[CFP]: Victorian Dirt

Victorian Network is an open-access, MLA-indexed, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate and early career work across the broad field of Victorian Studies.

The tenth issue of Victorian Network (Summer 2015) will be guest edited by Professor William A. Cohen (University of Maryland) on the theme of Victorian Dirt. Dirt – its causes, consequences, and control – obsessed the long nineteenth century, from the fuels and detritus of the Industrial Revolution, to the obscene books sold on London’s Holywell Street (which boasted fifty-seven pornographers by 1834). Technological advances brought increased pollution, while cities’ growth generated more dirt and the new urban workforce crowded together in sickness and in health. Meanwhile, public legislation and agitation tried to clean, civilise and purify the populace in both body and mind. Writers and cultural commentators debated the middle and upper classes’ responsibility to relieve the plight of the poor and dirty, but also drew on the metaphorical valences of dirt to explore cross-class attraction and repulsion. Rubbish mounds and the filthy, sewage-infested Thames are the iconic images of Charles Dickens’s exploration of class relations in Our Mutual Friend; Hannah Cullwick, diarist and domestic servant, documented her relationship with the barrister Arthur Munby – a secret connection based on the potential eroticism of dirt on the working-class body; and ‘slumming’ emerged as a term and practice in the 1880s, as well-to-do Londoners went on organized or individual tours of the East End. Recent scholarship and exhibitions have revealed the changing nature and status of dirt in the nineteenth century, taking an interdisciplinary approach to uncover (quite literally) the science and significance of the filthy, disposable or disgusting in Victorian life.

We are inviting submissions of no more than 7,000 words, on any aspect of the theme. Possible topics include, but are by no means limited to, any of the following:

  • Dirt in industrial processes and products: coal, smog, smoke or ashes.
  • Dirty money: blackmail and corruption; smuggling; the sex trade.
  • Filth: scandal, gossip, obscenity and pornography.
  • Disgust and horror; dirt and the Gothic; dirt and the atavistic or bestial; dirt in the laboratory.
  • The earth: dirt as life source; dirt as land; possession; burial ground and charnel house.
  • Roads, woodlands, waysides and canals.
  • Ashes to ashes: dirt and putrefaction; decay; decomposition and death.
  • Dirt and disease: overcrowding, sanitation; refuge, dust and disposal; the relationship between dirt and poverty.
  • Washing, cleanliness, purification; moral and physical dirt.
  • Housework and domestic service
  • The use of dirt in racialised imagery; dirt and the exotic; dirt and the colonial mission.
  • The dirty body; sweat, grime, and other fluids; eroticised dirt.

All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines. Deadline for submissions: 15 January 2015.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com


This is my first issue as Editor of VN, and I am extremely excited. And resisting (temporarily) all manner of “send us your dirtiest work in Victorian Studies” puns. And slightly alarmed by the kind of google searches that might lead people to this post. Fifty-seven pornographers, though.

 

Round-up: Ibsen, casting, abseil

I’ve been working with the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme on Abbey Wright’s forthcoming production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. At one point, one of the actors thanked me for “all my work” with them. Now, obviously I used “work” twice in that sentence, but a better definition for this part of my job would encompass “playing around in a rehearsal room whilst simultaneously making my research do something practical and seeing amazing characters come alive in front of my face” (this is, for me, the greatest joy and secret of directing or dramaturging plays: people voluntarily act out your favourite plays for you, in front of you, in ways influenced by your suggestions and wishes), rather than anything suggestive of painful industry or anxious effort. In addition to knowing the texts with a terrifying and hungry accuracy, actors routinely and almost upsettingly ask the best questions. This is true whenever I get into a rehearsal room. Generally these questions nag me forever. Usually, answering them (when I can) exposes something fascinating, offensive or just plain weird about the way theatre works and has worked. Days spent in theatres are my best professional days. I can’t wait to see Ghosts in action.

