Sunday, 29 July 2012

A Modern Comedy of Errors

Much as I've enjoyed the last few plays I've seen at the RST, after the serious and slightly unsettling tone I've become accustomed to, it was nice to see something a bit more light-hearted and easy-going in The Comedy of Errors on Wednesday. Despite the fact that neither pair of twins looked anything like each other, the entire audience was quite willing to suspend its disbelief, partly because (as I discussed in my Julius Caesar review earlier), that's the nature of the theatre, but also partly because of the strength of the actors and their comic timing. There's an entertaining little interview in the programme with Bruce Mackinnon and Felix Hayes, who played the two Dromios, where the actors explain how they were partly selected because of the similarities in their acting styles, and additionally how they watched each other and tried to shape their own expressions and postures to each others'.

Although there's something quintessentially Renaissance about the early capitalism of this play, I really loved the decision to update it. Amir Nizar Zuabi's take on Shakespeare's work saw Antipholus of Ephesus as a kind of geezer/wide-boy type, permitting an interpretation of the “credit”, which Daniel Vitkus discusses extensively in his article in the programme, as something like “street-cred”. It fitted perfectly: the central image of the chain was easily translated into a wonderfully tacky bit of “bling” that Antipholus had bought either (it's never made quite clear) for his wife or for his favourite whore.

There's something to be said for the timing of this commentary on the merchant-capitalist world at the moment, whether or not the production team and ensemble were fully aware of it. The financial “credit” system, just beginning to take off when Shakespeare wrote this play, has now reached epidemic proportions, leading to the “global financial crisis” or “world recession” that has somehow been allowed to happen. The illogic of a situation where everyone owes money to someone and nobody actually has any never ceases to astound me. Although, as Vitkus notes, the play never thoroughly resolves its credit issues or pays off all its debts, it's made quite clear that, as long as the two Antipholuses pay what they're supposed to, everyone else will be okay: i.e. someone always has the money and the power to solve financial problems. In the case of global economic politics today, however, things have become so complicated that its not even really clear who owes whom any more, and there don't seem to be any simple ways of resolving the issue. I don't know how this can be the case but, hey, I'm told it is, and I gave up on Maths after I finished my GCSEs, so I probably wouldn't understand it even if someone gave me a legitimate explanation. This is about as much as I can get my head around. The way I see it, all the real stuff that's happening now is far more farcical and ridiculous than anything the mind of Shakespeare could invent.

Vitkus explains that the seventeenth century was the exact period when the word “credit” began to be associated more with money than with morals. Prior to this, it had principally referred to a person's personal or moral worth. Such a reading of the word still lingers in certain linguistic contexts today – something can be “to a person's credit”, or we can “credit someone with something”. Even film “credits” retain something of this, though that's at least in part bound up with the now more common monetary interpretation. I found this particularly interesting because already in Shakespeare's time we can see hints of where our society was headed – and where its found itself now. Today, one's economic situation is seen by many as the be all and end all. Fame and fortune are what we are encouraged to aspire to, what we are taught to channel our hopes and ambitions towards, leaving other such potential goals as strong moral character, compassion, good citizenship, responsible parenting, or even creative innovation relatively unregarded. This is why we see people willing to air all their personal problems in public, just to get themselves on national television, and people willing to be watched 24/7 by strangers or to make fools of themselves on reality shows. It's why people sell their stories to the tabloids, and it's even behind much of what happened in the London riots. One's status is now based almost solely on what one has, rather than what one does and, for all his own status as a self-made man - entirely the product of the new capitalist economy - The Comedy of Errors nevertheless suggests that this economy was something Shakespeare was more than capable of criticising.

Perhaps we can all learn a little something from the perfect brotherhood and selflessness of the two Dromios in their encounter at the end of the play. Although this pair of underling twins never (unlike at least one of their masters, and their masters' father) actively wished to seek each other out, it's nonetheless easy to believe that their new-found friendship and fraternity will be the play's most long-lasting. Neither father nor mother to the children made any decent attempt to seek out their lost children. Moreover, as Vitkus suggests, both Antipholuses seem liable to end up at odds with each other: Shakespeare spends far more of the play setting them up as rivals than as friends. Antipholus of Syracuse has too well enjoyed the high-life lived by his climbing capitalist brother to readily give it up, yet neither does Antipholus of Ephesus seem likely to relinquish his role as top dog, or even to readily share it with another. Only the Dromios, then, seem finally to recognise the greater value of love, friendship and equality, leaving the stage “like brother and brother....hand in hand, not one before another.” Despite, or perhaps because of, their lack of ambition in the way of money and status, then, we might see these two as the play's most truly “creditable” characters. At several points during the play, Dromio of Syracuse is given large amounts of money by his superiors but, in spite of the accusations levelled against him and his brother, neither of them, we feel sure, would ever dream of theft or dishonesty. Instead, these characters live to please, remain unassuming and self-deprecating, and are, finally, ready to open their hearts to new friendships.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

"Tweenage Kicks": Angry Young Women vs. Andrew Collins

So I've just left off getting angry over this article enough to write something half-decent about it. Interestingly, I spotted it just after I'd spent a good chunk of my morning watching more Anita Sarkeesian videos. Both happened to be focusing on how things are marketed and represented to particular audiences, particularly to young girls. However, while Anita's comments are always intelligent, insightful, and well argued, even when I don't agree with her, Andrew Collins has managed to churn out a load of patronising, badly judged drivel on behalf of the Radio Times. So let's start with the first "tween" culture reference in the title of the article: the Twilight franchise. Here's what Anita has to say about Twilight:

Fair dues. Now here's Andrew's version of what Twilight is all about:
Tweens are fed a carefully mixed cocktail of harmless My Guy romance and an explicitly chaste kind of sexual promise, so that the intoxicating effect is aspirational and at the same time safe or as safe as any saga about vampires and werewolves can be.
Wow. Aspirational. Hm. Even if you're into your slushy romantic rubbish, could you really call a "My Guy romance and an explicitly chaste kind of sexual promise" an aspiration? A quick search on Google gives you these definitions for "aspiration":


  1. A hope or ambition of achieving something: "he had nothing tangible to back up his literary aspirations".
  2. The object of such an ambition; a goal.
So, specifically, an "ambition" is an intention to "achieve" something. Whatever your feelings about Edward, I fail to see how his making a "chaste promise" can in any way be classed as aspirational for girls. He (not Bella), is promising not to do something. Quite aside from its instantly vomit-inducing effect, the quotation above doesn't even make sense. So much for that.

