‘And nothing happens…’, The Provoked Wife, April 2019
Crime and Punishment, January 2019
The complete performance text of Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Ken Dodd and the Theory of Relativity, March 2018
A Streetcar Named Desire, November - December 2017:
The Angle of the Bow
Skyping from the deck of the Pequod
Ninagawa, October 2017
Introduction to the new printed edition of Grahame Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, adapted by Giles Havergal.
Sam Shepard, July 2017
Letter to The Independent, August 2014
Introduction to the printed edition of Holes, June 2014
Walking in a Windsor Wonderland: Some ramshackle reflections on directing Shakespeare's greatest comedy
Seminar given to the Shakespeare Institute, March 2014
The Authorship of the Self: Introduction to the Faber printed edition of True West
Meeting sculptor and playwright Jimmy Boyle, The Scotsman, March 2011
Introduction to The Hard Man, 2011
Article for the programme of Dumb Show, May 2009
Eulogy for Dennis McCaffrey
Wife: ‘And nothing happens…’
by Phillip Breen
The first reading of The Provoked Wife was a riot. The second took my breath away with its frankness. The third left a little shard of ice in my heart. The fourth reading made the ground shift beneath my feet. That feeling that when you encounter great dramatic writing - the play had no bottom. It’s insight in to what drives us went a long way down. Vanbrugh had taken a walk round my head and sent me correspondence from the furthest, darkest edges.
But every time I read the play - and it became a troubling compulsion to do so - I also had a strange sense of déjà vu.
When people asked me what it was like, I’d say it made me feel like seeing Pinter’s Betrayal1 for the first time, or Nina Raine’s Consent: that sense of standing before a mirror that simultaneously draws you to it and makes you want to run away. But I’d eventually settle on saying that the closest experience to it, was like reading Private Lives. Not the cliched stage Coward of smoking jackets and clipped Kensington RP, but the modernist Coward that heralded Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter2, the Coward where, in a reverie, Elyot tells Amanda
'My grandmother had a wonderful seat on a camel.'
The Coward where absolutely nothing happens.
On reading it, The Provoked Wife had a savage brittleness when anatomising the longing of the human heart and it’s single-minded, often destructive pursuit of what it wants (and the realisation that the characters did absolutely nothing with their lives but talk about it). ‘Yes’, I said, ‘It’s a lot like Private Lives’.
But the more time I spent with The Provoked Wife, the more I became convinced that this was not mere déjà vu, but that it might actually be one of the most quietly stolen from plays in theatre history. There was no doubt that The Provoked Wife was a big success, from it’s opening in 1697, it stayed in the English repertoire consistently for the next hundred years. The play went through a number of iterations and rewrites to stay one step ahead of censors and keep it on the stage in one form or another. One of the most famous portraits of Garrick3, who we are remembering in this anniversary year, is painted by Zoffany and depicts the great actor playing Sir John Brute dressed in his wife’s dress in 1768. So it’s possible that anyone with a keen interest in the great dramatists might have encountered the play, and if they had read it with acuity, unlocked its secrets and been inspired by its implications.
The world of The Provoked Wife is a world of unreliable narrators, self deceivers, contradictors, obsessives who live on the edge of their own nightmares. A world of uncanny pauses, elasticity of meaning and people for whom conversation is a moment by moment strategy to cover their own nakedness. A world of unknowable people who don’t much know themselves or what they want. Much like the world of Pinter. Funny enough, much like the world I inhabit. Of course Pinter’s language is considered by some to be wilfully obscure, in a deliberate attempt to obfuscate meaning, even borderline surreal. I consider him our most realistic playwright. I am much more worried by plays in which people walk on to a stage start talking and can immediately explain themselves and their actions clearly. There’s nothing naturalistic about that. Pinter and Vanbrugh set up, and then give you access to private codes that exist between people. In both Pinter and Vanbrugh conversation itself and the shifting, fragile notion of the self are not incidental to the drama but its central point of focus.
Vanbrugh’s approach to psychology and language are4 sharp and unsparing, they come first and shape the structure of the play - not the other way round. His plays frustrate some because they don’t adhere to the received ideas of stage comedies. It’s interesting to compare the following statements
In 1697 Vanbrugh attacked…
“the crowding of a comedy with a great deal of intricate plot. I believe I cou’d shew, the chief entertainment, as well as the moral lies much more in characters and the dialogue, than in the business and the event”
Two hundred and fifty years later, Pinter writes…
“A play is not an essay, nor can a playwright under any exhortation damage the consistency of his characters by injecting a remedy or apology for their actions in the third act, simply because we have been brought up to expect rain or sunshine, the third act ‘resolution’.To supply an explicit moral tag to an evolving dramatic image seems to me facile, impertinent and dishonest”.
As all the great playwrights understand; life is not lived generically, it’s lived specifically, and the it is in the ultra specific that the universal is found. We at first encounter this is as strange. Why isn’t this sex comedy behaving like a sex comedy, we ask in frustration?5 At the climax to The Provoked Wife a husband discovers that his wife has been (sort of) cheating on him by discovering the lover (who is his friend) in a closet. So what happens? Surely the husband stabs the man in question, or challenges him to duel, fights him in the street, or strangles the wife, all while having full poetic possession of his verbal facilities as he does so - you know, like in EastEnders or Othello. In act five of The Provoked Wife, there’s no final resolution. Sir John stands almost dumbstruck, not knowing what to say, he utters
“Gentlemen, I am your very humble servant, I give you many thanks…”
His friend, the lover leaves quietly, reminding the husband that he possesses a sword. The husband doesn’t understand why the lover reminds him of that fact, as he’s not been terribly disagreeable.Sir John repeats this over and over again and falls asleep, drunk.
Critics talk of the ‘problematic’, ‘anti-climactic’ act five of The Provoked Wife, where the climax isn’t even the climax, and when it arrives it is utterly banal. One can imagine Vanbrugh reading and watching a lot of drama of the time6 and thinking, ‘that’s not what happens when affairs are discovered’. He observes the complicity of the wife, the husband and the lover in an interweaving play of deception, self deception and ignorance, wilful and otherwise; as all three dance around the discovery of the thing that’s staring them in the face.
In Pinter’s Betrayal (1978) the discovery of the eponymous ‘betrayal’ comes half way through the play7 Robert, having intercepted a love letter from his friend Jerry, confronts his wife Emma in a hotel room in Venice with a measured calmness8.
Emma: We’re lovers
Robert: Ah. Yes. I thought it might be something along those lines.
Emma: When did you think?
Robert: Yesterday. Only Yesterday. When I saw his handwriting on the letter.
And nothing happens. But everything has happened.
Neither playwright goes for dramatic fireworks, but rather for the agonising piecing together in grim minutiae of how an affair is conducted and discovered. In both plays the husband likes the lover rather more than he likes his wife. In both plays, the lover might think he’s been given tacit permission by his friend. In tragedy we rush to the climax, and in comedy we ascend the stairs of our own house having come home early to hear our wife talking dirty to our best friend with the increasing dawning realisation of what’s going on as we climb each step. And at the top we all see each other in our psychological nakedness and it feels like a terrible dream and we just get on with living in the new complicated reality. Because we have to. And its bloody horrible. But it doesn’t destroy us. We just live. I guess that’s what a comedy is.
Both plays follow what the characters need to do. They don’t impertinently make the characters cohere to what the genre needs to do. So critics get confused; because it’s easier. The universal in the specific. The familiar made strange. You can see why Pinter might have been excited by the drama of this period9 and The Provoked Wife in particular.
Ibsen too, the great influencer of the English stage, I’m convinced, was familiar with The Provoked Wife and excited by how Vanbrugh structured the poem of his play. Brute (the coward husband), Constant (the passionate lover), and Heartfree (the sceptical realist) are a trifurcated representation of a man in love. In Hedda Gabler (1891) we have Tesman, Eilert Lovborg and Judge Brack in the same arrangement. For Hedda (and Vanbrugh) there is a tragic realisation that all of these qualities will never live in balance in one man. The dialogues between the men and the women shed light on the paradoxes and contradictions of what we appear to want in love. Hedda and Lady Brute are caught in the no man’s land between what they desire and their images of what it means to be a faithful wife. Even though the husband in both cases is not fit for purpose, and the women only married him for his status.
But it’s in the highly wrought, highly coded, highly conceptual negotiation between Hedda and Judge Brack of the specifics of how they might go about conducting their affair that put me in mind of act three scene one of The Provoked Wife. Knowing that there is no way out of the marriage, and that they can never be together publicly, Brack posits a way in which they can continue their assignation without the husband (who doesn’t want the wife (much) anyway) exactly knowing. What is psychologically fascinating about both scenes is the way in which the husband is crafted in to the fantasy that the wife and her putative lover create together. In both cases this fact appears to be the thing that makes the assignation palatable. In Hedda Gabler10 Brack and Hedda weave the following
Brack: The honeymoon’s over.
Hedda: It’s not you know. The train has only stopped at the station.
Brack: So jump off and stretch your legs.
Hedda: I’m not the jumping sort.
Brack: In the dark vault of their hearts all women are jumpers.
Hedda: I’ll stay in the compartment… Too frightened to jump; terrified of scandal
Brack: Suppose a friend were to join you in the compartment. A trusted friend, one of a small group?
Hedda: That’s very different… yes, that would be different.
In The Provoked Wife the image is that of Lady Brute’s honour as a precious jewel
Constant: … since you are already disposed on to one who does not know the value of the jewel you have put in to his hands. I hope you would not think him greatly wronged, though it should sometimes be looked upon by a friend, who knows how to esteem it as he ought.
Lady Brute: If looking on it would serve his turn, the wrong perhaps might not be very great.
Constant: Why what if he should wear it now and then a day, so he gave good security to bring it home again at night?
Or to put it another way: ‘I am happy with the idea that you can still be his wife to the world and my lover in private’. The lover intuits that it’s the appeal to her morality that will finally convince her to be immoral. Both Vanbrugh and Ibsen understand - as John Gray in his book Straw Dogs posits - that morality is something of an aphrodisiac.
DH Lawrence deserves a special thief’s mention for his play The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (1911). In which Mrs Holroyd is married to a brutish, drunken, whoring miner, she wishes him dead. He dies! She and her lover the school teacher Blackmore then discuss in tortured detail, how they’re going to be together over the expired body of her husband which is laid out on the kitchen table. This is a conflation of two scenes from The Provoked Wife, Act three scene one between Constant and Lady Brute (as mentioned in the previous paragraphs), and Act five scene three in which Lady Brute and Bellinda plot their futures in hushed tones as Sir John Brute is passed out through drink in his armchair. It’s Lawrence’s sympathy for all three parties that most closely ties Mrs Holroyd to The Provoked Wife, particularly in the daring depiction of Holroyd, a man who’s brutish behaviour is mitigated by the fact that he loves his wife far more than she loves him. Her simultaneous deep hatred and deep connection to her husband is a feature of both plays, along with the impossibility of society ever allowing the lovers to be together. Bellinda and Lady Brute’s muted duologue is one of the many moments of The Provoked Wife that appear to emerge very naturally from the situation of the drama, that arrive on stage by tiny increments, but leave a shocked audience thinking: “did I just see that? Did THAT just happen?”.
But the great plunderer of The Provoked Wife however, must be Tennessee Williams. In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) he imagines what happens when Lady Fancyfull comes to the French quarter. The similarities between Lady F and Blanche DuBois are striking - complete with a fruity use of la langue Francaise. Both have constant manic need for the comforting lies of flattery and reassurance. With both there’s a gossamer thin sense of self which is cruelly wiped away when they fall in love with the very man who takes the trouble to tell her what he and the rest of the world really thinks of her.
Let’s begin with Heartfree’s assessment of Lady Fancyfull
“[Nature has] made you handsome; it gave you beauty to a miracle, a shape without fault, wit enough to make em relish and so turned you loose to your own discretion…there is not a feature in your face but you have found a way to teach it some affected convulsion, your feet, your hands, your very fingers ends, are directed never to move without some ridiculous air or other”
And now Stanley Kowalski’s of Blanche
“There isn’t a goddam thing but imagination…all lies and conceit and tricks… And look at yourself! Take a look at yourself in that worn-out Mardi Gras outfit rented for fifty cents from a rag picker…what kind of queen do you think you are?… I’ve been on to you from the start! Not once did you pull the wool over this boy’s eyes…”
And all this leaves both characters in a kind of madness, because of the lies they’ve told to the world and most importantly to themselves leave them without the ability to tell the difference between truth and lies and therefore unable to navigate themselves out of their crises.
With both Lady F and Blanche there is much comic enjoyment for the audience in the characters preposterous fantasies. In the male admirers who probably don’t exist and their detailed back stories for them. There’s even a comic routine in both plays where Blanche and Lady Fancyfull sit down to write a letter and then persuade themselves to abandon it, then to write it again, and then to abandon it, with increasing mania, while a close female companion watches on, bemused.
In one of the most famous episodes of A Streetcar Named Desire, (and to my eye one of the most frequently misunderstood in recent productions), Blanche desperately wields a broken bottle at Stanley (her sister’s husband) in attempt to stop him from doing to her the very thing that she wants him to do. Lady Brute takes great pains to express the same thing to Constant in the Spring Garden in act four
Lady Brute: [Aside] Poor coward virtue, how it shuns the battle - [To Constant] Oh heavens! Let me go -
For both women, as Mademoiselle says in act one of the The Provoked Wife her
‘nature makes [her] merry and [her] reason makes her mad’.
Williams sees desire as a streetcar, a clunking great object which runs inexorably on rails between Elysium and the Cemetery and woe betide anything that gets in its path. Once you’re on that particular form of dirty public transport, that anyone can ride, it takes a strong person to get off before the cemetery. Vanbrugh sets his action in a more rarefied world but he’s offering the same observations.
After the trauma of nearly being discovered in Spring Gardens, the lovers don’t just go home to bed, they go back to Lady Brute’s house (it’s almost as if the idiots want to be caught) with their nerves on edge, not knowing what to do, the four lovers sit down opposite each other and play cards. Each looking at the other, wondering what the other has in their hand. It’s a moment of playwrighting genius, where the specifics of the dramatic moment takes on a huge metaphorical and universal significance. The poker game as metaphor for how we relate to each other in our love lives runs throughout A Streetcar Named Desire. As Blanche is being carted away to the madhouse and her life falls apart, the men sit down to cards and this funny, cruel and strange play is concluded with the line
‘The game is seven card stud -‘.
There’s every chance I’m wrong. This might not be the most plundered from play in theatre history. None of these playwrights may have come across Vanbrugh in their lives. They might never have picked up a copy of this under considered play. This is the advantage of being a director rather than an academic is that you can express wild hunches and nobody pays too much attention. But at the very least there’s some strikingly similar insights, observations and metaphors that link some of the best dramatic writing on sex and marriage in the English language. Vanbrugh was too busy revolutionising architecture to leave us with a great body of dramatic work11, but his great play deserves to be considered in the very highest company. We should look beyond the facile decoration of the received notions of ‘restoration comedy’12, beyond the wigs, and frocks and the fans to the heart of the matter. Vanbrugh’s brilliance as a comedian draws us to the stage, but it’s his ability to reflect our most complex drives and desires that keeps us there, horrified and comforted by our own face in the mirror, riveted by a play in which nothing happens.
1 In Terry Hands’ definitive Theatr Clwyd production of 2003, designed by Provoked Wife designer Mark Bailey.
2 When funding for the 1963 feature film of The Caretaker (directed by Richard Donner and starring Donald Pleasance) ran in to trouble a cheque arrived from Coward himself; among other unlikely admirers.
3 There’s a lot of competition, Garrick was the subject of at least 56 painted portraits.
4 I nearly wrote ‘strikingly modern’. Christ! Save us from the idea that that we are more sophisticated than our forbears. And from theatrical bunkum like ‘strikingly modern’ and ‘never more relevant’. As if these great playwrights were predicting our own unbelievably sophisticated golden age, rather than seeing the world that surrounded them.
5 SPOILER ALERT
6 Let’s take The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Othello as two examples where marital infidelity (either real or imagined) ends up in dramatic fireworks, one way or another.
7 The plot of which is presented backwards, in which the final scene is the beginning of the central affair.
8 I once heard a story of an Israeli actor who was convinced that Betrayal was an absurdist comedy, because he could not understand while Robert didn’t immediately ‘throw Emma out of the window’ on the discovery of the affair.
9 I'm convinced that like Vanbrugh, Pinter was also inspired by the end of Otway’s The Soldier’s Fortune (1680) in which its lead character is so traumatised by the events that he loses the power of speech. This is Stanley’s fate at the end of The Birthday Party.
10 I’m using Brian Friel’s brilliant 2012 translation.
11 Who knows what buildings Harold Pinter might have bequeathed us had he been given a set square and a spirit level for his tenth birthday, instead of a pencil and a notebook?
12 The Provoked Wife, is not strictly a ‘restoration’ comedy anyway. It’s strictly speaking, ‘early Williamite’.
‘Hell is other people’ Jean Paul Sartre
What about me?
It’s almost a cliche to say that Crime and Punishment changed my life.
But it did.
At nineteen – the same age as Raskolnikov – I was fascinated by the darkness, the despair, the filmic descriptions of the minutia of the murder. But mainly I was fascinated with myself. (And the fact that I had read a novel that long).
Then I returned to it in my late twenties when real failure was only of academic interest and found it funnier than I’d remembered, Raskolnikov’s poverty got under my skin, and like many fatherless boys I was drawn to Porfiry Petrovich. So I started to sketch out a comic play on these themes. And because I wanted to be some sort of Neitzchean theatrical superman, the play was in three parts and nearly nine hours long. I suppose I wanted to find out whether I was one of the ordinary or the extraordinary people. It was never put on, so unlike Raskolnikov, I got a pretty unambiguous answer to that question.
But the epilogue continued to haunt me, Dostoevsky’s premonition of how Europe would be engulfed in a conflagration, because in a Godless world, its people had contracted a disease that made them believe that each of them had the sole access to the truth. Thus neatly predicting Communism, Fascism and the fall out from our obsession with social media in one fell swoop.
Patiently Crime and Punishment waited for me until my mid-thirties, until I had really made a mess of my life. I picked it up again as angry atheist who had spent too long railing against the world from his Twitter account. I remembered the novel being dark, it was far darker than that, I couldn’t see the edges. It was funnier than I could ever have imagined. And it took opposing views about God and human nature, evil and the possibility of forgiveness, suffering and goodness. In doing so, it set up no straw-man arguments, set up to burn easily to prove that the writer was right all along, it set up only iron men, tough, indestructible dialectics on both sides, taking every idea to the furthest possible point, and laced these arguments with an agonising depth of human feeling.
There is forgiveness and grace in a world that is mostly cruel and unforgiving, posits Dostoevsky, and there’s redemption. What if we apply that idea to a man who premeditatedly, with full knowledge of what he was doing, murders a vulnerable woman, (and her sister as an afterthought) with an axe? What if we watch him attempt to justify it with arguments that range from the political to the psychological to the emotional? What is the thing that he cannot escape in himself and how does he know that what he has done is wrong? I know I’m excellent at justifying why I don’t recycle plastic carrier bags or give money to a beggars, even though I know I should. I also know that if I’ve done something that doesn’t please me, I can find a way of altering the very fabric of reality by persuading myself that I haven’t actually done it. I’ve flown to Japan, I haven’t contributed to global warming.
Dostoevsky puts us in the mind of an angry teenage petty thief and murderer who thinks he’s Napoleon Bonaparte, and through him, asks us to look at our own inner axe murderer. Crime and Punishment is a tragedy about someone who wants to be the author of his own life, he wants to be above the conditions, laws and conventions that bind us together, but when he does that, he finds that he has not risen above but, but fallen below his fellow man. By trying to be super human, he’s somehow become less than human. Raskolnikov’s great meaningful act of protest is messed up by something unforeseen, the murder of an innocent, and through this his whole picture of who he is shakes and dissolves around him.
Sonya is one of the ‘other people’, one of the great mass of humanity that Raskolnikov so despises, they are moral, he thinks, because they are cowards. They haven’t got the courage to think of anything new. But Sonya, who is crushed by circumstance and has not had the freedom to rise above anything, by breathing in and absorbing the hurt and the pain and the humiliation and the exploitation of the world has become - paradoxically - free. And perhaps divine. Through her he is able to speak the truth simply and directly, admit his crime and begin to make amends to the world. It’s by becoming part of the world and living in service to his fellow man, where redemption is found.
Inescapably, at the centre of the Christian church service is the image of a man tortured in mind and body. Every human body and every human mind is vulnerable to pain. This is the tragic realism of Christian faith as Dostoevsky saw it. As Sartre and his mates told us in the mid 20th century ‘hell is other people’. In Crime and Punishment , Dostoevsky showed me at various points in my life what we all know these days; hell is an obsession with the self. And the possibility of heaven can only lie in other people.
© Phillip Breen
The Complete Performance Text of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence,
adapted by Phillip Breen
Please click here to download a PDF document of the performance text.
All enquiries about performance rights, professional and amateur, should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Ken Dodd and the Theory of Relativity
An edited version of this was published in the Liverpool Echo on 13 March 2018.
This story is about how I tried to keep Ken Dodd’s lecture on Shakespeare down to 45 minutes...
