On the Shelf: William Shakespeare Without the Boring Bits

ws With the exception of acting the part of Mustard Seed in my junior high’s production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream and reading Romeo and Juliet in high school, my Shakespeare education has, at best, been minimal. Even in light of graduating from an English university with a masters in English (and visiting Stratford-on-Avon), my knowledge  of Shakespeare has remained embarrassingly slight.

So, in a valiant effort to correct this glaring literary gap, I picked up a copy of Peter Ackroyd’s William Shakespare Without the Boring Bits. Let me start off by saying the volume of books on Shakespeare is overwhelming. Amazon him and no fewer than thousands of guides appear. Look him up in a bookstore and you’ll still find a dizzying array of nonfiction all promising to easily reveal his genius.

I picked up Ackroyd’s book because, after reading a few paragraphs, it seemed approachable and relevant. And, as I can now say, wholly worthwhile.

After a helpful introduction, Ackroyd organizes his book according to the Plays (History, Greek and Roman, Comedies, Tragedies and Romances) along with a section devoted to the poems and sonnets. I particularly enjoyed the last section-titled the Wit and Wisdom of Shakespeare-for explaining just why famous passages have remained popular.

The sections about the plays are thorough, yet not overbearing, and provide the context along with their possible  inspiration and plot and character synopsis. While I definitely didn’t retain every details, these sections were enlightening and will be even more helpful when I see a Shakespeare play in the future and need a quick update.

How well do you know Shakespeare? Do you have a favorite play? Quote? Ashleigh read sonnet 116 at our wedding and it has remained hopeful and special to me.

 

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Mojo, Review. By Sam Howard.

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Mojo was a play that I wasn’t expecting. As I walked into the Harold Pinter Theatre, tickets in hand, I could feel the usual buzz of pre-theatre emotion coursing through my body – the kind of knee-jerk emotions that have been reinforced by such genres like Shakespeare or family friendly Musical Theatre. I was also excited for a gin and tonic in the interval, excited to partake of the glitz and the glamour of the west end. I was so blown away by the star power who I knew were professionally applying make-up back stage in anticipation of a “this is your five minute curtain call” announcement by a frantic stage manager, that it seemed I had done absolutely no research into anything about the play at all. I wasn’t even remotely troubled by this: the names were satisfaction enough. And for us – the audience sat with abandoned excitement at the prospect of the star reveal – the atmosphere peaked as the tannoy announced that “this afternoon’s production will start in five minutes, please take your seats,” I’m not sure that anybody else in the theatre had either.

And boy, what a cast! Brendon Coyle (for those of you who have been entombed, lost in the wilderness or in a coma, he also stars in Downton Abbey as the “my life has been hard, and my general response is to simmer with silent anger and mystery which consistently threaten to boil over into outbursts of passionate violence” Mr. Bates, Valet to his Lordship); Rupert Grint (dare I use the phrase “Global superstar?” – Ron Weasley of Harry Potter film franchise fame doing what so many other transitioning child stars are doing and ploughing the depths of legitimate theatre); Ben Whishaw (I am a complete fan boy. It was his appearance on the bill which sold me this ticket. Even to the passing and uninterested observer it is clear that Whishaw is etching out a distinguished career for himself: he is something of a golden boy in the world of acting, definitely in vogue, certainly a spectacle (a very attractive spectacle) not to be missed, even with the other high profile names on the bill it felt very much like his show); there was also the guy from BBC’s Merlin, Colin Morgan (in a completely unrecognisable role); Daniel Mays (who I’ve never come across before) and finally Tom Rhys Harris – who is a complete newcomer (lucky him to be in such company). What the play was actually about bore little consequence to me until those final few minutes before the light were dimmed to black. I don’t think it helped really that all of the promotional material for this play features the actors together in their own clothes – like they had been shepherded out of rehearsals by the producer one day for the token advertisement photographs, everyone fully knowing that the household status of many of the actors in this play meant that interesting and flamboyant marketing wasn’t needed in any way shape or form (although it does amuse me to squint at the promotional pic and imagine what kind of boy band the cast would make). Anyway, to the matter at hand.

