Do it on the radio. Educating Rita’s fix for staging Peer Gynt isn’t just succinct; it also suggests that each work of art has its own best format.
I’ve long wanted to read Homer’s Odyssey. I bought the Penguin paperback years ago, but never got round to it.
Though it’s the first work of literature – as in writing and reading – I think Rita might say: Get a talking book. Thanks to the audio version – all 14 hours of it – I’ve just finished the whole epic saga.
Troy ends with the Greeks’ genocide of the Trojans, using that early weapon of mass destruction, the wooden horse. It was the brainchild of the shrewdest Greek warrior: Odysseus – or Ulysses, as the Romans renamed him.
This being a Greek myth (did it really happen?), Odysseus had divine help. His mentor was Zeus’s daughter, Athena, goddess of war and wisdom.
Troy (or Illium, hence Homer’s The Illiad) predicts that Odysseus will be away for 20 years. The war grinds on for 10, but how does it take another decade for him to get back to Ithaca?
The answer is The Odyssey. Battle, blood and brotherhood; death, defeat and despair; vengeance, victory and violence; life, love and, finally, home.
It teems with incident – the lotus eaters who rob Odysseus’s crew of purpose; the nymph Calypso who promises him immortality if he stays with her; the one-eyed Cyclops who eats his men; the sea-god Poseidon who wrecks Odysseus’s boats; the sirens, luring him to his doom, plus the restless spirits of his mother, Achilles, Agamemnon and Hercules in the underworld.
And there are the heinous suitors who, hoping Odysseus never returns, try to seduce Penelope and kill their son, Telemachus.
Homer’s feat was to write the story down, 24 books of it, in about 700 BC. Yet the events it describes took place at least five hundred years earlier, around the twelfth century BC. How on earth did the stories survive all that time?
They were passed down through a long oral tradition. They lived through reiteration, rhetoric and rhythm. Homer keeps these in his penned version. The Odyssey is a poem, to be read out loud and listened to. It’s in dactylic hexameters – six beats to the line.
I feel lucky to have found the 2018 version by Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate Homer into English. It’s accessible, direct and moving. She uses iambic pentameters (five beats to the line) which keep you hooked to the imagery and narrative drive. The narrator, Claire Danes, also gives a different voice to these muscular tales.
Wilson finds appealing ways to vary the repeated epithets (wine-dark sea,rosy-fingered dawn,cloud-gathering Zeus etc.). Like Homer (apparently) she adopts short, powerful words to evoke the characters’ emotions, as when Odysseus says: I miss my family. I have been gone so long it hurts. A slaughter describes the victims lying in blood and dust like fish hauled out of the dark grey sea in fine-meshed nets.
Her translator’s note shows the care she takes in not adding moral bias to the original, as some have. For example, she shows empathy with the executed slave women, unlike translators who use words like sluts and whores to imply they deserved their fate.
Similarly, she eschews terms like savage for the Cyclops and other strange beings, to avoidthe legacy of colonialism.
It’s a big responsibility to interpret such a great work. A classics graduate tells me that he finds Homer’s language intricate and beautiful and loves how words foreshadow events to come.
A translation may not be as rich as the original, but Emily Wilson’s interpretation made me cry several times.
Yet The Odyssey is also barbaric, macho and violent. A desperate Telemachus vows to kill mercilessly, like his father, to prove he’s a real man. The thrust of the saga inclines us to want Odysseus to get back home, but how to accept his slaying so many and his abuse of women?
Have we left all that behind? In his appendix to Troy, Stephen Fry says:
Rage, lust, envy, pride and greed energise Homer, but they’re balanced by love, honour, wisdom, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice. The same unstable elements constitute the human world today. Dark human passions of selfishness, fear and hatred counterbalanced by friendship, love and wisdom. The field’s open for someone to portray all that better than Homer. But I’ve yet to see it done.
I’d like to revisit a third Ulysses, James Joyce’s novel set over 24 hours in 1904 Dublin – another classic I’ve tried to read but never finished. What would Rita say? Perhaps I’ll give it a listen instead…
When, at the start of Sarah Winman’s 2021 book, Still Life, you meet “two English spinsters” bickering over Botticelli, Giotto and Rubens, you might think you’re in for a tale of artistic snobbery. But Evelyn Skinner could not be more human, alive and fascinating. The other woman, not so much; Winman cheekily names her Margaret someone, then drops her from the story.
There’s a hint, in this opening chapter, how fascinating Evelyn will turn out to be (and how beautifully Winman writes); she tears open a fig and presses her thumbs against the soft yielding skin – the erotic sight of its vivid flesh. In the unseen, most guarded part of her, a memory undid her, slowly like a zip.
It’s the end of WW2 in Italy and art historian Evelyn is heading for Florence to rescue masterpieces lost and damaged in battle. The first she discovers in a stinking villa (the Germans shit everywhere before they retreat) – a prized altarpiece of Christ lowered from the cross.
Evelyn‘s trick, throughout the book, is not just her deep knowledge of the objects but her ability to impart to other characters – and the reader- how art touches real life. It’s about feeling, she says, that’s all. People trying to make sense of something they can’t make sense of.
Evelyn’s intriguing in many ways, strung through shifts of period and place, mostly central Italy and London. The final chapter, All About Evelyn, goes back to 1901. Twenty-one years old and unchaperoned (!) in Florence, she embarks on a thrilling secret affair – the hint in Chapter 1 – with the pensione’s pretty maid. She offered me a door into her world. Priceless. She also offers a lot of sex, described with passionate intensity.
Evelyn emboldens an awkward E.M. Room with a View Forster to get out and experience Florentine life.
The other great character in the book, with whose equally unconventional story Evelyn intertwines, is Ulysses Temper. Heroic name, heroic guy. We first meet him, a London working-class private in the Eighth Army, with Evelyn in Italy as he drives her from villa to albergo in his jeep. Kindred spirits from the off, their paths keep almost crossing until they find each other again as Evelyn joins Ulysses’ found family in 1966.
This clan, a mismash of exiles from Ulysses’ London local and a few Italian mavericks, muster in Florence where Ulysses – thanks to an incident in the war – settles. These wonderfully original characters, bound by mutual humanity, make a web of enchanting relationships. There’s even a magical parrot, Claude, who doesn’t just talk and think, he influences the plot!
The third great character is Florence, the Renaissance city itself. If you’ve never been – or.can’t go thanks to Covid – reading this book is almost as good the real thing. Like Thomas Mann’s exquisite portrait of a diseased Venice, Winman’s evocations of the 1966 floods which devastated the Tuscan capital are heart-wrenching.
It’s the common people who pay for our plays, so we should speak their language
– Lope de Vega (1562-1635), Spanish playwright
Studying theatre at uni, wespent ages on Shakespeare. We read, researched, wrote, experimented, acted and workshopped Elizabethan drama. We did a Clockwork Orange-flavoured presentation of the Scottish play. I played Alex/ Macbeth, egged on to violence by my droogs/thanes. It was probably terrible!
But only now, nearly fifty years on, have I discovered the Spanish golden age of theatre. I’d heard of it, but have no memory of its being on the syllabus – nor experience of it since. Is it me – or, even after all these years, are UK courses and repertoires still insular?
The Spanish and English periods overlap, with the two countries at war, culminating in the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588). England’s victory – says History.com – led to a surge of national pride.
Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett, in the 2007 film, in shiny armour) declared: If the best arrangements are made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our island home, if necessary alone”. Remind you of anything?
I tried to read Don Quixote (1605), the first great European novel by Cervantes, but couldn’t finish it. I enjoyed the tilting at windmills, which comes early on, but grew tired of the silly episodes of fake chivalry. Maybe I need to try again.
I visited the Prado in Madrid and loved the huge, intense paintings of El Greco and Velasquez.
I knew a bit about Lope de Vega, because his most famous drama, Fuente Ovejuna (1619), was political – a cry for democracy. I read about its first British production, in 1939, by Manchester’s Theatre Union, by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl.
Based on a true 1476 incident in the village of Fuente Ovejuna, the people kill their raping, despotic commander. The king and queen try to force an individual confession but, Spartacus-like, the villagers declare: Fuente ovejuna lo hizo (the whole village did it).
Our theatre studies also mentioned the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina, because he invented the character of the arch-womaniser, Don Juan (1616) – later dramatised by Moliere, Mozart, George Bernard Shaw and many others.
Two of Pedro Calderon’s plays, Life’s a dream (1635) and The Mayor of Zalamea, get produced in British theatres now and then. But I’ve never seen them.
Until now. Thanks to Edinburgh Lyceum’s opening show of their autumn 2021 season, there was a chance to see an escudo of Spanish theatrical gold. Originally to be staged pre-pandemic, Life is a Dream finally opened this October. It was worth the wait.
As we entered the auditorium, everything had changed. The actor-audience configuration was revamped, with the stage floor extended out over the stalls, so that we sat and watched, on four sides, the action in the middle.
It reminded me of a similar in-the-round set up we devised on the Citizens’ stage whilst the façade – then new, now demolished – was built. It inspired the creation of 2 studio theatres front-of-house.
This Lyceum Calderon was anything but small-scale. They kept the whole auditorium open; the show’s reach exceeded its grasp. The actors darted round the wings, aisles, circle, seats, pit, traps, drapes and two proscenium arches (one real, one fake) to evoke a world from Moscow to Poland, encompassing global ideas: reality/dreams; authority/popular rebellion; family feuds; free will and love.
It’s the antithesis of domestic drama and this version made the most of it. Design, costumes and Wils Wilson’s direction all captured the broad, epic sweep of the play and its times. They abandoned the confines of naturalistic theatre and made it exciting to watch.
The actors echoed this. As the shackled prince Segismundo, Lorn Macdonald’s fuck-you, unconventional acting style was electrifying. Like him, Alison Peebles, Laura Lovemore and the rest grabbed their roles by the scruff of the neck and made them spring into life.
As jilted Rosaura, Anna Russell-Martin made her character the feisty agent of change, reclaiming not just honour, but the rightful order of things. I love it when, in a universal situation like this, an actor makes the most of her Scottish voice.
Calderon’s era, apparently, shared a lot with Shakespeare’s. Open-air playhouses. Prolific output of plays. Diverse sources, stories and styles – religious and secular, classical and current, comic and tragic.
As Lope de Vega’s quotation above shows, they also appealed to a broad audience; their theatre was probably more democratic than today’s. At the Lyceum, the £52 for 2 concession tickets on a Tuesday may not be in most people’s price range (though they are streaming the show for £10 each).
And they had plagues. As Lyceum director David Greig wrote in his (free) programme note: The 1600’s were plague years all across Europe. In 1605, London theatres were shut. With 22 plague outbreaks in Spain during that century, it’s almost certain that Calderon would have experienced a total theatre shut down like ours.
In 2015, as work started on the building of two new ferries for Arran and the Hebrides, I visited the Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow. The enthusiasm was palpable. Boats being built on the Clyde again!
6 years on, it’s all gone wrong – 4 years late and £100m over budget. 2 more ferries for Islay and Jura will now be built in shipyards in Poland, Romania or Turkey.
The first ferry – Glen Sannox, due to ply the Firth of Clyde Ardrossan-Brodick run – is still in the yard. It won’t start service until late Summer 2022. The second boat, known as Hull 802, will begin sailing the Outer Hebrides/Skye route a year later.
If you travel to Arran, or other islands off the west coast of Scotland, you’ll know how sorely needed the new vessels have been for a long while now. The service between ports is often sub-standard.
For Arran residents and visitors this invariably means cancellation, because bad weather makes Ardrossan harbour unsafe. Or the linkspan – the ramp between port and deck – is broken. This is also a problem at Gourock, once the alternative to Ardrossan.
There are other pretexts for service breakdowns. Last month, the front page of the Arran Banner (which must have the words ferry, fiasco and fury forever set on its printers) reported that all sailings to Arran were cancelled, because 2 of Ardrossan port’s 23 staff tested COVID-positive. No contingency, just everything shut for a day (7 crossings, thousands of passengers and hundreds of vehicles).
For some, the ferries hold connotations of bucket-and-spade getaways; it’s a pleasure to get on the boat, have a drink, a portion of chips and relax. But, for islands like Arran, tourism is their anchor. Reliability of scheduled crossings is fundamental to economic survival. If boats don’t sail, the hotels, holiday lets, cafes, pubs, shops and countless other businesses suffer the loss immediately.
For islanders especially, these lifeline services are vital for work, deliveries and medical appointments. If you’re sick on Arran, it’s compounded by worrying if you’ll be able to reach the hospital. The only other way is to be helicoptered to the mainland.
Islanders and regular visitors also question some of the infrastructure decisions made. For example, the Brodick harbour project cost over £30m but, as the Arran Ferry Action Group says, the new berth is misaligned, meaning it’s harder to dock in the frequent easterly winds.
Brodick’s new terminal building, a clunky block, makes the walk to and from the boat much longer than the old gangway. Many passengers – with kids, buggies, luggage, golf carts and dogs in tow – have to use the vertiginous stairs.
Why was so much spent on the Brodick facility when the crying need was (and still is) the seaboard entrance to Ardrossan? Who makes these decisions, and why? How much do the construction, service and network of these key links involve the people who use, care and pay for them?
The last 2 questions can read across to other transport services in Scotland, like trains and buses. Following record levels of passenger (not customer!) dissatisfaction with Dutch company Abelio’s franchise, Scotrail will soon come back into public ownership. Is this a chance to ensure that the poor bloody passengers, and workers, are part of the future decision-making process?