Yes, I invited him to give a lecture on Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the Laugh-In Festival in 2005. I knew Shakespeare was one of the loves of his life and that he played a very famous Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1971. “Malvolio", he said "was the sort of man who’d go to a strip club and shout ‘what time are the jugglers on?”.
I met him the morning of the lecture and asked him how he had slept in the Tudor hotel we’d booked for him, he was rarely up before midday but brushed off his evident chagrin by responding “very well thank you. Hot and cold running ghosts”. The chauffeur-driven Rover swept in to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with Ann following behind in the Corsa. Ken, seeing a disabled patron leaving the box office, walked right up to him and said “alright Alf, how long you been on wheels?”. The man’s name was not Alf, he’d certainly never met Ken before and I think he had places to be; but he ended up hanging out with us for the rest of the afternoon as Ken posed by the Avon holding a skull and a tickling stick.
The plan was that he was going to give his address and then be interviewed by my friend, the up-and-coming comedian Mark Watson, who’d made a name for himself for doing shows that lasted 24 hours. I thought they could compare notes. I opened for Ken, explaining on stage that he only had 45 minutes, cue raucous laughter from the audience. I said that we had an RSC SWAT team in the dress circle with tranquiliser guns who would take him out on the dot of 12.45pm if he was still going. “Besides”, I said, “there’s a very nice lunch booked for 1.15”. He smiled, headed to the lectern and winking said “good luck, son”.
As he eased in to his third hour, he’d just told the audience “I knew Liverpool had been made European City Of Culture when I went up to Kirkby - Liverpool’s Ponderosa - and saw a car jacked up on Dostoevsky”, I had to tap Mark on the shoulder and tell him that his trip from London was probably a waste of time and that he almost certainly wasn’t getting on. At about half past three the festival’s schedule was in tatters, Armando Iannucci and John Oliver who were supposed to be doing a panel discussion with Ken on the subject of writing controversial jokes at 2pm, were pacing in the wings, and the audience, that included a who’s who of eminent Shakespearean scholars were wild with laughter. I didn’t know what else to do. So I walked on stage with a table, table cloth, two chairs, a napkin tucked in to my shirt and a knife and fork in my hands, sat down stage left and waited. It took him 20 minutes to even look up. The audience of course barely noticed I was there.
On some plane of alternate reality that lecture is still going on, audience screaming with laughter as Ken wheels out two thousand further one-liners about Pericles. Perhaps that was his real magic power; a man who bent time for those that observed him. Comedy’s living, breathing theory of relativity.
© Phillip Breen
Written for the programme of A Streetcar Named Desire, December 2017
“There is something about her uncertain manner as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth”
And this was Tennessee Williams working title for A Streetcar Named Desire. The moth; delicate, desiccated, off-white, gossamer thin, a little dusty, inexplicably attracted to the naked flame that will set it ablaze for a brief, spectacular moment and leave behind a scorched husk to be smudged by a finger tip in to dust on the kitchen table. Moths fly in straight lines in relation to the stars and the moon but they’re sent in to a tailspin of confusion by bright, artificial light, inexorably drawn to it, but tap, tap, tapping gently on the glass of the bulb - outside the object of their mysterious desire.
The fall of the house of Du Bois is precipitated by the “epic fornications” of their grandes dames et messieurs and the last of their number are drawn to the seedy neon grandeur of the French Quarter and the heat of Stanley Kowalski, Blanche flying straight for her Stella. Stella for star. And they are all consumed in the heat. But that didn’t satisfy Tennessee Williams. They are all consumed in the heat. Blanche, Stanley, Stella, Mitch, and poor Allan Grey.
He called his masterpiece “A Streetcar Named Desire”.
This thing, this mysterious thing. Desire.
It’s not a first class carriage. It’s not remotely exclusive. It’s a low, dirty form of public transport that anyone can ride on, its progress unstoppable, it runs on rails, unable to dodge anything that gets in its path, ferrying its benighted passengers from Elysian Fields to Cemetery. From the sweet, sweet lips of a seventeen year old boy to destitution. From your sister’s husband to the madhouse.
Williams believed that Freud had much to teach about the drives towards sex and death that so obsessed his playwrighting. Freud moved beyond his theory of the pleasure principle when he observed children play ‘house’ in the playgrounds of primary school over and over again, he believed, to attempt to tame the profound trauma of being summarily taken from their homes and thrown in to society. These children drawn back to their foundational trauma, reliving it, circling the flame, trying to understand this thing.
So it is with Blanche, ejected summarily from her home and her way of life, salving the wound by responding to the siren song of the several soldiers night after night on the lawn of Belle Reve, her beautiful dream. Belle Reve. Blanche, white, whiteness, haunted by her family’s expectation of her, haunted by her savage hypocrisy toward Allan Grey, when society looked on in moral opprobrium from Blanche to Allan and back to Blanche, as she told Allan publicly that he disgusted her to turn away from the white light of her shame. Allan so ashamed that he shoots himself in the mouth.
So she relives and relives, like the children in the playground, playing house, picking away at everyone’s shame, Stella’s animal desire, her new low circumstances, her guilt at leaving Belle Reve, Stanley’s animality, his aggression borne of his strong animal instincts being thwarted by having to live in ‘civilisation’; moth-like dancing from flame to flame. Wanting death. Trying to prettify a world that she knows can never be beautiful with paper lampshades. Her sex wanting one thing and her mind powerless, brittle as crepe paper in opposition. But then there’s Mitch. Out of nowhere. “Sometimes - there’s God - so quickly”… She hadn’t counted on the possibility of forgiveness. Divine forgiveness. Human forgiveness. Among the heat and the sweat and the booze and the death. It’s there. But still there’s something in her that wants to kill it.
Science can’t explain it. Moths watch other moths tumble out of the air and yet they continue to dance on the edge of their own obsession. Trying to understand it, trying to tame it, trying to touch it. Endlessly, inexorably, drawn to it. Heart pumping. With a vague remembrance that the stars are in the heavens while their paper thin wings lick at the flames.
Great works of art find a form for the unsayable, the most difficult to explain aspects, of being alive. Average ones find a form for the eminently sayable. Streetcar is a great play because in it, Williams starts to draw up a map of the dark unknown continents of our drives, his lines imperfect but immutably recognisable. In his dialogue he goes beyond Freud to suggest that it’s the obverse, not quite the opposite of death that is desire. This is territory that Williams explores for the rest of his career - watching his fellow humans ‘try to spell God’s name with the wrong alphabet blocks’. This play sets the agenda for twentieth century drama, and may well be its greatest flowering, others explore brilliantly the territory that Williams has revealed, but few discover new land. I admire Arthur Miller, but when I leave an evening in the theatre with him, I feel like I want to apologise to him for not being up to snuff as a human. I don’t want my name. You can have it. Honestly. I doubt I’d do very much heroic with a musket pointed in my face. I’d have seen any devil you’d cared to name. Christ, I buy my clothes in the full knowledge that they’re made by child slaves in Bangladesh. When I leave an evening in the company of Tennessee Williams, I get a sense of another broken human telling me that it’s ok. It’s ok you dirty bugger. It’s ok you filthy angel. It’s ok. It’s a cesspool at the minute, but by God, we’ve got each other.
© Phillip Breen
The Angle of the Bow
Written in Japan, December 2017. An edited version was published on curtaincallonline.com and was commissioned by them.
Streetcar has a rich stage history in Japan - almost as much as it does in the UK - there is a received idea about the play, the characters and how it should be done. Our Blanche, the great Otake Shinobu - a sort of Japanese Barbra Streisand / Helen Mirren1 - played Blanche for the first time for Yukio Ninagawa in 2002. The Japan Times thought that she looked “younger than her sister”, Stella. However the Japanese Streetcar is dominated by one name alone, Haruko Sugimura, who played the role on the Japanese stage for the Bungakuza Theatre Company for six hundred-odd performances over thirty-four years (Blanche’s stated age). She played the role for the last time well in to her eighties. Most of the cast can do passable impressions of her Blanche, which have them donning feather boas, running headlong from any light source and fainting on to a bed in Judith Bliss style paroxysms of hysteria. One of them did it after turning on their mobile phone last week. It looks fabulous. I was genuinely sorry to miss it. This Blanche was as much a Tokyo landmark as neon advertising.
So there’a a whole other text for the Japanese Streetcar even before we get to the actual text. Ours is translated by Koshi Odashima of Waseda University, it was done for Ninagawa in ’02 and it’s in many ways canonical. At first glance you notice that it’s big. Longer than the English version, in word count by maybe 15%, and anyone who’s directed A Streetcar Named Desire in English will know the exquisite fear experienced by glancing at your stopwatch after a one hour forty-five minute first stagger through of act one.
The length in Japanese, you realise (or at least I did), is down to the fact that a lot of the play is about class, and the Japanese have a vast linguistic structure around addressing another person and designating status. For example ‘Hajimamishite’ is a word used only on meeting somebody for the first time, it means, roughly “and so it has begun”2 accompanied by the angle appropriate bow. The Japanese attitude to others is encoded in the fabric of their language and there are attitudes and subtleties, very obvious to a Japanese sensibility, about how to approach social status.
It’s not too foreign a concept to the British. Try explaining to a Japanese person that when a ticket inspector on train in England calls you ‘sir’, firstly you must pay attention to the heavy, toxic exhalation before the word, and that he doesn't mean ‘sir’, he means something like ‘arsehole’.
So in our Streetcar we are witnessing the linguistic codification of a way of life that the Japanese have no other way of expressing, abutting against the mores of the southern American aristocracy, being directed by an English director not natively accustomed to the sultry New Orleans temperatures.
As Williams, through Blanche, tells us “life is so full of evasions and ambiguities”. The play is language games, it’s practically all evasion and ambiguity. So our translator has to judge where or where not to help his audience understand the drift of each character. Part of the word count is taken up in making explicit where this male translator in his fifties thinks his audience needs help with what is implied. On the one hand the actors are desperate to convey these subtle shifts of meaning in Williams’ text once they know what they are, and have found the text too explicit. But on the other hand a simple word like “why” is translated as a question, where as Williams uses as an exclamation to denote aristocratic status, like Scarlett O’Hara saying, “Why, I do declare…”. Which the translator is trying to fix.
Which brings us back to age.
In A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche DuBois tries to hide her age. More specifically, a major plot point revolves around the fact that Blanche pretends to be her sister Stella’s younger sister. Only problem is, Japanese doesn’t have a word for sister. Not an age neutral word like ‘sister’. There are two words ‘imoto’ meaning ‘younger sister’ and ‘oneesan’ meaning ‘older sister’ - I ask what the Japanese do with twins - of course there is a word for ‘twin’; which isn’t helpful. Stella introduces Blanche to Mitch thus -
“Oneesan, Mitchell-san, Hubbel-san, Gonzales-san desu”
“Older sister, the honourable Mr. Mitchell, the honourable Mr. Hubbel, the honourable Mr. Gonzales this is”.
The plot revolves around Mitch discovering that Blanche has lied to him about her age. She tells him later in the scene that she is Stella’s younger sister. God knows how this exchange played in Sugimura-san’s twilight performances.
This puts me in mind of an account Arthur Miller gave after going to see A View from the Bridge in China, where, on the first entrance of Catherine, Eddie Carbone walked downstage and said to the audience “I am in love with her…”.
Odashima-san has replaced most of the ‘Blanche’s’ in the play with ‘Oneesan’3. So the actors and I go back through the play replacing all “Oneesan”’s with “Blanche”, or “Buranchi” because there is no ‘ell’ sound in Japanese4, or “ch” sound. I argue that even in Japanese ‘Buranchi’ is translated to Mitch by Blanche, as meaning “white”, which with every new mention of the word as the play progresses, takes on a more and more complex meaning as her past is uncovered. “Blanche”, I say is very deliberately used as a linguistic game by the playwright, and that replacing this word with an implicit reminder of Blanche’s age starts to beggar belief. But Odashima-san tells me that to not address your older sister as ‘oneesan’ sounds strange to Japanese ear. I have often felt that this is one linguistic vortex that I should not be getting sucked in to - I don’t speak a word of Japanese. But when I see good actors blocked, when the physicality of an actor as great as Otake Shinobu stops operating with scalpel like precision and becomes vague, I know that we haven’t got the translation right. So we go back to the drawing board…
Odashima-san is translating culture and social structure, I explain we’re doing that with set costumes and gesture. I want him to translate what’s coming through the play, the ache, the cry of pain. He says that you can’t understand the ache if the play’s language is alienating to Japanese ear. This creative friction has made for very slow and at times heavy going in rehearsals, but what it has meant that is that the actors, Odashima-san5 and I have gone over every word of this play with a fine-tooth comb and it has been one of the most richly rewarding experiences of my life.
We have a whole new translation - which is both Japanese and American. And now it’s roughly the same word count in both languages. I’m told it sounds odd to a Japanese ear, but in a good way6, perhaps like the way the name and the patronymic sound in English Chekhov. Like a demented cowboy, I have lassoed good Japanese speakers whose first language is English that I’ve met in restaurants and at parties and corralled them in to rehearsals to listen to our play, and they’ve got it. One even said that Blanche’s famous “streetcar speech” was ravishingly beautiful, and she told Odashima-san this, he very generously pointed out that this was entirely the work of Otake-san, who improvised it in rehearsal three weeks ago.
I know nothing of Japan. Our Irish composer Paddy Cunneen observes that public life here is a dance. Extravagant gesture everywhere, from the bow, to the punctuated nod when some-one else is speaking7, to traffic cops, to the station master at Kyoto-station beckoning in the bullet train and pointing it up to the heavens. And he’s right. This ability to grade meaning by gesture has helped us access some of Williams’ exquisite ambiguities, perhaps uniquely. Our translation exists somewhere between the words. Somewhere between the UK, Tokyo and the mind of our playwright, but definitely not wholly in either. Mitch’s bow to Blanche in scene 5 is beautiful, liberated when the actor realised that we could utilise the Japanese understanding of the bow in this moment. The young collector bobs his head continuously as Blanche speaks, but never taking his eyes of her, its very subversive, and very, very sexy…
Now I get back to the bit about directing that I always forget, but is always there, like death and taxes. Panicking about the running time of act one. It’s December. It’s cold. I look through my notes from yesterday and I kick myself, one word dominates. Heat. Heat. Heat…
1 Her latest album is advertised on giant billboards outside Tower Records in Shibuya
2 I’ve always thought that to be very cool.
3 to denote the appropriate respect and aristocratic status
4 (With heaven-splitting violence) SUTERAAAAAAAAAA!!!!
5 but you have to remember the Japanese are VERY polite, scrupulously so, apart from on the issue of body weight. Literally everyone I meet tells me that I’m fat. I mean EVERYONE. As baldly as that. “You are very fat”. My leading man even played my stomach like an orchestral timpani to the huge amusement of the rest of the cast on the first day of rehearsals. I’m a big lad, for sure, but you know, not HUGE.
6 A word on Odashima-san. I don’t want this to come across in anyway negative about him. He’s an amazing man. Translating anything from English to Japanese is hard, let alone A Streetcar Named Desire. He’s certainly translated one more play in to Japanese than I have. He’s been completely gracious and hardworking in this collaboration. He could have very easily said “Ahem. Ninagawa was alright with this you know lad…” But he didn’t. He splits his time between us, teaching at the University and attending rehearsals of a Japanese Ray Cooney farce that he’s translated. His father was one of the great translators of Shakespeare in to the Japanese language.
7 This is known as ‘Izuchi’ or ‘counter hammer, taken from the fact that two craftsmen with a hammer each are required to strike one after the other to temper the steel of a newly fashioned samurai sword.
© Phillip Breen
Skyping from the deck of the Pequod
Written in Japan, November 2017. An edited version was published on curtaincallonline.com and was commissioned by them.
The anecdotes are great of course.
I say with insouciance
“Yeah, I’m off to direct A Streetcar Named Desire in Tokyo” as if it is very much part of my lifestyle.
“No. In Japanese”.
“You speak Japanese?”
“A little” I imply*, sipping my drink and waiting for a pause.
“How do you know what they’re saying?”
I talk about opera directors working in foreign languages and the importance of reading gestures and how English with its torrential vocabulary so often confuses things between two English people. I talk of actually being free of the spoken word (actually) and I talk about reading the bodies of the actors in the space you know. Is their gesture true? Do I believe that that’s how a man picks up a glass? Is that gesture true? It’s like choreographing a dance. It’s completely revolutionised my approach.
And I do feel that.
Five days in and I am in the grip of the bitch goddess that is jet lag. What’s the problem? You just get sleepy at odd hours, right? Sort of. I’d describe it more like your body, heart and mind being occupied by a particularly sadistic terrorist sect. I got here on Thursday. It’s now Tuesday, I’ve slept for a total of four hours and I pace the streets of this neon Hades at 3am in the rain**, louring clouds pulsing with light cling to the top of not particularly tall buildings***, I’m exhausted but desperate not to lay eyes on my bed, because when I lay eyes on my bed, and I feel the door of my little apartment click behind me, everything tightens and my heart thumps out of my chest at the prospect of another night of clamping my eye lids closed for dear life, body stiff, praying for repose, being scared of the sunrise.
Can I just be at home…
“How long are you going for?”
“About two, two and a half months. It depends, really”
More bloody insouciance.
“I might go up north for a week after we open, see the snow in Hokkaido”.
I mean I MIGHT go and see the snow in Hokkaido. It’s not out of the question…
“That’s a long time…”
It echoes. It thuds.
“That’s a long time…”. At five am the bitch goddess is making time expand and contract in my mind like the conductor of some demented concertina orchestra. “That’s a long time…”. Eleven weeks feels like a long weekend and the rest of my life all at once. I am shackled to every tick of the clock. I hope that the next time I remember how many days I have been here it will be longer than the mere four days that I actually have been here. “That’s a long time…”. I want the days to race by. The days walk backwards. I want to be anywhere but in this bed, body stiff with my phone locked in my room safe to stop me looking at it because it reminds me that its seven pm at home and that by 8am I won’t be able to contact anybody to talk me through this until 4pm my time and my pulse thumps like a Gene Krupa drum solo at the thought.
Tomorrow is day one of rehearsals.
The actors want to know what all actors want to know on day one of rehearsals. Will it be good? Will you be good? Will he be good? Is this going to be fine? Will you take care of me? I will. I’ll do my best. I will absolutely try my absolute best because I want you to take care of me too. Darting glances about the room, voices used to roaring now soft, nervous laughter in response to gallows humour. This is now real. It’s happening. It’s like all the first days I have known, but abstracted, heightened and bent. Although we don’t share a language, I know that day-one-of-rehearsal look in their eyes, it’s the same in any rehearsal room in the world. It’s so familiar and so pure. I look in to the eye of the actor and he looks in to mine.
Will you take care of me?
Neither of us quite register the words of the interpreter as she translates the ostensible dialogue that floats - indifferent - on the surface of the scene a mile above our heads. I feel the first stirrings of peace because this is amazing, this thing that is happening in a Tokyo back street while England sleeps. This thing that we all do that rips us from our homes and makes fools of us all. Remember this. Remember this on opening night. Remember when it was raw like this and we didn’t know where we were going or how the fuck we were going to do it. Remember this before the shock subsides. Remember it in success. Remember it in every honourable failure. Learn these lessons. They’re important. They’re the only lessons.
I’m in my room. It’s nearly dawn. I think about the crew of the Pequod. Away for years on end in choppy, freezing seas in pursuit of the whale, the thing, the obsession that will eventually devour them. I think how much Ishmael would’ve appreciated Skype.
I have Skype.
I’m so lucky.
My eyelids soften.
I forget myself.
And like Ishmael, I’m saved.
* I speak about five words of Japanese.
** Super-Typhoon Lan as it happens.
*** The sort of place where you imagine a cyborg might be playing with a genetically modified owl.
© Phillip Breen
Speech given at the Ninagawa Shakespeare Memorial Symposium at the Embassy of Japan, London, 6 October 2017
I've never seen Pericles in English. After seeing Ninagawa-San’s production in London, I’ve tried to avoid it in the English language (quite easily done as it happens) lest my perfect memory of this evening be somehow spoiled. It was my birthday, I was just starting out as a director and this made me reassess everything I thought I knew. Every moment seemed so full, teetering on the edge of some epic poetic expression, connected totally to the body and to the imagination - when Yuko Tanaka’s Marina, imprisoned in the brothel wished she was a bird she became a bird.
Great art finds a form for the unsayable and most difficult, knotty aspects of being human. Mediocre art finds a form for the eminently sayable. It's in this sense that I talk about Ninagawa-san's greatness as an artist. This sort of truth transcends the banal barriers of language and culture and speaks to what is human about us all. My eyes were opened to what can happen in a play when visual imagery works in tandem with text, when there is a profound connection to the mythic. In this sense he was perhaps giving an experience of that play that was closer to how they might have been experienced by Shakespeare's audience.
Ninagawa is as responsible as anyone for Shakespeare becoming a world figure, not just an English export. And he’s greatly influenced a generation of English theatre directors - who follow trends in Japanese theatre with interest. Because of that experience with his Pericles, my trips to Japan have felt like something of a pilgrimage. It’ll be strange that he won’t be there when I travel to Tokyo in two weeks.
