New Orleans, new book, new radio…

I’m in the last couple of weeks of editing my monograph, which is under contract for Oxford University Press’s Oxford English Monographs series (I feel like I’m copywriting, there are so many “Oxford”s in that sentence). When everything’s down to the commas, it’s incredibly easy to forget that I do anything else except obsess over footnotes and wordcounts (and eat Penguin biscuits). In fact, there’s a lot of exciting stuff coming up over the next few weeks! If you’re at any of the events mentioned in this post, please comment or say hello either at the bottom of this post or on Twitter.

Next Wednesday, on 9 March, I’m speaking at Senate House as part of the Language, Literature, Literacy & the Mind symposium, run by the amazing Human Mind project. I’m there as part of the Calleva Centre, talking about last year’s experimental work on tragedy, endorphins and cognition. My contribution is an analysis of gender-bending, metamorphic plot structures and the ‘doomed muse’ trope in tragedy on film. The wider line-up looks amazing, and you can get tickets here.

On Monday 15 March, I’m going to Old Broadcasting House for media training as part of the shortlisting process for the BBC New Generation Thinkers scheme. I’d never applied before, and am really excited to have got this far. No idea who else will be at this particular workshop, but looking forward to saying hello.

A week later, I’m off to New Orleans (casual) for the Shakespeare Association of America 2016 conference. I’ll be part of the Shakespeare & Cognition Seminar, sharing my recent research on Othello, extended cognition and Early Modern gift theory. NB: I have never been to Louisiana or to an SAA. I am a mass of intellectual and culinary excitement. There has been talk of an “appetiser buffet”. Or appetizer? Who knows.

Then on Sunday 24 April, I’ll be in Stratford-on-Avon recording (in front of a live audience) an episode of The Essay for BBC Radio 3 (produced by Beaty Rubens), as part of the programming for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I’m one of five academics working on this week of The Essay , and very pleased to be joining Joan Fitzpatrick, Siobhan Keenan, James Loxley, and Preti Taneja. I’m thrilled to be broadcasting on Radio 3 for the first time, and it’s on an aspect of my research I really love – The Winter’s Tale and suffragette activism.

I’m especially glad we’re recording in Stratford. I was born and brought up there, and it means I’ll be back for the weekend nearest my own birthday – as well as, er, Shakespeare’s. I think as a very small child I had some confused notion that the annual parade on the nearest Saturday was actually mine. Once I know the broadcast date, I’ll be back to update this post.

As I said, it’s great to be part of a five-strong team for The Essay in April, and I’m also looking forward to meeting up with friends & colleagues old and new at Senate House and #shakeass16. If you’re heading to The Human Mind, Broadcasting House, New Orleans or (the equally glamorous) S-on-A, I look forward to seeing you very soon. It’ll make a great change from the footnotes.

Red Velvet at the Garrick

Back in 2012, I was historical advisor on the original production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, the theatrical biopic of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge was the first African-American actor to gain fame in Europe, and the play tells the turbulent story of his 1833 Othello at Covent Garden. My job was to introduce the cast to the world of 1830s theatre, and (the best part of all) help them recreate the melodramatic acting style that gives Red Velvet’s play-within-a-play sequences both humour and power. I drew on my expertise in the history of acting style, and images I’d worked with both at Oxford University and in the collections of the Garrick Club. The play ran at the Tricycle & has since toured to Brooklyn. Now, brilliantly, it’s part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s season at the Garrick Theatre. I was delighted to be invited back  to work with the new cast, who are absolutely lovely, and full of curiosity about the characters and their world.

Working with theatre companies is one of the very best parts of my job: play in the truest sense. Red Velvet has taken me places I never expected to go, and it’s enriched every aspect of my research. Even completely unconnected activities somehow link back – for example, as part of the final throes of Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siecle (out soon!), I was watching a 1988 film of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891–1992) giving, as a nonagenarian, a masterclass for young Juliets. One of them was Lolita Chakrabarti herself – and thus I was able to get a first-hand account of the intergenerational mentoring that’s so crucial to my book.

