Advent 20: Christmas In The Museum

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Watercolour by Augustus W. Franks, (c) Ashmolean Museum

Every year, the University of Oxford releases a short, charming video to wish the sort of people who look this stuff up on YouTube Season’s Greetings (even though the University celebrates what’s unequivocally Christmas, with a small side of Hanukkah, full-time for five weeks each year). For 2017, it’s a sweet video about the friendship between a bird and a Magdalen gargoyle. The video’s pathos suggests the Westgate John Lewis had spread its marketing influence right down the High Street.

But really, none of that matters. Because today I discovered the unbelievable brilliance of the 2013 video, a cracktastic mixture of Aardman animation and the talking head from Art Attack, a surreally inexplicable vision that the university – with all its choir videos, and science, and a really adorable light show in the vaulted ceiling of Exeter College Chapel – can never hope to beat. For the twentieth day of December, I give you: Oxford’s Unruly Objects. There’s a lot to love.

Season’s Greetings, one and all.

[REVIEW] Suddenly Last Summer, ETC, Oxford Playhouse

Here is my mini review of Suddenly Last Summer: Mary Higgins should be booked in to play Hecuba twice a term until she graduates. Ideally in a newly-discovered translation by Sylvia Plath. She rises with red hair and eats men like air as the disturbed Catherine in this disorientatingly ambitious version of Williams’s Dead Gay New Orleans Play. Derek Mitchell plays Violet Venables as a geriatric Blanche du Bois, successfully crossed with the disembodied head of Madame Leota. The results are horribly brilliant.

The experimental score is the most ambitious and perhaps least successful bit of the production, stuck in an aural aesthetic standoff between Teutonic techno and Lana del Rey. The onstage singer and guitarist (Georgia Bruce) is brilliant. Suddenly Last Summer is a one-act (keywords: lobotomy, cannibals), which director Sammy Glover has expanded with movement sequences that initially made me worry she’d have preferred to shoot a music video, but in retrospect illuminated the play.

The supporting cast are strong – especially Ell Potter and Aaron Skates, who as Catherine’s mother and brother make fireworks out of the first and second prizes in the Tennessee Williams Most Thankless Supporting Role competition. Skates’s Louisiana accent is particularly spot on (I say this with all the authority of someone who’s spent precisely a week in New Orleans and bored people with the Instagrams ever since. ‘Ah, yes, Garden District,’ I smugged during the performance, in a manner more usually seen by people cleverness-signalling at Jacobean comedies).

But, yes. Mary Higgins and Derek Mitchell. Casting Mitchell as Violet may have been ‘controversial’, but as it turns out, nobody could better depict that she-pander (nails grappling for purchase on your forearm, wig bobbing incessantly) than a second-year undergraduate. As for Higgins, Tennessee Williams only wrote two female characters (groteseque whore/saviour-wife), and sensibly Higgins and Glover have conspired that the former shouldn’t play either. As I said – Hecuba. It’s ages til finals.

[EXHIBITION & TALK] Magdalen’s Wilde

wilde-poster-1-768x1086The 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 library@magd.ox.ac.uk ). 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.

On 21 November at 5.30 p.m. I’m giving a talk to accompany the exhibition, followed by a reception and viewing of the exhibition. To attend the talk, please email library@magd.ox.ac.uk – it’d be wonderful to see you there. Pia de Richemont reviewed the exhibition for Oscholars over the summer: read her review here.

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).

[TALK]: Lady Dervorguilla Seminar Series / Black History & Ira Aldridge

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Here is the swanky and over-generous flier for my next talk. When your eyebrows have returned to a normal altitude, I hope you’ll join me in agreeing that “Lady Dervorguilla” could be equally a flesh-eating pot plant and the greatest, oldest peer the House of Lords has ever seen. Instead, she was Dervorguilla of Galloway, the original Balliol woman, seen inset looking judgmental in a deep red gown. Many thanks to Balliol MCR for inviting me a couple of months back, and if you’d like to come along, see the Facebook event for details. You’ll hear more about…

In 1833, Ira Aldridge was the first black actor to play Othello in Britain, just as Britain was debating the abolition of slavery in its colonies. In 2012, Lolita Chakrabarti’s award-winning Red Velvet rediscovered Aldridge’s theatrical practice and extraordinary life. Dr. Sophie Duncan, historical advisor on the original production, talks about Aldridge’s life, rehabilitation, and the “progressive” Black history of the play, as well as offering advice on combining a career in academia and theatre.