I remember his famous Titus Andronicus, widely regarded as the highlight of the Royal Shakespeare Company's complete works festival. On my wall at home I have a photograph of Tsukasa Nakagoshi's brilliant white set, with Hitomi Manaka as Lavinia, being held in anguished grief by Kotaro Yoshida's Titus, bleeding silk crimson ribbons from her mouth. So much is spoken of the visceral horror of that moment of the play, but Ninagawa gave us an image - that in it’s subtly alienating use of the silk - encompassed the horror but in this pristine white world allowed us to consider the tender domestic tragedy of this moment, of a father and daughter being unable to speak to each other after innocence has been lost. It was both brutal and beautiful.
I had the great good fortune to see a matinee of Ninagawa-san’s Richard II at Saitama in 2015, while I was directing for his Theatre Cocoon in Tokyo. In England we’re told over and over again that this is some of Shakespeare's most ‘beautiful’ language and so it is often ‘beautifully spoken’ in England - whatever that means - but for that reason, the play is rarely, if ever, radically reinvented. From the first moment when forty or so octagenarians in wheelchairs were rolled on to the stage by forty young people to the strains of a melancholy Beethoven Piano sonata, which suddenly burst in to a mass ensemble tango, young dancing with old who had leapt out of their wheelchairs, it was clear that Ninagawa had put a bomb under this play. This was a Richard II for now. A young radical king, crushed by reactionary forces brought to the throne by the 'grey vote'. Once more Ninagawa-san was able to find the 'poem' of the play and express it beautifully, but with an acute eye for what the play might mean in a contemporary context. England was a far away mythic land; the mere setting, while the production called for compassion and understanding in the political realm.
While there were of course the inevitable visual coups de theatre - I’ve never seen a Welsh beach look quite so ravishing - it was thrilling partly because it introduced a political edge to his work that I hadn’t seen before. But it was the fact that this production was done with a huge community company of young aspiring actors and comfortably retired amateurs gave the metaphor huge force, and made the achievement all the more impressive.
I saw him for the last time that afternoon, surrounded by his huge company on a high after the performance, they were laughing, he was delighted for them. He was himself in a wheelchair at that point, occasionally using an oxygen mask. I had seen him direct standing on a platform light as a bird. There was so much I wanted to say but was tongue tied. Anyway I congratulated him on the performance and thanked him. He smiled, inquired after my production and said that I should call him if I needed anything.
CS Lewis perhaps seems an odd place to conclude a reflection on the work of Yukio Ninagawa. However…
He writes in The Weight Of Glory “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Beauty comes through Shakespeare, through his mind and his observations, through the silences and the longing and the odd conjunctions, the gaps, the oppositions and through the fractured people who populate the plays who are elusive and don’t know themselves, (to borrow from Pinter) Shakespeare’s beauty pours out of an ‘open wound’.
So often in the UK theatre we mistakenly look for some inherent beauty in the arrangement of the ink on the page; so there are a lot of broken hearted worshippers these days. We look to solve the plays as if they are a puzzle, explain them to the uninitiated as if they are difficult when they are only as difficult as being alive, we want to bend Shakespeare to tell us things we already know. We turn from the poem in all of it’s troubling ambiguity and cauterise the wound. Perhaps because we assume we know him, or that we own him or something. We don’t.
We’re looking for Shakespeare’s beauty in all the wrong places.
© Phillip Breen
Introduction to the new printed edition of Grahame Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, adapted by Giles Havergal.
Travels with My Aunt is both very much a novel of its time and one that has taken on the status of a classic, in that it has something new to say to each passing generation. It’s funny, satirical, grotesque, dark, morally knotty and elusive; it’s almost as if P.G. Wodehouse had been tasked with rewriting Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It’s rooted in the literary milieu of the ’60s while at the same time somehow sending it up.
As in Camus’s great existentialist novel The Outsider, we meet our anti-hero at his mother’s graveside, (this one is “agreeably excited” by the prospect of the funeral), it also has aspects of Kerouac’s On the Road, complete with clouds of cannabis smoke. The political anger of Brecht and his contemporaries is captured by Henry’s belief that his Aunt’s crimes are “nothing so wrong as [working] thirty years in a bank”. Part of the genius of the novel is that unlike those angry young men protagonists, rebelling against the ‘greatest’ generation who fought fascism in World War II, this middle aged bank manager is shown the seedy underbelly of the swinging sixties by his septuagenarian aunt with flaming red hair, who happens to be having lashings of sex with an African drug dealer and lover of romantic poetry.
It’s a passionate injunction to lead a ‘true’ life, but unlike many of his contemporaries’, Greene’s portrait of the ‘true’ life has troubling consequences: freedom costs. Henry leaves behind the stifling conformity of Southwood, where death inches inevitably closer to him day by day, for life in lawless Paraguay, where you’re as likely to get a life sentence for blowing your nose on the wrong coloured handkerchief, as you are to make your fortune as a dealer in looted Nazi art, as you are to crash your plane somewhere over Argentina. Henry’s striking ambivalence to everything (including his own desires), hangs mysteriously over the narrative.
It also feels like a novel for now. Never has the idea of Southwood - a little Englander’s fantasia of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist - and the desire to return to it, been so present in the national conversation. Greene describes it as “a little world of ageing people where one read of danger only in the newspaper”. Perhaps the novel has something to say to a generation of young people, made increasingly rootless as their geographical networks are superseded by digital ones.
Either way it’s a fascinating subject for a play and Giles Havergal’s adaptation has in itself taken on the status of the classic being performed regularly all over the world; its ingenious dramaturgy allowing the theater-goer to experience the full depth of Greene’s gloomy imagination while having a bloody good laugh. It is one of the finest flowerings of one of the greats of European theatre, and one of the most memorable moments in the Citizens’ recent history.
© Phillip Breen
Great artists are hard to define and it can trouble some people. Was Sam Shepard an actor, a movie star, a playwright, a director, a screenwriter, a drummer? Their art too, stubbornly refuses to conform to the easy definitions and straight lines of what popular culture tells us the world is like. Is Shepard ‘gothic’, ‘American Gothic’, ‘Greek’, ‘expressionist’, ‘absurdist’, ’surrealist’, ‘mythic’? One thing’s for sure, it wouldn't have interested him.
His work leaves the wound open, it has gaps, deep mysteries and insoluble problems. A lot is written about Shepard as the poet laureate of the rotting American Dream or whatever that means - but not being American, that aspect of his work was really only of academic interest to me. He knows the heart. He knows what it yearns for. He knows that we don’t know ourselves and never will - but seems drawn to the heroism of our trying to find out. In the mid-period ‘family plays’ in particular, people are destroyed by trying to find their ending and their answer. It eludes them. Like Sam and his work, both resistant to definition and anything resembling conclusion. He told the Paris Review in 1997
“I hate endings. Just detest them. The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius. Somebody told me once that fugue means to flee, so that Bach’s melody lines are like he’s running away”.
Which is precisely what Sam Shepard did. Born in 1943 to an alcoholic father who’d served as a pilot in the USAF and a teacher mother - by the time he was nineteen he’d left the edge of the Mojave desert in California and joined a touring acting company, winding up bussing tables in New York. A cowboy in the big city. He was present at a great beginning, instrumental in creating the scene that became known as off-off Broadway; writing experimental plays in the day and having them play at night in warehouses and above bars. Playing in bands and collaborating with poets.
We were hanging out in Glasgow the day Lou Reed died. Sam recalled how he had suggested to Lou that he might try to put some music to his poems, which he did.
‘So you suggested writing songs to Lou Reed?’ I asked.
There was a pause.
‘Yeah. I guess I did’.
But all Sam wanted to be was a drummer. Lou Reed the great musician who wanted to be a poet and Sam the great poet who wanted to be a musician. It’s pure Sam Shepard.
The world came to him of course. After a raft of theatrical happenings throughout the 1960s and the legendary Cowboy Mouth a love-story of a Rock and Roll Jesus being captured at gun point by another rock star, written in collaboration with Patti Smith; the director Michaelangelo Antonioni approached him to write the screenplay for his new movie Zabriske Point. It was a comparative artistic failure. This set up a dilemma in Shepard that he continued to dramatise throughout his career, between inspiration and form, heart and head, art and commerce. These dichotomies were perhaps most fully explored in True West, but in Geography of a Horse Dreamer Shepard writes a scenario about a country boy who makes a fortune dreaming the winners of horse races; gangsters then come to the country, take him away from his landscape and tie him to a bed in the big city to compel him at gunpoint to dream winners for them. He can’t and begs to be set free. He ran next to London.
Horse Dreamer was premiered at the Royal Court in London in ’74 directed by Shepard, starring Bob Hoskins and Stephen Rea. He couldn’t keep race horses in his tiny Shepherd’s Bush flat, so he adopted a couple of racing Greyhounds much to the chagrin of one of his neighbours who complained bitterly night after night. ‘Some politician who was upstairs reading’. We later worked out that the irate neighbour in question was Michael Foot.
He had a great many notable collaborations in the UK and Ireland. He was very loyal to directors he liked, ones that ‘didn’t interfere’, who let the actors ‘get on with it’. He and Nancy Meckler had a long association from the early Royal Court days, most recently on A Particle of Dread - his 2014 response to the Oedipus Story in Derry. James MacDonald was a favourite too, who directed Sam in Caryl Churchill’s play A Number off-Broadway and the premiere of Simpatico at the Royal Court. A young Matthew Warchus directed Mark Rylance in True West at the Donmar Warehouse in 1994 and directed it again on Broadway in 2000 starring Philip Seymour Hoffmann and John C Reilly alternating the leading roles. It’s always been a play that has made actors in to stars rather than a star vehicle. Seymour Hoffmann and Reilly were preceded by Tommy Lee Jones as unknown actors who’s careers were launched by the play.
After his off-off Broadway work, came the so-called ‘family plays’, and the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child. He was surprised that it was Buried Child that he won for, he didn’t regard it as highly as other plays he’d written. And throughout this time there were movie roles. They were always surprising choices, never turning up where you’d think, but always somehow the broken cowboy - the real thing, but somehow also its satire. A walking Andy Warhol painting. And just when you thought you had him pegged he gets an Oscar nomination for his performance as all American hero Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. But along with all the other tags he resisted the stereotypical leading man tag too. He had an uncanny knack as all great film actors do of always being Sam Shepard, being the film but being somehow outside the film at the same time. His independence intact, like he might walk out of the scene at any time. In one of his final film performances he played the father who dies in the first scene in August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts - a writer he admired very much - who probably wouldn’t have written this play if it wasn’t for Sam Shepard. Of course, he was the best damn thing in it.
He was working on A Particle of Dread when filming August: Osage County, and after the film wrapped he flew to Derry to start rehearsals. Sam didn’t like to fly, so I didn’t think he’d accept my invitation to see True West at the Citizens theatre in Glasgow. I hoped. He’d come this far, so maybe one more flight might not have made much difference. I’d assisted Nancy Meckler at the RSC eight years ago, much to my surprise she gave me his phone number and said that I should call. Which I did. Turns out he’d never been to Scotland and had always wanted to visit Edinburgh.
Early November 2013, I was pacing in the arrivals lounge at Glasgow airport. It seemed like such a good idea at the time - it had all happened at such speed that I hadn’t quite considered what I’d talk to Sam Shepard about and how we’d fill our time over a few days in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It was cold, the weather was pretty terrible and I didn’t imagine that he’d want to spend his time walking around Kelvingrove looking at Rennie Mackintosh chairs and making polite chit chat. You could have missed him walking out of arrivals, but he looked exactly as I’d imagined. Jeans, cowboy boots and a crumpled denim jacket, rucksack slung over his shoulder.
We’d barely shaken hands before he’d spotted a poster advertising a Bob Dylan concert in Glasgow that weekend.
‘Bob’s in town’ he said.
‘So it seems’.
‘Can you get hold o’ him?’.
‘Now Sam, I’m very flattered that you think I have an in with Bob Dylan, but…’. He pulled out a battered notebook and gave me Bob Dylan’s number.
‘Shall I give him a call?’.
The phone got me through to Dylan’s manager who was just about to take off from Heathrow to get back to New York, he said that Bob would love to see Sam, and that I should give him my number and Bob would call me.
‘Will Bob want tickets for True West?’ I asked querulously.
‘Yeah, he’d love to see it’.
Within five minutes of meeting the great man, my task had become a little trickier, the next time my phone rang it may have been Bob Dylan.
The show was sold out that night and I called the Citizen’s to see If I could have couple of tickets put aside for Bob, I was trying my best to remain calm and cool in front of Sam while I was making the call. ‘Yes Denise, Bob Dylan Bob Dylan’. I didn’t see that there’d be any trouble accommodating him at dinner either.
So we hit Glasgow.
‘Where do you want to go?’ I ask?
‘Just take me where the people go’.
So we walked up Buchanan Street among the Saturday shoppers, me doing my best to be a passable tour guide - I ended up nervously filling silences with remarks about Rennie Mackintosh and brutalism. And because I sound like a tour guide I get asked for directions by an Irish family from Cork in town to watch Celtic. We get chatting, they ask me what I do. They ask my tall friend what he does.
‘I’m a writer’, he says.
‘And I play the drums’.
‘Cool’ they say, and they go on their way blithely not having recognised him.
It starts to rain.
We relax a bit more with each other when I realise that one of his great passions is horse racing. We spend the rest of the afternoon in the Wetherspoons on Sauchiehall Street drinking Guinness and poring over the Racing Post making small bets and watching the races on my laptop. We about break even. What makes him intimidating and charismatic is how present and still he is. Sometimes when we’re talking he’d just say “Whut? Whut did you say?” It’s bracing, but it’s just because he’s listening so intensely to every word. It makes you chisel off the decorative edges of your conversation and say what you mean. I find out he’s not long turned seventy and at that he’s writing a novel in the next door study to Cormack McCarthy at the Santa Fe Institute and that he’s quite interested to see True West but it feels like someone else has written it. Bob Dylan still hadn’t called.
We get to the theatre that night and I find out that the box office have sat us together. In the middle of the stalls. Nowhere near an aisle. It’s only when the lights go down and I hear the chirrup of the crickets and the shutters open slowly that my heart starts pumping and I realise that I suddenly feel very claustrophobic and more nervous than I’ve ever felt.
Lee: So Mom took off for Alaska, huh?
I hadn’t countenanced the idea that he might hate it. There was no-where to run. I tried to look everywhere but at Sam Shepard. The first scene went by. Some nervous laughs from the audience. As usual. Then the second scene. The most perfectly written scene. It’s beautiful. It sings. It’s funny. It’s a perfect portrait of loneliness. Sam starts to laugh. At the same time as the audience. He leans over and whispers
‘Who’s that guy?’.
‘Alex Ferns’, I say.
‘Who’s that guy?’
‘You fucken nailed this man’.
I try not to cry. The man in front turns round to admonish the whisperers. Sam laughs some more. He laughs.
We do a q and a afterwards. And just before we go on stage, he tells me I remind him of a director he knows, but whose name escapes him - he keeps trying to remember but the name won’t come. I mean we’ve had a lot of Guinness at this stage. I don’t know whether it’s my manner, my looks, or my directing style, but it’s on the tip of his tongue.
The rest of the night is a blur. Me, Sam and the cast drink until way after four. He comes alive in the company of actors and artists. He’s one of them, he understands. It’s why he loves theatre, for the company. He loves the camaraderie and the rough edged humour and the battle stories. He asks the actors time and again
‘He didn’t get in the way this guy did he? He didn’t interfere? He didn’t get in the way?’.
’No’ they kindly lie.
As I leave I weave through the people who were surrounding him to say good bye. He grabs me rather forcefully by the wrist and says. ‘Frank Capra. Frank fucken Capra’. I ask no further questions. I found it was best to do that, it’s always much more fun that way with Sam, just to enjoy the mystery.
I called for him at his hotel the following morning as planned, to take him through to Edinburgh. After a long pause, he says.
“Hey Phillip, I don’t think I wanna go to Edinboro”.
“Ok Sam, um, how about Sunday lunch?”
“Sure. Lets say about 4 o'clock”.
We went to the Ubiquitous Chip mightily hung over, but he’s present, he wants to talk about last night. After one hiatus he looks me in the eye and says
‘What do you think is the future of tragedy?’
The meal lasts for hours talking about horses, the Kentucky Derby, how to butcher a cow, the death of American culture, Glasgow, Irish history, space travel, Patti Smith, the possibility of stage tragedy and finally when True West will transfer to London. I explain that the rights are tightly guarded and we only had the rights for this two week run in Glasgow anyway we’d had liked to have done more but that this was a passion project for me and the cast; y’ know…
And this is how this film comes to exist. Sam gave us the rights to play True West in London and a letter of recommendation. No commercial producers would touch it unless I recast it with movie stars, I explain that this is not an option, it’s a play about he vapidity of celebrity among other things. They glaze over. Indhu Rubasingham at the Tricycle, to whom I will be forever grateful, gave us a slot for a transfer in the autumn of 2014, where Digital Theatre came to capture it. This whole period was very special for our little band. Robert Delamere the film director did the most fantastic job of capturing the muscle of Sam’s language and the extreme bravery of Alex Ferns and Eugene O’Hare’s central performances. This is a nascent art form and DT is in its vanguard. Of all the productions I’ve directed, I’m happy that I have this one as a memory - of the start of a kind of relationship with Sam.
We kept in touch. We’d talk on the phone every now and again. He had a habit of throwing cell phones in to a lake when they ran out of battery. We talked about meeting up in Kentucky, about doing a London production of his Heartless, we talked about Cormac McCarthy, his own novel and he asked me what I thought of Patti’s like I’m on first name terms with her. It was never not thrilling. I phoned to tell him that Bob Dylan did eventually call me on the Monday, when I was in a queue at a sandwich shop in Birmingham. Dylan couldn’t understand why he was speaking to me, why I was in Birmingham, where Sam was, or what was going on. It won’t make any major Bob Dylan biographies, but it sure as hell will make mine. Sam got excited when I told him.
‘Bob called? What did he say?’.
I never got to meet him again.
We made some plans. But it’s not the end. This tiny fragment in his life and a major episode in mine now spins off in to something new. It’s a classic Shepard ending.
© Phillip Breen
Letter to The Independent, August 2014
I am writing in response to David Lister's assertion that we should have censored our production of Tom Basden's play Holes by pulling it in response to the shooting down of MH17 [“How the news turned a comedy into plane-crash theatre”, 2 August] . I would like to object in the strongest possible terms to the statement that we have been "downright disrespectful".
Firstly, Holes is not about plane crashes in the same way that One Flew Over The Cuckoos nest is not about asylums. It is merely the setting. A jumping off point for an exploration of how we are living now. It is not a "plane crash comedy". Any more than The Tempest is a "boat-crash comedy". We began work on Holes in 2010. MH17 happened the day after the first preview. David Lister on the other hand wrote his article this week. I assume the Independent will be donating the advertising revenue from that page to the victims of the crash.
Lister cited the critic of this paper who referred to the play as "ill-timed". As opposed to all of those exquisitely timed plane crash comedies? That wonderful "plane crash comedy" in the early 90s timed just at the point where people had stopped caring about Lockerbie? Since the play's beginning there have always been 450 charred corpses just offstage - it's always been uncomfortable - that's its point. I can't conceive of a point in history where that scenario is as David Lister says "innocuous". It has never appeared so to us.
I'm willing to wager that between here and the crash site of MH17 more children have been killed by their mothers than died in that plane crash in the last two weeks. Is Lister suggesting the National Theatre close Medea? The RSC comedies season of 2005 opened with Twelfth Night followed by The Comedy Of Errors in the light of the Boxing day tsunami the RSC did not postpone. Neither were those plays labelled "tsunami comedies" by anyone.
The play is an metaphorical exploration of how we're living in the same vein as Godot or Huis Clos or The Tempest (that famous and beautifully timed "boat crash comedy"). Its a poetic and absurd response to these dark, dark times. How are we supposed to act in the shadow of such a welter of information about so many enormous acts of violence. On a planet that is dying. What are we actually supposed to do? It seems to me we don't know HOW to make the world better. I don't know either. I'd love someone to come up with a plan. Like so much great comedy at root is a cry of despair. Like Chaplin responding to the great depression, Beckett to the A-Bomb and and the absurdists to communism.
Absurdity juxtaposed against unimaginable horror seem to me deeply appropriate responses to the zeitgeist. Just because the play makes people laugh, it doesn't mean that it is not saying something profound. Ask Chris Morris, Armando Ianucci, Beckett, Swift, Shakespeare, Euripedes and so on. The mantra of Basden's suited and booted demographics experts throughout this play is "It'll be fine"... "It's going to be OK" despite the fact that their situation is patently hopeless. This is what made the play speak to me as a director.
The one thing we do agree on is that some lines take on a certain electricity in light of recent events. There are many. "Planes just don't go missing" is one. One character making a rejoinder to someone who's just complained about a crass joke they made about a dead air steward says "it's not funny, yet...the chatrooms'll be full of this stuff...and good luck to 'em I say otherwise it's all a bit depressing, isn't it?" - to which the other character responds "there's an argument for saying it should be depressing". And yes there is speculation that the plane has been shot down by "terrorists". But the lines that ring most true to me in light of recent tragedies is this exchange about our fictional plane crash
IAN: What do you want me say then?
GUS: Nothing. Don't say anything.
