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Friday interesting things

HOO BLOODY RAY an end is in sight.

My news desk has been one person short since October; we’ve been just about managing, but shifts have been tiringly busy and we haven’t been allowed to take any holiday, which has made me feel quite cramped and woolly-headed. Now I know many people such as Americans and freelancers who go several months and more without a day off, and have even done so myself, but when I took this job a big part of the appeal (aside from the money, and being able to say “Well, I report on terrorism” and sound cool at parties) was that it offered a good amount of time off to write and travel. Though it’s a fascinating place to work and I enjoy it, I am definitely not a Live To Work person, and it’s been difficult not having the time and space to really think properly, never mind Do Things.

But we’ve finally hired a new person! Who’s starting in a week and a half! And oh, then we’ll all rush to take our holiday time before it expires in July, and the spring will be lovely and warm and relaxed, unless of course the Tories get in with a majority in May and I am forced to take out David Cameron, Theresa May and George Osborne in some kind of murder-murder-murder-suicide event* (picture a game of duck-duck-goose gone horribly wrong).

Until next week, here are some interesting things I’ve managed to catch while flicking through Social Media on my phone on buses:

Travel

I really liked Katrinka Abroad’s post about travel and developing adaptability.

History

When I go back to my hometown Portland, I always have a bit of a shock at how it looks compared with London. London is a multicultural city; nearly everyone in Portland is white. We covered Oregon history every year in school, but never talked about why this is, like it was just some weird coincidence. On Gizmodo: Oregon was founded as a racist utopia. As it says, “This is not to pick on Oregon in particular as being particularly racist and terrible. The de facto exclusion of any non-white people from a number of businesses, institutions, and communities occurred throughout the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Oregon seems to have been just a bit more vocal and straightforward about it.”

Oregon, especially Portland, has a reputation as being a lovely progressive paradise, and in a lot of ways it is; I love it there and it was a wonderful place to be formed by growing up. I don’t think acknowledging the state’s racist history means going “shame on you Oregon, shaaaame, shaaaaaaaaaame“, but more thinking about how places and cultures identified as Lovely Progressive Paradises are often built on and tangled up in systematic awfulness in other ways. (See also Lovely Progressive Amsterdam and Zwarte Piet.)

Shakespeare

In further EVERYTHING I KNOW IS WRONG news, it wasn’t illegal for women to act onstage in Shakespeare’s England???

Drinking

A mad scientist drinks historian who according to Wikipedia is known as “the Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages” analysed casks from the grave of King Midas and worked with a brewery to recreate the ancient drink he thinks they contained.

I was trying to figure out why you’d look at a bronze vessel with traces of wine, beer and mead and think “the ancients must have created some kind of wine-beer-mead Frankendrink” instead of “the ancients must have reused their bronze jugs”, but then a friend pointed out that only one of those means you get to create and consume a wine-beer-mead Frankendrink. Said drink is called Midas Touch and put out by Dogfish Head; it isn’t available in the UK but I’m going to look for it when I visit the US this spring. I expect it will be kind of awful, but who knows!

 

*dear people from whatever yet-to-be-disclosed counterterrorism agency reading my emails, THIS IS A JOKE

4

Drunk Theatre: “HVI: Play of Thrones” at the Union Theatre

The Union Theatre isn’t technically above a pub, though it feels like it might as well be. It is, however, just around the corner from Baltic, a restaurant/bar that does very good cocktails, so good that before heading to the theatre, Louisa and I had four. (Between us. We’re not total animals. Yet.)

Exploring connections between the Game of Thrones series and the historical Wars of the Roses isn’t new. There’s a really excellent site History Behind Game of Thrones and an upcoming book entitled, er, Game of Thrones and History. What Phil Willmott, director and adapter of HVI: Play of Thrones, has correctly picked up on is that there is also a strong literary similarity between the Game of Thrones series and Shakespeare’s trilogy of Henry VI plays, in that they both go, “Oh, the Wars of the Roses? Sounds great, let’s add some pirates, magic, adultery, witches, over-the-top gore, bad jokes, zombies and/or robots and basically just go totally bonkers with it.”

Willmott takes this further and goes totally bonkers with the Henry VI plays themselves, creating a sort of mash-up of a historical mash-up, which was the most fun I’ve had at a Drunk Theatre since the time we got so pissed we lost the National Theatre. Now Shakespeare’s plays obviously messed with history, not just in things like ‘adding magic’, but in combining characters and rejigging timelines, eg creating a sniping rivalry between Eleanor Cobham and Margaret of Anjou, who never met or even lived in the same place at the same time. Because the history he wrote about was fairly familiar to his audience, I imagine the Londoners seeing the Henry VIs for the first time at the Rose in the 1590s probably had the same reaction Louisa and I did to Play of Thrones last week, namely:

  • “WAIT WHY ARE THOSE PEOPLE KISSING, THEY DIDN’T EVEN MEET”
  • “WHAAAAT WHY IS THAT CHARACTER SUDDENLY INVADING FRANCE”
  • “HANG ON, SHE’S SUPPOSED TO BE DEAD, WHAT IS GOING ON
  • Rushing to the bar at the interval to split two bottles of wine (ssh) and go “OKAY WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING, ALSO THIS IS AWESOME“.

