Hardy’s Tess – Skeleton found in a – Prison Carpark?

It so happened last week, just before we were about to start the first session of our four week run on The Novel (in the Level 4 Introduction to English Studies skills module), that a newspaper article appeared reporting the discovery of the mortal remains of one Martha Brown in the grounds of a Dorchester prison. Brown was condemned to death by hanging in 1856 for the murder of her violent husband, one of the last executions of this kind in England. The event was attended by the 16 year old Thomas Hardy, apparently traumatised by the incident, so much so that he used the personage and the story leading to the hanging as raw material for one of his most famous novels, the late work Tess of the D’urbervilles, published 1892, more than half a lifetime after the grim spectacle. Coincidence wills it that this very novel is featured as specimen in our session on the novel in the above mentioned module. I could not have wished for a more fitting and timely introduction to studying the novel as a reality-bound literary form. The episode profiles the doctrine of Realism in stark relief…

Gemma Arterton (right) in the 2008 BBC adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles



Peter Brook’s ‘Mahabharata’ Adaptation: ‘Battlefield’, at the Young Vic

Down the smoke, 19 and 20 Feb, to tank up on High (and some low!) C(c)ulture. I saw Ralph Fiennes in Ibsen’s The Master Builder: an excellent performance in the Old Vic. The Gagosian gallery in Britannia Street behind King’s Cross (free entry!) has an exhibition comparing/contrasting portraiture of the photographer Avedon with Warhol’s portraits. Highly recommended. The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Aldwych (also free entry for students and teachers), shows the Botticelli cartoons illustrating the three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy: 60 plus drawings, with magnifying glasses handed out at the entrance.: can’t think of anything better, at least not in this area of the highest pursuits…

Warhol: self Portrait

Warhol: self Portrait

Avedon: Ezra Pound

Avedon: Ezra Pound


Avedon: Beckett


The main theatrical event happened in the other more vibrant place around the corner from the Old Vic: i.e. in the Young Vic, which still, it seems, fulfils the promise held out by its name: vibrancy, new impulses, setting the standard for contemporary theatre. A while ago I saw Beckett’s Happy Days there. Terrifyingly intense. This time, I was  lucky enough to score a ticket for one of Peter Brook’s rare productions on an English stage, entitled Battlefield. Brook is now 91; it was (without trying to wish time away) probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me then to see the legend in live-action.

The venue was  bristling with young vibe. Andrew Scott, of Professor Moriarty (Sherlock) and Pride fame was in the house (I could smell his Eau, I came that close), also Fiona Shaw, and, as coincidence had it, our very own Staffs arch-practitioner in the dramatic arts, playwright and Panto specialist extraordinaire ‘Rob’ Marsden…. Indeed, the Staffordshire links extended further, for, one of the five-strong cast was the Cheesemanian disciple of yore and sometime Northern Broadside member, Sean O’Callaghan, the only Caucasian white actor in this show.

My interest in Brook’s work goes back some time and is linked partially with a stint of teaching I did in the olden days for the Drama and Theatre Arts Department at Staffs Uni, including 20th century play-writing and dramaturgy. A short explanation might be in order.

Peter Brook started off as one of the most radical innovators of British post-war theatre, with trail-blazing productions of plays from the traditional canon to his name, such as Shakespeare’s Lear (1962) and Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970), but also new ‘experimental’ ones, the most spectacular Marat/Sade (1964) by Peter Weiss. Brook re-examined the very texts of the plays he used in the light of innovatory 20th century theatre practices and the theories that transformed theatre after Ibsen, such as those of  Brecht (‘Epic Theatre’), Artaud (‘Theatre of Cruelty’), and the Theatre of the Absurd. In one of his seminal studies (The Empty Space: the practitioner Brook is also a formidable theorist!), which has  come to be regarded as something of a rule-book for post-modern theatre, he argues that text is only one amongst the elements that come into play when the empty space of the theatre is to be filled with theatrical matter. In fact, it is Brooks iconoclastic irreverence towards the traditionally sanctioned play-text (handed down over centuries and meticulously edited into ‘definite’ shape by generations of scholars) that might be singled out as a key feature of his radicalism as a theatrical innovator. Far from holy writ, the actual text is according to Brook by no means THE central  element of theatre. Particularly the well established texts almost held sacred, such as those of Shakespeare’s plays, need to be put through the mincer; they need re-shaping and re-jigging, as each new specific present  production requires. The above mentioned  Midsummer Night’s Dream went down as a good example for the new flexibility in the handling of text for the theatre that Brook advocated, including cutting, altering, re-ordering of passages and scenes: an attitude of postmodern utility and sobriety…

