Monday, 12 October 2015

Review: Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
In 1415 a rag-tag army of Englishmen were retreating through France. After a tougher than expected siege of Harfleur and an outbreak of dysentery, their plans of conquest lay in tatters. On 25th October, St Crispin’s Day, they met a French army near the castle of Agincourt. Outnumbered by the fresher French forces, the English stood their ground and won a victory that has resounded down the ages (largely thanks to Shakespeare). The English king eventually married the French princess, a legend was born and a new golden age seemed to be in the offing. As it turned out, Henry’s early death called time on the golden age before it got going and cost his country not only France but its internal peace as well, as the Wars of the Roses destroyed his successors.

So in Henry V Shakespeare captures an England full of hope between the years of treason and rebellion which marked the reigns of Henry IV and Henry VI. It is full of instantly recognizable patriotic scenes such as the St Crispin’s Day and the ‘once more unto the breach’ speeches, but it also occasionally expresses a darker side to Henry’s rule. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s slippery justifications for the invasion, Henry’s doubts before the big battle and his often quite unlikable hypocrisy are all troubling aspects. Henry doesn’t seem to care about the death of his old friend Falstaff and he executes old cronies Nym and Bardolph. There is lots of thanking god, but how much is it a public act? He’s a careful politician, so outward religiosity for the sake of morale would not be surprising. And Henry even admits his own illegitimate right to rule, thanks to his father’s treason against Richard II: ‘Think not upon the fault my father did…’ However, the context of that admission is important. On the eve of battle, all alone, Henry prays to god for his men’s safety. And there is enough elsewhere in the play to overcome any doubts about Henry’s character. Much of our scepticism comes from modern sensibilities perhaps alien to the original audience. Are we perhaps too sentimental in wishing Henry would save Nym and Bardolph? Or should we embrace a ruler who exercises justice without favouritism? The characters in the play are unequivocal: Henry is a great and well-loved king.

In terms of this production, the stage set is immediately both simple and striking. At the beginning, the backdrop is entirely removed and the backstage area creates extra space. During the play, the backdrop occasionally appears, via a clever guillotine device, during intimate moments (or to create Harfleur’s walls). The stage’s floor bears an interesting pattern which, during the great battle, is revealed as an invisible Perspex layer above a textured muddy field. This is nicely done.  It was also nice to see a few of the cast from last year’s Two Gentlemen of Verona in minor roles. Having now seen a few RSC plays, the return of actors from earlier productions allows one to appreciate the actors’ impressive versatility. I suspect some of them will one day be well known.

The most recognizable face is Oliver Ford Davies’, who plays the chorus. He got the play rolling with his entry from the backstage area looking for like an elderly and befuddled audience member who had taken a wrong turn. This effect is probably calculated and he got an early laugh when he curiously picked up Henry’s crown only to have Henry stride out and snatch it away from him. Although the main cast wear medieval dress, Ford Davies is bedecked in brown corduroys and a blue cardigan. He is intentionally distanced from the rest of the cast but it doesn’t really work. Admittedly, the chorus must be a difficult part for a modern director to pull off and Shakespeare himself wasn’t exactly keen on them. Its origin is ancient and tragic, and its use in Henry V was perhaps intended to burnish the play’s epic quality. But epic patriotism isn’t really the done thing for the modern intelligentsia. Ford Davies has the odd stab at it (this is the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, so this production has to be at least partly celebratory), but at times he is ironic rather than patriotic and at others he is earnest but over the top. As I’ve indicated earlier, the text at times questions the legitimacy of Henry’s exploits, but it is done with much more subtlety than Ford Davies musters here, veering erratically between over-gesticulating jingoism and sardonic scepticism.

Joshua Richards’ Fluellan is hilarious as the warm but garrulous old Welshman and Jennifer Kirby as Kate
was also excellent. Both funny and beautiful, she balances chastity and eager curiosity with great comic timing. In fact, the humour is deftly handled throughout this performance. It was also good to see Jane Lapotaire as Queen Isobel of France. She’s had some health problems but is now back on the stage, even if the role was smaller than some she’s had in the past.

Alex Hassell is a handsome and august Henry, but perhaps not quite tough enough and for much of the play not quite down to earth enough. He also has a slightly annoying tendency to address the audience instead of his fellow characters. Presumably the director asked him to do this, and perhaps the aim is to tie the audience more closely to the action. If so, the effort is wasted.