I’m also researching for my new project at Magdalen College’s Calleva Centre. At the moment, I’m hugely interested in (and reading everything possible about) casting in theatre – especially Shakespeare. The above trip to the New Vic was very helpful, since (PLOT TWIST) actors have quite a lot to say about the casting process (rather more, in fact, than existing scholarship). So far, I’ve been reading lots about colour-blind casting, gender-blind casting, and disability-conscious casting (in order of volume). I’m definitely looking for more actors, directors, and (above all) casting directors to discuss this with. 

I have moved into my new office. It is up a lot of stairs. I am working to publicise a charity abseil (more on that soon). That will involve a lot of stars too. 

Victorian Network – and a quick update

I’ve been Submissions Editor on Victorian Networkthe MLA-indexed journal of postgraduate and early career research for a few years now, and am delighted to say that I’ve been asked to take over as General Editor. There’s no way that I’d have said yes if the founding editor, the amazing Katharina Boehm, had not agreed to stay on in an advisory capacity until, well, I’m not emailing her every five minutes. I’m very excited about taking VN into a new phase, and grateful that the existing committee are also staying on.

In other news, I had an absolutely brilliant time speaking at the Pendley Shakespeare Festival on Sunday, and seeing their production of Hamlet. I hope to write more about both, but I’m off to help my friend choose flowers for what I’m already thinking of as The Great Anglo-French Food-Based Wedding Palooza Of 2015. nb it’s actually going to be based on love and commitment and a very pretty church in Warwickshire. But having heard the groom speak very enthusiastically and specifically about the way weddings are celebrated in his family home just outside Calais, my priorities are firmly in the bread-cheese-wine-meat zone. And flowers. Hurrah for flowers. 

[REVIEW]: Macbeth, Creation Theatre, Lady Margaret Hall

Creation Theatre’s Macbeth is an open-air production in the gardens of Lady Margaret Hall, the first Oxford College to admit women to read for degrees.

Against a backdrop of midsummer borders, Jonathan Holloway’s production of Macbeth reconceives the action inside a military sanatorium, with Duncan as a faceless, wheelchair-bound burns victim, and the witches a side-effect of ECT and pharma. This high-concept approach generally succeeds, thanks to the cast’s versatility and an ambitious electric soundscape by sound designer Matt Eaton. The cast of six degenerate from soldiers to patients, while Madeleine Joseph plays the Porter as a disenchanted nurse, driven to exhaustion and drink by the trauma she’s witnessed.

Reading Holloway’s enjoyably trenchant programme essay, however, suggests that not all aspects of this concept made it across the (grassy) footlights. Apparently, the play starts with the funeral of the Macbeths’ child. I will concede that stage right featured a Saltire-covered coffin, but as far as sightlines would permit (we were in the “Fairweather” seats: don’t book one if you’re short or short-sighted), I didn’t see anyone interact with said coffin at this point. It’s true that the play also began with the ritual waving and repositioning of a dozen or so black flags, whose swirling and furling sometimes suggested the wings of planes and sometimes the hulls of boats – but, again, this military formation, in tandem with shelling and engine noises in the soundscape, seemed like basic tone-setting, episodes of which punctuated the performance. War, and the pity of war, clearly: but inferring a dead son in Flanders was too much.

The three LMH buildings – Wordsworth, Talbot and Toynbee – date from the fin de siècle to World War 1, making them the perfect architectural backdrop for reimagining the Macbeths’ mansion as convalescent home. Lady Margaret Hall looks like a dystopian Downton Abbey, as characters appear at windows or rage on balconies. Since said buildings are presumably housing real-life conference guests or summer schools over the long vacation, there’s a lovely realism to the lights flickering behind closed curtains – just as the setting sun and odd murder of crows winging westward matches the play’s thematic slide from chivalric celebration to psychological night.

Yet, at times, this hyper-real geography seems curiously inconsistent. It’s believable that the success-soaked, hubristic Macbeths might plan Duncan’s murder mid-snog in their bedroom, and nicely effective to see Lady Macbeth alternately welcoming her husband and communing with the sky. Later, however, there’s no chance whatsoever that they’d wash their bloodied hands and discuss the aftermath of killing Duncan in extremely loud voices with the windows open, in a castle full of guests.

