Time for another rip-roaring Screaming Blue Murder at the Royal and Derngate, and this episode was a particularly fun-packed one. Our host, the usually genial Dan Evans was on fire with his barbed ripostes with the front rows, creating a fabulous mood for us all to enjoy the evening. Although he did have to find wriggle room when he discovered that front row Lisa was a kick boxer; all the belts, all the dans. We also had the pleasure of vicariously meeting 29 year old Claire from France (who was not really from France and probably wasn’t 29 either) and David at the front who clearly has such a huge personal charisma that he can’t bring his legs together.
Our first act, and someone we’ve seen many times before, was Paul Ricketts; a very safe pair of hands who takes the audience on a journey of age discovery – a lot of his material is based on comparing the behaviours of the old and the young. He has some nice material about internet porn, and I recognised his memories of the porn fairy who, in the old days, would litter the woods with torn scraps of the stuff. Happy days. His routine was interrupted by a glorious moment when a woman at the back of the room clearly and assertively told a chap who was on his phone to go outside to make his call, which he did sheepishly, much to the massive admiration of the entire audience. A good start to the evening.
Next up, and someone else we’ve seen before, was Eleanor Tiernan. Naturally funny, with a nice blend of confidence and self-deprecation, she has some lovely observations about being Irish in London, and how nice it is when you end up crying for no reason and no one cares. I loved her stuff about what happens when an American performer is on stage in Dublin and says it’s great to be back in the UK; and she has some very funny material about going down a speculum size. Brisk, self-assured, and warmly chatty, she gave us a great set.
Our headliner for the evening, and someone we’ve never seen before but I have heard a lot about, was Addy van der Borgh; another naturally funny guy and gifted physical comedian, who instantly drives us into hysterics with comments about the way he looks. Full of fresh new material, he does a marvellous routine about how you age and don’t see it yourself, but the world sees you very differently; the sequence about giving a cheeky smile to a young lady and what she sees back is just brilliant. I also loved the idea of anthropomorphising a bottle of wine – naughty Monsieur Merlot, the perfect accompaniment to a tin of spaghetti ‘oops. He had us all in the palm of his hand – we loved every minute of it.
Another Screaming Blue Murder comes along in June – you spoil us, Mister Ambassador!
Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath suits adaptation well, with its strong story line and fascinating characters. Published in 1939, the famous film adaptation appeared a year later, and there’s even an opera which came out in 2007. The Tony Award winning play, however, first appeared in 1988, written by Frank Galati, and it’s a popular choice for schools – so in many ways it’s an ideal play for the Third Year Students to grapple with.
Back in 2019, I saw a production of Macbeth at the Chichester Festival Theatre; well, I half-saw it. During the first act, one of the cast members accidentally smashed the glass floor of the stage (perhaps an unnecessarily fragile item of set design!) and the second act had to be cancelled. Blow me down, but at the end of the first act of what was proving to be a most enjoyable production of Grapes of Wrath, the elegant fire curtain of the Royal Theatre thundered down with an almighty clunk and, try as they might, the backstage team couldn’t get it back on its runners and they couldn’t raise the curtain for the second act! So the rest of the show was cancelled. Why is it always the good shows where this happens?
I feel particularly sorry for the cast who have obviously put in a tremendous amount of work to make this production a success, and with only three performances scheduled, it really reduces the chance of their work being seen.
That said, I can report that there were some terrific performances taking place; none more so than Connor Dadge as the central character, Tom Joad, who carries the story along effortlessly, is hugely believable in the role and has a superbly charismatic stage presence, without ever having to force the performance too hard – a true natural. Also dominating the first part of the proceedings is Achanti Palmer playing the ex-preacher Jim Casy, with a fine singing voice and a characterisation full of hidden depths – another very watchable performance. Kain Walden is excellent as Pa Joad, a tough, ruthless but loving father; as is Meg Mayers as Ma, whose weary indomitability was really starting to shine through when the show had to finish early. But all the cast were putting in a tremendous ensemble performance, and it was really shaping up to be a first rate show.
These things happen!
P. S. The Martin Lawrence Acting Awards are presented every year to the best Actress and Actor. My choice for Best Actor for the year would be Connor Dadge.
The second of the three Third Year Students’ plays at the Royal and Derngate is Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a series of 49 interconnected playlets, with some leeway given to individual productions as to the order in which they are presented. Some of them are long enough to give you a full sense of narrative and characterisation; some are so short that they are barely a few words delivered within five seconds. The result is an intriguing blend of human situations, presented in an apparently (but not entirely) random order; there are plenty of laugh out loud moments, plus a few tragic scenarios thrown into the mix.
Under Barbara Houseman’s direction, the ensemble of ten deliver a smart, snappy, constantly refreshing show that holds your attention from start to finish. Everyone gives a great performance; with so many entrances and exits, and costume and character changes, this is a hard show to get absolutely right – but the cast nailed it. A particular challenge in this play is that there are so many conversations where a line is left dangling because the speaker is either being interrupted or can’t quite find le mot juste. But everyone pretty much kept the conversational pace going in all their scenes, which really helped keep the show moving.
Highlights for me were Archy Mackillop telling his secret, Charlie Franklin as the spoilt brat who won’t say sorry, Saim Shafique explaining why his dreams gave him carte blanche to have an affair, Will Merrylees showing off his language skills, and pretty much everything that Katie Blundell and Sophia Foster did. Indeed Ms Foster can turn a characterisation around on a sixpence; always delivering with superb control and wry humour. But the entire cast contributed to the success of this production – congratulations to you all.
Not much more to say about this show really – if you managed to see it, you had a treat!
P. S. The Martin Lawrence Acting Awards are presented every year to the best Actress and Actor. My choice for Best Actress for the year would be Sophia Foster.
I always look forward to when the final year students perform their full length plays at the Royal and Derngate; it’s the crowning glory after three years’ hard work and shows just how much they can achieve. So, if I see one of these plays, and I don’t enjoy it, it gives me no pleasure to have to say so. However, a lot depends on the play that has been chosen for them to perform; and sadly, for me, Anne Washburn’s 10 out of 12 is a truly abominable play, almost savagely boring.
Its premise is that we see a long day of tech rehearsal run-through before a show opens; a backstage view of what goes in to make a production behind the scenes. But by concentrating on the tech, and its unavoidably stop-start nature, there’s little room for personality or “drama”. It’s hardly a drama, for instance, that the director doesn’t like the cello sound. No problem, we’ll change it – end of problem. And if there is a joke in all of this, it’s a very in-joke. Imagine how dull 10 out of 12 Accountants Version would be – two hours plus of intricately working through a trial balance on the way to presenting a set of accounts. It’s a bit like eating a cheesecake that has a perfectly ok biscuit base – but they’ve forgotten the cheese and the fruity flavouring on top. Just biscuit. It’s not enough.
I spent the entire time trying to work out what the point of the play was; the nearest I could get is that it ably demonstrates how idle conversations with colleagues are essentially mundane and inconsequential. What did you watch on TV last night or what flavour crisps are you munching, or is your sandwich the kind of thing I’d like to eat. And that’s about it. Oh, and I guess conveying how boring the technical rehearsal day is. It certainly achieves that.
