Tim Farron, bigotry, and Grenfell

Straight, white, cisgendered, non-disabled Christian man in officially Christian country resigns from public office citing persecution/suspicion* while poor people literally burn to death in tower block.

*“I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society. That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.”

This has nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with homophobia. Few people mind your Jesus (well, I mind your Jesus, but not Jesus per se, I’m a Christian after all). A lot of people mind your evasive reptilian bigotry.

Again: straight white Christian man resigns on grounds of persecution while poor people literally burn to death in tower block, and yet the failure of one homophobe to achieve his desired public office (Theresa May & the DUP indicate that other frothing bigots manage, Tim, maybe the problem is you?) is what should really be shaming our society.

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Nadhim Zahawi, Tory landlords, Grenfell Tower

Because I want to make this point in as many places and ways as I can: here is the list of landlord Conservative MPs who voted against making homes habitable under the Homes and Planning Bill. On the list is Nadhim Zahawi, the millionaire Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who during the expenses scandal was revealed to have spent the most on energy bills of any sitting MP, including heating his horses’ stables. Evidently, he was far more concerned about those animals than he was the human beings living in places like Grenfell Tower.

I am singling out Zahawi because I am ashamed that he is MP for my beloved hometown, and because the contrast between a man who lavished money on animals but wouldn’t vote to save people is so disgusting. Of course, today he’s busily retweeting all the condolences and the fundraising links. But I think everyone should know the part he – along with the rest of the landlords, Boris Johnson, and everyone who ignored the Grenfell Tower residents’ campaign – played in the tragedy.

Teachers from Kensington Aldridge Academy (one of them known to me), the school closest to Grenfell, have begun this fundraising page for victims. Please donate there.

[REVIEW] Twelfth Night, dir. Simon Godwin, National Theatre

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Doon Mackichnan as Feste, Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. (c) Marc Brenner.

Appropriately for a play that begins with a shipwreck, Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre left me with a lingering sinking feeling. The production is a watershed (I’ll stop) in cross-gendered casting, with Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia creating a mannequined Miss Hardbroom that kicks over the traces of Sir Donald Sinden, Richard Briers, Sir Nigel Hawthorne, et al. Less prominently, Doon Mackichnan plays Feste as a principal boy-turned-raver, and Imogen Doel carries equal opportunities to its logical conclusion by having to make the best of Fabia[n] – which she does very well, despite dialogue like ‘Sowter will cry upon’t for all this, though it be as rank as a fox’, a line so bad it merits mention in The Art of Coarse Acting. My problem is that this production, lauded for its celebration of race, sex, and gender, inadvertently uses cross-casting to tell a deeply homophobic story.

 

twelfth-night-doon-mackichan-as-festeimage-by-marc-brennerOn the surface, there’s much to like. Soutra Gilmour’s inventive set unfolds from a ship into an endlessly rotating pyramid that’s somewhere between Illuminati shout-out and a tomb by Canova. There’s a jacuzzi in which Phoebe Fox’s Olivia becomes a floozy (mourning garb replaced by a red bathing suit), any number of zooming cars and motorbikes, and a salmon-pink fountain that delights the audience by spurting symbolic jets on cue. The costumes are similarly witty, with Mackichnan’s Feste flaunting a sea-green tribute to Princess Beatrice’s pretzel-themed millinery.

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Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Tim McMullan as Sir Toby Belch. (c) Marc Brenner.

There are also some excellent performances. Excluding Greig, chief of these is Daniel Rigby’s pink-suited Andrew Aguecheek, who, as Bertie Wooster with a manbun and an energetic vogue for disco, overshadows Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby, a rat-bitten roué.

Oliver Chris’s Orsino is the first truly loveable one I have seen, a superhero Prince Charming whose spoilt temper is sublimated into boxing, and who takes the audience into his confidence with winning ingenuity. He tussles readily with Tamara Lawrence’s Viola, an unusually even-tempered, cheerful heroine whose tendency to take all the verse at full pelt robs her bittersweet dialogues with Orsino of all their self-concealing pathos. She calls her situation a ‘barful strife’ but laughs her way through the first two acts, until the joy of being mistaken for a still-living Sebastian (‘Prove true, imagination, O, prove true’) yields the first moment of emotional connection.