The St Crispin’s Day speech should be the climax of the play:

                ‘From this day to the ending of the world,
                But we in it shall be remembered-
                We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
                For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
                Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
                This day shall gentle his condition;
                And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
                Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
                And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
                That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.’

Here it is the biggest disappointment, desperate rather than inspiring. The tone is flat and the result is anti-climactic. The courage of the men is undercut by an attempt at comedy as Pistol almost takes up the offer to go home, and the end of the speech is followed straightaway, almost before Henry had finished speaking, by the announcement of a messenger’s arrival. No cheering, no signs of grim purpose, no response at all from the army. Again, the director was afraid to appear too patriotic. Henry is much better after the wars, and the wooing scene with Katherine is delightful. Even if flawed in places, Hassell’s performance contains enough to convince me that he is a fine actor, surely due a breakout role in the near future if he turns his sights on television or film.

Overall, this production has a few blemishes and compares unfavourably to the year’s best Stratford performances: Volpone and The Jew of Malta. But a comparison with those great productions is unduly harsh. For all its faults, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking work, with a number of standout performances. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

Review - The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Part I

Mini-review: Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (BBC Hollow Crown series)
To whet our appetite for Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, let's have a quick look at Henry IV, Part I from the BBC’s HollowCrown series (originally shown in 2012). Before Henry V was Henry V, he was Hal, a binge-drinking hooligan trickster… or so he would have everybody think. In fact, his plan all along was to lead a life of debauchery and then, just when everybody had completely written him off, he would reform and thereby dazzle people all the more with his excellence. While Hal is putting this meticulously executed, if largely pointless, plot into effect, his father is threatened by rebellion. The star of the rebel camp is the son Henry IV thinks he really wants: Harry Hotspur, a dutiful son and brave warrior. Luckily for Henry IV, his actual son comes good by the end and slaughters his spiritual brother to save the kingdom.

Tom Hiddleston as Hal is magnificent. There is a sadness about him at even the merriest times, which
humanises him (for what short of person would really break their father’s heart and betray his best friend, just to make himself look better?) He’s funny too, and seems to be channelling a little Loki as well in this performance. Simon Russell Beale is likewise wonderfully cast: as funny a Falstaff as you could hope for, and as pitiful as a kicked do (not that I’ve ever kicked a dog. But kicked dog seems catchier than ‘like a dog you refuse to give a bit of your dinner to’).

The Voice: Informing and Educating
This is a beautifully made production. It’s clearly a work of love and the BBC has invested real cash in it too. Some would perhaps use this as an example of how wonderful the BBC is and how lost we would be without it. Being more of a glass half empty type, I’d say that by showing they can still make programmes which conform to the BBC’s original mission (to ‘inform, educate and entertain’), programmes like this actually highlight just how much complete bilge the Beeb turns out the rest of the time…

Anyway, all in all a great film; now roll on Henry V in Stratford.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Review: Ben Jonson's Volpone at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Review: Ben Jonson's Volpone, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
The current RSC production of Ben Jonson’s Volpone at the Swan Theatre must rank as one of their slickest, funniest and most glorious productions yet. It has certainly been my highlight of the year.

First, the plot. The eponymous anti-hero, Volpone (The Fox), has a lot in common with Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. Both are charismatic and seemingly amoral individuals with a covetous love of wealth. But both have passions which are ultimately more powerful than their greed. Where Barabas had a pride which when offended drove him to the most horrible acts of revenge, Volpone’s early and enduring flaw is a need to use the greed of other wealthy men to con them out of their possessions. As the victims of his plots are themselves so unappealing, the audience’s sympathies cannot help but side with the flashy and witty Volpone. The plot owes much to popular stories about wily foxes which lay down in fields pretending to be dead. When a bird comes to feast on the corpse, the fox springs into action and banquets on the carrion bird instead. In Volpone, the wealthy fox pretends to be
older, decrepit and close to death. His fellow grandees see an opportunity to inherit the wealth of the childless Volpone and attempt to buy his affection (and a place in his will) with expensive gifts. It is clear that more than greed motivates Volpone: he glories ‘more in the cunning purchase of my wealth than in the glad possession’. What he really enjoys is conning his ‘friends’, the lawyer Voltore (the Vulture) and the merchants Corvino and Corbaccio (ravens).