NB: the flier neglects to mention the wine reception, surely the most important aspect of the evening.

It’s been quiet around here on Clamorous Voice, as I’ve waded more securely into the chaos that is Not Waving, Not Drowning, But Trying To Finish My Thesis. I have a submission date of 1st August, which I’m inscribing on as many electronic surfaces possible in a bid for accountability/intellectual masochism. I passed my confirmation viva, which seems to be to the end of the DPhil process, that which transfer is to the beginning. In a total dereliction of my former principles, I have become one of those people who thinks that Oxford’s transfer of status process is a good thing – when seen retrospectively. I’m not yet bonkers enough to think it’s a good thing at the time.

I’m also still going on the radio. For those who missed the story of how this happened: a BBC researcher found my blog, or possibly my twitter, passed it on to their superiors and then apparently disappeared forever, leaving a confused but charming producer try to work out why she found herself on the phone to me. This Friday afternoon will be my third jaunt to BBC Oxford, and I love it. Given that I consume radio like oxygen, and have yet to listen to more than five seconds of myself on tape, this is not surprising. I am totally available for Woman’s Hour. I would just like to make this very clear.

I’m also giving three four papers this term, something which (in sharp contrast to transfer-of-status) looked like a good idea in advance. SO, if you’re in the vicinity and would like to hear me speak OR think any of my subjects sound innately interesting, please do come along! The list is below:

  • Friday 3 May, 12.45 – 1.45 p.m. “Ira Aldridge and Black Identity on the Victorian Stage.” Race and Resistance across borders in the Long Twentieth Century; interdisciplinary seminar sponsored by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities). Radcliffe Humanities Building, Seminar Room, 3rd Floor, University of Oxford.
  • Friday 21 May, 5 p.m. “Women, Sex and Celebrity in the Victorian Theatre.” ‘Spotlight on Celebrity’ Research Network; Postgraduate / Early Career Researcher interdisciplinary network. Ryle Room, Radcliffe Humanities Building, University of Oxford.
  • Thursday 6 June, 11 a.m. “Manchester and the Forest of Arden: how one Victorian wedding became a global phenomenon.” The Global and the Local: North American Victorian Studies Association, British Association of Victorian Studies and Australasian Victorian Studies Association conference. San Servolo, Venice.
  • Monday 10 June, 5.15 p.m. “Shakespeare and the sleeping woman at the fin de siècle”. Victorian Literature Graduate Seminar. English Faculty, University of Oxford.

In other news, I am now twenty-six and one day. I am probably going to do something about the blog widget (to your right) which maintains the illusion of my youth and twenty-four-year-old promise. I am basically that blog widget’s portrait in the attic. I realise that, to anyone over twenty-six, twenty-six-year-olds who whine about their decrepit and withered proximity to calcification are appalling pubescents who deserved to be thwacked with a beehive. Believe me, that is how I feel about twenty-five-year-olds. Until I find how to change that widget, I crave your patience.

At some point I’ll be back, to express my rapturous love for Broadchurch and Endeavour, two programmes which took the distilled essence of my various enthusiasms and won me over completely despite containing ad breaks. Obviously, with Endeavour (doomed tragic policeman FIGHTS CRIME in Oxford) the bar for obtaining my love was always going to be set exceptionally low. I think that most programmes could be improved by being set in Oxford, and in Endeavour‘s case they threw in Roger Allam. Who walks around in a hat being splendid, and looking as if he confidently expects a forthcoming spinoff called Thursday (you could do worse, ITV, unless the Dowager Countess can somehow keep Downton going until the sixties).

I have not seen last night’s Endeavour, and I shan’t see Broadchurch until it hits ITVplayer tomorrow, so am anxiously avoiding spoilers. Re: Broadchurch, my money is on Elle’s Creepy Husband, although I’d be happier if we locked Nige up anyway. I’d be happier still if somebody tracked down that bloody postman and/or gave David Tennant a square meal. Anyway, yes, back sooner this time. Thanks, as ever, for reading.

 

Paris.

[Scene: a very small flat somewhere near the Cowley Road. A short girl with damp hair is writing about the ideological fragmentation of 1890s Shakespeare performance, which makes a change from teaching Harold Pinter and reading about Sarah Kane.]

