CLAMOROUS VOICE

stage, spires, and Shakespeare

Final Honour School exams for BA (Hons) English Language and Literature begin at Oxford on Monday. Grey-faced third-years wearing full sub fusc and white carnations will be at the Exam Schools sitting three-hour papers. Eleven of those English finalists are my students, and for the past few weeks we’ve been revising papers in English 1550–1660, 1660–1760 and 1760–1830. Said students are now experts in a hugely diverse range of literature, and I am rooting for each of them – and for everyone preparing for Monday! I hope you all have carnations and an abundance of clean white shirts. 

What follows isn’t a formula or a recipe. However, for anyone who’s an English student, the very best of luck and here are ten things which one tutor (and former Finalist) hopes you remember when you’re sitting in the Exam Schools:

  1. Think about the question as much as the answer. When you did your interview, you probably close-read something unseen. These are all little unseens. Pick them apart like they’re literature – most of them probably are! 
  2. It’s so, so much less about the quantity of your knowledge than the quality of the way in which you deploy it. Flexibility is key.
  3. Know some dates? You can make a point about chronology! Don’t finish the essay without doing so.
  4. You can always make a point about form. Don’t finish the essay without doing so. Think practically: what’s the effect of an idea being expressed in a sonnet vs a sermon? A prologue spoken by an actor out-of-character vs. an in-character soliloquy? 
  5. Frame your argument in such a way that it’s clearly generated by the question – signal this in the language that you use. 
  6. Keep the question in sight. Never miss an opportunity to return to its terms; create those opportunities. Your conclusion is the final way in which you answer the question. 
  7. A thematic structure serves you better than a text-by-text structure in terms of developing your argument and placing your texts in close conversation. 
  8. Be evaluative in your use of critics; make it clear what you think of their conclusions.
  9. Introductions: a statement of focus “This essay will look at/explore…” is not an argument. One of the main jobs of your pre-essay planning is to get you to a point where you have a clear thesis statement which you slap down as the centrepiece, starting point, or culmination of your introduction (whatever works for you), but which is unmistakeable as your argument, born in response to the question. What follows are your proofs of that argument. You analyse text and incorporate critics (to agree or disagree with) in the service of that argument. Also, write your introduction in the present tense. It sounds more authoritative (n.b. this is the most subjective thing on the list).
  10. You can do this. You absolutely can. Give yourself time to plan: 30 mins at the beginning, at which point you write all three essay plans, picking apart the questions. Write your essays strongest to weakest (creates a good first impression), 45 mins at a time, adding in things to your plans for later essays while writing the earlier ones. This helps stop you from thinking of the key bit for your third essay 10 mins after leaving the exam. 30 + 45 + 45 + 45 leaves you 15 minutes for contingency and checking. This isn’t my method – I think Sos Eltis first taught it me – but it honestly, honestly works to ensure well-planned essays, the best distribution of info, and to minimise late-exam panic.

And, because this is English not Maths, so counting need not matter:

tip 11. Or, you know, hall.

11. Bonus tip: eat breakfast before each exam, put a plastic grippy thing on your pen to save your poor claws, and write on alternate lines if your handwriting is atrocious (or even if you only suspect it might be). Avoid psychic vampire course mates who want unsettling postmortems (and also #never4give if someone tries it, signed, Sophie-From-2008).

12. The actual bonus tip: your life and your worth are not, contrary to appearances, defined by your degree results. You are going to be great whatever happens, and if you’re feeling like a disaster right now, or worried about being heartbroken later, please take it from me that these exams are not going to determine your future, and that all the right people will be massively proud of you. You are brilliant. My fingers are crossed for you all. Finals is, as a colleague reflected to me the other day, “an unenviable state of life”, but I promise that actually sitting Finals is so much better than preparing for them. 

Also, remember to talk about form. 

Dame Judi Dench as Titania (2014). Photo by Nobby Clark.

Infinite Variety: The Older Actress on Stage 1660–present

A two-day symposium on 18–19 October 2019, taking place at Christ Church, University of Oxford, UK. 

Symposium Directors are Dr Sophie Duncan and Professor Mary Luckhurst 

The event is jointly convened by the School of Arts, University of Bristol and Christ Church, University of Oxford, with support from The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH). 

Confirmed keynote speakers include Professor Gilli Bush-Bailey (Central School of Speech and Drama), Professor Jacky Bratton (Royal Holloway) and Dr Fiona Gregory (Monash University). 

