Country House Shakespeare – Twelfth Night at the RST

Rather like a piano in a Victorian parlour, there seemed to be a great accretion of detail to wade through here on the way to something meaningful. Was it just heritage porn?



Dinita Gohil, left, as Viola and Kara Tointon as the besotted Olivia in the RSC’s new Twelfth Night – MANUEL HARLAN

And so to Stratford-upon-Avon, for the third time in six months, to see the last performance of the RSC’s Twelfth Night. I have very happy memories of Stratford in general, where I did an MA in Shakespeare and Theatre Studies, and in particular of the RSC’s 2014 productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, which were set either side of the First World War. It was a period setting that brought out new layers of meaning in both the plays, further enhanced by Christopher Luscombe’s sumptuous country house setting and Nigel Hess’s joyous musical pastiche of Edwardian pomp and circumstance giving way to the Jazz Age.

Quite rightly, it packed the house out for weeks and so it was natural enough that the RSC ordered more of the same for Twelfth Night, this time setting it rather arbitrarily in the 1890s and packing it with a pianola, an Indian Sebastian and Caesario, a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan numbers and rather a lot of Oscar Wilde, green carnation stuff. All this was sumptuously recreated at great expense; Olivia’s gowns alone must have set the RSC back thousands, and there was even a scene in a London railway terminal.

Twelfth Night is a broad church (although if you make it too contemporary there’s some highly questionable treatment of mental illness). It can stand a lot in the way of updating, particularly when it’s as beautifully produced and performed as this, but there was a whiff of opportunism about the amount of late Victoriana we were being subjected to here. Rather like a piano in a Victorian parlour, there seemed to be a great accretion of detail to wade through here on the way to something meaningful. Was it just heritage porn? In the setting of Stratford-upon-Avon, which is itself festooned with bunting and restaurants offering cream teas as Mad Men era music plays in the background, it did rather come over that way. I’m surprised that the normally commercially savvy National Trust hasn’t co-funded this production, since it takes a local property as a design reference (the wonderful Arts-and-Crafts house Wightwick Manor).

Stratford, at least the Shakespearian bit, is a living temple to Englishness as it is generally viewed by the rest of the world. The Chinese pound is doing a great deal to keep it in business these days, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the local Council to lay on basic Mandarin courses for hospitality and retail workers. I saw the Birthplace Gift Shop lose a substantial sale because a lady was unable to understand a request to enter her PIN number. I remember from my MA days that on the late-evening train back to Birmingham you were as likely to hear Polish spoken as you were English. I noticed a lot of businesses advertising for staff.

Post Referendum, I’m inclined to take a rather jaded view of all this chintzy Englishness. The RSC offer a varied programme, and everything they do is first-class, so it would be churlish to complain about them offering the occasional crowd-pleaser. But if I have to sit through one more production featuring a pert scullery maid bobbing to her betters in a mob cap, I’ll start missing Maggie Smith. Christopher Eccleston is up next as Macbeth. Given his forthright views on social class when pressed on the reasons why he quit Doctor Who, I can’t help wondering what he made of Twelfth Night. There are some terrific Shakespearian insults in it.

Through Northern Irish eyes – “a portrait of love’s complexity”

It’s becoming clear that there are some people in English politics who would value a clean Brexit more than maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. Why isn’t this getting more press coverage? We may speculate, but surely one reason is that, to be honest, Northern Ireland doesn’t really register in a lot of people’s minds as an important place. A generation has grown up now without nightly reports of atrocities on the streets of Belfast. And many of us would rather not contemplate the intricacies of the province’s politics, believing vaguely that if they really wanted to “they could sort it out.”

I’m not entirely guiltless here myself, though I do remember the IRA blowing up the centre of Manchester, fortunately without loss of life. I don’t go out of my way to read about the Troubles, but recently Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break sneaked in under my radar. I bought it because I’m middle-aged and long-married, and his story of a couple like that on a short holiday to Amsterdam sounded like something I could relate to. I didn’t realise it was about the Troubles at all. But it is, and I admit with some shame that for the first time, after reading it, I felt some empathy with the people who had to live through them.