This is a short post to say that I should like to go to Paris, now, and leave my various written commitments to, ah, dispose of themselves as they think best. I shall probably have to settle for a French lesson this afternoon.

It seems ridiculous not to be in Paris when Paris is still there. I suspect the vast majority of you reading this are also NOT IN PARIS. We could ALL be in Paris, and are managing our lives SO BADLY in not being so.

Just think, the French are at least in the same country as Paris. ALL the time. Except when they misguidedly go on holiday to places which aren’t Paris.

Stop reading this and book your tickets. Go quickly. Many of us could be there within HOURS.

[the curtain descends. DPhil student is heard to cry ‘PARIS!’ in manner of displaced Chekhovian not-Muscovite, as the lights fade.]

[Lectures] Before Oscar 2013

Before Oscar

Before Oscar:

Reading Gender and Sexuality Pre-1880

a cross-period lecture series

Hilary Term 2013

2pm Wednesdays – Weeks 1-8 – Seminar Room K

Oxford University Faculty of English, Manor Rd, Oxford

Crossing period and national boundaries, this lecture series will introduce the pleasures and dangers of reading pre-twentieth century literature through a queer-studies and gender-studies lens.

1st Week, 16th January, Sophie Duncan

“The Reinvention of Love”:

or, why the Victorians didn’t think Oscar Wilde was built that way

2nd Week, 23rd January, Emma Smith

The Room in the Elephant: Shakespeare and Sexuality Again

3rd Week, 30th January, Bronwyn Johnston

Gendering Magic: Male Witches and Female Magicians on the Early Modern Stage

4th Week, 6th February, Anna Camilleri

Que(e)rying Poetics from Pope to Byron, or, Doing Boys Like They’re Girls and Girls Like They’re Boys in the Long Eighteenth Century

5th Week, 13th February, Liv Robinson

Reading Gender in the Romance of the Rose

6th Week, 20th February, Daniel Thomas

Belocen on ecnysse: the spatialization of gender in Old English literature

7th Week, 27th February, Anna Caughey

Blood, Sweat and Tears: Chivalry and Masculinity

8th Week, 6th March, Naomi Wolf, title TBA*

* 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…).

Drama & Performance Seminars: Shearer West, Julie Holledge, Janelle Reinelt

DRAMA AND PERFORMANCE SEMINAR SERIES
Faculty of English, University of Oxford @ St Cross Building, Room A, Manor Road, Oxford.

Wednesday, 2 May at 5:15
Shearer West (University of Oxford)
“Actors, Artists and Celebrity: Thomas Lawrence and the Siddons family”.

Wednesday, 16 May at 5:15
Julie Holledge (Emeritus Professor Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia and Professor II, Centre for Ibsen Studies, University of Oslo)
“Six Stages of Separation: Using network analysis and visual searching to theorise the global production history of A Doll’s House”.

Wednesday, 30 May at 5:15
Janelle Reinelt (University of Warwick)
“Re-thinking ‘Political Theatre’ in a Time of Reaction”.

Convenors: Sos Eltis, Laurie Maguire, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Emma Smith, Tiffany Stern, Sophie Duncan.

All welcome!

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

(Jessie White got in touch and asked me to take part in the Happy Birthday, Shakespeare! project, to which I also contributed last year. I was delighted to comply… albeit belatedly.)

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Shakespeare is now 448, the subject of a World Shakespeare Festival, a Cultural Olympiad, and a multi-billion pound industry spanning theatre, education, tourism and heritage. Last year, I talked about how Shakespeare defined my life. I suppose this post is something of an update, explaining what Shakespeare has meant to me in the past 12 months – when my life has gone in a quite unexpected direction.

I’m now 25, and a lecturer at the University of Oxford. I teach whatever I’m asked to teach, which results in increasingly unlikely combinations of Early Modern, linguistic and seventeenth-century tutorials and seminars. Unlikely, because I’m a Victorianist who’s really a Shakespearean – or at the very least, a Shakespearean as much as I am a Victorianist.