All in all, Brook argues the case for a re-evaluation and re-prioritisation (dread word!) of the elements that come together to create the theatre experience. He aims at a new holistic inclusiveness of the theatre which needs to start from scratch (an empty room) in the assembly of its ingredient elements for each new production. Some of these elements, such as mime, acrobatics, magic, are to be re-admitted centre-stage from the neglected fringes of performance practice. Thus, Midsummer Night’s Dream used acrobats, fire eaters, jugglers, etc. In this regard Brook’s theatre seems to correspond  with Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the Carnivalesque: established doctrines of style are subverted through the liberating force of chaos and humour ….

Brook also worked in film. In the versions of Lord of the Flies (1963), Marat/Sade (1967) and Lear (1971), all three in Black and White, Brook seems well conversant with the aesthetic requirements in this different medium. For example, the madness scene of Lear raving on the Heath comes alive well as film. Shot in a sequence of blurry, double-exposed images, the over-blending gives Lear’s psychotic outbursts a uniquely cinematographic form. During  the English period of his activity, Brook was instrumental in launching the careers of many now well-established theatre and cinema actors, such as Glenda Jackson’s (Marat/Sade) and Ben Kingsely’s (Midsummer Night’s Dream); the name of Paul Scofield (Lear) is intrinsically linked with earlier Brook.

These days it is rare to see Brook in action in Britain. He now operates from Paris, where he moved in the mid-70s, acquiring a defunct Belle époque venue, the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord near the Gare du Nord, whose director he remained until 2008. The most spectacular production emerging from Paris was the 12 hour-long staging of a Sanscrit epic, Mahabharata, in 1985, an experience of truly Wagnerian dimensions, both in terms of sheer length and as a multi-artistic fusion project, with the slimmer film version, cut down to a mere 6 hours, added in 1989. The immensely long text of more than 200000 verses is the Indian equivalent to Homer’s Greek epics, albeit probably older, going back to even before C8 BCE in its oldest core parts.

It was thus with great expectations that I attended the performance at the Young Vic. Reader, they were not thwarted! Battlefield, it emerged, is the massive epic of the Mahabharata whittled down to a mere 65 minutes of performance time. Brook has moved away then from the gargantuan proportions of the original 1985 production, from the opulence of his earlier output altogether, to a ‘late style’ of sparse gestures and tightly crafted minimalism: the show runs through without interruption in what could be called ‘one act’. The short segment presented is the condensed essence of the whole of the Mahabharata project, the full epic in a nutshell, so to speak. The structure of the huge text consisting of scores of intertwined tales held together in a broader narrative frame is showcased here, in an exemplary, didactically demonstrative way, very much reminiscent of Brecht’s Lehrstücke (‘Instructive Theatre Parables’). Thus, the Battlefield segment features as a representative nuclear scene standing in for the whole of the Mahabharata’s endlessly confabulated creation-of-the-world myth. We see the key players of the extended version in action here, Krishna and Vishnu, as well as a small selection of more minor characters lower in the mythological chain through whom the will and wisdom of the gods is filtered down the pyramid of creation. The ebb and flow of life is presented in an allegory of battle and war, the battlefield of death as wasteland of rebirth and renewal, a kind of Indian version of the baroque idea of Theatrum mundi.

One of the most impressive features of the production is  that of ‘the fifth man’, a Japanese tabla player with a free-jazz backdrop, who provides continuous musical commentary on proceedings. The music-maker is fully integrated as an independent voice with a non-linguistic, purely musical part. This goes deep into the heart of the play’s mythologizing intentions. The good Dr. Schopenhauer is near in spirit…

If one were to sum-up the whole thing in terms of impact of theatrical experience and significance of production, the following could be said:

  • an enormously rich experience  packed into  little more than an hour of performance;
  • a fruitful tension of contemporary, ‘modern’ theatre feeding on primeval, in itself half-shadowy, prehistoric text: a ‘post-modern’ tension;
  • fulfilment of the key demands of Brecht’s Epic Theatre (narrative intentions; props rendering strange the action; the actors stepping outside of their roles etc.), paradoxically through bringing mythology back to life;
  • a marriage of thinking man’s Brechtian Epic Theatre therefore and C.G. Jung’s dimming Collective Unconscious.
A curious admixture of the best of two different worlds….



