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.
* please note that in Week 8, lecture will take place in Lecture Theatre 2.
Building on the success of last year’s Before Oscar lecture series, we’re back in 2013 – now with added Emma Smith and Naomi Wolf. I hope to see many of you there (you may have noticed that I’m first up, this coming Wednesday…).
Hello! I hope you’re well. I’ve been to Grimsby. And Sheffield. I know how to live. I break my silence to deal with the five million or so posts that have been brewing over the summer. Naturally, the first is a rant about telly. NOTE: given the spike in traffic, I think I should point out that this was written before seeing the preview, i.e. about my concerns re: the casting, rather than as a review of Elementary. I hope that clears things up!
I welcome adaptations of books that take the canon as a point of departure, rather than a blueprint. I may disagree that Elizabeth Bennett would ever have neglected her fringe, or played with pigs, but I will duly defend to the rights of writers and film-makers to jazz up, bastardise, queer, chop, and mess about with well-known literary works. This is probably why I enjoy studying Shakespeare in performance.
My views on adaptation particularly apply to radical re-imaginings of Sherlock Holmes: after all, if you don’t enjoy one version, there’ll be another along in a minute. There are three Sherlock franchises current in live media: BBC Sherbatch, the US Elementary, and the Robert Downey Jr. films. The original works by Conan Doyle are readily available, as are the ITV Granada adaptations with Jeremy Brett (the nearest thing to the books-in-motion).
Of these five incarnations of Holmes and Watson, the most recent, CBS’s Elementary has caused the greatest ructions by making the Watson of their New York-based adaptation a woman. Specifically, the Watson we’ll meet on 27 September is played by the Asian American actor Lucy Liu.
I am very happy for Watson to be a woman; it’s part of my broader policy of thinking we’re a good thing. Woman-as-sidekick is not exactly new or progressive (hat-tip to a British show where the profession of doctor-as-in-Doctor remains exclusively male), but, nevertheless, as a proud proponent of the feminist agenda, I’m excited by the story that could be told here. Conan Doyle’s John Watson is invalided out of the war in Afghanistan as a hero. Lucy Liu’s Watson is then, surely, the following: a woman of colour serving her country as an army doctor, thus succeeding at the apex of two historically racist and sexist institutions. Subsequently, she’s a veteran (presumably with physical and/or emotional challenges) adjusting to civilian life. A slightly less familiar trope than deerstalkers and seven per cent solutions.
Except Liu’s Watson isn’t going to be a hero. She’s been struck off. So instead of the Asian, female professional and military hero returning to metropolitan, post-injury life, we’ve got a woman of colour who failed at her own profession (most probably via malpractice, gross misconduct, or a bigoted conspiracy) who – don’t despair! – finds new meaning as the helpmeet, conscience, caregiver and chronicler of a stroppy, white male genius without emotional IQ or social graces, but who does have a privileged background and an addictive personality. Great.
I don’t need another incarnation of the female helpmeet who’s privileged to chronicle and mediate the unacceptable behaviours of a difficult male, and whose own achievements get forgotten as a result. Watson should be Holmes’s Boswell, not his Henrietta Bowdler, Dorothy Wordsworth, or Mary Shelley.
I’ll end by saying that I would be completely delighted to be proved wrong, and would rejoice in a new series that queers sex and race while triumphantly evading the depression of having Liu fall victim to the dynamic of male genius vs. female acolyte. Jonny Lee Miller played an absolutely splendid Byron – let’s hope Watson isn’t lost in the myth of the Byronic male.
Call for Papers: Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Literature and Culture
Victorian Network is an MLA-indexed (from 2012) online journal dedicated to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate work in Victorian Studies.
The sixth issue of Victorian Network, guest edited by Dr Greta Depledge (Royal Holloway), is dedicated to a reassessment of nineteenth-century constructions and understandings of sex, courtship and marriage.
Although the heteronormative and companionate marriage was vital for economic and reproductive reasons – as well as romantic impulses – recent scholarship has illuminated its status as but one of several diverse paradigms of marriage/sexual relationship accessible to the Victorians
Across the nineteenth century, profound crises of faith, extensive legal reforms and the new insights afforded by the emergent discipline of anthropology all contributed to a culture of introspection about the practice of marriage, at the same time as advances in science and medicine opened up new interpretations and definitions of sexual practices and preferences.