We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers from scholars and practitioners in theatre and related disciplines. Suggestions for topics include, but are not limited to:

  • older actresses on and off stage: as performers, managers, stage-managers, playwrights, producers, directors, and teachers, 1660–present.
  • older actresses – their approaches to acting and their creative and career strategies
  • older actresses and the one woman show
  • older actresses – stage v. film and television
  • older actresses on ageism and the politics of transgression
  • writing by older actresses, e.g. memoirs
  • genealogies of female performance and concepts of female ‘succession’
  • retirement and its alternatives
  • ‘canonical’ roles for older women; repertoire and ageing
  • older actresses and non-traditional casting
  • the depiction of older actresses and/or fictional older actresses in criticism, journalism, literature, the visual arts, and film
  • ageism, ageing, and the body in casting, rehearsal, performance, and reception
  • older actresses with additional marginalised identities, including LBT older actresses, BAME actresses, and actresses with disabilities (including age-related disabilities); the intersection of age with other kinds of marginalisation
  • the older actress in theatre historiography and as theatre historian
  • retrospectives, gala performances, honours lists and becoming a ’national treasure’.

Proposals, which should be 300 words long and accompanied by a brief biography, should be sent to the symposium’s directors, Dr Sophie Duncan (sophie.duncan@chch.ox.ac.uk) and Professor Mary Luckhurst (mary.luckhurst@bristol.ac.uk) by May 31 2019. 

I have bequeathed both my eyeballs to a redhead named Tabitha. Don’t blame me: it’s the fault of The Swell Mob, ninety minutes of supernatural skullduggery above and below ground in the COLAB factory, Borough. Such is the pull of this immersive piece, set in an 1840s hellmouth with an aesthetic resting heavily on bowler hats, moustachios, and dead girls with terrible backstories that there now exists a document entitling Tabby Skinner (taxidermist; bookmaker; menacing pair of scissors) to both my eyeballs in the event of my death. This was in exchange for a fairly savage tarot reading. 

The Swell Mob. All photos (c) Rob Penn.

If you like your fun frenetic, frightening, and with a strong flavour of Undead Bill Sykes, this is the show for you. You start off in a pub on surface-level, peopled by welcoming/vicious patrons and madmen, all eager to prise from you the five pound coins with which you’re issued on arrival. Whether you choose cards, bareknuckle boxing (observation only), or weaving into dark corners to open drawers and examine mirrors, what follows unites and divides the audience as you try to solve the mystery of the Swell Mob and their dastardly (and diminutive) Master. The pub setting initially feels quite Punchdrunk, reminiscent of the Manderley Bar in Sleep No More – however, your ticket includes two free drinks, making this the polar if not the global opposite of Punchdrunk and all their works. I advise you to get on with drinking those quite quickly, in order to disinhibit you during what follows. 

Try your luck at the card table…

There are different types of immersive theatregoer. I’m an explorer – I want the weird dark corners, secret passages and demonic contracts to be found inside The Swell Mob’s unlocked drawers, subterranean caves, and behind-the-bar lairs. Give me your bones, your suspended doll-limbs, and let me get my grubby hands on them. The Swell Mob does not disappoint. Despite the relatively small space, there’s ample opportunity to wander, and superb details that’ll leave you longing to return. The trip down to the cellar passes the building’s pigeonholes with plastic-wrapped post visible in the slots. Audience noises from COLAB’s other shows are intermittently audible. Unexpectedly, this really works – the fact that these underworld darklings unconcernedly pass circuitry and plumbing almost two centuries their juniors only reinforces the idea that the bloodshot, sweaty Swell Mob are the supernatural cellarage of redeveloped Bermondsey. Without giving too much away, the plot progresses quickly. On press night, the audience warmed up hugely in the last 30 minutes, as gin entered bloodstream and little teams of explorers tried to solve the mystery of the Master. Occasionally, you feel the pressure of time: I worry I derailed matters by being distracted by Tabitha and tarot moments after I was told to hand an important plot-point to the woman with white feather in her hair. Mid-way through the one-card character assassination, I looked up to find the woman with white feather standing beside me: had the poor girl been forced to seek me out, and was she now not waving so much as drowning? 

The Master (Henry Maynard) and Elizabeth (Jordan Cooper).

Probably not. The cast are made of sterner stuff. It’s not clear how deep the specific 1840s connection runs (I withheld comments about Jane Eyre and the possibility of European revolution), but the cast’s commitment is total. There are some electrifying performances; online details of the casting are deliberately sketchy, to preclude spoilers, but Louisa (Jordan Cooper), Elizabeth (Jordan Chandler) and Tabitha (Rosy Pendlebury) are outstanding. This is a vital show that proves that stories can be immersive and compelling without a vast budget. There are moments when you start to think and feel like a character in the story, genuinely scared and exhilarated. I’ll be returning on my own time and dime, and there’s no greater tribute. Whatever your inhibitions or misgivings – and this is not a show for the passive observer – The Swell Mob’s spell lingers. Returning to the surface, the streets outside seemed colder as I made my way to Borough Tube. Visible from the station is the spire of St George the Martyr: the church against which the Marshalsea prison once stood, where Dickens’s father was imprisoned, along with all the other victims and villains of the real Victorian era. When the church crypt became too crowded, the Victorians extracted nearly 1500 crumbling coffins and sent them off to Brookwood Cemetery, created by the London Necropolis Company to house the overcrowded, graveyard-bursting dead. Against that backdrop, The Swell Mob’s story seems only too plausible – and the London evening stayed just that little bit murkier.