First Bus runs over 100 routes in Glasgow. There are constant complaints of unreliability, services being cut and fares hiked. A Glasgow survey of nearly 3000 bus users showed only 16% satisfaction. Unite, campaign groups and the public want the present bus networks – profit-driven yet heavily subsidised by tax and ratepayers – brought under public control.
Ferries, trains and buses in Scotland happen to, not with, people. It’s their business, not ours. Like it or lump it.
The model of publicly funded services being left to a company to run has become commonplace throughout the UK. What the Thatcherites couldn’t flog off and privatise, they farmed out to profit-making entities, a trend spurred on by Blair/Brown governments.
This has facilitated the now sickening levels of corruption throughout British public life, especially when it comes to who gets the lucrative contracts.
At Holyrood, with proportional representation, levels of graft and sleaze are as nothing compared to Westminster. Yet our civic amenities still tend towards top-down management, lack of control for users and unreliable quality of service.
The point of independence is to make our country a better place to live, work and be. If business as usual is second-rate, then we’re bound to campaign for a different kind of Scotland, one that serves its people properly.
Being a better nation also means becoming a more democratic one, so that ordinary people can have a say in the running of transport – and education, health, social services, utilities etc.
How exactly can we start to improve our transport networks and ensure that they come to be truly public in terms of participation? Does it have to wait until we achieve independence? Shouldn’t it be part of the push towards Scotland becoming its own nation again? Independence isn’t a shortcut to get past these issues, it’s a means of engaging with them.
We’re not talking about token consultative committees, tacked on to existing structures. It needs a shift in power away from self-selecting and appointed individuals towards people whose only interest is the service itself.
Though ultimately Abelio got its jotters from the Transport Secretary, it seems unlikely that a bigger shake-up – involving the public – will spring from Holyrood, an institution settled in its norms of influence and pressure. Lobbyists gonna lobby.
A radical re-think on the buses might come from local councils, but it would probably be a defensive move, to curb a clamour of passengers’ complaints.
As to our beleaguered ferries, is there a realistic way to get passengers engaged in control of the service? West coast ferries’ operator Calmac have appointed their own community board, but why not get Arran Ferry Action Group and other local voices into the main boardroom?
How do you even start to set up a system to incorporate the public?
Before we devise mechanisms for participation, maybe the vital spark of democratic control is shown by the gumption of the recently formed Govan Free State, which aims to reclaim our freedom and collective responsibility from below. There is no one coming. There is only us.
That phrase wasn’t Gray’s own; he took it from a Canadian poet. It became a pro-indy maxim. In 2014, it defined how we campaigned: the positive case for a fairer, stronger and more creative Scotland.
We know, from history, that the gestation and birth of a new nation affect what kind of country it grows to be. Conceived in brutality, India and Pakistan fight bitterly to this day. Palestine has never recovered from the lop-sided formation of Israel in 1948.
Violent divisions plagued Ireland and Northern Ireland from the 1920’s up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – now threatened by Tory recklessness.
On the other hand, the velvet divorce which separated the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 seems to have left both states unscathed and, relatively speaking, thriving.
During indyref1, many of us in the YES movement felt that how we sought and fought for independence was key to the nation we would become. Not just YES versus NO, but what kind of society Scotland could be. Our approach was willfully idealistic, seeking ideas from as many people as possible.
But we lost. 3 years later, I went for a drink with a couple of friends who’d voted NO. Seeing the mess of Brexit and the broken promises of Westminster, they’d changed their minds. Let’s face it, said one, independence couldn’t be any worse! Picture the tee-shirts: Vote YES – it couldn’t be any worse!
Since then, things have deteriorated sharply. The UK’s in crisis: shortages and steep price rises in food, fuel and energy; a chronic dearth of labour; a widening gulf in wealth; ballooning national debt; soaring levels of poverty; barely functioning state services; the worst public health failure in history (say a cross-party group of MPs) and corruption rife, with Tory donors winning lucrative contracts and ministerial posts.
Recent verdicts on Britain couldn’t be more damning: an Orwellian state (American writer); they don’t keep their word (Irish deputy PM); EU workers won’t help the UK out of the shit it created itself (Dutch TUC) and the UK has no intention of keeping to what it signed up to (CEO of the European Policy Centre).
The Houses of Parliament are falling to bits. The head of state is nearly 100 and the heir a septuagenarian. The UK may not yet have failed like, say, Lebanon, but it looks like a failing state.
All this from a bull-headed right-wing government to which Scotland remains tethered. Most of the money and power remain firmly in Westminster’s hands. However we vote, whatever we do, we’re bound to the Tories’ chaos.
The Scottish government has made a good fist of softening the cruellest blows from Westminster and handling the pandemic more competently. But mitigation and management can’t solve our deeper issues. How much longer can we cling on with the current devolution settlement – itself under attack by the Conservatives?
We urgently need greater control of what happens in our country. It’s becoming clearer by the week that the only way that’s going to materialise is if we get a chance to vote on independence, one way or the other. Gordon Brown and Labour’s perpetually promised federalism is moonshine.
The Tories are making it clear how they see Scotland. Andrew Bowie, Scottish Tory MP, recently published Strength in Union, essays by leading Conservatives. Its grasp of history and its analysis are so shallow, they wouldn’t drown a gnat (or a nat).
In the book, Alister Jack asserts: the UK is one great nation, not four. The Scotland-England border is just a road sign and Brexit’s in the rear-view mirror. Would that be the rear-view mirror where you see all the parked lorries?
The British government provides a transparent tax regime. Just don’t read the Pandora, Panama or Paradise Papers.
But what if this isn’t just a set of essays, but a manifesto? Are the Tories planning to realise Theresa May’s view of Scotland as just another region, like Yorkshire? Away with your separate legal and education systems and your parliament! It might seem hare-brained, outrageous and unworkable, but would you trust them with Holyrood?
Unless we do something to fight back, Tory chaos and disruption will destroy us all.
One thing could move us on. Name the date now for an independence referendum.
The tactics of such a move – what if/when Boris says no to a section 30 order? How can we set up an alternative plebiscite? What are the legal options? – are bound to be laboriously discussed.
But beyond process, the idea and the reality of a second indyref would seize the initiative, shift the political momentum and capture people’s imagination. And the campaign for a YES vote would reinvigorate our politics.
Let’s rekindle the idealistic spirit of 2014. We still need vision, ambition and creativity to lift us out of the present deadlock and into the future.
Things will change. Daring to look beyond the referendum (assuming the right result this time!), fresh ideas and new voices will arise. We’ll need them to tackle the most pressing issue of all – the climate emergency. Could the SNP-Green alliance prefigure a broader rainbow of pro-indy forces? Could Scottish Labour, or a reformed part of it, join in?
Further ahead, a newly independent Scotland will need international leverage. Rejoining Europe could be a two-way street. Ask not what the EU can do for you, but what you can do for the EU? The European Commission is battling with illiberal member states like Hungary and Poland. Scotland’s enlightened democratic traditions should make it a welcome returner to the fold.
But first things first. Save the date. Save Scotland!
The great challenge of the 21st century is understanding China – Martin Jacques
They’re the lucky ones.
I switched off. The BBC presenter was talking about 3 Afghans who’d reached the UK, just before the US withdrawal.
You escape violence, panic and chaos, leaving family and friends. You face a future in Priti Patel’s Britain, trying to get money, work and help, not knowing when you’ll be free to return to your home country. And you’re the lucky ones?
The US and allies’ exit from Afghanistan, 20 years after they invaded, is a pivotal, kairotic moment. The BBC led on it for weeks, focussing almost exclusively around Kabul and the airport, on soldiers leaving and the desperate plight of those who’d helped them, trying to flee. The rest of the country and the majority of the population were all but ignored.
The portrayal of the new governing powers was rigidly hostile. Though the Taliban are a mass of conflicting forces, the T word was used, often in the third person singular, to portray them indiscriminately as monolithic, brutal and primitive.
Surely the people that defeated the greatest superpower on earth warranted analysis? The UK media might as well have said the Gruffalo, such was the infantile demonisation. The Taliban has terrible tusks and terrible claws. And terrible teeth in its terrible jaws.
And terrible misogyny. The BBC presented a stark contrast: women studying, teaching and working before the withdrawal versus barbaric suppression of women’s rights after.
Dr Yvonne Ridley was imprisoned by the Taliban in 2001. In a recent Scot Goes Popcast, she says the women judges, journalists and doctors were green shoots, but came from the privileged elite of Kabul and the main cities. Across the country, female illiteracy is 84%. Some places have no schools, while shiny new schools in Kandahar are devoid of teachers and pupils.
The truth is that the Taliban had greater popular support than the deeply corrupt puppet regime it replaced, which collapsed weeks after the US started to pull out. The president fled the country before the Americans did.
Given how they worked with the Americans to smooth the evacuation, Dr Ridley believes the Taliban have changed. And that they’ll adapt further, if they are to stand a chance of governing the broken country they’ve inherited.
There are signs, from meetings and discussions being held, that this regime will be more inclusive, not just of tribal elders but neighbouring countries, other ethnic groups and women. Ridley adds: My money’s on the women.
It’s bound to take time. But how long and why on earth should women have to keep waiting for the opportunities, rights and equality that should be theirs already? And as for theocratic fascism – the sooner that’s consigned to the bin of history, the better!
But bombing’s not the answer. While we must object to the regressive elements of the Taliban, the more realistic path to change in Afghanistan is through engagement.
To be fair, the Beeb’s coverage is a bit more savvy with the return to Kabul, after 27 years, of Jeremy Bowen, Middle East editor. He has no illusions about the Taliban’s unforgiving idealogy, but he makes clear how the war undercut attempts to make Afghanistan a better place. Tellingly, he now wears a shalwar kameez to respect the local dress code.
Overall, the BBC and the rest reflect the narrow outlook of the UK establishment. Ex-foreign secretary Raab’s grilling by MPs showed how little the government knew about what was going on: how many Afghans worked for Britain; how many have the right to settle here; which foreign ministers were contacted and why 5000 desperate emails went unread by his department.
He knew nothing. Not even the dates of his holiday.
The chaos, divisions and instability sown by 20 years of US, UK and allied occupation left those powers strangely ignorant of the country they invaded.
In February 2020, Trump signed the Doha deal with the Taliban, committing to the withdrawal of US and British troops by May 2021. Biden upheld the plan, amending the exit date to August. Everyone knew what was going on.
Aren’t we supposed to have world-beating intelligence services? What did we miss and why? Chief of defence staff General Sir Nick Carter said: I don’t think we realised what the Taliban were up to.
Imperial declines are unlikely to be peaceful; the US one has been especially bloody. We mourn the 3000 people killed in the New York horror that triggered the US invasion, but how do we weep for the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Afghanistan since 9/11?
The US forces’ last act was a Hellfire drone attack on a white Toyota. They thought, based on substantial intelligence, they were targeting an ISIS terrorist. Instead, 7 children were playing around the car. The drone killed them and 3 adults, one of whom worked for an American aid organisation. It was a futile, impotent response, like a microcosm of the entire Afghan war.
Tony Blair says the US departure is tragic, dangerous, imbecilic.
Once he stood, in too-tight jeans, alongside George W. Bush, helping him enter Afghanistan and Iraq. Now Tony returns, to the scene of the war crime, to tell us this wouldn’t have been the exit pursued by A. Blair.
But we see for ourselves. Blair’s liberal interventionism is just another brand of racism, a legacy of colonialist attitudes and systems.
When I went to Afghanistan, in the 1970’s, it was neither modern nor Western, but it was safe.
Since then, the Soviets and the US, have joined the list of invaders – stretching back to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan – who’ve dug themselves into this graveyard of empires.
William Dalrymple’s Return of a King gives a vivid history of the first disastrous British entanglementin Afghanistan, in 1839. The British installed a deeply unpopular ruler, Shah Shuja. They thought they’d beat Russian expansion. It was all part of the Great Game, a sort of imperial pissing contest. The retreat, in 1842, saw 20,000 British troops killed.
One of the bloodiest deaths was Sir Alexander (Sikunder) Burnes. Cousin to Scotland’s bard, he was the classic example of a talented, diligent Scot trying to make the British empire function. Forced to accept unworkable instructions from his witless, arrogant superiors, he was hacked to death in Kabul at the age of 36.
Nothing learned, there were 2 more Anglo-Afghan wars in 1878 and 1919.
Some in the West, seeking a replacement for the US, cite China as the next imperial aggressor. More misconception.
As Martin Jacques, author of the seminal When China Rules the World, says: the chances of China being so stupid are zero.
Part of the explanation is China’s experience as the underdog, dominated by Japan and the West for a century of humiliation and – since 1949 – as a developing country. Unlike the US and the UK, China knows how it feels to walk in the shoes of a state like Afghanistan.
Throughout its long history, China has often been a world power. Yet, while it attaches the greatest importance to retaining (and reclaiming) lands which it regards as its own, it has little tradition of colonising foreign territories.
Instead, as it works with an ever-greater number of countries, China prioritises stability and development. In Afghanistan, this means that Beijing is likely to offer the new regime economic aid to rebuild and fight ISIS.
Since post-Mao reforms in the late 1970’s, China has focussed remorselessly on its economic strength, while improving its infrastructure, the lives of its people and its involvement with the rest of the world.
In the 1980’s, China’s economy was 5% of the size of America’s. By 2014, it was the same. In the 2030’s it could be twice as big as the US.