The other excellent thing Play of Thrones does is exaggerate the most fun parts of the characters and plots in the Henry VI plays, including cobbling together several fun characters to 1. keep the cast manageable and 2. make really fun characters. Snotty lawyer Vernon and plotting priest John Hume are combined into the invented character of Sir William Herbert (Patrick Holt), who skulks around being smug and conniving, and another lord is given Clifford’s story of bereavement and violent revenge.

The character who benefits most from the adapted text is the earl of Suffolk (Gavin Kerr), who cracks me up every time I read the plays but no production until now seems to think is as hilarious as I do. Suffolk is a medium-level lord who has both an enormous capacity for hedonism and a vastly overexpanded opinion of himself. Literally every other English lord in Shakespeare’s history plays goes to France to win battles. In Suffolk’s one single scene in France, he spends the whole time hitting on a hot girl. His response to “I met a total babe abroad, but oh no, I’m married!” is “OK, I’ll manipulate King Henry into falling in love with her and then she’ll become queen and move to England and ummmm I’ll sort out the rest later w/e w/e”. His reaction to being captured by pirates who want to kill him is to say, with no irony whatsoever, “You know mate, I really identify with the god Jove right now”. No production I have seen until now has got across what a cheery opportunistic dudebro he is, which was why I howled when Kerr strode onstage in, like, laced-up calf boots and a shirt way unbuttoned and a coat with a giant fur collar and a pirate sword, and in his second scene stripped off to do shirtless push-ups to impress said hot girl, and in later scenes wandered around Westminster Palace drinking champagne straight from the bottle.

Play of Thrones also cuts Henry VI‘s English military hero John Talbot, and gives Suffolk some of his victories, lines and plots, which is relatively accurate to history, if not to Shakespeare. Historically Suffolk was on campaign in France for more than a decade; in Shakespeare, he spends the first play hanging around with his buddy Somerset in London like a 15th-century Boon and Otter, sniping at Omega House York and Warwick. Also, in the Henry VI trilogy Suffolk, er, dies halfway through, something he notably fails to do in this adaptation, which is fine by me because I’m always up for opportunistic dudebros and the ambitious queens they love.

And oh man you guys what a queen. Shakespeare’s Margaret of Anjou first enters as a prisoner-of-war captured by Suffolk. After a brief (and very silly) flirtatious conversation, she kisses him, and Suffolk sets off to England to persuade the king to marry her and bring her to London. But instead of this meet-cute, Willmott lifts another story from the Henry VIs about a conquering English soldier and a seductive French woman – Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne. In the original, the countess sends a message to Talbot complimenting him and asking him to dinner, but reveals to the audience that she plans to trick and capture him. Talbot figured out the plot and, when the countess moves in to tie him up (oo-er), his men are ready, and break in and stop her. The countess says, “Oh, never mind, well, I like you, let’s have dinner together anyway” and everyone goes cheerily off into the dining hall.

When Suffolk and Margaret (Emma Kelly) act out this story in Play of Thrones instead of the battlefield capture, it totally recasts their relationship: it means Margaret already has a clear interest in Suffolk before they meet, and takes the initiative in arranging to see him. Instead of their love affair starting with a woman being captured and threatened by a man – and possibly only flirting with him as a defensive tactic – it becomes a story about two clever confident people who happen to be on opposing sides trying to one-up each other. It makes it clear why they’re so drawn to each other from the start, and though it does show up how French women in the Henry VI plays are interchangeably deceitful and witchy, giving Margaret the initiative puts her subsequent relationship with Suffolk – which strengthens into a deep, committed love – on firmer ground. (Also, pushups. Actually my favourite bit is how Willmott has Joan also hanging out at Margaret’s castle, which does rather give the impression that the ‘Let’s invite that hot English soldier over for dinner and trick him and tie him up’ plan was cooked up by the girls over a few bottles of rosé d’Anjou.)

Some nice line readings also add shading. Suffolk’s being married when he meets Margaret means their romance can be hard to sell as true love, but Kerr picks up on a line Suffolk says as he’s trying to persuade Henry VI to marry Margaret, and bring her to England – “For what is wedlock forced but a hell, an age of discord and continual strife?” – and uses it to tell us that Suffolk is reflecting on, and regretting, his own bad match, in a context where marriages were usually not for love.

Margaret’s marriage to Henry is also immediately shown to be a huge mismatch in a comic time-lapse that shows Henry praying for hours while Margaret, annoyed, fidgets, fans herself and finally sneaks out to make out with Suffolk (oh, you kids). Henry’s incessant piety is funny, but it also hammers in how frustrating it is for clever, energetic, politically adept, sexually enthusiastic Margaret to be trapped in a marriage with someone who turns away from her lips to kiss her cheek, and whose most passionate speech in the whole trilogy is about how nice it would be to be a shepherd with no responsibilities. (She also complains that Suffolk misled her about Henry’s ‘proportion’, and this is the first production I’ve seen that plays that line as the dick joke it obviously is.)