Gerry and Stella live in Scotland now, but spent most of their adult lives in Belfast. Stella grew up in poverty, Gerry in relative comfort, but both bear the stigma of being part of a minority. Stella remembers her large family losing a much-needed council house to a less needy Protestant family. Gerry lived and worked for years with bombs going off around him. And it becomes clear that they both continue to be affected by a life-changing incident, one that was very much of its place and time.

Marriages sometimes survive for decades because the people in them have learned to navigate around contentious areas. There are elephants in the room left unmentioned by tacit mutual consent. We see the dynamic clearly here – Gerry’s drinking is out of control, he pretends he’s hiding it from Stella, knows that she knows, but she hides the fact that she knows and is contemplating leaving him because he won’t confront it. And Stella is not simply a cradle Catholic, but an increasingly devout one. Gerry is frightened, and increasingly jealous of his wife’s faith, yet understands the need she has of it. Meanwhile, they rub along like all ageing couples, tolerant of each other’s foibles, resenting yet needing the rough edges of human interaction.

Holidays have a way of bringing such situations to a head. Trapped in a bland hotel room by icy weather and a tiredness that speaks of advancing age, determined to enjoy themselves yet somewhat adrift and always aware of the way a partner will respond or react, feeling one ought to make an effort even though excellent English is universally spoken, Gerry and Stella find the gulf widening between them impossible to overlook. Drastic action needs to be taken. But they are what their lives have made them, and ultimately they understand one another better than anyone else could. When illusions crumble, they are there to break one another’s fall.

It’s a quiet masterpiece. Very little happens outwardly but MacLaverty is a master of small but vital detail. He reveals his character’s secrets slowly and creates increasing tension as we circle around what we’d rather not know, and what they wish had not happened. By the last page, without any didactic special pleading, I was far more aware than I had been of how precious the Good Friday Agreement is, and the trauma that continues to haunt the lives of those who experienced life without it.

Midwinter Break reviewed in The Irish Times

Rich and Strange – The Shape of Water

The more I think about the unrealistic elements of this narrative, the more I realise that the narrative that frames it was in itself a fantasy, a political construct that was considered necessary but was completely artificial.

“Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.” Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water, image Fox Searchlight, reproduced without permission.

NOTE: This reflection does not contain spoilers, but the two reviews linked beneath do.

There are narratives that wear their artificiality and predictability on their sleeve as a badge of pride. In the Shakespearian equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, a character in The Winter’s Tale compares the action unfolding before us to an old tale. Fairy tales use familiar phrases – “Long ago and far away,” and “Happily ever after,” to alert us to their alternate universality. And the property of myth is that it is told and retold, possibly embroidered or repurposed but fulfilling the same essential needs.

One such fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast. In a patriarchal society, frightened young women were routinely sent out of their childhood homes and into arranged marriages with unfamiliar partners, often much older than themselves. The narrative trope of a cunning woman managing to negotiate this relationship helped to comfort and guide them. As a reward, the Beast may well turn out to be a handsome prince. The destination of the journey and the reward is framed by the expectations of the host community. Belle is an outsider, set apart by her love of books and her intelligence, but her journey suggests that in “taming” these socially problematic qualities in herself she may become a valuable and loving mate. The taming is not all one way.

But beastliness may be in the eye of the beholder. In a social system that has its own distinctive bigotries and cruelties, it may be the outsider who is, in fact, virtuous and lovely. In the monster-taming movies of the 20th Century, from King Kong to The Creature from the Black Lagoon onwards, there is an implicit comment on the intolerance of human society. The Fay Wray character in King Kong acts as a bridge, though ultimately an unsuccessful one, mediating between the apparently savage and the outwardly civilised.