Next, The Hunger Games. I don't entirely agree with Anita on this one because, personally, I found a lot to enjoy about the second and third books, even if they weren't as strong as the first. I also take issue with some of her more negative comments. For example, she doesn't believe that parents would give up their kids to fight to the death, while I'd argue that this already does happen in real life: many parents are perfectly happy for their kids to join the military, proud of them for going out to war with the intention of murdering other people's kids, and then seem strangely surprised when their soldier sons end up killed in combat. She also doesn't think that the kids from the Districts have been dehumanised enough by the Capitol to make it convincing that viewers would accept it, despite the fact that she recognises slavery as dehumanising people enough for it to work. I'd argue that Suzanne Collins makes it clear that the Districts pretty much are slaves to the Capitol - at least in all but name. I'm also not fundamentally opposed to a romance plot, if it's done well enough. Still, most of what she says about the first novel here is well put:

Let's compare this assessment to Andrew Collins's view:
The Hunger Games is another “young adult” franchise now in the process of bounding from page to screen… yes, a dystopian sci-fi saga, but this time with feminist “girl power” in the shape of the book’s teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who must compete in a multi-player battle to the death.
Just to clarify for anybody who doesn't remember the 90s or wasn't in Britain during that period, "girl power" is a term most commonly associated with the pop band the Spice Girls and the rest of the hideous "music" industry they belonged to. Essentially, it's the preferred mantra of an absolutely insidious kind of sexism which masquerades as a form of feminism, sexualising, stereotyping and infantilising women (quite aside from the creepiness of Emma Bunton being "Baby Spice", note the fact that it's "girl" and not "woman" power), setting the equal rights clock back several decades and effectively erasing all the work done by feminists in the 70s and 80s. So, all in all, a great choice of term to associate with Katniss Everdeen, who is widely understood as one of the strongest and most interesting YA female characters aimed at a teenage audience ever created.

The third thing the title refers to is Julian Fellowes's upcoming film of Romeo and Juliet. Judging from Collins's article, I'd wouldn't have thought it sounded very promising. That said, it's not really much to go on, given the woefully misguided assessments of the Hunger Games and Twilight franchises that we've already seen.

My initial reaction to this article, believe it or not, was actually excitement when I read that the fantastic Hailee Steinfeld was going to be starring in a production of this wonderful, if much misunderstood play. Potentially, it could be great for kids reading Shakespeare in school to have an accessible alternative to Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version to watch. Though enjoyable, Luhrmann's interpretation leaves much to be desired, for precisely the reason that Andrew Collins inadvertently gives in his article. "Romeo and Juliet errs towards the soppy". This is true enough of Luhrmann's version, but not of the play in general. I can only hope that Collins's assessment is meant to refer only to the upcoming film, rather than to the original play, because if that's what you honestly think of any of Shakespeare's work then you should shut up and educate yourself. Bear in mind we're talking about a writer who actively ridiculed the "soppy" Petrarchan conventions of his time, and was responsible for creating this little gem of a poem, which in its way pretty much overturned all expectations about sonnets at the time. Despite common misconceptions, Romeo and Juliet actually makes almost exactly the same point. Romeo is a fickle and childish lover, who only thinks that Juliet is the love of his life. We know this because, at the start of the play, Romeo is in an agony of love over another woman, Rosaline. Shakespeare didn't just write in this other unseen character for no reason - as Friar Laurence rather scathingly comments later on:
Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here! 
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear, 
So soon forsaken? Young men's love then lies 
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes. 
This is a major theme throughout the play. Shakespeare is obviously well aware of his characters' immaturity and wants us to notice it. For some reason, people nowadays, in a supposedly more sexually liberated society, seem perfectly willing to accept that Romeo and Juliet meet at a party, get married and kill themselves for each other all in the space of a few days. Wake up everyone! This isn't rational or reasonable behaviour by anyone's standards! It's not romantic, it's just plain ridiculous. Shakespeare definitely never conceived of the play as the great love story it's come to be seen as. In fact, the romance plot is principally a device designed to serve the play's most important theme: conflict. This isn't a play about love, it's a play about hatred and violence and feuding and the futility thereof, and about full-grown men who should know better carrying their childish enmity with them into old age, and abusing their power by inflicting their prejudices on the those who look up to them.

So what if Collins just means the film? Well, having seen Hailee Steinfeld star in True Grit as the intelligent, resourceful, and also very cold and hardened Mattie Ross, I'd be deeply disappointed if she has actually pandered to pressure to go silly and girly and romantic. Incidentally, that's not what Juliet is, and from what I've seen of Steinfeld, I'd say she should be fairly well-suited to the role. If you don't believe me, check this out. That's pretty damn raunchy. Romeo might mince and sugarcoat his words, but Juliet, by contrast, gets rather shockingly to the point. She seems a lot more canny and streetwise than her husband, despite being shut away all the time, and being only fourteen. See, young teens can exceed expectations.