This meteoric and inexorable rise has enabled China to join the world. It became a member of the World Trade Organisation in 2001. It recently signed up to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade agreement of 15 Asia-Pacific countries (including Australia). The RCEP accounts for 30% of global GDP, and the same share of the world’s population – more than the EU and the US-Mexico-Canada pact.
The global reduction in absolute poverty is at least as much to do with internal Chinese development as western aid & trade.
Obama set up, in 2016, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, another trade deal between some of the RCEP states, plus Canada, Chile, Mexico and Peru. Within months, Trump pulled the US out. Now, China has applied to join the TPP.
Since 2013, China’s most ambitious international project is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a huge multi-continental investment, infrastructure, construction and trading project. It now involves 139 countries. China is highly fused with the global economy.
Italy was the first European state to commit to the BRI. Russia now sees it as an opportunity. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister says: China is the country that came to Pakistan’s aid. Most of China’s partners are developing countries, which now account for two-thirds of the world’s economic activity.
Meanwhile the G7’s influence is diminishing, its market dominion a fraction of what it was. The west’s share of world population is just 14%, compared to the developing world’s 84%.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a major military humiliation. But the greatest blow to the West was economic: the 2008 financial crisis, from which it’s never recovered.
Cold war rhetoric won’t wash. The recent formation of AUKUS misreads the realities of international progress. It’s more fantasy – the US is like playground bully, Draco Malfoy, having just lost one massive fight, instantly picks another, egged on by hapless Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, the Crabbe and Goyle of international diplomacy.
At the very moment when they could seek to build bridges with China and others, the AUKUS squad choose the military route. Johnson says stocking the Indo-Pacific seas with nuclear submarines is not intended to be adversarial. Tell that to the French and other allies, who are incandescent at the move.
The crucial thing about China is its difference from the West. It’s not like a Western nation state. Its approach, rooted in a civilisation going back to Confucius, is shrewder, deeper, more strategic. It doesn’t indulge in Bush’s good guy versus evil simplistics.
Huge problems lie ahead of course: environmental crises, tech wars, refugee flights, the return of Trumpism etc. A major concern is what a cowed US will do with all its weapons. 60 years ago, Eisenhower warned against the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex. Now it’s bigger, stronger, yet aimless; how long before it concocts another casus belli, a pretext for war?
The post-US world is not all about China vs. America, replacing one superpower with another. We’re seeing a shift away from a minority of developed countries ruling the world towards a multipolarity of developing countries.
To understand is not to condone. How can we share the values of distant civilisations? I’ve never been to China, nor can I speak a word of Mandarin, which I’d say were the least requirements to assess the rights and wrongs of what’s happening within that huge country. This article is about how to go with the grain of history and humanity, as the whole world moves forward.
This new world order is already spreading from south-east Asia to encompass the rest of that continent, Africa and Latin America; projects like the link across the bay of Maputo, capital of Mozambique – the longest suspension bridge in Africa. And the joint hydropower plan to build 2 dams in Argentina, due to generate nearly 5,000 megawatts of electricity, reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
The BRI might reach further into Europe and even the USA itself. Though China may be preeminent in this process, it’s unlikely to dominate it.
A current upside to China’s connecting with the world is the number of Covid vaccines it’s provided to over a hundred countries – 884 million, with plans to make it 2 billion by the end of 2021. The US has delivered 160 million.
When I was at uni, moving in broad left circles, the problem wasn’t the Tories. The real nuisance was the Trotskyists.
Thanks to the ultra-left, no political meeting ended on time. These comrades could split hairs and pick nits till the cows came home. By which time the unpersuaded had, like my will to live, drained away.
IMG, IS, SWP, WRP – far-left groups could out-acronym Line of Duty. Zealous and deeply idealogical, Trotskyist parties made more noise than their numbers warranted.
None of us stays in the political berth we occupied in our youth. Conventionally, we drift starboard. But there’s a particularly well-sailed crossing of ex-Trotskyists from extreme left to far right.
Figures like Paul Johnson who opposed NATO and the Suez war, supported the May ’68 Paris protests and became editor of the New Statesman. Then he pivoted rightwards, turning into a vicious anti-communist and cheerleader for Thatcherism, backing dictators like Chile’s Pinochet.
The Observer journalist, Nick Cohen, was a scourge of Blairite Labour, but went on to champion the invasion of Iraq and attack Islamic culture, Scottish independence and Wikileaks.
Claire Fox was leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party (which, as the Revolutionary Communist Tendency had broken away from the Revolutionary Communist Group. RCG to RCT to RCP – Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey!). She published LivingMarxism, but later morphed into a Brexit party MEP and Baroness Fox of Buckley.
These political oscillations – from the distant fringes of the left to the extremities of the pro-corporate, libertarian right – were noted by George Monbiot in the Guardian: While their politics have swung 180 degrees, their tactics – entering organisations and taking them over – appear unchanged.
Now, there’s a former Trotskyist ex-RCPer at the very heart of the UK government. In 2019, Boris Johnson appointed Munira Mirza director of the Number 10 Policy Unit.
She and her husband Dougie Smith – chief Conservative strategist – are, after Carrie-Antoinette and BoJo, the other Downing Street power couple.
If Mirza’s ultra-left background led to her current job, how did Dougie’s previous role lead to his? He used to run swingers’ orgies. Maybe the journey from sex parties to Tory party is not that great.
Yet, though they still lack a clear response to Scotland, that doesn’t mean the Tories don’t have a bigger plan. Recently, we’ve seen more evidence of it – and it’s not a Priti sight.
A slew of new bills – police, crime, sentencing and courts; nationality and borders and secrecy – are being introduced to severely curtail people’s rights to protest (even if a demo is just annoying), to come into Britain as a refugee or to disclose facts that might embarrass the government.
OK, most of these proposals are not directly applicable to Scotland. But they’re coming for us too: the UK Internal Market Bill (which breaks international law, but only in a specific, limited way) confirms Johnson’s view of devolution as a disaster and overrules the Scottish Parliament.
Meanwhile, Boris and pals tease out dog-whistle remarks in their war on woke. Beat crime with hi-vis chain gangs; bring back stop and search (a kind, loving thing to do,bumbles the blonde buffer) and blame students for cancel culture.
Housing minister Robert Jenrick wants statues saved from woke worthies and baying mobs.
Home secretary Patel, putting aside her copy of Neo-Fascism for Dummies, backs fans booing players who take the knee.
It’s hard to see all this as a coincidence. Boris blunders on, but behind him there’s a sinister, concerted effort to legislate away vital freedoms, while undermining compassion and understanding.
Labour said things can only get better. Under the Tories, they can only get worse.
For many, the situation is already dire. 14 million people are in poverty, one in every five. The number claiming Universal Credit has doubled from 3 million to 6 million.
Having slashed benefits and tax credits and declared sick people fit for work, the Tories are cutting Universal Credit by £20 a week. It’s the largest single cut to social security since the Second World War says the Rowntree Foundation.
Another time, another place and this lot wouldn’t be in power; they’d be in jail.
When the furlough scheme dries up this month, unemployment will rise. Almost everyone’s in debt, especially the government. UK debt is 100% of GDP and rising, with Santa Sunak planning billions of public spending cuts.
Empty shelves, hospitals under pressure and more homelessness. Everywhere you look – mental health, social care, half-full schools and more food banks – the cracks in the UK’s social fabric are widening.
As these crises deepen, are the Tories banking on repressive measures taking root to hump us all? Keep their paymasters and media cheerleaders happy. Screw the poor and blame the dissenting. The Nasty Party, red in tooth and claw.
There is, of course, no guarantee that dodgy demagoguery will work. Yougov found that most people don’t know what woke means. Surely these toxic, prejudicial schemes won’t win hearts and minds?
The Tories realise they won’t get everybody behind them. But they don’t need to. Their 80-seat majority comes from 43% of the electorate. And Brexit shows how disruptive ideas can prevail.
TINA. There is no alternative. Labour are, sadly, all over the shop. It’s heart-breaking that our family and friends in England have nobody to vote for.
Westminster seems broken beyond repair, but Holyrood, inherently more democratic, offers a hint of an alternative with the SNP-Green pact. The chair of GB (Gammon Bastards) News is apoplectic.
Is it too much to imagine that a future deal might include some of Scottish Labour?
But there seems greater scope – and hope – for a fight back beyond such parliamentary manouevres. There are vast areas of society where the Tories are vulnerable. Save profits for their pals, they’ve no real interest in the public sphere – civic activities that exist for the common good.
Across the world, what do autocratic regimes fear most? Public demonstrations and protest. People power.
Remember the fright they got, exactly seven years ago, when they thought YES were winning?
Is Scottish independence the cause to spur the battle against the Tories? If the grassroots campaign picks up momentum again, it could be formidable.
In which case, we’d better get on with it!
Feedback welcome – comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
An edited version of this blog post appeared in The National on 7 September 2021:
Flying too high, in the sky, with some guy, is my idea of nothing to do…
– Cole Porter
So, er, is that it, then? Covid, lockdown, closures, stay home? Forget it. Back to normal? It seems unreal.
I must confess that, back in March 2020, I felt I might never sit in a full theatre again. We had no idea when or how such a forbidden impossibility would recur. This wasn’t just a pause; it looked set to be a long-term upheaval to the way human activity was organised.
And yet there – last week – I was, in a theatre stowed to the gunwales. The naval analogy is appropriate, given what was on stage.
The Barbican Centre in London (brutalist architecture is never nice, imho) has a spacious, comfortable theatre inside, even with every one of its 1162 seats occupied. Most people wore face-masks throughout the two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza.
You’re the top… You’re the National Gallery You’re Garbo’s salary You’re cellophane!
It’s hard to imagine a better show to emerge from the Covid waves than Anything Goes. Originally composed by Cole Porter in post-depression America, it’s a high-octane all-singin’, dancin’ and laughin’ joyous, escapist spectacle.
The verse I’ve started seems to me
The tin pan thesis of melody,
It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely!
This dazzling, fizzing entertainment felt more infectious than the Delta variant. Based on a Broadway version of 10 years ago, it imported the star of that production, Sutton Foster. She’s amazing in the main role, Reno Sweeney, as she taps, sings, mugs and hoofs brilliantly, supported by veterans like Gary Wilmot, Felicity Kendal and Robert Lindsay and a chorus of stunning dancers.
The title number, which closes the first half, is a full-on, knock-out, drag-down, spine-tingling slice of pure Broadway magic. I haven’t seen such tap-dancing since watching Fred Astaire movies or Will Gaines at the Fringe years ago.
If they ever cook your goose Turn me loose If they ever put a bullet through your brain I’ll complain
If you think theatre is easy, try these routines 8 times a week. Could you dance like this until you’re Googie Withers? (Or Ethel Merman who played the role in the original 1934 Broadway version.) I felt I was still watching the Olympics. Joe Wickes would wilt.
I’ve been a sinner, I’ve been a scamp, But now I’m willin’ to trim my lamp, So blow, Gabriel, blow!
I loved every minute of this exquisite piece of froth (P.G. Wodehouse had a hand in the book), set on the pristine, camp decks of the SS Americana, packed with the craziest galere of passengers and crew.
And those mind-boggling lyrics, those indelible numbers – I get a kick out of you; You’re the top; Friendship; It’s de-lovely; You’d be so easy to love; Blow, Gabriel, blow!
And then, out into the crowded foyer, cafes and toilets, we flooded, like Corona was just a beer you’d order from the bar.
Just weeks ago, we were ordered to stay home and see no more than a handful of our nearest and dearest – it feels strange that such crowds are starting to be the norm again.
Anything Goes was, in fact, the second time I was in a theatre in 18 months. The first was last month to see, in the Scottish Opera Car Park venue, the Citizens’ fabulous Comedy of Errors.
No gunwales stowed on that occasion. It was all socially distanced and out-of-doors. I was grateful for the tented roof because it kept out the sultry Glasgow sunshine!
The show was like a breath of fresh – and funny – air, the perfect tonic to lockdown, isolation and darkened theatres.
Shakespeare, the magpie, nicked the plot from old Roman playwright Plautus. It’s full of classic theatrical devices, spinning perpetually on mistaken identity: two sets of identical twins, ignorant of each other’s existence.
How lovely to be back in a theatre, enjoying all the physical and verbal harum-scarum. The 7-strong cast dashed up and down the staircases of ScotOp’s Falstaff set, twisting audience laughter from the bewildered characters’ panicked exchanges.
As with Moliere, Goldoni, Feydeau, Orton et al, the greatest moment of such farce comes when the truth is revealed to all. How best to show the real identities? Mirrors? Dummies? Other actors with backs to the audience?
The only other version I’ve seen had four actors as the twins. But this 90-minutes-straight-through production did the four twins’ set-up with just two people and an incredible lightness of touch so that the denouement – a swift flick and an empty hat – was breath-taking.
Next stop, Edinburgh. It’s good to be back. For now!
As the Reverend Stuart Campbell turned his fire away from unionist parties and on to the SNP, his blog Wings Over Scotland became more of a menace to the YES cause than the anti-indy camp. Was it too late to get our old Wings back?
Yes, it was. In the longest suicide post in history, The Ship Song, Stuart closed down his website. Or, as the Herald tweeted, Bath man pulls plug. (Campbell lives in Somerset.)
His adieu came 5 days after the Holyrood election that saw an increase in seats for the SNP and Greens. Campbell had attacked them relentlessly, urging his readers to cast their constituency vote for unionist parties instead. Meanwhile the party he championed, Alba, won 1.66% of the list vote and no seats.