We are inviting submissions of no more than 7000 words, on any aspect of the theme. Possible topics include but are by no means limited to the following:
· Victorian narratives of queer desire: text and subtext
· Representations of women’s sexuality (angels, whores, spinsters and beyond)
· Prudishness and censorship: “deviant” novels and scandalous dramas
· Adultery, bigamy, divorce and other affronts to the ideal of companionate marriage
· Transgressive relationships
· Nineteenth-century marriage law, including prohibited degrees of affinity, property reform and breach of promise
· Representations of sexual innocence and experience (virginity, puberty and prostitution
· Subversion of traditional courtship narratives
· Sex and class: adventuresses, mistresses, sex workers and blackmail
· Customs of the country: courtship conventions, betrothals and bridal nights
(I remain Submissions Editor for Victorian Network. This means I am the over-excited loon who will answer your emails in the first instance. Should you have QUESTIONS about my role, the CFP, or any other aspect of submitting to VN, do get in touch, either by emailing or commenting below.)
The chapter is in. And now, just for a few days, my brain can rot. Erode. Turn to mulch. By few I mean two and by rot I mean, well, I don’t do drugs and you don’t get sloshed at home, so, TO THE INTERNET.
There’s something really vulnerable about a woman dressed to suggest lower-body nudity. Perhaps it bothers me because it’s the look Tracy Letts chose for a woman’s first appearance in his 1994 play Killer Joe. Sheila appears ‘naked from the waist down’ on the first page (no equivalent nudity for the boys) and is demeaned and assaulted for the rest of the incredibly nasty play. In the Selby Bostrom/Gentle shoot, Gentle spends most of the shoot looking cerebral/exasperated/lovingly fond and v. practical, while Bostrom shows off her prettily-tattooed inner thigh, and/or plays witha kitten.
Not that the Gentle/Bostrom shoot was the worst offender; I’m willing to blame that on the dreadful Peaches Geldof shoot, for the instantly-engendered rage. I am willing to bet that bloody Bunny (I-christen-thee-Henry-slash-Archie-slash-Quentin if ever there was one, and yes some of my best friends do have those silly names) isn’t a hustler, that Lily’s “Teen Vogue Intern” isn’t a profession recognised by the census-takers, and that Geldof, Flower and Rabbit all get somebody else in to cook and clean (they’re not students. They’re not even real people. Where’s the pasta in their kitchen? The stirfry veg?). But, leaving aside my bile and spleen, leaving it in a little paper packet along with my heart, lungs and brain, some Selby shoots are still amazing – try Daniela Kimiliotis or Annakim Violette, even if the latter’s survey answers indicate that sometimes the beautiful shouldn’t be allowed to talk.
Unfortunately, Gentle tends to shoot women the wayboth he and Selby shoot Bostrom – faux-naive, heavy-jawed stuff (why are we still idolising a style of beauty that’s the second-rate version of a 1920s debutante?), kittens much in evidence, which just ends with the subjects looking underage and a bit, er, thick (pointing out examples here seems, well, cruel. No that comma wasn’t a hyperlink. No really).
I’m aware that I’ve complained about this guy on and off for paragraphs, but the fact that I still can’t get enough of Gentle’s work on men means I HAVE NO PRINCIPLES you should check him out. 1) he looks a lot like Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine. 2) He doesn’t wear socks. 3) Maybe you’ll just really like spoilt, underage-looking girls. Though that’s probably illegal and you should keep it to yourself. Lots of the girls seem to come from nice bits of uptown New York, though, so you should also go if you like rich girls. Which isn’t illegal, as yet.
2. Ladies Against Feminism. Dude, I know. I know. These people are crazy. Crazier than the Merton Time Ceremony (unique to this list for being splendid rather than terrible), crazier than the one Oxford church running an exgay programme, crazier than my extended family and crazier than Tony Higgins’s face (did anyone see the last episode of Lewis? He was playing a formerly-promiscuous closeted-queer rockstar whose ‘hydraulics were shot’ and who’d taken every drug known to formerly-promiscuous queer. His face was presumably why they’d hired him).