All is going well and Volpone decides to take his plan to the next level: his parasite Mosca encourages Corbaccio with a scheme to guarantee a place in Volpone’s will. If Corbaccio alters his will to leave his estate to Volpone, despite having a son of his own, then the dying Volpone will surely make Corbaccio his heir out of gratitude. The flaw in Corbaccio’s thinking is that Volpone is actually in the prime of life and it is Corbaccio who is the doddering old codger. The plan is working well until Mosca lets slip to Volpone that the young wife of Corvino is exceedingly beautiful. After going out in disguise and seeing her for himself, Volpone develops a passion of another sort. He and Mosca fashion another scheme so that Volpone can have his way with Celia (Rhiannon Handy). Mosca lets Corvino know that Volpone’s doctors have suggested that sleeping with a young maiden would aid his recovery and that by lending Volpone  his wife, Corvino will guarantee himself a place in Volpone’s will. Since Volpone is apparently a drooling, near-comatose invalid, what could be the harm? Unfortunately for Volpone, his two clever schemes become tangled and things begin to go awry…

The stage setting is a real treat. Volpone’s house is like a modern art gallery, all shiny whiteness with his wealth displayed in stylish glass cases. Volpone has a remote control on which he can turn on his CCTV when guests arrive at his door, as well as a large digital stock market ticker surmounting the set. The whole effect is that of a rich and discerning connoisseur. Unlike recent RSC productions, in which the costumes have been somewhat disappointing, in this case the stylish suits of the greedy and the outlandish attire of Volpone’s troupe of freaks are a perfect accompaniment to the elegant set and lively story. Volpone’s regular changes of appearance from powerful grandee to dribbling wreck are impressive, if somewhat revolting up close (think streams of bilious snot hanging off an old man’s chin).

Volpone’s four greedy victims are well-cast. Miles Richardson as Voltore makes an excellent posh but amoral lawyer, Matthew Kelly as Corvino is again excellent (following his turn as a lusty friar in the Jew of Malta) as a buffoonish no-nonsense northern businessman, Geoffrey Freshwater as Corbaccio is likewise again excellent (following his turn as Kelly’s equally slimy and hypocritical brother friar in the Jew of Malta) and Annette McLaughlin as Lady Politic Would-Be plays an excellent tartish gold-digger from a slightly lower societal echelon (Eastenders-esque). Orion Lee’s Mosca is a model of understated, servile cunning, manipulating his social superiors with élan. Volpone’s also gets his kicks from the entertainment provided by
his three freaks, Androgyno the hermaphrodite (Ankur Bahl), Nano the dwarf (Jon Key) and Castrone the eunuch (Julian Hoult). The three oddballs are perfectly cast, exuberantly well-acted and, more than anything else, fun. I suspect there were more than a few women in the audience jealous of Androgyno’s graceful deportment as he sashayed confidently across the stage in his high, high heels. Volpone is a sybarite, who needs ever wilder pleasures and takes ever greater risks to maintain his interest in life; but the results and accoutrements of his empty moral turpitude are a joy to behold!

More than anything, this play gives licence to its leading actor to showcase his talents – and Henry Goodman is clearly very, very talented. The shifts from ailing invalid to wily Machiavel are dazzling enough as displays of raw panache, but then he takes the RSC to another place entirely in the balcony scene. Disguised as a charismatic street vendor, adopting a thick Italian accent and hawking his ‘miracle’ juice (‘To buy or not to buy, that is the question…’), Volpone becomes a different kind of conman entirely, and the results are genuinely hilarious. There was even a touch of improvisation when Volpone interacted with an audience member and received an unexpected answer. In the attempted seduction scene, Volpone shifts gear again and becomes an energetic, if unsuccessful, singing Lothario. Again, credit should be given for the set design: the neon lights, ‘sexy’ music and the bed rising through the floor are like something from a teenage boy’s fantasy circa. 1975. Cheesy, but a perfect match for Volpone’s animated self-confidence. Eventually, Volpone’s tragic flaws are his need to screw over the other characters and his overweening self-confidence. Like the Jew of Malta’s Barabas, Volpone cannot quit while he’s ahead and he tries one more jape out of ‘sheer wantonness’. But Goodman makes what is really an unlikely act of hubris look entirely natural.

