My new article on Jack The Ripper, civilian performance, transvestite prostitution, domestic abuse, and amateur detectives in London and beyond is now published in Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film. I’ve been reading this journal since I was an undergraduate so it’s a great pleasure to be published there. You can read the article, Personating the Ripper: Civilian Performance and the Melodramatic Mode online via SAGE (for those with a subscription), or I’m able to share the final published version via email (for those without – so do get in touch). Reading both Claire Harman’s Murder By The Book and Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five helped shape the final version of this article, as did Isabel Stowell-Kaplan’s great piece on staging Victorian detectives. I also spent a lot of time looking at this map of 1880s Whitechapel.
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.
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.
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?
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).
For your feminist Victorianist polemical needs, today behind the door of the Blog Advent Window is a BBC documentary presented by Sue Perkins, about the Christmases in the life of Catherine Hogarth (1815-1879), better known as the wife of Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens is responsible, via novels like A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers, for some of the most widely-cherished (and widely-exported) notions of a classic British Christmas. Appropriately for an author whose name-made-adjective gives us two totally contrasting images – lamplit Dickensian rosy-cheeked wassail vs. Dickensian workhouses, poverty, and injustice – Dickens energetically perpetuated a brand based on festive family togetherness while being an adulterous, sister-fetishising bastard. This documentary has it all: Victorian theatrical sex scandals; dashing Magdalen colleague dressing Sue Perkins in drag; striking and revealing insights into the dynamics of the Perkins family household.
True, it inexplicably omits my Favourite Awful Dickens Fact, which is that after her husband cruelly forced Catherine out of the family home, Catherine gave her sister Georgina a ring. Sounds like a Normal Time, perhaps even a sisterly gesture, but Georgina Hogarth had taken her brother-in-law’s side in a separation ultimately caused by his adultery with actress Ellen Ternan.
The ring which Catherine gave her sister was in the shape of a serpent.
All this and more can be found at the Dickens Museum on London’s Doughty Street, where much of the documentary was shot. Perkins is scathing on Dickens’s narcissism, and reads brilliantly from his works. The documentary is below – enjoy! And if you want to know more about another Victorian Christmas, try this post.
Christmas horror and Christmas ghost stories were once integral to Christmas in Britain and Ireland. Luckily for us, we can partly blame the Victorians (our great Ur-parents, from whom society inherited a mass need for therapy). From the 1855 cessation on paper tax onwards, Britain saw an explosion of periodical magazines, with the mass marketing of ghost and vampire stories. These stories were generic, sensational, and exploited both Victorian fears of the past, in all its disquieting, revenant, primitive messiness, and anxieties about the future: Dracula (1897) imagines a terrifying Eastern European immigrant who wants to suck the life force out of the rising generation of imperialists. Spirit photography supposedly captured ghosts, while homes became the sites of seances. Stories literally domesticated the Gothic, bringing the ghost story into fireside and domestic reading. Christmas, with its profusion of annuals, gift books, reading-aloud, and superstition, is the ideal vehicle for a bit of horror. European mythology has much to answer for – I’ve already blogged about the Icelandic Yule Lads. But if you want to get into a thoroughly spooky Christmas spirit, here are the five things you need. Why not listen to my Spooky Christmas Playlist while you browse?
- Fearful folklore
We’ve met Spoon Licker and the child-catching Yule Cat, but many other countries have mythical and malevolent winter monsters. Check out the malicious Karakoncolos who, in Serbia, disguises his voice as that of your loved one, lures you out into the snow and jumps on your back. Then there’s the Greek Kallikantzaroi, a group of demons who steal any babies born between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night. Fancy some winter sun?