Broadsides’ Merry Wives

On Tuesday night, I, along with several other Staffs Uni students, saw the Northern Broadside production of The Merry Wives (of Windsor), by William Shakespeare. It was a thoroughly entertaining play, with jokes, music, singing, dancing, trickery and, of course, love (and how could Shakespeare resist the chance at making fun of the French?). I also learned that this is the origin of the popular phrase ‘what the dickens?’, which I had always assumed had come from a similarly named author. Afterwards, there was a talk-back session with all the cast, where we were able to ask questions, and were told stories (particularly by Barrie Rutter, who played Falstaff in this production), including performing in the Globe Theatre in T-shirts and jeans for the first half of A Midsummer Night’s Dream due to lost luggage problems. A thoroughly enjoyable evening and I would highly recommend this play to anyone.

(Harriet Lee, Creative Writing)

Some wives (not from Windsor, but somewhere Northern – as you would expect) being merry at The New Vic (courtesy of Northern Broadsides)

See the trailer at their website here



Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Trip to the pictures to see ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, based on the 2009 ‘mash-up’ novel by Seth Grahame-Smith – for those unfamiliar, this genre typically grafts horror onto a classic text.

Jane Austen, who famously declared two or three families in a small village the very thing to work on, would surely be spinning in her grave at the adulteration of her work, but the splicing of schlock onto a much-loved late-Romantic novel was surprisingly successful and at times almost seamless. In this society, the feminine accomplishments of embroidery and sketching are secondary to the martial arts – Japanese for the privileged aristocracy; Chinese for less fortunate gentlewomen. A nice point when Caroline Bingley enacts social exclusion by speaking in the high-status Japanese; Lizzie responds to the snub in kind, plucking The Art of War from a bookshelf and declaring in fluent Cantonese that if it has not been read in the original language it has not been read at all. The mash-up also allows crude physical expression of Lizzie’s seditious spirit, which in the original is confined largely to her rapier-like tongue. The zombie strand is not always so happily integrated – the division of zombie society by an aristocratic minority who lord it over the common undead was rather laboured.

Confusion (for viewers of a certain age) in that Lily James, who is spot on as Lizzie Bennett zombies or no zombies, bears more than a passing resemblance to Elizabeth Garvie of the 1980 BBC TV adaptation. She is also fresh from her role as Natasha Rostova in the beautifully produced BBC serial War and Peace. To compound this confusion, her poor, plain friend Charlotte Lucas is played by Aisling Loftus (poor, plain cousin Sonya in War and Peace), while the famous lake scene, which elevated Colin Firth to sex-symbol status but is not part of Austen’s novel, is nicked from the 1995 BBC version.

The film raises a hornet’s nest of adaptation issues, but such is the cultural influence of the novel (and presumably the desire of those involved to appeal if at all possible to Austen acolytes as well as horror-lovers), that the spirit of the original can still be discerned through TV intertexts and in spite of the mash-up. It’s absolutely bonkers, but visually appealing and quite entertaining. Worth a fiver (cinema tickets seem to have got cheaper) if you have a free evening. On the other hand, you could also safely wait until it comes on the telly.

Matisse Exhibition, Tate Liverpool

There is a wonderful Matisse exhibition on at the Tate Liverpool (free, till May). The centre piece is undoubtedly the surprisingly large ‘The Snail’, but there are 14 other fascinating pieces tracing his development from a figurative painter, through Impressionist and Fauvist phases, to the abstractions of colour and shape of the 1950s. ‘The Snail’ represents the development of this process to a pure experimentation with colour and shape. The orange frame contains cut-out blocks of hand-mixed colour which both contrast and balance each other, while at the same time suggesting the natural spiral of the snail’s shell.

The gallery is a wonderful day out on its own, but it is also surrounded by museums (Maritime, The Beatles and Liverpool), as well as great places to eat and shop. And, if you have the time, there’s always the ferry across the Mersey.