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Oliver Chris as Orsino and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner.

This is a production where love electrifies and mobilises: Olivia gyrates to the onstage musicians’ elevator music, while Viola wriggles and hoots after Orsino gives her a kiss to deliver to Olivia. Ultimately, these are twins whose highest priority will always be each other; Daniel Ezra’s pugnacious, sexually opportunistic Sebastian (an excellent performance) seems bemused by both Antonio and Olivia’s devotion, but adores his sister.

 

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Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner

And then there’s Greig’s Malvolia. Every time she takes centre-stage, she brings with a consummate skill in verse-speaking that is sometimes absent elsewhere. Godwin’s production seems uneasy about the text: switching pronouns and honorifics in line with gender leaves characters ‘lady’-ing each other in the manner of vintage Coronation Street, but more important is the overriding feeling that the text is an impediment to the evening; a struggle to be overcome. Monologues are largely galloped through, Belch supplies ad-libs (Maria is a ‘dirty little girl’) but loses lines that illuminate, including Olivia’s revealing reluctance to ‘match above her degree’ by marrying the count Orsino. This is key to the psyche of the only Shakespearean heroine who uses her last line to insist she pays for her own wedding. Greig gives an electrifying performance, beginning as an obsessive-compulsive spinster, all angular bob, geometric gestures and gym shoes.

Every sympathetic Malvolio incurs tragedy when his passion is mocked; Greig intensifies this, partly by being pitched against an unusually unlikeable gang of ruffian sots, and partly through her bewitching incredulity when she believes her love for Olivia is returned. Her cross-gartered yellow stockings are tights with a pierrot jacket, the latter removed to reveal a primrose bodice and hot pants. Blindfolded and bound, her bare skin increases her vulnerability, and the denouement completes her humiliation – worse than her imprisonment is the realisation that her employer does not, after all, share her feelings – something this single-minded Olivia reveals with remarkably little sympathy.

Twelfth Night - Oliver Chris as Orsino, Daniel Ezra as Sebastian, image by Marc Brenner.jpg

Oliver Chris as Orsino and Daniel Ezra as Sebastian.

Greig is an accomplished comedian, whose wit and timing provide all the necessary laughs before the swoop to tragedy: she is an hilarious and heartbreaking Malvolio, and this Olivier production a worthy forum for her talents. Simply making Malvolio’s desire for Olivia same-sex does not necessarily make Twelfth Night a homophobic production, or even a more homophobic play: poor old Antonio must necessarily watch his beloved pair off with Olivia. And there are some genuinely gender-queer moments of light-hearted comedy – Orsino, on his last lines, accidentally snogs a cheerfully acquiescent Sebastian.

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Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Phoebe Fox as Olivia.

The wider tone disturbed me. Antonio is probably textually gay; this Malvolia pines for her mistress. But Twelfth Night stages a third great losers in love: Antonio, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew – and in Godwin’s production, Sir Andrew is also queer-coded, from his pink clothes and long, frizzy hair to his penchant for cuddling up to both Sir Toby (much to the latter’s disgust) and to the teddy bear Orsino gives Olivia. This is troubling not because it queers a Shakespearean icon, but because it does so via unimaginative stereotypes, as if Agucheek’s incompetent flirting and cowardly duelling mean only one thing. Rigby is an accomplished comic, but the net result is a production with three queer characters, who are also the three to end up humiliated and alone.

Also disconcerting is Orsino’s suddenly-averted gay panic when Viola turns out to be a girl, not a boy: a common moment in productions, but especially jarring when Oliver Chris’s Orsino had shown so little sign of desire for his page. In a production more sensitive to queer identity, the denouement might feel more ambivalent, but clichés abound. The Elephant (an Illyrian tavern, and Antonio’s intended lovenest) appears as a gay nightclub, in which understudies for The Village People hear a black drag queen perform Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech as a torch song. This showcases Emmanuel Kojo’s considerable singing talent, and provides an enchantingly funny moment when Rigby’s Aguecheek instantly corrects his ‘Now, sir’ to an ad-libbed ‘Sorry, miss’. But the interposition of another play’s text only reiterates this production’s discomfort with its own, and the gratuitous, glamorous drag queen affects an inclusivity the production doesn’t really possess. Elsewhere, the straight characters’ homophobia is largely played for laughs, and despite Greig’s brilliant, innovative performance, this ‘genderfluid’ Twelfth Night ends up feeling straighter than ever.

