[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.

13 Things I Learned From Turning My Thesis Into A Book

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Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle is out in UK hardback from OUP on 1st December! I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from the process of revising your thesis into a book. If the title seems like clickbait, it’s certainly v. niche.

Some of what follows is general, some deliriously specific. But here’s What I Have Learned…

  1. In the beginning, you feel embarrassed

Returning to your thesis after a pause will reunite you with a species of embarrassment you haven’t known since reviewing your UCAS statement. Dear lord, weren’t you lofty in your disagreements with critics? Why have you never learned to spell ‘negotiate’? And, as your supervisor so frequently asked you, did you think you were being paid by the semicolon? Also, ctrl+find on the phrase ‘this thesis’. Rinse and repeat.

  1. Bad proposals sink good books

I’m lucky: OUP read your thesis alongside your proposal for the Oxford English Monographs list. My readers liked the thesis and hated what I’d said about it. Despite good advice and money spent on A Well-Known Book On The Subject, I’d made a mess of the proposal. Unsure what needed changing, and teaching full-time, I offered to butcher my dissertation, double-quick. I could as usefully have written “please publish me?” on a post-it. On my forehead. My editor and supervisors helped me parse the reports, which became my most-studied documents through the rewriting process. I wrote in response to their reports, they replied, and it became clear that they were very enthusiastic about the material and had offered me a far clearer path to revisions than I’d expected. I can’t believe how much trouble everyone took.

I’ve since gone through the proposal process far more successfully, and would advise:

  • Don’t claim you can rewrite the book too quickly. Ask your proposed editor/whoever is working with you at this stage (if there isn’t someone, ask for them – if you’re still in a university faculty, is there a Research or Publishing Facilitator who would help?) for a sensible timeline. Ask your supervisors too.
  • Tailor your proposal exactly to your publisher’s requirements. If your publisher gives minimal guidelines, look at other publishers’ websites to see what tips they give.
  • Write the proposal engagingly. If your 2,000 words are boring, your 80,000 words are likely to be more so.
  • ASK TO READ OTHER PEOPLE’S PROPOSALS. I have no idea why I didn’t do this. Pride? Fear? Stupidity. I have a bad proposal (Book 1) and a good proposal (Book 2) on my hard drive & they’ve circulated more times than a Mudie’s mystery novel (it’s that kind of 1895 wit that’s got me where I am today. As Ed Balls would say, BOOM).
  1. You don’t have to negotiate like a first-time author

Possibly you’re a lofty, confident, professionalised young ECR with a hard head, a ten-year plan and convictions about this monograph’s worth. Or possibly you are deeply relieved and grateful that your Publisher Of Dreams wants your book in the first place. I was the latter. On two separate occasions, there was something about the contract/process which I wanted to alter. I felt that raising the matter would make me seem uppity/entitled/would jeopardise the publishing process. I nervously constructed an email, then ripped out all the feminine apologetics (like any good Springboard graduate).

It was totally fine. Unwanted contractual detail expunged by return of post. Just do it: a) even if the answer’s no, nobody will mind you starting the debate, and b) for all you know, 9 out of 10 (straight white male) first-time authors historically make – and are granted – the same request.

  1. Thrills abound.

You know the contract will be exciting (FYI, so will saying ‘I’m under contract’ as if it’s with Warner Bros but you’re breezily calm). You’ve been planning your acknowledgments (monograph answer to an Oscar speech) and you’ve probably had some thoughts about the cover art. But there’s more. Your Amazon page! Your publisher page! The first time your book appears in a catalogue, convincing you – with a touching, residual faith in print – that your book will soon be real. All these are marvellous. Treasure them.

  1. You can get a contract for your second book before the first is published.

Again, this might have been obvious to lofty, hard-headed ECRs with a ten-year p. and a conviction about their scholarship’s w. (see above) but it was not obvious to self. Nevertheless, several things fell into place: having always been crap at condensing my doctorate into two sentences, I was determined to be able to pitch my second book. I honestly went along to the Routledge editorial speed-dating event to practice pitching. I’d assumed that nobody would take my second book seriously until the first one was a physical object. Stupidity, again. You know what’s great? Signing your first book contract (I instagrammed mine). You know what’s amazing? Signing your second. You feel like JK Rowling. And, yet:

  1. It might be bittersweet.

I have always dreamed of writing a novel. In my head, my first book was going to involve literary prizes and film rights, and although I suppose there is a chance that Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle MIGHT turn into a six-part BBC series starring Hattie Morahan as Ellen Terry, Keeley Hawes as Madge Kendal, and Michelle Dockery as Mrs Patrick Campbell (PLEASE NOTE: this would be the greatest BBC series of all time, I’ve done the work for you, we just need to find a Lillie Langtry as beautiful as Francesca Annis was in 1978), I have resigned myself to the truth. For the moment, I am very much of those academics with 1,000 novel ideas in their (twenty-first-century-Cloud-equivalent-of-) bottom drawer. I hope to one day graduate to being one of those academics with one novel idea realised on a Waterstones shelf.