Moving on to the other films Collins mentions nearer the end of the article. The first is Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. For me, this film was a major disappointment. Although they do revolve around a fairly stereotypical girl and a fairly stereotypical love triangle, I actually really, really love The Confessions of Georgia Nicolson. The reasons? 1) Georgia is a well-rounded and endearing character, who spends time with her family and other female friends and, although at her tender age she is excessively preoccupied with the opposite sex, it's not the only thing she ever talks about, and she can have fun in other ways. 2) These are amongst the funniest books I have ever read. Yes, there's romance, but it's done in such a knowing and ironic way that we're encouraged to laugh at Georgia's foolishness even as we sympathise with and grow to love her. We can concern ourselves over her bad decisions while similarly being secure in the knowledge that she will ultimately grow up, see sense and realise that she ought to be with her hilarious best friend, rather than any of her pretty, air-headed boyfriends (note the reversal of the usual stereotype here). Unfortunately, the film seemed to drain away all of Georgia's and Dave's charm, chemistry and charisma. Instead, it tried to present love interest Robbie as a much more sympathetic, if no less boring, character. So in the film, we're meant to want Georgia to end up with the stupid, dull one. Even the changing of the title from Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging didn't bode well: the disparity in tone between the words "Perfect" and "Full-Frontal" pretty much set the disparity in tone between the whole of the film and the whole of the book. Collins, on the other hand, says that:
Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging...with its indie soundtrack and accent on kissing and being dumped, was anything but saccharine.
I beg to differ. An indie soundtrack and discussion of kissing does not a challenging, innovative or in any way interesting film make.

Finally, the article rounds off by talking about The Amazing Spider-Man. At last, you might be thinking, at least one paragraph that can't be quite so infuriating. If girls are into superheroes, that proves they don't only care about boys and kissing, right? They might like to see action scenes, they might enjoy the creative and imaginative possibilities of the fantasy genre, or they might even take an interest in the geeky science side of the film. After all, Gwen Stacy is a great heroine and potential role model. She's funny, intelligent and tough. She not only starts off the film having proved that her intellect is equal, if not superior, to that of her boyfriend-to-be, having already landed herself a job at science research company Oscorp, purely on the strength of her own achievements and confidence. Peter, meanwhile, merely sneaks into the building and becomes friends with Curt Connors through his family connections. Gwen then twice risks her own life saving Peter's neck, so eat that, Mary-Jane! Here is a heroine that, unlike any of the others discussed so far, actually offers girls something to aspire to. Remember that word? Aspiration. You know like, girls, you can get a good job! You can save people's lives! You can do well in school and learn things! But, naturally, according to Andrew Collins, none of this could possibly be of any importance to the girls who like the film. Obviously, all they're really interested in is this:
the current superhero reboot The Amazing Spider-Man....has Andrew Garfield pushed up against the lockers in high school and actually kissing a girl when he’s not in his mask. A superhero movie that’s not exclusively aimed at teenage boys? Who’d have thought it?
Yep, that's right. Kissing and boys. Of course. And, here's the cherry on the cake: after repeatedly and extensively patronising young girls, he actually has the nerve to say that, "The Tween market can’t be patronised". No, no, because telling girls they should be making chaste promises, obsessing over boys, and occasionally having babies isn't the slightest bit patronising.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

A Shakespeare in Every Playwright...

Last night we popped over to Stratford-Upon-Avon because we'd been offered a £5 deal on tickets for a new play at the Swan, A Soldier in Every Son On the whole, I like to be supportive of new writers' work, and I know that there are some fabulous and very under-appreciated playwrights out there. That said, anywhere other than the Royal Court in London, which seems to always get the best of the best in new writing, seeing new plays can be a bit of a hit and miss experience. The last time I saw something by a playwright I'd never heard of before in Stratford, it was breathtaking. That was Helen Edmundson's The Heresy Of Love. We'd got a similar deal on these tickets (they often do this for early, pre-press night performances, which are harder to fill up), and, much like last night, I didn't really know what to expect. I was absolutely blown away and came out of the theatre alternately weeping at the story's devastating ending, and raving about the production as a whole. It wasn't long after that that Edmundson's name cropped up again when I went to see her adaptation of Swallows and Amazons at the Belgrade in Coventry, which was similarly impressive if rather different in tone. Discounting the regular non-Shakespeare Christmas productions they have on in the RSC theatres, however (all of which I've seen – The Arabian Nights, Matilda and The Heart of Robin Hood - have been brilliant), the last original play I'd seen before that was Nathalia Vorozhbit's The Grain Store, which I didn't really enjoy at all (although that was more a question of taste than of quality).

To be fair to A Soldier in Every Son, there was a lot to enjoy about it, as there is with pretty much every RSC show. The design was beautiful, the make-up and costumes particularly spectacular. The acting, too, was exemplary. There were some familiar faces: several members of the brilliant cast from Richard III  (which I saw back in May), including Brian Ferguson, who's definitely one to watch, and Iain Batchelor, who, good as he is, now seems a bit wrong to me in any role other than that of Henry VII. You'd be hard pushed to find a more perfect bit of casting in anything – looking at him, I could swear he secretly is a Tudor. There were also some new people who impressed me, particularly Alex Waldmann, who stole the show as both Prince Ixtlixochitl, and later his son, Nezahualcoyot. In fact, the actors worked so hard and performed so well, that I did honestly feel for them during the rather half-hearted applause at the end of the show.