I’ve also written academically about Red Velvet in Staging the Other in Nineteenth-Century British Drama (ed. Tiziana Morosetti, and published by Peter Lang, 2015). My chapter is entitled ‘A Progressive Othello: Modern Blackness in Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012)’ and examines intersectional politics, race and biography. I talked about my experience as an historical advisor in Oxford and London, and you can read more about my work on Red Velvet in Guardian article which Adrian Lester wrote at the time.

Theatre and theatre history have different priorities. As a rehearsal-room advisor I constantly strike a balance between historical enthusiasm and encouraging the company I’m with to jettison anything that’s only historically, rather than artistically useful. Actors, directors and designers are always meticulous and their enthusiasm is so rewarding – never more  than on Red Velvet, where Indhu Rubasingham, the director, has been especially generous. I’m so proud the show now has its West End transfer. Go and see it, and on your way in, pay particular attention to the statue just opposite the theatre. Ira Aldridge [as played by Adrian Lester] now faces the Irving Memorial, D.F. Cheshire’s statue of Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905). Irving was Britain’s first theatrical knight, and the most powerful actor- and actor-manager on the late Victorian stage. It’s great to see two ground-breaking nineteenth-century actors in such proximity, and even better when it comes as a sign that Aldridge is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

Elizabeth, Victoria, and Ellen

This evening, Elizabeth II becomes Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. This is interesting to me not merely because I have deeply conflicted feelings about royal babies and their great-grandmother vs. workshy princesses and the amount of social housing you could build at Highgrove.

Queen Victoria in 1897 (slightly after becoming our longest-reigning monarch, celebrating her Diamond Jubilee! …I say ‘celebrating’…).

Until 5.30 this evening, our longest-reigning monarch is still Queen Victoria, who reigned 1837–1901. Victoria became the longest-reigning monarch by outlasting poor old George III (1760–1820), exceeding the length of his reign on 23 September 1896. The morning papers were, as you’d expect, full of adulatory editorials on the Queen’s longevity and popularity.

But 23 September 1896, coincidentally, was also the day that the Victorians’ best-loved actress, Ellen Terry, woke up to hyperbolic reviews of her own British royal. The evening before, Terry had opened at London’s Lyceum Theatre as Imogen, the British princess who’s the heroine of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Victoria was queen of the British Empire, and Terry was the queen of British theatre.

Ellen Terry as Imogen, 1896 (Creative Commons).

Just after finishing my DPhil, I wrote about the 23 September coincidence for Platform‘s Spring 2014 issue, and this morning seemed quite a good time to revisit it! So, if you want to read about theatrical curation and memory with a royal twist, “Dynasty, memory, Terry: curating the 1896 Cymbeline” is now open-access via academia.edu and in its original home on Platform

Oxford: Refugees Are Welcome Here!

IMG_3297
This afternoon, about 2,000 people gathered by Oxford University’s Sheldonian building for a peaceful demonstration in support of the Syrian refugees, showing that refugees are welcome in Oxford.

The demonstration was chaired by Mark Lynas. A speaker from Oxfam, Dr Hojjat Ramzy of the Oxford Islamic Information Centre, Asylum Welcome, Emmaus Oxford and other charities spoke, as well as current and former asylum seekers from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. The head of Oxford City Council confirmed that Oxford would be welcoming refugee families, and called on the government to make funds available to expedite the process.

A speaker from UNISON called attention to the need to force the government to build more houses and abandon the racist policies which all parties espoused in the run-up to the last IMG_3294general election, before publicising the national day of action next Saturday. The author Mark Haddon called on Britain to “be more German”, after crowds in Munich applauded refugees arriving at their railway station.

If you want to help the refugees – including those already in the UK, who are not allowed either to work or claim benefits – the consensus among the charities was that there are three preferred things to donate at this stage:

ACCOMMODATION, either as a host to Syrian refugees or as a foster parent to unaccomIMG_3303panied refugee children. A representative from the charity Homes For Good spoke about how his organisation is enabling people to become foster parents to Syrian refugee children who will shortly arrive in this country. For more information, go here. If you could offer a spare bedroom to an adult refugee or a refugee family, Oxford City of Sanctuary wants to hear from you.

