Archive for January, 2016

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE: Prologue: A Re-New-View of Shakespeare

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2016 by drayfish

shakespeare by pablo lobato

IMAGE: Shakespeare by Pablo Lobato

Four hundred years ago Shakespeare died.

(Sorry if you’re hearing that for the first time. I should have warned you to sit down first.)

That is to say, on April 23, 1616, the man, William Shakespeare – who had already made his name as a wildly successful actor, poet, playwright, and producer – died.

That Shakespeare – the man – had grown from a glove maker’s son in Stratford-upon-Avon to running an entertainment empire in London. He had won the King as his patron. He owned property across the land. He was a father of three children (apparently with a son-in-law he hated), and had written a will that cryptically only left his wife, Anne Hathaway, their ‘second best’ bed (perhaps he still resented her performance in Bride Wars). That Shakespeare, the man, was buried in Stratford on April 25th.

But there is another William Shakespeare – the one that won’t die. The one that half-glances at us incredulously from that apocryphal black and white portrait on the cover of the First Folio. The one used to sell countless mugs and key chains and trinkets to tourists travelling through London. The one that appears as a zombie on The Simpson’s Halloween special. The one who met Doctor Who, and Blackadder, and who snogged Gwyneth Paltrow in a moustache. The one that is multiform. Eternal. That one is 450 year old and counting, and lives inside everyone who has some affection for his work.

That’s our Shakespeare. Yours. Mine.

Ernst Honigman, in a brief introduction to Shakespeare’s life for The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare makes note of the numerous times that people refer to the playwright as ‘our Shakespeare’. Understandably, Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, used the phrase in their posthumous printing of his plays, the First Folio of 1623. They were attempting to publish a definitive edition of the man’s collected works (at the time theatrical pieces were usually only printed as cheap, unofficial knock-offs), and claimed they were doing so in order to ‘keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare’ (emphasis mine).

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IMAGE: From the cover of the First Folio (1623)

But that kind of personal identification with the poet playwright didn’t end with those who knew and loved him in life. In the centuries since, his legacy, and the affection with which he is held, has expanded exponentially.

Ben Johnson wrote the poem ‘To The Memory of My Beloved, The Author, William Shakespeare’, becoming quite sentimental about his Shakespeare despite having hated the man’s guts while alive and frequently slagging him off as a talentless hack. (It is believed that Johnson was riddled with envy of Shakespeare’s skill while they were contemporaries, which is understandable, but the turnaround can still give you whiplash.)

It’s why the Romantic poets, a century and a half after his death, felt they had discovered a kindred spirit in his verse. It’s why Stephen Greenblatt’s captivating biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, is quite open about using healthy dollops of imagination to spackle over the gaps in his exacting historical research. Why Germaine Greer’s book, Shakespeare’s Wife, uses even more speculation and presumption (despite being far less honest about it) to argue that Shakespeare’s career was indebted wholly to his wife, Ann Hathaway – a fact, Greer asserts, that has been systemically marginalised by a history of male biographers.

It’s also why people continue to foolishly squabble over Shakespeare’s ‘true’ identity, with conspiracy junkies falling over themselves to insist that their Shakespeare was forced to work in disguise and unrecognised in his time. Snobs would rather believe that their Shakespeare was an aristocrat like the Earl of Oxford rather than some preternaturally talented member of the lower classes; more ambitious guesses cite everyone from the already-dead Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth (who must have had great fun writing Richard II, a play she famously despised and that was used to try and inspire a revolution against her).

The point is, Shakespeare is many things to many people – the greatest dramatist who ever lived; England’s finest poet; a shrewd producer; a pseudonym; an actor; a closeted Catholic; a philosopher; a social critic; a feminist; a misogynist; a lover of cryptic codes; on into infinity – and the reason that he can remain equally as ambiguous as he is treasured is because we largely only have access to him through his plays.

And those plays! Plays that never seem to age. Plays that have been effortlessly restaged and reinvented in every new generation.