Stuart was – is – a very good writer. He knows how to pursue a coherent argument, how to turn a phrase and where to put the apostrophes He was blistering and effective at calling out the NO side for its shallow arguments, partial facts and broken vows.
He was merciless as well as forensic. His style was wilfully brutal (I will kill you with hammers) – though, personally, I didn’t see much wrong with his Rabelaisian profanity.
But the invective turned vicious to the point of bigotry. He became obsessed with attacking the SNP, vilifying anyone who showed a scintilla of disagreement. Just a few of the milder insults: scumbags (the Greens); racist midget (Patrick Harvie); truly epic idiot, appalling dimwit, less intelligent than cheese-on toast, pitiful intellectual void (SNP members) and useless waste of space, worthless coward (Nicola Sturgeon).
Right or wrong, prescient or hubristic, loved or hated, Wings painted itself into a corner. Short of a crushing defeat for the SNP and a triumph for Alex Salmond’s party, things couldn’t end well.
It’s quite the political journey. Lib-Dem before starting Wings, Campbell became the scourge of unionist parties – especially Labour – then anti-SNP. Where will he go next?
Predictably, if understandably, some spat out Good riddance! But I think the YES movement needed Wings – as it used to be – and will need such strong voices again in the renewed drive for independence.
Faced with a largely orthodox, antagonistic media, we lack a robust rebuttal outfit. The SNP seem reluctant to take on that role. As the governing party, maybe they shouldn’t be expected to.
We’re bound to look to online campaigners for tough, lucid and sharp analysis of the political battlefield. Above all, we’re going to need something to put the fire back in our bellies.
My dad (born Manchester) met my mum (born and buried Gravesend, Kent) in Glasgow. They had their first date at the Citizens’ Theatre. They married and had 4 children.
We repeated the pattern – one of us born north of England, one south, met Glasgow, Citizens’, married, 4 kids.
Recently, I learned that the south-to-north pattern, or a similar version, goes back another generation. I’d always assumed my dad’s dad hailed from Manchester, since that was where nanna and grandad Bassett lived. But though she, a stern scold, was from Bradford, he came from Westerham, also in Kent. He moved north in search of work, met his wife and they had 3 (almost 4!) children.
Like my mum, my paternal, southern granddad was kind and soft. I can still feel the warmth of his hand as he slipped half-a-crown into my palm: Don’t tell your nanna!
I knew all about my mum’s side of the family – they were close. Was I ignorant of my dad’s side because, taking after his ironhanded Yorkshire mum, he was harsh to us, making my childhood an unhappy place to explore?
I discovered more about my father’s forebears by researching family history. Seems to be what you do when you get to my age. North and South, now and then. The past can also be another country, where they do things differently.
My research started with an old newspaper cutting about the funeral of my dad’s first cousin, a Charles John Bassett, who died at just 29 in 1944.
We traced him to St. Mary’s churchyard in Westerham. Not only is he buried there, but in the next grave lie his parents – Cecilia and Charles Bassett, my great aunt and uncle.
The young Charles John, a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, was killed trying to defuse a V1 bomb. His name is also on the war memorial which dominates the entrance to the graveyard.
As I look further into my ancestry, perhaps I’ll find more north-south, past-present, bonds and rifts.
For now, I have at least my own story. When I was 7, we moved from my dad’s northern home to my mum’s southern town. I went to school in Gravesend, but always felt drawn back to the top half of the country, going to Lancaster Uni and, via Bristol, moving to Glasgow. Forty years on, I’m still here.
The date I migrated from the south-west to Scotland may offer a clue to my Hyperborean hankering. It was 4 May 1979. Maggie Thatcher became prime minister, spawning the Tory grip of England. And it’s still going on, once-red walls Boris-blitzed.
Except for viewers in Scotland. Driving north at the end of the seventies, I felt like I was escaping a country embarking on a right-wing coup to somewhere preparing to fight it. Since then, that feeling and that fight have grown stronger.
I was a child of the north and the south. But I know where my heart lies now.
Now, as we edge back to live theatre, I’d just like to mention 3 recent examples of screened performance that might help get you back in the groove.
Play On! Is a brilliant evocation of what it feels like to be in the room where it happens. It’s Oran Mor’s Play Pie and a Pint team in a joyous celebration of the past and future of theatre.
If the challenge of filming drama in the time of Covid is to make it uplifting, rather than focusing on the misery of lockdown, this smart-as-paint 30-minute adventure succeeds fabulously. It makes you want to get back inside and enjoy a show.
You can watch it here:
Another inspired, creative project comes from Mull Theatre. Braw Tales are 5 short animations – some delightful, some mysterious – that draw you in and give you the frisson you’ll feel once you can watch the real human thing. The design, style and talent of each are distinctive and enchanting.
Here’s the link:
Finally, not the work of a theatre company, but a wonderful reminder of all that’s quirky about performance. Wuthering Heist is the first episode of a new series of Inside No. 9, bizarrely original comedy noir.
Goldoni meets Tarantino. With the plot, style and characters of commedia dell’arte, it’s an affectionate piss-take of the whole idea of live representation. It captures the daftness of tricks like umbrellas for wheels, grotesque masks and stage whispers.
People will have various reasons for voting SNP next week. For some, it’ll be because of Brexit, for others the way Nicola and team have handled the pandemic or regard for a particular constituency MSP. For independence supporters, it will be to see their goal realised.
Winning that goal goes beyond this election. To secure independence, it’s going to take a determined, single-minded effort, a mass campaign and a detailed strategy. It should be exciting and engaging, a reinvigoration of democracy. It might even be fun!
How will a political party which has been at the helm for 14 years, preoccupied with immediate pressures, ignite the heather and put the fire back in our bellies? Who will it work with in order to tackle such a herculean labour and overcome the powerful interests desperate to frustrate it at any cost?
For now, the SNP stands alone, adrift of the forces – parliamentary and extra-parliamentary – required for the struggle ahead. As soon as the voting is over, the relationship between the main party and other bodies pushing for independence will be more crucial than ever.
How can the Holyrood elections begin to re-ignite that relationship? If you want the radical change that independence offers, will voting twice for the continuity party and its continuity leader suffice?
In 2016, like many other activists, I chapped hundreds of doors and stood on street stalls urging thousands of people to vote the same way in their constituency and on the list: “Both votes SNP”.
It didn’t really work out. In Glasgow, over 100,000 list votes for the SNP resulted in zero MSPs, given that the party swept the board in all 9 constituencies.
Across Scotland, nearly a million second votes cast for the SNP produced just 4 seats.
The same slogan has been wheeled out (more continuity!) for the current ballot. But once you’ve voted SNP in your constituency, is it still best to do the same with your cross on the list?
In Glasgow, for instance, there are pro-indy voices who stand a better chance than Roza Salih (top of the SNP list). If you vote Green on the list, you’d get Patrick Harvie who’s had an impressive campaign and seems likely to co-lead the SNP’s main ally in Holyrood. If (relax, I said “if”!) you vote Alba, you’d be supporting Michelle Ferns, a woman who, until 4 weeks ago, was part of the SNP group on Glasgow City Council.
But beyond the arithmetic, tactical ploys and personalities, we should focus on the political strategy of independence. Next Thursday, every one of us will have to decide how to use each vote to help boost our shared goal.
If, as polls suggest, pro-independence parties win a majority in May’s Holyrood elections, the SNP’s plan A is to seek UK government agreement to indyref2.
“There is simply no way Johnson will concede a referendum on Scottish independence.” says Iain McWhirter in the Herald.
“Just say no, Boris” – George Osborne, Evening Standard.
“Simply, clearly, obviously, Johnson has everything to lose and nothing to gain from conceding another referendum in Scotland.” – Stuart Campbell, Wings Over Scotland.
They’re not alone. Several politicians and commentators, on both sides of the YES/NO divide, anticipate the same logical conclusion.
The most striking aspect of these assertions is their certainty. Whatever happens, Boris will say no. He has no interest in granting a poll he’d likely lose. He’s got an unbeatable majority. It’s logical. So there.
But is it wise to view the future with such categoric insistence?
Maybe the recent past is a more reliable indicator of how Johnson might respond.
His early track record as PM makes the idea of Boris the Implacable plausible. In August 2019, he prorogued parliament. He faced down the queen, the Commons and many in his own party. He was stopped only by a Supreme Court ruling, a move initiated by the formidable Joanna Cherry.
Johnson ploughed on with a minority government, suspended 21 Tory MPs, provoked an election, won the biggest majority in 20 years and “got Brexit done”.
But since then? U-turns, cock-ups, fibs and transgressions. Dodgy contracts to Tory pals, bluster and bullying. Countless sackings and resignations.
Boris stood by his top adviser, when he should have sacked him. Then, within months, pressure came from closer to home and Cummings quit anyway.
He rashly whipped his MPs to defy support for free school meals, suffered all the resulting obloquy and then reversed the policy anyway. Political gain: less than zero.
You couldn’t make up the recent musical chairs in the Union Unit. An ex-MP (rejected by Perthshire voters) was appointed, then fired. His Brexiteer replacement lasted 2 weeks.
OK, Boris has an unassailable majority. But is he in control of events? It’s a paradox, the curveball of politics, which no amount of logic can explain.
Thatcher’s strategic advisers studied Marx. And Gramsci. They knew what hegemony meant and how to get it. But this current bunch wouldn’t know a strategy if it took off its face mask and jabbed them in the arm. Buffeted by events, they’re like beanbags, bearing the impression of the last person to sit on them.
September 2014 opinion polls gave Cameron and the unionists a real fright. Panicky trips north and a dodgy vow were hastily cobbled together at the mere hint of a majority for independence.
Think how things will play out when there’s not just an opinion poll blip, but a fresh, democratically determined, manifesto-explicit majority at Holyrood for a new independence referendum, with a depleted rump of unionist MSPs, helpless and hopeless.
Add to that scenario Boris’s posh boy blowhard style, a guaranteed lead balloon north of the border. His visits make him the best recruiter for indy. Like most of his cabinet, he’s clueless about Scotland and careless too.
If the resourceful, energetic and smart independence movement, boosted by majority public vote, can’t win against Bo-Jo and the Bozos, then perhaps the game’s a bogey anyway.
No way he’ll say YES? Enough logical predictions; let’s focus on securing a popular, irresistible case for indyref2.
Is Wings broken? Not a grammatical error; Wings Over Scotland is singular, in every sense. It’s a single-minded solo effort, the ideas of one man: Stuart Campbell. Many people sympathetic to independence will have read – and possibly been inspired by – the website.
In 2014, as one of many activists, I was out chapping doors and running street stalls, campaigning for a YES vote. We were almost comically happy-clappy with our upbeat message of Imagine a Better Scotland. Still, nothing wrong with accentuating the positive. We did, at least, help make Glasgow a YES city.
Meanwhile, the unionist case was a getting a real doing online from Wings. Campbell was brilliant, destroying the NO side’s half-truths, dodgy statistics and empty promises. His articles were forensically researched and meticulously written to thwart unionist arguments. He was merciless in his pursuit of the politicians, press and media who’d been used to dominating Scotland’s public discourse.
Thousands flocked to pro-indy sites to get alternative views rather than the orthodox attitudes rife in the mainstream media. After a day’s campaigning, it was a tonic to read Wings’ excoriating correctives of Project Fear.
What’s more, Stuart single-handedly produced the powerful Wee Blue Book. It set out the political and economic case for Scotland gaining independence. Crowd-funded, close to a million online and hard free copies were distributed across the country. It went off the shelves like hot cakes. said Alex Salmond. We handed them out from our stalls to help convince waverers.
After the great loss of our 2014 battle, Wings, in tune with other sites and the movement itself, ramped up the keyboard war. With a stream of posts (and tweets till Twitter banned him), Campbell persevered, sharpening his attacks on unionist parties and press. He also fought a fruitless libel case against Kezia Dugdale.
But for the past year or so, Wings has shifted its aim to another target: the leadership of, and certain factions within, the SNP.
Many in the pro-indy movement are impatient with the leadership’s cautious approach. But Stuart goes further. He now wants nothing less than the removal of Nicola Sturgeon and her team.
A post from last month epitomises his call to the FM: Shut up, you useless waste of space… get off your worthless coward’s arse and do the only thing that’s actually in your power – a plebiscitary election – instead of grandstanding around the world stage, achieving absolutely sod-all.
It’s hard to see how Wings’ once mighty blows against the Tories, the BBC and the press will hit home during the next referendum, when so much vitriol is being poured on those who are supposed to be on the same side.
For some, he’s already gone too far. One young friend told me: I used to read Wings avidly, but he’s become a bitter old transphobe. Campbell refutes such criticism, quoting his traffic numbers – more visits to Wings than all other pro-indy bloggers put together.
I still visit the site, but I must say that Stuart’s attacks on the NO side feel a bit toothless compared to the old days. His timing seems even more amiss. Independence support is at a record high, so are Sturgeon’s ratings, while the unionists are in a total mess. Is this friendly fire becoming more of a threat to the independence cause than the increasingly threadbare whining from the unionists?
Next time, the desperate NO camp will throw everything at us. We’ll need a sharp rebuttal force. Is it too late to get our old Wings back?
A night club in Glasgow. A group of visitors to the city, at the bar. A young Glaswegian comes up to one of the them
Where are you from? he asks.
We are from Russia. Moscow, comes the reply, a faltering accent.
But no need for English. The Glasgow youth switches to competent Russian: Moscow. Fantastic! Pushkin was from Moscow!
Yes, he was, but…
Pushkin! He’s my favourite poet, continues the local enthusiastically, still in Russian. Without pause he begins to recite, in the original, verses, which the visitor recognises as Pushkin’s poetry.