Paul Adeyefa as Henry has the same problem as a lot of Henry VIs I’ve seen, which is that the character as written is a bit waffly and more interested in praying than a) governing or b) his wife, but directors keep casting super intense hot guys.

Paul Adeyefa as King Henry VI in ‘HVI: Play of Thrones’. Photo (c) Scott Rylander

 

‘your acting is great but maybe could you brood a little more wimpy, less sexy?’

‘sorry no’

He comes into it in the second half, when Henry stops handwringing about wanting everyone to get along, and starts tearing into people. Henry VI is stereotyped as a ‘weak king’, but the way Shakespeare writes him he’s very committed to pacifism and piety, praying almost aggressively at people, especially as he grows up. The adapted script gives him a strong arc as he matures into self-confidence, and happily doesn’t cut the glorious ‘molehill’ speech where he fantasises about a shepherd’s life. Adeyefa’s last scene with the future Richard III (Michael Keane, super creepy, wielding pliers) was excellent; he knows Richard has come to kill him so he really pulls the stopper out with the rhetoric, and after pointedly praying for the last time looks up to Richard and signals him to strike.

Other things:

  • The mash-up approach sets out its stall in the first ten minutes, when Joan of Arc (Abigail Carter-Simpson) visits Young Talbot (Zak Reay-Barry) in prison (what), starts waving his dead dad’s head around (what? sure), and then they fight (sure), and when she wins he starts declaring his love for her (WHAT), taking over Charles’ lines from the original play. WELL OKAY THEN! These are not the Henry VIs you’re looking for, I don’t think we’re in Stratford any more, etc.
  • The Duchess of York!! York is not only played by a woman (Penelope Day) but the character is fully genderswapped, and wow does it make the story crackle. York’s gloating over Henry unintentionally dropping an army in her lap is electrifying in the mouth of a woman who has been severely underestimated by her male peers, and making York vs Margaret a battle between two women totally transforms the insults they hurl at each other. Also, after York and Somerset (renamed ‘Lancaster’ for narrative clarity; played by Simeon Oakes) spent the whole first half about three inches from each others’ angry faces, we spent the interval trying to figure out whether they would kill each other or make out.
  • The first half ended on the cliffhanger of Henry fainting and Margaret thinking he is dead, and the whackadoodle script editing meant we genuinely had no idea whether they had killed him off or not. How often do you hit the interval at a Shakespeare play having no idea at all what’s going to happen next?
  • I do think the story lost something in cutting Edward, Margaret’s son with Henry, as it meant the Lancastrian side didn’t have obvious stakes in the fight for dynastic legitimacy. (I’m guessing he was cut because of the exaggeration of Margaret’s sexual incompatibility with Henry and her ongoing relationship with Suffolk, since fighting for the future of the House of Lancaster doesn’t make sense if Edward is illegitimate.)
  • Hilary Derrett does excellent work as the Duchess of Gloucester, especially when the duchess meets her husband (Alexander Scrivens) on the street during her public penance. The writing is so strong – it’s one of those scenes where you can just point two good actors at each other and give them room – and it was just a wonderful pleasure to watch and hear her rolling through the text.
  • Loved the battle of Towton being signified by snow blowing over the bodies of an old man and a young man. Shakespeare’s ‘Father who has killed his son’ and ‘Son who has killed his father’ didn’t have lines, but it was still a powerful, cold image of bleak annihilation.
  • I wasn’t quite on board with the scene where the duchess conjures a demon, when Play of Thrones for some reason (budget?) ramped down the bonkersness instead of cranking it up. In the Shakespeare Henry VIs, a witch and a magician really summon a real demon, who appears onstage and delivers a few spooky prophecies. In Play of Thrones, the supernatural stuff is Suffolk and Lancaster doing silly voices and blowing into wine bottles. Now, I’m always up for silly voices and wine bottles, but it seems like a waste of a ridiculous over-the-top magic scene, especially when you’ve been hammering on the Game of Thrones parallels.

Basically what Play of Thrones gets is how much straight-up fun the Henry VI plays can be. Bad productions often turn the histories into Indecipherable Mass Of Blokes With Place Names Shouting At Each Other Theatre, but look, look – it doesn’t have to be that way!

0

Reading Shakespeare at Crisis at Christmas

Christmas in London is really impossible to not take part in. Even if you don’t go into shops, drink in a pub or bar, work in an office or watch TV, it’s all over the streets, and good luck going anywhere because transport shuts down for a day and a half. I used to be stroppy about this and feel very self-righteously oppressed, since I grew up in the US, where public Christmas actually is about public Christianity. But in the past three years or so I have got over this and come to appreciate that the general British aversion to public religiousness extends to this holiday, and in London especially, ‘Christmas’ in practice is really just a secular festival about light, booze and food, all things I can well get on board with.

