A quick shout-out for a piece in Guardian Review, on one of my favourite photographers, the surreally brilliant – and brilliantly surreal – William Eggleston. Asked to explain his photographs, Eggleston once replied, “I think of them as part of a novel I’m writing”. Here’s my attempt at exegesis:
William Eggleston, Untitled, 1974, Biloxi, Mississippi. Photograph courtesy and © Eggleston Artistic Trust. All rights reserved
I wonder how many Hamlets I’ve seen over the years – ten? fifteen? Many more if you count the movies: Grigori Kozintsev’s grippingly political 1964 version; the irrepressible Urdu-Hindi adaptation from 1954, starring the swashbuckling actors Kishore Sahu and Mala Sinha. The figure would be higher still if it included free reimaginings and spin-offs. There was a new one just last week: Katie Mitchell’s production of Ophelias Zimmer at the Royal Court. I didn’t love everything about the show – I’m minded to agree with Catherine Love, who argues that in attempting to free Ophelia from Shakespeare’s text Mitchell simply traps her in another kind of victimhood. But the piece will stay with me, particularly Alice Birch’s haunting and barbed text.
Hauntings have been on my mind, given that I’ve been watching a DVD recording of one of the most sharply inventive stagings of Hamlet I’ve ever encountered: the Wooster Group’s 2006 version. I saw it at the Edinburgh festival in 2013, and found it fascinating for how directly it dealt with the idea that none of us really experiences Hamlet for the first time. Repurposing the film recordings of Richard Burton’s 1964 Broadway version (itself directed by a supremely famous Prince, John Gielgud), the Woosters perform a reconstruction-cum-replay of that production, giving us glimpses of Burton, Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke, and a battalion of other Princes besides. Part ritualistic seance, part exorcism, it was an absorbing meditation on the concept of artistic (un)originality, and channelled the spirits of numerous actors who have stepped into Richard Burbage’s buskins and played the Dane.
All of which means that I’m delighted to be taking part in an event celebrating the Wooster Group next Friday 3 June at the British Library, supported by Lift and the Library’s exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts. In the afternoon there’s a free screening of Hamlet, recorded at a previous performance, and at 6.30pm I’ll be joined on stage by Elizabeth LeCompte, Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk to talk about the show and how it came together (by watching VHS tapes of Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, among many other things). The Woosters aren’t often in London, so it’s an amazing opportunity to hear about how they work, rehearse and think. I do hope you can come. Tickets are available via the links below.
• Hamlet screening, British Library, 2pm, Friday 3 June [free]
• The Wooster Group in Conversation, British Library, 6.30pm, Friday 3 June
• Image: Scott Shepherd in Hamlet (© Paula Court, courtesy Wooster Group/British Library)
Friends occasionally tease me about living in Shakespeareland (Bardonia?), but recently I’ve started to wonder whether I have in fact relocated there full-time. It’s been a frenetically busy three weeks, a combination of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the publication of Worlds Elsewhere in the US. I’ve been popping up all over the place – writing articles for a number of publications, presenting a radio documentary for Radio 4 and the World Service, and spending the last weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the BBC team covering the festivities, jostling among thousands of people wearing slightly scary Shakespearian face masks. I even got to hold the very same radio microphone as Rufus Wainwright. (So close, and yet so very far.)
Here’s a quick roundup of stuff I’ve been doing, in case you want to catch up on any of it:
I was also honoured to be invited to Moscow by the British Council, to give a talk at the Tretyakov gallery; I’m told there’ll be video of that online at some point.
Oh, and there was an extremely generous review of Worlds Elsewhere in the Wall Street Journal by none other than Jonathan Bate: “[a] beautifully written book … at once travelogue, history, literary analysis, and love song”. I might just retire.
• Image: a shop window in Stratford-upon-Avon. Terrifying, isn’t it
5 April is here at last – as of today, Worlds Elsewhere is now out in the United States, just in time for the 2016 Shakespeare anniversary!
I’m thrilled to be published by Henry Holt, who have even built a special website in the book’s honour; there you can download a PDF extract, as well as get hold of it in both hard copy and digital forms. Should you want to cut to the chase, here’s a link to buy in on Indiebound. (And here’s a link to some very nice things people have been saying about it.)
Holt will be running competitions and giveaways in the coming weeks, so stay tuned to my Twitter page. And if you want to join the conversation over at GoodReads, I’m answering reader questions – so ask away …
Oh, at this point I feel I should give another shout-out to Lucy Kim’s wonderful cover, with its backpacking Bard. I feel a meme coming on.
A couple of weeks back I took part in a panel debate on global Shakespeare at the LSE literary festival – you can download a podcast here – and someone came up afterwards and asked me if I’m doing any more events. The answer is: hell, yes!
I thought it might be useful (not least for, er, me) if I listed what I’m doing this summer and links to buy tickets, in case you happen to be in the area(s). That list is now on my brand-new Events page. More details as they’re confirmed. And please do say hi if you end up coming!