Bright-eyed and animated, the young man talks about his love for Russia’s great poet, his works, all they mean to the world – and to him.
That never happened.
But this did: In 1992 I went, as part of a visit to look at post-communist arts training, to Moscow. Boris Yeltsin was president. Gangster capitalism. It was wild. Everywhere people were begging. Some were desperately selling useless items: a mug with no handle, a single shoe. Often, the only way to travel anywhere was to flag down a private car and hope for the best.
Though this was – in more ways than one – an educational trip, we somehow ended up, one evening, in a night club. The place was full of heavy-set men, jackets bulging. One glared at me. Yes, it was a gun and no, he wasn’t pleased to see me.
We found a table and a young man came and sat with us, asking, in English, where we were from. As soon as I replied, Scotland, he launched into a eulogy of Robert Burns, quoting verse after verse of the Bard’s works, some of which I’d never heard. He told us how much he loved Burns’s poems and songs, how they spoke to Russia, here and now.
So Long, My Son is a 2019 Chinese film, an exquisitely sad story of two families whose lives are blighted by the accidental drowning of an 8-year-old son. Set at a time when you were only allowed one child, it follows the parents through every stage of their unbearable loss. The one redeeming refrain throughout the film is Auld Lang Syne – they play it, sing it, and are comforted by it.
Robert Burns is my biggest inspiration – Bob Dylan
For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that
Those last lines of A Man’s a Man were the first Burns I heard. I cried.
What is it about Scotland’s bard that affects so many different people so deeply? Why does he remain a powerful voice, still able to move the soul?
Does Burns represent a kind of security, an expression of kinship and humanity that people, the world over, are desperate to hold on to? Is he an enigma – feminist womaniser, rebel tax-collector, patriotic internationalist, cultivated peasant and traditional revolutionary – who can be all things to all men and women?
Is it the rhythmical verse, the lyrics? The ideas, the humanity, the politics?
Or is it the music which gets to us? A magpie for a good tune, Burns – I am a patriot for the music of my country – grew fascinated with folk melodies. The words came second. His starting point was often an anonymous song, handed down by oral tradition, known to farmers, working women and tradesmen.
Burns had an instinctive feel for the rhythms that touch us deeply. He’s the original public poet, a tradition still extant in Scotland in the role of Makar. Contemporary Makars like Jackie Kay, and before her, Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan, are out there, their work known and loved by lots of people.
Jackie Kay’s work – poems, books and plays – invite you to share her experiences and feelings. She has splendidly mythologised her own fascinating life, born to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father (her reunion with him beautifully told in Red Dust Road) and adopted by a most generous and politically committed couple, Helen and John Kay.
Public ideas and feelings expressed in verse are also found beyond poets and poetry in Scotland. The breathtaking painted ceiling of Oran Mor, a converted church, will surely stand as Alasdair Gray’s masterpiece alongside his novel, Lanark.
Amidst the sumptuous blues, golds and reds of the mural, the beams are picked out with lines like:
We are animals who want more than we need
Our seed returns to death’s republic
And the phrase that has – recently – acquired as much resonance as any of Burns’s:
Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation
The Proclaimers are another example of popular shared lyrics. Several of their songs are anthems at every sporting or large crowd event in Scotland. Epics like Letter from America, Sunshine on Leith, I’m on My Way and I’m Gonna Be (500 miles). They take on a greater meaning precisely because they are shared by large numbers of people, in the same place and at the same time.
Though, perhaps, for Scotland right now, the most telling words are found in another Charlie & Craig song:
But I can’t understand why we let someone else rule our land,
Not so long ago, I walked into the packed foyer of Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. Surrounded by throngs of people, I jostled my way through to the bar and toilets.
I took my seat in the full auditorium, rubbing shoulders with complete unknowns. They appeared oblivious of their proximity to everyone else. They hardly saw me, nor I them. I have always depended on the blindness of strangers.
No one was masked. Not a covered face in sight. They were all breathing, talking, coughing, sniffing, sneezing and laughing freely.
‘Nobody has the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre’. The classic illustration of the limits of individual freedom. Now, nobody has the right to enter a crowded theatre in the first place!
Not long ago, yet it feels like a million years.
This is a reprise of a blog about that visit. As with other reprised posts, it allows for the readers and followers that STAGE LEFT has picked up since, plus those who may have missed it first time round.
The benefits of a classical education – Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), Die Hard
I never really ‘got’ Greek mythology. Though I knew odd stories and characters from classical plays and fables, it always remained a fog.
How to make sense of its epic chronicle of gods, humans, legends and symbolisms explaining the world and its creation?
How to get the full picture – enjoy it, even?
Having listened – pleasurably, via Audible – through 30 hours of Stephen Fry reading his own version of the Greek myths – I’ve become familiar with the territory at least (Chaos, the Cosmos, Mount Olympus etc).
It’s the amazing stories and the figures, immortal and mortal, that open up this world, made daylight by Fry’s clever adaptation from a myriad of original sources.
That, and his regular detours decoding the language links between the Greek myths and our culture today, via the Greek derivations we still use.
This live theatre version has the man himself on stage throughout. As he ambled on, suppressing ecstatic applause, somebody started a chorus of Happy Birthday, dear Stephen. 62 today!
The pleasure remains in the fantastic stories, told in his mellifluous tones. The derivation of that word, by the way, is honey. Fry includes the tale of Zeus, Melissa the bee and the nectar for the gods’ wedding as just one example of how the ancient Greek stories, ideas and language still connect to us so vividly today.
In the book and audio versions, he gives a continual flow of events, making connections between the characters and what they get up to.
On stage, it’s more a selection of individual stories – cracking yarns with sex, bloodshed, torture, fantastical births, deaths and metamorphoses.
Uranos’s sperm spilling from his severed genitalia into the sea to give birth to Aphrodite; Kronos vomiting up his swallowed children; Zeus’s skull being axed open to give birth to Athena and the final image of an eagle flying towards us, ready to gouge out Prometheus’s liver. These and other rich episodes told in all their gory.
The show I saw is just the first – Gods – of the trilogy. He’s also touring Heroes and Men. You might be able to catch some, or even all, of them over the next few weeks in Birmingham, London, Oxford and Gateshead.
Me, I’ll wait for Troy – the third part yet to be published, so I’ll have another 15 hours or so on the headphones. A pleasure to come.
My love at first sight for the Citizens’ Theatre extended rapidly to the place that fed its thrilling, unconventional brilliance.
I fell in love with Glasgow.
And, forty years on, I still am.
When I started work at the Citizens’, the theatre was a building site.
The last – and first – time I’d seen the place, it looked like a run-down cash-and-carry. Now its frontage and south side were covered in scaffolding. As if on life support.
I saw this web of metal as I got off the bus, by the high-rise flats, on Gorbals Street.
I made my way round to the Stage Door. I was greeted by a huge man with bushy sideburns.
You’ll be the new manager. I’ll tell them you made it. Was there some doubt?
Giles, the director, came through the corridor and grasped my hand. Hello! You made it! (not him as well – or was this the standard greeting?) Welcome, welcome!
He led the way up dark stairs to the dressing rooms. He opened a door into a narrow space, with mirrors and light bulbs along one side. Dressing Room 4 – our office!
The Citizens’, for the third year running, was being done up. Major works on the stage, south side and foyer. Phase 3.
The dressing rooms were the only areas free for the few production and admin staff, who would keep the place going over the summer.
As well as the refurbishments, the company was preparing 2 shows – Chinchilla and The Good-Humoured Ladies – for Edinburgh International Festival in August, plus a full autumn season in the renovated Glasgow base.
I realised, in alarm, that I was to be the main contact with the contractors, to ensure they gave us back the building in time for our September opening.
That looked unlikely. What a mess! Peeled back to the stone, swathes of old plasterwork and ceilings hanging off, pipes and cables snaking everywhere, bare floors strewn with timber, tools and machinery.
Even more impossible, I felt, was my main job: keeping on top of the finances for the shows and staff. There was a highly competent group of people setting up casting, rehearsals, set-building and costumes. But responsibility for sticking to the budget was mine.
You’re going to be busy! said Giles, brightly, at the end of my first day.
Busy – and daunted. I got the bus home, wracked with worry. I was now in charge of all the Citizens’ money. Everything and everybody from cleaners and front-of-house to directors and actors. I’d only run a fringe co-operative in Bristol. I didn’t even fully understand VAT!
Just another zero on the end! said Giles, still brightly, at the end of my second day.
I recall near-sleepless nights that first week. Several times, I resolved to go in the next day and tell Giles I simply wasn’t up to the task. I was the youngest theatre manager in the country. Would I also be the one with the shortest tenure?
But, mercifully, I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing and taught me a lot in a short time.
Each time I drew near the Stage Door, I had a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. It receded over time, but never completely went away in all the years I worked at the Citizens’. Maybe a theatre should always make you feel a bit on edge – keeps it exciting!
Rehearsals for Edinburgh started. Chinchilla was a sort of Citizens’ emblem about why art matters, by Robert David Macdonald. All about Diaghilev and the Russian Ballet.
The other piece was an Italian comedy, by Carlo Goldoni. The Citz loved him, and so did I. Final rehearsals for Country Life had knocked me out, on my first Glasgow trip.
Two actors, David Hayman and Gerard Murphy, greeted me with open arms.
I also took heart walking round the theatre. It was, even in disarray, a remarkable place.
The stage was clear to the rafters, roof vents opened. They were installing a new flying system and needed daylight. As I craned my head skywards, countless motes of dust spun through the slatted sunlight, like tiny dancers heading for the stage.
The solid outlines of the walls, bars, grid and beams were reassuring. The place had been up since 1878. It would surely survive this latest disruption.
The foyer, though stripped of its red, gold and black skin, was recognisable as the welcoming hub of the building. The entrance, box office portholes, glass doors and carpetless stairway kept the front-of-house skeleton visible.
Progress was slow. But, as new panels, facades, and beadings were applied, the heart began to emerge as well. Part of me couldn’t wait until the people showed up to bring it back to life.
Amidst the sea of messy improvement sat the auditorium. It was due no improvements. New seats, décor and carpet would have to wait till next year, money permitting. Phase 4.
The gilt-sprayed double doors were screened by a loose plastic veil. I pushed the brass handle on the right-hand opening.
Inside, subdued light. Decked with even more red and gold than the foyer would be, it was an island of calm. The bangs and clatter of the building works were dulled by the black-and-gold safety curtain.
Yellowed dust sheets covered the seating rows. I lifted the hem of one, to reveal a few seats off the centre aisle.
I sat. Soothed.
I tried to see beyond the construction, the trials of playing Edinburgh and the efforts to re-open on time. It wasn’t too hard to imagine these seats filled with people, busy and vital.
It was a vision that, once realised at the end of that long summer, would keep me going for years to come.
The Edinburgh shows went well and we did – just – get the place open on time. The freshly painted foyer looked splendid, though the entrance was still run-down.
That facelift would come later. Like most old theatres, the Citz seems in constant need of an upgrade. Now, in 2020, a fresh round of improvements is underway. Must be about Phase 20.
When I started work at the Citizens’, the theatre was a building site.
Cinema is truth 24 times per second – Jean-Luc Godard
Don’t you love it when eternal truths turn out to be neither eternal nor true?
In the theatre, one eternal truth used to be: Don’t let the cameras in.
If a TV or film company wanted to film an extract from a play, the answer (at the Citizens’ at least) was always the same.
The set would look flat, the lighting drab, the sound hollow and the actors stiff. How could a two-dimensional medium capture three?
Now, these reservations no longer apply.
Digital cameras, light and sound have changed everything. Forever.
In June 2019 I saw – at Glasgow Film Theatre – Small Island, a National Theatre production which ran at the Olivier, London in summer 2019. It’s recently been streamed as part of National Theatre at Home.
It’s an ambitious show. Huge cyclorama, double-sided screens, a revolve and 40 actors on an enormous stage.
There are also intimate, domestic scenes. Close-up acting of family relationships. Like Hortense, the perjinkt spitfire newly migrated from Jamaica, trying to settle into her husband’s tiny London bedsit.
Shifts in scale and focus, sweeping history, intrepid travels to a new world, the petty prejudice of local places and private domesticity – all conveyed vividly to both types of audience.
It was fascinating to sit in the GFT, 400 miles away, watching the play like you’re actually there.
You also got shots of the theatre audience and their reactions, their buzz. As if you’re in with the in-house crowd.
Thanks to this new reality, thousands of people can watch productions previously unavailable to them by dint of geography, price and limited seats.
The theatre-only audience numbers are hugely multiplied when a show gets the NT Live treatment.
Since 2009 they’ve done 80 live broadcasts. Last year, plays like Richard II, One Man, Two Guvnors, All My Sons, The Lehman Trilogy, Fleabag and Present Laughter watched in 65 different countries, 2500 venues, 700 of them in the UK.
The audience statistics must blow normal playhouse attendance figures out of the park.
As a theatre manager, I watched our box office returns to the point of obsession. I’d love to get a swatch at the total numbers of people seeing these shows, once all the screens are included.
For most people running theatres, accessibility has always been a fundamental goal. This innovation offers a phenomenal connection with a new public.
I also find it amazing to see how sophisticated cameras and lighting have made this happen. No flat, drab, hollow and stiff. With the right positions, angles and number of cameras, cinema audiences miss nothing: close-ups of actors’ faces, wide, full and long shots.