Guillermo del Toro’s new work, The Shape of Water, has the malleability of our concept of the strange and monstrous built into its very title. The opening narration alerts us to the possibility that the monster’s identity may not be as obvious as first appearances suggest. We are also told to expect a princess who cannot speak. There is a fairy godmother figure who is, in fact, a gay man. The rules of engagement are clear; this is a world where achetype and symbol is as significant as plot and character, if not more so. This is not a Three Billboards movie examining humanity in all its depth and complexity. Its moral messages are writ large, its characters presented with little in the way of backstory. What we are called to bring to our viewing is an appreciation of world-building, minor details, and themes recapitulated, like a nest of Russian dolls. Something as simple as an egg unlocks a whole range of messages.

The more I think about the unrealistic elements of this narrative, the more I realise that the narrative that frames it was in itself a fantasy, a political construct that was considered necessary, but was completely artificial. The Cold War was one of history’s greatest examples of tragic and wilful “othering”. Millions of roubles and dollars were spent maintaining the fiction of the opposing sides’ essential inhumanity, and that apparatus, particularly on the American side, is fetishised here.

There are other signifiers of the fantastic. Two of the main characters live above a faded cinema where blockbusters play in faded glory to a handful of viewers. Screens are ever-present – on closed circuit TV, and broadcasting vintage situation comedies and dance routines into people’s homes. A character’s emotional awakening is realised as a homage to Fred and Ginger’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance. Framing is everywhere.

A gay man is told to leave a “family restaurant” in a painful scene that also features overt racism, while black employees remain silent in the background. A “family man” appears conventional and is seduced by a salesman’s patter into seeing himself as someone who is going places, yet abuses everyone in his world and turns out to be a sexual predator. A Russian defector shows humanity and compassion. Most of the action takes place at night, in a greenish-tinted universe that itself appears aquarian. This gives it an air of dreamlike unreality, but what we see in the light of day is equally constructed. And many of the interiors seems to fetishise retro-chic, particularly the secret base where the monster is being held. Nothing seems to date more, or speak more eloquently of a past era’s values, than its concept of the futuristic.

I haven’t touched here on Sally Hawkins’ remarkable performance as the mute Eliza, whose origins themselves evoke the trope of the orphaned infant with a literally unspeakable past. All the main characters are outsiders, isolated by disability, race, sexual orientation or a sinister background left unspecified.  All have something unfamiliar, and in some people’s eyes repulsive, about them. All are objectified and abused and casual or wilful racist statements abound.  The Creature is simply the most obvious example of isolation, yet has the greatest transformative power.

So here is a tale as old as time, unapologetically signalling its plot cliches in letters marquee-high, because originality isn’t the important issue here. It’s the power of storytelling and how it creates our world. There have been reviews that have pointed out the flatness of characterisation and the obviousness of moral signposting. But perhaps we are looking for subtlety in the wrong places. We are more likely to find it in the minute details that lodge in the mind – a family pictured around a green plate of Jello, an egg-shaped timer, a severed finger in a brown paper bag. A hackneyed popular song expresses the film’s great truth. The familiar is made strange, the strange familiar. And isn’t that one of the things cinema has the great potential to achieve?

So who, or what, is the creature?

50’s-style creature feature as modern day allegory – Washington Post review


What the Romans knew

The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both.

Time was running out for Caesar, and it looked certain that he would miss the deadline for submitting his nomination. Naturally everyone expected that he would choose to triumph rather than become a candidate. Pompey had done that; every victorious general in Rome’s history had done it: there was surely nothing to equal the glory of a triumph. But Caesar was never a man to mistake power’s show for its substance. Late one afternoon….when the chamber was almost empty and the long green summer shadows were creeping over the deserted benches, into the senate house strolled Caesar. The twenty or so senators who were present could not believe their eyes. He had taken off his uniform and put on a toga.

Robert Harris, “Lustrum” pp 350, UK paperback edition.