Respectfully, perhaps Mr. Lister might like to consider these lines afresh.
I don't know how to make the lives of the families of the crash victims of MH17 better. It seems he does. It's to take to the opinion pages to erroneously label a play "a plane crash comedy", opine that its creative team have been "downright disrespectful" to them, and that the play ought to be censored as a result. I'm sure that these unfortunate people have got far weightier matters to concern themselves with at the moment. As for anyone else, I don't think its any of their business.
The idea that it is the place of the Arts Editor (the Arts Editor!) of the Independent to take offence on their behalf is precisely what Tom's difficult, knotty and yes, funny, play is satirising.
His view that the play is uncomfortable is shared by many critics. But his view that the play be closed is not.
Dark days indeed.
Phillip Breen's introduction to the printed edition of Holes, June 2014
This play was written long before MH370 went missing. Long before we started re-worrying about the global consequences of local military skirmishes. Long before "conscious uncoupling" had entered the lexicon and Coldplay had released Ghost Stories.
Tom Basden's play There Is A War (National Theatre, 2011) was written before we collectively looked on from the sidelines at the crisis in Syria utterly bewildered, wondering who was right, who was wrong, who was who and how the thing could possibly ever end.
Party (London, Edinburgh, Sydney 2009) in which a clueless dolt who'd never had to consider responsibility of real power ends up in a position of leadership after an electoral deadlock - was written a long time before ministerial limousines were driving Liberal Democrats around Westminster.
Tom Basden is one of the sharpest observers of politics and society around. This is the thing that makes him appear clairvoyant. And one the aspects that make directing a Tom Basden play satisfying and unnerving. Today's jokes frequently become tomorrow's real life nightmares.
Let's examine another major fictional construction in the play; ‘Master
Brook’. As we have already touched upon it is a mistake to assume that a
unified ‘Ford’ exists and that ‘Ford’ is always in full authorial
control of ‘Brook’. But where as in As You Like It, on the surface,
the gap between ‘Rosalind’ and ‘Ganymede’ is quite big and the blurring
of the lines between the two is a surprise to ‘Rosalind’ and the audience.
Shakespeare sets up something more daring here. We begin with the idea that the
gap between ‘Brook’ and ‘Ford’ is tiny to begin with. It’s a crap
choice of pseudonym, let’s face it. The clue is in the fact that the two words
are practically synonyms.
Walking in a Windsor Wonderland: Some ramshackle reflections on directing Shakespeare's greatest comedy.
Seminar given to the Shakespeare Institute, 6 March 2014
In late 2011 I was called by Michael Boyd "Hi Phillip, are you available to direct a Shakespeare on the main stage next winter? I can't say what it is yet”. Ever since I was a fourteen year old boy sat in the gods having his mind blown by Iain Glen in Mathew Warchus's Henry V and Des Barritt's Malvolio in Judge's Twelfth Night, to direct a Shakespeare play for RSC had been my dearest wish. The answer was an enthusiastic "yes!" "Great" said Michael "let's talk on Monday". I spent the weekend fantasising about what the play might be. “Would it be Hamlet?” I asked myself. Measure for Measure? I'd done a version of Measure at Theatr Clwyd and perhaps a slot had become available. Would it be the Henry IV's the greatest of them all? Or King Lear? Whatever the play, I thought, I'm being recognised by the theatre company I've loved almost as much as Liverpool Football Club since adolescence. My toiling in the regions had finally paid off, just at the point where it was stretching credibility to refer to myself as a young director, I was being taken seriously.
When the phone went on Monday morning, I answered it before the end of the first ring. Michael said "Um. Yeah. It's The uh Merry Wives Of Windsor" in a way that doctor might tell you that you had a urinary infection. "But I think you'll make a really good job of it". My heart sank. One learns a lot about oneself as an artist when the call comes from the RSC and its The Merry Wives of Windsor. It was at that point around position thirty-seven in the list of Shakespeare plays I wanted to do. I told Michael that I was delighted, it was a play I'd always admired and that I couldn't wait to start work.
Then I asked myself, why did I have such a disappointed reaction to being given the Merry Wives? What was it that had shaped that response? Why did it matter to my ego? Why wasn’t a famous director going to do it? Then I thought, how had Merry Wives become something of a pariah play in the canon? How did it get its reputation as "Shakespeare-lite"? Why was Merry Wives proof positive that the greatest poet in the English Language was in fact mortal, suffering a regrettable off day? Hack-work? You know the story: Queen Elizabeth was so enamoured of the Falstaff of the Henry IVs that she ordered a spin off which Shakespeare reluctantly assembled in a fortnight.
This seminar is the story of how this director came to regard The Merry Wives Of Windsor as being out of Shakespeare's top drawer and one of the greatest flowerings of the English renaissance; a play ahead of its time. This is Shakespeare's Blue Velvet, or Abigail's Party. A play with sedition and heresy smuggled between its lines like a late Elizabethan Samiszdat. It is an exploration of how certain of Shakespeare's plays get reputations that blind us to their true value.
I also want to touch on how a case like The Merry Wives contributes to the prevailing idea in the theatre culture that we have had all the ideas we are going to have about how Shakespeare plays are going to be produced. To coin a phrase that we have reached "the end of history" when it comes to thinking about the canon, that we are somehow "post-Shakespeare". And that perhaps our only recourse as contemporary directors therefore is to engage in the business of post-modernity, making productions about productions and ideas about ideas. The idea that Shakespeare's dead and we need auteurs and not advocates.
In making a case for Merry Wives as a great play I do it as someone engaged in the ugly practicalities of the rehearsal room. I am not an academic by any stretch of the imagination. There are many more learned treaties than this on the play. It is intimidating to see so many learned people here. I hope you'll forgive my dodgy scholarship, my wild hunches and inconsistencies. I hope there aren't too many gaping holes in my thinking.
This seminar is also a reflection of the successes and failures of my own RSC production of the play. It was set in Windsor in the autumn of 2012, after the diamond jubilee and the Olympics – I was looking for the most deeply inauspicious time in history. It was also a time where reckonings had to be paid and money was scarce. I will, along the way, explore some gaps between my ideas about the play and how they were rendered practically. For the record I was quite pleased with the final outcome, although largely felt that it was enjoyed for the wrong reasons. I hoped people would cry more.
Finally I want to talk about the problem of comedy. I have observed that some theatre critics have a quite backward attitude to stage comedy, the funnier a play is and the more an audience laugh the less inclined they are to perceive the "art". This is perhaps Merry Wives' biggest problem; perhaps it is too funny, not Shakespeare funny, but actually funny. And those boring old bastards in the press often don't feel like they've been properly "cultured" unless they've been bored out of their minds for three hours; or are the only ones who've perceived the “joke”. David Foster Wallace in trying to explain how Kafka is funny, expresses the idea beautifully
“It's not that students don’t 'get' Kafka’s humour but that we’ve taught them to see humour as something you get – the same way we’ve taught them to see that the self is something you just have”.
For those who think humour is something you just get and the self is something you just have, then Merry Wives is a problematic work. There are no jokes in Merry Wives only situation and character; bacchanalian laugher and chaos.
I also ask whether Shakespeare’s comedy has more in common with our most sophisticated comedians such as Woody Allen, Mike Leigh, and Chaplin artists adept at eliciting lots of different types of laugh, rather than our quite route one presentation of stage comedy born out of the nineteenth century panto tradition where gestures are made to illustrate the dick jokes, and comic characters are forbidden complex psychologies.
We laugh at transgression and discomfort. Perhaps this is Shakespeare's funniest play because it is his most transgressive and discomforting - particularly for a modern audience who through Facebook, Twitter and Sky Plus need not face anything that they don’t want to see.
While its true that the Shakespeare plays that are popular at a certain time in history tell us something about the concerns and preoccupations of the people who lived in those times, perhaps it is also instructive to look at what Merry Wives status as a ‘pariah play’ says as an "abstract and brief chronicle" of our attitudes to love, sex, children, masculinity and getting old in the early 21st century.
Karl Marx said "there is more life in Act One of The Merry Wives of Windsor, than in the entirety of German literature". Verdi the doyenne of the late 19th century European stage, who in his eightieth year, could have chosen to adapt any work of European literature for his great swan-song, chose The Merry Wives as the source material for his great comic opera Falstaff. So what's happened since? Is it simply that Merry Wives, like another boderline surreal sex comedy, The Benny Hill Show is destined to be only truly appreciated on the continent?
The Reputation Of The Play
So how did I come to unthinkingly consider that I'd got the booby prize when being given the Merry Wives? I turn to two not unrepresentative examples from books of popular Shakespeare scholarship. Harold Bloom in his seven hundred and forty five page tome Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human dismisses Merry Wives in a mere three and a half pages. He concludes by calling it a "weak play", that the Falstaff of the Merry Wives is "a nameless impostor masquerading as the great Sir John Falstaff". James Shapiro in his introduction to the brilliant 1599 asks how Shakespeare went from "writing The Merry Wives of Windsor to writing a play as inspired as Hamlet".
The RSC in its 2006 Complete Works Season did not give the Merry Wives to the Schaubuhne. In its own way it did get a radical treatment as Merry Wives: The Musical! It was a very witty, rioutous treamtment of the Merry Wives story with additions from the Henry IVs and songs to flesh out the Falstaff / Mistress Quickly love story, it was the gang show at Christmas. The aim was never to take it particularly seriously. As You Like It: The Musical! anyone? Twelfth Night: The Musical! anyone? No didn't think so. Those plays were given to Sam West and Sheffield Theatres and Declan Donnelan's Russian wing of Cheek by Jowl respectively.
Newspaper critics for much of the late twentieth and early twenty first century begin usually begin by expressing surprise at how good the play is. Take these (again not unrepresentative) samples of reviews of my own 2012 production. Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph repeats the notion that "the play itself is hardly one of Shakespeare's greatest" but despite this lavishes a glowing four-star review on it. Neil Norman of the Express in his rave review of the production opens his byline with the view that "Any production of Shakespeare's least amusing comedy that concludes with Superman... must have something going for it". The British Theatre Guide's critic opens his glowing assessment with "The Merry Wives of Windsor doesn't often come in the top ten of people's favourite Shakespeare plays". On reflection I am amazed at the regularity with which directors manage to save this hopeless play.
Most of the reviews repeated the myth originated by Nicholas Rowe in his 1709 book The Life of Shakespeare that
"The Queen was so well pleased with the admirable character of Falstaff in the in the two parts of Henry IV that she commanded him to continue it for one play more and to show him in love".
Interestingly in 1702 John Dennis who co-incidentally had written his own adaptation of The Merry Wives asserted
"I know very well that it hath pleased one of the greatest Queens that ever was in the world... This comedy was written at her command, and by her direction, and she was so eager to see it acted that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days".
There were many reasons for this myth to have taken hold at that time. Dennis in order receive more reflected glory for his own adaptation by its Royal association for example. Helen Hacket in her Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths observes that
"Writers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had a particular incentive for disseminating in print the oral legends which associated Shakespeare with the Monarchs: [namely] their own sense of grievance at their lack of royal patronage".
Why ultimately does this matter?
The implication that Shakespeare didn't much care for the play has offered tacit permission for its under consideration and dismissal in some cases. It has also opened the door for huge license to be taken with the performed text of the play based on the assumption that its apparent inconsistencies are down to Shakespeare shirking his duties as playwright. The adaptation of the play, as we have seen, has a long history.
The ‘Hands Text’
Shortly after getting the job, I received a call from Terry Hands. He's an important character in this story. Briefly, he trained me, he gave me my first job in theatre, I assisted him more times than is healthy and, as with many of his former assistants, there always remains a part of me in the rehearsal room that asks myself, "what would Terry do". He’s the greatest. I still have an irrational desire to please him. He has that effect. He's part Jean Vilar, part Bill Shankly, part ninja assassin. I also knew that he had made his RSC debut in the RST with The Merry Wives Of Windsor (and he never missed an opportunity to remind me that he was five years younger than I was when he did it). But as luck would have it I had written an essay in John Russell Brown’s compendium Director's Shakespeare on exactly the subject of Hands' RSC debut.
Terry's Merry Wives is coincidentally his signature piece. He did his production for the last time in the early 90s at the National Theatre. The first one was in 1968 at Stratford, the cast was remarkable, Brewster Mason as Falstaff, Elizabeth Spriggs and Brenda Bruce as the wives, Roger Rees as Fenton and Ian Richardson giving one of his celebrated performances as Ford - a Ford by which all other RSC Ford's would be measured. It remains one of the most iconic moments in the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The production, designed by Timothy O’Brien had a glorious Elizabethan period setting; its evocation of a bustling middle class that through trade and commerce had hewn itself out of the woods but still had one foot in the pagan traditions of the medieval world, was influenced by the Berliner Ensemble’s visit to the World Theatre Festival earlier in the decade. It was period but in a way that had rarely been seen on the British stage, gone were the wig joins and the 5 and 9 greasepaint, in came a period aesthetic that moved from the representational to the expressionistic and the abstract.
The phonecall ran thus. "Phillip its Terry", "Oh hi Terry", "You do know that mine is the only performable text of The Merry Wives". At that point in my process I had no reason to disbelieve him. I went back to the interviews I conducted with him for my essay in which he discusses the genesis of his production - I quote it at length as it contains many fascinating insights in to the directors craft, and into the way The Merry Wives is often handled.
"The more I read the play in the folio"
So I went to the Birthplace Trust, got myself Terry's text, and the texts of all of the RSC Merry Wives, from Nunn's 1978 production with Ben Kingsley as Ford, Bill Alexander’s 1950s set 'new Elizabethans' version, David Thacker’s early 90s version, Rachel Kavanaugh's 2000 text, the Folio and the bad quarto. The first thing that struck me about having all of these texts in front of me was the astonishingly high "production to hit" ratio the play has - even production to "iconic hit" ratio. There was only really one notable failure. This is all pretty good going. The other thing I was struck by was how influential Hands’ text had been on all subsequent versions of the play. Nunn had tried to hide the direct influence by some additions of his own but the text he began with was Hands version.
To my relatively untrained eye, it made perfect sense. It had been tidied, streamlined and cut back. It seemed sensible to cut the Latin scene (IV.i), it has no impact on the narrative. It seemed sensible to solve the huge gaps in the Ann Page / Fenton love story by adding a section from the bad folio before (III.iv) where the two unambiguously declare their love for each other – (that section of the Hands text also has a number of lines that as far as I can tell are just written by Terry Hands). It made sense to add ‘asides’ to the disjointed non-sequiters spoken by Ford and Page in II.ii. And in an age of realistic sets it also made sense to subsume the very short IV.iii scene between the Host and Bardolph in to the main body of the long IV.v Garter scene. So as not to slow the production up by rolling off the Ford House, rolling on the Garter Inn for 11 lines and rolling the Ford House back on again. As someone who lived through a Merry Wives technical, these are the things that give you nightmares. The infamous Germans in IV.v were also further explained in this text, and cut in most subsequent versions. And as for the timeline of the play, in the Folio it’s a contradictory mess. These are just some of the things that seemed to be addressed by the Hands text. There was no doubting the neatness of this solution. I went almost unthinkingly in to my rehearsals in August 2012 with that version pretty much in its entirety.
Looking back on it, its astonishing how influential the Hands text is and by extension the attitudes to the play's authorship that are encoded in his compilation and, in places, authorship of the performance text. The views and insights of the brilliant and ambitious but – let’s face it - twenty seven year-old Terry Hands have dominated the production history of this play over the past fifty years. The idea that the play somehow needs rescuing from itself or apologised for dominates. Why shouldn’t it? When it has been infrequently done it has frequently been a big hit. As I was making my debut, I wanted a big hit.
Looking at the various texts, this treasure trove of practical insight in to the staging of the play, I realized with a wry smile, that I was probably not the first director that had THAT phonecall from Terry in the most early and impressionable stage of his process. That chilly whisper stating "you know mine is the only performable text of The Merry Wives". In many ways he’s the best Prime Minister we never had.
Treating it like Hamlet
Before I got in to the rehearsal rooms I had begun to have some small doubts about my adherence to the Hands text and by extension his philosophy. I was disappointed to learn that it didn’t tally with many of my first instincts about play when I read it in the folio. When I first read it I was struck by two arresting images.
The first was Mistress Page standing alone reading a mysterious letter stating
“What have I ‘scaped love letters in the holiday time of my beauty and I am now a subject for them?”
By logical extension, because of Ann who is rising seventeen, she is at least thirty three but is more likely in her early to mid forties (as most middle class people at the time married at around the age of twenty five). So we had this rather heartbreaking story of a woman who had been married for nearly twenty years who’d never received a love letter; even from her husband. This also started me thinking about the kind of man Page was.
The second image was that of an insanely jealous, cudgel wielding man, beating the shit out of a “woman” in full view of the wife who he is convinced is cheating on him. The “woman” that was simultaneously the wife’s secret confident, but was also unbeknownst to him her putative seducer, and his confessor. Was this a threat, wish fulfillment, release, an expression of a deeper lying misogyny? Either way it seemed to me a strikingly complex in its approach to psychology and a painful, jet-black portrait of a marriage with real problems.
Then I started to look at the other characters. The Knight who is the least chivalrous character in the play, the preacher who is incomprehensible to his flock, the homicidal doctor, the cunning and wise young female love interest, the young male lead who seems not only disinterested in sex but only has a hazy idea of the mechanics, the justice of the peace constantly agitating for a fight, the publican who acts as the referee. We seemed to be in this strange ur-world, where the received laws of the stage had been turned on their head. All this set in a town that is the spiritual home to the Order of the Garter at St George’s chapel and its old French motto “honi soit si mal y pense” – a place where the characters spend the bulk of their time doing the precise opposite of this.
I looked at what Falstaff had actually done - written two speculative and scheming love letters that are rumbled very quickly - and then looked at the disproportionate revenge that is meted out to him. Waterboarding in the freezing Thames, (the water can flow through the basket, but the person inside cannot get out), being beaten with a cudgel (Mistress Page watching the beating of the ‘Witch of Brentford’ says “are you not ashamed? I think you have killed the poor woman”), after Falstaff has been beaten “in to all the colours of the rainbow” he’s then terrified out of his wits in the forest at midnight, humiliated, pinched burned and buried alive. This felt to me extraordinarily violent and twisted in its conception.
Then I started to imagine Hugh Evans on the doorsteps of the parents of his pupils after he has left IV.ii: “good afternoon Mrs. Smith would you mind if little Jonny joined me in the woods at midnight tonight? The thing is we’re going to ambush the old man who lives above the Garter Inn, then we’re going to burn him, pinch him and kick him. We’re going to do it while singing. I’ve written a song about it, here’s the lyrics, which they’ll be required to learn. And I’ve made them costumes for the occasion. Why? Thank you for asking that question Mrs. Smith, you see he’s been doing his best to unsuccesfully seduce the wife of this guy I sort of know from up the road, and we are going to teach him a lesson. So is that ok? Can I meet little Johnny near the park at about quarter to twelve?” I suspect that even in a world without police checks, and health and safety this aspect of the play jarred a little. But perhaps this is just down to slapdash plotting, a rushed cut and shut job from Shakespeare, or evidence of how Elizabethan playwrights didn’t care too much about the “how” as long as something entertaining happened.
None of these images tallied with the play I thought I had “known” by reputation. This rough dramaturgy couldn’t all be down to accident and carelessness. What if all of this was intentional? What if I spent a few days treating this basket case of a play like Hamlet? What if we’re supposed to feel an increasing unease with what happens to Falstaff and the relish and laughter with which the central characters do it? What if we’re supposed to feel that they’re getting increasingly carried away and that their actions are absolutely crackers? What if we’re supposed to feel that these children shouldn’t be involved in the final scene? What if we’re supposed to feel uneasy with what the children Robin, William, and Ann are witness to in this play? What if the Latin scene is one of the most important scenes of the play? What if these are precisely the complex and troubled marriages that they appear to be? What if we’re supposed to feel that Page’s micro-management of his teenage daughter’s sex life is a bit creepy? What if in this universe Ann’s feelings towards Fenton are intentionally ambiguous? What if we’re supposed to see this uneasy courtship immediately following the scene where the darkness of the Ford’s marriage is publicly exposed in the buck-basket scene? What if its supposed to jar with us that Ann’s deceased grandfather has left a tonne of money to his granddaughter and not his son or daughter? What does this tell us about how we’re supposed to view the Page’s? Did this important off stage character (like Portia’s father) know his children rather better than they knew themselves?
What if instead of trying to solve all of these inconsistencies and rescue Shakespeare’s hack work, as production history tells us we should, we assume he meant everything? I found it a richly rewarding experience. I junked all the cut scripts and went slowly though the folio again. It works. Timeline and all. Although one has to assume that an awful lot happens before breakfast. Mine was the only RSC version to play the folio version of the text with every scene in the order laid out in the folio. The few cuts I had were for the exigencies of time but they only amounted to maybe 50 lines in total.
So what does this actually mean to a director? From a textual point of view there were three specific things that opened up to me immediately when I assumed the folio was a masterpiece. They deeply influenced how I approached the production. The first was the exchange between Ford and Page in II.i.