2. Spine-tingling short stories
‘A Strange Christmas Game’ (1865) by J. H. Riddell is a charming story of fun, games, counting thirteen people when only twelve are present – and of a girl with a broken neck. Christmas games can seriously damage your health, so be warned: don’t end up like the heroine of this 1884 poem, the bride in Thomas Bayly’s ‘The Mistletoe Bough’. Or there’s Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Old Kit-Bag’ (1908), a heart-warming seasonal tale of suicide and severed heads. Feliz Navidad. Bringing us nearly up to date, there’s Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Dark Christmas’ from 2013, where awkward festive plans (‘We had borrowed the house from a friend none of us seemed to know’) turn into an Edwardian horror story. M.R. James has, perhaps undeservedly, become king of the Christmas ghost story even though his tales are rarely set at Christmas – the BBC is broadcasting a dramatisation of one story on Christmas Eve, starring Greg Wise.
3. Frightful films
‘Holiday horror’ is a genuine subgenre. Whether you want to see Joan Collins bury a fire iron in her husband’s head before being stalked by a psychotic Santa (Tales from the Crypt, 1972) or watch a snow-covered New York reunion turn fatal as the kiddiwinks start murdering their parents (The Children, 2008), there is a Christmas horror film for you. A clip of Tales from the Crypt is on YouTube: warnings for bright red poster paint.
4. Chilling culture
Not everything was the Victorians’ fault. The plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe tell us that supernatural fictions also kept the Early Moderns warm on winter nights. In Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), Barabas recalls a tradition of seasonal scares: ‘Now I remember those old women’s words/Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales/And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.’ Poor little Mamilius in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610-11) has clearly had similar experiences, confidently telling his mother and her attendants ‘A sad tale’s best for winter’. There are also cheerier Christmas superstitions in Shakespeare’s plays: at the end of the first scene of Hamlet, Marcellus gets one of the play’s simplest and most beautiful speeches:
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
The rest of English Literature tends not to share Marcellus’s view: spirits, witches, and fairies abound in our Christmas heritage. Sorry, Marcellus.
5. Ghoulish gifts
Buzzfeed has a handy list of 21 Gift Ideas For The Goth In Your Life, and you can also buy a haunted doll from Ebay (because of course you can), sometimes very specifically so (‘This doll is haunted by Stacey, 16‘). But if you want something moderately rather than traumatically scary, there’s the Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, with tales by Arthur Conan Doyle and Walter Scott, or the Folio Society’s illustrated edition of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Or, because in the vernacular of those hideous Facebook posts, The Greatest Gift We Can Give Each Other Is Time, why not cuddle up with a friend and follow this Rookie Magazine tutorial on how to make Victorian hair-based mourning jewellery? Amazing Christmas gifts!!
Oh wait. Everything is the Victorians’ fault.
Have a spectacularly spooky Christmas. And, yes, making Victorian hair jewellery is something I desperately want to do.
‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ is my favourite piece by one of my favourite writers, Saki (real name Hector Hugh Munro). Saki was a novelist, parodist, author of short stories, journalist, and an wit in the tradition of Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and Dorothy Parker. Like the first two of that triumvirate, he was also gay. He died during the Battle of Ancre (1916) in World War 1. Reginald is Saki’s most exquisite hero, a natural successor to Algernon Montcrieff, and the precursor to Waugh’s Anthony Blanche and Nancy Mitford’s Cedric Hampton. The piece below comes from Christmas 1904, and was originally published in the Westminster Gazette. I’ve illustrated it with some images of Edwardian Christmas, building on yesterday’s Victorian Christmas extravaganza.
My copy of the Complete Saki was given to me by my wonderful late grandfather. In full disclosure, ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ is almost the first piece in the book. As a teenager, those first two sentences hooked me, and they always delight me with their instant immersion in Saki’s era. In 2017, I suggest we all follow Reginald’s guidance when it comes to last-minute Christmas shopping: I, for one, am always willing to receive ‘something quite sweet in the way of jewellery’.
Reginald on Christmas Presents by Saki (1904)
I wish it to be distinctly understood (said Reginald) that I don’t want a “George, Prince of Wales” Prayer-book as a Christmas present. The fact cannot be too widely known.
There ought (he continued) to be technical education classes on the science of present-giving. No one seems to have the faintest notion of what anyone else wants, and the prevalent ideas on the subject are not creditable to a civilised community.