Illustration – Richard McCabe as Cicero in the RSC production, “Imperium”, photo by Ikin Yum

It’s a “this changes everything” moment. In the dying days of the Roman republic, victorious generals were barred from running from political office for ten years after their return from the battlefield. The Senate knew the dangers of allowing charismatic, ambitious and brutal military superstars accompanied by their legions to run riot through the city. Instead, they were offered the ultimate prize of a triumph – a vast parade through the streets accompanied by their prisoners and spoils, and cheered on by the plebs relishing the show.  Any general who broke the rules and came into the city before his triumph had been granted was automatically debarred from having one. Some of them hung around for years waiting for their moment of supreme glory. Even the mighty Pompey accepted the rules.

Then Caesar came along and tore up the rule book. He had no right to wear a toga but he didn’t care. Within a month he had been elected consul and Rome’s slide into imperial dictatorship had begun in earnest.

It’s remarkable that Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy was completed a decade ago. But he’d already had a career as a political journalist and he knew that the mechanisms of regime change have historical precedent. It happens when someone gets strong enough to appeal to the people, condemn thoughtful and principled legislators as an out-of-touch elite, and mobilise the mob. And sooner or later there will be a reckoning, and the elite (who are, given the complicated nature of politics, generally morally compromised to at least some extent), will be told that their rules no longer apply.

Timothy Snyder has written a short but extremely powerful little book, On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, outlining the defining characteristics of this political shift. A key indicator is when the forces of violence protecting the candidate’s personal interests becomes identified with the powers of state coercion and control. Also vitally important is manipulation of the media, creating the climate when myth and symbolism take on their own life and are acknowledged as truth.

Hence the mighty power of the Roman triumph, that intoxicating display of ostentatious wealth and power, a combination of a May Day parade, the Mardi Gras, a reality TV show and a raucous political rally. Hence the Senate’s constitutional resistance to it. The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both. The pressures built up to the point where they were uncontrollable.

All fictionalised accounts of history have their drawbacks and have to be read with checks and balances in place. They are at best an interpretation of events, and Robert Harris is quite up-front about his use of dramatic licence. Having said all that, the ancient Romans seem to be having a moment right now, for obvious reasons, and Harris’s life of Cicero, told across three epic novels, is a riveting and thought-provoking read. It has recently been adapted into two very long but thrilling plays by the RSC, and I hope very much that a London production is immanent. I saw the plays first, but the experience would have been richer and more nuanced if I had started with the books.

Harris’s Cicero is all the more powerful for being flawed. Feted as the saviour of the Roman Republic after crushing the Catiline conspiracy, he succumbed to vanity and began to believe in his own personal mythos. This led to a series of errors of judgement which ultimately ruined him. All this is told through the devoted but clear-eyed perspective of Tiro, his slave, personal secretary and constant companion. Tiro was a real person – he invented a shorthand system to help him record Cicero’s orations and is known to have worked on a biography of Cicero, now regrettably lost. Harris’s imaginary recreation of it is a masterpiece and will take you deep into the sights, smells, sounds and adrenaline-fuelled chaos of ancient Rome. It might seem both alien and disturbingly familiar.

Ambition forced many men to become false, to have one thing hidden in their hearts, another ready on their tongue, to value friendships and enmities, not accordingly to reality, but interest, and rather to have a good appearance than a good disposition. These things at first began to increase by degrees, sometimes to be punished. Afterwards when the infection swept on like a pestilence, the state was changed, the government from the most just and best, became cruel and intolerable.

Sallust, The Catiline Conspiracy, Chap X


How Julius Caesar started a big war by crossing a small stream (National Geographic magazine article)




The Almighty Sometimes


Norah Lopez Holden as Anna and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Renee in The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Fever (Royal Exchange publicity photo)

Anna is bright, gifted and angry. Like many 18 year olds she thinks she knows everything. But she also suffers from bipolar disorder. For the past 7 years, with the support of her mother and psychologist, and a lot of medication, she’s been stable. But now she’s discovered that if she stop taking the pills a whole world of creativity opens up to her and she feels wonderful…for a while.

