What if we told a Shakespeare history play from a woman’s POV?

Shakespeare would probably have found the idea of himself as sole originator of a canonical text quite difficult to get his head around.


In an early trilogy, Shakespeare tells the story of Henry VI, a desperately weak king of England who spent much of his reign in a catatonic state because of severe mental illness, and whose formidable French wife, Margaret of Anjou, more or less ran the country – that is, once she had wrested control from the deputies and minders who had ruled on Henry’s behalf since he had inherited the Crown as a baby.

It has been said that Queen Margaret is Shakespeare’s greatest female role. If you add together all her lines throughout the three plays, and the sequel to them, Richard III, they outnumber King Lear’s. So, in these more enlightened times, it seems like a great idea to condense the plays into one, call it Queen Margaret, and market it as the play Shakespeare would have written if he was alive today. Then you cast it inclusively, giving the titular role to one of our best black actresses and several of the feuding nobles’ roles to women.

The whole package sounds like terrific theatre, if a little on the well-meaning side. But there are problems. It is one thing to offer an audience a  new take on Hamlet or Julius Caesar – most theatregoers will be familiar with the plot, if not the original play. The Henry VI plays, however, are another matter. They are rarely performed; even RSC enthusiasts are likely to be unfamiliar with them. They tell a grim, complicated story of violence, rivalry and civil war. They go on, altogether, for eight or nine hours. Also, dare we say it, they were Shakespeare’s early work and – well, let’s just say he got better.

I realise I am plunging into a hornets’ nest here, and want to say that I am very much in favour of inclusive casting. Some of the best Shakespearian adaptations I have seen have been the least faithful in detail – Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood absolutely nails Macbeth, with an all-Japanese cast and aesthetic and nary a word of the original text so far as I recall. I also find that sometimes a complete cultural transfer and reboot works brilliantly – Julius Caesar set in an African republic, for example, or Much Ado About Nothing as an Indian rom-com. I’m looking forward greatly to Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra at the NT. I also thought Jade Anouka was brilliant as the formidable Queen Margaret. Her passion and stamina powers the story and lights up the stage. In fact, she deserved better.

How can anything be better than Shakespeare? Ah, there’s the rub. We tend to approach Shakespeare with enormous reverence, delighting in finding a 21stcentury sensibility struggling to fight its way out of even his below-average works, hampered by pesky Elizabethan prejudices about minorities on stage. Jeanie O’Hare, who adapted Queen Margaret from the sprawling Henry VI plays, worked at the RSC through Michael Boyd’s three-year staging of the history plays. ““It was an amazing cycle, but, for three years, Stratford was crawling with men in uniform,” says O’Hare. “I got more and more obsessed by the women in the plays: their place, their role.”

Her project to bring Margaret out of the sidelines of history as Shakespeare writes it and put her centre stage seems entirely commendable. Jade Anouka gives it her all – it’s a huge, sprawling, emotional part, and yet it somehow seems light on character development. O’Hare says she tried to think of Shakespeare as her co-writer. You get the feeling that she felt somewhat presumptuous and interrupted as little as she could get away with.

The irony is that, while we tend to revere Shakespeare’s lines as Holy Writ, almost a secular Bible for Western culture, he worked in a very collaborative environment. There are credible claims that Christopher Marlowe helped out with Henry VI Part 1 at least. Shakespeare would probably have found the idea of himself as sole originator of a canonical text quite difficult to get his head around. Almost all his works were based on existing stories. If something bombed on stage, he would have happily rewritten it and many of the plays, not least Hamlet, exist in multiple versions suggesting an almost constant process of revision and adaptation.

I think Queen Margaret would be a much better play if O’Hare had strayed rather more from Shakespeare’s vision, or even ripped it up and written something different altogether. For all her fire and courage, Anouka seems constrained by an Elizabethan corset, and the play’s use of selfies and Play Stations can’t overcome that essential problem.

I have been trying for a while to figure out why I find so much revisionist Shakespeare well-intentioned but not entirely satisfying, and I have come to the conclusion that if you are distracted by the minority group the actors come from the production isn’t quite working as it should. It’s not that we undervalue female Henry V’s or black Macbeths. It’s more that we overvalue Shakespeare. We put fresh faces on our stage and yet fear to follow them wherever they take us. I would also like to see more actors not playing Shakespeare, the ultimate dead white male writer, and performing stuff that will make me think about someone else’s story. An experimental two-hander about a gay Muslim performed in a sari shop, for example, or a promenade performance in a warehouse that simulates the alienation and bewilderment experienced by asylum seekers. (In Manchester, over the last 18 months or so, I’ve seen both of the above).

