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.
My new book – Shakespeare’s Props: Memory and Cognition – is out now in Routledge’s Studies in Shakespeare series! You can buy Shakespeare’s Propshere (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.
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?
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.
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.
The book came out in the UK on 1st December (what, I’m excellent at timely self-promotion) and even ended up in the window of the OUP Bookshop on Oxford High Street! It’s been spotted at MLA, launched in Magdalen (quote of the evening: “Now I’ve bought it, and, more to the point, you’ve seen me do it”).
I’ve got discount codes for people who’d like to buy the book – just comment below!
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.
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.