[PHOTO OF MELCHIORI’S ARDEN EDITION II.ii LINES 125-132]
As you can see in the slide from Melchiori’s Arden edition of the text, he lays out lines 125-132 as a series of asides. This is pretty uniform across the vast majority of published editions of the play. There are, of course, no asides in the folio. It appears that editors have tried to solve the problem of what at first glance appears to be a series of non-sequiteurs. They don’t appear to be talking TO each other at all. When I read the scene with John Ramm (the actor who eventually played Ford) in the audition, a different texture emerged. It seemed these men are talking AT each other, preoccupied, not really listening. Because that’s what men do right? Men don’t talk TO people they talk AT them. QED. This is one of the key observations of the play. When one removes the asides, one can see also a rough demotic quality to the dialogue. A writer trying to write how people actually speak rather than how they speak in plays – it naturally gives the actor a lovely interiority. I set it thus.
[PHOTO - JOHN RAMM AND MARTIN HYDER IN RUGBY GEAR
But this little exchange opened my eyes to something else that is in operation in II.i, the contrasting reactions to Falstaff’s putative seduction of the wives. The women not only can precisely imagine what the disgusting experience of sex with Falstaff would be like, but take great delight in relating it to each other. Their descriptions of the putative sex act is full of graphic, obscene colour, larded with fecundity, designed to make the other roar with laughter
Mistress Ford: I could be knighted
Mistress Page: He cares not what he puts in to the press when when he
would put us two. I had rather be a giantess and lie under Mount Pelion.
Mistress Ford: What Tempest I trow threw this whale with so many tonnes of oil in his belly ashore at Windsor….[let’s] entertain him with hope until the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease.
Mistress Ford: Boarding call you it? I’ll be sure to keep him above deck.
Mistress Page: If he come under my hatches, I’ll never to sea again.
Lets contrast this with the response of the men. The first response is the section we’ve just seen. Monosyllables. Interiority. Isolation. The diametric opposite of an ‘aside’. The ladies have a facility and vocabulary with which to discuss sex and the men, well, don’t.
At first glance so much of the Merry Wives dialogue looks outlandish and extraordinary, particularly those lines spoken by Caius and The Host Of The Garter. So often in performance they have led to cariacature. Whether you think this is a play of 1597 or that it’s a later play of 1600 as I do, Merry Wives is a play that is surrounded by bold experiments in character, language and psychology by Shakespeare. This is a play written within a year of Henry IVs and Merchant of Venice or As You Like It, Henry V and Hamlet, depending on your belief. I’m more persuaded that this play is in these traditions rather than existing as a ‘Vatican City’ within this. This small exchange began to open my eyes to a more realistic playing style. The language of the play started to feel like an imperfect experiment in the demotic, an experiment in three dimensions.
[PHOTO – BAD QUARTO ADDITION PRIOR TO III.iv]
In this slide you can see the addition prior to the III.iv duologue between Ann Page and Fenton. It seems the compiler of the bad quarto also felt that because neither Ann nor Fenton behave like conventional stage lovers, that this must just be a mistake. Once more the characters in Windsor are behaving badly. It feels to me that this is the point. When I looked at what every character in the play said about themselves and others, I saw that Ann Page is by far the most discussed character in the play. Everyone has an opinion on her mainly that she’s “sweet”, “good”, “fair”, “pretty” and “honest” – Fenton doesn’t appear to offer anything different to the general opinion. There’s nothing he says about Ann that someone else doesn’t also say about her. But she only has 17 lines. Who Ann actually is outwith the Windsor men’s opinion of her is largely a mystery. It seems as far as they’re concerned almost immaterial. This leaves us with a fascinating dramatic riddle at the centre of the play. What does Ann Page think about Fenton, her parents and the whole business of marriage? On its feet Ann’s silent presence is luminous. Perhaps her ambiguity is the point. This exchange from the folio, talking about Page, Fenton says
Fenton: And tells me it is but a thing impossible
That I should love thee only as a property.
Ann: Maybe he tells you true.
This doesn’t feel like the exchange of conventional stage lovers. Fenton (explicitly linked to the wastrel Hal) even says that he regards Ann
“more than stamps in gold or sums in sealed bags”.
Shakespeare could have chosen to write a less ambiguous scene. This particular exchange doesn’t appear in the bad quarto, the Bill Alexander version or in the Hands text. In the sumptuously period set recent Globe Theatre version, while undertaking the most brutal textual cuts to the play (omitting whole characters and narrative strands) time was found for an exquisite Elizabethan love duet between Ann and Fenton sung to the tune of a lute. The two lovers simpered in to each others eyes like a pastiche of a Nicholas Hilliard cameo.
The Hands text here, explicitly adds the unambiguous
Ann: Good M. Fenton, you may assure youselfe
My hart is setled upon none but you,
Tis as my father and mother please:
Get their consent, you quickly shall have mine.
I think what Shakespeare is pointing to is the pain of the imperfection of her choice of husband. It throws light on all the other imperfect marriages that the play has focused on. In this episode he observes with extraordinary psychological acuity that neither husband nor wife are dreaming the same dream (more of that later). In act V we see a marriage at its inception and the lunacy of two marriages in their pomp set in opposition to each other. We can see how from this asymmetry of expectation between the couples, (and no little parental meddling) marriages begin like Ann and Fenton’s and become the Ford’s. In a late rehearsal of act 5 Sylvestra Le Touzel, playing Mistress Page on seeing Ann and Fenton together in the Windsor wood at midnight began to weep uncontrollably. It felt right as the woman who had never received a love letter from her husband saw her own daughter embark on a lifetime of trying to change a man (and sees the result of what has happened to her daughter’s real life while she was cavorting around in her fantasy life). Like so many Shakespearean heroines (and I thank Professor Carol Chillington-Rutter for the link to Guys and Dolls), Anne has decided to ‘marry the man today and change his ways tomorrow’. She’s not the only one. I’m tickled when I Imagine Christmas dinner round at Angelo and Mariana’s place, or a summer barbecue with Rosalind, Orlando, Celia and Oliver or cheese and wine with the middle aged Portia and Bassanio.
This is not a nihilistic view of love. The beauty of the whole business comes in the fact that we daily attempt the impossible in love. The amazing fact that in spite of its ludicrousness that we try at all. Shakespeare observes with a gimlet eye through Ann’s silence and her actions the realpolitik of real relationships. We rarely choose our husbands and wives from a wide-ranging and perfect menu. Out of the quick tempered Dr Cauis, the terminally clueless Slender and Fenton there’s no competition. I know who’s faults I’d rather work with. The presentation of her absurd and specific choices is mimetically brilliant. But furthermore within Merry Wives, the question of how we are supposed to live in spite of these absurdities, is harder edged; it takes place within the detailed and concrete ‘real world’ of Windsor, not the Athenian Forest, Ephesus or among the fictional characters of the Forest of Arden.
Stephen Greenblatt in Will In The World remarks that
“There are two significant exceptions to Shakespeare’s unwillingness or inability to imagine a married couple in a relationship of sustained intimacy, but they are unnervingly strange. Gertrude and Claudius in Hamlet and the Macbeths”
After working on The Merry Wives Of Windsor I couldn’t agree less. Both on the point of his “unwillingness or inability” to imagine married couples, but also on their “strangeness”. This so called strangeness is merely the observation that relationships are not lived generically, but in the midst of a series of very specific circumstances created by and thrust upon the couple in question. I’m persuaded by Greer’s idea in Shakespeare’s Wife that the worlds of Stratford-upon-Avon and London were much more porous than is commonly thought and that his own marriage, fuller than is commonly imagined, had a very specific dynamic. Ann’s ambiguity as a romantic lead opened my eyes to the idea that Merry Wives is a poem that reflects the deep truths of real marriages.
The Fuckative Case
Which brings me on to the third aspect that rather than dismissing I assumed that Shakespeare meant; namely Act 4 scene 1 or the “Latin scene”. Once more I have to thank Carol Chillington-Rutter for her important insight in to what this scene is doing in the play (and more generally the idea that often it is the children in Shakespeare that lead us to complex mystery at the heart of the matter). “The Latin Scene” is the poetic Rosetta Stone of the Merry Wives of Windsor. A demonstration of why, in bourgeois Windsor, men and women speak different languages. How they come to be dreaming different dreams. It is not simply a dispensible comic etude that sits outwith the main thrust of the play. But is another vital reflection on main theme – the glorious and impossible mess of relationships and the “construal” and “misconstrual” between the sexes.
Here young William and his boys are taught Latin. They are in effect being given access to the World Wide Web the ability to speak to people all over Europe. Thoughts are structured differently in Latin than they are in English; what is being dramatized is how the thoughts of boys and girls are structured differently. Girls don’t learn Latin. Boys do. Ostensibly the joke of the scene is that Mistress Page who because she is a woman, cannot speak the men’s language, Latin. Yet she harangues the local schoolmaster like all sharp elbowed mothers who are spending a fortune on their son’s prep school in to making her son “William” demonstrate just what he has been learning in his Latin lessons. The result is a series of obscene quibbles on pissing, spitting, fucking, genitalia, and whoring. The punchline being that Mistress Page believes him to be a better scholar than she first thought even though she hasn’t understood a bloody word he’s said.
In quite grotesque terms, just before the plot’s plausibility is (deliberately) stretched to breaking point, Shakespeare is drawing our attention to the theme of the play and reminding us of his presence as an author. In a 60 line exchange the word William is used 12 times, often twice in the same sentence. It just engages our brain, attunes our ear to obscene double meanings, and prepares us for further “misconstrual” in the coming scenes.
Incidentally, in my production we had a very young looking William Page, He was ten but looked eight. While his chaperone would take a very dim view of my habitual use of expletives in the rehearsal room, solemnly reminding me of my responsibility to leave young minds uncorrupted, she would sit there helping him learn his lines about “fuckative cases”, “La-piss” and “Horum, harum, horum”. In the buckbasket scene, the chaperone would look for permission from others before laughing like a drain at Alexandra Gilbreath’s effortlessly lascivious playing of the line “he’s too big to go in there…”. But she’d sit there stony faced during the Latin scene, while all the actors rolled about laughing. This then is the contemporary English problem with Merry Wives captured in miniature.
Watching the Latin scene play in front of an audience there appeared to be a feeling abroad, which was “Oh. should I laugh at this?” An innocent looking boy smiling and saying “piss”, “fuck” and “whore” with unbelievable relish on the main stage of RSC was dramatic plutonium. Some pockets of the audience snorted with glee, but my overwhelming reading of the audience response was that they were uneasy. But after the first preview I came to strongly believe that the laughter was supposed to be uneasy. Perhaps it was supposed to beg the question ‘should I be laughing at this’, precisely at the point where we were going back to the second buckbasket scene (buckbasket as we know was Elizabethan slang for the vagina of an older woman). It’s a bold, confrontational and original use of the child actors that were enjoying such a vogue. I sometimes wonder whether Middleton nicked this brilliant idea when he wrote Mad World, My Masters for the boys company in 1605.
“Will” teaching us how to read “Shakespeare”.
There’s also a great link with the other ‘William’ scene in Shakespeare, Act 5 scene 1 of As You Like It. Here I am persuaded by the idea that Shakespeare himself played the role of William, in perhaps the first new production at the Globe, four acts through a dazzlingly conceived dramatic poem “William” is asked by Touchstone “art thou wise?” “William” responds “faith sir I have a pretty wit”. He’s also asked in front of, probably a full house at the Globe ‘art thou rich?’, to which one can imagine Shakespeare taking a look at the three thousand or so ticket buying spectators and saying “faith sir, so so”. And that eliciting huge laughter. At this point in his career there is no hiding Shakespeare’s celebrity, people know who he is, why not use it.
It seems that Shakespeare grasps that a large part of the richness of the experience of watching a ‘Shakespeare’ play resides in the interplay of ideas, structures and motifs from other Shakespeare plays. Or to put it another way old ideas are deliberately put in to service to efficiently create new ideas. The delight of watching ideas communicate with each other is in some more ways, a more dense than the individual play itself as we move from Two Gentlemen of Verona to The Tempest. To cite an example from the contemporary cinema – the visual style and first person narration that Scorsese employs in his banker biopic The Wolf Of Wall Street (2012) is (I suspect subversively) deliberately the same as his gangster biopic Goodfellas (1990). We have a sort of ‘dialectical materialism’ of dramatic structures at work.
But it is also a subtle reminder that as the plot contrivances get ever more ludicrous, Oliver’s story about the snake and the lioness, Jacques de Boys arriving from School to tell us that Duke Frederick has renounced his Dukedom in favour of a religious life, the arrival of the goddess Hymen and so on that this is all intended.
Rather like the appearance of Hitchcock in Psycho as Marion Crane is just about to leave the city and head for the freeway in order to randomly end up in the carpark of the Bates Motel. Or how Hitchcock literally walks us in to the pet store and up to the bird cages at the top of The Birds. These bird cages are the poetic Rosetta stone of the film. It’s as if to say that it is no accident that Tippi Hedren’s character works amongst caged birds – he’s telling the audience that this is not simply a horror film. He’s teaching us how to read the film.
In As You Like It the plot is supposed to get ludicrous in order that we don’t read the conclusion of the play as the end of a conventional love story. The point of As You Like It is that “love” is not a uniform or abstract thing it must become action, imperfect and “real”. We see the role “Lady Fortune” plays in throwing couples together, how Phoebe ends up silently settling for Silvius, how Touchstone rushes in to marriage out of sheer carnality, how Oliver and Celia rather beautifully accept each other as a kind of salvation, a tacitly acknowledged silver medal. And how Rosalind and Orlando, no closer to knowing to knowing what the other one desires, accept that they are going to trust each other to dream different dreams.
As a conclusion to this section about the dramatic impact of the textual tinkering with The Merry Wives, I want to briefly discuss the importance of IV.iii. The eleven line scene between The Host of the Garter and Bardolph, which heralds the arrival of the Germans.
[PHOTO – ACT IV.iv IN THE FOLIO
The scene bisects two Ford House scenes IV.ii (The Old Woman of Brentford scene) IV.iv (where the plot is devised to terrorise Falstaff in the Windsor forest at midnight). And on the surface of things it seems it can effectively wait. In every production of Merry Wives whose prompt scripts I have studied this tiny scene is either omitted in its entirety or grafted on to the front of IV.v. The reason for this is simple, directors don’t want to roll off the Ford House set, roll on the other significant set, that of the Garter Inn for eleven lines and roll on the Ford House again. I assume that there is also a feeling that IV.ii and IV.iv segue fairly seamlessly in to one another. But (you will not be surprised to learn) I think the placing of it in the folio is of great importance. At the end of the III.v, having seen Ford as “Brook” discover that Falstaff was in the Buckbasket all along, ‘Ford’ / ‘Brook’ says
“…hee cannot ‘scape me: ‘tis impossible hee should: hee cannot creep in to a halfpenny purse, nor in to a Pepper boxe”
But what routinely happens in IV.ii is that Ford leaves the stage after having beaten the shit out of the ‘Old Woman of Brentford’, he then goes off to search his house for Falstaff. The wives then have a twenty line exchange playing time (approximately a minute) after which Ford returns sweaty, defeated and contrite. No-wonder some contemporary critics think of Merry Wives as some of Shakespeare’s poorest playwrighting. He’s been unfairly judged for a mistake that he has not made. The stakes on Ford’s rage are drastically reduced if he returns to the wives a minute after he left. It seems that he has given up. By adding the little scene between Bardolph and the Host between Ford’s exit and his re-entrance you are given two wonderful gifts. The first is the time lapse, it’s a technique commonly used in television sitcoms, we are left to imagine delightedly what has happened in the interim. In a recent episode of Family Guy the Griffin’s new dog confesses to Stewie that he has been humping his teddy bear Rupert. Cut immediately to Stewie dragging a blood sodden refuse sack down the drive. The second gift is the opening line of IV.iv when Huw Evans says
“Tis one of the best discretions of a o’man as ever I did looke vpon…"
In the eleven lines that we are away from the Ford house, an awful lot has happened. That line brought the house down every night. But what we get in the Hands is this
[PHOTO OF THE HANDS TEXT
The Huw Evans line is cut and Ford re-enters with an apology. So we are already in the new ‘reality’ rather than watching the men abandon the old ‘reality’ and create a new one. It also casts doubt on whether he cared that much all along, and perhaps most importantly there is no time for the information that the scene relies upon to be imparted. But following the Folio, Ford has stopped looking for his wife’s lover, and the wives have confessed almost everything to the men. The scene opens with the men slowly and stupidly catching up with their wives invention, their fantasy. Now we are getting to the psychological meat of the play.
‘We are such stuff as dreams are made of…’
A brief digression if I may. Let us imagine the owner of a factory who is convinced his workers are stealing from him. He doesn’t know what they’re stealing or who’s doing the stealing. So he hires a security firm to check all the workers as they leave the factory each day. The firm is thorough they check every man, they search their pockets, their coats, their toolbags and their wheelbarrows. The thieving goes on. The factory owner is still losing money hand over fist. Until one day he realizes that his workers are stealing the wheelbarrows.
Shakespeare and in particular The Merry Wives Of Windsor can be approached in a similar way to the factory owner who is so determined to find the solution to his problem that he is blinded to the very thing that is in front of his eyes – in this case the dramatic poem. The assumption that because this play refuses to behave exactly like our expectations of a play, it is therefore a mistake – and perhaps that the implications of its inconsistencies present an audience (or perhaps more properly a director) with an uncomfortable ontological problem.
In The Matrix Keanu Reeves is given a choice between a blue pill and red pill. If you take the blue pill the story ends and you wake up in your bed and believe what you want to believe. If you take the red pill you stay in wonderland and see how deep the rabbit hole really goes. The choice, to paraphrase Slavoj Zizek is not between ‘illusion’ and ‘reality’. “If you take away from reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it” says Zizek, “you lose reality itself”. He invites us look for “an imaginary third pill; a pill not to see the reality behind the illusion, but reality in illusion itself”.
Peter Brook in There Are No Secrets says something similar about the unique thrill of the theatre. Two men walk in to an empty space, one man says “can you point me in the direction of the pyramids” so in our imaginations we are in Giza. The second man says to the first man “can you point me in the direction of the Eiffel tower” to which the first man responds “I don’t know what you’re talking about we’re in Egypt”. Both fantasies melt away and we are in a strange intermediate space, simultaneously in both places and in neither. Suddenly we’ve taken the third pill.
To put it simply if we take away the stories we tell about ourselves, what is left is not the ‘real’ integral self, or the ‘real’ truth, but nothing, a void; a thing as human beings we don’t know, don’t understand or cannot control. It is in ‘fantasy’ that we are at our most ‘real’, where as much as ‘truth’ exists, we say the ‘truest’ things. Twitter ‘trolling’ and anonymous ‘confession’ in the Catholic church is liberating. Shakespeare understands this very well, and I think he’s fascinated by the idea. We must pay close attention to the operation of fantasy in Shakespeare’s plays.
“Madness in great ones” as he tells us in Hamlet “must not unwatched go”. Throughout the canon Shakespeare constantly directs our attention towards his characters fantasies – it’s through the way in which they use and create them that they become the most vivid to us. He understands that it’s a more complicated question than simply whether something is an “illusion” or whether it’s “reality”. We structure our subjective ‘reality’ out of fantasy, as a barrier to the abyss. It’s how we cope with the problem of the void and our unknowable and untamable selves. The elementary mistake we make with Shakespeare is to dismiss the ‘fantasy’ as incidental to the ‘real’ plot. To once more return to David Foster Wallace – a self isn’t something you just have.
It is not simply that there is an integral “Rosalind” who knows who she is and “Ganymede” who is at all times the authorial creation of, and controlled by “Rosalind”. The point is that both are contingent. Both are as ‘real’ as each other (Shakespeare deliberately gives her the name of the fictional heroine of Lodge’s popular romantic novel of 1564). He reinforces this idea in Act 3 scene 2 when Touchstone, in full earshot of Corin embarks on his
“If a hart should lack a hind,
let him seek out Rosalinde”
Touchstone gives us five “Rosalindes” in this bawdy poem. She is of course still ostensibly ‘Ganymede’ at this point. How are we to understand Corin’s thought process as he watches on? Through Touchstone’s consistent playing with ‘reality’ in this play we begin to see the poetic truth of the play i.e ‘Rosalind’s’ adolescent experiments in self hood.
Through Touchstone (very aptly named) our attention is drawn to the inherent ‘fantasy’ in the notion of ‘wedding’. We get three “fake” weddings in As You Like It, each more ludicrous than the last. Touchstone and Audrey’s in front of Oliver Mar-Text is in some way the least complicated and most sane. This wedding “under a bush” immediately precedes Ganymede / Rosalind and Orlando’s semi-improvised ceremony with Celia in the role of priest. In act V all of the couples marry in the woods, still not in a church, in front of a Greek Goddess. Why should we view the final weddings as any more ‘real’ than the first two. Shakespeare is telling us to view the end of the play this way, through this ‘fantasy’ we see the poetic “real” of marriage.