MONEY. Donating goods is excellent but, like all the major charities campaigning for financial aid (MSF | Red Cross | Save The Children | Oxfam etc.), Emmaus Oxford is requesting cash donations so they can bulk-buy goods to take to Calais at the end of this month. Asylum Welcome, who run all kinds of schemes in Oxford from English lessons to youth clubs, are also desperately in need of funds.

SKILLS. If you can teach English or translate, both the Oxford Syrian Refugee Helpline and Oxfordshire’s Asylum Welcome need your help. It seems to me that every other Oxford resident has a TEFL certificate mouldering or sparkling away in their CV – stronger English language skills make negotiating life as a refugee in the UK easier and less daunting, helping families integrate and access the resources they need. Could you give a couple of free lessons a week?

Support Syrian refugees: a follow-up

This post is in addition to yesterday’s post about how to help the Syrian refugees at Calais by donating items in Oxford. Here are some more resources and information about ways to help, including a few more regional links:

  • This Amazon wishlist helps you buy items specifically requested by those working with refugee groups. This crowdfunding account raises money for those in ‘The Jungle’, the Calais refugee camp.
  • The big charities are also soliciting donations – try MSF, who are doing migrant search and rescue in the Mediterranean sea, Save The Children, who are campaigning for the children of Syria, or the British Red Cross. You can donate at any of their websites.
  • By the end of September, there will be over 26,000 unaccompanied children in European refugee camps. This petition urges David Cameron to allow 3,000 of them (number suggested by Save The Children) to be fostered in the UK, as Jewish children were following the Kindertransport before World War II.
  • Warwickshire residents (and presumably also Oxford residents) can donate to Emmaus Oxford, who are leading a donation trip to refugees at Calais at the end of September, and they’re seeking the following items: trainers/outdoor shoes, non-perishable food, cooking equiptment, waterproof coats, tents, sleeping bags, torches/solar lights, kindling, underwear, roll-up mats, sanitary and hygiene products, water containers, bicycles. Email sandychamberlain [at] hotmail [dot] co [dot] uk for more information.
  • Glasgow residents can donate clothes and other items here.
  • Folkestone United are collecting items for Calais from the local area, as well as donations.
  • Attend and donate money at a solidarity event showing that refugees are welcome in your city – there’s one this Sunday in Oxford‘s city centre. On 12 September, there will be a London Day of Action for Refugees. Similar organising meetings are also being held in other cities, including Norwich.
  • Keep supporting local outposts of UK charities. I’ve seen complaints and concerns that mass donations to refugee charities will take away from UK charities helping British people. This is a very difficult time of year for Brits on low incomes: the summer holidays have meant an income gap as free school meals became unavailable, and the early cold weather is bringing the “food or fuel” question forward early. However, there are three really important points to make here!
  1. The refugees need specific items like men’s clothes, kitchen equiptment and tarpaulins. If you don’t have these, why not buy them from charity shops and donate them? Double win!
  2. I’ve seen a lot of people asking how to donate things that certain groups like CalAid don’t currently need, like baby wipes, nappies and tampons. This is a really good idea! Don’t put these back in the cupboard, get in touch with your local food bank, women’s refuge or homeless shelter! Oxford Baby Baskets are making up packs for new mums and mums-to-be in Oxford, including refugees.
  3. Lots of Syrian refugees will shortly be British residents (thank God). And they’re going to need our charity shops, food banks, shelters and drop-in centres to be in fighting form, not least because – let’s face it – the government strategy for helping people once they arrive is probably going to be abysmal. Supporting your local charity shop, food bank or shelter is a way to support refugees (and always has been).

If you have other links about drop-off points for donations to help the Syrian refugees, charities taking aid to Syrian refugees, or events along the lines of Refugees Welcome, please post them here – and share this post, if you can!

Oxford: drop off donations and help the Syrian refugees at Calais

This post is aimed at Oxford residents who want to help the Syrian refugees by sending supplies to refugees at Calais. I’m making it in hopes of reaching an audience beyond Facebook! An Oxford group is taking donations down to CalAid’s London drop-off point on 20 September. The list below (which I’ve taken from the Facebook group) tells you what supplies the refugee camp at Calais does need and what they don’t currently, need.