This production was marketed as an analogy for the greed and corruption that is so often blamed for the 2008 financial crisis. This connection is strained, partly because Volpone is so clearly more interested in the human aspects of wealth acquisition (getting one over on his rivals) rather than any City slicker hunger for big bonuses. But partly it just wouldn’t work because the play is not a simplistic morality tale about the dangers of corporate greed. Luckily, the marketing doesn’t match the reality and there is no sustained attempt to stress the topicality of Volpone vis-à-vis today’s greedy bankers. Besides the stock market tracker in his living room, Volpone’s only business dealings are the con tricks he inflicts on his friends. Volpone might be a bit of a Bernie Madoff, but Madoff was really a sideshow to the main event. The other small flaw in the production is there in the original. There is a parallel plot involving Sir Politick Would-be which has almost nothing to do with the main story concerning Volpone and it looks like an entirely superfluous effort to add some buffoonish humour to a play that really doesn’t need it.

This is a high-spirited play, joyful and boisterous, but it is also refined. The balance that has been struck between these two aspects should probably not be a surprise from a director as renowned as Trevor Nunn and an actor as versatile as Henry Goodman. Go and watch it.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Coming Soon... AMPRAW 2015

And now for something completely different...

Call for Papers
Fifth Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in the Reception of the Ancient World
14th-15th December 2015
University of Nottingham
Abstracts deadline: 31st August 2015
It is with great pleasure that we announce the fifth Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in the Reception of the Ancient World. AMPRAW 2015 will be a two-day conference aiming to provide both UK and international postgraduate students from all disciplines with the opportunity to present their research to the growing academic community focusing on classical reception.

This year's conference will be held from Monday 14th to Tuesday 15th December 2015 at the University of Nottingham.

We will build on the successful trend of recent AMPRAWs, and this year the focus will be “Orthodoxy and Dissent”. This theme relates to many aspects of reception studies, and will further widen the scope of AMPRAW into the areas of material and visual culture, translation studies, and political thought.

We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers (with a subsequent 10 minute discussion) that engage with the following key questions:

       Has there been and is there still an orthodox view(s) of the ancient world?
       How have dissenters challenged this picture?
       Is dissent against orthodoxy essential for art?
       Do issues of orthodoxy and dissent help to highlight or shroud issues of contemporary discourse?
       In what ways have the ancient world and its artefacts been used to reinforce or challenge authority?
       Is there an ‘orthodox’ way of teaching Classics today?

Thus far, a wide range of abstracts have been submitted, testament to the breadth of opportunity that classical reception offers. We would encourage abstracts focusing on any aspect of the ancient world and how it has been received in any context since.

In addition to this year's panels, AMPRAW 2015 will feature a keynote lecture, and practitioner-led workshops from visiting speakers. Our exciting agenda already includes a keynote speech by Dr. Gideon Nisbet, whose latest work has focussed on reception of epigram (including a translation of Martial), and a workshop by Clare Pollard, the poet who recently published a contemporary verse translation of Ovid’s ‘Heroides’. Further details and panel topics are to follow in due course.

Evening entertainment is to be arranged for Monday 14th December, and will be in conjunction with the Centre for Ancient Drama and its Reception (CADRE). Bursaries may be available to conference-goers and speakers alike, thanks to generous funding offered to us. Confirmation and details on how to apply for this will follow in due course.

Please send your title and a 200-300 word abstract (including your name, affiliation and level of study) to, by the 31st August 2015.

For up-to-date conference news and further details, please visit our website: and get involved on twitter @AMPRAW2015.

We look forward to receiving your abstracts!
The AMPRAW 2015 Organising Committee

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Review: Richard III at Leicester's Curve Theatre

Shakespeare's Richard III at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, 25th July 2015

A bit of a change this week after a visit to a community production of Richard III at Leicester’s Curve Theatre. My expectations beforehand were not especially high, but the production gave me a number of pleasant surprises. The set had a professional look. The industrial minimalism thing is getting a little tedious at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but this looked just as good as the ones they’re churning out in Stratford. There was an unpleasant David Lynch-esque humming sound effect before the show started: it reminded me of the last moments of consciousness before having a seizure, but for people without such a point of reference it probably wasn’t so bad. An unpleasant but arresting moment occurred at the very beginning of the play. A shirtless Richard gave his ‘winter of our discontent’ speech and we were treated to a very realistic, scabby, sore looking hump which a nurse then injected with a syringe. It was always unlikely that such a great beginning could be maintained, and so it proved.