 Twelfth Night will be broadcast live as part of NTLive on 6 April. For more information, including the programme of education events, see the National Theatre website.

 

[REVIEW] Suddenly Last Summer, ETC, Oxford Playhouse

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle

I’m delighted to say that as well as being published in the UK and the USA by Oxford University Press, my monograph Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle is now also available to subscribers via Oxford Scholarship Online.

15326327_10101851765544169_3667282702916612841_nThe book came out in the UK on 1st December (what, I’m excellent at timely self-promotion) and even ended up in the window of the OUP Bookshop on Oxford High Street! It’s been spotted at MLA, launched in Magdalen (quote of the evening: “Now I’ve bought it, and, more to the point, you’ve seen me do it”).

I’ve got discount codes for people who’d like to buy the book – just comment below!

Thanks to everyone who helped bring the book into print – I learned a lot from the experience, and am now busy writing the second one.

Too late for a ghost story?

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Bad Edwardian ghost photography: possibly one of my Desert Island Discs

They belong more properly to Hallowe’en or Christmas (viz. the two excellent anthologies I read over the season, P.D. James’s The Mistletoe Murders and Sayers et al’s Murder Under The Christmas Tree) but I’ve just come across a superlative ghost story. Or, rather, ghost song. Because I am writing about EARLY MODERN CORPSES at present, and thus am locked in the slow-loading embrace of EEBO, I stumbled across this, from that oddly-neglected seventeenth-century classic Choyce drollery, songs & sonnets being a collection of divers excellent pieces of poetry, of severall eminent authors, never before printed (1656), published by my new best friend, Robert Pollard. Pollard seems a bit obscure (he has the misfortune to share his name with a far more successful publisher who lived a century later), but he’s mentioned briefly by Adam Smyth in ‘Profit & Delight’: Printed Miscellanies in England 1640–1682and his editorial note to the miscellany is charming. But best of all is the spooky little offering which ends the collection: ‘The Ghost-Song’. It felt vaguely Christmassy to me, and although it’s January 7th, I include it on that basis (it’s always Christmas somewhere on the internet):

 

The Ghost-Song

‘Tis late and cold, stir up the fire,
Sit close, and draw the table nigher,
Be merry, and drink wine that’s old,
A hearty medicine ‘gainst the cold;
Your bed of wanton down the best,
Where you may tumble to your rest:
I could well wish you wenches too,
But I am dead, and cannot do.
Call for the best, the house will ring,
Sack, White and Claret, let them bring,
And drink apace, whilst breath you have,
You’l finde but cold drinking in the grave:
Partridge, Plover for your dinner,
And a Capon for the sinner,
You shall finde ready when you are up,
And your horse shall have his sup.
Welcome, welcome, shall flie round,
And I shall smile, though under ground.

 

 

P.S. Happy New Year!

[EXHIBITION & TALK] Magdalen’s Wilde

wilde-poster-1-768x1086The current Old Library exhibition at Magdalen is on Oscar Wilde – I curated it, alongside our former Fellow Librarian Christine Ferdinand. The exhibition is open to the public on 15, 22 and 29 November, and at other times by appointment (contact library@magd.ox.ac.uk ). Displaying the very best of Magdalen’s holdings on one of our most famous alumni, the exhibition includes a little-known MS of Lady Windermere’s Fan, an array of first editions (and pirated editions!) from the UK and Europe, odd appropriations, Cecil Beaton costume designs, theatre programmes, salacious details from the trials, and (slightly heartbreaking) original letters.

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

P.S. this is a (reasonably) rare opportunity to get inside Magdalen’s beautiful Old Library and see the petrified wig. To give you an idea, it’s the central image in my blog header (if you’re reading this on RSS, click here).