I started my thesis as a dedicated researcher whose eclectic teaching career had veered between coaching South Warwickshire’s smallest for the 11+, SEN tutoring from scratch, and a low feeling of dread as an EFL tutor succumbing to swine flu. I had taught, but didn’t think I could teach. At Oxford, I taught my first tutorials and classes in a state of total nervousness. Near-blind with panic, I studiously ignored the advice and encouragement of everybody who told me the following:

1) that I could teach,
2) that I would teach,
3) that I knew as much as any other new tutor, and
4) that I might actually be a talented tutor.

These people (who included both my supervisors, the academic for whom I research-assist, my priest and Leah Scragg) were all wrong because they didn’t know just HOW BAD I was at teaching. Obviously.

I plunged on, firmly discounting the positive evidence (the hilarity, the feedback, the 2:1 from my first student that made me happier than any subsequent Gibbs Prize ever could), and suddenly got a lectureship that spun me silently into terror.

I started the lectureship in October, at a new college. In December, I was asked to teach a last-minute Shakespeare tutorial, for a student I’d never met. It would be the first time I’d taught Shakespeare’s plays.

I can’t remember how I prepared; I know my major concern (impostor syndrome) was the fact that I was three years younger than my student. Despite this, I was relieved that, for the first time, I’d be teaching within my specialism.

It was on the way to that tutorial that I was mistaken for a 17-year-old interview candidate applying for Archaeology. Not an auspicious start.

I had always said that what interested me about teaching was not imparting knowledge, or pedagogical theory, but the students. I’m lucky enough to work with some exceptionally bright and interesting young people, and it’s understanding their interests, inclinations, prejudices, strengths and weaknesses that challenges me to find the best ways of testing and encouraging them in their work.

I’d always distinguished myself from “real” teachers who spoke about the “Eureka moments” –  the instant when a student’s eyes light up that makes it all worthwhile. The fact that my students were passing their exams and enjoying their tutorials suggests that some of them must have understood something – but I couldn’t remember experiencing a “Eureka moment”. If it had happened, I’d been too busy being scared of teaching to notice.

This was the tutorial that changed everything. Teaching Shakespeare felt more like sharing a mutual enthusiasm than adhering to rigid roles of teacher and student. We were talking about the relationship between emotion and poetic form (via everything else in the world) and I asked her to turn to Romeo and Juliet‘s first conversation (which runs as follows, up to their first kiss) and see what was interesting about the form:

ROMEO
 93   If I profane with my unworthiest hand
 94   This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
 95   My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
 96   To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

 JULIET
 97   Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
 98   Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
 99   For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
100   And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

ROMEO
101   Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET
102   Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO
103   O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
104   They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

JULIET
105   Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

ROMEO
106   Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

[Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene 5]
When she worked out what she was reading, my student looked up and her face was transformed.

Those fourteen lines make up a perfect Shakespearean sonnet. Such is the young lovers’ mutual intoxication with each other that their words instantly form a metrically perfect poem. It’s something you can’t fully sense in performance. It was something I’d found out years ago via some forgotten book, but to her it was brand new.

She got it; she understood. I was watching the Eureka moment.

I’m wary of Bardolatry – I think there are dull plots, thankless characters, and occasionally turgid scenes alongside the transcendent in Shakespeare (in particular, I avoid productions of King Lear and as I would a skydive). Nevertheless, I still think Shakespeare is the best – breathtaking, and brilliant, and now so universal that those individual discoveries, made on an ordinary afternoon in Oxford, seem all the more miraculous. Despite Shakespeare’s fame, every day people discover him for the first time.

This week, I told another group of students about my supervisor’s recent article (co-written with Emma Smith) on All’s Well That Ends Well. One of them marvelled that there was anything new to say about Shakespeare. As ground-breaking research like this article prove, there is. But what’s also vital and exciting about Shakespeare is when he’s new not to the whole of scholarship, but for individual students and theatregoers. My students’ discoveries and realisations are as miraculous to them – and, indeed, to me – as any academic theory which changes the way we study. What’s new to them is as valuable to me as it is to them. I don’t know any other writer who can inspire such awe and admiration.

I’m currently teaching the Romeo and Juliet student for her finals. She’s very tired, very intelligent, and very stressed – well within the bell curve of “normal for Oxford Finalists”. She also has no idea what I owe her. My gratitude to Shakespeare is in some ways easier to voice. Shakespeare helped a terrified DPhil student teach and enjoy it. Teaching Shakespeare is the best sort of teaching, because Shakespeare was, and is, the best of writers. I’m grateful for that, so: Happy Birthday, Shakespeare.