But I keep going back. I love it. I love that just when you think we’ve reached our limit of outrages perpetrated in the name of a man who loved, without reservation, prostitutes, centre-right civil servants, gay centurions and the diseased, the loonytunes West just gives us that little bit more. The ladies of LAF doesn’t even make me angry. They probably should, since some of them are actually anti-female-suffrage, but honestly, I just laugh. They don’t have the organisational skills of the Westboro Baptists, and since the core of the movement seems to be that women should sit at home waiting for their wombs to prolapse, I doubt that one of these poor women will be infringing my civil liberties any time soon.
Some of what they say is good. You know, the bits about the love of God healing us, stay-at-home motherhood being an incredibly valid and valuable choice (I’d like to be a stay-at-home mum, if I can, although my current parenting plan involves, so says the co-conspirator, ‘feeding it on make-believe and Ritalin’) and the fact that God made us in his image and has a plan for us that shows he recognises our worth and skills.
On the other hand, you can get that from any sane church or sane Christian (and recognition of the role played by SAHMs surely-to-God from any sane woman), without the encircling doctrine of madness, terror and hate. This is the so-bad-it’s-good face of Christian blogging, and as a special bonus, there are more Daddy Issues than you can shake a stick at. Go marvel.
3. Fantasy shopping. All the crap, all the time. Despite being at least 50% FRUGAL in my real existence (as an antidote to being 50% TERRIBLE WITH MONEY, a genetic trait from a father whose motto is ‘well, you’re a long time dead/you have 40 years to go to work/let’s open another bottle and do another degree, floss’), my imagination spends millions of imaginary pounds every time I click. For the record, were I to win the Lottery I do not play (the gambling equivalent of a Virgin Birth), I would fill my hand with the Tiffany Celebration Rings (I’m not proud), then buy these, this, this and these. And a pony. Note: my female friends are equally as shallow. I did a quick straw poll which threw up mention of Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Brora and Toast. And by my female friends I mean Chloe. In my defence, I would also probably take Arabic lessons and learn to properly paint. Maybe go on retreat. Build a theatre at my secondary school. Go back to Rome. But I’d also buy a mews flat in Soho and start having my nails done. You see.
4. Pop/indie/acoustic/I’ve never understood genre SONGS ABOUT THINGS WHICH ARE NOT TRADITIONALLY SUITABLE FOR SONGS. I cannot tell you how much I love these. Being simultaneously synaesthetic and melodically dead inside means I prefer lyrics to melody (unless it’s baroque or early music which I enjoy because it’s very very structured, just like I enjoy owning cleaning products and keeping things in boxes. In boxes. Boxes), portraits to landscapes, and the weeping scabs of human experience to the vicissitudes of love/above cry/bye baby/maybe. This is not to say that my tastes are either highbrow or gloomy. Hence my first song choice is Cool by Gwen Stefani. WRITE MORE SONGS ABOUT FIRST HUSBANDS, people. Especially cheerful poppy electric ballads that make me slightly want to kill myself. And also convince you that Gwen Stefani’s first husband cannot have got over her, because who possibly could.
I must admit that from here on in, things do get quite depressing. Or at least ambiguously happy. Cue the laceration that is Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin (daddy issues! in the Midwest! Absentee fathers, rubbishness and plausible cycles of appalling horror! It’s so good) and the unbelievably brilliant Daddy’s Gone by Glasvegas. Jenny introduced me to this lot, who also wrote the only extant Ballad of A Social Worker, Geraldine. I also like my mother’s all-time favourite song, many-people-are-dead-but-everything’s-splendid, The Beatles’s In My Life. If I was going to pick an Indelicates song, it would probably be New Art For The People, but only because when I heard the first two verses I vaguely thought it was about Brady and Hindley (and liked it all the better). Actually, no, idiot me, it’d be Unity Mitford, which is actually much better than Our Daughters Will Never Be Free because jesusgod, they wrote a song about Unity Mitford, but anyone can point out feminism’s going backwards. Tho admittedly not so well.