There is, for instance, the female relative in the country who “knows a tie is always useful,” and sends you some spotted horror that you could only wear in secret or in Tottenham Court Road. It might have been useful had she kept it to tie up currant bushes with, when it would have served the double purpose of supporting the branches and frightening away the birds–for it is an admitted fact that the ordinary tomtit of commerce has a sounder aesthetic taste than the average female relative in the country.
Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.
There is my Aunt Agatha, par exemple, who sent me a pair of gloves last Christmas, and even got so far as to choose a kind that was being worn and had the correct number of buttons. But–they were nines! I sent them to a boy whom I hated intimately: he didn’t wear them, of course, but he could have–that was where the bitterness of death came in. It was nearly as consoling as sending white flowers to his funeral. Of course I wrote and told my aunt that they were the one thing that had been wanting to make existence blossom like a rose; I am afraid she thought me frivolous–she comes from the North, where they live in the fear of Heaven and the Earl of Durham. (Reginald affects an exhaustive knowledge of things political, which furnishes an excellent excuse for not discussing them.) Aunts with a dash of foreign extraction in them are the most satisfactory in the way of understanding these things; but if you can’t choose your aunt, it is wisest in the long-run to choose the present and send her the bill.
Even friends of one’s own set, who might be expected to know better, have curious delusions on the subject. I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyam. I gave the last four that I received to the lift-boy, and I like to think of him reading them, with FitzGerald’s notes, to his aged mother. Lift-boys always have aged mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.
Personally, I can’t see where the difficulty in choosing suitable presents lies. No boy who had brought himself up properly could fail to appreciate one of those decorative bottles of liqueurs that are so reverently staged in Morel’s window–and it wouldn’t in the least matter if one did get duplicates. And there would always be the supreme moment of dreadful uncertainty whether it was creme de menthe or Chartreuse–like the expectant thrill on seeing your partner’s hand turned up at bridge. People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.
And then, of course, there are liqueur glasses, and crystallised fruits, and tapestry curtains, and heaps of other necessaries of life that make really sensible presents- -not to speak of luxuries, such as having one’s bills paid, or getting something quite sweet in the way of jewellery. Unlike the alleged Good Woman of the Bible, I’m not above rubies. When found, by the way, she must have been rather a problem at Christmas-time; nothing short of a blank cheque would have fitted the situation. Perhaps it’s as well that she’s died out.
The great charm about me (concluded Reginald) is that I am so easily pleased.
But I draw the line at a “Prince of Wales” Prayer-book.
…in London! And yes, I’m now participating in the beloved Advent tradition of being a day late. Last night we went to the Heal’s Christmas Party at their Tottenham Court Road store. Highlights included…
Pop Choir! these exceptionally life-affirming ladies and gentlemen produced an excellent choral sound with a mix of carols, jazz, and Disney (I have realised that I would join the hell out of a Disney choir), despite the appalling acoustics of being halfway up a staircase (Wife, hissing: How are they miked?).
Soul Food Studio! We painted baubles with the fantastic Amanda Russell, in the ideal ratio of effort and skill (on our part, little) to DEEPLY gratifying instant results, i.e. A Bauble Which Has Been Painted. This was better than the other workshop in which I participated, where a nice but terrifying woman made us paint squares and learn colour theory for 40 minutes before I rebelled and ran away (supposedly this was a Christmas Card workshop. I wanted to use some nice brushes to paint ‘Merry Christmas’ on A5 cardboard, but instead I had to Make Two Sorts Of Green. The only upside was meeting the joyous Chantelle, East Dulwich resident and mature student whose shi tzu just had an eye removed by a Surrey veterinarian. If you’re reading this, Chantelle, you’re a hoot, and I hope your daughter gets famous soon). I heartily recommend all projects connected with Amanda, who says encouraging things and tells you your wonky chalk paints are great. Her blog is great too. I really want to make these decorations.
A Lot Of Free Booze! Every year, Heal’s plies its Christmas customers with mulled wine, marmalade vodka, Prosecco and gin in addition to the wassail, on the (accurate) premise that boozed-up, jingle-belled people are more likely to shout Feliz Navidad and spend £££ on baubles (or “baubz”, as I was calling them after two drinks). Works every time. 10% off, the smallest plausible discount, was plastered on labels around the walls, and what a jolly good idea that seemed.