Where it fell down, I felt, was not in the acting or direction, but rather in the script. Often, the work that script-writers do isn't particularly well-recognised – still less so on screen than on the stage – and can be seen to be of secondary importance to the success or failure of a show overall. Unfortunately, however, the proof to the contrary is in the production: where one or two weaker actors can easily be overshadowed by other, better ones, if a script's not quite up to scratch, even if it's more or less “okay”, it always reflects badly on everyone. I couldn't say for certain what went wrong with this one. Since the playwright is actually Mexican, what we saw was, of course, an English version of his play, which may or may not reflect the original writer's choices and intentions. The story worked well enough, I guess. It's not quite to my taste, that Henry VI-esque circularity with battle after battle after battle, but even then you can get away with it with a few big personalities. Shakespeare had his Gloucester (later Richard III) and his Margaret. I'm not quite sure whom A Soldier in Every Son had (again, I stress, no fault of the actors'). More bothersome than that, however, was the standard of the dialogue, which not only clunked along in general, but also seemed constantly unsure of its register. At times, it was clearly aiming for the kind of heightened language that Shakespearean play-goers are accustomed to. It wasn't verse, but in these particular moments, it was going for big, stand-out and formal-speech-worthy words. For me, it never quite made it there. There was no great linguistic flair, no sparkling originality. It all felt rather tired and familiar. So much for the higher register. The rest of the time, it was even more frustrating. Most of the dialogue slouched along in a much more banal and hackneyed fashion. Even the most important characters spoke in a purely functional and ordinary way, with bouts of excessive swearing being used to extract cheap laughs from the audience. Don't get me wrong, I'm not someone who has a problem with expletives in general – but if you're going to use them, do it sparingly and creatively. And you'd do well to remember that, even in a relatively modern setting, it is possible to come up with some pretty epic insults without using any swearing at all. But it was more than that. Any writer worth their salt knows that, even when you want to give the impression of people talking like ordinary people, you don't actually, write dialogue the way people would speak in everyday life. It has to be better than that, much more condensed. Real people talk rubbish. They say things that are boring, mundane, repetitive, and often leading nowhere. If you try to get people doing that in a production, everything will seem to take forever and just be interminably dull. In a script, even the simplest and most ordinary-sounding lines need to be well-crafted – inventive, but to the point. Watch an episode of anything half-decent on TV and try to imagine yourself and your friends and family speaking to each other like the characters do. It doesn't happen. Of course, in a production that makes some attempts at more poetic language, the really obvious, pedestrian exchanges stick out even more than they would otherwise, and still more so in the mouths of particular characters in certain settings.

I'll readily own that I'm no expert on medieval America, but I reckon I can say with some certainty that its society was one that very much stood on ceremony. People in Britain today have a lot less regard for language than they have ever had before. Not because our vocabularies are more limited, or because we're stupid, or modern, but simply because we've done away with most of the cultural formalities and status distinctions which, when put in practice, quickly become embedded in language. Other countries still have these – even countries very near to our own. In France, there are still formal and informal addresses (“vous” or “tu” where we just have “you”), though I have French-speaking friends who tell me that these are going out of fashion. Some languages, such as Japanese, have so many levels of distinction and politeness that it's very easy, as a foreigner, to accidentally insult someone. But, even here and now, where it's less important to us, we still expect certain people to speak in certain ways. You'd be surprised, for example, if dear old Queen Liz came out effing and blinding in public - remember the fuss that was kicked up back in 2007 when she got a bit huffy about sitting for her picture? And that was nothing, really. Even from politicians, we expect a certain amount of decorum, particularly when they're giving important public speeches. However the Nahuatl language is itself constructed, the best way to convey a sense of another, older and more formal culture is to manipulate conventions of the language you're actually working with. I'm not saying I expected people to be theeing and thouing and and-it-please-youing, but I'd have to say honestly that it rang a little false for me when the Tepanec ruler was calling people fucking fuckers and shouting about his potential son-in-law's bell-end in front of a room full of people. Just saying.

If these problems were endemic in the original Spanish script, it's a real shame because, as Luis Mario Moncada explains in this interview, it's a largely ignored and very under-investigated historical period. Even in Mexico, people don't really learn about their country's pre-conquistadore past, and there's very little creative literature or art set in or based around that time. Given this wealth of unmined material - which really ought to be a writer's dream - I did wonder what exactly was the point of all the Shakespeare. I mean, sure, he's the most famous historical playwright worldwide, but that doesn't mean you have to copy him to do anything worthwhile. I don't really have any issues with writers borrowing from other writers – nowadays it's necessary, of course – but, what I did find annoying were a number of scenes which were less “homage” than direct lifts from Shakespeare's texts. For example, there was one point at which Ixtlixochitl and his friend, Tochitzin, act out a little play of their own in the roles of the prince and his father. To qualify: this wasn't loosely based on Hal and Falstaff in 1 Henry IV, it was Hal and Falstaff in 1 Henry IV, and unnecessarily so. Admittedly, this scene struck me particularly since I'd been watching Part 3 of The Hollow Crown just the night before (more on that later), but it's an iconic scene, which was neither cleverly and subtly referenced, nor re-done in an interesting and original way, nor particularly significant to the plot of A Soldier in Every Son. I like the idea of comparing countries' histories, because, as I've said before, I like to think that, fundamentally, people are people wherever and whenever you go, but I'm afraid that was taking the “borrowing” a little too far to seem worthwhile.

If, on the other hand, the bulk of the problems came from the translators, then what were they doing? Going for word-perfect accuracy? That's not how you translate. Unless you're working with poetry (where, of course individual word choice and order is crucial – hence verse is more or less untranslatable), the best method is to get the gist of the story and the characters, and re-write everything from there. It will be different, it will be a new piece of work, rather than a true copy, but that's always been the case, and it's part of the fun of the process.

All said, I'd have to be fair to everyone involved and say it's worth a look, for the quality of the performance itself. It's not bad – there's certainly a lot worse out there that people pay a lot more money to see. I guess part of the problem is one of expectation. I still get very excited about RSC productions, because they're almost always dazzling. And, I'm afraid, this one just didn't quite live up to the standard set.

It's Alive?