It would be harsh to single out any individual because the problems ran through most of the cast. Many of the speeches were given at breakneck speed, giving the impression that the lines had been learned without being understood. This might also have been a problem caused by lack of editing: it would have been a good idea to make a few changes here and there, but perhaps being amateurs there was not the confidence to start messing editing the Bard. As it was, there was too much hurried talking and not enough acting. Some of the cast found it difficult to project their voices clearly, whilst others overacted their scenes (my companion actually preferred the latter approach, as it at least had the benefit of making sure you could understand what was happening). The industrial setting sort of went with the kleptocratic Russia theme, but this theme was only applied intermittently in costume and there was no real effort to draw deeper parallels. Occasional fur coats, orthodox priests and paramilitaries wandered around with a Church of England Bishop and, at the end, a bunch of World War One Tommies. The fighting at the end perhaps went on a little too long for a professional production, but this cast have clearly had a lot of fun arranging the battle scenes that it is hard to begrudge them a little fun with them.

The actor in the title role, Mark Peachey, was the highlight of the night and, on balance, made this a pretty
good performance. I could point out that he managed to be comprehensible without shouting every line, but this would damn him with faint praise. In fact, his Richard was charismatic, humorous and menacing – everything you could ask for. This was a warrior Richard, more Stannis Baratheon than Frank Underwood. Overall, he would not have been out of place at any of the RSC performances I’ve seen over the last couple of years: one hopes that he soon gets a shot at acting on a stage that will do his talents more justice.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Film Review: Great Expectations (2012)

Film Review: Great Expectations (2012)

Adaptations of classic novels inevitably confront a dilemma; how do you maintain authenticity when reworking a slow-motion story for an audience with a twenty-first century attention span? But the makers of the 2012 Great Expectations film had a smaller dilemma than usual. Great Expectations the novel, originally published in instalments, is fast paced, there are attention grabbing twists, and Dickensian characters, with their odd, visual mannerisms, are well-suited to film. So the pitfalls are shallower than usual – but they still exist. Director Mike Newell has surrendered to temptation and sexed up the action, so we’ve got a gruesomely burnt body and masses of extra, aimless menace. The stand-out performances are Holliday Grainger’s sultry but vulnerable Estella, and the Magwitch of Ralph Fiennes’, who capably surpasses Robert de Niro’s 1998 portrayal. But the interpretation of Miss Havisham is a squandered chance. Helena Bonham-Carter relishes playing flamboyant half-mad icons so the archetypal character of Miss Havisham should have been a triumph. But a curiously flat performance turns that initial excitement as stale and dusty as Miss Havisham’s ancient wedding cake. The greatest disappointment, though, is also the most fatally fundamental. Pip needs to be likeable enough that we forgive him for his shameless social climbing and abandonment of his decent but embarrassing friends. But he is too driven, and the viewer never really wills him towards a happy outcome. Nonetheless, there is enough here to entertain: fans of literary exactitude will be reasonably gratified whilst newcomers and radicals will still be enthused.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Review

Review: The Merchant of Venice, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 16th May 2015

Having so recently written about Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, there is no need to rehearse the relationship between the two, though it is worth emphasizing again their paradoxical performance history in recently years. Marlowe’s play was originally called The Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta, but is now usually performed as a dark comedy; Shakespeare’s play was originally The Comedy of the Merchant of Venice, but is now usually (always?) performed as a tragedy (with occasional comic elements). The transformations reflect our changed attitudes and the problematization of race in the modern era. Marlowe’s Jew is so irredeemably bad that we can only read the portrayal ironically; Shakespeare’s Jew is treated so badly that we can only read the portrayal tragically. Whether or not the problematic elements were there in the original productions is another matter (though I’m inclined to believe they were). In this respect, both recent RSC productions have trod familiar ground: we sympathise with both Jewish characters and feel discomfort at the behaviour of most of the avowedly Christian characters. Polly Findlay, directing the current RSC production, takes the same familiar track as, for example, the 2004 film starring Al Pacino. Shylock has an understated but solid nobility, Gratiano is an oaf, Bassiano is shallow and Antonio is a bigot. But though it covers familiar ground, it glides over it very elegantly.