A Strangely Brilliant House Party In A Shop! Heal’s is renowned for selling really beautiful and expensive furniture. At the Heal’s Christmas Party, you are allowed to take a flagon of free booze, several of your friends, and drape yourselves over said furniture, shoes still on, with said flagon of mulled something slung coasterless onto a coffee table the same price as a small car. Feliz Navidad, again. I cannot imagine the losses in stock stained by free samples of marmalade vodka and rhubarb compote brandy/the sea salt chocolate hazelnuts ground irrevocably into 1,000-thread cotton. God knows what happens in the Sleep Suite.
So, there you have it. The Heal’s Christmas Party. Baubz. Same time next year?
Appropriately for a play that begins with a shipwreck, Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre left me with a lingering sinking feeling. The production is a watershed (I’ll stop) in cross-gendered casting, with Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia creating a mannequined Miss Hardbroom that kicks over the traces of Sir Donald Sinden, Richard Briers, Sir Nigel Hawthorne, et al. Less prominently, Doon Mackichnan plays Feste as a principal boy-turned-raver, and Imogen Doel carries equal opportunities to its logical conclusion by having to make the best of Fabia[n] – which she does very well, despite dialogue like ‘Sowter will cry upon’t for all this, though it be as rank as a fox’, a line so bad it merits mention in The Art of Coarse Acting. My problem is that this production, lauded for its celebration of race, sex, and gender, inadvertently uses cross-casting to tell a deeply homophobic story.
On the surface, there’s much to like. Soutra Gilmour’s inventive set unfolds from a ship into an endlessly rotating pyramid that’s somewhere between Illuminati shout-out and a tomb by Canova. There’s a jacuzzi in which Phoebe Fox’s Olivia becomes a floozy (mourning garb replaced by a red bathing suit), any number of zooming cars and motorbikes, and a salmon-pink fountain that delights the audience by spurting symbolic jets on cue. The costumes are similarly witty, with Mackichnan’s Feste flaunting a sea-green tribute to Princess Beatrice’s pretzel-themed millinery.
There are also some excellent performances. Excluding Greig, chief of these is Daniel Rigby’s pink-suited Andrew Aguecheek, who, as Bertie Wooster with a manbun and an energetic vogue for disco, overshadows Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby, a rat-bitten roué.
Oliver Chris’s Orsino is the first truly loveable one I have seen, a superhero Prince Charming whose spoilt temper is sublimated into boxing, and who takes the audience into his confidence with winning ingenuity. He tussles readily with Tamara Lawrence’s Viola, an unusually even-tempered, cheerful heroine whose tendency to take all the verse at full pelt robs her bittersweet dialogues with Orsino of all their self-concealing pathos. She calls her situation a ‘barful strife’ but laughs her way through the first two acts, until the joy of being mistaken for a still-living Sebastian (‘Prove true, imagination, O, prove true’) yields the first moment of emotional connection.
This is a production where love electrifies and mobilises: Olivia gyrates to the onstage musicians’ elevator music, while Viola wriggles and hoots after Orsino gives her a kiss to deliver to Olivia. Ultimately, these are twins whose highest priority will always be each other; Daniel Ezra’s pugnacious, sexually opportunistic Sebastian (an excellent performance) seems bemused by both Antonio and Olivia’s devotion, but adores his sister.
And then there’s Greig’s Malvolia. Every time she takes centre-stage, she brings with a consummate skill in verse-speaking that is sometimes absent elsewhere. Godwin’s production seems uneasy about the text: switching pronouns and honorifics in line with gender leaves characters ‘lady’-ing each other in the manner of vintage Coronation Street, but more important is the overriding feeling that the text is an impediment to the evening; a struggle to be overcome. One oddity is that Lawrance plays Viola with a London accent, while Ezra sounds West African; while they can’t be visually or acoustically identical given their biological sex, giving them such different accents is a baffling test of audience credulity. Monologues are largely galloped through, Belch supplies ad-libs (Maria is a ‘dirty little girl’) but loses lines that illuminate, including Olivia’s revealing reluctance to ‘match above her degree’ by marrying the count Orsino. This is key to the psyche of the only Shakespearean heroine who uses her last line to insist she pays for her own wedding. Greig gives an electrifying performance, beginning as an obsessive-compulsive spinster, all angular bob, geometric gestures and gym shoes.