Ben Whishaw, Brendan Cole, Rupert Grint, and Daniel Mays in Mojo

Ben Whishaw, Brendan Cole, Rupert Grint, and Daniel Mays in Mojo

Mojo begins before the house lights are dimmed, it sneaks up on you with the quiet but noticeable hum of a distorted base line. “Boom boom”: it made the auditorium quiet down, the lights fade to black and the sound grows, “boom boom” – louder and louder – for me channelling the thrill you feel when you are waiting outside a club to go in; the conversations in the queue; the thrill of knowing you are going to have an amazing night, then you walk into the club and the music swells and grows until you feel it coursing and charging through your body – Mojo walks us through the club straight upstairs to the part we clubbers never see, the manager’s office. In it we see Silver Johnny (Rhys Harris) in his trademark silver suit gearing up for a career making performance in the club downstairs. The first scene of this play – this scene where there is no dialogue, just the “boom boom” of club music and the edgy energy of an artist pre-show engaging in mimic gestures of nerves – it sets up an atmosphere charged with adrenaline and performance that diffuses throughout the rest of the play.

My overwhelming general reaction to this play is that it is gloriously schizophrenic: the characters are all low level menial gangsters – “the boys” – whose job it is revealed is to do things like drive the van, serve the tea at the off stage meeting of mafia leaders, enjoy the drugs and be part a part of the action. Rising above these are Brendon Coyle as Mickey, the club manager clutching at mid-level gangster status and Ben Whishaw as Baby, the party loving son of the boss. They all have an element of the clown about them, a manic energy fuelled by pill after pill after unknown pill – a running gag throughout the play is “that pill made my piss black!” as each character nervously and ubiquitously shares their post-high symptoms. Characters mirror each other; characters mimic each other to the point of hair splitting energy as simple observations escalate into jittery drug addled altercations. The walls are closing in on all of these characters, in many ways they are all victims of their unwholesome and farcical circumstances. The music is too loud, the lights too dizzying, the violence of their profession is too immediate and everyone is shouting to be heard – it is breath taking and exhausting to watch.

The plot has the usual gangster commodities, and I feel the play is exploring through excellently executed, but ever-so-slightly clichéd plot the nature of power and its transition. Jez Butterworth pulls out a lot of stops to show us the extremes of human behaviour, and the delicacy of it with grit, language fit for a sailor and protracted displays of violence – verbal and physical. It is engaging and blackly comedic, more than once I felt that if the audience mentally stepped back from the immediacy of the experience they might not find the action on stage so funny. The play succeeds so well because Director Ian Rickson doesn’t let the comedy overshadow the other emotional themes present in the play. I guess that is what this play is wanting to explore: the fine line between comedy and violence; sobriety and drunkenness; power and powerlessness; performance and reality? The fragments are sharp and many.

Director Ian Rickson

Director Ian Rickson

The acting is first rate from everyone. The sets are just the right balance of claustrophobic and seedy, the play is an out and out assault on the brain, I remarked to Ash after it had finished, “I could watch it again, but I don’t think I could sit through it”. I think ultimately this is one that you have to make your own mind up with, all I can say is that it delivers in terms of acting, production, dialogue, but this production is not the sum of its celebrity studded parts. It refuses to be placed neatly into a box, and I think that is part of what is intended. Despite (or because of) this it is always compelling.

It runs through into the New Year and an two extra weeks run has just been added. Go, but maybe don’t take your mum, or your grandma, or any sensitive member of your family. Or do!? Who knows!

Mojo runs until 8Th February 2013, extra dates have been added.

Words: Sam Howard.