This year I signed up to volunteer at Crisis at Christmas. Over 23-30 December, the homelessness charity Crisis takes over donated buildings (mostly schools and colleges, which are closed over the holidays) and turns them into centres where homeless people can eat, socialise, be warm and indoors, and have free access to services like legal advice, dental and eye care and haircuts. Depending on volunteers, there are also things like manicures and massages, films, musical performers, yoga lessons, and football matches.

The volunteer sign-up form asks if you have any services or special skills you can offer, including an option for ‘leading performing arts activities’, and I decided to sign up to lead Shakespeare workshops. Two days later I got an approval email, for the three days I’d said I could do – December 25, 27 and 29, working shifts from 10am-7pm – as well as a general induction on December 14.

Induction

Crisis at Christmas has been going since 1972, and there are lots of rules in place to keep guests and volunteers safe, and make sure everyone gets the help they need. (“Guests” is the sympathetic word for the people who come to the centres.) Volunteers are not allowed to: give our full names or contact details, do any first aid, donate anything directly to guests or make promises of any kind. We were warned about making accidentally insensitive conversation, like complaining about having to spend time with family or talking about expensive holidays. If we had the slightest inkling of a cold or flu, we should call in sick, because guests may have health issues that any kind of contagious illness would make worse. Since people living on the streets are used to being briskly ignored and walked past, volunteers were especially encouraged to suppress our Londonerness and smile at and greet people as we passed them. So we knew what to expect, we also got a demographic breakdown of the usual guests: my centre would have 200 guests a day, around 80% of whom were men, and around a third did not speak English as a first language.

Our most important job as arts activity leaders was to help guests lift the persistent feelings of shame that settles around your shoulders when you don’t have a home, and give them confidence about their abilities and interests. “Crisis centres are where guests come to have a good time, or at least not have to think about their crap lives for a bit, and just, you know, feel like they’re normal people in normal society for a day,” the induction leader said.

Now, I was confident in my own ability to Make Shakespeare Fun, and more importantly I had already told several friends I was volunteering on Christmas day so I couldn’t back out, but as the day got closer I was very nervous about the brief as I understood it, which was hanging out with lots of middle-aged men who didn’t speak English very well for nine hours to try to make them feel good about their grasp of Shakespeare. I picked a few scenes I thought of as being short, fun and not too complicated – Malvolio finding the letter in Twelfth Night, the murderers arguing about killing Clarence in Richard III, and Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches – and thought I’d figure it out when I got there.

December 25

On Christmas morning I woke up early, opened presents with Ewan, had a shot of one of my gifts (Diplomatico rum), and set off down Holloway Road. The centre was about an hour’s walk away, and London was quiet, blue-skied and not too cold. I didn’t even need a coat.

It took me all day at the centre to figure out that there wasn’t a set schedule, and activity organisers were supposed to just go around drumming up interest ourselves, and grab a room once we had any interested guests. While I was waiting to hear back from senior volunteers about room space, I did some painting and chatting with a guest who gave me her painting as a thank-you (I really teared up), called a bingo game and offered to help with karaoke. Around 4pm a senior volunteer said I could use the theatre/cinema between films, but when I stuck my head in, around twenty people were sleeping in the warm, dark room while Skyfall played, and there was no way I was going to wake people up and kick them out, so I went to help with the karaoke instead.

They needed volunteers to sing the first few songs to give the guests a little encouragement to get going. (“Karaoke is a little more fun at the Gate,” one of the senior volunteers said – the Gate is the centre for guests with substance dependency, where alcohol is allowed.) I picked “Pretty Woman”, and halfway through singing it discovered that I only know the verses and not the bridge, which at least made the guests laugh. Afterwards more people starting coming up to sing and some of us started a dance floor; it was very jolly and from my perspective succeeded in feeling like a ‘normal’ night out dancing, which was the point. I ended the shift at 7pm very sweaty and got a (surprisingly inexpensive!) cab to a friend’s in Stepney Green for Christmas dinner, where we drank a lot of wine and broke into a park and played on the slides.

December 27

Now that I had a better picture of what the day activity at the centre was like, I also had a think about what exactly I wanted to do with Shakespeare there. Though it is obvious to me that reading through Shakespeare is an extremely fun activity to do with friends, I can appreciate that not everybody shares this opinion, and after spending a day at the Crisis centre, it was pretty clear that my vague idea of throwing people and bits of Shakespeare at each other was more likely to make people feel stupid and that Shakespeare is this impenetrable Thing than be a fun social activity.

Shakespeare is supposed to be the ultimate in English culture, a global icon and part of our national identity – but a lot of people also think he is impenetrable and only for posh people with expensive educations. Posh people say this, normal people believe them because it’s true that Shakespeare isn’t immediately easy to understand, especially if you’re reading him instead of seeing a play, and so this thing happens where one of the biggest symbols of England and Englishness is seen as something that’s only accessible to people with, at minimum, a middle-class humanities education. I have a middle-class humanities education but I also happen to think this is bullshit, so I decided my goal was to set out Shakespeare as something fun and not scary, and focus on the more ‘relatable’ (yes, Ira Glass) parts, like love, inequality and bad jokes.