The decision to situate key scenes at such long range from the audience also serves Laura Murray’s Lady Macbeth very poorly: with the exception of the sleepwalking scene, all her key scenes happen a very long way and several floors up from the audience, forcing her to emote at very much more than arm’s length.

Another consequence of the huge set and soundscape is that all the actors are miked. This works reliably 95% of the time (again, praise to Matt Eaton) but makes finding which actor is speaking (and from where) extremely difficult, as a speaker system means their voices emanate from everywhere, and that the actors themselves often get lost in the landscape. With much cast doubling and the men all dressed in khaki (against green borders), there’s an occasional danger of losing track even of characters: a pair of spectacles reified the distinction between Simon Spencer-Hyde’s tense, pugnacious Macduff and his honourable Banquo, but I struggled to distinguish between Spencer-Hyde’s Banquo and Richard Kidd’s (also white, shaven-headed) Ross.

Scott Ainslie’s Macbeth is low-key without ever being low-stakes. Too often, even very great actors hear the witches’ first prophetic cackle and switch instantly and permanently from popular warrior to psychopath, meaning that by the time the audience reaches Act V, we’ve got so used to Macbeth’s mad-eyed horror that, the sleepwalking scene done, there’s nothing to look forward to except the designer’s take on walking trees. Ainslie, happily, avoids all this. Not only is the momentum kept up brilliantly via bunker mentality and some Downfall-esque shouting into field ‘phones, but we’re treated to a bravura tour de force from the very top of Talbot Hall, from which a hipflask-swigging Macbeth seems only too likely to pelt Christopher York’s hapless Doctor.

More importantly, Ainslie builds the monstrosity slowly, illuminating text. For the first time, Banquo’s “Thou hast it now […] and, I fear/Thou play’dst most foully for’t” sounds more like the perspicacity of an intimate friend than the deeply overdue realisation that the new King of Scotland is a murderous nutjob. Equally, Lady Macbeth’s “You lack the season of all natures, sleep” – the last line she ever says to Macbeth onstage – typically sounds beyond incongruous, given that by this point most ghost-seeing Macbeths would sooner order the Thane of Fife on toast and snack on a Satanic yoghurt than drink a peppermint tea and turn in. But what’s so chilling is that you sense that these Macbeths do still share a bed, sustaining a normal existence alongside the regicide and terror.

Above all, Scott Ainslie’s murderous Macbeth remains horribly plausible: an officer and a gentleman, whose residual likeability is the most dangerous thing about him. Violence has become normality. Macbeth is as desensitised to private murder as national war: one justifies another, until killing is the most natural act imaginable. Ainslie’s charisma has important consequences for Christopher York’s damaged First Murderer, a Smike-like young private, convinced by Macbeth’s paternal rationality that Banquo deserves to die. York goes on to slaughter the Macduffs before finally exsanguinating in his general’s toxic embrace.

Holloway has edited Macbeth with a mix of liberalism and butchery. In their first appearance, the witches (the supporting cast, black flags trailed across faces) aren’t on long enough to establish themselves, and for every useful streamlining – Seward and Seyton are heavily pared – there’s a disappointment. Eliding Ross with the messenger right before Lady Macduff’s murder means that Richard Kidd switches awkwardly from consoling his “pretty coz” to calling her “madam” and announcing that he can’t stay any longer immediately after having left. It’s a shame to mess about with Madeleine Joseph’s best scene: alongside Christopher York, hers is the standout performance of the night.

Holloway is entirely right to say that Macbeth shouldn’t be treated as a sacred text, immune from editing – not least, perhaps, because the Folio version that survives for us is apparently one that Thomas Middleton had a go at, revisiting the play after Shakespeare’s death and interpolating material from his own The Witch (1615). I quite like a bit of hubble and bubble, and it’d be a shame if a future generation of theatregoers grew up without wondering what a brinded cat was, or how its shriek sounded, but Macbeth without the witches isn’t (quite) Hamlet without the prince, so fair enough.

