”, Guardian, 24 July 1970
Peter Thompson, “A necessary theatre: the Royal Shakespeare Company season 1970 reviewed”, Shakespeare Survey 24 (1971)
JC Trewin, “Theatre: A night of make believe”, Illustrated London News, 8 August 1970
Irving Wardle: “Bard and Beatles”, The Times, 24 July 1970
Irving Wardle, “Shakespeare enriched: Two Gentlemen of Verona”, The Times, 24 December 1970
Stanley Wells, Shakespeare, Sex and Love (2010)

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Philanthropist (1975)

By Christopher Hampton.
BBC TV, 29 October 1975.

Nowadays Christopher Hampton is best known as a screenwriter (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement, etc) but in the 1970s, along with Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Howard Brenton, he was one of the coming men of British drama. His first play, When Did You Last See My Mother?, had a London try-out while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. Helen Mirren was there, she tells us, on 5 June 1966 at a Sunday night ‘production without décor’ at the Royal Court Theatre. She recalls being “just blown away by the writing”.

The Philanthropist, subtitled ‘a bourgeois comedy’, first reached the stage in 1970. Destined likewise for the Royal Court Theatre, it was at first rejected by Lindsay Anderson, then the theatre’s co-artistic director, as “frivolous” but found a sympathetic director in Hampton’s regular collaborator Robert Kidd. After a short run at the Royal Court, it transferred to the West End, where it ran for three years, picking up a number of awards along the way. In 1970 the Sunday Times published two reviews. Harold Hobson’s official one raved: “A masterpiece of organisation… a wonderful evening, intellectually stimulating, touchingly sympathetic and gloriously, gloriously funny.” But Alan Brien’s Diary, a few weeks later, disagreed: “When it is funny, it is usually improbable. When it is accurate, it tends to become tedious.”

I’m with Mr Brien on this one. Even allowing for the passage of time and the mutation of taste over the years, this is irksome stuff. Combining the pleasant geometry of the English comedy of manners with a postgraduate riff on Molière’s Le Misanthrope, Hampton’s play is deadeningly cerebral, the working out of an idea. It relies on the conceit of a phlegmatic hero, Philip, who loves words (he is an academic philologist) but doesn’t understand what they portend. Somehow this cold fish has attracted the vivacious Celia (Helen Mirren in the TV adaptation), to whom he is engaged. In the course of a dinner party, which takes up much of the action, Philip (Ronald Pickup) unwittingly snubs his fiancée, is propositioned by the man-eating, ample-bosomed Araminta, then decides the next morning to make a play for the quiet, demure Liz, only to discover that she has palled up overnight with a fellow don (the appropriately named ‘Don’). Where Molière’s Alceste offends by abrasive candour, in the jaded university environment of Hampton’s play, everyone takes offence at Philip’s desire to be inoffensive. As he says, “My trouble is, I’m a man of no convictions. At least, I think I am.” His love of his fellow man, his ‘philanthropy’, is mistaken for something else – sarcasm, cynicism.

What is conveyed, with a clunking fist, is the self-absorption of the academic world, a solipsism which exposes the characters as isolated from a set of bizarre occurrences in the ‘real’ world. The suicide of a budding playwright in Philip’s college rooms in the opening scene seems to leave him and Don strangely unmoved when we encounter them a few days later. The murder of virtually the entire Cabinet on the day of the dinner party is not, as one might expect, the main topic of conversation that evening. When a terrorist organisation starts murdering prominent authors, the sole concern of fashionable novelist Braham Head, another of the dinner party guests, is the disappointing discovery that his name is not on the hit list.