It’s also a frustrating production with a number of conversational scenes taking place in the Dress Circle, overlooking the fact that people sitting towards the sides or rear of the stalls (including myself) couldn’t see a thing of what was going on up there. For sure, there are one or two amusing moments – I really enjoyed watching the actors fumbling their way into their start positions in the dark, for example, and the actor who finds his muse by fondling the wallpaper – but the overriding vibe of the play is one of tedium.
So, an extraordinarily bold choice for the Third Year Students? Yes indeed; and I fear one that did them no favours at all. This is so avant garde that the garde isn’t within a hundred miles. That creates a truly uphill struggle for the cast to shine out through the drabness of it all. Some of the actors seemed to run out of steam with a level of under-performance, whilst others tended towards overacting. However, amongst those who kept their heads up extremely well were Hannes Knischewski, who excels as the animated and pernickety director Elliott, bitching and moaning and swimming in sarcasm; and Chante Hawkins, with a strong stage authority which she uses effectively as the stage manager Molly. Brandon Mayfield gives a nicely pompous performance as the respected actor Paul who loves the sound of his own voice and amusingly conveys all the character’s ridiculousness; and George Hastrup is also very good as actor Jake, battling on with the “play” whilst no one is listening. But I’m afraid the production as a whole is a considerable disappointment.
One of my earliest memories as a student was seeing a photo of Richard Burton holding court in front of a room full of earnest and eager undergraduates, in the very same room where I was being grilled by my tutor, the late Francis Warner. He and Burton were buddies and I remember regretting that I wasn’t a couple of years older, in which case I would have been one of those keen undergrads hanging on to his every word, whilst Francis sat back basking in the reflected glow. So near, and yet so far.
I was reminded of that photo during the one of the last scenes in Jack Thorne’s new play The Motive and The Cue, where Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are holding a party for the cast of Hamlet, which he’s just about to open on Broadway, directed by Sir John Gielgud. Johnny Flynn’s Burton sits back in a big old armchair, crosses his legs and quietly manipulates all the conversation and merriment that he sees before him. If Mr Flynn hasn’t seen that photo of Burton giving a class at Oxford, then the similarity is not only uncanny, it’s miraculous.
But I’m getting ahead of myself as usual. Gielgud took on the task of directing Burton as Shakespeare’s Great Dane, and Thorne’s play takes us through the entire creative process from the Day 1 reading to Day 25 final rehearsal and first preview. We see the admiration given to the two, very different, creative geniuses; the relationships between the older, more experienced actors and the younger newbies, the differences of approach and style, the powerplays, the arguments, and the cunning ways of reaching a solution. The conflicts that develop between the mellifluously spoken, reserved authority of Gielgud versus the strident, belligerent, emotional Burton make for a fine battle of wits. I wasn’t aware until I saw the play that Burton’s Hamlet became the most successful production of the play ever to appear on Broadway. So whatever they did, they did it right.
The Motive and The Cue; not perhaps the snappiest of titles, but they are Hamlet’s own words. As Gielgud explains: “the motive is the spine of a role – the intellect and the reason – the cue is the passion – the inner switch which ignites the heart.” And at its heart, this play follows the search for that magical, intangible element that makes a role come to life – the search for one’s own Hamlet. Everyone’s is different, because we’re all different.
Jack Thorne has created a totally beautiful piece of work. Superbly structured, delicately written, with fascinating characters and the excitement for the audience of seeing the developing readiness in preparation for opening night. It’s littered with marvellous comedy that plays upon the preconceptions of the characters that we already have; we’d guessed, for example, that Gielgud would have faux-modesty about his achievements, that Burton would be brash and drunk, and that Taylor would be sex-on-legs. This carries on even into the supporting cast of recognisable names – for instance, there’s a lot of mickey-taking about Hume Cronyn (Polonius) for always appearing with his wife Jessica Tandy; indeed, I remember seeing them both at the Lyric Theatre in 1979 in The Gin Game.
The play is set in New York of course, and thus Gielgud and Burton are two fish out of water; Brits at work abroad, with all their colleagues being American. Burton, of course, can afford a swanky apartment; Gielgud retreats to a modest little hotel room. They represent two ends of the social scale; old well-bred family versus nouveau riche – a class war, if you like, without class ever being mentioned. You can easily see the upper-crust Gielgud, with all his splendid enunciation, set against the working-class miner’s son Burton, treating the rehearsal space like a bar room brawl. There are some beautiful comic moments that reflect this; Gielgud’s observation that Burton’s Hamlet would have murdered Claudius within a few minutes of meeting the Ghost, and Burton’s hilarious entry to Gertrude’s bedchamber, bellowing Mother, mother, mother! – followed by Gertrude’s distasteful Withdraw, I hear him coming. There are also some telling observations about fame and anonymity, experience versus innocence; one’s career peaking too soon, not to mention the thinly veiled rivalry between Johnny and Larry.
But what this charmingly likeable play also manages to do is to celebrate excellence all the way through. There’s only one source of negative energy in the show – Burton, when things are going wrong. His aggressive and destructive behaviour wins him no friends or support from the rest of the cast – in fact, there’s a splendid moment when Eileen Herlie who plays Gertrude gives him a terrific slap around the chops that the entire audience admires. But there’s a positive outcome after Liz Taylor gives Gielgud some insight into Burton’s background which he can use to make Burton properly find his own Hamlet. And, with a successful run on Broadway, it’s one of those rare things – a straight play with a happy ending!
The play is beautifully presented as a treat for the eyes and ears. Es Devlin’s rehearsal room set is stark and spacious, clearly lit, with a few comfortable touches around the edges but primarily designed to create an acting space with no hiding place. The theatrically artificial setting is enhanced by the curtains creating a boxy, proscenium space as they change from scene to scene; with lovely touches like the wilting flowers in the Burton/Taylor apartment, lit in a lurid red light. Scenes blend by rehearsing sections of Hamlet at the front of the curtain which then merge into the rest of the stage. It’s a very fluid, seamless transition from scene to scene. Each scene is introduced by an onstage projection telling us which day of the rehearsal process we’re at, with an appropriate Hamlet quote for good measure. Both acts start with a pithy piece of music from Sir Noel Coward – nothing particularly to do with the story, but delightfully appropriate, especially after the interval, with Why must the show go on?
Gielgud and Burton dominate proceedings, as you would expect, but the entire cast work perfectly together. Tuppence Middleton is superb as Elizabeth Taylor; dressed glamorously, immaculate in appearance, a dangerous concoction of sexually provocative and motherly protector. Janie Dee makes the most of her appearances as Eileen Herlie, brooking no nonsense from Burton, whilst being a good team player; plenty of opportunities for terrific comic timing and withering looks. Allan Corduner is excellent as the blustery, rather pompous Hume Cronyn, and Luke Norris also stands out as the rather miscast William Redfield, too experienced to play Guildenstern but keen to work with the big names.