So I moved the focus to very short two-person scenes and monologues that we could talk through properly, and settled on Beatrice and Benedick’s first conversation, Edmund’s ‘Now gods, stand up for bastards!’ speech and Shylock’s ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’, which is a bit heavy but is so brilliantly put together (and is also in prose, so I thought maybe less scary). I used No Fear Shakespeare to print out side-by-side Shakespeare and ‘modern’ versions of these. NFS is often hilarious and easy to make fun of, but I do think it’s a useful tool for breaking the intimidating superficial barrier of “Shakespearean language”, and helping people feel comfortable with the ideas before tackling the text.

When I arrived in the morning, I found another volunteer that day was hoping to do dance workshops, so we decided to join up and do a double workshop together. A professional theatre group was scheduled to come in and do an hour-long performance in the theatre at 11am, so I nabbed it for 12pm. After their performance I stood up and said, “Hey, if you enjoyed that, we’re leading a little dance and Shakespeare workshop in here in around ten minutes, so, um, get a cup of tea and maybe we can do some theatre together!” We ended up having eight people, which was really surprising as most activities got around four people.

The dancer led us in twenty minutes of physical games, which got everyone feeling collaborative and willing to look a bit silly in front of each other, and then we sat down in a circle and I handed out pages.

A young woman and her uncle read through Beatrice and Benedick in the No Fear Shakespeare version, and I talked a bit about who the characters were: a soldier coming back from war who’s also the class clown, a smart and confident woman who possibly used to have a thing with him but has been burned. We talked about out how, for people who keep loudly saying how much they don’t like each other, they sure can’t seem to stop talking to each other, and also something that Joss Whedon mentioned in the commentary of his movie, which is that when you’re two young eligible people who haven’t seen each other for years, loudly going “Wow, I sure hate love and marriage and stuff!” is as much saying “Oh hey by the way, I’m still single!” as it is “grr romance”. Then they tried reading through the Shakespeare language, and I encouraged them to stop and talk about it every time a word was unfamiliar or a joke was unclear.

One of the other guests, whose English wasn’t great, said he didn’t quite follow the line “I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted, and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart“.

I said, “Well, he’s saying that so many women fancy him that he could totally have anyone he wanted, but he’s too cool to go out with anyone, and that’s why he’s single.” He laughed, and I said, “Do you know anybody like that?” and he said “Yes” and I said “And do you believe him?” and everyone laughed and said “No” in a very ‘duh’ tone.

The next person who wanted to read had Shylock’s speech about ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’, which I was a bit nervous about doing without more preparation for everyone, but he was keen so off he went. And he followed Shylock’s argument absolutely perfectly: starting from the viscerally revolting image of using human flesh as fish bait, to the double injuries Antonio has inflicted on Shylock – financial loss and antisemitic abuse – to the apparently empathetic comparison of Jewish humanity and Christian humanity, with warm domestic images of pinpricks and tickling, but then curving back through poison to an argument of death and hatred: we are the same, and since you are total shitheads, I’m going to be a total shithead too. He started off reading it straight, but soon he picked up and went off, and near the end nearly all his words were his own: “He laughed at me, you laugh at me, you, you abuse me, why? Because I’m a Jew! A fucking Jew! And that’s okay? You people think you can, fucking talk to people like that, and not, without – revenge! Revenge, baby! It’s you! It’s fucking you!” It was a bit scary but completely electrifying, and everything he said was coming straight from Shylock’s argument and his anger.

Everyone applauded when he finished, and I was trying to figure out what I could possibly add to that, and he wiped his sweaty forehead and asked, “Why did they hate Jews so much?”

I thought, oh boy. I said, “Well, in history, Christians have been prejudiced against Jewish people for a lot of reasons – there was a belief that ‘the Jews killed Jesus’, and, um, Venice especially had this because there were a lot of different groups living together. It’s sort of like London is today, a big commercial city, based on trade, with lots of different immigrant groups–”

A senior volunteer stuck her head into the room and said that lunch had just started, and if people wanted to make sure they got food, they should go now.

“Oh yeah, just a minute,” the girl who’d read Beatrice said, and everyone turned back to the conversation.

Guys, talking about Shakespeare trumped lunch. Lunch! For people who don’t get regular food! I can’t describe to you what a shocking and proud moment that was. We talked a bit more about Venice, London, the problems of getting on with people who you don’t share cultural markers with, being visibly different than most people in a city in a way that means they feel free to kick you and spit at you. And then the other volunteer came back in and was like “GUYS REALLY FOOD GO GET IT NOW,” and we all thanked each other and the guests went to the cafeteria. I also got to hand out participation certificates, and they looked really pleased to see their names written on the line on “This is to certify that ________ has participated in Shakespeare reading”.