Personally, it’s hard for me to dislike a play in which Helen Mirren is enamoured of someone called ‘Philip’, but dislike is close to what I feel. Perhaps the problem lies in the script. The play’s two female characters are distinctly underwritten. Araminta is a creature of schoolboy fantasy, if ever dramatist devised one. Celia has the potential to provide a moral centre, a source of well-directed empathy, but she misdirects her emotional facility into malice and fantasy. As she says, “lies are usually that much more interesting than the truth”. She chides Philip for his passivity, accusing him of being “a pudding, wobbling gently”, yet her own energies are absorbed in entertaining the company with fictional accounts of her tutors’ fumbling efforts to seduce her.

Mirren has said that she felt “awkward” and “uncomfortable” playing this part: “I vaguely remember that I could never quite get a handle on this one,” she told a BBC interviewer in 2007. She puts it down to her own “inability to understand the role”, but also points to the circumstances of TV production. Unlike the theatre, where a performance can develop over the course of a run, or big-budget movie-making where whole days can be spent filming one short scene, there’s “not a lot of chance to get it right” on TV. A couple of weeks of rehearsal would be followed by several days of studio recording, shooting anything up to six scenes a day. “I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” says Mirren now of her work on The Philanthropist; yet “often I’ve felt like that, and then when you look at the piece, I don’t see it necessarily in the performance”.

The Daily Telegraph reviewer was certainly convinced by Celia the fantasist:

… Another reference [to Molière (sic)] was perhaps to be found in Celia’s (Helen Mirren no less) contribution to the party scene. Her swiftly invented account of how each of her university tutors had made a pass at her, each more incompetent than the last, had a bubbly artificiality managed with much skill.

Indeed, this critic was impressed by the TV adaptation altogether, calling it “a scathing comedy of intellectual manners that manages by neat turns to be smart and understanding, funny and grim, compassionate and heartless”.

The Listener was less persuaded, finding the play “mannered, fussy and at times… very tiresome”, redeemed only by “several excellent performances, especially from Jacqueline Pearce as the university’s easiest lay, and Helen Mirren as the philanthropist’s fiancée.”

It was a low-key performance from Mirren, a point picked up by Polly Toynbee in the Observer:   

The ubiquitous Helen Mirren… has the precise ability to seem like a person, someone we might actually know. Perhaps it helped that her hair and make-up looked like anyone else’s, blotched on in a rush in the morning.

Low-key. Hardly a career highlight. But still eminently watchable, once you’ve got past the mumsy Laura Ashley frocks of that benighted era.


Sean Day-Lewis, “Television: dubious view of unsolved 1931 murder”, Daily Telegraph, 30 October 1975
Ben Francis, Christopher Hampton: Dramatic Ironist (1996)
Harold Hobson, “The fatal match”, Sunday Times, 9 August 1970
Joseph Hone, “Television: a glut of drama”, The Listener, 6 November 1975
“Helen Mirren remembers”, DVD interview on Helen Mirren at the BBC (2008)
Polly Toynbee, “Television: Mr Hampton’s black joke”, Observer, 2 November 1975 

Monday, 20 May 2013

Measure for Measure (1979)

By William Shakespeare (1604)
Riverside Studios, London, May 1979

In 1898 Bernard Shaw, no friend of Shakespeare’s, compared his own work, the Plays Unpleasant, to “such unpopular plays as All’s Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida” where “we find [Shakespeare] ready and willing to start at the twentieth century if the seventeenth would only let him”. That these were three plays in which the young Mirren appeared can be explained away as coincidence; but perhaps the old rogue was onto something else. He had the foresight to predict that Measure for Measure, in particular, would find new and receptive audiences in the next hundred years. We have a tolerance for difficulty, for moral irresolution, for messy endings, that our Victorian ancestors lacked.    

And so much in this play is murky. Why does the Duke absent himself from Vienna? In the scene with Friar Thomas (I.iii) where he establishes his disguise, he gives several reasons, not entirely consistent one with another. We learn that he is a reluctant public figure, who has “ever lov’d the life remov’d”. He tells us that he has let slip the “strict statutes and most biting laws” of the state, that a clean-up operation is needed, but that it would seem “tyranny” if he were to do it himself. So he has appointed a deputy, “a man of stricture and firm abstinence”, who may be relied on to do the dirty work. Yet this “precise” deputy is himself to be put to the test: “Hence we shall see | If power changes purpose, what our seemers be”. These are complicated motives, complicated further when we consider that he must already know of Angelo’s breach of his marriage contract with Mariana, evidence that the deputy is not as “precise” as he seems.