Laurence Ubong Williams delivers a standout cameo as Hugh McHaffie, the gentleman caller that Gielgud has hired for a night of passion that turns into a much needed therapy session; Phoebe Horn portrays the young Linda Marsh (Ophelia) with a terrific feel for the nervousness of the lowest in the pecking order; and David Tarkenter absolutely looks the part of Alfred Drake (Claudius), perhaps a surprisingly insignificant role considering how important Claudius is to Hamlet and what a star Alfred Drake was of musical theatre at the time.
Johnny Flynn is brilliant as Burton; the character adopts so many attitudes and moods over the course of the play, and he gets them all spot-on. A louche braggart, a vindictive drunk, a humble searcher for the truth. His vocal timbre is superbly suggestive of Burton without being an impersonation, but his physical presence and body language completely bring to mind the original. It’s a fantastic performance. So too is Mark Gatiss as Gielgud; again not an impersonation but there’s something about the blend of his physicality and voice that makes you think you are seeing Sir John on the stage again. The flowing tones, the waspish wit, the impatience that lurks under the surface always hidden by a veneer of politeness – it’s all there. He really takes your breath away.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such an easy, instant standing ovation at the National Theatre for a play, not a musical, in a matinee, not an evening. You could tell from the expressions of the actors at curtain call that they know they are trustees of a fantastic play. Surely this will have a life after Lyttelton.
I’m no expert on the matter, gentle reader, but, until last night, I’d never come across the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. I’d always been just a Matthew Mark Luke and John kind of a chap. But now I’m intrigued. Jo Blake has created a fascinating and enlightening stage work which grew from an unusual experience she had in a local churchyard. She says she felt a presence behind her (at which point the cynic in me started to shift anxiously in my seat) like a winged cross, with feathers; it must be an angel, she assumed, which caused her no concern, and she went on her merry way.
This relatively simple experience led her through a journey finding out about Isis – the Egyptian goddess not the Islamist extremists – whom she identified as her angel, and the story about the love between Isis and Osiris, and the wicked Set who destroyed Osiris. Further Googling led her to the existence of the Gospel of Mary, that had been buried in the Egyptian sands for 1,500 years. There are three copies; each has the same missing pages torn out. Now that really is a mystery.
Mary – a complicated figure in the life of Christ. For centuries denigrated as a prostitute and the target of religious misogyny, it’s no wonder that her account of the last days of Christ was dismissed and ignored, not even making it to the also-rans in the books of the Bible. How could a woman who we feel today only tended to Christ’s physical needs and not his soul possibly have a meaningful story to tell?
Jo Blake has spent the last four years assembling that very story, together with her performance partner Robert Clark. She admits early on that neither of them is an actor; she is a storyteller, and he is a dancer. And you can tell that from the whole presentation of the show. Not because of “bad acting” – that’s far from the truth. But there is an informal vibe that you don’t associate with painstakingly following a well-rehearsed script. When we enter the auditorium, Jo and Rob are already on the stage, quietly chatting to each other, relaxed, not in character, acknowledging audience members as they arrive, sometimes talking to them or waving to people they recognise. They introduce themselves to us, they explain their backgrounds and their involvement with the show. There’s no sense of their being a “play”; and there’s never a fourth wall for them to break.
Jo has truly mastered the art of storytelling; everything is clear, makes sense, and told at a pace that we can easily follow and digest the significance of each stage, before she moves on. A simple set is dominated by a tower in the background, constructed from ladders with strands of red wool cascading from the top. Mary was from a Galilean fishing village, Migdal, whose name means “tower”; so the tower is an appropriate symbol for her. It takes on a more significant meaning later.
Apart from playing herself, Jo plays Mary; Rob plays everyone else, from Jesus to Peter to Martha to Lazarus. I’m not a religious person, but there’s always a frisson whenever anyone depicts Christ on stage. One of my most memorable theatre moments was a promenade performance of The Passion at the National Theatre in the late 70s when I found myself standing directly between Mark McManus’ Jesus and Jack Shepherd’s Judas, looking furious at each other. There’s a marvellous transition in The Witness when Rob makes towards the tower and starts to climb the ladder, turns to us and just hangs there – and you realise you’ve witnessed Christ being crucified; that red wool is his blood. And all this time Mary is just arguing with him, remonstrating at his selfishness for leaving her behind. Ne me quitte pas goes the music – don’t leave me – and you physically feel the human element of the separation of Christ and Mary. It’s incredibly moving. At first, I flippantly thought we’d suddenly tuned into Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Calvary, until I realised its heartfelt appropriateness.
Do we believe in the Gospel According to Mary? Factually, it exists. And those missing contents from all three extant copies cannot possibly be a coincidence – can it? Peter asks Mary to share the words that the Saviour told only her and that he had told no one else; she tells him that she saw the Lord in a vision and spoke to him about it – but then the narrative breaks off, only to be resumed at a point where she is no longer speaking with the Lord but just explaining the vision. Andrew challenges her, saying her account is incompatible with everything that the Lord had taught; and Peter takes it further – on a personal level: “Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”
And that’s the question that Jo poses to us at the end; whom do we believe? Did Mary really win the confidence of Christ sufficiently for him to impart wisdom that he shared with no one else? Is the Gospel of Mary legitimately the only Gospel written by a woman, and is it – to use that old cliché – Gospel Truth? Or did she make it up? I don’t know the answer – but I can make a good guess.
Hugely thought-provoking and fluidly performed, this was the last of six scheduled shows to be performed locally, but I think this would fit perfectly into any theatre or arts festival – the story of Mary needs to be told!
Re-opening the Swan Theatre after its pandemic closure is Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 novel Hamnet, a fictionalised account of the Shakespeare family, based on their son who died aged 11. Like nearly all influential novels of the 21st century, I haven’t read it, but I daresay you have, gentle reader. And so have many other thousands, otherwise the production wouldn’t have more or less sold out at the Swan even before its opening, gaining at West End transfer at the Garrick at the end of September.
But first things first; let’s have a quick word about the refurbished Swan Theatre. Plunged into darkness by Covid, it’s sprung back refreshed three years later and looks a proper treat. Super-comfortable fold out chairs make it easier to get to your seat and give you a great view of the stage. The upper floors create the impression of luxury teak bannisters and give the whole venue a classy feel. This isn’t the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s little brother anymore, it’s a fully-fledged grown-up theatre all of its own. Fantastic job!
Maggie O’Farrell’s book transfers smartly to the stage, with a first act that depicts the early days of Will and Agnes’ courtship, her pregnancy with Susanna, their marriage (in that order), the later arrival of the twins Hamnet and Judith, and Will’s ascent in the playwrighting business, requiring him to move to London, keeping the family at home. The second act shows his rise to fame set against the backdrop of family activities and health problems back in Warwickshire. Judith is a sickly kid but Hamnet is a robust, precocious young cove with bags of energy and even more cheek.