And yes, his plays exhibit a breadth of divergent subject matter – tragedy, comedy, romance, Roman, Greek and English history, myth, social satire, farce, fantasy – and a slew of characters from every walk of life – monarchs, maids, and madmen; princes and prostitutes; lords, ladies, and lawmen, soldiers, servants, senators, and soothsayers; tyrants and tweens; washed up drunks, clergymen, criminals, cross dressers, cads, clowns (not scary clowns), and everything in between, but what makes them eternal is their interest in universal human emotions: young lust; regret; unbridled fury; betrayal; the fear that we are not truly loved; hesitation; wonder; jealousy; the impulse to endlessly list things.

His work has endured for centuries not because a bunch of musty scholars declared that these plays were (dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn!!!) IMPORTANT, that society was obliged to inflict them on every student in the western world to warn them how loathsome antiquated puns can be. They are works that insist themselves upon their audience exactly because they remain so fresh, so urgent. We recognise the same impulses and temptation in ourselves, feel as if each work had been written by the author for us at this very moment.

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IMAGE: William Shakespeare’s Plays by John Gilbert (1849)

I’m not sure what Shakespeare is to me. I know that I adore what I’ve experienced of his work. I know that whenever I return to one of his plays I am dumbstruck at how any one person could have constructed something so compassionately human, so lyrical, and so true – even, at times, in its ugliness. I know that he is an astute observer of human behaviour, capable of rendering complex characters with rich interiors. That he sees us for the pathetic, snivelling wretches that we are, but captures the marvel we can be at our best. He can be merciless and silly and mad – sometimes in the same scene – can be thrillingly metatextual, and after four hundred years, and innumerable versions of his work, is still capable of surprise. That ending of King Lear, for example, still gets me every time.

Also, he created Viola, the most marvellous character in all literature. For that you could tell me he was a member of Nickelback and he would still get a free pass.

So this year – this four-hundredth anniversary of the man’s death – I’m going to try to better know the evolving myth that can be gleaned through his work. I’m going to watch as many different productions of Shakespeare as I can manage over the coming twelve months (and, let’s face it, almost certainly beyond, because when have I ever been punctual?) I’ll read each play – some with which I am unfamiliar, others I don’t know at all – and then experience a modern production of it, be it on film, or radio, or animation (I know there are graphic novels out there, maybe I’ll try one of those). Afterwards I’ll attempt to unpack my feeling about play and production. What I felt worked; what failed; what I thought the text was primarily about; whether Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, or Derek Jacobi was in it (there’s a law: you have to have one of them).

Mostly I’m just going to try and explore, for my own amusement, the myriad ways in which this extraordinary, multifaceted, writer’s work continues to be refracted through our modern preoccupations; to see what new dimensions are revealed from these endlessly malleable works of art.

I’ll be watching and listening to some fantastic stuff (I’m not always a fan of Kenneth Branagh’s take on the Bard’s material, but his Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is a delight; and anyone who loves Game of Thrones would be blown away by the BBC’s 2012 Hollow Crown production of the underrated Richard II), but I’ll also be exploring some problematic pieces (what’s that? Sicilian actor Al Pacino playing the ‘Jew of Malta’ in Shakespeare’s controversial, possibly-horrifyingly-racist Merchant of Venice (2004)? …okay… and why is Helen Mirren being wasted in a rote production of The Tempest (2010) that does exactly nothing with its exciting gender-flip conceit?).

I’ll also, no doubt, be watching some crap (I’m looking right at you, Australian Macbeth (2006)). After all, just because Shakespeare’s batting average is so astonishingly high doesn’t mean that he didn’t have his shakier plays; and it certainly doesn’t inoculate directors and actors from indulging all their laziest impulses in translating his work.

I may even tackle a few eclectic pieces just to mix it up a bit. Again, ‘Shakespeare’ has appeared in Doctor Who and romance films and that comically asinine Roland Emmerich film Anonymous (2011); and although clearly none of these addendums to his career are canon, they are worth considering for the way in which they reflect his legacy and enduring cultural cache.

But I will not watch She’s The Man (2006).

I don’t care if it’s a ‘retelling’ of Twelfth Night. I don’t care if it has Channing Tatum in it. I will not do it and you cannot make me and shut up.

How dare you.