The Duke and Antonio
One of the most arresting features of this production is the stunning set design by Johannes Schütz. There are none of the clichéd accoutrements for plays set in Venice (Gondola moorings, the Rialto painted in the background and so on), and neither is it conventionally modern. The stage floor and back wall of the stage are covered in metallic reflective tiles, making the theatre seem much bigger than it is. The only piece of scenery is a large metal ball hanging from a wire. Reflected on the back wall, it is perhaps meant to evoke the three-ball symbol of money lenders associated with the Medici. The cast sit on stools at either side of the stage (being a bit of a thickie, I initially thought this was a new space the RSC had set aside for people with mobility problems). The stage is spare but not stark, because light and shadow are bounced around erratically by the reflective tiles, accentuating both the lighter and darker episodes in the drama. At the conclusion, candles are placed on the stage, beautifully realising the magical unreality of Belmont; and throughout the play the musical accompaniment, evoking haunting renaissance church music, helps to underline a rising atmosphere of heavy unease.

One disappointing aspect of the play is the costumes. The actors wear modern dress, which makes sense (Elizabethan dress would probably not suit the nightclub feel of the stage), but the outfits are either tediously drab (Antonio, Lorenzo, Bassiano) or garishly ‘street’ (Gratiano). In either approach, the results are bland and often ill-fitting, completely ill-suited (bad pun intended) to the Venetian setting, in which glamour, even an understated or decaying glamour, might have worked better.

As the audience enter, Antonio stands alone on the stage. Only after a few minutes, does it become clear that he weeps. At first, this seems to humanise Antonio. Much more so than the hard but melancholy Antonio of Jeremy Irons in the 2004 film, Jamie Ballard’s Antonio might at last be a character we connect emotionally connect with. This intriguing approach (a likeable Antonio!) might cast a penetrating light on the relationship between Shylock and Antonio, but it is quickly and disappointingly stubbed out. Soon after, Antonio is hard and unattractive, whilst being at times frighteningly close to a nervous breakdown. Perhaps the director thought that taking two new approaches to Antonio would be too much for the audience to take, because she does make clear (does she ever!) that the love between Antonio and Bassiano goes far beyond even the strongest heterosexual friendship. By keeping Antonio both gay and un-likeable, we end up with both the gayest character, as well as the character played by a black actor (Gratiano), being the most bigoted.

The sparseness of the stage decoration helps to emphasise the moments of extreme physicality. Jamie Ballard’s convulsive torment in the moments before his expected execution is intense, but the most shocking moment of the play occurs when Antonio tells Shylock to ‘lend it rather as to thine enemy’, taking the menace to a new level as he grabs Shylock by the throat and spits three times into his face. Besides Antonio and Shylock, Ken Nwosu does well in the lesser role of Gratiano and Patsy Ferran as Portia is also excellent, although perhaps not really beautiful enough for the part. Her ‘which the merchant and which the Jew’ line, played for laughs as she says it facing the two men, one in a skullcap, allowed for a moment of brotherhood between Shylock and Antonio, as both roll their eyes at the idiocy of the young jurist sent to decide their case. Tim Samuels is a riotous and riveting Launcelot Gobbo, almost singlehandedly putting the humour back into a play that has largely lost it.

Makram J. Khoury
Makram J. Khoury as Shylock is the standout performance, making up for the predictable characterization and making the production truly memorable. The nobility of his character is fully realised, but so too is his fragility. Dressed like somebody’s grandfather, shuffling along and with shaking hands, his physical weakness in contrast to the young hooligans of Venice helps to clarify the life of communal contempt he stoically endures and the terrible vengeance he feels entitles to take after the Christians have humiliated him and destroyed his family. This solitary obduracy gains tragic grandeur combined with his physical frailty. We cannot get around the fact that killing a person for not paying a debt is bad. But so too is Shylock’s treatment by the Venetians. The laws of Venice are his only chance to attain a semblance of justice and that justice is not only taken away, but new injustices are heaped upon him. When Shylock’s justice is denied, we see the limits of state sanctioned equality. No matter how cosmopolitan the laws of Venice claim to be, Jews like Shylock will never be equals as long as men like Antonio call the shots.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Jew of Malta at the Swan Theatre Review

Review: Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta was perhaps the most popular of the 1590s, but for a modern viewer, the issue of the play’s overt anti-Semitism pushes itself forward as the most pressing concern. After the Holocaust, how it could it not? And the resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe today only adds to our unease about a play in which the Jewish anti-hero is such an outrageously roguish mass-murderer. The similarities and dissimilarities to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice are worth considering. Both Marlowe’s Barabas and Shakespeare’s Shylock are unpopular, miserly businessmen. However, Barabas is a pantomime figure, whereas Shylock is a more rounded character who seems to have a life beyond the play. Barabas’ boastfulness and failure are typical of the villains in traditional English ‘Vice’ plays. Marlowe adds a perceived Machiavellian self-interest to Barabas, but this is complementary to the villain rather than a departure. Shakespeare gives Shylock sympathetic lines, such as the ‘Hath not a Jew Eyes?’ speech, whilst still giving him detestable qualities, which makes him seem much more human and ‘real’ than Barabas. Still, there may be a little more to the Jew of Malta – both in terms of warming our attitude to Barabas and in terms of themes which extend beyond the play’s crude anti-Semitism. This RSC production is a success in bringing both aspects to the audience’s attention.