On Saturday night I found myself at a screening of a very old, and very wonderful film: The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. This screening happened to be part of a “Hammer Festival”, organised in celebration of the successful revival of the studio, which began in February with the release of The Woman in Black. The event, which included a discussion and Q&A session with Mark Gatiss and Jonathon Rigby (who collaborated on a History of Horror series back in 2010), took place at the Phoenix independent cinema in Leicester - a wonderful place that I'd never heard of prior to booking my tickets (I see they have a sci-fi fest coming up soon too! :D).

For me, some of the most interesting comments of the evening were the relatively off-topic remarks given in response to one audience question. Rather aptly, given the “risen from the grave” theme, the discussion came round to the question of remakes, adaptations and continuations of older films, shows and stories. Mark Gatiss was asked at one point which Hammer horror film he would most like to remake if given the choice, to which he responded, quite reasonably, that he wouldn't. Too much of what we find on television these days, he observed, is covering the same old ground – there's a relative absence of fresh, exciting new material. Much as I'm sure he loves them, he made it quite clear that he'd much rather have created something fully his own than have spent the last few years helping to re-do Sherlock Holmes and revive Doctor Who. The problem is, unfortunately, that even well established and respected writers like Gatiss apparently find it very difficult to get original work commissioned.

Of course it's perfectly believable, and understandable, that this should be the case. TV companies simply don't have money to throw around any more. What with DVDs and downloading (both legal and illegal), hardly anyone really watches television any more, with the possible exceptions of sports and reality shows. If you want news, you can find it on the internet. If you want to watch a good film, you can buy or borrow a blue-ray. If you want to watch a good TV drama, you can stream it online. Where students and young people probably used to be some of the prime consumers of television programmes, having more time to kill, particularly during the day, it's now become relatively unusual to even see a TV set in a student flat or household, since they can get everything they want on their computers much cheaper – so, less money for the BBC. TV advertising, too, now generates a fairly negligible revenue, since we're bombarded constantly by much more attention-grabbing (and rather more irritating) advertising all over virtually every website we visit, often deliberately obscuring the information we're actually looking for so that we have to take note of them whether we like it or not – so no money for ITV et al either. Distinctions in quality between the output of the license-paid BBC and other commercial channels are rapidly disintegrating, as both sides are forced to compete for ratings by showing more and more of the same: the sort of reality talent shows requiring very little thought and aimed at a mass audience, because these are the only things people can't get elsewhere.

Of course, it's rather disheartening for a budding writer to be told just how difficult it is to sell your work, even when, as in Gatiss's case, your reputation precedes you. What all this made me realise as much as anything, however, was just how incredibly lucky I've been so far. Not that I've had any original material commissioned, of course, but my experience of working in television was an encouraging one. I found an environment that fostered creativity, and people who were willing to put their necks out to get me a break – who still are, in fact. People who wanted to pay me to sit and play around with ideas, to give me time to figure things out before I came up with something, even though they didn't know me, and had no clue that I even would come up with something, let alone anything good.

But, I suppose, to have any hope of breaking out of the vicious circle, you have to take a chance: it's short-sighted not to invest in new people, in new work. And I feel desperate now to prove myself an investment, not to let people down – not just for my own sake, but for the sake of whoever comes next as well. And, of course, for the sake of good television. Because if I fail, and if others who are given the same opportunities fail, what are we left with? Piles of long worn-out and homogeneous wreckage, in amidst which the only creative impulse is a Victor Frankenstein, robbing from the graves of formerly glorious series to piece together some uncannily familiar creature which, in the end, is never quite the perfect new species they had hoped for.

Friday, 6 July 2012

On Banks, Bosons, and Getting Your Big Break

Can anyone lend me ten billion quid?
Why d'you look so glum? Was it something I did?
So the breaking news this week is that the bankers have gone and broken everything again. Or rather, we're reassessing the damage that they did when they broke everything before. Although it's old news, it looked for about five seconds like the government might have decided to actually do something about it. Turns out they haven't. No surprises there.

Meanwhile, back in the world of real work for ordinary pay......well, there isn't any, as any new graduate this year will miserably inform you. I recently read this Independent article which gets the facts mostly right, though quite what Ms Heawood's friends' cooker has to do with the price of bananas I'm at rather a loss to explain. My problem with the piece has less to do with her actual advice (“Stop moaning”, which is generally very good advice) and more to do with its disconcertingly cynical tone. It's true that talking about how you expected the world of work to be like Sex and the City isn't likely to win you points with anyone (though again, where she got this material from, I couldn't begin to imagine – S&tC is, or rather was, aimed at women who are now in their thirties and forties, not my generation, who were just kids when it was aired), and it's true that wallowing in your newly realised unemployability is only going to make you feel worse yourself, rather than changing anything. However, there's a whole world of difference between making a legitimate complaint while still trying to find work, and just plain moping around. To go back to my first point, if the government weren't busy spending billions on bailing out banks and giving tax breaks to other big companies, they might actually have a bit of money left to invest in all the young people, many of whom are likely to more than make it back. Here's what Kim Newman has to say on the subject:
When I graduated in 1980, I was able to move to London (well, near London) and live in a bedsit for three years thanks to benefits. Then, after doing a lot of unpaid work while on the dole, I started supporting myself as a freelance writer. Now, most years, I pay more in tax than I received in state hand-outs during that period - and I've covered my student grant many times over too. Under the system David Cameron wants, where those under twenty-five aren't eligible for housing benefits, I'd never have been able to leave my parents' home in Somerset and would have remained unemployed and unemployable to the present day. So, the kind of career I have is now pretty much barred to those without rich parents ... maybe if the Prime Minister just began all his speeches with 'fuck you, poor people' it would end any confusion as to what kind of big society he wants.
If we don't talk about this, then certainly nothing's going to be done about it. Like Ms Heawood's friends, if we don't speak up, we might as well all take to the good life, because the farming practice might well come in handy for the day when the country reverts back to the feudal system. Heawood utterly fails to make the distinction between constructive criticism and the kind of useless cynicism that annoys her which is (somewhat understandably) increasingly taking hold of young people. Funnily enough though, as far as I can see, the latter is much more akin to her own outlook. Heawood's attitude is one of (as my mother would say) “put up and shut up”: basically, we can't win, so we shouldn't even try. Just get used to it, kids!

