REVIEW: The Swell Mob, Flabbergast Theatre *****

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).

[REVIEW] This Is Shakespeare & What Blest Genius

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).

Shakespeare’s Props – out now!

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!

Identity and atrocity: international theatre since 1945

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.

Identity and atrocity: international theatre since 1945

This post is to publicise my lecture series this term on Identity and Atrocity in Anglophone theatre since 1945. It’ll be happening on Fridays at 11.15 in Lecture Room K of the English Faculty for Weeks 1–5 of term (18 Jan to 15 Feb), and the outline is below. For more information, leave a comment or email me (sophie.duncan at chch.ox.ac.uk). I’ll be tweeting about the lecture series at #IDtheatre – please join in, whether you’re attending or not!

Description:

This series looks at theatre written and performed in Britain, Ireland, America, South Africa and continental Europe since 1945, thinking about how drama presents transgressive and marginalised racial, sexual, and national identities when plays bring the past onstage. The plays in this series, disparate in form and setting, introduce post-1945 drama’s international contexts, exploring some of theatre’s most iconoclastic and influential responses to atrocity. All plays listed below are available via the database Drama Online, except The Island, copies of which are available in various university libraries. Key primary texts include:

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

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

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).

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

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

Shakespeare’s Props: Memory and Cognition

IMG_5632
Ask not for whom the bell tolls

My new book, Shakespeare’s Props: Memory and Cognition, will be published on 14th February 2019 by Routledge. How very romantic.

 

Advent 18: 5 Steps To A Spooky Christmas

girl-reading-ghost-story
I can’t tell you how happy this picture makes me.

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?

  1. 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?

victorian-ghost-story2. 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:

MARCELLUS:
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.

dickens-of-a-christmas-800-x-400_snow-800x400

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.