As the title suggests, the play is set on Malta, a largely Christian community with a Jewish minority, governed by the Knights of St John but nominally ruled and threatened by the growing menace of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. After neglecting to pay tribute to their Turkish overlords, an Ottoman fleet arrives to demand ten years’ worth of unpaid tribute. The Christian governor, Fernese, calls the island’s Jewish merchants to a meeting and delivers an ultimatum: turn over 50% of their wealth to the government, convert to Christianity and pay nothing, or lose everything. The other Jews agree to hand over half their wealth but Barabas, the wealthiest man on the island, refuses and so loses everything. In vengeance, Barabas engineers a feud between the governor’s son and his friend in which they are both slain. This leads to further crimes; including the poisoning of an entire nunnery (including his daughter Abigail), the murder of a friar, the framing of another friar for murder and the betrayal of the island to the Turks. Finally, Barabas even betrays the Turks but improvidently trusts Fernese and ends up himself betrayed to a grisly death.

The prologue, spoken by ‘Machiavel’, asks us to watch sympathetically the doings of his friend Barabas but, as many modern versions have emphasised, the most successful Machiavellian in the play is the arch hypocrite Fernese, who betrays his alliance with the Turks and in the end betrays Barabas, whilst accusing Barabas of treachery. One area where Fernese’s Machiavellianism falls down is his leaving Barabas alive after confiscating his property (as well as the other Jews who have lost half their wealth). The Prince says men will more easily forgive the murder of their father than the theft of their wealth and Barabas spells out the Machiavellian sentiment when he says that ‘I esteem the injury far less to take the lives of miserable men than be the causers of their misery’. Barabas can be Machiavellian at times, especially in the use of deception to achieve his aims, but he is far from perfect. In the end, in possibly the least psychologically realistic part of an often psychologically unrealistic play, Barabas trusts Fernese. In this production, Barabas’ explanatory soliloquy for this strange about face is put instead into the mouth of Abigail’s ghost/hallucination, which both humanises Barabas (is she the personification of his guilt, the personification of a subconscious desire to die?) and makes more believable the absurd and un-Machiavellian reasoning for trusting a man he has so badly harmed.

Barabas is converted
The prologue’s claim that ‘there is no sin but ignorance’ is given extra emphasis in this production by giving it both at the very beginning and then repeating it in its usual place slightly later on. The effect is to underline the anti-religious aspect of the play, which in itself take something away from the anti-Jew angle. If Marlowe was accusing all of ignorance, and including all religions in that accusation, then the specific aspects of anti-Judaism are simply facets of a broader assault taking in Christianity too. One has to be sceptical that the original audience would have viewed it that way (or the majority of them at any rate), but this interpretation does make the play more palatable to a modern, more secular audience, used to the anti-religious musings of Dawkins & co. Marlowe uses complex ironies to devastating effect, as in Fernese’s hypocritical exclamation that ‘covetousness, oh ‘tis a monstrous sin’ as he steals Barabas’ property. Even the friars argue about who will get Barabas’ wealth, and one exclaims upon Abigail’s death, ‘Ay, and a virgin too, that grieves me most’, suggesting that Ithamore may have been right when he said ‘hath not the nuns fine sport with the friars now and then?’ Friar Jacomo (Matthew Kelly) and Friar Barnadine (Geoffrey Freshwater) are excellent – slimy, smirking, seedy and greedy.