Is the Duke a cruel manipulator or a dispenser of wisdom? In the 1930s there was a trend in criticism, inaugurated by G Wilson Knight, to view the Duke as the prophet of an “enlightened ethic”, a Christ-like figure who preaches a new order of justice and forgiveness. The clue is in the play’s title, a reference to Matthew 7:1-2:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

But if he’s a supreme moralist, why does he prolong the sufferings of the other characters so, letting Isabella believe her brother has been executed, telling Juliet that the father of her child is to die “tomorrow” when he has no intention of allowing the execution to occur? Why does he lie to them? Whilst we can hold these contradictions in our heads when reading the play, we generally look to a stage production to offer a line of interpretation.

And Isabella? If All’s Well is about a woman who yearns to lose her virginity and resorts to the ‘bed trick’ to accomplish it, Measure for Measure gives us a woman desperate to preserve her virginity who succeeds by the same means. Do we admire her? Some might say her dedication to chastity, which she values above her brother’s life, is revealed as an ethical absolutism as unbending as that of Angelo when he’s first installed in office. There’s a suggestion that it may proceed from sexual anxieties as much as selfless piety. Long before psychoanalysis was born in Vienna, Erasmus in his Encomium Matrimonii was troubling over young neophytes who would “profess and vow perpetual chastity before they sufficiently know themselves and the infirmity of their nature”.

The final scene raises more questions. This was never going to resolve in a neat comedy of pairings. There are marriages in prospect, but hardly the result of mutual romantic yearnings. Angelo is married off to a woman he has cast aside. He has shown his true colours by abusing his authority to proposition another woman. Like Helena in All’s Well, his new bride has unaccountably loved her man all along despite his unworthiness and indifference towards her. The foppish Lucio is married off to his ‘punk’ as a punishment. The Duke, a hitherto confirmed bachelor, meanwhile proposes to the novice nun Isabella. We don’t know her response – she has no lines after her intercession on Angelo’s behalf – but it would be hard for her to turn down such a public proposal from the head of state. In fact, this sudden offer of marriage from an authority figure she hardly knows – her previous encounters with him had been in his role as celibate friar – might suggest he’s exercising a kind of marital droit de seigneur, a tactic that would occur more naturally to his less principled deputy.

According to the Revels Accounts, a play called ‘Mesur for Mesur’ by ‘Shaxberd’ was acted in the banqueting hall, Whitehall, on St Stephen’s Night (26 December) 1604: the first known performance. We can never know what King James and the courtiers made of it. Some have suggested that the version we have, first printed in the Folio of 1623, is a later revision, even by another hand. Perhaps such textual anomalies would account for disjunctions in the play, those abrupt modulations, those suspended chords that never quite resolve. Or perhaps they were built in from the start, intentional subversions of tradition by one of literature’s greatest rule-breakers.

Much as I admire this play and enjoy fretting over its complexities, I find it flawed. The strongest scenes by far are the two meetings between Isabella and Angelo in which the deputy’s dark motives take shape, a surprise even to himself, and the prison scene between Isabella and Claudio, where the novitiate is startled to discover that her brother values his life more highly than her virginity. Is it fanciful to suppose that the psychological depths here are what drew ‘Shaxberd’ to this material? Like the good scriptwriter that he was, he then adapted the material to a ‘comedy’ format by grafting on motifs from fairy tale (the Absent Ruler, the Substitute Bride) and ensuring the whole thing ended in multiple marriages, however unhappy their prospects.   