Marriage is not two people certain of who they are, giving their essential selves to each other at a time of their choosing, but two people who don’t know really know themselves marrying at a time when they are expected to do so by society, making absurd promises of eternal love and future fidelity. But I think ultimately for Shakespeare, the fact that in the face of this that we do it at all is the beautiful and tender thing.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, horny adolescents escape from the court and disappear in to the forest wanting freedom of desire, after waking from their terrifying ‘Dream’ at the end of act 4, they are bashing on the walls of the palace to be let back in, in order to be married before the Duke in the most conventional way imaginable. The lovers, after they have collectively woken up from this nightmare of desire and remembering their extreme behaviour, seem to want to disavow it. Demetrius says
“It seemes to mee,
That yet we sleepe, we dreame”
Finally they head towards the palace, on the way they will “recount their dreams” (although Hermia sees things with a “parted eye”). On the way they’ll try and tame the trauma of their collective ‘dream’ by narrativising it. So to their weddings.
Last night these children were irresponsible adolescents. Today they’re getting married before the Duke. Pyramus and Thisbe is not just a comic epilogue. The Duke chooses it very deliberately – the mechanicals play is the PERFECT entertainment for the marriages of Helena and Demetrius and Hermia and Lysander. The play Pyramus and Thisbe and these marriages are romantic fantasies, hastily and shoddily thrown together at the last minute to hit a deadline, where the participants have slightly different ideas about precisely what is in the narrative. It is essential to the drama that Theseus continually points out the ludicrousness of the spectacle that’s presented to the young lovers – and by extension to us. It is another wonderful alienation device thrown in by Shakespeare to ensure that we read the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the right way.
Michael Boyd once said that “we can’t do A Midsummer Night’s Dream any more because we don’t believe in fairies”. I think that’s interesting - the idea that if we did believe in fairies, or we found a way to make them actually fly or some such, the play would somehow magically work again. I think Brook in his seminal white box Midsummer Nights Dream grasped the key point. You’re not supposed to believe in the fairies. The fairies are there to help us not believe in the people. Our problem today is not that we believe too little, but we believe too much in the illusion of an integral self and that through Shakespeare seek comfort in concrete meaning, rather than truth in all of its frightening and radical ambiguity. Shakespeare doesn’t offer us lullabys he offers us nightmares. Not solutions but irreducible problems, problems that remind us of our common humanity.
But in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It we get an epilogue. Puck says
“If we shadows have offended
Think but this and all is mended
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear
And this weak and idle theme
No more yielding than a dreame”
How might the shadows have offended? That’s a very interesting question and one perhaps only truly addressed in the Brook. There was plenty to be offended by in that production. But at the end of both plays we are told that we shouldn’t take any of this seriously that we were just watching a play. We are given a get out of jail free card. We are taken out of the drama, as if through a decompression chamber back to our own ‘reality’.
In Merry Wives we get no such comfort. Shakespeare audaciously attempts to explore similar ideas in the same way but within the context of a richly detailed ‘reality’ rather than the Athenian Woods or the Forest of Arden, and among middle aged people who’ve been married for years rather than young innocents. Its one thing to depict the ambiguous truth of the marriages of children, quite another to catch up with these marriages twenty years down the line, where they’re still grappling with the same questions, but with serious jobs and responsibilities. The result is crueller, darker, harder edged, and very, very funny. As all the great magical realists know, the realer the real’, the more magic the ‘magic’.
As I’ve tried to illustrate with Merry Wives, the roughnesses, the inconsistencies and the difficult questions are precisely where we should be looking to mine this plays real richness. But because we believe we know how Shakespeare wrote plays and composed characters, and that because these characters don’t cohere to those ideas we have, literally, to borrow from Harold Pinter attempted to cauterize the wound, by ironing out the play’s problems.
Why is Falstaff there?
Lets look at the obvious, basic question of act I scene i. Why is Falstaff there? On the surface there seems to be no good reason for Falstaff and his pissed cohorts to be having dinner at Page’s house in this ostensibly realistic late Elizabethan setting. Also, and this is no small matter, Falstaff is from the 15th century and depending on when you believe the play was written, conceptually back from the dead. Why / how has he traveled through time / come back to life? As most directors do I just ignored the time travel and mortality issues and began to look for the reason behind why / how he came to be at the Page house. Page had invited Falstaff because he wants to impress his visitors from Gloucestershire with his social connections, Falstaff had inveigled his way in, in order to prey on low hanging fruit of bored rich housewives and so on. I had assumed from my 21st century viewpoint that Shakespeare had not given us a clear answer to these mysteries out of some dereliction of playwrighterly duty. After all it’s only The Merry Wives Of Windsor.
But on reflection that’s paying too much attention to the ‘realism’ of the play and not enough to the poetry. It’s not enough to say that Falstaff is part of the natural set up of reality. Rather it is as if a foreign dimension has intruded that literally tears apart reality. Or to put it another way Falstaff’s fictionality is his very point, Harold bloody Bloom.
We have no problem with this idea in cinema, in to the ostensibly ‘realistic’ setting of The Birds and the creepily oedipal tea party at Mitch’s house where his mother, his lover and his little sister negotiate the problem of where the his lover is going to stay that night, come a thousand homicidal birds. So we can read in elementary Freudian film theory that the birds represent an explosive outburst of maternal super-ego when trying to grapple with that particular mystery. When something gets too traumatic, too violent, it shatters the co-ordinates of reality and we fictionalize it. Or to put it another way, when reality stops being edifying to us, we just make a new reality. Take dirty talk, while having sex we seem unable to enjoy the thing in itself, we say things like “I want to do such and such a thing to you”, “the other day I was thinking about you doing this”, “wasn’t it amazing that night in Kidderminster” etc. Sex is always enjoyed in the way that we want to enjoy it – though our imaginative rendering of it.
So we see that Falstaff’s presence is a mystery deliberately unsolved to allow his poetic function to be considered. In to the incestuous imbroglio of the Page house comes Falstaff – pure unbridled, unashamed, undead, unkillable appetite. He is a major poetic theme of the The Merry Wives writ very large - the fake of masculinity. Take James Bond. Men’s fantasy of themselves is that they are confrontational, direct, violent, brave, sexually confident, sexually alluring, effortless conversationalists, ruthless, great dressers, never aging, heroic - of course for suburban British men in particular the opposite is closer to the reality. In Falstaff we see the tension between what Freud calls ‘libido’ endless undead energy and the poor, pathetic, finite, mortal reality of the body. Masculinity as a panicked response to an unknown and unknowable world. One can read classical paintings of spent, wounded Roman soldiers in the arms of busty Goddesses as a picture of male heroism and female nurturing – we imagine a speech bubble in which she might be saying :”there, there you amazing brave soldier”. One could also imagine the obverse, a thought bubble in which the Goddess thinks “Oh is THAT it?”
Hiding in plain sight
A fascinating detail that the company wrestled with at length in rehearsal was Ford’s line
“I have a disguise to sound out Falstaff”
He already owns the ‘Brook’ disguise. I read many a scholarly article on the play which said that the time that the actor playing Ford has off stage, after II.i denotes time provided for a big costume change in to ‘Brook’.
We played with this idea a lot, we thought of a number of costumes or looks we could have used to make the disguise really excellent - a disguise that would REALLY have fooled Falstaff. But firstly we identified the (presumably deliberate) fact that he didn’t have to fool Falstaff. Falstaff and Ford have never met, he has no idea what he looks like. This thus heightens the sense in the audience’s mind that any disguise is for ‘Ford’s’ benefit not for Falstaff’s. The only person in the play other than Falstaff who does see ‘Brook’ is the boy Robin – always look to the children. Robin’s silence as he watches Mistress Page and Ford lie to each other in III.ii is comic and dramatic gold.
Secondly the consistently funniest idea we came up with for the ‘Brook’ ‘costume’ and the one we went with in the end was a tiny little toupe – which unbeknownst to Ford kept slipping off. As far as Falstaff was concerned he was having a conversation with a strange man with a very peculiar hairpiece. Which he was.
I incidentally wondered whether Shakespeare did the same thing - deliberately playing with his audiences expectations in an implicit dialogue with Two Gentlemen of Verona, or As You Like It by setting up the expectation of a big costume and give them something tiny in keeping with the ‘Ford’ / ‘Brook’ conjunction? It’s an interesting thought. This blurring of the lines is happening all over the play - even Huw Evans “spies a great peard under [the old woman of Brentford’s] muffler”.
There is a further dimension to ‘Brook’. He behaves not unlike what Freud later perceived as a super-ego. Super-ego is an obscene, hyperactive agency bombarding us with impossible demands and laughing at us when we cannot fulfill those demands. There is always an element of obscene madman in the agency of super-ego. ‘Ford’ is monosyllabic, anti social. ‘Brook’ is hyperactive, he talks non-stop, he throws large sums of money around with abandon. Freud’s lesson also is that super-ego and the mysterious ‘id’ drive are deeply connected – ‘Id’ like the whole ‘Brook’ ruse is a combination of childish innocence and utter corruption. ‘Brook’ compels ‘Ford’ to attempt the impossible, namely to see what his wife desires. But the point is that he will never see what his wife desires, because sexual desire doesn’t exist in a form that you can see. Rather than us assuming that ‘Ford’ is driving ‘Brook’ perhaps a more interesting reading is to see the extent to which ‘Brook’ is driving ‘Ford’.
‘Brook’s’ relationship with ‘Ford’ teaches us a profound lesson about how sexual fantasy works for men. What I think Shakespeare is tackling through the ‘Brook’ / ‘Ford’ character is a man terrorized by the enigma of his wife who does not respond properly to his sexual advances. He doesn’t know what she wants, he has
“Not only bought many presents to give her, but have given largely to many, to know what she would have given”
In this play of conspicuously large numbers of children we know that they are childless. This is a fascinating clue, one that fascinates students of Macbeth. But the ‘Scottish Couple’, are royalty, they exist within the mode of tragedy, they die at the end; much easier to cope with for an audience. This tang of sexual dysfunction is teased out in the following exchange
Falstaff: Have you received no promise of satisfaction at her hands?
Falstaff: Have you ever importuned her to such a purpose?
Falstaff: Of what quality was your love then?
Ford: Like a fair house built on another man’s ground, so that I have lost my edifice by mistaking the place where I erected it.
Falstaff: Why have you unfolded this to me?
Ford: When I have told you that I have told you all.
Lets for a moment take ‘Brook’ at his word. So how does ‘Ford‘ / ‘Brook’ deal with the implied sexual deadlock in his marriage? Ostensibly Ford finds out that Falstaff wants to have sex with his wife, but rather than going to Falstaff as Ford, telling him he knows about his plot and putting a stop it, he dons a thin disguise withdraws a tonne of cash, goes to see Falstaff and pays him an awful lot of money to ensure he does it. And the rationale is given as follows
“Now, could I come to her with any detection in my hand, my desires had instance and argument to commend themselves. I could then drive her from the ward of her purity, her reputation, her marriage vow and a thousand other her defences, which now are too, too strongly embattled against me”.
Richly fascinating stuff – assuming we are looking at the wheelbarrow. Why does he ‘plot’, ‘devise’ in this way? Why does he want his wife to be a ‘wanton’? The banal answer is that if she is sexually aroused then she will become sexually active with him. But I don’t think that this is it. The important thing for Ford is that she’s wanton in a scenario of his creation. He wants her to conform to the co-ordinates of his fantasy. He doesn’t know what his wife wants so rather face this ontological horror, his strategy is to completely reinvent reality and recast her as the sexy leading lady in his tawdry drama. In ‘reality’ the obstacle is inherent, the sex doesn’t work, but in the fantasy space authored by ‘Brook’ the obstacle is externalized and made manifest in Falstaff. He is crafted in to the schism in their marriage.
This is in effect the myth of Pygmalion, or the story of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, he can only become aroused by the woman as long as she is part of the co-ordinates of his fantasy. Or he tacitly erases his wife as a desiring entity so that his fantasy alone rules. She’s too terrifying a prospect for ‘Brook’ / ‘Ford’ to want her in all of her ambiguity, so he creates a sexy narrative over which he has full control.
The idea that Shakespeare picks away at here is that while sexuality seems to be about concrete real bodies, it isn’t. It exists in fantasy and words and how bodily activity is reported afterwards. The author of the Sonnets understands this fine well, he understand that sensuality’s true locus is not partly in words and mainly in the body, but sensuality exists solely in our imaginative rendering of it. ‘Ford’ seems less concerned with the act and more about how his wife ‘plots’, ‘ruminates’ and ‘devises’. He flies in to a psychotic rage at the presence of his wife’s confessor, the person to whom she tells everything, ‘The Old Woman of Brentford’.
But for me the truly disturbing moment in the play is not the shift from the ‘reality’ in to the ‘fantasy’ space as in the curiously empty Garter Inn scene in II.ii - we find watching him invent as an audience a lot of fun, we enjoy the thrilling ambiguity of wondering who is speaking ‘Ford’ or ‘Brook’. It’s funny. No, the truly disturbing moment is in the III.iii buckbasket scene when his fantasy disintegrates before his (and our) eyes. There is no Falstaff. His wife is telling the truth. He’s left psychologically naked before his neighbours who are laughing at him. As an audience we are left in an intermediate place, neither fantasy, nor reality, it’s a space of primordial violence, depression and ontological confusion. “See the hell of having a false woman”?
The greatness of the Merry Wives resides in the fact that within the concrete geography of Windsor the whole drama oscillates between ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ several times – and we witness in detail the precise creation and dismantling of ‘reality’ each time. Coming out of the other side of the dream only usually happens at the end, in Merry Wives, it happens throughout. I think Shakespeare is fascinated by this thrilling dramatic dynamic, and in the seeming paradox that the more one reveals of the mechanism of what one is doing the deeper connection to the inner life of the character. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It we only have one flip from reality to fantasy and back again, and only briefly toward the end of both plays do we have both modes running in tandem. In Merry Wives Shakespeare tries to keep both modes running in tandem for most of the duration of the play. At the height of the confusion at the end of act III ‘Ford’ / ‘Brook’ asks the audience “Is this a vision? Is this a dream? Do I sleep?” Lets take the question at face value and assume that at this point he doesn’t know. He then adds “Master Ford awake, awake Master Ford” perhaps at this point ‘Brook’ hasn’t got much of a grip on ‘Ford’, perhaps at this moment there’s not too much of ‘Ford’ left. This is where, for me the genius of the play resides.
The curious case of Reeva Steenkamp’s sexy photos
To digress for a paragraph, one only has to examine the case of Oscar Pistorious and Reeva Steenkamp. One imagines the dynamic in the relationship between a balding double amputee (albeit a gold medal winning balding double amputee), a man defined by his disability to a degree, and a woman defined by her feminine perfection. One can imagine him worrying away at the question of why she finds him attractive. What’s the catch? Is it the gold medals? The money? Surely the novelty will wear off? Surely she will leave me when I’m a faded fat former paralympian. She’s wrong, she’s made a mistake, she loves me for the wrong reason. Why has she made a present of sexy photographs of herself to me? That’s pretty left field. What does she think she knows about what I like? Does she think I like looking at sexy pictures of women? What does she know? When one night – if speculation is to be believed - she catches the South African National hero without his prosthetic legs engaged in the tawdry act of masturbating to pornography on his iphone. He does this thinking she’s asleep in the next room; another fascinating psychological detail. Perhaps he does this as a subconscious revenge for the perceived attempt to re-shape his fantasy world. So. He is discovered; in all of his psychological nakedness, without the prosthetic legs, the co-ordinates of his reality blown apart, her looking at him with shock and disgust, she articulates a feeling of betrayal. She makes the mistake of taking the phone and running in to the bathroom, using her physical advantage to do so. The phone’s history has recorded all of the sites he has visited. He has to get in to the bathroom, he has to stop her looking at the phone. He has to reconstitute a reality he can bear and quickly. In a tearing rage, standing on his stumps, he reaches for his gun and shoots his way through the door killing Reeva in the process. Through violence he changes his reality. One can imagine his state of mind as the noise of the gunshot faded away and he was left staring at Reeva’s body through the holes in the door. It’s Victor by WH Auden. Its Othello. It’s Ford.
But ‘Ford’ is not the only man in this play who’s plots and fantasies come to naught. Falstaff’s plot as far as we can ascertain is to get hold of the wives money, by ‘making love’ to them, this doesn’t happen. The Dr. Caius and Sir Huw sword fight doesn’t happen, Page’s plans for his daughter’s marriage, Shallow’s plans to woo Ann on behalf of Slender is also a disaster, as is the Host of the Garter’s attempt to gull the visiting German dignitaries. Unresolved tension between the men hangs in the air. These moments of male failure, (impotence if you like) hang unresolved through the drama like a series of unresolved chords in a symphony. In considering the men in the play I was put in mind of my step-father’s ten and a half year plan to renovate his kitchen, and my mother’s queasy and faintly disappointed mantra “It’ll be nice when its done”.
We can set these failed plots against the men’s pathetic attempts at wooing (or more properly) having sex in this play. We have already discussed Ford’s Byzantine strategy. Mistress Page tells us that her husband is “as far from jealousy as [she is] from giving him cause”. There’s Slender’s hamfisted attempts at seducing Ann Page with a ludicrous brag about seeing a loose bear and “taking him by the chain” – and in a wonderfully Freudian conclusion to that speech he says “But women indeed cannot abide em: they are very ill-favoured rough things”. What are mate, the women or the bears?
As true sexuality begins and ends in our ability to talk about it, Falstaff can only partly remember the best lines of Philip Sidney (‘Have I caught thee my heavenly jewel’ the only line he can recall from Astrophil and Stella) and Sir Huw recalling Marlowe’s Passionate Shepherd to His Love remembers all the stuff about “vagram poesies” but cuts out before “come live with me and be my love”. In Act III scene iv we cut to Fenton refusing a confrontation with Page and failing to persuade Ann to marry him without her father’s permission. The counter plot of dressing the boys up as “Ann” in the forest is Ann’s idea not Fenton’s, he is merely acting on her prompting. Like her mother in the previous scene, she sends her man on a plot to get him out of her hair. The entire play is a story of men’s desperate attempts to catch up with female fantasy, which ends in failure – and how despite this, men and women mete out a way of living together.
By contrast the female plots in the play are successful, Falstaff is taught a lesson, as is Ford and the most successful of all is the largely silent Ann who proves her mothers adage that “still swine eat all the draff”. She fools them all. One of the funniest and most perceptive moments of the play is after the second time ‘Ford’s’ ‘fantasy’ disappears in front of his eyes after he has half beaten to death the ‘old woman of Brentford’. The wives attempt to get the men out of the deadlock of this intermediate space where no-one knows what is real by attempting to engage the men in a new collective fantasy. Ford appears happy to jump to the new idea just to get him out of his own nightmare. Caius’ silent presence is very funny, he REALLY doesn’t know what’s going on. Evans and Page appear unable to comprehend what the women are talking about constantly interrupting them and seeking clarification and broadly dismissing their ides to ensnare Falstaff. Page says
“Fie, fie he’ll never come”.
Mistress Page knowing her husband very well launches in to the lurid Herne The Hunter speech all in verse, as if telling a ghost story to a child. Some 25 lines later Page says
“Well let it not be doubted but he’ll come"
The experienced Mistress Page understands that eternal truth: in order to get a man to do anything, and I mean anything, you have to convince him it’s his idea. The whole exchange is a wonderfully vivid vignette of the Page’s private life. We don’t get many clues as to what goes on behind closed doors at the Pages, but we do get is extraordinary. Page uses this as an opportunity to take ownership of the idea by throwing cash at it, he goes off to buy silk. Evans goes off to write a song, make some costumes and rehearse. Ford, released from his hell by the invention of a new safe shared ‘reality’ not only says that he’ll buy the children vizards (of course he knows where the fucking mask shop is), but he’ll also use this as a licence to once more become ‘Brook’. I love Ford’s enthusiasm and Mistress Page’s patronizing response at the end of the scene, exhausted by her neighbour’s lack of self awareness, the brilliant Sylvestra Le Touzel almost sighed as she plodded though her single syllables
Ford: I’ll to him again in the name of Brook:
He’ll tell me his purpose. Sure he’ll come.
Mistress Page: Fear you not that. Go get us properties
And tricking for our fairies.
So what do we do then?
And so to the end. Men are from Mars Women are from Venus. We don’t speak the same languages. We don’t dream the same dreams. How then are we supposed to live? In the final moment of ontological crisis in the play, the final time that the fantasy structure of ‘reality’ dissolves in front of our eyes, and all the characters see that they are stood in the woods at midnight being watched by their children who just acted out an obscene comic musical re-enactment of their parents behaviour towards Falstaff. Two of the children have been through the trauma of being abducted and taken to a church and married to Slender and Dr. Caius, and there’s a wounded and terrified old man half buried in a hole. We stand somewhere between the self consciously ‘authored’ horror of the Herne’s Oak fantasy and the true horror of what they have done.
In to this scenario walks Fenton and Ann Page, ‘married’; Ann probably no longer a virgin. Shakespeare reminds us, as he often does, that despite it all life goes on. Life has to be lived. This is first time anyone has had sex in the play, it is depicted in a beautifully and ambiguously real way. Shakespeare refuses to allow Ann to behave like new wives behave on stage. She has only one line of seven words in act 5, which Naomi Sheldon played beautifully. Remaining ambiguous, tears welling in her eyes, fresh with knowledge, standing half way between her new husband and her parents, (dressed as Superman and Bambi respectively) she said
“Pardon good father – Good my mother pardon”
She has made her bed. There is still no resolution to this traumatic scene. No possibility of collectively forging a new reality in which they can all engage. Now Shakespeare returns to one of his favourite themes, through Ford (perhaps in a moment of self revelation)
“Money buys lands, but Wives are sold by fate”
To reference As You Like It as far as Ann Page is concerned “Lady fortune[’s] gifts are mightily misplaced, and the bountiful blind woman doth most mistake in her gifts to women”.