Received wisdom at the moment seems to be that students just aren't willing to pull their weight, but there are a whole host of general and particular circumstances which are affecting people's chances of finding work, many of which aren't solely to do with the number of jobs available in the country in general. The first is the (apparently surprising, to some people) fact that not everyone lives in London. I'm not going to dispute Londoners' firm belief that the whole world revolves around their precious little city here – I've lived there long enough now to know better, and besides, at the very least it pretty much has been the centre of the universe in the past, and it's still the only place to be if you're young and looking for interesting work. Unfortunately, current London accommodation prices, coupled with David Cameron's decision that under-25s don't deserve any help with housing, means that those of us who don't have parents living in and around the city (i.e. the vast majority of us), simply cannot afford to live in the capital and work unpaid. But nobody wants to pay you if they can get you for free, and this “free labour market” is becoming increasingly competitive. I studied for my degree at a major London university, but as soon as I finished my course, I gave up my flat there. I had to. I have about enough money left in my current account for one month's rent at ordinary London prices (let alone at the skyrocketing Olympic period rates). I could break into my savings (yes reader, I am a student who has managed to save money, so don't let anybody tell you we're all careless spendthrifts), but then I'm left with nothing to fall back on: despite my present situation, as the managers of a very small, seasonal, business, and with my much younger sister still at school, my parents have even less disposable income than I do. Besides which, even the savings I have wouldn't get me very far in London: once you've added up crazy rent prices, crazy transport prices and all the bills, I'd probably manage for about two or three months max. And I may as well give up all hope of ever owning anything or ever being out of debt, ever. It's bleak and alien world for someone with a working class background like mine, where you grow up believing that debt is the devil, and that it's much better to have something you can call your own, however inadequate, than nothing. Renting has always felt frighteningly insecure to me, and not without reason: I have plenty of friends who've been kicked out of their flats by dodgy landlords who ought to be sued. But hey, we're students, we don't matter. And of course, Grant Shapps says it's unnecessary to introduce stricter regulations for private landlords, and Mr Shapps is an honourable man....

Fundamentally, I'm not opposed to the idea of internships or, as we used to more honestly call them back in the day, work experience placements (giving flashy names to rubbish things just to make them seem more desirable is something that really irks me). I completed a fantastic one myself last summer with the BBC, which ended in real paid work for me. Unfortunately, I stopped working there once my third year of study started. Part of me is already starting to feel this was a mistake, and I'm sure many other people in my situation would think so too. But I never wanted to work while I was studying, and I certainly didn't want to give up on my degree half way through it, even if it was an arts degree (which, incidentally, haven't always been useless, as any cursory glance at the academic histories of our MPs and leaders will show you). Going to university was, for me, a major investment, so I wanted to work hard at it and make it count for something. It paid off – I came out with a first. I'm still not convinced, however, that this makes me any more employable than the next person with a 2.1 or a 2.2 or even a third, since all us students are lazy and self-important, right? The fact that I've already done one unpaid placement with the BBC recently means that I cannot do another one until a full twelve months is up. And really, that's as it should be. This is surely an anti-exploitation rule. I shouldn't have to work unpaid again, and I can't really afford to, but if I don't manage to more or less get my old job back, I will probably have to in order to open up my options.

Still, I tend to look on the bright side of things. As long as I can stay at home and not have to pay rent, I'm happy to carry on working for nothing with other companies if needs be. And there are plenty of people out there who just don't have that luxury. A friend of mine made the decision aged 16 to stay behind when her family moved away, and, without going into details, if she returned to them now, she'd be in extreme danger. But of course, she's not entitled to any help with housing, because David Cameron thinks she should still be living with her parents, and David Cameron is an honourable man.... Fortunately for her, she's managed to find a live-in job, but if she hadn't, I really don't know what she'd do.

Now, I don't know about you, but I'd say that all this put together constitutes legitimate cause for complaint, and depending on how you go about it, raising your voice about it can be a lot more worthwhile than arbitrary and ineffective moaning. That said, of all the people that I know, the friend I mentioned above is perhaps the least likely person in the world to openly complain about anything. In any case, I think Ms Heawood is wrong. We shouldn't stop moaning. We should just be careful about how we go about it.

In other, much more exciting news, CERN has announced that it has finally discovered the all-elusive Higgs Boson, four years after the completion of the LHC in Geneva (or fourteen years since work on the machine began). It's a terrifically exciting time for all of us (including those who went on to become arts students) who got caught up in the big hoo-hah the first time the machine got switched on. I suppose this is probably going to be one of those things that ages us fairly soon. Ehy, when ah were a sixth-former.... .Man, they won't even have sixth-form soon, will they? Well anyway, when I was in sixth form, we had celebratory cake and LHC t-shirts and all sorts. Well, to be fair, we did have celebratory cake for just about everything, even when there wasn't anything better to celebrate than that our English teacher let us bring cake into lessons. My little brother who's a physicist has been very annoyed that all the banking stuff has completely taken over the news, relegating such a significant scientific breakthrough to relative obscurity. While beating the banking scandals may well be classed as more in the public interest than finding out cool stuff about particles, I really can't help but agree with him. Let's have a good news story for once, shall we? So many millions were invested in the banks and look what happened. Meanwhile, so many millions were invested in CERN and the LHC project that we should all be looking up and taking notice now it's coming to fruition. It's great that this has happened, isn't it? It's hardly any wonder that so few people do amazing things when they've always got so little recognition for it. What with the sort of mind-numbing crud people sit down to watch on television these days, you're more likely to get rich and famous (or at least to get a bit of cash on the back of being slightly famous) by behaving like a complete ass than for doing something worthwhile. I almost don't blame the bankers for thinking it's acceptable to be stupid and reckless.