Shakespeare often travels much better than we think he will – his themes are universal, his language and plotting, particularly on one of his off-days, sometimes aren’t. I don’t think Jeanie O’Hare needed a co-writer. Not even him. I rather wish she’d collaborated with Jade Anouka instead, and dumped the squabbling York, Sussex and Warwick once and for all.

Jeanie O’Hare on writing Queen Margaret (The Guardian)

“Frailty, thy name isn’t woman: fresh feminist takes on Shakespeare (Michael Billington, Guardian)

Queen Margaret is playing at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until October 6th.




All that Glisters Is Not Gold – The Merchant of Venice at the Globe

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock

Back from London, where on Sunday I went straight from an intense political discussion with my son in the BFI canteen to a production of “Merchant of Venice” at the Globe. I have blogged about the Merchant before, after seeing the striking but ideologically muddled RSC production of 2011. And indeed, one problem with directing Merchant is that it’s more than simply a Jewish play. There are so many facets to the dysfunctional Venice Shakespeare depicts that it’s a challenging decision for any director to decide which ones to go with. The RSC production ended up highlighting the sexism, its Portia a dumbed-down Barbie doll, and the veniality, transforming Venice into Vegas with an Elvis soundtrack and slot machines.

The Globe has taken a different tack, very much foregrounding the anti-Semitism. Shylock is given dignity by a deeper portrayal of his culture than is generally afforded. Played by the real-life father and daughter team of Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce, this Shylock and Jessica communicate in Hebrew and we see Jessica’s initially modest dress evolve as she slots uneasily into louche Venetian society. In the scene where Antonio sets up the fateful bond, he snatches Shylock’s prayer book from him and throws it to the ground, a gesture rendered even more powerful when Shylock kisses the scriptures upon retrieving them. This is not a Shylock who blends in, and his apparently unreasonable demand for justice becomes a cry for the recognition and validation of his identity.

There are a number of such brutal incidents in this production. When Jessica is transported to Belmont, Portia’s body language and casual flirtation with Lorenzo makes it clear that she will never be fully accepted. We see instances of casual and vicious anti-Semitism, and they are all the more effective for being downplayed, showing a prejudice so integrated into Venetian culture that it deemed entirely unremarkable. Portia herself is marginalised and denied agency, and barely recognises the myriad subtle ways that she inflicts the pain this causes her on more vulnerable outsiders; even the casket scene with the Prince of Morocco, generally played entirely for laughs, acquires an edge here when we contrast her eye-rolling contempt for this Muslim wannabe with her barely-veiled hints to the more favoured Bassanio.

But these undercurrants are, rightly I feel, kept bubbling under the surface. The final scene, described by Shakespeare but realised here, is the forced conversion and baptism of Shylock. It’s almost unbearable to witness. While Jessica keens in the background, knowing that she has sold herself to a world that will never completely accept her, we see a proud and dignified man completely broken by a corrupt society that willingly exploits him even as it despises and condemns his faith.

What I took away from this intelligent rendering of a painful play was that prejudice of any kind corrupts and distorts an entire society, cheapening the relations between men and women, servants and masters, rich and poor alike. Here was a corruption barely noticed, so pervasively toxic it had become. Both Shakespeare’s Venetian plays (the other one being, of course, Othello) focus on outsiders whose qualities are exploited by a social order that despises and abuses them, and it shows that living with such prejudice coarsens the victims as they unconsciously transfer the insults they themselves suffer onto their domestic and social victims.

The best programme notes add subtlety and contemporary resonance to our reading of the play. The Globe programme points out that Venice in the early modern period was already a society in deep decline, defeated by the Ottoman empire, scarred by plague and all but finished as a significant trading power. Yet the Council of Ten continued to strut and swagger, to defy Papal edict, persecute their minorities and reserve a particularly sharp disdain for those outsiders whose talents helped them to negotiate the new world order.