A friend was telling me recently about a game a friend of his – an extremely august literary scholar – used to play. It involved admitting which Shakespeare plays you’d consign to mere oblivion. My pal said his vote would go to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (all those fairies). Others, I’m sure, would be content for The Merry Wives of Windsor to disappear into Room 101.
Myself, I’ve always had a bit of an issue with As You Like It. It contains many beautiful things – that cross-dressed wooing scene! those gentle remembrances of Marlowe! – but it’s always struck me as a play awkwardly in transition. It’s fussily Elizabethan, full of quibbling, tongue-tripping wordplay, yet seems to point forward to the shadowy Jacobeanism of Hamlet and Twelfth Night. Structurally, it’s all over the place: to paraphrase Henry Ford, just one damn thing after another. And while I’m hardly the first person of either gender to fall for Rosalind, does the doggishly dull Orlando really deserve this smartest and most self-aware of Shakespearian heroines? Surely the couple would be consulting a marriage counsellor by the time they reached the end of the aisle.
Perhaps it’s just that I’ve never experienced a production that truly worked. A particular bugbear is that I never got to see what many British audiences regard as the finest As You Like It of all time, the classic 1961 version directed by Michael Elliott and starring Vanessa Redgrave. Created in that miraculous first RSC season, it’s gone down as the production that got everything right: superb cast, playful design (Redgrave sported smock and pedal-pushers), energetic direction, and a roustabout sense of mischief. More than one person has told me that Redgrave – following in the footsteps of her father, who played Orlando opposite Edith Evans at the Old Vic in 1936 – was the greatest Rosalind of all time, no debate. Certainly she caught the critics’ eyes: describing the instant when she released her hair from underneath her boyish cap, the reviewer J.W. Lambert frothed that it “tumble[d] like a flock of goldfinches into sunshine”. The director Tony Richardson was one of many who fell in love with her on stage: they married the following year. The rest of us have had little opportunity to follow suit.
Until last night.The BBC filmed the production for TV in 1963 under Ronald Eyre’s direction, slightly tweaking the cast and relocating it from Stratford to a studio in west London, and courtesy of the splendidly energetic John Wyver – who has masterminded a season of RSC on Screen currently at the Barbican – I finally got a chance to see the restored version, alongside a cinema-full of fans. Much as it pains me to admit the fans are right, they are. This must be one of the greatest As You Like Its ever created.
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A quick shout-out to a piece I wrote for the Young Vic theatre in London, on Macbeth and its multi-facetedness, which you’ll also find in the programme for Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin’s new production.
Warning: contains flying witches. (The piece, not the show. At least I think.)
• What do We See when we see Macbeth? (Young Vic)
Bad form to retweet praise, isn’t it. But perhaps it’s acceptable to post small nuggets of praise on one’s blog? (Perhaps.)
Anyway, Worlds Elsewhere has been getting plenty of coverage over the last month, in Britain and elsewhere, and I wanted to share some of the reactions from critics, and the conversations it’s started. (Feel free to look away now.)
I also heard last week that the book has been longlisted for the PEN Hessell-Tiltman history prize. Which was, as they used to say on The Fast Show, nice.
Pleasing to have one’s name up in pixels alongside Karl Ove Knaussgard and Paul Muldoon: I’ve a piece on NewYorker.com, my first, in honour – honor? – of #LoveTheatreDay (theatre with -re is apparently New Yorker style, so that’s safe).
It’s about the wonderful Caryl Churchill, trying to get at her dazzling, disquieting talent for capturing where we really are as a culture, from the passionately argued feminism of Top Girls to the gender-bending craziness of Cloud Nine, all the way back to her early radio work. Since the attacks in Paris last Friday, and Francois Hollande’s declaration that France is “at war” with Isis, I’ve thought again and again about Churchill’s 2000 play Far Away, and its portrayal of a society tearing itself apart through paranoia and fear. Yet again, somehow, she’s ahead of us.
It’s not all about Worlds Elsewhere: I just received a copy of another book I’m delighted to have contributed to, this time wearing my academic hat. I’ve written an article based on my research into the farrago that surrounded the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1864, when a tree-planting ceremony in honour of the playwright nearly erupted into a riot on Primrose Hill, plans to erect rival statues to Shakespeare ended in chaos, and German Shakespearians stole the show from under the noses of their British counterparts. A ghoulish tale of bruised egos, rampant committee-itis, priapic Victorian bardolatry and bitterly contested geopolitics.
The article is called “‘The wrong thing in the right place’: Britain’s Tercentenary of 1864”, and it’s based on a paper I gave at last year’s Shakespeare 450 conference in Paris. There’s also – among other great contributions – a terrific essay on German commemorations (Christa Jansohn), tales from an American Shakespearian roadtrip (Paul Edmondson and Paul Prescott) and a fascinating account of the 1964 quatercentenary celebrations in China (Cong Cong), which were overtaken by what became the Cultural Revolution.
The book is called Shakespeare Jubilees: 1769–2014, edited by Christa Jansohn and Dieter Mehl, and it’s published by Lit Verlag (Zürich, 2015). The perfect Bardic gift as the 400th anniversary approaches.