Sound, too, can now be astonishingly faithful. One of the best screenings I’ve seen was La Traviata (my favourite opera ever since I saw Zeffirelli’s 1982 movie!). This was the 2014 production from Glyndebourne.
What pleasure to be immersed in the detail, visually and sonically. The camera and microphone scripts must have been as thorough as preparations for the staged opera. And they captured not just the singers, but the orchestra as well.
I’ve never been to Glyndebourne, nor plan to. It’s nearly 500 miles away and ticket prices are exorbitant. Like thousands of others, I can now have a front row seat and watch opera from the New York Met, Covent Garden, and the London Coliseum. For a fraction of the price.
One of the funniest moments in Small Island is when the doddery dad disappears, in his armchair, through a hole in the floor. The 2019 cinema audience loved this old trick. Amongst all the cutting-edge, here’s an effect from the 18th century. Possibly earlier: was there a trap door in Shakespeare’s Globe for the grave scene in Hamlet?
Plus, we get late 1940’s newsreel of the Windrush ship, overlaid with hi-tech projections of silhouettes (named after Etienne de Silhouette, 1709 -1767, by the way!) of people leaving Jamaica.
Then there’s a racist punch-up in a cinema which is showing a film, also from the late forties.
So, you’re in a cinema – or at home – watching actors in a theatre watching a film in a cinema.
This heady mixture of techniques, old and new, is echoed in some ambiguities amongst the audience.
To what extent are you in tune with the live audience in the theatre? Do you reiterate their buzz of anticipation before the curtain goes up, share their quietening hush as it does?
And, if there’s an interval, do you go out for a drink at the bar, as they’re likely to?
Most puzzling of all: do you clap at the end, while the actors take their curtain call? What’s the point? It’s not as if they can hear you!
I’m always bemused at the equivocal, hesitant applause (mine included) in these circumstances. Sure, it’s a play, not a film. You want to show your appreciation – though, why?
But maybe it depends on the occasion. Last October, I watched the Scotland – Japan World Cup rugby match on a large screen in a pub. No reticence here; we yelled our heads off at the oddly unresponsive Scottish team.
Opening up theatre to thousands of people. Fantastic new technical possibilities.
What’s not to like?
Screenings of theatre shows, currently at least, tend towards the famous, the large-scale and the metropolitan. London shows, beamed to the rest of the world, from properly funded companies, with well-kent actors in them.
Nothing wrong with that. But will it start to spread, to originate from other areas and other types of productions?
Why not? Technology works on any scale. Digital cameras can point at unfamiliar faces and places as well as familiar ones.
Two 2019 examples, albeit small-scale, in Scotland might point the way. Oran Mor’s Play, Pie and a Pint recently worked with the BBC Scotland channel to televise 6 of their hour-long shows – from the Chic Murray tribute, A Funny Place for a Window, to a one-man drag musical, Crocodile Rock.
After performances in the Highlands and Islands in 2017, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Rocket Post was screened at the CCA in Glasgow and is available online, free.
Of course, these are not the same as NT Live events. But would it take too much to film and broadcast productions – say, from the Lyceum in Edinburgh, the Citizens’ in Glasgow and other producing companies in Scotland?
The Lyceum’s Local Hero, based on the hit film,could’ve been a contender. It was bound for London, as was Nora, the Citz version of A Doll’s House. Might shows like these be screened in future?
It’d take dedication and set-up resources, but let’s hope it may happen.
One of the liveliest screenings I’ve seen was the RSC’s Richard II, broadcast live from Stratford-on-Avon in 2013, with David Tennant in the title role.
It was exciting because this was the premiere, with all the fizz and unpredictability of a first night stage performance. It was brave of the RSC to open a fledgling show to 2 different audiences.
It gave an edge missing from the safer option of pre-recording well into the run, or broadcasting as live, but not actually simultaneously.
The Small Island screening I saw wasn’t broadcast live, having been pre-recorded some nights before the country-wide screening.
Somehow a live broadcast feels that bit edgier, a touch more authentic, than an encore, repeat encore, replay or captured live deferred screening, because stage and screen versions are happening at one and the same time.
Does this matter? Not a lot, perhaps. But it raises another issue. Can the cinema experience in any case – whether concurrent or deferred – ever be as totally real as the theatre one?
Whilst, thanks to great camera and sound work, you get nearly the whole event.
These screenings offer an experience that’s as true-to-life as it’s possible to get, short of being in the theatre.
And yet. Isn’t a performance essentially a live act between actors and audience, sharing exactly the same place at exactly the same time? It only exists there and then. That’s what makes it exciting and special.
At the Citizens’, we called it Kleenex theatre. The minute it’s done with, throw it away, forget about it.
That’s the beauty of it: fantastically vital in one peculiar set of circumstances, pointless otherwise.
Uniquely, theatre is an unrepeatable experience, an ephemeral coincidence of molecules, energy and atmosphere. It can’t be technically recreated. The result is bound to be synthetic. If you want to film a drama with actors, why not make a movie or a TV series?
Watch a play on a cinema screen? Like having a bath with your pants on!
Part of me agrees. But I’d say, given the much lower ticket price, ease of access plus the tremendous technical advances, the NT Live model is worth it.
Maybe it’s a kind of trade-off. 75% of the experience for 20% of the price.
As long as those behind the camera remember to capture the best of the live elements of theatre. It can’t just be on-screen product, another way of feeding an insatiable hunger for multi-platform spread. Would you want to watch Hamlet on your mobile?
One final question. NT Live. Cui bono? Who stands to gain?
The theatres reaching wider audiences and increasing investment into their productions. And those new audiences. And the cinemas. And NT Live.
There’s another partner. You can’t fail to notice them. They’re prominent in glossy ads, featuring the artistic great-and-good. All very cultured and alluring.
Sky Arts. Headline sponsor of NT Live productions. I’m sure the money comes in handy.
But what’s in it for them? Do they get exclusive TV screening rights to recordings of the stage event for Sky subscribers?
Most of the screened productions come from subsidised arts organisations. The origination costs for script, rehearsals, production and overheads are borne in part by the taxpayer.
How great therefore that – for the price of a cinema ticket – the finished product can be more available to the general public.
But is it right that subsequent showings of plays subsidised from the public purse should be restricted to a commercial operation like Sky, so it can profit from its sole use to paying customers?
I sometimes think it would do Scottish theatre no harm if theatres were knocked flat, and companies consigned to school halls, car parks, and any other space that offered itself. – Joyce Mc Millan, 1982
Sparrows in a ploughed field. Theatre patois for a small audience. When we had audiences.
Theatre means hard work, but in my experience the toughest task is to be front-of-house – or backstage – when a mere dribble of people turn up to watch the show. Apart from the loss at the box office, the dip in morale is palpable. Just keeping people’s spirits up feels like a Herculean labour.
I was lucky. This happened mercifully few times at the Citizens’, Glasgow. And there were always better times to look forward to. Times when the house would be crammed.
Now, there’s nothing much to look forward to. We’re all at sea – theatre workers and audiences alike – lost, struggling to make sense of it all. Just as nobody fully understands the virus, none of us knows quite how theatre will work in future.
Scottish comedienne Karen Dunbar has played every sort of venue – Celtic Park to the Tron. I asked her what she’s working on now. It’s probably going to be a one-woman show. No’ me, the audience!
In Perm, Russia, that’s no joke. In the 850-seater Opera and Ballet Theatre, the single winner of a lottery gets a private performance of Eugene Onegin. A novel way to keep the company performing, says the stage director, but financially catastrophic. As for the performers, their temperatures are regularly checked and the premises disinfected.
In Germany, the State Theatre of Hesse, Wiesbaden held a performance with its audience correctly social distancing. The 1000 capacity was cut to 200 people in alternate seats and rows. The photo shows what sparrows in a ploughed field look like:
In trying to understand the significance of Covid-19, some look to past plagues, real and fictional. In Japan they’re panic-buying Albert Camus’s novel, La Peste. Many people latch on to the parallels between Covid-19 and the 1918 flu pandemic whose second wave (watch out!) was much deadlier than its first.
But, when it comes to grasping the full repercussions of our present plight, we might look to the Black Death of the mid-1300’s. A recent New Statesman article sees it as the trigger of the end of the Middle Ages and the birth of the modern world. Will this pandemic, it asks, remake the world as we know it?
Naturally we can’t know what that will look like, least of all in those areas of our lives dependent on close, numerous and simultaneous congregation of human beings.
Playhouses date from the late 1500’s. Last week, London’s earliest purpose-built theatre – the Red Lion (1567) – was unearthed, in Whitechapel. Scotland was a bit later to the game. Its first public theatre wasn’t opened until 1736.
So, buildings are not the whole history of the theatrical age.
Theatre (literally, a place for looking), in western civilisation, goes back to Greece in the fifth century B.C. We’ve been at it for over 2500 years!
Theatre seems bound to continue as long as people want to tell stories and act them out to their fellow human beings. We probably couldn’t stop it even if we tried.
I feel sure that those who yearn to create and present drama in Scotland – and the rest of the world – are bursting with enough imagination, ingenuity, insight, inspiration, intellect, intelligence and intuition to make it happen – in any circumstances.
For now, Scottish theatres are straining to withstand the crisis. Several, including the Lyceum, Edinburgh and Glasgow’s Tron have cancelled their 2020 Christmas shows (the most lucrative production). The Lyceum, Pitlochry Festival Theatre and others are hoping to hold on to some key roles, but are planning redundancies to keep their operations from going under.
These venues are echoed by others on the cusp of collapse. They are appealing to governments, local authorities and the public to provide funds to keep them alive.
But – until somebody can devise practical steps to get actors and audiences back together again – such moves are essentially defensive.
The Citizens’ is in a peculiar position. Homeless while the Gorbals venue undergoes a massive rebuild (itself delayed until building sites resume), they can’t even produce in their temporary berth, Tramway.
Let’s hope the pleas for funding are met so that the Lyceum, Tron, Pitlochry and other companies can stay alive, at least. Let’s hope the Citizens’ completes its project to renovate and restore that people’s palace of pleasure. They’ve started, so they’ll finish.
But it does raise the question – would you begin a new building project now? The King’s Edinburgh refurb is on hold. As for a new venue, who’d be bold enough to create one when we’ve no idea how audiences and actors are going to be able to reassemble in the world to come?
If you were setting up a company today, wouldn’t you just focus on production – writing, directing and acting – and then work out the best form to deliver your ideas?
It makes the National Theatre of Scotland’s founding motto, Theatre Without Walls, seem more prescient than anyone imagined. The title of its current streaming sessions, to raise funds, is just as apt: Scenes for Survival.
Scenes for Survival involve, amongst others, Aberdeen Performing Arts, the BBC, the Citz, Scottish Screen, Stellar Quines and Summerhall; actors Kate Dickie, Janey Godley, Brian Cox, Peter Mullan and Jonathan Watson; writers Jenni Fagan, Frances Poet and Stef Smith and directors Cora Bissett, Debbie Hannan and Caitlin Skinner.
Other virtual programming includes Oran Mor’s mini-series of plays; the Traverse’s young writers’ work, workshops and 5 monologues swiftly adapted from the cancelled Donny’s Brain; The Scotsman Sessions ofshort video performances and Rapture Theatre’s Mini Bites.
There’s loads more. The immediate recourse has been to deliver online, hastily put together in an urge to get some product out there. Hasty can be good, not least when all sorts of people are unexpectedly available! And it proves how ingenious theatre practitioners can be in testing conditions.
The quality of this material, mostly monologues shot in limited conditions, could be improved with time, work and substantial start-up funding.
Longer term, it can’t just be a filmed version of whatever is – or would have been – on stage, nor just more screen product. It needs sensitive understanding of the interaction between the live and the recording.
The screening of theatre is not, of course, a substitute for the full-on live theatre experience – everybody together in the same space, at the same time, responding to the same atmospherics.
Some other questions arise from our current state.
First, should the artist should come before the edifice? Creativity first, institutions second? It’s understandable that organisations will look for funding to shore them up until things get back to normal. But, even if that’s possible, normal means the practitioner in the performing arts is poorly rewarded and precariously employed.
Should this be a time to reassess, to find ways that artists no longer exist on a shoestring?
The furlough scheme is, for now, some kind of security blanket for staff, but hardly any performers or freelancers get help. Who always gets left out in the cold? As support for actors, writers and other creatives diminishes, so we risk the diversity of people making the work and the richness of the stories being told. In other words, it’s the art, the theatre’s imaginative heart, that suffers most.
Second, is a fallow period such a bad idea? As theatres closed and the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe were cancelled, there was a genuine cry of loss. Of course, everything must be done to preserve, even strengthen, what we had. But is it heresy, from an artistic point of view, to suggest that producing nothing for, say a year or more, is not the end of the world?
Naturally we don’t want anyone to starve. It seems to me that the case for a Universal Basic Income is becoming unanswerable (though don’t expect the Tories to agree).
Things are bound to change. I suppose the question is who wins the struggle between those trying to restore the old, unequal norms and those of us who view this as a chance for renaissance?
It’s hard to see how we’ll get a new system without a struggle. Will protest give rise to new forms of theatre?
It also helps to keep a sense of global perspective. In countries less affected than the UK, is the resumption of live performances with large audiences only a matter of time?
The whole Coronavirus saga might just be a one-off and our return to normal a few months away.
Alternatively, we could be in the early stages of an epoch-changing event which will keep venues closed for a long time to come.
The Thatcher virus reduced Scotland’s industrial monuments to rusting, useless shells. Will Corona (or whatever economic chaos, environmental calamity or further pandemic follows) do the same to our cultural infrastructure?