The parallels with contemporary England have real resonance at this point in our national history. One wonders how many of the tourists thronging outside the Globe, drawn to London by our long-standing reputation for decency and democracy, will eventually discover the emptiness of that particular casket as we seek to jettison our commitment to the Declaration of Human Rights and cling to an outdated concept of past glories.

Tennant as Richard II – what did I think?

DT RichardRichard II.

Richard II is not one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. It’s long, it’s entirely in verse (much of it rhyming couplets, making it difficult to conduct a realistic conversation), the historical background is alien to us and we are plunged right into a dispute that can seem pretty baffling to the uninitiated. Additionally, the protagonist is deeply unlikeable. There is also an almost complete lack of light relief. For these reasons, and no doubt many more, it is rarely performed.

But if you’re going to understand the Histories, it’s essential, because the whole cycle turns on the issue of whether the sacreligious act of deposing an anointed ruler can ever be justified – a question of vital importance to Shakespeare’s audience as the ageing Elizabeth became increasingly paranoid. She was under no illusions. “Know ye not I am Richard II?” she quipped darkly, threatened by the rebellion of Essex and other restless favourites.

So Richard is a very public and political story, and last year’s BBC production with Ben Whishaw in the title role put that across poetically and winningly. His Richard was almost too beautiful to live – a foolish boy-king in his golden pavilion toying with his pet monkey and fondling his flatterers. And when I heard that Tennant was going to take on the role, I wondered if he was already a bit too old. His face seems to have lost some of its youthful smoothness over the last few years, become pinched and a bit gaunt in certain, unflattering lights, though he can still scrub up well when he wants to. But wasn’t he a bit mature for the bratty Richard, I wondered?

Well, I needn’t have worried. Being Tennant, directed by Doran who understands him and knows him inside out, he turned that to his advantage. Clad head to toe in shimmering raiment, nails laquered to match, sporting hair extensions almost to his waist, he gives off the aura of an ageing, slightly dissolute rock star with his best hits behind him. He plays a monarch utterly trapped in his divinely appointed role, who has known nothing else since childhood (the real Richard II was crowned at the age of 10), deeply and desperately unfulfilled, capricious and gripped by the ennui that comes from having everything, yet nothing. Even more remarkably, he conveys a sense that his downfall, though merited politically since he behaves atrociously, exchanges an age of refinement and culture for something less imaginative, more pragmatic and brutal. This production harbours no illusions about medieval chivalry. It is a form of words that plasters crude bullying and jockying for position with a veneer of refinement, and results in as much grief and slaughter as any capricious royal commands. Tennant’s Richard calls off Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s dual at the eleventh hour because, above all, he finds it boring and distasteful.

It had not occurred to me until I saw this production that Richard II is a personal tragedy as well as a public one. It’s personal because Richard doesn’t know who he is. Or rather, he always assumed that “the King” was the only conceivable answer. When that goes, there’s nothing left, and it takes an actor of Tennant’s sensitivity and chilling calibre to let the ghastly fear show in his eyes as, one by one, his certainties are stripped away. He’s never been regarded as a human being, so he’s never learned how to be one (there are obvious parallels with the Doctor here, though his performance never goes near them in any overt way). A particularly touching scene is when the young Aumerle, who is obviously in love with Richard, breaks down in his presence and the ex-King awkwardly takes him in his arms, struggling to locate something close to a genuine emotional response.

In its later stages, Richard’s journey becomes a philosophical quest. Rotting in prison, his layers of royal costume literally stripped from him, chained in a filthy shift, he ponders is fate, trying and failing to make sense of it all:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

Richard’s first steps to self-awareness are snuffed out by his murderers, but in his lines we hear something like an early draft of Hamlet’s interiority.

It would be quite wrong to give all the credit to Tennant for this production, as he would be the first to admit. Another of its unexpected strengths is that the older nobles on the sidelines of the action are fleshed out and made fully human. Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt takes the famous “England” speech and restores its anguish; it is not triumphalism but a lament for a loved native land despoiled by foolish misgovernment. And those who saw Doran’s 2008 Hamlet will recall how ably Tennant was supported by the superb Oliver Ford Davies as Polonious. Here he returns as the King’s ageing uncle York and shows us an old man worn out by the loss of his brothers to internicine fighting, unable to bear the load the inadequate King Richard puts on his shoulders as regent at a time of political turbulence, yet torn apart by inner conflict as he comes to realise that the unthinkable must be done to preserve any semblance of order. In York we have an eloquent defence of the sanctity of kingship, and the lacerating pain of seeing it fail. It’s a stupendous achievement, and a great pleasure to see the dynamic between Davies and Tennant again.

Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II
Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II

In short, this production more than delivers. If you are a Tennant fan, you’ll find plenty to absorb you here, but hopefully you will see beyond the charisma to a difficult play done well. You’ll be lucky to get a ticket but do catch the movie showing if you possibly can.


Sweet Music – The Subtle Seductions of South Pacific and Shakespeare

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

The Merchant of Venice – Act V, Scene 1

Last night, we saw the much-praised Lincoln Center production of South Pacific. We’ve had the tickets for months and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a superlative production – there’s so much talent on display, not just in the obvious singing, dancing and acting departments but also in the imaginative staging, lighting and perfect period design. No amplification, no special effects wizardry, just old-fashioned, honest talent. And everybody left the theatre on a high, singing “those wonderful romantic songs.”

But the interesting thing is that, though it’s packed with romantic set-pieces and numbers, South Pacific is not a romantic show. Absolutely not. It begins with an expatriate, whose murky past includes murder, calculatingly eyeing up a woman half his age. In the next scene, we meet Bloody Mary, an enterprising native woman whose sidelines include trading in shrunken human heads, and a raucous chorus of US Navy troops who flood the stage with sex-starved testosterone. In this world, everything is currency – a theme personified by Bloody Mary herself and her American equivalent, the blue-collar Luther Billis, who ruthlessly exploits any economic opportunity and would like nothing more than to blag his way onto a neighbouring island, get an exotic native lay and plunder their culture for marketable souveniers.   We’re introduced to the nurses – there are only six of them, nowhere near enough to go around – and the message is clear – they’re the officers’ property.

This is not an idealised world. Quite the reverse. And this modern production brings that right out into the open, juxtaposing the glorious songs with an occasionally sordid reality to great effect. Good popular music is extremely potent, particularly when combined with a 25-piece orchestra at the top of their game and luscious tropical settings. If that’s all you want, you’ll go away satisfied. But there is more, and it’s there for anyone who wants to look for it. South Pacific still has important things to say, and painful things can be said enjoyably; it’s the dissonance and ambiguity that make it rich.

Most problematic of all is the subplot regarding the heroic Lieutenant Cable and his beautiful Polynesian partner Liat. Bloody Mary happens to be Liat’s mother, and as far as she’s concerned her daughter is just another commodity that can be offered to the troops. Remember that heart-stoppingly beautiful, romantic number, Younger than Springtime? Cable sings it straight after he’s had sex with her, a girl handed to him on a plate by her mother, probably in her early teens, clearly frightened of him and unable to have a conversation with him because of the language barrier. He’s absolutely sincere when he sings about her youth and joy invading his arms – just as Pinkerton was in Madam Butterfly. In the second act, sensing that she’s losing her best customer, Bloody Mary gets Liat to perform for him to the charming little tune, Happy Talk. Believe me, it’s no academic affectation deconstructing this kind of thing. Its subtext is up there, along with the corn, as high as an elephant’s eye.

At the interval, my husband turned to me and said, “It’s just like Shakespeare, isn’t it? Full of quotes.” I realised he was onto something. South Pacific has a lot in common with those edgy, unsettling comedies that Shakespeare wrote in mid-career. Particularly, I felt, with Much Ado About Nothing, a story that also features military men on the lookout for partners (or just sex) and sometimes behaving badly. Both shows have two contrasting romantic couples – one sparky and delightful to watch, but ultimately raising few issues other than the usual one of how long it will take them to get together, and another one that is far more problematic. We laugh along to Beatrice and Benedick, delighting in the sparring, but few modern audiences could feel entirely comfortable watching the cruelty of Claudio denouncing Hero as a whore on the flimsiest of evidence and humiliating her on their wedding day, or her apparently willing capitulation when he barely has the decency to apologise. It might have been entirely acceptable to contemporary audiences, but it’s a major issue for any modern production.