The problem of lack of support for children facing mental illness and their families has rightly had a lot of publicity recently. What is perhaps less well known is that when those children reach the age of 18, they become adults in the eyes of the law and are expected to transition smoothly from child to adults’ support services, taking responsibility for their own condition and therapeutic pathways. Anyone who has lived with an 18 year old will recognise some of the dangers of that approach.

Julie Hesmondhalgh plays Anna’s mother, desperately worried by her daughter’s escalating mood-swings but barred by Anna’s hostility and rules on confidentiality from accessing the help her daughter so clearly needs. It sounds like a grim story and in some ways it is. This play pulls no punches about the agonies of mental illness and the social stigma that those who suffer it have to cope with. It’s also extremely honest about the monstrous self-centredness of someone in the throes of mental instability, and how that can combine with the natural wish for independence to push vulnerable young adults over a precipice. Renee, Anna’s mother, is no saint, and there’s a lot of warmth and black humour in this play, but ultimately it’s about a mother and daughter having to negotiate a devastating situation with no easy answers.

It’s brilliantly written and beautifully acted. Hesmondhalgh rightly has caught the headlines – she’s brilliant – but Norah Lopez Holden is also remarkable in the very demanding role of Anna – swinging from feeling that the universe is in the palm of her hand to a crippling depression so severe that she’s too exhausted to pick up a hairbrush. Glorying in her uniqueness yet desperate to be accepted as an ordinary person, she is impossible to live with, challenging and alienating all those who care for her, yet  invokes our deepest pity. Her creative potential is clear, but it the cost unacceptable – to herself, her loved ones, and society in general?

This is everything new drama should be – entertaining, thought-provoking, challenging and completely involving. With the epidemic of mental distress now facing young people, it is also highly topical.

The Almighty Sometimes is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 24 February. Box Office 0161 833 9833

All’s Well?


Image: Ellora Torchia (Helena) and Will Merrick (Bertram) in All’s Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, 2018

All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare’s tricky mid-career plays, is performed less frequently than the crowd-pleasing As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Despite its upbeat title and just-about-happy ending, it’s one of the Bard’s most cynical takes on romantic relationships.

I saw it last week in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s recreated Jacobean indoor theatre. It’s tiny, you feel you’re almost sitting on the stage, and completely candlelit. Here, language is forced to do the heavy lifting. It’s hard to be naturalistic when you’re carrying around a candelabra to light your own face. Elaborate 17th Century costumes add a further layer of formality. Watching a performance in these surrounding is making a journey into the past – if done well, it unlocks some remarkable new insights into Shakespeare’s craft.

The play takes place, nominally at least, at the court of France, which is at war with Florence and filled with young bloods eager to prove themselves on the battlefield. Shakespeare does not hold back in his lampooning of male bravado, particularly through the ridiculous braggart Parolles, who is a comic creation almost the equal of Falstaff.

There are certainly strong women in All’s Well. But for feminists, there’s a problem. What on earth does Helena see in Bertram, surely one of Shakespeare’s least likeable leads? Unlike Hero in Much Ado, who’s basically set up by the patriarchy to wed the nasty Claudio, Helena has as much agency, wit and cunning as Rosalind. Is she just interested in upward social mobility? There’s clear evidence in the text that she’s besotted by Bertram, who treats her appallingly. And she goes to extreme lengths to get him back. This is no Mariana moping in her moated grange. This woman goes on a dangerous pilgrimage into a war zone and schemes with the locals to claim her conjugal rights.

A candlelit space is by its very nature intimate. It’s very likely that these very constraints, plus the opportunity to create sophisticated special effects, led to the spectacular other-worldly quality of the late romances. I’ve seen two of these, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, at the Wanamaker, and in both cases the indoor world was powerfully evoked. Imagining the contrasting outdoor one was more of a stretch. Probably the Jacobean audience were more accepting of the limitations of the venue. Naturalistic acting wasn’t a familiar concept – they went to the theatre to be wowed by poety pyrotechnics. In those days, hearing a good sermon was a day out.