There’s a great scene in Kenneth Branagh’s 2018 film, All Is True, when he, as William Shakespeare, hits back – verbally – at Sir Thomas Lucy. They loathed each other.
Sir Thomas goads Shakespeare: I can’t loll about all day thinking pretty thoughts like you poets. I must to business.
Shakespeare’s response (as in Ben Elton’s screenplay) is an exposition of the work involved in running a theatre and producing shows:
Business, Sir Thomas? Oh, I thought you meant real business, like building, owning and operating London’s largest theatre, for instance. Actors, carpenters, seamstresses. Crew to pay. Bribes to pay. Security to mount. Politics to navigate.
3000 paying customers to be fed and watered every afternoon, each promised a spectacle greater than the last… Have you ever considered the logistics of mounting the Battle of Shrewsbury in the banqueting hall at Hampton Court? Please don’t. It would make you so tired.
Sir Thomas isn’t alone in regarding the theatre as a haven for feckless dilettantes. If only these artsy-fartsy types would get a proper job.
A friend, who ran a smaller but no less demanding, nor less successful, playhouse than Shakespeare’s Globe, was asked, by his military brother, Still doing your play-acting?
Yet the reality of working life in theatre – onstage or off – is one of arduous labour.
Banish from your mind images of gadflies, lounging around in cravats, sipping gin and conjuring up witty aphorisms.
For most actors the hours are long, the conditions rough and the pay nugatory.
There’s precious little lolling about. Unless it’s the wastes of time waiting for your call or for the technical rehearsal to grind on to the next lighting cue, while you go over your lines, which you probably learned in your own time.
The longest wait of all is for the phone to ring in the first place, while friends ask you what you’re up to at the moment, with the attendant erosion of status and confidence.
Sure, there are compensations, like the sweet spurt of applause at the curtain call (though if you’re not on for ages before it, you even have to wait around for that). Then you’re out the stage door, back in the dark and cold, wondering if you can afford the fare back to your lousy digs.
That’s the performers, who have it relatively easy. The really thankless tasks are the province of the technical crew, stage managers and assistants, paid Equity minimum to ferret out untraceable props and set, strike and reset furniture so that the actors don’t bump into it.
Meanwhile, as the lights fade and everyone else goes home, front-of-house staff and cleaners mop up discarded drink cartons, crisp packets and vomit.
Perhaps hardest is the non-stop responsibility for pulling all these people – directors, actors, stage management, carpenters, electricians, wardrobe, design, marketing, box office, cleaners and front-of-house, not forgetting the audience – together. Simultaneously, consensually and smoothly.
This is probably special pleading, as that’s exactly what I tried to do for many years.
I loved it. But, to echo Donald Dewar’s words on restoring the Scottish parliament, it wasn’t a downhill skoosh.
Or, as Robert David MacDonald put it in Chinchilla:
This company is founded on the talents of every man and woman working in it, coming together to create something none of them could have conceived, let alone achieved, on his own.
Keeping the show on the stage – or on the road (touring can be even more Herculean) – is a challenge all of its own.
Can all these disparate factors – people, sets, costumes, props, lights, sounds, effects, cues, tickets, seats, toilets, heating, transport, weather etc. – possibly combine to go off, without a single hiccup?
The show must go on. 5% inspiration, 95% perspiration. Break a leg.
It’ll be all right on the night. Merde. In bocca al lupo.
They’ll never notice in the stalls. Bad dress rehearsal, great premiere. No peacock feathers.
No whistling. The Scottish play. A warm hand on your opening.
Fabulous is not the word!
As many maxims as chances of failure.
What’s more, the idea is to try and make it entertaining and enlightening enough to be, in John McGrath’s timeless phrase, a good night out.
It’s just pretend. None of it’s real.
Theatre’s urge to make itself seen, heard and enjoyed defy all logic, sense and reason. Why does anyone bother?
Well, thousands of workers, for thousands of performances, over thousands of years have, still do and probably always will.
Of course, there are lots of upsides. I’d need to devote a separate blog post to count them all. For now, suffice to say that memorable productions, great performances, the buzz of excited audiences and the relationships forged in the heat of all this intense activity – well, they are benefits that stay with you for a long time.
But Noel Coward was right. Don’t consider it as a career. Unless you relish hard work for little reward. Unless you yearn to be caught up in a pointless enterprise that remains utterly compulsive and utterly human.
Coda – mea culpa!
As well as special pleading, I also feel a twinge of guilt at my own part in the imposition of hard labour in the theatre.
I was the tyrant responsible for the schedule of panto performances at the Citizens’ Theatre. More than once, I programmed 3 consecutive 3-show-days: 9 performances at 2pm, 5pm and 8pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, just before Hogmanay.
All within 56 hours. By the time they reached the Saturday evening show, the actors and crew didn’t know if it was Christmas or Cockfosters.
I cite 2 factors in my defence. First, we made certain that the show ran for just under two hours, including interval. So, there was time for a break between sessions backstage and (just) time for front-of-house to get one audience out and a new one in.
Secondly, it wasn’t solely exploitation, but for the greater artistic good. All theatres see their Christmas show as a chance to maximise box office. Anyway, it’s how most people experience live theatre and a full house makes it even more enjoyable.
The extra money from a successful panto helps cross-subsidise the rest of the year’s repertoire, increasing employment (bigger casts, longer runs), artistic choice and output for the public.
But I hold my hands up – it was a very stringent rota. If anyone who worked all those shifts is reading this, I’m truly sorry.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars – Oscar Wilde
Christopher Marlowe, Jean Genet and Joe Orton: in the pantheon of playwrights, their works performed everywhere.
Great plays like Doctor Faustus, Edward II, Tamburlaine; The Maids and The Balcony; Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloane and What the Butler Saw.
A pact with Lucifer and damnation, sexuality, abuse and regicide, bloody conquest, suicide and savagery; sadomasochism and violent fantasies, prostitutes and revolution; robbery, dead bodies and corruption, sexual manipulation and murder, farcical seduction, insanity and Winston’s Churchill’s penis!
It’s not only the themes of these works that make them special, but the style, the language and the ideas of these original, challenging and memorable dramatists.
If we look at their lives and – in the cases of Marlowe and Orton – deaths, it’s not hard to see where these ideas might come from.
Marlowe was killed in a drunken knife fight after a row about money, the culmination of a life of arrest, imprisonment and alleged spying.
Orton ended up bludgeoned to death, the hammer wielded by his jealous lover. Parts of his life were as sordid as his death was brutal, with countless dangerous (and, at that time, illegal) encounters in public toilets. He was jailed (I had a marvellous time in prison!) for defacing hundreds of library books.
As for Jean Genet (immortalised in David Bowie’s song of almost-the-same name), he spent much of his early life in correctional institutions and became a thief, a vagabond and a prostitute, all of which found its way into his dramas, novels and poems. The film, Querelle, based on a novel by Genet, captures the danger and sensuality of his themes: betrayal, power and love.
Many plays by these and similar writers positively thrive on the idea of the outcast, the unusual and the unsavoury.
It’s a passion, a disease, a lust. Art can rest on sinister foundations and has the most intimate knowledge of sickness.
Those words are from a speech by Chinchilla, a character based on Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes. The play was written by Robert David Macdonald, with whom I worked for many years at the Citizens’, Glasgow.
David was a most erudite and articulate writer, translator and director. At the same time, he firmly believed that any masterpiece of European dramatic literature could be improved with a fart gag.
This mixing of the exotic and the demotic, the sacred and the profane, may not be as incongruous as some may think. I’m always surprised when somebody describes theatre as posh, middle class or respectable, when it often depends on being the very opposite.
To presume the absence of sordid vulgarity and squalid transgression is to deny the evidence of theatre as it has existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Look back through the history of performing arts – and other genres – and you can see quite how much they rely on the degenerate for inspiration and expression.
Rape, tongues and hands cut off, several filicides and a mother eating her sons in a pie, as well as countless killings. Yet Jan Kott (Shakespeare Our Contemporary) says Titus Andronicus is by no means the most brutal of Shakespeare’s plays.
Infanticide is possibly the most horrible act imaginable, yet it happens with blood-chilling frequency in so many stories and dramas. Greek mythology is full of child-killings, including parents serving them up at feasts.
In Medea, one of the great classic dramas, Euripides has her poison King Creon and his daughter, her rival in love, before taking a knife to her two sons.
Those bloodthirsty old-timers, eh? Not really: contemporary dramas haven’t exactly shied away from lurid, violent breaches of good taste, morality and the law.
Sarah Kane deals (or dealt, she hanged herself, aged 28 in 1999) with pain, sex, torture and death. Her first and most infamous play, Blasted, includes male rape, eyes sucked out, a baby dying and being eaten. In 2010, a revival won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement.
The death of a baby – this time being stoned, centre stage – also features in Edward Bond’s Saved, originally prosecuted but later praised for its ‘remarkable delicacy’.
OK, so not every play goes as far as these, but the creation of drama does tend to mix the noblest of ideas with the basest of actions. Marlowe, Genet, Orton, Shakespeare and the rest know that in order to reach our hearts and our minds, they have to look life right between the legs.
Theatre isn’t a refined art that just occasionally sinks into the sewers; it positively embraces the low-life and the perverse alongside the highbrow and the inspirational. They work together; they’re symbiotic, dependent one upon the other to make the most powerful dramatic effect.
Is present-day theatre safer and more respectable than in the past? Maybe dramatists and producers used to have a more free-wheeling attitude to those who helped pay the bills.
Is there a danger nowadays that the culture of public funding and compliance risks making subsidised theatres less likely to embrace the base and the beastly? Let’s hope not.
As long as those who write, produce and present theatre understand the vital relationship between highbrow and low-life, we should be spared too much respectability. Or, as Chinchilla has it, Many reasonable people are appalled, many despicable people delighted, but none of that matters.
As we stood in the foyer of the Citizens’, in our heads we were bank managers, but in our hearts we were mesdames of a brothel.
As it’s still commonplace for proper theatres to combine the sublime with the cor-blimey, it might be fun to imagine how it would work the other way round.
What if the commercial theatre incorporated a bit of high art in its populist repertoire? Instead of Elvis tributes there could be Make Like Mozart and Beethoven Karaoke. Not so much Dirty Dancing as Smutty Swan Lake or Naughty Nutcracker. Forget The Real Glesca Dance Mums – try A Midsummer Night’s Dram!
So here – by way of a frivolous coda – are my top ten plays, ripe for adaptation and inclusion in the next brochure of the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow:
Many years ago, I saw a fringe theatre company do Hamlet. It was a bit rough at the edges but the most remarkable thing was that 4 different actors took the role of the Danish prince. Other characters were played by more than one actor, too.
They swapped brightly coloured tunics so it wasn’t confusing; in fact, a switch of actors in the main part helped flesh out Hamlet’s ever-changing moods.
They even managed to send the concept up, with a tall actor handing over the lead to a short one, so the audience could laugh and get the idea at the same time.
It was so liberating, so exciting. I’d never seen anything quite like it and hardly have since, not in conventional theatres.
More recently, I had a similar sensation seeing Hamilton, the musical. Young Latino, Asian and black actors portray the old white founding fathers of America. It took my breath away – how audacious!
The boldness of the idea is matched by the smartness of the staging, the brilliantly original music and lyrics – plus the theme of Alexander Hamilton as an immigrant which echoes the performers being outsiders too.
Conventionally, theatre stays within its own fourth wall, beyond which sits an audience willingly suspending its disbelief. The actor faithfully portrays a character as s/he really is, was or would be in real life.
The entire cast keeps up the myth that what’s happening on stage is just as if it was nature itself, so that each actor looks like the person they’re playing, wears the right clothes and behaves just naturally, like they really are that character.
Same goes for the whole situation: the world on stage is true to life, as close a reflection of reality as it’s possible to be. And all this so we can fit what we’re watching into our own existence: it’s recognisably life as we live it.
But, as Brecht – the great proponent of epic, non-naturalistic theatre – said: Art isn’ta mirror to hold up to reality. He went on to say that it’s a hammer, which seems a bit brutal, but you get the idea. Don’t regard the stage as a faithful reflection of reality, but rather an alternative way of looking at the world and the people in it.
Personally, I’ve always preferred it when theatre breaks the rules of naturalism because it tends to be more exciting, unexpected and inventive.
All my most magical and memorable theatre visits – images and ideas that make you think and feel something different – are of ‘conceptual’ productions, or at least extraordinary moments inside an otherwise ‘normal’ show. Productions which aren’t trying to cover up the fact that it’s all pretend; instead they positively embrace the idea, play it up to present more than a mere 3D version of the script.
Here are just a few examples, personal favourite moments when breaking the fourth wall enabled a show to transcend the norms of perception and give a more powerful insight into its message, themes and ideas.
The stampede scene in The Lion King musical; the house collapse in Stephen Daldry’s version of An Inspector Calls; Robert Lepage spiralling vertiginously up and down, surreally lit, in Needles and Opium. And, from a long time ago – I saw it as a theatre student and it changed my view forever – Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in a great white box with trapezes, swings and spinning plates thrown from one bendy pole to another.
Another instance comes from my own professional alma mater, the Citizens’, Glasgow: a tiny moment within a relatively true-to-life production of an Italian comedy. David Hayman, holding a cup of coffee (there’s no liquid, it’s painted brown inside, just another trick of the trade), turned and flicked the cup towards the front row, who flinched. A momentary crack in the fourth wall, but a funny, swift reminder that we are witnessing illusion, not a literal representation.