NEEDED

  • Trainers, Hiking Boots & Wellies: only sizes UK 7-9, EU 41-43
  • Tents (covers, tarpaulin)
  • Jackets: sizes S, M only
  • Travelling Bags
  • Socks
  • Candles or any other lighting
  • Belts
  • Tracksuit trousers
  • Blankets
  • Jeans (sizes 28 to 32)
  • Smartphones with SIM cards
  • Sleeping bags
  • Soap and shampoo
  • Toothbrushes
  • Toothpaste
  • Plastic bags
  • Woolly hats
  • Pants
  • Pots
  • Pans

NOT NEEDED RIGHT NOW

  • Women’s clothes or shoes
  • Children’s clothes or shoes
  • Jumpers or sweaters
  • Nappies, baby wipes etc.
  • Tampons or other feminine hygiene products

NOT NEEDED

  • Sheets or pillows
  • Suits
  • Formal shoes

Donors are asked to sort their donations by type, so they can be easily stored & distributed to the refugees once the donations arrive in Calais. I’d also suggest using your imagination slightly on the above categories – remember that children need different-sized toothbrushes and types of toothpaste, ditto shampoo. Picture trying to look after your dentures in a refugee camp (other suggestions welcome!). Bulk-buy offers are also your friends (Boots has 3 for 2 on shampoo, and a lot of offers on dental products; many places will also be having kitchenware sales as the university terms approach).

In Oxford, donations can be left at the Turl Street Kitchen (I went there this lunchtime — ask a staff member to show you where you leave your things), Oxfork, the Magdalen Arms, and the Star pub (21 Rectory Road, East Oxford). The Facebook group gives contact names for additional drop-off points at Brookes uni, Kidlington, South Oxford Community Centre and South Oxford Farmers’ Market.

More information can be found on Facebook, or at the CalAid website. Cash donations to CalAid, used to help the refugees, can also be made (from anywhere, obiously) via JustGiving. Please share this post!

[REVIEW] Much Ado About Nothing, Wyrd Sisters Theatre, Drayton Arms, London

11754692_969380843105704_2182149902498546143_o

It’s increasingly clear that, for the new generation of Shakespearean actresses, the world of girls is not enough. Whether it’s Jade Anouka’s Hotspur at the Donmar, Pippa Nixon’s Bastard at the RSC, or Maxine Peake’s electrifying Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, women are building their careers by reinventing Shakespeare’s heroes. This is also the case for Wyrd Sisters, an emerging theatre company who, pleasingly, take their cross-casting policy in both directions. Thus, their production of Much Ado About Nothing, currently running at the Drayton Arms’ studio theatre (Old Brompton Road, SW5), we have a steely Leonata, played by Christina Balmer; a pugnacious Dogberry (Wendy Morgan), a skittish Ursule (Stuart Murray), and, most strikingly, a Claudia whose flowing hair and maroon beret make her look like she’s stepped straight out of Our Girl (Freya Alderson).

This contemporary, Anglicised Messina is somewhere between stately home and pub garden, where the returning soldiers booze on Somerset cider, strum guitars and plan the odd lesbian wedding. Leonata is a middle-aged hippie, poshly relaxed about her daughter’s sexuality, and then all nails and teeth when her wedding-day shames the family. Don Pedro, Claudia, Benedick, Don John and co. remain in fatigues, boots and berets for much of the play: the programme stresses that they are just back from Iraq. This is perhaps a poor fit for this cheerful gang of youths, who are prone to skinny playfighting and seem more like teammates than scarred veterans. The military background to Much Ado has, after all, never born too much scrutiny (the soldiers seem more Austenesque militia than Band of Brothers, and the emphasis on Operation Telic casts a chilly shadow over Balthasar’s carefree announcement that the combat has killed ‘But few of any sort, and none of name’ – Iraq or not, the subtext remains ‘So that’s all right, then’.

Charlie Ryall’s Beatrice, with her short, ruffled hair, baggy t-shirts and uncompromising stance, seems more like a soldier than Claudia: which is just as well, because of the two, it’s clear which woman lives in a state of constant warfare. This is a scornful, angry Beatrice, simultaneously world-weary and dramatically childish. But she wheels from attention-seeking brat to kind woman, especially when Nicholas Oliver’s Don Pedro claims her hand.