In the afternoon a senior volunteer asked if I wanted to run it again, but the general energy level seemed quite low and the theatre was being used for films again, so I just pottered around talking to people and played fiddle in an acoustic jam session another volunteer organised, which was great.

December 29

I woke up sniffling and cloudy-headed, and very conscious of the sharp instructions to not come in if we were ill, I dutifully called in sick and cancelled my shift. I discovered three hours later that what I had thought was a winter cold was instead just a hangover. Whoops. Oh well, there’s always next year.

 

If you want to try out volunteering next year, Crisis at Christmas does centres in London, Newcastle and Edinburgh. I was scared shitless on my first day but it turned out to be a really important experience to me, not in a “wow, those homeless people really ~taught me something~” way or a “hooray, I gave the gift of culture to the unwashed masses” way, but that most of us simply don’t have regular conversations with people who don’t have anywhere to sleep, and I think that’s worth doing as long as we are part of a society that makes them.

6

being rich

At 4pm on Friday, the last day in the office for most people before Christmas, the fire alarm went off. Without having to say so out loud, everyone knew that most of us wouldn’t bother returning for half an hour’s worth of work, so we shut down our computers properly before walking down the three flights of stairs to the ground floor. Outside we stood in the cold for half a minute, looking up at the Shard, then as one mass moved to the pub and ordered twenty cups of mulled wine.

We got to talking about the best food in London. My company has small offices across the world, and a lot of British employees use their annual plane ticket back to come home for Christmas. What they were most looking forward to was eating. A Berlin-based editor was planning a pile of ‘proper’ dim sum on the weekend. A Johannesburg-based writer lovingly described the pho he’d had for lunch. Someone mentions crispy aromatic duck, and it lodged in my mind, mentally crackling.

At around 4:30 someone from another department stuck their head in the pub and gave us the all-clear, and the poor souls who still had work to do finished their drinks and pulled on scarves and coats. The rest of us pointedly waited a few minutes, luxuriating in the pre-emptive weekend atmosphere of not having to do anything, then said our goodbyes and merry Christmases and peeled away.

I went to the station, got a train to Charing Cross and walked straight up to Four Seasons on Gerrard Street. I sat down. I ordered a portion of duck. It came. I ate it. It was fantastically good, as you’d hope from Chinatown’s self-proclaimed roast duck specialist: juicy, glistening fat, crispy skin, flavourful falling-apart-tender meat. Really, I think it was one of the best meals I’ve had all year. I felt so rich, being able to want a food and just go out and order and eat it. Not only in money, although being able to spontaneously drop £14.90 on dinner (with tea and service) is not something to take for granted – in 2008 that was most of my weekly food budget. But neither is living in a city where delicious crispy duck is so easy to find, nor is having a free hour to sit down, tuck in and enjoy excellent food without having to do or think about anything else but how nice it is.

6

Drunk Theatre: Henry IV, Part One and Part Two, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican

Last week I had three days off in a row (unprecedented pleasure!) and on Wednesday night I stopped by the Barbican ten minutes before curtain to see which Henry IV was playing, and whether there were any tickets left. It was Part One, and I got what I think must be the best seat in the Barbican. It’s AA3 in the upper circle, and I think it is the best because:

  1. It is £10
  2. The view is hardly restricted at all
  3. When you leave it opens straight out onto a martini bar.

Thirty seconds away from your seat.

 

AA3 is also right against the railing, so you can press your face against it once the martinis start working, and next to the bar is a loo with no queue. I’m never buying a ticket for another seat there again.

Henry IV, Part One (Royal Shakespeare Company, the Barbican)

Antony Sher is the big name, playing Falstaff. He said all the words very well, which sounds patronising but is really incredibly difficult with lines as dense as Falstaff’s: not a bad joke was dropped. He started at depressing and tired from the first scene, which I think is a mistake as it doesn’t leave anywhere to go in Part Two.

Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) is hot and takes his shirt off quite often, hurrah. His best friend Poins (Sam Marks) is also hot and takes his shirt off but not quite as often (this is remedied in Part Two). Both were Fine. Hal was a bit self-loathing about hanging around in Eastcheap all the time, but not sure on how to break out of it. The speech where he explains to the audience that it’s all part of a grand PR plan read like self-delusion that he kind of knew was self-delusion.

Northern rebel Hotspur (Trevor White) was not at all awkward like the character sometimes is, just angry. He, Warwick and Northumberland were very macho physical with each other, and the first scene about the rebel plot involved a lot of throwing each other around and doing intense talking while holding the other person’s throat. This dropped a lot of the humour but laid the work for the uprising falling apart later, from the potential rebel who writes to Hotspur to drop out to Northumberland just failing to turn up at the big battle. This is not a rebellion that is based on trust and good relationships among the conspirators, which is likely a reaction to Bolingbroke’s original breach of trust with them that prompted the uprising in the first place. I am not sure about this choice, because it made all the scenes about the rebellion veer hard into Blokes With Place Names Shouting At Each Other, and at least for me, you have to work harder to make me care about a bunch of rich white guys yelling, especially if you are the Royal Shakespeare Company. It should not be assumed that the audience will come with you, or care. It also meant rebellion lacked the bright apocalyptic feeling behind ‘Die all, die merrily'; there just wasn’t enough warm verve there.

