Christmas-tree-decorating is joyous, technical, and highly ritualised. DEPTH. PRIORITY. THE FANNING OF BRANCHES. My preferred aesthetic is somewhere between Liberty’s of London and the Disneyland Hotel (two spiritual homes). Growing up (I say this like I am now (a) tall, and (b) different), my favourite decorations included the gorgeous wooden and china ones my mother had bought at Literal Disneyland while on tour with the RSC . They’re everything. Less admirably, my other favourite decorations also included (and include) a strange fox in a hatbox, and a resin badger now missing one foot, both chosen by self when under seven. I “compromise” about their inclusion each year by putting them in a moderately secluded position and daring anyone to challenge me.
Wife & self & parents decorated the Stratford Tree last weekend; tonight, after a symposium on the Medical Humanities, Strictly, and an excellent chicken Kiev, wife & self did the Oxford Tree. My mum gave us selfie props. The result, as you’ll see, is like a gayer Abigail’s Party with the entire cast in need of haircuts. The pictured cocktail, the Festive Unicorn, is now a tradition. Because I have Pinterest aspirations but cannot sew or cook, my version of Christmas catering is to infuse lethal alcohol from gin, fruit, and Kilner jars. I am in a harrowing psychological war with our friend Ben in the field of Festive Prep, but since he has an actual label-maker for his homemade jam, I’ve lost. Two years ago, while tree-decorating, I cured Emily’s flu by switching her from Lemsip to Homemade Raspberry Vodka. Think on, and Happy 2nd December.
P.S. Here is our tree-decorating-playlist. It’s not groundbreaking but its inclusion makes me feel like An Influencer. Last Christmas is on there an integer number of times because it’s the greatest Christmas pop song ever written.
This has nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with homophobia. Few people mind your Jesus (well, I mind your Jesus, but not Jesus per se, I’m a Christian after all). A lot of people mind your evasive reptilian bigotry.
Again: straight white Christian man resigns on grounds of persecution while poor people literally burn to death in tower block, and yet the failure of one homophobe to achieve his desired public office (Theresa May & the DUP indicate that other frothing bigots manage, Tim, maybe the problem is you?) is what should really be shaming our society.
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!
They belong more properly to Hallowe’en or Christmas (viz. the two excellent anthologies I read over the season, P.D. James’s The Mistletoe Murders and Sayers et al’s Murder Under The Christmas Tree) but I’ve just come across a superlative ghost story. Or, rather, ghost song. Because I am writing about EARLY MODERN CORPSES at present, and thus am locked in the slow-loading embrace of EEBO, I stumbled across this, from that oddly-neglected seventeenth-century classic Choyce drollery, songs & sonnets being a collection of divers excellent pieces of poetry, of severall eminent authors, never before printed (1656), published by my new best friend, Robert Pollard. Pollard seems a bit obscure (he has the misfortune to share his name with a far more successful publisher who lived a century later), but he’s mentioned briefly by Adam Smyth in ‘Profit & Delight’: Printed Miscellanies in England 1640–1682, and his editorial note to the miscellany is charming. But best of all is the spooky little offering which ends the collection: ‘The Ghost-Song’. It felt vaguely Christmassy to me, and although it’s January 7th, I include it on that basis (it’s always Christmas somewhere on the internet):
‘Tis late and cold, stir up the fire,
Sit close, and draw the table nigher,
Be merry, and drink wine that’s old,
A hearty medicine ‘gainst the cold;
Your bed of wanton down the best,
Where you may tumble to your rest:
I could well wish you wenches too,
But I am dead, and cannot do.
Call for the best, the house will ring,
Sack, White and Claret, let them bring,
And drink apace, whilst breath you have,
You’l finde but cold drinking in the grave:
Partridge, Plover for your dinner,
And a Capon for the sinner,
You shall finde ready when you are up,
And your horse shall have his sup.
Welcome, welcome, shall flie round,
And I shall smile, though under ground.
The current Old Library exhibition at Magdalen is on Oscar Wilde – I curated it, alongside our former Fellow Librarian Christine Ferdinand. The exhibition is open to the public on 15, 22 and 29 November, and at other times by appointment (contact email@example.com ). Displaying the very best of Magdalen’s holdings on one of our most famous alumni, the exhibition includes a little-known MS of Lady Windermere’s Fan, an array of first editions (and pirated editions!) from the UK and Europe, odd appropriations, Cecil Beaton costume designs, theatre programmes, salacious details from the trials, and (slightly heartbreaking) original letters.
P.S. this is a (reasonably) rare opportunity to get inside Magdalen’s beautiful Old Library and see the petrified wig. To give you an idea, it’s the central image in my blog header (if you’re reading this on RSS, click here).