Unexpectedly, it was Holloway’s least controversial cut that proved my greatest regret. In the fourth act of Macbeth, there’s a scene in England, in which Macduff and Malcolm plan the invasion of Scotland, and discover (via Ross) that Macduff’s family have died at the tyrant’s hands. Before that – often to the twitching boredom of the audience, who are waiting for Macduff to discover the massacre – Malcolm has a long and weird attack of cold feet. He tells Macduff at great length how pathologically unfit for kingship he is, beset by vices from avarice to blasphemy, and then, once Macduff is thoroughly appalled, confesses that he’s actually a virtuous virgin with every intention of ruling well.

As scenes go, it’s psychologically unnerving, dramatically tricky, lengthy, and – at such a late dramatic stage – complicates rather than advances the plot. Since Malcolm is a relatively small role, in a traditional production it’s often weakly cast. But with Christopher York as Malcolm, I suddenly longed to know how the scene would play out. It was largely cut, depriving the audience of a key part of the night’s strongest performance. Alongside the subjugated, savage Murder, York’s Scottish prince was a chilly, convincing portrayal that moved from filial thin-lipping and a disdain for “grief unfelt” to a final moment of violence that indicates Duncan’s son will be a far more frightening king than his usurper.

Sometimes both sound and vision missed the mark – there was no discernible “cry of women” announcing Lady Macbeth’s suicide, and when the audience were cued to put on paper crowns as Macbeth’s vision of the Stuart dynasty, they couldn’t hear the (recorded) line or find the crowns. Despite this, stellar performances by Ainslie, Joseph and York make Creation’s production well worth seeing – wrap up warmly, and enjoy the beauty of one of Oxford’s less-visited colleges.

 

Creation Theatre’s Macbeth runs until 13 September at Lady Margaret Hall. Standard tickets cost £22 and are available online.

[Radio] BBC Oxford paper review

Sometimes, I go on the radio! Today, I was on Will Gompertz’s show on BBC Oxford. Will himself was off covering the Oliviers, so Sybil Ruscoe covered. I had a great time – Sybil was the presenter for my very first BBC Oxford appearance (well, not really an appearance) last year, and the other guest was the very lovely Adam Jennings of Red Box New Media. Adam and I were on for the first hour, talking about Britishness, GP reform, the Royals (I think at one point we inadvertently announced Kate’s second pregnancy – she isn’t, and I described George as “pleasingly fat”) and 24-hour restaurants, and you can catch up with the show on BBC iPlayer. Later in the programme you can hear Nic Bennett, whose music Sybil describes as “anxiety folk”….

Rehearsal notes: thoughts on The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith

Today, I was back with the cast and crew for Primavera’s production of The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1895 play about the relationship between a radical female demagogue, and the young MP who abandons his wife and career for her. Living as political comrades and lovers in Venice, Agnes Ebbsmith and Lucas Cleeve are visited by his rakehell uncle, the Duke of St Olpherts, who plays the very longest of games in attempting to neutralise Agnes’s influence over her lover, and return Lucas to his wife.

Writing that summary caused me great pain, because re-reading the text and working with the company has reminded me what an ambiguous, complicated and wonderful play it is. It’s also one that I find incredibly sad (which is somewhat unfair, given that I laughed out loud frequently during the run I watched). As well as the standard historical advice bit (pockets! Wedding rings! What is Dr Kirke doing in Venice?), I also gave notes to a cast for the first time in years, which was a daunting but enjoyable– and also one that reminded me how illegible my note-taking is, during a run. I should say that I only gave notes at the behest of Abbey Wright, the marvellous director who has cast the production incredibly cleverly (full disclaimer: she’s an Orielensis and from Warwickshire, although I didn’t know either of these facts when I took the job. Disclaimer son of disclaimer: also just discovered she directed the 2012 run of Bitch Boxer, which I saw in 2013). In particular, her casting resists the temptation (and I think thereby doing a rather better job than Pinero’s original text might have done) to turn the supporting female roles – Gertrude, a young widow from Yorkshire, and Sybil, the MP’s aristocratic wife – into mere foils. Julia Goulding and Sarah Madigan are as strong and arresting as the eponymous lead.