From Rubber Soul, I also love Little Girl (ambiguously paedophilic lovers vow revenge and murder!) and Girl, mostly for the enormous sniffs Lennon and Macartney do, halfway through recording. A lot of popular standards do have wonderfully odd plots – Springfield’s Son Of A Preacher Man (seduction by cleric’s offspring), Turner’s River Deep Mountain High (sexual relationship analogous to childhood love for stuffed toy) and Thriller (I mean, my God).
My favourite line in all music is from Glenn Miller (pick yer own) – there were angels dining at the Ritz (note: I have never eaten at the Ritz. Please add to item three), juxtaposing the surreal with the sublime. I like the incongruous, and so many lyrics are bizarre that I can include plenty of really good music in this post and perhaps remove the guilt. But liking these songs for their weird subject matter is a bit unusual, and although I would very much appreciate song recs about weight loss, paternity tests, ex-wives and tube delays (Yeti’s Northern Line obsessed me last summer – I love that the second last.fm tag is ‘depressing’), I am quite prepared to be judged. Quality is almost immaterial, as long as the subject matter is odd.
5. Lewis. I don’t watch a lot of television. This is due to three things; I don’t have a TV in Oxford, ITV Player won’t work on my Mac and, as a source of media and procrastination, the internet has the ineffable advantage of letting you bite back. I will, however, break any number of laws and kill any number of braincells in search of Lewis.
Guys, I love it. I never got sci-fi. I couldn’t care less about romance. I do like soaps, having been raised on EastEnders and Coronation Street and a daily dose of the Archers (hurrah for Lilian, boo hiss Ruth god RUTH), but Lewis… it has everything I could ever want. Detectives: my huge vice. I went from Blyton to Christie and never looked back. The bits of me that didn’t apply to Oxford for Brideshead did so re: Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Religion. Beautiful Laura Hobson and beautiful DSI Innocent. Ridiculous continuity, impossible plotlines, snarky banter, gay angst, beautiful Laurence Fox and Oxford.
People never cease to save other people from drowning, fires, or (last week) being drowned and cut up with manure-chopping knives. People are constantly leaving the priesthood, perving on their relatives, unzipping corpses and pretending Brasenose is Univ – and at the centre of it all is a crumpled Geordie man and his wife’s amazing cardboard tombstone. Every episode has at least forty-seven establishing shots of the Rad Cam, forty-eight reaction shots of Hathaway and forty-nine instances of somebody stepping out of the Rad Cam and suddenly being opposite St Giles. I love it. I love it so much. The writing is simultaneously ridiculous and makes you glad to be alive.
Also, Lewis loves his sergeant slightly more than air. As he should. Hathaway is a beanlike ex-Tab, ex-rowing Blue, ex-priest who left the seminary after recanting his homophobic Catholic views and who celebrates every setback by having angst in his face (such angst, you guys, such angst) and playing the guitar (actually playing the guitar. In a floppy shirt. He makes me clutch my hair). He weighs eight stone and looks like a horse. He’s part of a world music band, has no friends, is of ambiguous sexuality and is, for some reason, the only remaining TV character allowed to SMOKE CONSTANTLY on primetime TV. Lewis is continually leaving him against railings so he can light up and look hot.
Despite being unbelievably posh and basically despising the working class, the other day Hathaway was also allowed to go all Gene Hunt and slam Our Villain up against Brasenose with the words ‘You’re dirty and I’ll Have You’. And he sulks at the slightest provocation. In Series 2 Lewis carried him out of a burning building (and yes I did link that picture twice. I’m fond of it).
Go and watch it. You’ll either hate it and despise me (I shan’t care – there’s a DVD!), or be seized with uncontrollable love and long to join in some sort of fanbased pilgrimage walking-tour. Oh, Lewis. If ITV don’t recomission him them, I shall probably die. If there’s a word on the internet related to this series, I have probably read it already. Look at the beauty. Look.
[Author’s Note: one day I will blog a list of credible things that I also enjoy. But probably not while academic work requires me to use my brain. Expect the usual fare of smalltown blues, theatre gossip, David Tennant and inanity until such time. If you’re lucky, I’ll start talking about the figures from my thesis like they’re personal friends. Woot!.]