Claudio rejects Hero on their wedding day - 1861 illustration by Marcus Stone

In a previous review of The Merchant of Venice, I wrote about Shakespeare’s audacity – the way he seemed to delight in surrounding his audience with the trappings of conventional romance, using every theatrical device available, only to pull the rug out from under their feet. In the final act of The Merchant, a glorious tableau of soaring verse celebrating moonlight and sweet harmony rapidly degenerates into a bitch-fest about a mislaid love token that wouldn’t look out of place on The Only Way is Essex. Shakespeare, it seems, is saying the same thing as Rogers and Hammerstein – you think you’re getting romance, and you are – but romance is an illusion, just like the theatre. The reality is sex as currency, and relationships as transactions. And shadows surround the happy couple centre-stage at the end. In the case of South Pacific, it’s the memory of Cable who doesn’t come back from the mission, and in The Merchant it’s the heartbroken Antonio and the devastated Shylock, who loses both his daughter and his ducets to a morally bankrupt society.

Every time a show is revived, whether it’s four hundred years old or sixty, artistic choices have to be made between accommodating the realities of what audiences found acceptable at the time of its composition, and what layers are inferred by the writers but present for future audiences to see. South Pacific is more than worthy of this treatment, and for those who look beyond the schmaltz there are many issues, some of them disturbingly relevant, to explore.

Damsons and Dissertations

Two activities have dominated the last couple of weeks – finishing my dissertation and making an awful lot of damson jam!

I have never known a summer like this for soft fruit. I think it’s because we had a warm spring and the bees were out in force . It took us weeks to clear our glut of cherries – not that I’m complaining! – and now the damson tree has obliged with about 40 kilos, fruit as big as plums. I can’t bear to see such bounty go to waste so there’s been a basket at the gate for several days inviting the neighbours to help themselves. Also I’ve been touring my friends trying to offload large baskets.

We had the kitchen revamped last Spring, and that’s turned out to be a good investment. There used to be a comedian called Ken Dodd back in the 60s who went on about “jam butty mines” (For those who don’t know these important things, “butty” is a Norhern English word for sandwich). Anyway, that’s what my kitchen has been like. I’ve made 24 pots of magnificent jam and almost as much puree for the freezer. My Kenwood Chef fruit processing attachment has been working hard removing all the stones.

And we also have an awful lot of apples to get through. A rather unusual variety called James Grieve, lovely flavour but it doesn’t keep or travel well, hence you never see them in the supermarkets.

And then the dissertation. Well, I finally printed it out yesterday ready to submit by 1st September. It’s about how Shakespeare is portrayed in children’s historical novels. Only 12,000 words so I had to make some choices. Mainly I look at Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason, written in 1940, and hence a prototype of the Elizabethan adventure with the Queen and Shakespeare and various shenanigins with traitors and such. And then what I call the coming-of-age novel, represented mainly by Susan Cooper’s wonderful King of Shadows. It’s fascinating how similar such stories often are to the boarding-school tale, with Shakespeare standing in as a benevolent Dumbledore figure. For quiddich match read performance, but you don’t get a lot of Hermione characters unless they’re dressing up as boys.

It’s almost the end of my Shakespeare adventure. If all goes well, I’ll graduate in December from the University of Birmingham. It’s been a wonderful time, but also a great challenge. I’m rather amazed and proud of myself that I’ve persevered and managed to work at that intellectual level. The dissertation was by far the most difficult because I had to be so self-motivated. Going to classes, though also hard work, was a hugely enjoyable social experience that I shall miss a lot.

Finally, wonderful news about my son Tom, who is now reading Philosophy at Essex. He has won a prize for the most outstanding academic performance of the whole first year. Not bad for a boy with chronic health problems who couldn’t get out of bed two years ago and was almost kicked out of school by a hardline Head of Sixth Form who thought it was all in his head. Also not bad for someone who was badly screwed over by the AQA (exam board), missed out on his first choice of uni when they missed out a section in their marking of his paper, and then they didn’t even have the courtesy to tell him or his school when they remarked it and he got an A grade after all (He found out by accident when he went back at Chistmas to pick his certificate up).

I guess the moral of that is that if you are despairing about your own grades, or those of some young person close to you, hang on in there. Things sometimes have a way of turning out better than expected. Or, failing that, they could always pinch a TARDIS and scarper.