Another Country, Review

‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’, so said L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel The Go-Between.  Down the years his succinct statement has been appropriated to many other works and eras, especially those seemingly removed from our own contemporary lives.  So begins the world presented in Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, a world of public-school camaraderie, or lack of it, Conservative values and a total lack of female interaction.  Lean in a little closer though, and Mitchell’s play seems to beg many similar questions of today’s society as it does of the 1930’s upper-class world it is portraying.

Another Country: which finished its month long run at the Chichester Festival Theatre on 19th October.

Another Country: which finished its month long run at the Chichester Festival Theatre on 19th October.

The Cambridge Five Spy Ring came to attention in the 1950s when it was made public that a number of senior government officials had been passing information to the KGB during the Second World War.  That they were part of The Establishment made the story even more scandalous and by 1979 exposure that the Fourth Man was Anthony Blunt, University Professor and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures inspired Mitchell to write this play.  Fictionalising the school days of ringleader Guy Burgess, the play explains why someone born into such a uniquely British privilege would turn his back on his country and become a spy.

When it was first performed in 1981 it launched the careers of Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Daniel Day-Lewis.  Its subject matter of schoolboy homosexuality, desertion and revenge was part of the appeal, and thirty years after it was first performed its ability to fascinate and engage is still apparent during its current run at Chichester Festival Theatre.  The play’s lead actors, Will Attenborough as Tommy Judd and Rob Callender as Guy Bennett (the Burgess character) handle the often difficult subject matter with ease, their comic timing is perfect.  Callender offers a charm and swagger that more than explains his nonchalance toward public school etiquette.

Bennett’s friend Tommy Judd, (Attenborough) a committed Marxist, carries a copy of Das Kapital about him at all times and refuses to join in the fun of sport, canning and class-riddled hierarchy.  It is after one-such brutal canning that Bennett begins to question the society he is bound to, he becomes interested in Russia and it’s ‘perfect’ communist regime and although it is not shown, joins the KGB instead of the British Foreign Office.

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From left: Attenborough, Johnstone and Callender as Judd, Fowler and Bennett (picture taken from http://www.cft.org.uk/another-country)

Jeremy Herrin directs a young cast with ease, the younger members display a wide-eyed nervousness that matches the feeling many public-schoolboys of the time had of being thrust into the limelight of a changing world. The factual details of Burgess’s life are interjected into the play at the appropriate moments, the best being that his homosexuality came about because he walked in on his father’s fatal heart-attack during particularly vigorous copulation with his mother, allow for a sense of stark reality and darkness amid the toffy-nosed humour.  All of the cast seem acutely aware of the delicate balance between humour and depth, reality and fiction.  The supporting cast is lead by Julian Wadham, the only adult character, as literary, Bloomsbury-esque man Vaughan Cunningham, who’s disestablishmentarian and objective views only fuel Judd and Burgess’s increasing disillusionment.

That the play has been revived in 2013, when England has seen a return to the kind of public-school ruling Burgess witnessed had done much to re-kindle its relevance.  Oliver Johnson, who plays the Conservative Fowler could have taken his inspiration from a plethora of members of our current Senior Cabinet. The ideological conflicts affecting the main characters are mirrored in today’s young socialists and the challenge Russia is facing from the Western world regarding its LGBT stance at this year’s Winter Olympics is not dissimilar from the attitudes it projected in the inter-war years.

Anyone who has read the excellent The Untouchable by John Banville, a study of the life of Fourth Man, Anthony Blunt, will understand how difficult the roman-à-clef genre is to write and get away with, but the genre could have been created for the story of the Cambridge Spies.  The script is peppered with illusions to other members and the reasons they gave for turning their backs on the country that was created for them.  Another Country begins and end with an ensemble rendition of ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ an unsubtle nod to the irony that the play uses to evoke the emerging communist views.  

For anyone who hasn’t been to an all-boys public-school or holds the Establishment in any kind of regard, you should get a ticket, Mitchell’s play is wholly relevant and will shatter any illusions you may have.