SPOILER ALERT! When the Plague hits the village, it makes straight for Judith much to the devoted Hamnet’s horror. Agnes relies on her herbaceous remedies as usual, but the word goes out to Will that he must come home. Terrified that Judith will die, Will rushes home, only to be relieved to find a healthy Judith; but the Plague has taken Hamnet. The subsequent grief and ways in which the family members cope with it form the rest of the play. It’s a strong story, strongly told. Perhaps the first act is a little slow in part, but the second act races through with a growing sense of urgency as we reach the inevitable conclusion.
What’s in a name? asks Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet and it’s a question that gets a lot of attention in this play. Everyone knows who William Shakespeare is, but who’s this Agnes? Wasn’t he married to Anne Hathaway? Maggie O’Farrell discovered that in her father Richard’s will he names her as “my daughter Agnes”. So maybe Anne was just a shortened form or a pet-name for her; and it’s clearly the goal of both writer and adaptor to put her at the heart of the play, so she’s reinstated in her full Agnes glory. Neither the book nor the play mentions either the names Shakespeare or Hathaway in an attempt to leave their reputations behind and just portray them as an ordinary rural couple; thus they’re both only ever Agnes and Will.
And as for Hamnet; apparently it was a local variant on the name Hamlet, so when Will’s renowned tragedy of the same name appeared a few years after his son’s death, it was quickly assumed that the choice of name was clearly influenced by the lad. And it may well have been simply that obvious; or, it may be that Shakespeare took the name from the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, whose fortunes and adventures are clearly the source for Will’s eponymous tragic hero. Taking his son’s name in vain, without clearing it with Agnes first? Honouring the memory of his son in what would probably be thought of as his finest piece of writing? Or pure coincidence? Audience: you decide.
There is a little imbalance between the two acts; they almost feel like they’re telling two different stories. To help connect the two, Hamnet and Judith appear in spirit form in the first act, which adds to a sense of dramatic irony; we know the boy’s going to die soon and they don’t even know he’s going to be born yet. I thoroughly enjoyed the overlay of Will’s London theatricals on top of the crises happening back home; rehearsing the death of Tybalt whilst the Plague has hit the family, unable to control his temper during the final scenes of Comedy of Errors – and I thought it was a very nice trick to have the same actor play both Hamnet and Thomas, the boy actor who is struggling with the girls’ roles, emphasising how the two halves of Will’s life interweave.
It’s extremely well-acted throughout, but particularly by the main two actors, Madeleine Mantock as Agnes, and Tom Varey as Will. Ms Mantock plays Agnes full of spark as a girl and a young woman, which turns into strong, courageous resilience as the horrors of losing a child completely shape the rest of her life. Tom Varey’s Will also has a cheeky spark as a young man, that develops into a kind of maturity as he gets older, although of course he’s not averse to going out drinking with his theatrical buddies.
Peter Wight is excellent as John, Will’s gruff and impatient father, disapproving of everything his wayward son gets up to – and by association, with the rest of his family. He also entertains as the larger-than-life actor Will Kempe, all wind and ad-lib; very nice. There’s great support from Elizabeth Rider as Will’s hardworking mother Mary, Harmony Rose-Bremner as the grumpy Susanna, and Sarah Belcher’s vindictive Joan, Agnes’s stepmother.
I really enjoyed Alex Jarrett’s performance as Judith; her brief speech about what do you call a twin whose other twin has died was possibly the most poignant moment of the whole production. What’s in a name? again. And it’s a very believable and winning performance from Ajani Cabey as Hamnet/Thomas, both sprightly and spritely, running rings around his mother and sisters, and hopelessly devoted to Judith.
A very enjoyable sideways glance at a family you think you know a little bit about but who in fact are largely anonymous to us today. Plenty of relevance to the present time, and an ultimately very rewarding evening at the theatre. Catch it at the Garrick from September 30th to January 6th if you’re too late to see it in Stratford!
A happy welcome back to the Upfront Comedy team, bringing a little light and laughter into a Northampton Sunday evening. Hosted by the inimitable John Simmit, also known as The Artist Formerly Known as Dipsy, he told us of his grim experience of getting back from a gig in Ulverston over the weekend when there were no trains. Nasty. My sympathy stopped, however, when he said that Eurovision (which had taken place the day before) is rubbish. Minus mark to Mr Simmit – time to join the 21st century!
All the acts had the benefit of noticing a young lad in the front row seeing the show with his Mum. We ascertained that he was 16 years old, and I think his name was Anand. My guess is that he was a lot more knowledgeable about many aspects of life and language by the end of the evening.
Our first act, and someone new to us, was Sukh Ojla, a very jolly lady with a lot of very enjoyable material about living at home with your parents at the age of 38, deciding she’s now way too old for an arranged marriage, and trying to ascertain who else in the audience was hopelessly single. She has a very appealing stage persona and a warm way of communicating with the audience that made it easy for us to confide in her. A very happy start to the proceedings.
Next up, and someone whom we’ve seen at an Upfront gig before, was John Ryan, whose act is all based on promoting equality; so even though he looks like he’d be a wise-cracking London comic of the old school, he’s as right-on as right-on can be. He explores racial and ethnic stereotypes with effortless ease and you know he’s never going to put a foot wrong as far as giving offence is concerned. It’s a clever act because it fools with the audience’s preconceptions, and he has a lot of entertaining material.
Nevertheless, as we went into the interval there was a slight feeling that somehow the evening as a whole was holding back – whether the audience weren’t quite letting themselves go, or whether the acts weren’t quite tickling our funnybones, it was hard to tell. However, the second half of the show devoted a big chunk of time to the company of headliner Stephen K Amos, and he completely nailed it. He grabs an audience by the scruff of the neck and dares them not to adore everything he does. Almost all his act is simply reacting to whatever the audience offers him – so young Anand was a gift, but when he realised brother and sister Matt (47) and Claire (44) had brought their mum and dad along with them it was like all his Christmases had come at once. Biffing off hecklers with withering putdowns, always choosing le mot juste and with immaculate timing, it was an hour or so of pure comedic beauty.
Upfront Comedy will return later this year and I’ll definitely be there!
The origins of The Road to Wigan Pier are not entirely clear, but it seems that in January 1936 Orwell’s publisher Victor Gollancz commissioned him to research and write about the unemployment, poverty and housing conditions in the north of England. On 31 January that year, Orwell’s diary shows that he travelled up from Coventry, slowly either walking or taking buses up to Manchester, then staying in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield; returning to London on 30 March. His experiences, the people he meets on the way, the owners of the houses in which he stayed, and his time spent down the mines all contributed to the first part of The Road to Wigan Pier, a powerful, poignant, detailed examination of the life of working class people both in and out of work in those towns. It remains an extraordinarily vivid account of distressed, exhausted, hopeless lives and cannot fail to have an impact on anyone who reads it.
By contrast, Orwell devotes the second part of the book to an attempt to come to terms with his own feelings about injustice and oppression, why socialism must be the answer to society’s problems, but also why it is unlikely ever to be achieved in Britain. Playing devil’s advocate, he explores the “spiritual recoil” felt by those who, by all accounts, ought to support socialism but don’t, placing much of the blame on socialists themselves.
