(nb: most of this was written on the train on New Year’s Eve, so “last night” = Dec 30th.)
In 2016 I saw 41 plays (and three staged readings, which were interesting but it feels unfair to put in with the rest because they’re not supposed to be fully realised pieces of theatre). Drunk Theatre stalwart Louisa and I tried to clear out the bottle-ends in the booze cabinet before the New Year, and carried out the immense task of force-ranking all our 2016 plays with Post-It notes. (for the record if you are also looking to clear out your drinks bottles, the “Monkey Gland”, a 1920s? cocktail involving grenadine and absinthe, was surprisingly all right.)
I’m always up for a Hedda Gabler, it’s just such a fun and well put together play. “Didn’t they just do one?” a coworker said when I mentioned it. “At the Old Vic? Sheridan Smith?” Yes they did and it was great so shut up. This one at the National Theatre stars Ruth Wilson (off the TV apparently, I haven’t seen her shows but she was great and sharp as Hedda) and is directed by Ivo van Hove, the so-hot-right-now avant-garde director who’s been packing out all the London theatres: the National, the Young Vic, the Barbican, even sharing the big box out the back of King’s Cross with the Donmar. As far as I can tell from production photos and reviews, this Hedda is a straight revival of his 2004 production at the New York Theatre Workshop – the same set and staging, down to the placement of the piano, and the same ‘shock moments’ (of which more later).
Oh my goodness I have been missing this kind of theatre, and I didn’t even realise until I went. A small white-painted wood-floored gallery under a railway arch in south London with one toilet and the “bar” a table run by an artistic director selling crisps and plastic cups of bag-in-a-box wine, and a collaborative poem about the project hanging on the wall, and gosh when I walked in I just felt a wave of artistic comfort and joy.
“Margaret of Anjou: a new play by Shakespeare” is taken from four of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III. Prof. Liz Schafer and dramaturg Philippa Kelly created a ‘new’ play about the character Margaret of Anjou – who is in all four plays, and is the character with the most lines in Shakespeare – out of Shakespeare’s text.
These advertisements were in every train station I passed through last week in Nord-pas-de-Calais, the area of Hauts-de-France (Upper France) known for Agincourt, the Somme battlefields, and the Calais refugee camp. The ads are paid for by the Hauts-de-France regional government, and tell you exactly what the European Union has contributed to the area: €219 million for science and research, €100 million for business, €59 million for youth training. Even on the train departure board at Arras, the regional capital, there was a little sticker explaining “Europe engages [or ‘commits to’] Nord-pas-de-Calais”. I looked up the slogan later and the ads are part of an EU awareness campaign, “Mon Europe, Mon Quotidien” (“My Europe, My Everyday”), that the Hauts-de-France region launched today, 29 October: every Saturday, the campaign will go to a different town or city in the region, set up a stand and tell people about what the EU has done for their area.
I have been fantasising about how the EU referendum in the UK might have gone if local governments in England and Wales had run campaigns like this. I’m not even fantasising about a magically different result (j/k of course I am), but just about what it would have been like to have this kind of conversation, actually talking about the pros and cons of the EU, instead of vague gesturing about the NHS and business, and racist incitement about immigration.
Sometimes in the UK you’ll see a small EU flag on something that has received European funding. But I have never seen signs like this, and during the referendum, the Remain campaign never gave a clear, loud statement about the benefits of the EU instead of the risk of leaving it. The Remain message that I heard most was “It will be bad for businesses and London banks” – because post-austerity that’s really the message that resonates with people – and “Immigrants: sometimes not that bad really? (although obviously we all want less of them)”. Seeing the “Mon Europe, Mon Quotidien” campaign made me realise how frightened and small-c conservative the Remain campaign came across, and how far the conversation in England has gone away from talking about reality, instead of wishes: I have heard nothing from the Westminster government either before or since the referendum about EU science funding, community development funding, social funding… (I say England and Westminster because the Scottish government has been much more on top of this, and I’m not aware enough of the conversation in Wales and Northern Ireland to be able to say.)
I’m excited to say my book proposal is now out on submission! This means it’s in as good shape as I (and, crucially, my agent Lydia, who knows What Book People Like) could get it, and now she’s sent it out to editors to see if any of them want to buy it. Some of them might be reading this RIGHT NOW which is quite nerve-wracking!
The book is about Shakespeare and the settings of his plays: what they’re like today, what Shakespeare would have known about them, and how stories can change the meaning and even the physical shape of places, and vice versa. Book lengths being what they are, instead of trying to write a very small bit about all 36(ish) plays, we went through and narrowed it down to the 12 plays and places where I felt there was a lot to say, and which make sense together. It includes the obvious biggies like Verona and Elsinore castle, but also some surprisingly rewarding ones like Navarre (Love’s Labour’s Lost) and Inverness and Cawdor Castle (Macbeth). I’m excited to be exploring all of them. People in publishing say that early book titles are very likely to change, but I really like our draft title: Kingdoms for Stages, named after the Chorus in Henry V’s wish for “a muse of fire…A kingdom for a stage, princes to act”.
One of the most pleasurable parts of writing my book proposal has been spending an evening or two a week propping up a desk in the British Library, which is surprising, because when I was an undergrad, I HATED it here. I spent a horrific spring term at the BL nine years ago researching my dissertation, which for some reason I’d decided to write about accents and ‘corrupted’ language in 18th-century northern Irish theatre (attn 20-year-old me: what?). Most of the plays I was looking at haven’t been republished since they were first printed, for the outstanding reason that they are not very good, so I had to go to up to Euston to read them in first editions.
And the building was just horrible then – there was no natural light, the air was weirdly still, the cloakroom queue took forever, the chairs were too big, the tea in the cafe was so expensive, and everyone seemed to know what they were doing except me. (Had the physical building become a kind of focus point for all my dissertation-related stress, including about how I’d literally be kicked out of the country if I didn’t do well enough? Surely not.)
So I was surprised when I came back last year, renewed my card (“Er, I’m writing a book-” “You poor sod. There’s a bar on the ground floor.”) and started a weekly date in Humanities 2, and it was lovely!