Primavera’s production is the first since 1895, which is remarkable given that The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (his 1893 work, to which this was the career sequel) is done fairly regularly – and that this, in all its ambiguity and obsessive negotiation of gender and class, is actually a great play for today.

The Duke of St Olpherts reminds me of those better known fin-de-siècle flaneurs, Lord Henry Wootton, Lord Darlington and Lord Goring. He’s actually more dangerous and more interesting than all three. Although patently attracted to Agnes (and not pace Gladstone, “in the missionary spirit) and a lifelong rakehell, he doesn’t have an emotional crisis and offer her his hand (Darlington), or preach aesthetic philosophy (Wootton), or offer witty salvation to the hero, as Goring does to Lord Chiltern, Wilde’s version of the compromised “coming man”. Thackeray called Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” and this is a play without a hero – Lucas Cleeve isn’t Robert Chiltern. But although Olpherts isn’t Wootton, he is Wildean. Responding to Agnes’s frankly splendid account of his outrageous and enterprising past, St Olpherts declares “I detected the tendency of the age”. This reminded me of what Wilde wrote in his prison his prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas (which, although subsequently titled De Profundis, George Bernard Shaw saw as Wilde in excelsis). Comparing himself to Lord Byron (actually a far better role model for St Olpherts than Wilde), Wilde wrote ‘I was a man who stood in symbolic relation to […] my age”. St Olpherts stands in symbolic relation to Agnes, to Lucas, and to all of monied, dissolute fin-de-siècle society. Agnes calls him a torturer; at times he seems like a natural Pandarus forced into precisely the opposite role. There are also moments when he’s the most shocking character in the play.

He’s also, physically, the sickest person in a play that’s overwhelmingly about sickness – what it means to be healthy, unnatural, or mad. Anyone interested in health, class, or gender should see this play. Between 1898 and 1918, the trades union movements grew especially fast, and the political rhetoric Pinero gives the working-class Agnes anticipates much of the language of the suffrage and socialist movements. But back to sickness. In a tiny cast of characters, there are two doctors, and two nurses: Agnes is professional, and Gertrude has helped with nursing Lucas because of her devotion to her (Amos, it seems, may have made a third nurse). Lucas has been recently violently unwell, although it’s unclear whether his troubles are more mental or physical. Gertrude has terrible bouts of depression and has experienced the deaths of husband, lover, and child. Agnes faints and is attended by Kirke in the course of the play; we subsequently see her with a burned and bandaged hand. “Mad Agnes” also discusses the extent of the misery and privation she’s suffered in the past – until her “bones were through [her] skin”. The original, in fact the only other Mrs Ebbsmith was Mrs Patrick Campbell, who in 1895 was considered horribly thin. Sadly, today her physique is the default and pinnacle for film acting, although theatre remains (mercifully) more diverse.  It’s also a play in which characters desperately try to alleviate each other’s suffering, with Amos and Gertrude ultimately presenting spiritual healing as Agnes’s only possibility of an effective “cure”.

I’m so glad I was able to be involved with Primavera, and I can’t wait to see the full show: today’s run was a joy. It was also my first visit to the Jerwood Space, via Jubilee line chaos, an emergency cab dash, and a fascinating chat to the driver about The Knowledge (3 years! full time! 400 routes to memorise). These are rambling notes, but I’m trying to make the blog more active and not let the perfect (eloquent) be the enemy of the good (published).

Finally, I hope my UK readers aren’t suffering too badly from the smog. My eyes are itching horribly and London today was so polluted that, in comparison, the half-a-dozen trees beside the Tate as I walked up to Blackfriars smelled like a verdant meadow. And then my journey back to Oxford took 90 minutes longer than expected, thanks to a diversion. I feel I could now win Mastermind with my specialist subject as the backstreets of West Wycombe.