Despite all of our imagining and fantasizing, despite our desire to shape our destiny what we get is ‘reality’ in all of its troubling ambiguity. Fenton’s not great, he’s not as bad as the others, he’s ok. Ann like her mother understands that we have a word for fantasy realised that is ‘nightmare’. She now understands the fragile balance between ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ in sexual activity.
Mistress Page suggests they all go home “Sir John and All” and “laugh this sport o’er by a country fire”. What can one do in such a situation but laugh? But this somehow doesn’t feel like a satisfying reconstitution of a new ‘reality’. Is anyone going to break the deadlock? Once more its left to ‘Ford’ to attempt to forge a new ‘order’, perhaps he’s proven to be least at ease in this intermediate space between ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’. Perhaps he needs familiar phantasmogorical co-ordinates in order that he can experience this ‘reality’ as ‘normal’ again. He says to Falstaff
“To Master Brook you yet shall keep your word
For he tonight shall lie with Mistress Ford”.
This great unresolved play does not end with a major key cadence, but strange minor key half rhyme and the return of ‘Brook’. Perhaps he never went away. It’s as if Shakespeare leaves us with this line to draw our attention to the fact that sex and sexual relationships can only operate with the support of ‘fantasy’. The mistake I made in my production was to allow Mistress Ford to accept her husband’s offer and run off in to the woods implicitly for the long overdue sexual encounter – perhaps in my production they just needed to make love just to ground the excessive real that they encountered in their fantasizing. But on reflection this was saying too much. In this moment we eventually succumbed to the temptation to smooth one of the plays rougher edges. I think that Shakespeare is leaving the response to that question to us. I wish I had kept it ambiguous. But that end scene was so hard to rehearse, we all found it so emotionally draining that we kind of ran out of time.
I’m fascinated by how Hands and Alexander decided to close their productions. In both versions Ann’s line “pardon good father – good my mother pardon” is cut (although interestingly its added back in to the Alexander’s prompt script in pencil). In the Hands the final line is given to Mistress Ford
“To Master Brook you yet shall hold your word,
For he tonight will shall lie with Mistress Ford”.
This implies that Mistress Ford knows the details of the conversation between ‘Brook’ and ‘Falstaff’. That she at some point found out about their bargain, and that she implicitly forgives him. In both versions there is a line, that I’m 99% sure was written by Terry Hands given to Ford which reads
“Let it be so, Sir John, here’s my hand; all’s forgiven at last”
So to conclude I think, like Greer and many others that Shakespeare was backwards and forwards to Stratford more frequently than is popularly thought. I think that his marriage to Ann Shakespeare was probably quite fully lived, and therefore had its own ultra specific dynamic; its difficulties, sadnesses and pleasures. It’s interesting to speculate on Shakespeare being away thinking about his wife and how the reality of her body impacted upon and differed from his imagining when he returned home. Jonathan Bate tells us Shakespeare knew that Heraclitus wept at how people gather up treasure for themselves while neglecting to bring up their young; perhaps Shakespeare wept himself for the same reason. Perhaps he returned home one night, saw an artefact out of place in his home and in a moment wondered who might have been sleeping in his bed and where they might be hiding. Perhaps he looked at paintings like the one hung in Hall’s croft from 1585 of a protestant family sat piously and happily at dinner, viewing it as we view aggressively happy family photos pasted on Facebook. Perhaps he raised an eyebrow and privately said to himself “yeah right”. Perhaps he thought about writing a play about it. But of course this is just some more useless speculation that only serves to justify my version of the play.
The first image of my production was taken from Stratford Rugby Club on a Sunday morning, where I’d go with my partner to drop off her son. I saw a woman standing by the side of the rugby pitch standing next to a cool box, looking off in to the middle distance with a blank expression on her face. She was holding a dog lead and wearing a hiking jacket and walking boots, no make up, had perhaps had one too many glasses of red wine in front of Strictly the night before. It was the very image of casual neglect. She stood on the sidelines while the men in her life inflicted sublimated violence on their neighbours in an unconvincing display of masculinity. After a while the husband, forties, bald, came over to the cool box, he struggled unsuccessfully to get the lid off. His wife casually turned the handle over to the other side and lifted off the lid with ease. He grabbed a slice of orange and got back to the game with a cursory kiss to his wife’s forehead. She looked out in to middle distance once more. I imagined Robin running up to her with a love letter. “What? Have I ‘scaped love letters in the holiday time of my beauty and am now a subject for them?”. This woman had a Range Rover. Where did she live? Probably in one of the big Tudor period houses on Tiddington Road with a barn conversion. An interesting synthesis of periods started to emerge. Modern dress, Tudor Houses. Virginia Creeper. Kitchen suppers. Halloween parties where, without the right kind of self awareness, women in their late forties dressed as slutty halloween cats, and their husbands as Marvel Superheroes. A class of people like the new Tudor merchant class, confidently asserting their identity – convinced of their own rightness. Private schools. The notion that one is a good parent as long as one is chucking money at one’s kids. Using that money to ensure they mix with the right crowd and marry within their social class. A quiet desperation to ensure that their kids don’t make the same mistakes they did. A quiet acceptance when they do. Shared lies between spouses, secret yearnings, and family mythologies drawn over us like eiderdown when the weather gets cold. Unnamable anxiety. And again the eiderdown.
Was I successful? No. Of course. We all fail. I think I just about failed honourably. I allowed my vision of the play to be diluted and to become a bit too much like other people’s version of the play for fear that it would not be liked and that I wouldn’t get another go at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I didn’t quite have the courage of my convictions on certain matters. I hoped the audience might cry as well as laugh, they didn’t. Although one lovely old lady said that she found it very moving. That made my day.
I was pleased with my choice of music for the buckbasket scene, I wanted a CD that I was convinced the Ford’s owned, and was perhaps the record they first made love to. The track was Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye
“I’ve been really trying baby
Trying to hold back these feelings for so long
And if you feel like I feel
Come on. Oh. Come on.
There’s nothing wrong with me loving you
And giving yourself to me can never be wrong.
If [and only if] the love is true”
I had an idea that after the second scene in the Garter Inn that Ford would go over to the Juke box and play the track again as a reprise, and he would stand there looking at the audience weeping as the scene dissolved in to the Old Woman of Brentford scene. I bottled it. I think audiences that liked it did so largely for the wrong reasons, it looked and smelled like a sex comedy, so phenomenologically that’s what they thought they got. What it actually was is immaterial. I guess that’s the plays genius and its principal lesson for us.
The Merry Wives of Windsor’s popular reputation as a lesser Shakespeare is unfairly earned. There are reams written about internality in Hamlet, sexuality in As You Like It, parents and children in Henry IV, Englishness in Henry V and so on. I think its one of the great Shakespeare plays because it manages to deeply explore themes that Shakespeare was fascinated by throughout his whole career. I think it represents a bold experiment in character and structure and dramatic energy more dazzling than even As You Like It. I think it’s his funniest play by far because it’s his most troubling and people laugh at discomfort and when they’re most discomfited. In saying that I’m also aware that Ken Dodd reminds us that Freud’s theory of laughter is all very well and good, but Freud never had to play second house Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night. While Shakespeare of course hadn’t read Zizek, Lacan, Freud or Dodd, he had read Ovid and Montaigne and he saw something of what they saw in how human beings relate to their dreams and how desire tears apart and remakes the very substance of reality. He smuggled all of this between the lines of a popular stage comedy that is so funny (and so coarse) it has blinded many theatre critics to its artistic value. It’s a great artistic achievement of the English renaissance – he took a series of complicated and heretical ideas about humanity and rendered them in the lingua franca of the common man. I wonder whether it’s an indication of the lofty ambitions he had for the play that he set this expose of Homo-Elizabethensis in Elizabeth’s Windsor in the foothills of her castle. Rather like Mike Leigh setting his exploration of Thatcher’s new middle class in its spiritual home; suburban Essex. I think the play was probably written in 1600; pretty much halfway through his career. I think it was deeply felt, and he was deeply connected to it, which partly accounts for its knottiness and difficulties. I think there are ideas and breakthroughs in perception in Merry Wives that he liked and used again in Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. It’s just a hunch, supported by circumstantial evidence, I’m probably wrong; but as we’ve discussed love and obsession does that to a fellow.
As a post script I’d like to share some of the letter I was sent by Terry Hands after he saw the production. I was of course very keen to please him as always. He is a great director and his opinion meant everything. He told me how much he’d enjoyed the production, that Des Barritt was the best Falstaff ever. I was over the moon. Then he wrote
“Forgive me if I wish you had used more of my text. With respect you are not yet ready to find your way through the labyrinth of various versions. More Shakespeare productions will come from this auspicious beginning. Don’t yet abandon the scholars”.
I haven’t yet been offered another Shakespeare play.
© Phillip Breen
Let's examine another major fictional construction in the play; ‘Master
Brook’. As we have already touched upon it is a mistake to assume that a
unified ‘Ford’ exists and that ‘Ford’ is always in full authorial
control of ‘Brook’. But where as in As You Like It, on the surface,
the gap between ‘Rosalind’ and ‘Ganymede’ is quite big and the blurring
of the lines between the two is a surprise to ‘Rosalind’ and the audience.
Shakespeare sets up something more daring here. We begin with the idea that the
gap between ‘Brook’ and ‘Ford’ is tiny to begin with. It’s a crap
choice of pseudonym, let’s face it. The clue is in the fact that the two words
are practically synonyms.
The Authorship of the Self
Introduction to the Faber printed edition of True West
Austin: There’s nothin’ real down here, Lee! Least of all me.
Lee: Well I can’t save you from that.
The authorship of the self is the biggest business on the planet.
Facebook homepages and Twitter profiles communicate to the world who we think we are. Is this an example of people sharing their thought-through integral selves with one another? Or evidence that in a digital age, as our virtual networks supercede our immediate geographical ones, we have never been less sure about who we are; and the extraordinary energy expended on daily acts of digital self-definition desperate attempts to find out?
I’m not sure I organically know who I am. I guess if I did I wouldn’t need pictures of posters of previous shows, books, trinkets, old tickets to football matches and other fragments of memories all over my walls. I wouldn’t carry photographs of my loved ones on my phone, I wouldn’t tell so many God damn stories about myself to people. Surely if we take away all that, the stories and the photos and whatnot; what will be left will be the ‘real’ me. The ‘true’ self. Yes? Perhaps beyond the ‘fictions’ that that shape our ‘reality’, there is nothing. An abyss. An unknowable and untamable self.
At the opening of True West, Austin, bespectacled, sits at a type-writer with piles of paper nearby, steam rising from a freshly poured cup of black coffee and a cigarette burning in an ashtray. It’s night. He looks like a writer. He acts like a writer. So he must be a writer, yes? Lee standing on the other side of the stage looks like a drunken hobo – so he must be a drunken hobo. We learn instantly that they’re brothers. One all self definition, the other elusive, ambiguous, contradictory.
Much is written about True West as The Great American Play. Lee and Austin representing the schism in the psyche of the American male, between urban sophistication, society, money and the wild frontier spirit; nature. That Lee and Austin (L and A, LA) are the dialectic at the heart of American culture, the struggle that gave birth to the Western. While all that may be true, I am not American.
For me this dramatic poem has a lot to say to an age obsessed with the idea of authenticity, but somehow unable to be authentic. ‘What does it mean to male these days?’, I ask myself. I type this listening to Mumford and Sons, after finishing my Maldon sea salt and balsamic vinegar crisps, my dry cured organic Wiltshire Ham and Wensleydale on freshly baked focaccia, washed down with fair-trade Peruvian Coffee. Real Coffee. From the bean.
Sam Shepard’s written a Western. A man turns up out of the blue, a life is saved, there’s a double cross, a showdown and lots and lots of violence. But the bleak, harsh, unknowable wilderness is in the souls of two boys coming to terms with their father’s mysterious abandonment of them. When the boys ‘realities’ are destroyed, when they understand their father is unknowable and unsavable, and they stare the wilderness square in the maw – they desperately attempt to recover something of who they are. They do this by connecting with the land, their past, to each other – they are hopeless at being each other. They contrive to render their domestic situation literally and figuratively absurd.
Beyond the flimsy fictions that shape our subjective reality, they ask, “who are we?”. It’s important that they want to know. They seem to understand that the greatest tragedy, as Kirkegaard tells us, is “to lose oneself”.
The knotty opposites that play out in True West – craft / inspiration, male female, mind / body, chaos / order, thinking / instinct, reality / fantasy, urban / rural, rich / poor say much about contemporary American life. But it’s in exploring the penumbra between all of them that Shepard offers us a play that is universal with much to say about life in 2014. A reminder that among all the noisy self definition, the quiet, wounded, anxious, delicate human soul can never be wholly known.
© Phillip Breen
The Scotsman, 25 March 2011
Meeting sculptor and playwright Jimmy Boyle
I walked in to an Edinburgh bookshop recently and could have bought scores of different books on the Krays and their henchmen.
I could have bought 30 different books on Adolf Hitler but couldn't find a single one on Mother Theresa and they only had one copy of Gandhi An Autobiography on the whole four floors. On television, you can see Waking the Dead, Wire in the Blood or Midsomer Murders or tune in to the eight-part drama-doc, Scottish Killers just after Corrie on Monday nights. Our culture is saturated with violence and we seem to love it. Theatres with flagging box offices have always programmed The Scottish Play - Shakespeare's homicidal king shifts tickets like there's no tomorrow.
In 1977 The Hard Man by Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle was packing them in to theatres around Scotland. But this was no exercise in Grand Guignol. This semi-autobiographical play about the early life and subsequent imprisonment of Boyle, "Scotland's most violent man", was a theatrical game-changer. It was the Black Watch of its day. Imagine Scum meets The Threepenny Opera meets Goodfellas, staged in a music hall and underscored by Charlie Mingus, a play with the heart of Men Should Weep, the soul of Allen Ginsberg and the rage of Sarah Kane.
The play propelled McGrath to national stardom but gave fresh impetus to journalists for whom writing shrill opinion pieces in the Scottish press about Boyle had become something of a cottage industry. Tales of "drug-fuelled orgies" in the Special Unit of Barlinnie Prison, where Boyle was held, led for calls for a daring attempt to reform the most dangerous prisoners in Scotland to be abandoned.
It also gave rise to a new raft of gothic folklore in Glasgow about the eponymous Hard Man - the gangster who was speaking to them from behind the walls of Barlinnie prison - who had, it was said, cynically manipulated the mind of McGrath and sought to nefariously corral public support for an early release so he could go back to nailing people to their floorboards. It was all rubbish, but why let the reality spoil everyone's fun? Either way you couldn't get a ticket for love or money.
In preparation for directing the first professional revival of the play, I made plans to meet Jimmy at his home in Morocco. I learned quickly that everyone has a story (which is always relayed with total conviction of its veracity) - a tale from an uncle, who had a mate, who had done time with Jimmy in the 1960s; or from a father who had sat behind Jimmy at the pictures one night and could just tell that he had "something about him". The stories fell in roughly two camps - the bloodcurdling and the "he wusnae f***ing hard thut yin, you come here son, I'll tell you about real hard men", invariably followed by something bloodcurdling. The only story I have heard twice is the one about nailing debtors to their floorboards in cruciform - but I also heard that story about the Krays and Al Capone.
When I arrive at the hotel that Jimmy has recommended for me, I am greeted by an expat landlady who tells me I should expect to have a great time with Jimmy. I have been upgraded for free to the best room in the place, "anything for a friend of Jimmy's". Over tea and cake she asks how I know Jimmy and I say I don't, but have come to discuss his play. She didn't know he'd written a play, she says, but adds that she's heard Jimmy has "a bit of a past", but has never thought to ask about it.
Jimmy's driver picks me up at one o'clock, and on the way to the house he tells me how Jimmy helped him to pursue his studies and that he thinks of him as a "very great man". I have brought a bottle of wine from duty free and, as requested, all the Sunday papers from the airport.
And then I meet Jimmy. He has just come from his studio where he's working on his latest sculpture. He's wearing a pair of flip-flops and an old grey T-shirt. As we shake hands I get a flash of those piercing blue eyes. We sit on his balcony under an African sky, taking in the Atlas mountains.
Jimmy asks why I am here. I tell him I always try to meet writers whose work I am directing, that I find it helped to get a sense of why they wanted to write the play and to get further insight in to the mechanics of the drama. This is basically true, but there is a part of me that wants to see the "Hard Man" in the flesh. "What do I want him to be," I ask myself, "Why am I here?"
He talks with great openness about his life. There is not a jot of pride or relish in his stories or even a sense of self-justification. Most of them I know from his autobiography, A Sense of Freedom - but it's one thing to read about someone being naked in a cage, that measured four feet by four feet by seven feet, for six and a half years, and quite another to hear it being related by the man who has lived it. He speaks of being almost completely desensitised to all aspects of pain and violence. He speaks of the warders and the inmates never talking to each other and the two groups living side by side in huge fear of each other - locked in a cycle of violence and retribution. He speaks of his own violence while inside in purely practical terms, as a way of surviving. He talks of the importance of staying free in his mind. I have to constantly remind myself that when Boyle was sentenced to life in 1967 for a crime he claims he didn't commit, he was 23 years old. He went to the cages at 25.
Jimmy speaks about the Special Unit, and how quietly influential this controversial experiment was within the Scottish prison system. The unit was run as a collective, the inmates and the guards spoke to each other every day.
By speaking and listening to each other, understanding grew, trust grew and the inclination to hurt someone with whom they had an affinity diminished. He felt that they had begun to crack the problem of recidivism.
The only time I see a glint of steel in his eye is when I make a flippant remark about a production of mine that I wasn't been terribly proud of. "Ah well, it's only a play," I say.
"It's never 'only a play,'" he replies. Art saved Jimmy. He underwent a spiritual and political awakening after reading Crime and Punishment - a tale of a young man's redemption after committing senseless acts of violence - while in the cages at Inverness. Jimmy had never read a book before but here, he thought, was a writer who knew him - that very fact affected him deeply. But it was when he was given clay and encouraged to sculpt in the Special Unit that he felt the floodgates open. Suddenly he had a means of expression and his life took on a new purpose.
I ask him how he feels about us doing the The Hard Man again. "I don't want you to take this the wrong way," he says after a pause. "I'm pleased you're doing it, I think it's a good play, and I wish you well with it. But to be honest I don't care. That was my life then. I'm only concerned about now, the future, my next sculpture." It makes total sense. I feel bad for intruding.
His play reminds us that arguments about the punishment of criminals are general and abstract when applied to other people, but must feel very specific when applied to you. After the 2008 banking crisis it poses interesting questions about how different groups are criminalised and punished. It probes the cult of knife crime among young working-class men and how they are treated by the state. The play doesn't say that Johnny Byrne - McGrath and Boyle's semi-fictional central character - is innocent, or even that he is good, just that he is a man who was brutalisd, who brutalised others, who in turn brutalised him. To what extent he is a hero and what extent he is a bastard is entirely up to you. Boyle and McGrath don't seek to apply a conventional narrative to the violence - it happens and it destroys individuals, relationships and institutions. In the shocking final moments of the play Byrne is reduced to the status of an animal, living in a cage. We know that, given the opportunity, the real life Byrne was able to change his circumstances.
But more than anything I think the play is interested in why we have such an insatiable appetite for violent stories; why we repeatedly create "Jimmy Boyles" in the popular imagination. Even though the real one is now sitting by a lemon tree thousands of miles away contemplating his next sculpture.
© Phillip Breen
Introduction to the 2011 edition of The Hard Man by Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle
After the huge and unexpected success of his first play, Laurel and Hardy in 1976, Glasgow playwright Tom McGrath was asked by the Traverse Theatre what his next play would be. ‘It’s going to be about violence’ he said. He was asked for a title; he quickly made one up. ‘It’s going to be called The Hard Man’. McGrath was concerned with his home city’s fetishisation of violence, and its prevalence in its working class culture. He had become fascinated by the violence in the work of Laurel and Hardy and began to imagine what the films would be like without the laughs. Or only with the violence.
As he worked away on ideas and sketches for his new play, he began an extraordinary correspondence with one of Scotland’s most notorious hard men, Jimmy Boyle. Boyle was an inmate at the special unit at Barlinnie prison, serving a life sentence for murder; a crime he claimed he did not commit. The correspondence between the two formed the basis of the powerful and influential play-cum-bloody cabaret The Hard Man. It changed the life of McGrath and the face of Scottish theatre. It was the Black Watch of its day. It was popular, challenging and contemporary. It was a theatrical game-changer. Imagine Scum, meets The Threepenny Opera, meets Goodfellas staged in a music hall and underscored by Charlie Mingus. It’s got the heart of Men Should Weep with the soul of Allen Ginsberg and the hairstyle of Jonny Rotten. It paved the way for Trainspotting, and shares a purpose with Sarah Kane.