She is ably matched by David Paisley’s Benedick, a sweet-faced teddy bear of a soldier, whose cruelty is cheek and whose doting affection is very readily summoned by the gulling scene. Ryall and Paisley head the cast very effectively; Paisley, in particular, pushes the story on through his soliloquies, and got the biggest laugh of the night in his muffled ‘Fuck off’ to the Boy who returns to expose his hiding place as he eavesdrops on Claudia, Leonata and the Prince.

But the show’s great surprise is Hero. A conventional Hero switches from happy dolly to sad dolly and back again: an inevitable step on the dismal downwards path to Desdemona. She has more to say than Mariana, but less to do than Celia; she is married off worthlessly without having the opportunities of a Helena or an Isabella first, and in all of the Shakespearean canon, there can be nothing less appetising than playing second billing to Beatrice, who is worth a play on her own. Lucy Green transforms a thankless role, giving Hero all the wit, pugnacity and intellect you’d expect of Beatrice’s cosseted cousin. Hers is the great succession of the church scene, when Hero’s long and difficult silences are filled with the emotion of a young woman who’s seeing hell before her eyes. As each new blow falls, Green’s distress grows, as we realise with her what this betrayal of love, loss of family, and wretched humiliation means.

When removed from Renaissance dress, it’s harder to believe that Hero could really be seen ‘dying […] Upon the instant that she was accused’, but Green’s alternately white and flushing face, and step-by-step panic, make the possibility horribly real. Hers was the only convincing collapse I have seen. Leonata, the doting mother who rejects her daughter, is nastier than any father could be, reminding the audience why Lady Capulet’s rejection of her daughter is, in a few words, always more devastating than Lord Capulet’s long harangue. Beatrice’s response also accentuates the horror. Rather than ranting, shouting, or forcibly dragging Hero away from her tormentors, Ryall huddles down beside her cousin in silence. Leonata’s savagery can’t be stopped. Beatrice and Hero bow their heads, curl together, and, like children under violence, wait for it to be over.

Ryall also gives the scene one further moment of tragicomedy. Benedick’s sudden declaration of love once the pair are left alone in the chapel can be played with joyful effervescence, the revelations pealing out in relief after the agony of the preceding moments. This is not like that. After witnessing Claudia’s cruelty and experiencing Leonata’s brutality, when love seems the most poisonous thing in the world to Beatrice, Benedick thinks it’s choice and appropriate to present her with his heart. A deadened, exhausted Beatrice stares across the stage, learning in her dissociated mind two things: first, that the person she loves most in the world loves her back, and second, that he doesn’t understand her at all. This is the loneliest Beatrice I have ever seen, and thanks to Ryall, it will be impossible to forget that quality in the character.

That chilling revelation aside, this is not an especially dark Much Ado. The physical comedy is sometimes very sharp, with spilt drinks, spit-takes and pratfalls underpinning the wittiness of the words. Stuart Murray, doubling Ursule and Friar Francis, justifies his existence a thousand times by turning the Friar (outside the history plays, Shakespeare did not excel at writing clerics) into a pitch-perfect imitation of Blessed Miles Jupp. Biased as I am, writing this admidst the flower crowns, Corinthians, and Natural Tan hosiery that comes from being twenty-eight and permanently on the wedding circuit, but dear Lord, that was funny. As Murray’s excellence suggests, this production has a stunning supporting cast. One disconcertingly good performance comes from Louise Goodfield, who, in the best cross-casting of the night, has made the startlingly turned Don John’s lackey Conrad from a standard stooge to a fully-fledged Lady Macbeth. Hers is a stunningly evil little Machiavel, in sexual thrall to Don John, but equally happy to make mischief for Claudia long after Borachio’s conscience cracks.

Some pacing issues hamper the speed of the piece, particularly in the notoriously difficult sequences with the Watch, and the instrumental music occasionally prolongs the scene changes, rather than covering them. But the final scrap between Beatrice and Benedick, respectively nauseated and gooey over each other’s poems, is tremendously satisfying, and the final rendition of ‘Sigh no more’ as sunny and bittersweet as one could wish. This is a company worth watching, in one of London’s best studio theatres. You don’t need to be in Edinburgh to see excellent theatre this summer – catch Much Ado About Nothing at the Drayton Arms, on stage now until 4th September.