Whilst being impressed and absorbed by what Orwell had written in part one of the book, Gollancz was alarmed at the content of the second part, feeling it would alienate, and indeed infuriate, the Left Book Club readers, the very people whom Gollancz hoped would buy the book. With Orwell refusing to allow Gollancz to publish part one without part two, Gollancz decided to publish, but with a foreword written by himself, trying to placate the readers’ reactions he feared. Praising the first part of the book was easy; Gollancz writes “for myself, it is a long time since I have read so living a book, or one so full of a burning indignation against poverty and oppression.” I’ll come on to what he has to say about the second part of the book later.
The original edition also included 32 illustrations, primarily photographs of Welsh coal miners, and the slums in the East End of London. Orwell did not take the photographs and did not select them for publication; it is likely, though not certain, that they were chosen by Orwell’s friend, the architect of Portmeirion in North Wales, Clough Williams-Ellis. But the source of the photographs is unknown. Today, the illustrations form a helpful, if alarming, accompaniment to Orwell’s text. Whilst the pictures of the rundown, inadequate housing are truly awful, those featuring people are the most memorable. There’s a rather pitiful picture of ten or more men searching in slag-heaps for little pieces of coal; another with a family crammed into one tiny bedroom; and a third where a miner is taking his bath, assisted by his wife. All the photos are fascinating in many ways, but what is impressive is the admirable sense of indomitable spirit that won’t stop these people from living their lives as best they can.
Part One is broken down into seven distinct chapters. Chapter One concentrates on his time spent living in a cheap lodging house, talking about the other residents and the owners of the property. In Chapter Two he explores the life and work of those down coal mines, the working conditions and their day to day existence. In Chapter Three, he looks at the wider issues of miners – their health, their wages, and so on. Chapter Four is concerned with the housing situation in the north, chapter Five deals with unemployment, and chapter Six with food and malnutrition. The first part ends with Chapter Seven, comparing aspects of the north and the south and concluding that the north is full of ugliness.
Flowing, authoritative and immensely readable, Part One is Orwell at his documentary best. Without any hint of an introduction or warming his readers up for the details ahead, the first page dives straight in with a sensuous description of waking up in a lodging house, the assault on the ears made by “the clumping of the mill-girls’ clogs down the cobbled street”, observing the “heavy glass chandelier on which the dust was so thick that it was like fur”, the discomfort of “one of those old-fashioned horsehair armchairs which you slide off when you try to sit on them.” Within minutes of starting to read, you can see, hear, feel all those things that greet Orwell when he wakes up every morning.
Of course, it reminds one of Down and Out in Paris and London, and emphasises so much of the human side of poverty and the miserable existence the people led. As in that book, Orwell pulls out so many fascinating observations that stick in the mind of the reader, even if they are mere asides to the main body of his descriptions. I was fascinated by the bathing etiquette of the miners; eating their meal before taking a bath, washing methodically the top half of their bodies in the same sequence, then their wife will wash their back with a flannel. Lack of easy access to baths for many miners leads Orwell to conclude that “probably a large majority of miners are completely black from the waist down for at least six days a week.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Orwell mentions the prevalence of superstition amongst miners given the inherent dangers in the work. “Apparently the old superstition that it is bad luck to see a woman before going to work on the morning shift is not quite extinct.” As a result, a miner working in the morning is likely to get his own breakfast, whereas working later in the day or in the evening, his wife would wait up to give him a meal. “In the old days,” says Orwell, “a miner who happened to meet a woman in the early morning would often turn back and do no work that day.”
Orwell envies them their toughness, their iron-like appearance, and almost romanticises their strength: “it is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realise what splendid men they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.” Commentators have queried this apparent emphasis on the homo-erotic; it’s an interesting observation considering that elsewhere in this book and in others, Orwell is quick to condemn anyone he suspects of being “a nancy boy”.
Orwell returns to this theme later, when he considers what he describes as “the physical degeneracy of modern England”. In part two of the book he will examine at length the consequences of having hard manual work performed by machines; here he notes that the average man in England today is likely to have “puny limbs, sickly faces” and that “a man over six feet high is usually skin and bone and not much else.” “Where are the monstrous men with chests like barrels and moustaches like the wings of eagles who strode across my childhood’s gaze twenty or thirty years ago? Buried, I suppose, in the Flanders mud. In their place there are these pale-faced boys who have been picked for their height and consequently look like hop-poles in overcoats.”
There’s a lot of information about miners’ pay, with estimates that the average miner earned around £115 a year in 1934, despite the newspapers and the like overstating it at more like £150 a year. Even so, this is a poor wage; £115 in 1934 is the equivalent of less than £6000 today. Even if a miner can earn enough to pay rent for a house, Orwell states that there are some cumbersome restrictions on Corporation Housing. Every garden must have the same kind of hedge. You cannot keep poultry or pigeons – and Orwell points out that “Yorkshire miners are fond of keeping homer pigeons; they keep them in the back yard and take them out and race them on Sundays.”
Other observations he makes include the prevalence of “home-made bicycles” – that’s something you would never see today; “bicycles made of rusty parts picked off refuse tips, without saddles, without chains and almost always without tyres”. Clearly a sign of poverty, these bikes are ridden by the men who try to scrape a living or heat their home by scavenging for pieces of coal from the slag heaps at the mines. Orwell is frequently quick to be judgmental of people, and he describes this as “immense and systematic thieving of coal by the unemployed. I call it thieving because technically it is that, though it does no harm to anybody.” The men sling bags across these home-made bikes, “containing perhaps half a hundredweight of coal, fruit of half a day’s searching.” Orwell tells us that “in Wigan the competition among unemployed people for the waste coal has become so fierce that it had led to an extraordinary custom called ‘scrambling for the coal’, which is well worth seeing. Indeed I rather wonder that it has never been filmed.” There is something slightly distasteful about Orwell watching this desperate attempt by families to mitigate against their poverty as a kind of spectator sport.
It’s also interesting to compare Orwell’s time with today, in connection with the places that he visited during his two months in the industrial north. He says the ugliest place he visited was Sheffield; in fact he says it “could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World.” There’s no doubt that, aesthetically, the city had suffered from the destruction caused by industry and its detritus. But this is a million miles away from the Sheffield that I have known, on-and-off, over the last forty years; today, the modernisation of the city centre has made it one of the most desirable places to live in the country. Similarly Wigan; although I don’t know Wigan personally, it’s fascinating to discover that the Wigan Local History and Heritage Society despair at Orwell’s book. I quote from their website: “The book has done untold damage to the town since its publication in 1937 and that harm will continue because of books’ longevity. He claimed to like the people of Wigan, God knows what he would have written if he hadn’t. The book will hang like an albatross round Wigan’s neck for decades if not centuries to come.”