Every sympathetic Malvolio incurs tragedy when his passion is mocked; Greig intensifies this, partly by being pitched against an unusually unlikeable gang of ruffian sots, and partly through her bewitching incredulity when she believes her love for Olivia is returned. Her cross-gartered yellow stockings are tights with a pierrot jacket, the latter removed to reveal a primrose bodice and hot pants. Blindfolded and bound, her bare skin increases her vulnerability, and the denouement completes her humiliation – worse than her imprisonment is the realisation that her employer does not, after all, share her feelings – something this single-minded Olivia reveals with remarkably little sympathy.
Greig is an accomplished comedian, whose wit and timing provide all the necessary laughs before the swoop to tragedy: she is an hilarious and heartbreaking Malvolio, and this Olivier production a worthy forum for her talents. Simply making Malvolio’s desire for Olivia same-sex does not necessarily make Twelfth Night a homophobic production, or even a more homophobic play: poor old Antonio must necessarily watch his beloved pair off with Olivia. And there are some genuinely gender-queer moments of light-hearted comedy – Orsino, on his last lines, accidentally snogs a cheerfully acquiescent Sebastian.
The wider tone disturbed me. Antonio is probably textually gay; this Malvolia pines for her mistress. But Twelfth Night stages a third great losers in love: Antonio, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew – and in Godwin’s production, Sir Andrew is also queer-coded, from his pink clothes and long, frizzy hair to his penchant for cuddling up to both Sir Toby (much to the latter’s disgust) and to the teddy bear Orsino gives Olivia. This is troubling not because it queers a Shakespearean icon, but because it does so via unimaginative stereotypes, as if Agucheek’s incompetent flirting and cowardly duelling mean only one thing. Rigby is an accomplished comic, but the net result is a production with three queer characters, who are also the three to end up humiliated and alone.
Also disconcerting is Orsino’s suddenly-averted gay panic when Viola turns out to be a girl, not a boy: a common moment in productions, but especially jarring when Oliver Chris’s Orsino had shown so little sign of desire for his page. In a production more sensitive to queer identity, the denouement might feel more ambivalent, but clichés abound. The Elephant (an Illyrian tavern, and Antonio’s intended lovenest) appears as a gay nightclub, in which understudies for The Village People hear a black drag queen perform Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech as a torch song. This showcases Emmanuel Kojo’s considerable singing talent, and provides an enchantingly funny moment when Rigby’s Aguecheek instantly corrects his ‘Now, sir’ to an ad-libbed ‘Sorry, miss’. But the interposition of another play’s text only reiterates this production’s discomfort with its own, and the gratuitous, glamorous drag queen affects an inclusivity the production doesn’t really possess. Elsewhere, the straight characters’ homophobia is largely played for laughs, and despite Greig’s brilliant, innovative performance, this ‘genderfluid’ Twelfth Night ends up feeling straighter than ever.
Back in 2012, I was historical advisor on the original production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, the theatrical biopic of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge was the first African-American actor to gain fame in Europe, and the play tells the turbulent story of his 1833 Othello at Covent Garden. My job was to introduce the cast to the world of 1830s theatre, and (the best part of all) help them recreate the melodramatic acting style that gives Red Velvet’s play-within-a-play sequences both humour and power. I drew on my expertise in the history of acting style, and images I’d worked with both at Oxford University and in the collections of the Garrick Club. The play ran at the Tricycle & has since toured to Brooklyn. Now, brilliantly, it’s part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s season at the Garrick Theatre. I was delighted to be invited back to work with the new cast, who are absolutely lovely, and full of curiosity about the characters and their world.
