Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Momentary cultural interruptions

OK, I've been pretty slack on the blogging front for some time now, though in my defence I have moved house while doing extra teaching and work-related stuff. This week I'm reading a colleague's manuscript on Hindu-derived new religious movements (it's fascinating ethnography) and trying to read Game of Thrones. Not by choice: I read the first two as a teenager and hated them, even though I had absolutely no standards at all. (Confession time: I was a member of the Tolkien Society for a couple of years – and obviously very very lonely). Re-acquainting myself with these turgid volumes isn't a pleasure at all, but I'm supervising an undergraduate dissertation on them and I'm pretty certain my student will produce something good so that will keep me going.

I'm really breaking the blog silence because amongst all the madness (such as two solid days sterilising my flat in the no doubt vain hope of getting my deposit back from my appalling landlord) I've had a couple of glorious cultural experiences. Last Saturday we went with a bunch of students and colleagues to see John Webster's The White Devil at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. In case you've missed him, Webster gets a cameo in Shakespeare in Love as a rather nasty little boy only interested in the murderous bits. It's not entirely inaccurate: Webster's work is consistently interested in the dark, curdled antics of foreigners, Catholics, women and aristocrats. It's a degraded world in which principles have been replaced by malign motives – all played out on stage. It's not like the decorous world of Greek theatre in which all the gore is off stage: Webster and his fellow authors of revenge tragedies have it out in front. Nobody is pure, or innocent. I have to say that even though I never watch horror or crime films, I do love the poisonous, violent revenge tragedies however dodgy the plotting can be. Shakespeare's way too dainty and thoughtful – sometimes you just need a dose of uncomplicated nastiness! That's what got Jacobean bums on seats.

The moral decay of The White Devil's Italian setting was beautifully captured in the RSC's modern-dress version. Louche aristocrats lounged around in standard-issue oligarch summer clothes (white suits, Ray-Bans) while organising the murder of their brothers, sisters, wives and rivals. Nobody escapes: even the innocent child who is the last one standing kicks the corpse of the assassins and laughs - clearly the next generation has learned nothing.

The only dramatic choice I questioned was re-casting Flaminio the pander as Flaminia: it added a distracting and unconvincing lesbian frisson, though the actor's performance was excellent. Turning a prime corrupter into a woman meant losing some of the sense that females in this world were deeply insecure and left with few options other than to gravitate towards powerful men and to do down rivals in order to survive. Women don't get a good press in this play, but turning Flaminio into Flaminia made them even more the authors of their own degradation.

The production itself was stunning. A live band provided threatening, creepy music (often Massive Attack). The cast was large. A bare stage and electronic projections re-imagined Renaissance Rome as a vaguely contemporary set of social spaces: a women's prison, a nightclub, the oligarch's mansion. Blood was – of course – everywhere. Laughs were raised at least from my colleagues from gags about the Wild Irish playing football with their enemies' heads. I think the students enjoyed it once their ears tuned into the rhyming couplets and language, and I certainly did: I've read the play for undergraduate study but never seen it performed.

The second highlight of the week came yesterday, when Scott McCracken of Keele University came to tell us about his huge project to produce a complete works of Dorothy Richardson of whom Virginia Woolf wrote 'If she is right, then I am wrong'. He says we're no longer allowed to call her 'unjustly neglected', though most of us in the room had read none or only a little of her work. Why not? Well, she produced a 13-novel series called Pilgrimage entirely in what everyone else called 'stream of consciousness', a phrase Richardson hated.

We talked about all sorts of things, from the watery metaphors continually applied to experimental modernists, Richardson's handwriting and use of spacing to convey meaning – or open the text to readers' meanings – her representation of time and how it derived from Bergson, her incredible cultural network, HG Wells's sex life, Ricoeur's concepts of mimesis, the evolution of modernisms, the influence of cinema on literary representation, the problems of choosing a typeface and most interestingly, the question of whether Richardson was an essentialist or a dialectician when it comes to identity formation. Very lazily, I'd assumed that the stream of consciousness was anti-essentialist: that the self is a thing in constant progress. Scott's point, however, is that Richardson's style represents a search for a Romantic inner, stable self. So obviously I need to read her again and more…


Phil said...

If we're not allowed to call Richardson unjustly neglected, and if she (plainly) is neglected...

I think I know what Scott meant, although to me it sounds more like "really really unjustly neglected". I've never read Pilgrimage, although I live with somebody who has - I think our Director of Studies (yes, we go back that far) spotted that she was reading (Samuel) Richardson and thought "here's someone who'll put in the hours".

Flaminia - why do they do this? (The Maxine Peake Hamlet featured a Polonia, along with a Player Queen (with a subordinate P. King), a female Guildenstern and not one but two female Gravediggers. And a woman in the lead, obviously - although, as she was playing a man, that was a lot less distracting.) Well, I guess I know why - you can either have Jacobean drama or a decent number of good parts for women, not both - but it's very rarely a productive thing to do, it's often distracting and sometimes it's just wrong.

Having said that, Polonia was a terrific performance, and almost believable - you just had to assume Claudius was taking advice from the head of HR. The Player Queen was the wrongest, particularly as they then had her take Gonzago's lines in the p. within a p.

As for Shakespeare's delicacy, have you seen the stage at the end of Hamlet? Not to mention Lear!

The Plashing Vole said...

I'm quite happy with all-male or all-female productions - but fiddling with just one character means making textual adjustments that don't work.

Maybe we should have an Endurance Reading Championship. Pamela, Clarissa, Gierusalemme Liberata, Paradise both Lost and Regained, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant…

I take your point about Lear and Hamlet but neither of those plays is exactly drenched in blood. Nobody dies from kissing a poisoned skull!

GMS said...

When it comes to Shakespearean gore, what about Titus Andronicus?

But I really wanted to comment on the Flaminia: for me, the point was that she was penniless and thus powerless, and all her machinations were aimed at securing a living, somewhat ironically. To me, that rather re-inforced the point about the hopelessness of a woman's position, something I think this production emphasises.

Phil said...

My wife would score four out of six on that list (Regained is a doddle anyway) - although even she drew the line at Sir Charles Grandison, Gent.

The same Director of Studies was a massive Francophile & recommended my OH read Proust. Which bit, she asked. Oh, all of it! he said.

I saw a female Autolycus in The Winter's Tale once; it worked pretty well, given that nothing turns on whether Autolycus is a man or a woman (apart from the masculine ending, I suppose). The gravediggers in the Peake Hamlet bugged me more even than the Player Queen, and I've just remembered why: it was because they explicitly gendered the characters, and by extension gravediggers in general, as women ("What is she that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?" & so on). I know Shakespeare productions aren't the Sealed Knot, but I like to feel we're in some imaginable society, and at that point I just didn't. (We've got a patrilineal monarchy and a general obsession with women's fertility, and the people digging graves are women?)

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