Let’s take a moment to consider some of the references in the first part of The Road to Wigan Pier. First of all – what is that pier? Wigan is inland, so how could it even have a pier? Its origins go back a long way. The first section of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was completed in 1777, and one of the early buildings remaining from that time is the Grade II Listed terminal warehouse at the end of the canal (Number One Wigan Pier). A pier head was built in 1822 and it was served by a 3.5 mile road that linked it to a number of collieries. So in fact Wigan Pier was a vital component of the distribution of coal from the town to Liverpool, Leeds and beyond. It had something of an ironic reputation, as it associated the traditional idea of a pier (seaside, holidays, relaxation) with the coal mining industry, and was cited in popular songs and jokes over many decades. By the time Orwell reached Wigan he was disappointed to discover that Wigan Pier had been demolished in 1929. Since then, of course, the canal is now only used for recreational purposes, and “Wigan Pier” has gone through many reincarnations, including being a museum and heritage centre, a night club, and the home of the Wigan Pier Theatre Company. Currently closed, there are plans afoot to build housing and other leisure facilities at the site.
There are many references in the first part of the book to the Means Test. Today, whilst we understand the concept of means-testing in general, I for one was not aware that there was something simply called The Means Test during the 1930s. Introduced in 1931 and withdrawn in 1941, in simple terms, if the income of a household in which an unemployed claimant lived was considered “adequate” – whatever “adequate” is (or was) – then the dole was stopped. Orwell points out the deficiencies of this system and how it unfairly discriminated against old-age pensioners, frequently driving them out of their homes. This Means Test was very strictly enforced, frequently ad absurdam. Here are two of Orwell’s instances of the ridiculousness of the enforcement:
“One man I knew, for instance, was seen feeding his neighbour’s chickens while the neighbour was away. It was reported to the authorities that he ‘had a job feeding chickens’ and he had great difficulty refuting this. The favourite joke in Wigan was about a man who was refused relief on the ground that he ‘had a job carting firewood’. He had been seen, it was said, carting firewood at night. He had to explain that he was not carting firewood but doing a moonlight flit. The ‘firewood’ was his furniture.”
Orwell is frequently guilty of talking jargon and quoting acronyms that may have been fully understood at the time but that, 90 or so years later, are unlikely to be recognised. He talks of the PAC; this was the Public Assistance Committee. At roughly the same time as the Means Test, the responsibility for poor relief was passed on from central government to local councils, and the local PAC would have been the people in charge of administering this onerous task. Similarly, the NUWM, whom Orwell praises for doing “the best work for the unemployed”, was the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, an organisation set up in 1921 by the Communist Party of Great Britain, which fought the Means Test and organised protest marches. It suspended activity at the outbreak of the Second World War, and never resumed its work, finally being dissolved in 1946.
There are a number of people to whom Orwell refers, but who are not household names today. In his chapter about nutrition, Orwell discusses the various opinions as to the number of undernourished people in Britain, stating “Sir John Orr puts it at twenty millions.” Born in 1880, Orr was at first a teacher, then a leading nutritionist, who became the first Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1949. Major C H Douglas, to whom Orwell refers in connection with the inability of some collieries being able to sell all the coal of which they are capable of producing, was an engineer and a pioneer of social credit economic reform, born in Manchester in 1879. And the Italian Primo Carnera, whom Orwell mentions in connection with the pretensions of short Englishmen to physical prowess, was Boxing Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1933 and 1934.
It’s always a delight to immerse oneself in Orwell’s glorious use of language, and there are plenty of opportunities for his inimitable style to shine through. He has a wonderful attention to detail, revealed in the first few pages where he describes the kitchen table where everyone in the Brooker household ate. “I never saw this table completely uncovered, but I saw its various wrappings at different times. At the bottom there was a layer of old newspapers stained by Worcester Sauce; above that a sheet of sticky white oil-cloth; above that a green serge cloth; above that a coarse linen cloth, never changed and seldom taken off. Generally the crumbs from breakfast were still on the table at supper. I used to get to know individual crumbs by sight and watch their progress up and down the table from day to day.” I love the idea that he almost struck up a relationship with individual crumbs.
In the same way that Orwell (and more importantly Gollancz) escaped libel in Burmese Days because of Orwell’s chatty recollections of real life people that he met, he continues to relate to us individual incidents during his time in the northern towns that would almost certainly be recognised by anyone there at the time or who also knew those people. He goes into great detail about the other people who live with the Brookers – I’m fairly sure he invented that surname but not 100% certain – and he doesn’t hold back from the criticisms and the judgments. Of Mrs Brooker’s habits, he gives us a good insight into just how revolting she was: “She had a habit of constantly wiping her mouth on one of her blankets. Towards the end of my stay she took to tearing off strips of newspaper for this purpose, and in the morning the floor was littered with crumpled-up balls of slimy paper which lay there for hours.” Perhaps my favourite description in the entire book is of Mr Brooker, where Orwell says “he was one of those people who can chew their grievances like a cud.”
But he has a very important point to make about the Brookers. “It is no use saying people like the Brookers are just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilisation that produced them. For this is part at least of what industrialism has done for us.” You sense that this will become the starting point for his writing in the second part of the book.
He’s a real master of the simile; his description of the coal mining procedure includes “the process of getting it out is like scooping the central layer from a Neapolitan ice”. He refers to the blue lining that can appear on miner’s skin due to the all-pervasive coal dust: “some of the older men have their foreheads veined like Roquefort cheeses from this cause”. Of the houses in Wigan that have slipped and slid due to mining work underneath, he says “sometimes the front wall bellies outward till it looks as though the house were seven months gone in pregnancy.” And I love how he can turn on a well-used phrase and smash it to smithereens: “row upon row of little red houses, all much liker than two peas (where did that expression come from? Peas have great individuality)”. By constantly playing games with the language like that, he keeps his descriptions and ideas fresh and lively, even when describing some of the darkest and dreariest aspects of life.
He’s perhaps at his cheekiest when he takes the opportunity to rebut the words of a nameless critic. “I am told,” he says, “that it is bad form for a writer to quote his own reviews, but I want here to contradict a reviewer in the Manchester Guardian who says apropos of one of my books: ‘Set down in Wigan or Whitechapel Mr Orwell would still exercise an unerring power of closing his vision to all that is good in order to proceed with his wholehearted vilification of humanity.’ Wrong. Mr Orwell was ‘set down’ in Wigan for quite a while and it did not inspire him with any wish to vilify humanity.” You can’t pin Orwell down and make him conform to any structure he chooses to ignore.
Before having a look at the more difficult Part Two of The Road to Wigan Pier, let’s go back to Gollancz’s urgently written placatory foreword. Having praised part one to the heavens, he describes the second part as “highly provocative”, picking up one particular theme which Orwell emphasises. Gollancz states “I have in mind in particular a lengthy passage in which Mr Orwell embroiders the theme that, in the opinion of the middle class in general, the working class smells! I believe myself that Mr Orwell is exaggerating violently…” Gollancz sets himself against Orwell’s suggestion that socialists are cranks; specifically concerning that word, he continues that “it appears to mean anyone holding opinions not held by the majority – for instance, any feminist, pacifist, vegetarian or advocate of birth control”.