  1. You will become obsessed with your readers’ identity.

The slightest expression of interest from a fellow conference-goer will seem like a veiled confession. I know one of my readers, because they introduced themselves to me. I was so delighted that I hugged them rapturously, and now beam like a fool whenever they’re mentioned in conversation. Rightly, much light is now being shone on the unpaid murkiness that dominates work for many ECRs – in the name of experience, our industry is building up an ‘internship culture’ to match any other sector, even if the reality is ‘can’t pay’ rather than ‘won’t’. But academic service makes heavy demands of scholars further along the line. I think anyone who reviews a book/thesis MS lucidly and generously (like my readers) is brilliant. Everything I’ve written in the book (and everything I’m writing in the next one) is better because of them.

  1. You will be obsessed with the last people to publish on your list.

How did they do the index? What’s the font like? Why is their name italicised on the cover? Which colour did they choose? Their index sub-headings don’t seem to be indented, why are their acknowledgments so well-written, gosh they’ve got an actual Amazon! Look Inside link, ugh their 3 to 5 marketing bulletpoints don’t sound like they were written in terror —

  1. You never really finish proofreading.

The only good things about reading your own proofs are 1) the talented patience of your professional proofreader, and 2) when you open the PDF and see your manuscript laid out like a proper book. Otherwise, the defining feature of Looking For Errors is that of stargazing or finding ants on the kitchen floor: every time you find one, you see six in its immediate vicinity. I am just about convinced, now, that there won’t be ten blank pages, five historical howlers, and three instances of ‘[EXPLAIN MORE HERE]’ in the published version. This will be entirely due to the professionals and not to my own checking. If you do find a blank page or historical howler etc., feel free not to tell me.

  1. Indexing is like having your brain removed by tweezers.

I had always vaguely planned to pay someone to do my indexing, but then two world-rocking things happened. 1) My colleague described to me, over lunch, how rigorously she’d compiled her own index, explaining eloquently how authorial knowledge of the manuscript was essential for an index that reflected and enhanced the text. I listened, reflected on all the crap indexes I’d encountered during my own DPhil, and light-up hipster letters flashed in my brain: SHE DID HER OWN INDEX. And, a nanosecond later, SHE IS A PROPER ACADEMIC. God damn those colleagues, modelling excellent scholarship at every turn. And then, 2) I found out how much paying an indexer would actually cost. I did my own bloody index. It was like proofreading my own psyche, one hideous preoccupation at a time. A mini-tip: index everything from page 1 onwards, because something you think wasn’t important at all will turn out to have occurred 50 times between pages 150-200 and you’ll be thinking nauseously of all those earlier references you overlooked. That sentence might not mean anything now, but it will. In the process, you’ll come to wonder why other people’s indexes have entries like ‘Regatta, Henley’ and yours has ‘rape, marital’. You’ll go from resenting how much professional indexers are paid to thinking it’s not enough. Also, you probably don’t have long to index, so don’t waste time on learning indexing software. You can’t afford it.

  1. You’ll remember how much you loved your doctorate.

And you can even sneak in some more research. I wallowed in ‘necessary’ extra visits to my favourite archives and read every scrap of writing from Henry Irving to Ellen Terry. This is my idea of a very good time. I revised my thesis into a book alongside the start of my postdoctoral project, and alongside the challenge of a new and less familiar subfield, returning to actresses, suffragettes, and Shakespeare was bliss.

  1. Supportive friends and family will plan to buy the book.

Then you’ll have to tell them how much it’ll cost.

  1. It takes a village.

Not a village. An extremely conscientious publishing company and its team across three continents. I am still floored by this. My editor is based in Oxford; my marketing contact is in New York; my production coordinator is in India, and my copyeditor lives in Lancaster! My proofreader is the only enigma. From her name, I imagine her as a 1950s bluestocking with a recent history in espionage.