Obviously this won’t be of interest to everyone (and I’ll be posting other stuff throughout the months for those who aren’t), but Shakespeare’s work is a heady, diverse mix. There’s murder and intrigue, frivolity and play, romance, sorrow, war, scheming, charming antiheroes, and some of the most compelling depictions of inexpressible emotion ever rendered.

So join me, won’t you, on this half-baked windmill tilt that I will almost certainly give up on in a couple of months, as I scoff at Keanu Reeves attempting to express more than one emotion playing Don John, instantly forgive Michelle Pfeiffer’s overacting as Titania because she’s so stunning I can barely hear what she’s saying, and try to disentangle the Gordian knot of crazy that is Mel Gibson playing Hamlet. …Or maybe I’ll leave that one alone.*

Join me on a journey I am calling ‘The Year of Speare’ (TM). Because apparently I have no shame.

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IMAGE: ‘The Shakespeare Code’, Doctor Who (2007)

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If you would like to follow along with me, the first film up for inspection be the controversial but fascinating Baz Luhrmann directed Romeo + Juliet (1996).

Yeah. That’s a plus sign. Because that’s what the kids like, yo. Radical.

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* And how could I not watch Fred and Wesley get the happy ending they deserve in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012)?

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Texts Mentioned:

Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer (Bloomsbury, 2007)
‘Shakespeare’s Life’ by Ernst Honigmann (The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare, ed. by Margeta de Grazia and Stanley Wells, 2001, pp.1-12)
Will In The World by Stephen Greenblatt (Bodley Head, 2014)

Vale David Bowie: He’s A Star, Man.

Posted in criticism, music with tags , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: David Bowie, 1975

According to a group of international scientists, humanity has now had such a detrimental impact upon our own world that we have actually managed to shift the globe into a new geological epoch. Between our burning of fossil fuels, our addiction to driving species extinct, the dumping of toxins, the use of plastic and concrete (so ubiquitous that our oceans are now riddled with microplastic decay – yum), deforestation, reliance on fertiliser, and use of nuclear weapons, we have taken a process that usually takes millions of years of incremental evolution – from Triassic, to Jurassic, to Cretaceous – and squeezed it down to just shy of 16,000 years.

Because we’re humans. That’s what we do.

Bigger! Better! Faster! Howling as we hurl ourselves untethered into the abyss. Trying to convince ourselves that the world is not burning beneath us.

The scientists are therefore proposing a name change, from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Because that’s the other thing we do. We name things after ourselves.

A few days after this news was announced, David Bowie’s friends and loved ones revealed that he had died, surrounded by his family, after a year and a half battle with cancer. And as hyperbolic as this will risk sounding, I cannot seem to disentangle the two events.

Not, I should warn, because I am going to try and make some hyperbolic, farcical declaration that there was a before and after David Bowie. That human history as we know it would not exist were it not for Aladdin Sane. (…I might make that argument for Station to Station, but that’s another matter.)

Because in my head, Bowie isn’t Earth, or history itself. He isn’t global warning, or nuclear fission, or a meteor waiting to strike down the dinosaurs.

He’s those scientists.

Bowie was an artist who had the capacity to name, to give shape, to epochs. Try thinking of the sixties without ‘Space Oddity’ or ‘Letter to Hermione’ (even if that self-titled album only snuck in half way through 1969). Try thinking of the seventies without ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Changes’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘”Heroes”, ‘The Jean Genie”, ‘Sorrow’, ‘Life on Mars?’, etc. etc. etc… The eighties without ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Under Pressure’, or ‘Dancing in the Street’. The nineties without ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, or Nirvana’s version of ‘Man Who Sold the World’. The 2000s without the post-9/11 grim introspection of Heathen, the career-spanning Reality album tour.

Try growing up without having Labyrinth fixed like a nostalgic load-bearing wall in your soul; or forgetting his hilariously deadpan scene in Ricky Gervais’ Extras (‘Pathetic little fat man…’). Try denying the genius of his music videos, each one a unique experimental art film (and yes, I’m even including the surreally chipper ‘Dancing in the Street’).

And even now, in the teens of a new millennium, a decade since he was healthy enough to tour his music, he still remains as prescient and urgent as ever, having released two astonishing albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, replete with songs like ‘I’d Rather Be High’, ‘Dirty Boys’, ‘Dollar Days’, and ‘Lazarus’ that would make any other songwriter’s career on their own.