The current production makes Barabas more sympathetic by having him enter holding baby, leading ceremonial march of Jewish men, and singing (I think) a Hebrew lullaby. Likewise, before the madness of his vengeance takes control, his relationship with his daughter Abigail is both warm and realistic. Barabas’ vengeance stems from what appears to be almost a nervous breakdown in this version, brilliantly portrayed by Jasper Britton, whose complex and charismatic Barabas is outstanding. In contrast, the original text makes the change less comprehensible: Barabas begins as a contemptible Jew and then becomes a rampaging pantomime villain. Shylock’s resentment is realised much more fully. Shylock realises he is hated by the Venetians (‘I am not bid for love’), so his anger (‘thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause’) is understandable (especially when is tipped over the edge by the elopement of his daughter with his ducats). Barabas’ justifications are less clear-cut (though having all of your wealth confiscated because of your race and religion is hardly a trivial matter), but this RSC adaptation accentuates the daily humiliations poured on Barabas by his Christian neighbours, ranging from mocking laughter, to spitting on him, to physical violence. All this serves to make us sympathise with Barabas. Likewise, Barabas’ joyful, cheeky laughter on seeing Abigail dressed as a fake nun and laughing like a schoolboy with Ithamore (admittedly after wiping out a nunnery) is endearing. And, though evil, he is at least multi-talented: miser, murderer, trader, engineer, governor, lautist. Barabas is simply too immoral to be real, and has no problems pretending to convert to Christianity to further his ends, whereas for Shylock conversion is a real punishment. Barabas is closest to Richard III – except he has more justification for his hatred and he is a lot funnier in the way he goes about his vengeance, like the House of Cards’ Frank Underwood on coke.

Nevertheless, Barabas is a caricature of everything anti-Semites accused the Jews of doing, which makes him much less subtle than Shylock. It is tempting to think that these traits were played up to play them down, in effect to be such a parody of anti-Jewish tropes that the anti-Semitic tropes appear nonsensical to any sane observer. This might be the case or it might not (it doesn’t take much research to discover that anti-Semites today seem to seriously entertain some absurd beliefs about Jews). Still, perhaps carried away on a wave of Barabas’ charisma or suffering from a surfeit of post-modern irony, I don’t think Barabas’ confession to Ithamore is supposed to be taken seriously:

            As for myself, I walk abroad o’nights
            And kill sick people groaning under walls:
            Sometimes I go about and poison wells…

Did the original audience believe such wild libels or, like the Swan Theatre’s twenty-first century audience, did they think that Barabas was taking advantage of anti-Jewish gullibility (in this case to impress an anti-Christian Muslim)? In other places, Barabas does use others’ preconceptions of Jewish difference for his own ends (e.g. saying that Abigail’s weeping over an unhappy engagement is really a Jewish custom). Ithamore responds with his own tall tales of anti-Christian atrocities – although in the age of IS, perhaps I should not be so quick to discount their intended earnestness.

Marlowe was writing in the English morality play tradition and, although he introduced some innovations in melding this genre with that of tragedy, and in adding the heavy dose of dark humour, his characters remained as representations lessons or types, rather than people. Shakespeare took the Marlovian original theme, and enhanced it using folk tales, classical allusions and techniques and a greater emphasis on well-rounded characters, in a fusion of English and Renaissance attributes to create something new and brilliant. So the humanity in this production usually comes from the talent of the actors. Andy Apollo as Ludowick is suitably posh and irritating as the governor’s son – ensuring we had no sympathy for his death. Colin Ryan as Don Mathias is also irritating, but too boyish and not attractive enough to be an authentic love interest for the beautiful Abigail (Catrin Stewart). Lanre Malalou acted well as Ithamore but he played it too slavish, too damaged, as if he has suffered a lifetime of abuse and slavery: facial tics, stooping, stuttering, but he was only just enslaved, according to the Spanish admiral he was captured shortly before being sold on Malta. Either they have seen ‘slave’ and fitted all our modern guilt and hang-ups into the term, or the actor is a believer in Homer’s idea that Zeus ‘takes away half of a man's virtue, when the day of slavery comes upon him’ (Odyssey). The problem was the approach rather than the technique. The battle scenes were somewhat weak. Over-stylized and choreographed, they are like a line dance or something the Jets and the Sharks might get up to in West Side Story.

Overall, the Swan’s Jew of Malta is highly recommended – it is brisk, there is plenty of action, the play’s timely themes are cleverly engaged with, and this performance uses a high level of physicality to highlight nuance (rather than to simply get cheap laughs, although there are plenty of laughs too). The acting is of a high quality and the director’s interpretation has reached the perfect balance between black humour and tragedy. After such a spirited and thoughtful adaptation of Marlowe’s great Jewish comic tragedy, expectations are high and mounting for the RSC’s latest production of Shakespeare’s great, Jewish, tragic comedy in May.