History has not been kind to the 1979 Riverside production. It doesn’t even merit a mention in Graham Nicholls’s study, published in 1986, of the play in performance. His Isabellas of note are Estelle Kohler (Stratford, 1970), Ciaran Madden (Open Space, 1975), Paola Dionisotti (Stratford, 1978) and Kate Nelligan (BBC TV, 1979). Peter Gill had made a reputation at Riverside Studios for shedding new light on old plays by stripping them bare, by avoiding what one critic called “obfuscating directing and otiose gloss”. Whilst this approach had worked in The Changeling, which he staged the previous year, reviewers felt it was inappropriate for this text, a ‘problem play’ whose problems the director needed to confront in some fashion. Gill presented the action on a bare quarry-tile floor against a stark brick background:

On a wide bare stage, in dusty-looking doublet and hose, the play is presented with a business like briskness. It is not unenjoyable, but hardly fires the imagination. (Daily Telegraph)

For Peter Stothard this was “a prime example of the ‘theatre of purity’ gone mad… The cutting back of directorial accretions has meant a virtual copping out of all the play’s problems.” The Observer concurred: “If this play is about anything, it is about moral testing; with that dimension lost, all tension gradually seeps out of the play.” Some critics harked back to Peter Brook’s famous production of 1950 which, as John Barber suggested, had revealed this as the “most Freudian of Shakespeare’s plays, with its revelations of suppressed desires, subconscious motives and nightmare fantasies”. (One 1975 production, by Robert Phillips in Stratford, Ontario, had made this explicit by moving the action from the seventeenth-century city to Vienna in 1912.) But for Robert Cushman the Riverside version was a “bridled” Vienna, with little sign of “corruption boil[ing] and bubbl[ing] till it o’er run the stew”.

So theatre critics missed Gill’s customary clarity of direction, regretting that too few of the characters emerged with any colour or distinctiveness. They were, however, united in singling out Mirren’s performance. For the Daily Telegraph Isabella was the only character in the production who

might belong to a comedy of deeply moral implications and not an antiquated relic. In Nile green velvet with white cuffs, a crucifix on her magnificent bosom, she commands the fierce chastity of a Titian Madonna, and is hardly less beautiful. She speaks in cold horror of stooping to “abhorred… pollution” – with a telling pause before she can bring herself to utter the noun. If the actress will put to better use the good deep notes in her voice, a remarkable performance could become a great one.

Plays and Players agreed:

Helen Mirren has at least carved out for herself a role that is absolutely coherent; a more than usually reluctant entrant to the convent, she grows suddenly, inflexibly moral and in the end accepts marriage to the Duke as a softening fall to normality. Her performance has a tough, physical, almost balletic quality. At the first entreating of Angelo for Claudio’s life, she moves in and out from him in the strictest straight lines, as though approaching the hub of a wheel along each spoke in turn. Once Angelo is within her power her path changes from its pattern of advance and retreat to a spiralling encirclement of her prey. Dressed in slate-grey, floor-length velvet, she seems to glide rather than walk; and she stops dead with a timing that keeps you glued to her every movement, lest you miss its ending.  

For the Guardian, Mirren’s Isabella was “the strongest thing in the evening”:

Grey frocked and with her hair swept severely back, she is an unapologetic moralist exuding the odour of sanctity. She prods Angelo’s bosom with her little finger in a manner that would unnerve a saint, prowls round him like an excited Baskerville muttering the word “Seeming seeming” and on the notorious “more than our brother is our chastity” she flings her arms wide in a declaration of faith. As a portrait of inflexible religious morality, it is undeniably impressive.