This production seemed to approach the challenge of All’s Well by classing it as an early draft of these late plays, and staging it accordingly. There is much use of ritual and incantation, and a twist at the end that pushes the envelope of familiar Shakespearian improbability into something resembling magical realism. The shadowy theatre becomes a womb-like space, not simply because Helena ultimately gives birth but through repeated use of bathing, candlelight and deeply feminine ritual. It is no coincidence that the dominant colour of the women’s costumes changes to a bright red as the play draws to its close.


Michelle Terry as Helena and Oliver Ford Davies as the King in the 2009 National Theatre production

Michelle Terry’s Helena at the National a few years ago was more clearly a traditional fairy-tale heroine, with her basket and red cloak. And the Tobacco Factory production I saw last year at the Lowry really revelled in the broad comedy of the Parolles plot, providing another manifestation of toxic masculinity that enriched the main story line. In the Wanamaker production, Imogen Doel makes a fine job of playing Parolles, bringing out the pathos of his humiliation, but I wasn’t sure that making him effeminate was the right approach, at least all the way through. Parolles isn’t a drag queen relishing his gender fluidity. He desperately wants to be one of the boys. A bit more swagger in the early acts would have made his exposure later on more interesting.

In the final scene, Bertram apparently is moved to accept Helena as his mate by the sight of their child. Is this a happy ending? Shakespeare leaves that to the audience, or perhaps the director. Is it enough that Helena decides what she wants, and grabs it, and succeeds against all the odds? Would the fact that she makes a marriage into the nobility be considered as a happy ending by a Jacobean audience? If there was any clear takeaway from this production, it was that we’ve left ordinary life behind by now and we’re operating on an archetypal level, with Helena as the Goddess in control, empowered through childbearing. We, and Bertram, can only look and marvel. As Paulina says at the end of The Winter’s Tale, “It is required you do awake your faith.”

Review of this production, The Stage



I’m back, but no longer a librarian

Working in school librarianship had been part of my identity for so long that leaving it behind has been traumatic, particularly as the break came suddenly and not in circumstances I would have chosen. After a period of depression and anxiety, I sought counselling and am now at the point of putting together the next stage of my life.

I am not rushing into any major commitments at the moment. If this is selfishness, so be it. I would rather be accused of selfish behaviour for a while than make decisions affecting myself and other, more vulnerable people, without knowing enough about my ability to sustain them and carry them through. I’ve found the last few months very healing and, rather surprisingly, enjoyable.

For a while my previous employer kept inviting me to come back in and tell other people how to do the job – well, on one site anyway. On another I was more or less marched out Lehmann Bros style, on the grounds that I was mentally unstable and a potential danger to children. That was immensely hurtful; I’d worked many hours to build that library up and I never even got the chance to pick up my things and explain the situation to work colleagues. With suspicious speed, an in-house replacement took over. I’m glad that someone who appears to be competent and enthusiastic is doing the job.

After a miserable Christmas “do”, when I was rather perfunctorily thanked and presented with some money in an envelope (a great contrast to the beautifully drawn tribute one little boy gave me), I was left alone and able to move on with my life. I still see the Executive Head of the Trust from time to time; he was a good friend and I thought I could trust him, but dealing with conflict was never his strong point and when others flexed their muscles, he threw me under the proverbial bus. I’m genuinely sorry to lose his support. In some respects, he was just too nice to be a manager. He was, I will always maintain, a terrific headmaster who had time for every child in his care. I feel sad that developments in the Trust pushed him so far out of his comfort zone.

But enough of all that. Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. Or other keyboards. I’ve changed the look of this corner, made it somewhat more generic and removed the header image of a school library that I no longer represent (Of the three, it’s the one I feel has been left in the best shape going forward. They begged me to return but I felt it would put them, and myself, in a difficult position, so it is now in the hands of a lovely lady who knows the school intimately and was a great help to me).

And I can’t absolutely promise to keep off the subject of politics, but I’ll give it my best shot. I’m growing personally and intellectually, I’m healthier and happier than I have been for quite a while, and I have a lot to look forward to. I’ll write about some of the things I’m up to here.