I could link you to a million articles bemoaning the downturn, high cost, and jeopardised future of academic publishing. I’d rather tell you how great my team has been. I feel lucky to have had amazing women all around the world work on my book; appropriate for a book that’s about cooperation and mentoring between creative women (it’s also about Jack the Ripper, but that’s a less seamless segue).

What did you learn, or what are you learning, through writing your first book?

 

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

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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.

Pride & Prejudice & Elderly Fin-de-Siècle Actresses

Currently finishing the book – Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle. Yes, that is exciting. Except when it looks an awful lot like a person with a laptop and 9,000 printouts, who has inexplicably taken to writing her most important notes-to-self on small white squares of paper. Which blow everywhere. Given that I really need to finish the book, I am of course LITERALLY BURSTING with ideas for other creative and academic things.

this picture epitomises elizabeth bennet’s family / drink whenever mrs bennet

Sometimes these are useful. Sometimes they are the outline for a BBC Pride and Prejudice drinking game (drink when anybody says “Make haste!” drink when Mr Darcy looks like he’s swallowed an ostrich!), because 1) it is the single perfect piece of television in our time and 2) although popularly remembered as a witty comedy of manners about two witty and intelligent people who wittily and sexily find each other, it is actually about a witty, intelligent woman who is continually embarrassed by her family, and a young man wearing forty-nine layers of clothing who behaves like her embarrassing stalker and is continually dismayed like unto man who has sat down on a weasel.

The drinking game would also include “drink whenever a woman of mature years sports headgear like unto large burgundy shower-cap” and “drink whenever people discuss how Jane Bennet needs to Do More to entice Charles Bingley into matrimony, conveniently overlooking that thanks to Regency necklines she is practically topless“. There would be special shot forfeits whenever Mr Collins is sweaty and whenever you need strong liquors to sustain you in the face of imdb’s depressing responses to the perennial “Where are they now?” (this outstanding piece of television was apparently career Kryptonite for most of the supporting cast).

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Special mentions on rewatching also go to the fact that a) Lucy Briers, as Mary, does truly outstanding background acting every time David Bamber’s Mr Collins approaches the frame, and b) by today’s repulsive and totalitarian body standards, literally every young woman in the Bennett household would be considered a heifer and not allowed on TV. Do buy the DVD. Everything’s been especially remastered and the Making-Of Feature includes Colin Firth going flump onto a crash-mat.

imagine these 5 women with these 5 bodies being allowed to be the sexy leads on 2015 television

Anyway, so that this post may run the gamut of my current niche interests, back to the book. One of the late-stage/late-onset tasks in monograph completion is thinking about the images you’d like. This involves much foraging into online image archives, a job that I last did professionally, as a freelance rights assistant, and which I greatly preferred when I was being paid for it.

But never fear. This is not a post about anything as useful as “the process by which I decided certain images would best support and illuminate my text”. This is “Sophie Duncan’s personal guide to what the actresses in her monograph looked like when they were really, really old”.

‘Dame Madge Kendal’ (1928), by Sir William Orpen. Kendal was then aged 80.

Luckily for theatre and for me, my women tended to live long past their long careers. Madge Kendal was churning out her particular blend of vicious Victoriana as late as the 1930s in autobiographies, while Mrs Patrick Campbell saw the start of the Second World War.

Ellen Terry died somewhat earlier in 1928 (Kendal was palpably delighted to have outlived her), but – like Campbell – made a handful of films. Lillie Langtry died in 1929, as the if anything more languorously named Lillie, Lady de Bathe.

Ellen Terry (1847–1928), pictured in 1925.

There is something pathetic and unnerving in these images, of course – Ellen Terry’s eyes, made bleak by macular degeneration, in this film from 1925, and the frankly spooky sight of the most famous Victorian beauty dolled up by Cecil Beaton. Stella Campbell swelled up.

But they’re still there: more there, somehow, in the new and steadily more unflinching technologies of twentieth-century photography. They are a little ghostly, long past the century in which they made their fortunes and enjoyed so much professional and social freedom, but still marvellous.

Lillie Langtry (1853–1929), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1928, aged 75..

I could also have included Sybil Thorndike (1882–1974), not because she’s the group’s sole successor, but because I think she was one of the most beautiful old women I’ve ever seen. It’s a frequent boast today that Britain’s older actresses do better across the Atlantic than their American sisters, because our women have had less recourse to surgery and retain more expression, character and emotional articulation. I like this idea a lot, of course, but I’m suspicious of the idea that Western culture has a special cache of appreciation for women’s character at any age. I think it’s perhaps just that some women get more beautiful as they get older (Judi Dench and Harriet Walter are two obvious examples).

Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865–1940), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1938, aged 73.

In any case, it’s lovely for me, at the end of long, long familiarity with a handful of key images (Ellen Terry by Sargent; Madge as Galatea; anorexic Stella Campbell and Lillie Langtry’s bare legs as Cleopatra) to discover these women anew, once old. I hope you enjoy them too. Or, at least, that you enjoy this latest manifestation of a phenomenon wearily familiar to everyone who knows me in real life: my endless Weird Victorian Facts!

Why do you go to the theatre?

Why do you go to the theatre? What makes you go, keeps you going, or (conversely) makes you stay away?

I’ve been thinking about some possible reasons, contemporary and historical, for theatregoing. There’s seasonal pantomime-going, or the individual who racks up a lifetime’s theatre attendance because they’re the dutiful spouse of a hardened fan. There’s theatre as the venue for a treat, date, or other celebration; as a place to see and be seen; or as an experience akin to sight-seeing or a heritage trip, if you want to sample an indigenous or traditional performance style. There’s escapism. There’s wanting to see a particular actor (star or spear-carrier, never let it be said that I and sundry other schoolgirls did not lose our hearts to Rory Kinnear when he was MERELY CAIUS LUCIUS), director, playwright, or designer (I am not highbrow enough for the last). There are educational reasons, whether it’s school trip or the minor miracle of finding out that someone’s been brave/foolhardy enough to stage the subject of your PhD. There’s your friend’s play, your college play, and the play starring the person you fancy. There’s a play that drags you to the theatre when nothing else has in ages, either because of the themes or the unusual casting choice that puts someone like you on stage, for once. There’s the Travelex offer, the student discount, or the Underground ad that seems like a good idea. There’s the fact that your choice is limited by where you live or what you earn or how you get about. There’s the fact that you love Cats/Hamlet/Harriet Walter/Spamalot/£22 seats at the Hampstead/Jodie because she’s better at the 9 am online rush than you are/weird immersive things in a mask more than is usual or healthy (I am all these people and worse).*

You will have other and better and more thought-provoking reasons. I should like to hear them. Thanks!

*I am much worse at the cinema than I am at the theatre, partly because I am spatially unable to understand chase sequences, and partly because I shouldn’t eat Haribo. That said, the last film I saw was Testament of Youth (plot summary: everyone you love dies horribly, and mud) and I wept noiselessly and violently for a solid two hours. No Haribo. Late on, Vera Brittain is having her long-overdue nervous breakdown back in Somerville (MERTON) and her tute partner says “I’ve brought you some more books to read”. The most Oxonian moment on film. It dehydrated me.

[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.

Performing The Nineteenth-Century Stage: 12 March, Tricycle Theatre, London

On 12 March, I’ll be giving a pre-show talk for Red Velvet, the award-winning play by Lolita Chakrabarti, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and starring Adrian Lester, that’s currently on at the Tricycle Theatre. I was historical advisor on the first production and have been asked back to recreate my work in the rehearsal room (scary participation absolutely not required) and to give a seminar-cum-workshop on the process of bringing the nineteenth-century theatre to life! Adrian Lester’s already talked a bit about this process in an article for the Guardian (note the quoted source *cough*), and, seriously, do come along, because it will be awesome. There will be stuff about race, nineteenth-century acting technique, gesture, theatre history, the importance of such vital artistic theories as “big legs” and “the teapot” and how we might represent past acting styles in a way that engages a twenty-first century audience.

And Shakespeare. There’ll be lots of Shakespeare. I’ll also be suggesting the very GOOD things that 1830s acting has to offer us, in our emotion-terrified, minimalist, self-conscious age, now that “melodramatic” is such a perjorative term… there will be race, gender, history of gesture, history of slavery, a lot of original images, and the anecdote about the time Adrian Lester had to fix my old laptop with me. Unlike my original version of this talk, I will not be giving it while sitting on the lap of my audience, with everyone crammed onto a chaise longue behind me. I’ll also be using lots of exciting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century images from theatre productions, some of which are extremely rare!

Tickets are £2.50, and the talk starts at 6.30 on 12 March. Seating is unreserved, and we’ll be in the James Baldwin studio, above the Tricycle’s auditorium. To book tickets, click here. Access information, including how to get to the Tricycle is here. Please do get in touch with any questions, and I really hope to see some of you there.