Aside

Where I’ve been: on 12 March, I gave my talk at the Tricycle, which sold out! I was delighted, both to see so many friends there, and that people were attending other than my compassionate family & friends. Plus, as well as introducing E & my mother to Adrian Lester (who deteriorates in neither charm nor good looks, it must be said), the Tricycle’s AD, Indhu Rubasingham appeared from nowhere to introduce my talk in an incredibly kind and complimentary way. The audience looked surprised, because until then I think they’d been assuming that the child in the jumper faffing around the projector cable was some sort of admin assistant/work experience minion, rather than the speaker…

Christopher Ravenscroft and Rhiannon Sommers in The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith.

Then on 14 March, I went in to Primavera Productions’ rehearsals for Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith, to talk about Pinero, Venice, 1890s theatre, and 1890s morality. I am always willing to discuss AT LENGTH my great love of working with actors. They ask the best questions. This company asked ferociously intelligent questions, and there’s been some great follow-up chat by email. Ebbsmith is enjoying its first revival since 1895, which I initially assumed had to be wrong, but, no – it genuinely hasn’t been done since then! I am so looking forward to the production, not least because (as I discovered after taking the job), fin-de-siecle rakehell the Duke of St Olpherts is being played by Christopher Ravenscroft, who has been a personal hero of mine ever since (as a small child) I saw the film of Kenneth Branagh’s Twelfth Night (1988). Admittedly, I was mainly torn between wanting to be Frances Barber as Viola (hair, eyeliner, waistcoat) or Anton Lesser as Feste (hair, eyeliner, fingerless gloves- I swear Captain Jack Sparrow was a ripoff), but after that, it was Ravenscroft’s Orsino, who languished about in the snow, indulging Orsino’s self-indulgence in what was (and is) one of the most beautiful British verse-speaking voices in history. He was infinitely better than Toby Stephens, and with Frances Barber’s sad-eyed, exquisitely-spoken Viola, they made up a kind of melancholy duet of 80s Chekhovian languor. Plus, Richard Briers was Malvolio, so you should definitely go and watch. So, yes. I got to work with Christopher Ravenscroft, and he’s absolutely lovely. Everyone was absolutely lovely. The actress playing Agnes Ebbsmith (of the title) is Rhiannon Sommers, who is probably wasted every minute of her life she’s not playing Anne Boleyn or Scarlett O’Hara (ignore her Spotlight. Those eyes are green), but who will doubtless be brilliant. The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith runs from 8 April to 3 May 2014 at the Jermyn Street Theatre, and is directed by Abbey Wright.

I’d also recommend you catch Darker Purpose’s production of King Lear at the Cockpit Theatre, which runs until 29 March. David Ryall stars, in a great cast with strong performances throughout all the principal roles. I particularly enjoyed Nikki Leigh-Scott and Ian Hallard as blood-loving aristocrats, the Cornwalls; Charlie Ryall’s intelligent, New Woman Cordelia, and Dominic Kelly as Edgar. Until now, I have always been more bored by Edgar than is printable (even online) but he is excellent throughout. David Ryall’s Lear is as moving as you would expect, and the blinding scene, played entirely in the round with near-universal lighting, provoked both SPATTER and genuine yelps. Go and see it. If you buy a programme, you’ll have not merely a handy blood-shield, BUT ALSO 700 words by me on late-Victorian ennui, poisoned zeitgeists and morbid modern women. Re: Gloucester’s blinding, I discovered a very similar scene, the other day, in Robert Greene’s Selimus, a little-known 1594 play, which was performed by the Globe’s Read Not Dead actors, and introduced by Dr Jenny Sager, at a great if gory conference on Bodies and Body Parts. This was the first Oxford-Globe Forum, and I hope to attend many more.

So, that is where I’ve been. Also, term is over. Can you tell?