Working with theatre companies is one of the very best parts of my job: play in the truest sense. Red Velvet has taken me places I never expected to go, and it’s enriched every aspect of my research. Even completely unconnected activities somehow link back – for example, as part of the final throes of Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siecle (out soon!), I was watching a 1988 film of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891–1992) giving, as a nonagenarian, a masterclass for young Juliets. One of them was Lolita Chakrabarti herself – and thus I was able to get a first-hand account of the intergenerational mentoring that’s so crucial to my book.
I’ve also written academically about Red Velvet in Staging the Other in Nineteenth-Century British Drama (ed. Tiziana Morosetti, and published by Peter Lang, 2015). My chapter is entitled ‘A Progressive Othello: Modern Blackness in Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012)’ and examines intersectional politics, race and biography. I talked about my experience as an historical advisor in Oxford and London, and you can read more about my work on Red Velvet in a Guardian article which Adrian Lester wrote at the time.
Theatre and theatre history have different priorities. As a rehearsal-room advisor I constantly strike a balance between historical enthusiasm and encouraging the company I’m with to jettison anything that’s only historically, rather than artistically useful. Actors, directors and designers are always meticulous and their enthusiasm is so rewarding – never more than on Red Velvet, where Indhu Rubasingham, the director, has been especially generous. I’m so proud the show now has its West End transfer. Go and see it, and on your way in, pay particular attention to the statue just opposite the theatre. Ira Aldridge [as played by Adrian Lester] now faces the Irving Memorial, D.F. Cheshire’s statue of Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905). Irving was Britain’s first theatrical knight, and the most powerful actor- and actor-manager on the late Victorian stage. It’s great to see two ground-breaking nineteenth-century actors in such proximity, and even better when it comes as a sign that Aldridge is finally getting the recognition he deserves.
It’s increasingly clear that, for the new generation of Shakespearean actresses, the world of girls is not enough. Whether it’s Jade Anouka’s Hotspur at the Donmar, Pippa Nixon’s Bastard at the RSC, or Maxine Peake’s electrifying Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, women are building their careers by reinventing Shakespeare’s heroes. This is also the case for Wyrd Sisters, an emerging theatre company who, pleasingly, take their cross-casting policy in both directions. Thus, their production of Much Ado About Nothing, currently running at the Drayton Arms’ studio theatre (Old Brompton Road, SW5), we have a steely Leonata, played by Christina Balmer; a pugnacious Dogberry (Wendy Morgan), a skittish Ursule (Stuart Murray), and, most strikingly, a Claudia whose flowing hair and maroon beret make her look like she’s stepped straight out of Our Girl (Freya Alderson).
This contemporary, Anglicised Messina is somewhere between stately home and pub garden, where the returning soldiers booze on Somerset cider, strum guitars and plan the odd lesbian wedding. Leonata is a middle-aged hippie, poshly relaxed about her daughter’s sexuality, and then all nails and teeth when her wedding-day shames the family. Don Pedro, Claudia, Benedick, Don John and co. remain in fatigues, boots and berets for much of the play: the programme stresses that they are just back from Iraq. This is perhaps a poor fit for this cheerful gang of youths, who are prone to skinny playfighting and seem more like teammates than scarred veterans. The military background to Much Ado has, after all, never born too much scrutiny (the soldiers seem more Austenesque militia than Band of Brothers, and the emphasis on Operation Telic casts a chilly shadow over Balthasar’s carefree announcement that the combat has killed ‘But few of any sort, and none of name’ – Iraq or not, the subtext remains ‘So that’s all right, then’.
Charlie Ryall’s Beatrice, with her short, ruffled hair, baggy t-shirts and uncompromising stance, seems more like a soldier than Claudia: which is just as well, because of the two, it’s clear which woman lives in a state of constant warfare. This is a scornful, angry Beatrice, simultaneously world-weary and dramatically childish. But she wheels from attention-seeking brat to kind woman, especially when Nicholas Oliver’s Don Pedro claims her hand.