Here's an idea: maybe if we stopped giving all our time and money and attention to the idiots who are going to waste it, we could start taking heed of all the really, truly wonderful things that human beings are capable of. We might end up happier. We might end up more confident and ambitious. Who knows, we might even manage to stop the tide of cynicism that's turning us into a nation of Neil from the Young Oneseseses. I for one say we can do better than this. There is surely a point at which every person who goes on to do something great realises that the “great” men and women who went before them were really just ordinary people like them. By the same token, if the people you look up to are all morons, you're not going to have a whole lot of faith in your own power to succeed. Let's set the bar higher. I haven't given up yet, and neither should you.

Finally, just in case you hadn't already guessed, I'd like to add that I honestly don't think there's any shame in doing an arts degree. Have some more words of wisdom from Mr Newman:
I heard Sir Christopher Frayling on Radio 4 this morning making the valid point that the arts/culture/design/music/whatever sector is only a percentage point or so less lucrative to the UK economy than the financial/banking one. Yet the government bends over backwards to placate and protect 'the City' while going out of its way not to support, encourage or foster us poncy wasters whose doodles and scribbles and twangings earn about the same amount. I don't know any potters who bank in the Channel Islands to avoid tax and can't think of any musicians who've brought about a recession.
Proud to be a literature graduate. (y)

Thursday, 5 July 2012

A Hollow Take

Before watching part one of The Hollow Crown, the BBC's adaptation of Richard II aired on Saturday night, I was already prepared for some of the themes that this version of the play would be touching on. Without having watched it myself, I was given the gist of a conversation about the The Hollow Crown series which took place on The Review Show, broadcast the night before. Rather to my surprise, I was told that Mark Thomas was one of the guests on the show. I wouldn't have thought he'd have much patience with a programme like The Review Show (I know I don't - I had to skip through most of it when I had a look myself), but there he was. Now, I like Mark Thomas, but in this instance, I didn't necessarily agree with what I heard. As I understood it, he'd been arguing that Rupert Goold's “take” on the play was an unnecessary addition, and asking why directors couldn't just use what was already there in the play text. Fundamentally, I don't have any problem with having a “take” something (see my next review of the RSC's current Julius Caesar). In fact, I'd go so far as to say it can be crucial. If you're going to redo something as already overdone as a Shakespeare play, you've got to have a reason, right? You need to bring something to the story that will make it worth watching, make it stand out from countless alternative versions. So I still sat down on Saturday night to watch the film with a completely open mind. What I knew hadn't influenced my judgement. Having now watched both The Review Show and Richard II, however, I can say with some certainty that Mark Thomas was entirely right. On The Review Show, Kerry Shale argues that “you've got to have a take”. True enough, but it has to be something that adds to the play, enhances the story and makes it resonate in certain ways with the audience. Goold's dubious addition of a slightly bizarre homoerotic subtext to Richard II was, quite categorically, not that something.

Before I go any further, I'd like to point out here that reading Shakespeare, or indeed any text, with an eye for queer or alternative sexuality is not something that I'm against in general. Sometimes it can be fruitful. For an example, it's worked so well with Romeo and Juliet that most people these days seem to have forgotten that Shakespeare never actually wrote Mercutio as gay. This is fine (though it would be nice now and then to see a version which doesn't depict him as such, just for the sake of balance). With Richard II, though, this was an unhelpful addition which detracted from the main point of the play, transforming what was originally a well balanced, poignant and potentially still relevant piece of writing about power, recklessness and the problems innate in the political system, into the story of a one-sided struggle on the part of a slightly bewildered, wouldn't-be king and the martrydom of a weirdly masochistic reincarnation of, at once, Christ, St. Sebastian, and Lawrence of Arabia.

Let's be very clear: if there's one thing that Richard II is very definitely not about, it's self-sacrifice. On the contrary, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to show us just how self-serving, in their different ways, his principal characters are. It's already been said somewhere on Twitter that this version of the play is great apart from having missed out all the politics of the original, and I think that's a fair assessment. As I watched, I became increasingly annoyed at the almost wilful inattention to the subtleties of Shakespeare's political analysis. This film has moved, I feel, drastically away from its source text, a play which is about the deposition of immaturity, arrogance and naïve belief in the divine right to rule in favour of something smoother and more calculating, but nevertheless more competent – a kind of real politik, as Mark Thomas put it. Instead, we have a Henry who is fiercely loyal, if proud, who breaks his banishment only to reclaim the power and goods he has been robbed and cheated out of by the king. This is a Henry who is in no way crafty enough to attempt to take over the kingdom, and accordingly, his accession just “happens” by accident. When Henry finally reaches and makes his petition to the king, Richard, to his utter astonishment, not only grants his request, but also almost immediately proceeds to offer up the whole kingdom, entirely unprovoked and unpersuaded.