Bowie seemed to have an unmatched ability to identify and render in song the experience of generations. He poured all of it into his music and his personas – from pop psychedelia to crunchy rock, from glam cabaret, to freaky folk, through jazz and disco and electronic and crooner, he refracted it through the multiple character masks he employed that each embodied their age: Ziggy Stardust; Aladdin Sane; the Thin White Duke; his later, meta-impersonation of himself. Each album these figures produced offering an anthology, perfectly articulating the angst of the time in which it was released.

And like that body of international scientists, what his music described, again and again was that we were endlessly, relentlessly killing ourselves. The characters in his songs shoot themselves into space on doomed missions. They sell the world. Burn out in rock and roll suicides. Even the melodies could sometimes barely keep themselves together, with song’s like ‘Aladdin Sane’, ‘Jean Genie’, and the final song of his final album ‘I Can’t Give Everything’, threatening to run themselves apart at times, fragile moments of harmony to be treasured amongst a cacophony of sound.

He knew that we were killing ourselves, lying to ourselves, lost in ourselves. It’s no doubt why his work was peppered with references to anti-utopian literature – Orwell’s 1984; Burgess’ Clockwork Orange – nonetheless his songs were still defiantly hopeful. He used fantasy to reflect our devastation, but still saw something to celebrate amongst the despair.

Songs like ‘Life On Mars?’ might be the auditory equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch canvases, but they revel in the frenzied splendour of our disorder. In ‘Five Years’ the impending apocalypse leads people to recalibrate what is truly valuable amongst the detritus of life; the line ‘I never thought I’d need so many people’ dissolving the judgemental barriers that divide society. In the sublime ‘Golden Years’ he celebrates the sunset of a loved one’s glory. In ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ he cries out passionately ‘You’re not alone’ to all those feeling disaffected and unseen. Chaos does not mean despair in Bowie’s soundscape. It is an invitation: ‘Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful.’

For Bowie, in his music, in his myriad personas, when we accept all our freaky, broken excesses, we’re finally free to be ourselves. We can embrace each other without pretention, all equal in our messy wreckages of self.

Because we’re humans. That’s also what we do.

And right up to the end, with Blackstar, Bowie was continuing to describe his own – and humanity’s – demise, finding beauty in the predictable banality of our decay. His exquisite fugue ‘Lazarus’ is replete with lyrics that affirm and deny at once:

Look up here, I’m in Heaven.
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen.
Everybody knows me now.

Like all Bowie’s work, it’s marvellously cryptic and personal. He’s singing both about himself, and a character divorced from himself at the same time. He’s alive while singing about being dead; now dead while singing about being alive. He’s free like a bluebird, he says, and ‘Ain’t that just like me?’ But that ‘me’ is profoundly, impossibly multifaceted. He’s ‘known’ now, but remains fundamentally obscured. We know of him, but cannot know him.

It’s also why the cover of his final album – the last album he knew he would release before his death – is so profound. For the Star Man, Ziggy Stardust, the final image is another star, now black, disassembling itself. It is a powerful metaphor for an artistic icon in a state off self-assessment; compound and divisible, but always more than the sum of his constituent parts.

In his music David Bowie transcended the temporal. He seemed to stand outside of time to reflect our experience of it back to us. To name what we couldn’t articulate within ourselves. Like a scientist categorising the ages of global history he defined and gave voice to the experience of decades of lost souls. Those estranged and bewildered on the closing out of the 20th century, stumbling blind and just as alone into the 21st.

Which makes it even more extraordinary that even here, on his last record, released days before his death, Bowie continues to voice the impossible, eclipsing death itself to comfort his fans, transforming into one last masque, the undying Bowie, to remind them that his music – music that, like its creator, was intimate and alien in one – will remain. Those extraordinary songs might be divorced, necessarily, from the man who brought them into being. But that was always, in some way, true – and they are no less powerful for that. The music locates us, in time and experience, a campfire around which we gather, warmed even in the fading of the light.

So vale David Bowie; man who named the world.

Thank you for the gift of sound and vision.

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IMAGE: Cover of Blackstar by David Bowie

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