Harper Lee, the author of the iconic To Kill A Mockingbird, has died at the age of 89. The novel tells the story of the heroic lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends an innocent black man accused of raping a white girl in segregated Alabama. The novel, scandalously, was removed from the GCSE syllabus recently to make room for more ‘English’ literature about drawing rooms and manners. It’s a shame, as generations of students have been given a genuine insight into the legacy of slavery and the pernicious effects of racism and have, I suspect, become better people as a result. Lee, interestingly, grew up in the same small, Southern town as Truman Capote (author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and helped him to research his seminal non-fiction crime novel, In Cold Blood (which we study on the Crime Scene America module).

File:Atticus and Tom Robinson in court.gif

Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson in the Oscar winning film of To Kill A Mockingbird (WikiCommons)

Robin Hood and Marian

If, like me, you are prepared to believe that the Sheriff on Nottingham has a sudden Marxist epiphany that there are Robin Hoods all over the country ready to topple the odious King John, that it is Robin himself who forces John’s hand to create a great charter for the people (and call it Magna Carta), and that they are all terrified into doing this by a baby dragon, then you would have had as much fun at the New Vic’s production of Robin Hood and Marian as we all did last week. Students and staff bought their extra-small students (ranging from 5 to 11ish) to enjoy the perfectly pitched and paced singing, dancing, juggling and tumbling, and proper scary sword fighting. We even had the added excitement of the set catching fire a little bit. My 7 year old was seeing it for the 3rd time – once with school, once with family and friends, and here on the departmental outing – and was still mesmerised.

Marian here is cast as Robin’s equal in sword fighting and archery, instead of just his love interest and a damsel in distress. And, because the New Vic is theatre in the round, the whole audience are within a sword’s length of the stunning fight sequences, leaving everybody on the edge of their seats. The circular stage becomes the archery target on which the struggle between the sheriff, Robin, and the brilliantly name Hubert the Archer (son of Hubert the Archer, son of ….) is played out.

This family production, which thankfully avoids any pantoness, is as impressive as the wonderful The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which the Vic put on a few years ago and productions of which are staged all over the country every year. Recent years have seen Alice, The Borrowers and 101 Dalmatians; I can’t wait to find out what next year will bring.

This spring we will taking in Northern Broadside’s Merry Wives, a new production of Pinter’s The Caretaker, and perhaps a trip to the RSC to see Hamlet.

Image by Andrew Billington New Vic Theatre


City of Culture?

You may have heard that Stoke is bidding to be the next ‘UK City of Culture’ (2021).  This accolade brings to the title-holder economic benefits of millions according to the 2014 Government consultation paper and has previously been bestowed on areas commonly considered cultural backwaters (Derry 2013, Hull 2017).  The very idea has met with derision in some quarters, but Stoke is in with a chance on two counts – it fulfils the implicit criteria of economic depression and social deprivation, as well as the stated requirement for ‘a high quality cultural programme that builds and expands on local strengths and reaches a wide variety of audiences, creating a demonstrable economic impact and a catalyst for regeneration as well as contributing to community cohesion and health and wellbeing’.  In recent years community-directed arts programmes such as Appetite, B-Arts and Live Age have burgeoned.  Stoke also hosts the very well regarded British Ceramics Biennial and now has its own ‘Hot Air’ Literary Festival.

There is a small but distinctive literary heritage, for those who care to look.  Stoke’s best-known literary son, Arnold Bennett, realised quite early in his career the potential of the Potteries for artistic representation and attempted to awaken his audience to the grimy glories of the industrial landscape:

They are mean and forbidding of aspect – sombre, hard-featured, uncouth; and the vaporous poison of their ovens and chimneys has soiled and shrivelled the surrounding country …. Yet be it said that romance is even here – the romance which, for those who have an eye to perceive it, ever dwells amid the seats of industrial manufacture, softening the coarseness, transfiguring the squalor, of these mighty alchemic operations. Look down into the valley from this terrace-height where love is kindling, embrace the whole smoke-girt amphitheatre in a glance, and it may be that you will suddenly comprehend the secret and superb significance of the vast Doing which goes forward below.

Today award-winning, Stoke-born author, Lisa Blower, nods to Bennett in her forthcoming novel Sitting Ducks, a story set squarely in post-industrial Stoke: http://fairacrepress.co.uk/shop/sitting-ducks/.  Watch this space.