Hotspur and Kate Percy (Jennifer Kirby)’s marriage was the usual mix of exasperation, insecurity and desperate love, two people who do love each other very much but can’t figure out how to say so, are sharp and jumpy and often decide to just drop it and run away instead of trying to thread the minefield of miscommunication. In such a hostile and fragmented family, Hotspur may very well have wanted to talk to his wife about the rebellion, but couldn’t bring himself to make the leap of trust, and Kate clearly saw that and internalised it (‘nay, since you do not love me, I will not love myself’). There was a bit where he held her up with one hand while speaking verse, which was quite hot. The clearest and most trusting relationship Hotspur had was with the Scottish fighter Douglas, which was based simply on enthusiasm for fighting, in which there is no room for misunderstandings.

Sitting in AA3 also means you get a good view of Sir Walter Blunt’s dead body lying half in the wings for the whole battle scene. Poor Walter Blunt.

Finally, the script changed the minor character’s name from ‘Gadshill’ to ‘Rakehell’ for no apparent reason? I think the audience can figure out that a character with a London place name, who turns up in the middle of the night at an inn and to whom everyone responds “Oh, go away, I’m onto you!” is a bit dodgy? It just felt annoyingly patronising and not necessary.

Henry IV, Part Two (Royal Shakespeare Company, the Barbican)

I’m coming to realise that Part Two is actually my favourite, after on Wednesday I found I was a bit sad that Part One was the one showing that night. It is extremely interesting and admirable, in my opinion, how much Shakespeare commits to doing everything he did in Part One all over again, but more crap.

Both parts have Hal and Poins pulling a hilarious practical joke on Falstaff in the pub. In Part One this is a great setpiece showing off Falstaff’s pleasingly self-aware exaggeration, and a flourishing coup de rhetoric in which he gets out of embarrassing both himself and Hal. In Part Two, Hal and Poins disguise themselves as bar staff and hide, and wait for Falstaff to say something embarrassing, but he doesn’t; Hal and Poins make fun of him for his affection for the sex worker Doll Tearsheet – but Falstaff and Doll already find their own relationship amusing, and don’t care – and then pull off their disguises to go “it was us all along!” to which everyone says “Oh, um, okay?”.

Both parts have a rebellion. In Part One this has Hotspur, Glendower, the great map scene which is possibly the best scene in both plays, compelling lines like ‘Send danger from the east unto the west, so honour cross it from the north to south’ and ‘broke oath on oath, committed wrong on wrong’, an over-the-top fightin’ Scotsman, a super dramatic full-circle-coming mano a mano, Harry a Harry fight, Falstaff fake dying, Prince John being a cold dick, a thrilling sense of catastrophe. Now – name me one of the rebels in Part Two. (You can have Hastings because of that line about him sounding bottoms.) Name me one thing they’re cross about. Quote me one line from any of them. They are, in my opinion, absolutely the shittest rebellion in Shakespeare. And when Prince John, notable d-bag extraordinaire, tells them “oh hey, we 100% agree with all your terms, why don’t you dismiss all your army and have a drink with us, and um we are keeping our army ready with swords aimed at you because of Reasons” they just go “oh man, brilliant, okay! We win! Way to go Team Us!” Muppets!

There are even smaller little echoes that are notably worse in Part Two: In both parts, Falstaff casually raises troops for his commission, and in Part One he laughs them off to Hal as ‘food for powder, food for powder’, a chilling joke that is I think one of Shakespeare’s strongest anti-war arguments. In Part Two there’s a tedious scene of him and his mates auditioning recruits that’s only bearable because his friends, Shallow and Silence, are so lovely. In Part One, Prince John’s cold dickery takes up about two lines; in Part Two it takes the place of a climactic battle, since he tricks the rebels into betraying themselves then immediately sends them off to execution, and Falstaff stretches out the time spent on it by complaining about it to the audience.

This is on purpose, I’m sure, the point of the play is Everything’s Shit Now. And I’m not being mean when I say the RSC is much better at Everything’s Shit Now than Whoo Rebellion Pub Whee! There’s a kind of static degrading that an establishment ensemble company can do more easily than the unhewed energy of the northern rebellion and the Boar’s Head. Part Two is about ripening, maturation and the death and decay that must come along with that, and this production conveyed that very fully and evocatively.