Among the academic critics, David McCandless understood her portrayal as “defining chastity as an act of resistance against a normative femininity synonymous with sexual availability on male terms” (p189). It’s significant that Mirren (like Judi Dench in 1962 or Juliet Stevenson in a later RSC production) was never seen in the nun’s habit. In Michael Scott’s words,

her decision for celibacy or sexuality was involved with an almost secular awareness of the dignity of her own being… Here was a determined Isabella whom Angelo encountered at his peril, only his power offering any form of protection. Miss Mirren’s Isabella was a woman affronted by a male-dominated world. Her dignity as a human being was the price she was asked to pay and she refused to do so. (pp67-9)

At Stratford in 1970 Estelle Kohler had brusquely ignored the Duke’s offers of marriage, and at the end of the play was left alone on stage to gaze out at the audience in obvious shock and bewilderment. Mirren, by contrast, “quickly and decisively accepted the Duke’s proposal” (Bawcutt, pp39-40). I wish I’d seen the Riverside production. Mirren’s Isabella sounds feisty and independent-minded to the core. But without having seen it, how is one to judge that rapid acceptance of the Duke from someone hitherto “affronted by a male-dominated world”? On the page, the rest is silence.


John Barber, ‘Measure for Measure’, Daily Telegraph, 24 May 1979
NW Bawcutt, ‘General Introduction’, ‘Measure for Measure’: The Oxford Shakespeare (1991)
Michael Billington, ‘First night: Measure for Measure’, Guardian, 24 May 1979
Robert Cushman, ‘Open door’, Observer, 27 May 1979
Erasmus, A ryght frutefull Epystle… in laude and prayse of matrimony, tr. R Tavernour (1532)
David McCandless, Gender and Performance in Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies (1997)
Graham Nicholls, ‘Measure for Measure’: Text and Performance (1986)
Michael Scott, Renaissance Drama and a Modern Audience (1982)
George Bernard Shaw, Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898), I, xxi
Peter Stothard, ‘Measure for Measure’, Plays and Players, June 1979, 21-2
G Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1930) 

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Caesar and Claretta (1975)

By Jack Russell.
BBC TV, 9 May 1975.

In November 1971 Richard Burton received a visit from one Carlo Cotti, a “neo-fascist” who “appears to be a cut above the average in intelligence”. An assistant director itching to graduate to making films of his own, Cotti had a proposition for Burton and Taylor:

He wants to talk to me re Benito Mussolini I think for whom, I’m told, he has a great and relatively unfashionable admiration. He is anxious for me to play the last days of Mussolini in a film. Never know, it might be interesting and with E possibly playing his mistress Clara Petacci it would certainly set all Italy by the ears. (Diaries, 13 Nov 1971)

This intriguing project never got off the ground, although under a different director, Carlo Lizzani, it mutated into another venture for Italy’s Cinecittà studios: Mussolini – ultimo atto, a vehicle for Rod Steiger, with Lisa Gastoni as the dictator’s loyal mistress.   

Meanwhile, back in England and on a much smaller scale, the BBC had a Mussolini drama of its own in development. It was one of a series of single plays under the title ‘Private Affairs’. (Other episodes tackled the relationships between Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, David Garrick and Peg Woffington, Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O’Shea, and George, Prince of Wales, and Mrs Fitzherbert.) Clive James, writing in The Observer, was unimpressed by the whole concept:

These famous modern love stories must have looked a good idea in outline, but when it comes to the scripts there is not much for the actors to bite on, and they are obliged to spend most of their time coal-heaving the exposition.

This is a bit harsh, even by the Antipodean’s acerbic standards. Caesar and Claretta, in my view, is one of the strongest of Mirren’s early TV appearances.

The play is based closely on historical events. Mussolini was captured on 27 April 1945 as he tried to escape to Switzerland disguised as a German soldier in a German motorised column. They were stopped by partisans, who insisted on searching all the vehicles before allowing the Germans to proceed. One figure slumped in the darkness at the back of the truck had attracted attention. “His face was like wax and his stare glassy, but somehow blind,” the partisan leader later remembered. “I read there utter exhaustion, but not fear.” After being detained at the town hall of Dongo, Mussolini and his mistress were transferred overnight to a farmhouse near Lake Como while their captors pondered what to do with them. As is well known, the following day a group of communists arrived with orders from Milan to carry out summary justice on the Duce. He and Petacci were shot, their bodies later transferred to Milan where they were exhibited, to the howls of a raucous and unforgiving public, dangling upside down from scaffolding in the Piazzale Loreto.