THE SWELL MOB, Flabbergast Theatre, *****, COLAB Factory, London. 4 May–25 August, Thursday–Sunday, tickets £26. Book online or via 0333 666 33 66 (+£1.75 booking fee).

my Met Gala moment

I am very over-excited to have my first Literary Review byline this month, reviewing two brilliant books: Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare (calmly revolutionary take on 20 of the plays) and Andrew McConnell Stott’s What Blest Genius? The Jubilee That Made Shakespeare (Blackadder Goes Stratford; blissful).

You can read my review here, or – even better – pick it up in hard copy from W.H. Smith etc, while issues still remain unpurchased by my delighted extended family. Best of all, buy the books: This Is Shakespeare (Pelican, £14.79) and What Blest Genius? (W.W. Norton & Company, £14.43).

Whether or not you’re joining us in Oxford for the Women & Power conference next week, I hope you’ll check out the National Trust’s Women & Power podcast series. The five-episode series is presented by Kirsty Wark, and features a whole host of great stories from across the Trust, and contributions from lots of different historians. I pop up in all five episodes, talking about Victorian Manchester and the Contagious Diseases Acts (Episode 1), force-feeding (Episode 2), Octavia Hill, violence in Oxford, and the NUWSS pilgrimage (Episode 3, with genuine piano underscoring), the suffragettes as terrorists and the myth of why women really got the vote (Episode 4), and the Six Point Group (Episode 5).

(c) Bodleian

The series is ace, with brilliant on-location sequences at beautiful Wightwick, Killerton, and Osterley (plus some very energetic Incidental Radio Acting), and I haven’t given it the blog love it deserves.  It’s been a lovely soundtrack to writing my keynote for next week’s conference at St Hugh’s, here in Oxford. I look forward to seeing some of you soon. 

P.S. the book of the Women & Power project, with all the info from the series and more, plus pictures, is still available online. You can also check out my episode of Radio 3’s The Essay on Shakespeare and suffrage, and my 2018 podcast episode on suffragette Emily Wilding Davidson and Oxford’s suffrage histories for Women In Oxford’s History. There’s yet more about Shakespeare and the suffragettes in my first book, Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siecle. A trove.

My new book – Shakespeare’s Props: Memory and Cognition – is out now in Routledge’s Studies in Shakespeare series! You can buy Shakespeare’s Props here (via Routledge), and in all the usual places (at the time of writing, Blackwell’s seems to have the best price).

I hope you’ll see a lot of this book on this blog (and elsewhere) over the coming months – in some ways it feels as though it’s been a long road to publication, and in others as if it’s been a whirlwind.

Many thanks to everyone who’s contributed to Shakespeare’s Props in whatever form – obviously there are acknowledgments within, but I’m mindful of the extraordinary amount of luck and support I’ve had, at both Magdalen College, where I researched and wrote this book, and Christ Church, where I finished it (why am I always proofreading during admissions season?!).

I don’t know if I’ll ever again have the chance to write a book combining Shakespeare with Call The Midwife, or caption a chapter on Early Modern corpses with a still from The Graham Norton Show, but I can heartily recommend the experience. Obviously, in a book about Shakespeare and props, all the big hitters appear – handkerchiefs, skulls, and an accumulating obsession with torn letters – but there’s also the joy of wittily-inscribed chewing gum wrappers, Dido’s oars, and a coda re: the iniquities of HS2 and its impact on London’s props quarter.

Clearly, Shakespeare’s Props is the perfect Valentine’s gift for the Shakespearean in your life. And/or your favourite hoarder-in-training. And/or your beloved institutional library.

I don’t yet have a physical copy in my hands, but when I do, expect picturespam (note: I also welcome spam from readers. This picture of TV’s Own Matt Lacey reading Women and Power made my week).

Of course, if you’d like to review the book for a journal or other publication, please email me, or comment below – thank you!

This post is a quick resource for students attending my lecture series (title above) in HT 2019. Links to all the handouts shared online are available below. Feedback is welcome, either in the comments section to this post or via email (sophie.duncan@ell.ox.ac.uk). The last lecture in the series will take place this Friday (Friday 15 February 2019) at 11 a.m. in Seminar Room K. All welcome.

Week 1: Southern Gothic, Gay Panic: Tennessee Williams’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Suddenly Last Summer (1958). Handout.

Week 2: Beckett’s History Plays: Krapp’s Last Tape (1957)and Endgame (1958). Handout.

Week 3: Colonialism: fantasies and nightmares in Caryl Churchill’s The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution (1972) and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (1988). Handout.

Week 4: Sexuality and the Holocaust play: Martin Sherman’s Bent (1979)and Sarah Kane’s Cleansed (1998). Handout.

Week 5: Black Histories: Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona’s The Island (1972) and Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012).  Handout.

Thank you to all those who have attended the lectures or been in touch about them – you can still discuss the series on Twitter, via the hashtag #IDtheatre.

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