The other thing about my ticket on Thursday is that it turned out to be press night, so the upper circle was closed and I couldn’t get my new favourite seat. However, my £10 circle seat turned out to open onto another bar, the official RSC Press Reception, so at the interval I obviously walked confidently straight in and grabbed a glass of white and pretended to tweet thoughtfully. Everyone else there had been to Part One in the afternoon and to the previous three drinks receptions (pre-show Part One, interval Part One, pre-show Part Two) and I was confusingly one of the least drunk people in the room, an experience I’m not used to. I had a nice brief chat with the digital editor of a magazine I will not name, about the word ‘disruptive’, and some ‘really potent pot’ he had in my hometown of Portland. Never prouder.

Other impressions from Part Two:

Kate Percy and her father-in-law Northumberland were alone when she gave her good speech to him about why he shouldn’t start another rebellion, and although I thought her grief acting afterwards was a bit OTT considering how relatively pulled-together you have to be to make a speech like that, I liked the implication that they had a good enough relationship that she thought he’d listen to her. They also shared a small bit of exasperation about Hotspur’s Hotspurness which was lovely.

Pistol enters from the ‘hell’ trapdoor below the stage in a puff of smoke, or steam, with his hair standing up and his face smudged. He was doubled with Rumour, and that and the jokes objectifying him – about how he may ‘go off’, for example – made him seem a bit otherworldly and not human.

Oliver Ford Davies as the retired Gloucestershire judge Justice Shallow, who went to university with Falstaff, was simply lovely, friendly and open, someone you really want to be friends with in real life. So much of the plays are about conflict, realpolitik and deception, but every scene with Shallow it was just a joy to be in the same room as him.

For me the pleasure of Drunk Theatre (other than, um, the drinking, and the theatre) is the occasional moment late in the second act, when the cogs stop whirring and I just stop and go ‘oh, shit, that’s good’.

In the last ten minutes of Part Two, Henry IV sits on his deathbed, rattling off king lessons to his son Hal, and got to the advice to ‘busy giddy minds with foreign broils’, ie to distract from problems at home by starting wars abroad – which we know Hal, when he becomes Henry V, will do in France. At this line Prince John, Hal’s younger brother and one of the play’s worst people, who has just brutally put down a rebellion by lying, appears in the doorway in silver armour, holding his helmet on his hip, lit in chilly blue-white light. Cripes, guys, that was a good image. I’ll pay £10 for that any day.

 

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Who needs prosceniums

Another lovely thing happened at the Dover Castle ghost tour (post) that I’ve been turning around in my head.

Around forty-five minutes into it, we were all warmed up and really getting into being scared. Three nine-year-old boys had befriended each other and were goofing around near the front, and one of their mothers was giving me tips on Dover pubs for lunch. At the opening to the castle’s underground tunnels, the guide stopped us and we got ready to hear another ghost story.

“It was during the Napoleonic Wars that a big trunk of gold came in,” he started, “gold to pay the castle soldiers.” According to the story, the soldiers hadn’t been paid for months, so they knew the money pile would be a big one. Two scurrilous deserters (scurrilous is always an excellent word to get into a ghost story) found out when the trunk was going to be moved into the castle, and staked out the tunnel to the treasury that night.

“There was a little drummer boy who was carrying the money.” The guide held his hand up to indicate how tall the drummer boy had been – about the same height as the most wide-eyed of the boys up front. He made eye contact with him. “They came up behind him – are you going to be my little drummer boy?” The boy nodded, and jogged over. The guide grabbed his shoulders and held him in front of him. “They came up behind him, and said – give us your money! And the drummer boy said – what do you think he said?”

The boy looked up. “No.”

“That’s right. So they said it again. Give us your money! And the drummer boy said – ?”

“No!”

“Very good. Are you psychic? So,” with a flourishing sweep across his neck, “they slit his throat. And his body lay strewn on the ground.” An expectant space. “Strewn on the ground.”

“Well, go on!” a few people called out, laughing. The boy got it, and made the ‘erkgggg’ universal dying noise and flopped backwards onto the grass, throwing his arms out dramatically. We applauded. He lay there for a few seconds, then jumped back up, looking pleased, and did a little bow and went back to stand with his friends. The tour guide continued with and now his body haunts the tunnels and you can hear a tap-tap-tap drumming late at night when the blah blah blah.

I thought this was amazing.

First, how not a problem it was that we could see the seams of the story being created, and how easy it was to follow the guide as he jumped in and out of storyworld every half sentence. None of us knew the story beforehand, but he told it in a way that was impossible not to follow: folk tale logic demands that the virtuous young character says ‘no’ to the bad guys, and that he do it twice before something changes. The threats were actually a bit moving, with the real boy’s real nine-year-old body standing in for the doomed one in the story. And it made me realise how when you think about it it is quite weird to have a bunch of people including his mum and dad laughingly telling a child to get on with it and die. His death was exactly what happens in every tragedy: the lead character dies in a super dramatic way, is briefly still, then hops back on their feet to wave cheerfully at the audience, whose applause has brought them back to the real world and life.

I mean, basically what that boy acted out – resist, resist, die, revive to applause – was Hamlet. Then he went back to his friends and started making fart noises. It genuinely made me feel all teary-up about theatre.

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Header art by Tod Wills.