She is ably matched by David Paisley’s Benedick, a sweet-faced teddy bear of a soldier, whose cruelty is cheek and whose doting affection is very readily summoned by the gulling scene. Ryall and Paisley head the cast very effectively; Paisley, in particular, pushes the story on through his soliloquies, and got the biggest laugh of the night in his muffled ‘Fuck off’ to the Boy who returns to expose his hiding place as he eavesdrops on Claudia, Leonata and the Prince.
But the show’s great surprise is Hero. A conventional Hero switches from happy dolly to sad dolly and back again: an inevitable step on the dismal downwards path to Desdemona. She has more to say than Mariana, but less to do than Celia; she is married off worthlessly without having the opportunities of a Helena or an Isabella first, and in all of the Shakespearean canon, there can be nothing less appetising than playing second billing to Beatrice, who is worth a play on her own. Lucy Green transforms a thankless role, giving Hero all the wit, pugnacity and intellect you’d expect of Beatrice’s cosseted cousin. Hers is the great succession of the church scene, when Hero’s long and difficult silences are filled with the emotion of a young woman who’s seeing hell before her eyes. As each new blow falls, Green’s distress grows, as we realise with her what this betrayal of love, loss of family, and wretched humiliation means.
When removed from Renaissance dress, it’s harder to believe that Hero could really be seen ‘dying […] Upon the instant that she was accused’, but Green’s alternately white and flushing face, and step-by-step panic, make the possibility horribly real. Hers was the only convincing collapse I have seen. Leonata, the doting mother who rejects her daughter, is nastier than any father could be, reminding the audience why Lady Capulet’s rejection of her daughter is, in a few words, always more devastating than Lord Capulet’s long harangue. Beatrice’s response also accentuates the horror. Rather than ranting, shouting, or forcibly dragging Hero away from her tormentors, Ryall huddles down beside her cousin in silence. Leonata’s savagery can’t be stopped. Beatrice and Hero bow their heads, curl together, and, like children under violence, wait for it to be over.
Ryall also gives the scene one further moment of tragicomedy. Benedick’s sudden declaration of love once the pair are left alone in the chapel can be played with joyful effervescence, the revelations pealing out in relief after the agony of the preceding moments. This is not like that. After witnessing Claudia’s cruelty and experiencing Leonata’s brutality, when love seems the most poisonous thing in the world to Beatrice, Benedick thinks it’s choice and appropriate to present her with his heart. A deadened, exhausted Beatrice stares across the stage, learning in her dissociated mind two things: first, that the person she loves most in the world loves her back, and second, that he doesn’t understand her at all. This is the loneliest Beatrice I have ever seen, and thanks to Ryall, it will be impossible to forget that quality in the character.
That chilling revelation aside, this is not an especially dark Much Ado. The physical comedy is sometimes very sharp, with spilt drinks, spit-takes and pratfalls underpinning the wittiness of the words. Stuart Murray, doubling Ursule and Friar Francis, justifies his existence a thousand times by turning the Friar (outside the history plays, Shakespeare did not excel at writing clerics) into a pitch-perfect imitation of Blessed Miles Jupp. Biased as I am, writing this admidst the flower crowns, Corinthians, and Natural Tan hosiery that comes from being twenty-eight and permanently on the wedding circuit, but dear Lord, that was funny. As Murray’s excellence suggests, this production has a stunning supporting cast. One disconcertingly good performance comes from Louise Goodfield, who, in the best cross-casting of the night, has made the startlingly turned Don John’s lackey Conrad from a standard stooge to a fully-fledged Lady Macbeth. Hers is a stunningly evil little Machiavel, in sexual thrall to Don John, but equally happy to make mischief for Claudia long after Borachio’s conscience cracks.
Some pacing issues hamper the speed of the piece, particularly in the notoriously difficult sequences with the Watch, and the instrumental music occasionally prolongs the scene changes, rather than covering them. But the final scrap between Beatrice and Benedick, respectively nauseated and gooey over each other’s poems, is tremendously satisfying, and the final rendition of ‘Sigh no more’ as sunny and bittersweet as one could wish. This is a company worth watching, in one of London’s best studio theatres. You don’t need to be in Edinburgh to see excellent theatre this summer – catch Much Ado About Nothing at the Drayton Arms, on stage now until 4th September.