Writer Jack Russell took that last night in the farmhouse as the basis for an intimate drama. The dictator and his mistress retire to a well-guarded bedroom for the night. According to the testimony of their guards, there was only a little whispered conversation before Mussolini fell asleep; Claretta stayed awake for a long time before dropping off. Russell used dramatic licence to imagine a long duet between the doubly impotent Duce (“my power is gone with my power”), unable either to “save” Italy or make love to his mistress, as he railed against the perfidy of the French, English, Americans and Germans (“my friends, the wolves”). Then the old vainglory stirred, and with it (we were to suppose) came a stirring in the loins. Many details of the historical record were woven into this compact drama: Petacci’s squeal of delight when she mistakenly believes that the leader of the execution squad has come to liberate them, her stumbling through the farmyard mud in fashionable high heels.

The production moved in and out of black-and-white, suggestive of Italian neorealist cinema, and Mirren in broad-brimmed hat and scarlet lipstick looked every inch the Cinecittà star. She has spoken of her early admiration for Italian actresses like Monica Vitti and Anna Magnani; here was her chance to make good. Michael Ratcliffe wrote of her performance in The Times:

Miss Mirren is an actress who always seems to know what she is doing and why. She is also very sexy and Mr Whatham [the director] was not going to let us forget it. He shot this Claretta Petacci… through the Duce’s own intermittently devoted, if not fetishistic eyes.

Yet, “against this pin-up presentation”, and here I agree with him, she “cleverly retained the essential simplicity of Claretta’s character.” Petacci, described by one of Mussolini’s biographers as hailing from the “comfortable Rome bourgeoisie”, was no intellectual, but, in Russell’s script, she was more than a gold-digger – more than just another Fascist groupie. Clive James’s TV review underestimated how these qualities were captured in writing and performance:

Mussolini and Claretta Petacci trailed a few tatters of tragic grandeur but that was scarcely the point – the point being that in real life there was no grandeur at all, since Mussolini in his last days was nothing but a farceur without a theatre and Petacci was a B-girl on the skids. Neither Robert Hardy nor Helen Mirren (especially not her) could play it that low down, even when supplied with dialogue drained as dry of interest as the Pontine Marshes.

The writing never sought to rehabilitate the old rogue or his floozy, merely to take baby steps in comprehending them. As the Telegraph’s reviewer commented,

It was essentially a melodramatic, operatic piece of writing, but very much, one felt, in the style Mussolini would have used in private as well as public. Towering over all was the virtuosic performance of Robert Hardy as Mussolini, a portrayal uncanny in its physical resemblance, memorable for its restraint as well as its power.

Mirren recalls this play with affection, likening Petacci to Eva Braun as “someone who is absolutely at the height of ‘mistressdom’ and then has to pay the ultimate price”. She’s also full of admiration for her co-star Robert Hardy, whom she sees as a great screen actor manqué. From him she learnt ”how much repressed energy has got to be there, underneath the performance”. These two giants were to have reunited on stage almost forty years later in The Audience, in which Hardy was scheduled to play Churchill opposite Mirren’s Elizabeth II. Alas, Hardy, now 87, had to withdraw after suffering cracked ribs as the result of a fall. Let’s hope he makes a full recovery. The man, like his erstwhile co-star, is a national treasure.
RJB Bosworth, Mussolini (2002)
The Richard Burton Diaries, ed Chris Williams (2012)
Clive James, “Formula for soap opera”, The Observer, 1 June 1975
Richard Last, “Robert Hardy makes Mussolini a man”, Daily Telegraph, 10 May 1975
Ray Moseley, The Last Days of Mussolini (2006)
Michael Ratcliffe, “Private affairs”, The Times, 10 May 1975