This particular bugbear of Orwell’s perplexes Gollancz: “there is no more ‘commonsensical’ work than that which is being done at the present time by the birth control clinics up and down the country – and common sense, as I understand I, is the antithesis of crankiness.” He recognises that Orwell’s writing shows a “conflict of two compulsions” throughout part two of the book, and concludes that “Mr Orwell does not once define what he means by Socialism; nor does he explain how the oppressors oppress, nor even what he understands by the words ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’.”
Orwell himself was in Spain at the time of publication, fighting in the Spanish Civil War and gathering material that would come to fruition, first with his essay Spilling the Spanish Beans, and later and more significantly with his book Homage to Catalonia. He had no idea that Gollancz had published The Road to Wigan Pier with this foreword; on 9th May 1937, Orwell wrote to Gollancz thanking him politely for the foreword, saying that he could have answered some of Gollancz’s criticisms if only he had known about them.
However, one thing is true, especially to today’s reader; this is a much harder and rather less rewarding read than the first part of the book. Whilst there is no doubt that his sense of injustice and his hatred of oppression can be found in almost every paragraph, his polemic against so much of British society at the time reduces his writing spark. You rarely get those flashes of observational brilliance; instead he gets tied up with being judgmental and critical. He says he plays devil’s advocate in an attempt to understand why people think Socialism is not the answer, when Orwell clearly believes that it is. What is the source of the spiritual recoil that kills its progress before it has even started?
It seems to me that Orwell has four main problems that he needs to get his head around. The question of class; of “machine worship”; socialists themselves; and the alienating language they use. Class is perhaps the hardest to grapple with, because the English class system was, is and always will be an intractable mess. Orwell always found it hard to identify himself in the class system, being brought up lower-middle-class but gaining a scholarship to Eton; working in the Indian police force, yet spending so much time down and out and writing about it. He feels to me like the character in Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp’s brilliant song Common People – he wants to know what it feels like to be one of the common people, to have no money and nothing to do, but at the same time knowing that he could pick up the telephone “when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall, if you called your dad he could stop it all”.
All middle class people have dormant prejudice, says Orwell, “but at the same time everyone claims that he, in some mysterious way, is exempt from it.” That alone makes it virtually impossible for the class system to end. And of course, there is his outrageously bold statement, that upset Gollancz so much, that “lower classes smell”. Orwell thinks there is no getting over this problem – one, because it is a feeling so ingrained in the minds of the middle classes, and two, because he believes it to be true. “Race hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot. You can have an affection for a murderer or a sodomite, but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks – habitually stinks, I mean.” There’s a lot to unpack there, and it’s up to the individual reader to sort the wheat from the chaff. But with such a firmly held view, there’s no room for negotiation.
On the question of “machine worship” – in other words, the blind tendency towards mechanisation of all craft-type trades and labour, in order to make life easier for ourselves, or to reduce labour costs – Orwell contemplates whether there still is a place in the world for physical strength, when it is no longer needed. It is, to be fair, a fascinating examination of the whole idea of “progress” which today we all readily accept as if there were no alternative.
Orwell’s problem with socialists themselves is a very personal attack; reminiscent of Groucho Marx’s insistence that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would admit him, it’s a half-comedic, half-deadly serious examination of those people who call themselves socialists and therefore put everyone else off from being like them. As he says, “as with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.” But his list of qualities that make a typical Socialist is totally ridiculous. In addition to the feminist, pacifist, vegetarian or advocate of birth control, quoted by Gollancz, he includes “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack”.
He tells a story of travelling in a bus in Letchworth “when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got onto it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple […] The man next to me […] glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured, “Socialists”.” It’s an extraordinarily judgmental, cruel and unreasonable description; consider the pejorative use of the words and phrases dreadful, chubby, obscenely, pistachio-coloured, huge bottoms and even hatless; all hyper-critical, and all on pure surmise. However, it’s an incredibly vivid piece of writing and not one you forget in a hurry. There’s no good reason to equate these people’s appearances with socialism; it’s probably an early example of media manipulation that’s designed to make us think badly about such people. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that he elsewhere uses the term “bare-arse savage” and claims that “Orientals can be very provoking.”
As for the language typically used by socialists, I can completely accept that constantly referring to people as comrades would get very tedious. Orwell tells an excellent anecdote about the Marxist attitude towards literature. Following some articles in a literary column that frequently invoked Shakespeare, “an incensed reader wrote to say, ‘Dear Comrade, we don’t want to hear about these bourgeois writers like Shakespeare. Can’t you give us something a bit more proletarian?’ etc etc. The editor’s reply was simple. ‘If you will turn to the index of Marx’s Capital,’ he wrote, ‘you will find that Shakespeare is mentioned several times.’ And please notice this was enough to silence the objector. Once Shakespeare had received the benediction of Marx, he became respectable. That is the mentality that drives ordinary sensible people away from the Socialist movement.”
Let’s look at a few more of those references that Orwell mentions in the second part of the book, mainly people in the public eye at the time whose names are now forgotten. He refers to a time “when a miner was thought of as a fiend incarnate and old ladies looked under their beds every night lest Robert Smillie should be concealed there.” Robert Smillie was the leader of the miners, a militant socialist who lived from 1857 to 1940. He can be considered like an early 20th century version of Arthur Scargill. Beachcomber, whose articles Orwell refers to in the Daily Express, was a nom-de-plume used by more than one journalist, but primarily was J B Morton, who wrote under that name from 1924 to 1975. John Beevers (1911 – 1975) wrote the book World Without Faith, and was critical of the machine-worship that so upset Orwell. The other interesting reference that was new to me concerned the Duke of York’s Summer Camps – which were precisely as they sound, an initiative by the future King George VI to unite children from all backgrounds working together to build their characters. An early version of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, I suppose.
Orwell is remarkably prescient in some of the things he writes about, and some of the changes to the world that he predicts. He talks of the vast numbers of people who are employed, but are not on a living wage. That’s the same today. He describes the methods employed by some people to stay warm cheaply (by not being at home), like going to the pictures for twopence and staying there all afternoon. With the rise in fuel prices, people face the same problem today. There are the problems of budgeting for a household when your income is so small. There are even discussions about the idea of “levelling up” – I thought that was a purely 21st century concept; and predictions about the horrors of war to come.
Orwell’s conclusion to the book includes this observation: “In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialist party that we need, or we shall not get it. If we do not get it, then Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicised form of Fascism, with cultured policeman instead of Nazi gorillas and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika.” You can still see it coming – if it isn’t already here.
There’s a lot more that could be discussed about this book, but I have already written way too many words! I’d absolutely recommend it, although primarily for the first part, with its vivid documentary approach to poverty and housing. The second part is largely stodgy and a tough read – but don’t let me stop you from reading it!
Next in my George Orwell Challenge will be his essay that appeared in the New English Weekly in two parts in 1937 – Spilling the Spanish Beans. I’ll look forward to reading it and writing about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, thanks for reading my thoughts about Wigan Pier!