I still can't really tell if the director consciously intended to present Richard as quite so ridiculous and unsympathetic as he came across. My belief, based on all the saintly and Christ-like imagery attached to the character throughout, is that it probably was not. Nonetheless, as far as I was concerned, all that this imagery served to do was to suggest that Richard was suffering from a kind of Messiah complex, and I found it very unclear why this should be so. In all honesty, I think by this point I was just about as baffled as poor old Henry, who apparently hadn't a clue what had just happened or what on earth he was supposed to do next. In fairness to Goold's reading, Shakespeare undoubtedly presents Richard as highly delusional. For much of the play, Richard's silly, youthful little head is full of his supposed omnipotence, the almost magical power surrounding kings, rendering them uniquely infallible. More than anything else, in my opinion, the play is the story of Richard growing up, awakening to the fact that he is, after all, human, and this goes to the very essence of what his “hollow crown” line is all about. At the point at which he hands over the crown, he has learned the lesson of his own vulnerability. The crown (or his role as king) has no power to protect him when his kingdom turns against him. Not only has he failed to gather the man-power to fight against his rival's troops, he is also completely lacking in the intelligence, eloquence and quick wit needed to win people over with words. Talking his way out of a sticky situation is a skill that he has never learned, because he has never felt the need to, happily relying on his subjects' ingrained reverence for their “rightful” king with not an inkling of the precarious and dependent position this puts him in.

Though not necessarily a dislikeable character, Henry is Richard's polar opposite in this. Despite being a banished man, he manages to rally together support from a whole host of noblemen with talk of justice and the false promise that he has no intention of deposing the king. Of course then when he breaks this promise, no one really minds, because he has already succeeded in making everybody like him. The scene in which Henry's ruthless, calculating nature is typically made most clear is in the execution of Richard's remaining supporters, under the pretence that they have led the poor, trusting, unknowing king astray. Usually, it's quite clear that this is a ruse: Henry needs to make sure that no one will stand in the way of his path to the crown, so he invents an excuse to dispose of his opponents while still managing to appear like he has the king's best interests at heart. Unfortunately, the context of this adaptation lends an ulterior meaning to the accusations. The sometimes muted, sometimes rather heavy-handed homoerotic subtext seems to be stretched to the point of implying that these men are Richard's (not so) secret lovers. More problematic than this, however, is the fact that Goold clearly takes Harry at his own word. This means that even as he butchers innocent men, we still seem to be encouraged to sympathise with him.

The gay subtext crops up again uncomfortably at another important moment that really ought to be poignant, but in this case isn't. On his way to the Tower, Richard encounters his wife. Usually, this is Richard's chance to demonstrate a bit of humanity, and the audience's chance to really, truly feel for him. Though the rest of the play has shown him up as petulant, selfish and careless, at this point we clearly see his love for another person, and it is touching. It is a moment full of remorse and regret, a recognition of the wider repercussions of his own failure to be a good king. In The Hollow Crown, however, it is (perhaps aptly) a rather hollow and anti-climactic scene. Richard is cold and unfeeling with his wife, just as he has been cold and unfeeling throughout. He can't love her, apparently, because he doesn't swing that way.

I imagine the excuse for this “take” on the play is Richard's vanity, his love of fashion and excess and his melodramatic tendencies. Perhaps it also partly stems from his weakness and passivity in comparison with other more “manly”, soldierly men. I have two major problems with this. The first is simply the blatant disregard of historical context. Anyone who has any sense of the look and feel of the period will know that Shakespeare lived in the golden age of the peacock. Any man who could afford it was expected to dress richly and dramatically, to ornately and often gaudily adorn both his residence and his person. Attention to fashion and costly ornamentation were not unusual traits in men. This was so much the case that Queen Elizabeth I, anxious about the newly wealthy merchant classes becoming confused with real nobility, felt the need to draw up an incredibly detailed statute concerning what particular classes of people could and couldn't wear. Yes, that's right. People so badly wanted to dress up, often beyond their means, that it was made (at least in some cases) illegal. Though Richard II is set some time earlier, Richard's interests and expenditures would certainly not have been looked upon as unusual. My second problem, from a more modern point of view, is that such a reading is potentially offensive to actual homosexuals. You can't just deduce that, because a guy likes dressing up fancy and is generally passive rather than aggressive, he must be gay. I mean, come on. We're past that, aren't we? That's logic about as flawed and immature as Richard's own.

Quite apart from all that though, I actually really, really enjoyed the film. The acting was phenomenal. Never mind Shakespearean adaptations – there are few TV productions of anything that I've seen where every single actor involved does such a fantastic job. The one performance I would say I had some issues with was actually the one I least expected to find problematic. To be completely fair though, I don't really think it was the actor's fault. I usually find Ben Whishaw the most compelling thing about anything he's in (and that's really saying something when you've been in all-round fabulous, star-studded productions like The Hour), generally because he's doing the exact opposite of what he did in Richard II. What Whishaw does magnificently and almost, it seems, instinctively, is to powerfully convey a sense of interiority. When you watch him, you feel like there's a whole world of stuff going on inside his head that you don't know about. It's a skill that some actors never achieve in their whole lifetimes, let alone in relative youth, and it's always what really brings his characters to life. It makes them three-dimensional, intelligent, individual. Funnily enough, as soon as I heard that he was playing Richard II, I was thrilled: I couldn't imagine anyone more perfect for the role. But unfortunately, the camp, melodramatic, stagey style he adopted in The Hollow Crown was a pretty far cry from his usual performances, and the only reason for this that I could see was that something went badly wrong with the direction. Whishaw probably made the best of the interpretation of the character he had to work with, which wasn't a very good one. He still had some stand-out moments in the film, but overall, it was undeniable that, just like his character, he was utterly outstripped by Rory Kinnear, whose performance as Henry was dazzling from start to finish. Elsewhere, Patrick Stewart was, as usual, spectacular. More broadly, I couldn't pick out any serious faults with a single member of the cast.

I'd have to be fair to everyone involved: despite the director having, I think, completely missed the point of the story, I think this is a fantastic production and well worth a watch, if you haven't seen it already. The whole thing looked fantastic and, in Rupert Goold's defence, he did come up with some brilliantly innovative ways of livening up scenes with lots of standing around and talking – I'm thinking particularly of the handing over of the crown here. For all my problems with it, it's slick, beautiful and compelling, and certainly more than enough to make me excited about this weekend's instalment. Expect to hear more from me on that.