By contrast, I can’t think of a single wholly naturalistic production whose images and messages have stayed with me.
The box-set, fastidiously crafted props, costumes and authentic characterisation may be admirable technically but they don’t cut the mustard when it comes to having a lasting effect, bringing an idea or feeling right home.
Why limit stage and spectators by faking a simulacrum of life when the whole exercise of theatre is capable of such illusion, imagination and flights of fancy?
It’s all pretence anyway. You can do anything, be anyone, turn any object into another and no need to explain why. And these days technology, especially lighting, sound and the use of film, can surpass realism even further.
Now, there seem to be more and more examples of productions ready to defy the rules of verisimilitude.
This isn’t just style – it’s also the actors. It seems like real change is happening. Especially in how shows are being cast.
Recently, to give just a few instances, there’s been the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female cast Shakespeare trilogy (Julius Caesar, Henry IV, The Tempest) and a black actress as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (smart casting even though there’s no reason the character should be white).
The Globe Theatre, home of Shakespeare, did a production last year of Richard II where every single person in this company is a woman of colour: all the actors, stage management, the directors and designers – the first time this has ever been done on a major UK stage.
And so many female actors as Hamlet these days. It’s not a new idea – star actresses like Sarah Siddons in the eighteenth century and Sarah Bernhardt in the nineteenth played the prince, but the trend now is much greater.
In some productions the character stays a man, just played by a woman. Other Hamlets have been androgynous (Maxine Peake). Some are fully female – the princess of Denmark. What happens then to Frailty, thy name is woman? The story and other characters are bound to change as well, so that the imaginative possibilities provoked by a change of gender spread to the whole show.
Perhaps the biggest hint of naturalism being on the skids comes from recent instances of casting in television and film, usually more naturalistic than theatre. I was delighted to see David Oyelowo as Javert in the recent BBC Les Miserables. Not a rousing song to be heard, this is a deliberately faithful-to-the-original naturalistic drama, with a black actor playing a white character.
In the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots Adrian Lester plays Queen Elizabeth’s ambassador to the Scottish court and Gemma Chan is Bess Hardwick. This seems more unusual in a blockbuster period drama. The film’s director, Josie Rourke – a woman, from a theatre background – reckons cinema (a film set is a very white, male place) is about 10 years behind the live performing arts.
We shouldn’t get too carried away. This trend away from naturalistic casting opens up a much bigger question.
In November 2018, Adrian Lester joined with Lenny Henry and others to deliver a letter to 10 Downing Street calling for tax breaks to try and overcome the crisis of the lack of diversity amongst those working in the film and TV industry.
It seems that the horrendous political realities of inequality still impede artistic progress – it’s not just a question of colour-blind casting by a few directors and producers.
The greatest barrier to non-naturalistic casting isn’t a lack of imagination on the part of directors nor audiences yet to open their minds.
The white elephant in the dressing room is the lack of opportunities throughout the whole of life for women, disabled people, and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
It’s our old enemy, the deep-rooted issue of inequality and the skewed representation of society as a whole, hardly a problem exclusive to film, stage and TV.
We still live within a massively, blatantly unequal system and it seems to take ages to make the glacial changes we’re seeing a little of nowadays. How long, oh lord, how long?
Is it time, in Scotland at least, to speed things up with a Sweden-style agreement requiring production funding to directors, writers and producers to be distributed 50/50 between men and women?
O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain – Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother
What if a writer turns personal loss into artistic gold? Can art imitate life when it involves the death of a child?
Hamnet Shakespeare was the only son of Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare. Hamnet died aged 11, in the middle of a plague. His twin, Judith, lived beyond her 77th birthday. Susanna, their older sister, was 66 when she died.
The twins were raised mostly by their mother. It seems Shakespeare wasn’t there for Hamnet’s birth, nor his death in 1596. After his son’s funeral, he left Stratford-upon-Avon to return to his burgeoning theatre career in London.
His histories and comedies were written for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men company – later The King’s Men, when James I (James VI of Scotland) took the throne in 1603.
Shakespeare’s plays matured towards tragedies including Hamlet, written at the turn of the century. The Bard, who also acted in the company, became a success. His works were popular with audiences and he made money.
I’ve just read Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s great new book, a fictionalised account of the Shakespeare family. It could have been called Agnes – O’Farrell uses Anne Hathaway’s other name – because it centres on the fascinating character of Shakespeare’s wife.
Agnes is deeply attached to nature. Her mother appeared out of the forest and went by the name of a tree. As Agnes’s free spirits grow, she becomes a dispenser of herbal cures and a visionary, able to divine what is hidden within a person.
When Shakespeare (at times a walk-on character, his name never given) first sees her, he’s captivated. On her fist sits a kestrel. Agnes is William’s polar opposite – instinct and raw emotion to his literate, Latin learning.
The passages in Hamnet, following the boy’s death, made me cry. Agnes’s boundless grief is achingly detailed. She cannot accept her husband’s long absence and apparent lack of remorse.
This culminates in her shock discovery at the title of his new play. Within 4 years of Hamnet’s death. Just one letter different in the name. How could her husband do that? Why would he? What has the play to do with their lost son?
What’s in a name? In the play Hamlet, the protagonist’s name, like the story, is of Scandinavian origin. He’s a Danish prince in his twenties, not a pre-adolescent commoner in England.
Hamlet is about lots of things as well as death. Like many plays of the period, revenge is at its heart. So, art thou to revenge, says the ghost of the murdered king – also called Hamlet – to his son, giving the plot its driving force.
Free will versus fate is also part of Hamlet. By opposing a sea of troubles, can you end them? Or is there a divinity that shapes our ends?
Incest, too, has been seen as a key to the play. Freudian interpretations, including Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film, are common. Gertrude marries her brother-in-law and Hamlet gets very close to his mother. Freud’s biographer even suggested Ophelia is overly fixated on her father, Polonius.
Freud was going to call his Oedipus theory the Hamlet Complex. He may have misread Shakespeare just as – says Stephen Fry – he misread the classics. The point about Oedipus is that he didn’t know Jocasta was his mother when he married her.
Is Hamlet Shakespeare’s second most-performed – and longest – play because it’s so complex? No single interpretation catches it. (The most-performed is A Midsummer’s Night Dream, by the way, and Macbeth the shortest.)
Though direct links between Hamnet and the substance of his father’s play may be few, it’s hard to believe that Shakespeare’s grief didn’t feed into Hamlet and the other works – such as King Lear which ends with the crazed, grieving Lear carrying in his arms the corpse of his youngest daughter. The plays are the things wherein he caught the spirit of his son.
The relationship between his child’s death and his output is not as direct as, say, Eric Clapton’s lament for his dead son, Tears in Heaven. Victor Hugo, on the other hand, couldn’t write for years after his daughter drowned.
Did Shakespeare channel his anguish into not just his plays and poems, but also the exacting demands of running a company? Was he an alchemist of his own grief, processing it into a prolific complex of ideas and action through writing, acting and producing? Is it even a secret of his success?
The bubonic plague hit London hard. Theatres, including the 3000 capacity Globe, closed – on and off – for more than half of the first decade of the 17th century. Shakespeare, like Brecht in exile, wrote some of his best plays when there was scant prospect of staging them.
Not one to let a crisis go to waste, he kept writing. King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra were scripted in 1605-6. Lear says to Goneril, another daughter: Thou art a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood.
Shakespeare was absent, but not neglectful of his family. In 1597, with his new-found theatrical wealth, he bought New Place, a large house in the heart of Stratford. Anne/Agnes, Susanna and Judith made it their comfortable, spacious home. It wasn’t until 1613 – after the Globe had burned down – that William himself came back from London to settle there with them.
After retiring to Stratford, William lived just 3 more years. He died on his 52nd birthday in April 1616. Anne/Agnes, 8 years his senior, survived until 1623, when she was 67.
Back to Hamnet. By seeing it all through Agnes’s eagle eyes, O’Farrell completes the circle between the son’s death and the play. Towards the end of the book, Agnes ventures to London and watches her husband’s drama in the newly built Globe Theatre. He also plays Hamlet senior (as Shakespeare really did, the ghost being one of his regular roles).
Agnes sees the two Hamlets together, father and son, and understands that her husband has brought Hamnet back to life, in the only way he can.
Earlier in the book, there’s a vivid description of a physician who visits Agnes to dispense a dried toad, to tie to the stomach of her plague-ridden child. The physician wears a hideous, featureless mask, pointed like the beak of a gigantic bird.
Plague. Closed theatres. Face masks. Bizarre cures. Thousands of deaths. Who says Shakespeare’s time has nothing in common with our own?
With silent lifting mind I’ve trod the high, untrespassed sanctity of space – John Gillespie Magee
On a trip to Prague last year, we visited the Museum of Communism. Hardly sounds a bundle of fun, but somebody had recommended it and we wanted to know more about post-war Czechoslovakia.
It really should be called the Museum of Anti-Communism, so virulent and one-sided is its condemnation of everything that happened between 1948 – when a communist coup ushered in Stalinist Soviet control – and 1989, when the Velvet Revolution defied the dying regime to establish a parliamentary republic.
The text on the display boards – alongside images of demonstrations, protests, military hardware, imprisonment, torture and domestic privations – is unremittingly harsh in its total denunciation of all things official and institutional that existed during those 41 years of subjugation.
This extreme rejection of the past (not to say, in some instances, rewriting of history) is understandable and forgivable, unlike the murderous Soviet regime which controlled the country so ruthlessly.
I don’t remember the Hungarian Rising of 1956, crushed by an invasion of Soviet troops, with thousands killed. Its main effect in countries to the west was the mass resignation of communist sympathisers.
I do recall the 1968 Prague Spring, when Dubcek’s reforms and mass protests were smashed, again by invasion, from Warsaw Pact armies and tanks. I was just getting interested in politics, but here was every reason to have your socialist stirrings and hopes dashed by the only left-wing system in existence.
It took over 20 years before the Velvet Revolution led to the collapse of the communist state in Czechoslovakia.
Though the revolution won out, the velvet was red. I was shocked to see the Prague Museum videos of the 1989 protests. Riot police were frenziedly beating the shit out of demonstrators with batons. It could have gone the other way. It’s chilling to see the lengths a near-dead system will go to save itself.
So, it’s easy to understand the intensity of the denunciation of communism. Perhaps, even now, after 30 years of independence and the Velvet Divorce (when Slovakia peacefully seceded in 1993) perspective takes a little longer to arrive.
But amidst all the vitriol and dismissal of anything faintly positive during the Communist era, one aspect of Soviet achievement seems to evoke, begrudgingly, a sense of admiration, even pride.
A fair amount of the Prague exhibition features Yuri Gargarin, first man in space, with film of him being spun around in a centrifuge and kitted up for his big adventure.
There’s even a cameo exhibit of Laika, first dog in space. Surprisingly, the museum doesn’t make anything of how this stray mongrel suffocated within hours of the flight.
The section devoted to the Soviet space programme of the late 1950’s and early 60’s is quite positive, at odds with the rest of the presentations.
In the gift shop, among sarcastic T-shirts and ironic imagery – Lenin and Stalin candles; vicious-toothed nesting dolls and a cuddly Soviet bear, Kalashnikov in its paw – the beer mats, posters and badges celebrating Sputnik, Gargarin and the Soviet space programme stand out as genuinely celebratory icons from the otherwise heinous age of terror.
This recalled a visit we made to Moscow in 2013. There’s hardly a better story of Communism to tell there, at the heart of the whole system. The faded pavilions in the VDNKh – the vast park of former soviet states – bear pathetic witness to how the mighty USSR crumbled.
But it’s a different samovar of fish at the Space Museum in the Russian capital. Though almost as firmly consigned to the dustbin of history as the VDNKh’s exhibits – its full title is the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics – an earnest sense of world-beating endeavour still shines through.
Our son was living in Moscow then – hence our visit – and, with bright-eyed enthusiasm, he showed us round the exhibits with which he was already familiar from previous visits.
Though born decades after the Sputniks, Vostoks and other space capsules were mothballed, he got it: the depth of the technical achievement, the height of the dream and the significance of it all.
Maybe that’s why he’s ended up studying Astrophysics at Glasgow Uni.
There is such pride in the achievements lovingly presented in the Moscow museum. Lots of Gargarin, of course, but also featured are the research pioneers, scientists and engineers of the Soviet space programme, as well as detailed replicas of satellites, spaceships and rockets.
And Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, (still alive at 82) is given a fulsome tribute.
And to top it all, there’s the soaring rocket-shaped tower of shining titanium, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space. No hint of regret nor revision, just pride and the fulfilment of dreams.
The sense of achievement persists from that amazing, now almost unbelievable, period when it looked like the space race between the Soviets and the USA was being won by the former.
Inevitably, as the battle for supremacy between east and west raged ever more fiercely, it became more race than space, a token of political and military dominance. Yet that’s not the full, or only, story
Space represents, in every sense, the Soviets’ highest achievement. Not gulags, tanks and cold wars. A genuinely uplifting consummation of humanity’s greatest aspirations, combining the most advanced and meticulous application of science with the spiritual desire to break free from Earth and fulfil mankind’s yearning for the stars.
I think the Soviets believed in it, as did the people living under all those highly repressive regimes in Eastern Europe. Sure, it was exploited for its propaganda value, but space is still special.
It was an expression of peaceful struggle. It may be the only legacy that the Soviet era has to be proud, rather than ashamed, of. And no amount of opprobrium, however justified, can bury its brilliant, noble and ambitious reach for a better world.