In a fortuitous combination of celebrations, not only is this the 50th production directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company by its Artistic Director Emeritus, Gregory Doran, it’s also 400 years since the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, without which we might not have had several of the great man’s plays, including Cymbeline. Tucked away near the bottom of the list of plays in most collected editions of Shakespeare’s plays, poor old Cymbeline has been overlooked for a century or more. Relatively rarely performed or studied, I managed an entire summer term reading Shakespeare at University and not once did it come into my orbit.
When I was about thirteen, gentle reader, one day I decided I would count the lines in each of Shakespeare’s plays and create a list of how long they all were, to see which was the shortest and which was the longest. What an insufferable little prig I must have been. However, fifty or so years later it remains one of the most useful pieces of research I ever did. Whilst Comedy of Errors heads the list as his shortest play, Cymbeline weighs in at a hefty 3,286 lines, beaten only in the length department by Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Richard III and Hamlet.
I mention this because there is something of an elephant in the room with this production, or rather in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; it’s a long play. Including an interval and a five minute pause (which doesn’t really feel long enough to achieve the double whammy of the Gents and the Gin and Tonic), the show lasts for the best part of three and a half hours. Surely, it could be cut back a bit? No. Shakespeare has packed this play with so many fascinating characters and so many plot elements, that’s it’s hard to see how you could pare it back at all, without depriving it of a vital part.
The initial set-up of the play is a little complicated. Cymbeline is King of Britain; he is married to the Queen – she seems to be just called Queen. However, previously he was married to another queen, who gave birth to Imogen. Imogen has given her heart to Posthumus Leonatus, an orphan whom the King brought up but has no royal lineage, and so is considered an unsuitable match for Imogen. Meanwhile, the Queen was also married once before, and that marriage bore a son, Cloten, a foolish braggart, who has been earmarked to marry Imogen. The Queen is not to be trusted, by the way; she asks her doctor Cornelius to supply a bottle of poison because she plans to murder both Cymbeline and Imogen, However, Cornelius hands her a bottle of harmless sleeping potion instead because he can see right through her little game. Oh, and Cymbeline also had two other sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, and they were stolen away as babies, apparently by the banished Lord Belarius, but you needn’t worry about them yet. I hope you’re taking notes, there will be questions later.
Posthumus is also banished, to Italy, where he meets a nobleman, Iachimo, who wagers that he could seduce Imogen with ease. Riled, Posthumus accepts the bet, always convinced that Imogen would remain faithful. And so she is, as Iachimo is disappointed to discover. This leads him to some subterfuge, hiding in her bedroom so that he can report back on the artwork on the walls, and, more tellingly, the mole on her left breast, of which he sneaks a peek. Then follows a sequence of events, including Posthumus instructing Pisanio, his servant, to murder Imogen (he doesn’t), and Imogen having to go rogue and disguise herself as a boy, Fidele, who by chance pals up with Belarius and the two boys (remember them?) living rough outside Milford Haven. I’ve been to Milford Haven; this part of the story is entirely believable.
I’m going to stop there; but there’s so much more plot to follow. Shakespeare must have had a field day incorporating all his favourite plot twists and characterisations that had proved successful in the past. A girl dressed as a boy, a wicked Queen, a beheaded villain, a chaste woman tested, a sleeping potion that makes people think you’re dead, a banished Lord, even a Deus ex Machina (if you’re going to have one, it might as well be Jupiter, voiced by Patrick Stewart). There are themes of honesty and betrayal, forgiveness and redemption, noblemen foraging in the wild, and foolish fops at court. It shows beautifully how if a common man commits a murder he will die for it, but if a Royal figure does it, that’s ok. There’s a stunning scene – spellbindingly clear and simple – when Posthumus holds Iachimo’s life in the palm of his hand, but rather than choose a path of revenge, responds: “the pow’r that I have on you is to spare you; the malice towards you to forgive you. Live, and deal with others better.” For me, the most telling moment in the entire play. It even asks questions about Britain’s identity; is it part of the Roman Empire or a solo state, refusing to pay the tribute to Rome, because Britain can thumb its nose at Europe? Where have we heard that before? I can just imagine that tribute sum written along the side of a bus.
But what makes this play unique in all of Shakespeare’s works – I think – is the way all these tiny elements and themes become convincingly but hilariously resolved in a riotous final scene that makes your toes curl with pleasure. The play is famously considered uncategorisable. Is it a tragedy? Certainly not in the classical sense. Is it a history? Although the character of Cymbeline is based on Cuneboline, King of Britain from AD 9 to 40, the play owes far more to Holinshed’s Chronicles than any history book. I always think of it as a comedy, but with most of the laughs kept back for that final scene.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has developed something of a reputation for pushing the boundaries as far as experimental productions of Shakespeare’s Classics is concerned. Setting them in different times; gender-swapping on major roles; using the powers of the audience’s imagination rather than simply conveying plot and character as they were written. As always, this sometimes works brilliantly, and sometimes fails; experimental ideas can go wrong, and you’ll never know unless you try them. But Gregory Doran’s production is – for the most part – tradition and simplicity itself, unadulterated by unnecessary directorial distractions or clever-clever interpretations. And it feels as fresh as a daisy and as clear as daylight as a result. No need for any stage furniture, other than Imogen’s bed and the chest in which Iachimo hides; no need for a complicated sound plot, other than Ben McQuigg’s band’s simple musical accompaniments and a little rainfall. Matt Daw’s lighting design is effective without being intrusive; there is some occasional use of puppetry which works extremely well.
The performances are first-rate throughout; some are outstanding. Peter de Jersey makes for a gruff and blustering Cymbeline, physically imposing if with some weakness of health (which becomes clear in that all important final scene), quick to ire but essentially generous of spirit. There’s an element of the pantomime villain in Alexandra Gilbreath’s Queen, but none the worse for that, as she shares her devious plans quite openly with us. Amber James is superb as Imogen; stoic, gracious, and full of pluck. Conor Glean’s Cloten is thuggishly foppish, bombastically arrogant; an excellent portrayal of someone who is all façade and no substance.
The always reliable Mark Hadfield puts in a tremendous performance as Pisanio; the character’s thoughts and feelings being conveyed not only by Mr H’s superbly clear delivery but he also has that enviable ability to express a whole range of emotions with the simplest of facial gestures. Jamie Wilkes chillingly captures all Iachimo’s Lothario-like wretchedness, including how deflated he is when the truth comes out – like all bullies, he is pathetic. There are a couple of terrific double acts, in Scott Gutteridge and Daf Thomas’ Guiderius and Arviragus, and Barnaby Tobias and Tom Chapman as the two lords who attend on Cloten. Jake Mann makes the most of Cornelius’ two scene-stealing appearances, and Theo Ogundipe’s incredible enunciation invests the character of Caius Lucius with huge authority. Perhaps best of all, Ed Sayer’s Posthumus commands the stage with every appearance; lowly-born though his character may be, he truly makes you understand what nobility really means.
The Press Night audience gave it a rapturous reception – quite rightly so. Gregory Doran leaves the RSC with a magnificent legacy of work, and Cymbeline is right up there with the best. It’s on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 27th May, and if you’ve never seen this hidden gem of a Shakespeare play before, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.