The story is a fictionalised account of Boyle’s young life. From his days as petty criminal, through numerous stretches in brutal young offenders units, in to organized crime, money lending rackets, notoriety, arrest, imprisonment, more brutalization and a bloody battle-royale with the prison guards at HMP Peterhead. The play was derided in some quarters for adding lustre to the reputation of a violent criminal and convicted murderer. For others the play represented an attack on the corrosive influence of gang-culture. For others it was a poetic meditation on state violence and the question of who is criminalized and how they are punished. For others the play represented the rage of the indefatigable human spirit against the madness of the system – a Gorbals One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. The politics of the play continue to be provocative in their ambiguity.
The play is complex, stylised and difficult to pin down; but it reflects the truth of our protagonist’s ‘version of his own story’ on a deeper level. It’s expressionistic, it seizes the essence of life without its context; as Tennesse Williams said of his own expressionism ‘it’s a closer approach to truth’. Its structure owes a lot to McGrath’s love of jazz, it freewheels like a Charlie Parker sax solo, but always returns effortlessly to the main theme. Its demotic language is rich with turns of phrase recalled from Boyle’s childhood in the Gorbals. The synthesis of the two gives us a play of startling originality.
When I first read The Hard Man two and a half years ago, I was swept up in its energy, frankness and jet black working class wit. Its zoetrope of violent imagery lodged in my brain like splinters of glass. It appealed to the adolescent in me that loves gangster films, the child that loves pantomimes, and laughing at dirty jokes. It appealed to the part of me that is curious to know why we are fascinated with violence and its perpetrators; the part that is riveted by Silent Witness and Macbeth. The part of me that questions why I can check my phone while watching far off cities get bombed on the news.
The more I read it, the more I felt that 2011 was a fecund time to explore the play. The end of 2010 saw Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand campaigning for action to stop kids killing each other with knives in Peckham and the strangling of a young woman in Bristol. It saw Wikileaks reveal how British prisoner abuses at Abu-Ghraib has led to the radicalization of thousands of young Iraqi men, creating a foothold for Al-Qaeda where there was none. It saw millions being paid in compensation to former inmates of Guantanamo Bay. In each case ‘them’, ‘the others’ suddenly became people who had names and feelings and spoke on Newsnight. Johnny Byrne’s sardonic spoken leitmotif ‘the animal is thinking’, had an increasingly sonorous resonance.
There is a theme of debt in the play too, which felt deeply contemporary. This is expressed on a figurative and moral level, as the actors who play the characters that Byrne betrays in act one return in the guise of his jailers and tormentors in act two. But the issue of working class debt and the problem of what happens when people have no-recourse to ‘legitimate’ credit is tackled head on also. Johnny Byrne says:
‘I was providing a social service ... I’d been prepared to do business with them when you hadn’t. While you were sitting back pretending not to notice I had been there to care for their needs. My methods with defaulters were quick and to the point but they weren’t any different from your precious world just a bit less hypocritical and undisguised. Let’s face it the whole world is a money lending racket and if it takes a man’s whole life to kill him with his debts it doesn’t make it any the less an act of murder’
The juxtaposition of moral law with written law and the troubling gap between the two is of profound interest to McGrath and Boyle. As is the issue of who society deems to be ‘criminal’. It was perfectly legal for banks to sell mortgages to people who couldn’t afford to pay them back. The illegal sale of toxic debt remains largely unpunished. Bankers continue to receive their bonuses, and the banks are bailed out to the tune of thirteen trillion dollars in the US and counting. Tony Blair started what many believe to be an illegal war and gets £1million per gig, speaking on leadership. Brutal prisons the world over, are crammed with the mentally ill and addicts of all kinds who do not have powerful friends, or happen to disagree with their government, or who had the misfortune to deal in sums society could comprehend.
The British government attempted to have Jimmy Boyle sentenced to hang in 1967 for a murder charge that was eventually thrown out of court. His actions in prison, as far as he was concerned, were purely a practical matter of surviving the actions of a state that had physically and sexually assaulted him in his teens and at the age of twenty-three tried to rush through a flawed conviction that would have seen him dead. However the shadow of Jimmy Boyle doesn’t loom as large over the play as it did in 1977. Maybe we are more able, with distance, to dispassionately consider the fictional character of Johnny Byrne and hear the play’s jagged poetic rhythms and its passionate polemic on its own terms.
The play doesn’t say that Byrne is innocent or even that he is good, just that he is man who was brutalized, who brutalized others, who in turn brutalized him. To what extent he is a hero and to what extent he is a bastard is entirely up to you. He was reduced to the status of an animal, living in a cage, caked in his own shit. We know that after the shocking final moments of the play, given the opportunity, the real life ‘animal’ was able to change his circumstances. Although the special unit that did so much to change Boyle’s life was closed down in 1994. Between 1996 and 1998 eight inmates committed suicide.
The play reminds the audience that arguments about the punishment of criminals are general and abstract when applied to other people, but very specific when applied to you. It’s fine to punish ‘them’, ‘they’ deserve it, ‘they’ have broken the law, ‘they’ deserve everything that’s coming to them. ‘They’ have a name. ‘They’ are not going to disappear.
© Phillip Breen
Article for the programme of Dumb Show, May 2009
A true story.
The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
In 2001 I was 22, living in my University town and directing students in a semi-professional comedy revue. Soon after I got the job the funding was pulled and we were contemplating cancelling the tour for the first time in over a century. At the 11th hour a leading international cigarette manufacturing company stepped in with £30,000 to ensure the tour went ahead. I was delighted. It meant we could embark on our ambitious project and it meant that the revue remained open to people from modest backgrounds, not just to people who could afford to participate. I had a drink to celebrate and a day off to lovingly nurse the hangover to follow.
At shortly after 7am on a stinking hot June morning my phone rang. Unknown numbers calling at that ungodly hour rarely bode well. It was Reuters.
"Good Morning Mr. Breen"
My dry tongue in my thick head returned the salutation. I have only a hazy recollection of the conversation that followed.
"Mr. Breen, is it true that you have accepted £30,000 from a leading international tobacco manufacturer?"
"Yes" I replied.
"Mr. Breen were you aware that this company forces toddlers to smoke 60 a day in parts of the far east?". Or words to that effect.
"How do you feel about this Mr. Breen?"
"Um. Well. Gosh. That's bad, isn't it? Is that bad?"
"Thank you, Mr. Breen"
The phone went dead.
I had just convinced myself that I was dreaming when my phone rang again. It was the Press Association.
No pleasentry this time.
"Is it true that you are distancing yourself from sponsorship money donated to you by a leading international tobacco manufacturer?"
"Um. I don't think so."
"You have gone on record to condemn their marketing strategies in the far east"
"Were you aware of their support of the oppressive military regime in Somewhereistan?". Or some such.
"What do you think about that?"
"That's terrible, isn't it?"
"Thank you Mr. Breen".
The phone went dead.
I reasoned that whatever was happening could wait. I wasn't not drunk yet. I turned off my phone, closed the gap in my curtains and went back to sleep.
I woke at midday or thereabouts, the memory of seven am kicked in and turned on my phone.
"You have 53 new messages"
Wading through these took quite sometime, as I did so I slowly started to realise that something significant was afoot. Every national newspaper had left a message on my phone, one British-based rolling-news channel had got my number from someone and left a message on my phone, an international cable news outlet had paid someone to find my private mobile phone number and left a message. One broadsheet (when it was still a broadsheet) had dispatched reporters to follow the cast to lectures. Students were being approached in coffee shops. Young women were being photographed outside their college mailrooms. I was being personally condemned on news broadcasts by an anti-smoking pressure group outside the House of Commons.
"Mr. Breen and his Revue troupe have clearly fallen for a cynical piece of PR from the tobacco companies. They might as well take out a banner saying 'Smoking is funny and cool'".
I went to sleep gently slurring the words to the Fields of Athenry and by twenty-five past one the following day I was in league with 'big tobacco' and responsible for making children smoke.
There was a message from the theatre manager requesting my immediate presence, as the car park of the theatre was stuffed to the gills with news vans and satellite dishes. It looked like the final ten minutes of E.T. in there. I was led in to the auditorium where there was a cue of reporters waiting to speak to me. I thought it would be my opportunity to put the record straight, to talk about the subject of access to the University from state school applicants, about how this story was at the very heart of the 'access' issue. I reminded them that I was of course grateful for the money from the leading international cigarette manufacturer, but I wish we were properly funded and didn't have to go cap-in-hand to big business. They promised me coverage for the tour, big articles in August during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (the sort of thing that can make a show there) in exchange for my views on this subject. And they let me speak. Boy, did they let me speak. The more I spoke the more confident I became, the more strident my opinions, the more sensational my language. I had almost forgotten that I smelled like a dray horse. And the press corps kept a straight face, they were sincere and sympathetic, their acting was controlled and subtle.
The following morning I was invited to speak to a national breakfast news programme and the local news stations. By then interest had clearly waned. The presenter on the regional news bulletin was clearly reading something more interesting on his computer screen as I recounted yesterday's events. My thirty-second spot was followed by news of the under-13 district football competition.
After an afternoon feeling like I was at the epicentre of the interntational news agenda. I was somewhat bemused when I went to my local newsagent the following morning. We had made page 6 of the broadsheets. There were huge pictures of Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and other notable alumni of our revue troupe, a statement from the cigarette manufacturer (one of the few organisations that had neglected to call me), and reams of quotes designed to make me sound like a 'Wolfie' Smith-style stereotype.
I was hoping the student newspaper, knowing us all as they did would take a more sensible line and put the record straight. But predictably the hacks of tomorrow decided to take this opportunity to impress their future employers. The front page read "THESPS IN ASH CASH HASH" next to a picture of me looking pissed and a banner screaming "Smoking is funny and cool". I know at least three of that news team are on the news desks of national newspapers writing your morning edition as you read this article.
My bluster had ensured that they had missed the big story. Its turns out that this was a case of corporate nepotism after all, the handsome son of the chief executive was the boyfriend of a beautiful female cast member. To this day I never found out whether it was stupidity, laziness or something more sinister that kept this version of the story out of the press. Or to that matter how they came to call me in the first place.
We did get the money in the end, the tour went ahead to great critical acclaim and even played for a night at a west end theatre after being nominated for a prestigious Perrier comedy award. Don't get me started on Perrier / Nescafe and the aggressive marketing of baby milk formula in Asia. I was fulminating on the subject when we didn't win.
When I met Joe Penhall near his home in Hammersmith to discuss making a new production of Dumb Show, we talked about our excitement at revisiting this play at a time where we gorge ourselves on reductive tabloid sensationalism more greedily than ever. We discussed our worry that after Jade Goody dying live on television, Michael Barrymore finding a body in his swimming pool and the Home Secretary's husband making a humiliating statement to the press about watching porn while home alone a year ago, might make the actions of our characters seem somewhat tame. The truth is far stranger by comparison.
But I think Joe's play is more than a comedy set in the seedy underworld of corrupt news reporting and 'celebrity' entrapment. It's about something nasty, moralising, jealous and prurient in the English character that creates such a vast market for gossip. An exploration of a fetid collective unconscious. Like pornography, no-one ready admits to consuming it, but there is a reason for the vastness of the market for tittle tattle from the broadsheets to the 'shock-monkeys'. The play explores a deep rooted unspoken hypocritical puritanism in the British that is poured on to the pages of our newspapers, that twitches at net curtains and delights in passing moral judgement on others. If our newspapers are any guide we are a culture that rejoices in schadenfreude and is a stranger to complexity.
The daring observation at the heart of Joe's play is that if we wanted to read about famous people, we'd put them on the front page of our newspapers and magazines, but it's our collective delight in bitching about our neighbours that makes Jacqui Smith's husband's unfortunate wank a front-page story. If we wanted news we'd read it rather than a stream of opinion dressed up as news. In Dumb Show Barry says "If Jesus Christ were alive today, they'd be going through his bins", they'd also be door-stepping his mum in Nazareth.
The play explores the dance between the media, its subjects and its consumers. No one really cares what the truth is, as long as the story is good, as long as it plays to our prejudices and doesn't demand us to think. God forbid that I should buy a newspaper that I disagreed with.
Charlie Brooker brilliantly remarked that Sky News and BBC News 24 gave full, unedited coverage to Jack Tweedy's funeral oration over the coffin of Jade Goody, yet the same two channels did not broadcast one word from the speeches in protest at the Iraq war which nearly 2 million people attended. Neither was one word of the G20 speeches appealing for a different approach to politics broadcast. Terry Johnson, the first person to direct Dumb Show wrote of these characters that "they are all lying, all of the time", the journalists, the people they write about and the people that read it. "They are all lying all of the time"; that's important to remember. Because they are.
It's strange to think that despite the number of free boxes of cigarettes I could have smoked back in 2001, I never took it up. I'd have liked to. My lungs just can't handle it. But I'm afraid that as much as I want to, I just can't kick the habit of my daily newspaper.
© Phillip Breen
This is the eulogy for my grandfather Dennis McCaffrey, it was delivered at his funeral in January 2018
Eulogy for Dennis
22 March 1935 - 25 December 2017
If you’d listened to an audio recording of our Christmas dinner this year, you might not have noticed he’d gone. Talking. Of course talking. Music from the television and the toys and the games and the adoration of the infant Isla; ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ as she moved almost to dance. He could have been there, withdrawn from the scene, distant, peaceful in his own way. Nan answering all of his questions so as not to disturb his reverie. Mum and Tina prompting him to list his holidays, posing questions they already ready knew the answers to, to crack some electricity through his synapses.
The events of the last day or so were imprecise in his mind, but a mention of the year 1966 and he’d rush right past the irrelevant matter of the World Cup Final, to the really important Wembley game of that year. Everton coming from two - nil down to beat Sheffield Wednesday three two in the FA Cup final. Every detail. Brian Labone, Colin Harvey, Mike Trebilcock who scored two, one hundred thousand people in those days son, the postcode was, um, Middlesex HA9, Gordon West, Derek Temple, Derek Temple who scored the winner… I was there, you know. I remember it like it was yesterday…
There’s a mysterious silence in the still forming consciousness of a two year old as she dances and moves to a new old song and a mysterious silence in an eighty two year old consciousness crumbling a little day by day like the Antarctic ice shelf. A certain serenity about not being shackled to the future or the past, a presence that makes all of the babble of the people in the room talking about time and the next day and the next day’s plans, blur in to noise. A still, silent presence, naked, monolithic in its sheer ‘thereness’. A sheer presence that makes you hear yourself when you're speaking and then hear someone else. It leads to speaking more simply. Then to silence. A smile for Isla, a nod of the head in rhythm, light in his blue eyes and a silent nod, where once there would have been a joke.
‘What’s your name Isla?’.
Do you want a coffee Den?
’Yes I don’t think so’
Will you have a Christmas drink granddad?
‘Go on then, it’s me birthday in March’.
He could have been there if you didn’t know.
But this Christmas he wasn’t there. He’d gone that morning somewhere between the night and the dawn. I was holding his hand. He was asleep, finally, after a rough night and we couldn’t tell where sleep ended and death began. If he had to go, if he absolutely had to go, it couldn’t have been more peaceful and I’m sure he couldn’t have felt more loved. He was held in his final moments by his wife and his daughters. He’d seen his brother, ‘our kid’, Terry. Christmas Eve he was full of the advice ‘our kid’ had given him about eating well and looking after himself. So that night for the first time in a while, he had a tiny glass of red wine and a scrape of Danish Blue on a wafer and he smiled. He couldn’t have felt more loved and we couldn’t have felt more loved.
And God he was handsome, a proper man, when he wore a suit he wore a suit. When he entered a room he entered a room. His hair thick, silver and immaculately parted, talcum powder, hairdryer, hairspray, Kouros by Yves Saint Laurent. In any village hall, at any sports club, in any postcode, on any cruise ship, any excuse. The shined shoes and the black bow tie, the matching kerchief in his breast pocket and a red carnation in his lapel. Nan, only half chastising him for his excess, pretending to disapprove of him, like some over protesting bobbysoxer waiting to be asked to dance: “He has to be different. He has to show off. No-one else is in a black bow tie. And that flower. Look at him. Just look at him. Just look at him”.
And she did. Watching him, perhaps remembering her magnificent new, young husband, clinging on to his magnificently broad back, holding tight with the thrill of it all as they rode all the way to Devon on a moped before they’d built the motorways. Watching her girls cling to his back in the sea in Sweden scouring for mussels and watching her grandchildren ride him like a dolphin which was always more fun than being taught to swim. His hands were enormous, his pulse thumped through them right until Christmas Eve; his wedding ring circling my thumb like a hula hoop a day later. His hands that mowed lawns, took lids off jars and dug holes and carried impossible weights. The hands that planted in the small of your back led the dance with a quiet, insistent force. The little scars on his face, not from the boxing, he was too cute for that, but from keeping wicket for the Post Office Cricket team on park pitches at 7 o’clock on September evenings without his glasses.
I will never cease to boast of my granddad who was a champion boxer and a gold medal ballroom dancer. Two talents that make a real man. I never tired of re-telling his stories from the from sixty-six world cup at Goodison Park, L4 4EL, where, depending on how much he was enjoying telling the tale - which got taller and taller over the years - he personally handed a telegram to the injured Pele in the Brazilian dressing room, on his stretcher, directly after he’d been kicked off the park by the Bulgarians in one of the most infamous games of the modern era. I cared little for the veracity of the tale. It was different every time he told it.
But it had it all, Everton, the Post Office, the cobbled streets of a forgotten Liverpool, a quiet glamour and a great stroke of luck. He always thought he was lucky. Then you’d hear a not so tall tale, always from someone else of course - of a quietly generous action that he wouldn’t have even thought noteworthy - he drove Frank to and from the 1984 FA cup final at Wembley, HA9 0WS, when he’d broken his leg and Everton beat Elton John’s Watford two - nil.
He returned to one of his favourite stories toward the end of December, of him fighting at the Liverpool Stadium as a more than promising schoolboy prospect and getting the bus home with some of the spectators after the bouts. He remembered that his dad didn’t watch him fight.
He’d watch me be terrible at football, only slightly better at acting and he’d travel miles to see the directing when I was rubbish at directing. He found a special position for me in the cricket team, sitting on the boundary filling in the score book. Before I knew it myself he saw that I was more comfortable with stationery than sports equipment. He was extremely gentle with failure and the prospect of failure, neither would he get too overexcited when things were going well - a quiet ‘fantastic’ when Everton won the cup again in 1995. The only thing he wanted to know was ‘are you enjoying yourself?’. ‘As long as you’re happy’. I was apprehensive about University at CB2 1TQ, and he told me not to worry “if you don’t like it son, you can just come home”. That certainly simplified things when I was away. ‘As long as you invite me to the Oscars, son, I don’t mind’, I think he thought on some level that it might actually happen, and I’m not sure it’d have fazed him much if it did. I imagine him checking in to the Beverly Hilton in Hollywood the night before the ceremony, and as the concierge taps his name in to the computer I can see him lean over the desk and say ‘QWERTY keyboard, I introduced those in to Coppras Hill during the co-sort mechanisation programme’’. A bewildered look. “Date of birth, sir?”. “Last pancake Thursday”.
I suppose this is what made him such a good teacher. This patience, this faith, this ability to time a joke. His loyalty, his even temper, his comfort with other people’s shortcomings. I suppose it’s what made him such an in-demand instructor when the post office was undergoing a technological revolution in the 1980s, turning postcodes in to blue phosphorous dots on envelopes, to be read by sophisticated machines, which he played no small part in implementing; and as a party trick, he could tell you from memory the postcode of any town in Britain you’d care to name. The image of my granddad at the cutting edge of communication technology is difficult to square with the man who, in the early 2000s, tried to change the TV channel with his glasses case.
In the hospital a few weeks ago, he’d had another busy day of visitors and was a little exhausted by it all, but after some small complaint, he stopped himself saying any more… He put his head down and nodded and said no, I am very lucky. Very, very lucky son. Lucky to be surrounded by his family, lucky to be visited by his friends, lucky to be safe at home when he most needed to be. You’re not lucky Den. Not one bit. This has come from you. We haven’t come to see anyone else, we’ve all come to see you. You’ve worked so hard. You’ve been so forgiving and so kind, You’ve been unfailingly generous and big hearted, and you’ve only ever wanted our happiness in return. You’ve given us a wonderful life. You’ve given us your life.
82 years, 60 years married, 42 years in the Post Office, a little bungalow in Hough Green, Hall Lane WA8, Whitegate Close, Liverpool thirty four oh jay dee, 2 children, 6 grandchildren, three great grand-children, countless dogs, fish, and other people’s tatty-headed kids waking up on his various floors. Double shifts in the winter, amazing holidays in the summer. Army barracks, dance halls, cricket pitches at dusk, a perfect lawn in the morning, a full table, a huge plate, a good drink, a big breakfast, the odd round of golf, the Daily Mirror, Coronation Street, a cup of Nescaff. A joke. And the best. Don’t worry about it, always get the best. Always his best. There’s no luck here, Den. This isn’t luck.
We’ve always got the best. Quietly. All of us. Always the best.
Sitting with him at dawn on Christmas day, as his breathing softened, I felt amazingly lucky. I had a father. He had a son. I didn’t really know my father. He didn’t really know his son. But I had a father, a wonderful, kind and generous father. And he had a son, a devoted son. God, I was lucky. I am lucky. Aren’t we lucky?
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