My friends in the refined universities are all on strike and having a great time - they're losing a lot of money but they're reconnecting with each other and with their students - kind of funny how you never see your colleagues until you all decide not to do any work – and the rather pathetic machinations of their employers and the pension scheme are being exposed faster than a flasher's undercarriage.
But I've gone on about the USS pension strike enough recently, though I'll doubtlessly return to it before long. Instead, a bit of culture for you. And a moan, obviously. I can't leave you without your weekly fix.
Last semester we taught The Duchess of Malfi as part of our Shakespeare and the English Renaissance module. Volpone was received very badly indeed one year, so I've tried to include a revenge tragedy each year to widen the students' sense of what was available on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage. We did Webster's The White Devil for a couple of years, and now it's his Duchess. I'm not sure I did it full justice in my lecture, but despite absolutely hating horror and murder films, TV and books, I have a soft spot for the revenge plays for their dramatisation of a violent, paranoiac culture and society, and while we have Hamlet on the course it helps to have its cousins there for comparison.
This week, the RSC put Malfi on at Stratford, and arranged heavily discounted travel-and-ticket packages supported by the Arts Council, with coaches going from certain economically-deprived towns and cities (and Oxford and Warwick). One coach, open to university and school students, went from our other campus where the drama students live, so I duly signed up and advertised it to the English Lit group. Cometh the hour, cometh the coach. Cometh, however, me, our departmental Graduate Teaching Assistant and her partner. No English students. No drama students. No school kids, teachers, or dogs.
How did this happen? Certainly all my students have jobs and a large number have children or other caring responsibilities. Money is also tight. The scheme wasn't widely publicised – nobody from the RSC contacted my department and we'd have moved heaven and earth to make it a success – and there isn't a culture of theatre-going in this area. That said, I work really hard to make cultural opportunities available and even harder to make them attractive, varied and exciting. Eimear McBride is on the first-year syllabus and she came to talk to the students.
The Making A Scene module includes theatre trips, brings in professional actors for students to direct, includes various sorts of drama training and studies a really interesting, non-standard range of plays. Basically, we work really hard to make literary studies enjoyable, challenging, exciting and vital, particularly as those who come straight from A-levels seem so exhausted and disillusioned. And yet we can't get a critical mass of people who want to try new things. Excluding those who just couldn't attend, a large group of people who studied this play with us, or who will do so next year, decided that they didn't need to experience it live on stage. Clearly that's a failure on my part and I don't really know what is to be done.
The three of us had a great time at the RSC. This production used an ultra-modern, stark setting. The live music was particularly affecting, and Joan Iyiola and Nicholas Tennant were particularly mesmerising as The Duchess and Bosola.
The early acts really brought out the Duchess's emotional and sexual needs in ways I didn't focus on in my teaching, and cut the material that encourages you to understand events as products of a corrupted society (as does Hamlet), while the second half concentrated on the horror. A cow's carcass was stabbed straight after the interval and the enormous quantities of blood slowly filled the stage over the course of the remaining hour – so much that the front rows were given blankets to protect their clothes. The actors then proceeded to dial down the acting and up the hamming, rolling around in the pool until everybody was soaked in the claret. It was certainly viscerally horrific, but I wasn't sure how dramatically successful this element was. It brings up the play's problem: how do you convincingly play someone who gets strangled or stabbed and then keeps waking up do deliver final lines? The RSC production decided to amp up the symbolism and the horror rather than attempt realism, which I think was probably a good idea, but something still didn't quite work in the last acts. Respect for having live dead children in the cast though.
As I keep telling my students, even seeing a bad production gives you things to think about. This wasn't a bad production, but a mixed one and it's made me rethink how I'll approach teaching Malfi next year.
Not a lot else has happened this week. I lectured on Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem again, which gave me a chance to wax lyrical about travellers, free festivals, the Criminal Justice Bill, the Battle of the Beanfield, the Green Man and the constructed nature of national identity, and I deleted 6000+ emails, which felt like a real achievement. A little light union casework, some peer observation, writing a PhD examiners' report and a bit of dissertation supervision. Other than that, I've gone to work, got home late, fallen asleep in my cycling gear then hauled my stinking carcass off to bed. Oh - and met an academic publisher foolish enough to take my politicians' novels idea seriously. I might actually have to write the damn thing now.
This afternoon has ended the week well though. I read this Guardian appreciation of Joni Mitchell and have played album after album of her work today. I actually cannot remember who introduced me to her stuff – I now have a (very few) friends who like her but I started listening to her work in the 90s and I'm sure my usual sources of new music at that point (Radio 3, John Peel, NME and the Evening Session) didn't rate her much and I distinctly remember the Cob Records staff mocking me roundly for buying The Hissing of Summer Lawns alongside some Anhrefn and Broadcast singles. Whoever it was: thanks. I like the weird tunings, the huge range of musical styles across her albums, the refusal to become comfortable or predictable (like Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, Joanna Newsom and Scott Walker), the narrative songs and the grown-up attitudes.
Here are some of my favourite Joni tracks:
And while I'm in a 60s/70s mood, and reminded of the Malfi line 'like diamonds we are cut with our own dust', here's Joan Baez's 'Diamonds and Rust', about the aftermath of her relationship with Bob Dylan. Coming from the folk tradition she doesn't often write her own music, but in my opinion this song is easily as good as anything he ever did. It's packed with subtle, beautiful literary and artistic references, with the rueful affection of a valued, broken relationship and a couplet that just can't be topped for expressing the tension between being fully part of a couple while realising intellectually (and with rueful hindsight) that even in the most romantic moment you can't fully know your other.
Speaking strictly for me
We both could have died then and there
I managed to see her play about ten years ago: now she's retiring and I'll miss her.