Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Seagull (1975)

By Anton Chekhov (1895).
Translated and adapted by Galina von Meck and Lindsay Anderson.
Opened: Lyric Theatre, London, 28 October 1975.

By 1975 Lindsay Anderson (1923-94), who had been associated with the Royal Court Theatre on and off since the late Fifties, was growing frustrated:
At the Court I’ve never been able to work with a company because the theatre can’t support one. And it is also dedicated to new plays – new plays are challenging, but also a bit limiting. I’ve done nothing but new plays for years. And I wanted to do The Seagull. (Guardian, 18 September 1975)
For some months he’d been in talks with Helen Montagu, joint managing director of HM Tennent, about forming a new West End repertory company. The Seagull (or The Sea Gull, as the translators preferred to style it) was ideally suited to this environment, and he assembled a distinguished cast of actors for his new venture, among them Joan Plowright, Frank Grimes, Peter McEnery and Helen Mirren. Anderson was upbeat (for once), confident that audiences like to see the same actors in different parts and actors like the versatility of ‘rep’. Mirren, interviewed by Sheridan Morley on the eve of opening, struck a note of uncharacteristic scepticism:
It’s still too early to talk about a real company at the Lyric, despite what it says on the posters. It takes months to get a real company feeling unless you all come from roughly the same theatrical background, as we did in Teeth’n’Smiles. At the Lyric we’re a very mixed group, and there’s no real community like there is in Sloane Square – now we simply meet for rehearsals and the theatre only comes to life for an hour or two each evening… I also don’t believe you can get a real company going without absolute equality of salaries, and that’s not what’s happening at the Lyric.
Early in the twentieth century, as Chekhov’s plays began to find a place in the British repertory, a view developed that they were best performed by permanent companies (somewhat along the lines of the Moscow Arts Theatre). Patrick Miles has suggested that this was based on a misunderstanding. The plays ‘require ensemble-acting’ and are themselves ‘powerful ensemble-makers’, he comments, but we need to ‘disentangle the Chekhovian ensemble from the Stanislavskian model of a theatre company’. The Lyric Company didn’t stay together for long, but long enough to deliver two fine, if sharply contrasted, pieces of ensemble drama. (The Seagull played in repertory with a Ben Travers farce, The Bed Before Yesterday.)

Bernard Shaw believed that Chekhov was aiming at a new theatrical genre, ‘tragicomedy’, that is to say ‘a play that was essentially a comedy but into which the tragedy of life boldly intruded.’ The elements of romantic comedy are certainly piled high in The Seagull. Everybody is in love with the wrong person: Trepliov loves Nina; Masha loves Trepliov; Nina loves Trigorin, and Medvedenko loves Masha. But Trepliov’s unreturned affections have tragic consequences: in Act Three he attempts suicide; in Act Four he succeeds.

Just as generic distinctions slip and slide, so are meanings elided and diffused, beginning with the play’s title. The eponymous seagull is both a prop and a symbol. As such it is traded among three characters – a successful writer, a would-be writer and a would-be actress. To the actress it’s naturally a prop; to the writers it’s naturally a symbol. Nina recognises that, for Trepliov who’s given to ‘talking unintelligibly in a sort of symbolic way’, it’s ‘apparently another symbol’ but confesses herself ‘too simple-minded’ to understand it. (Her artless admission might almost be Chekhov’s riposte to the accusation that he has over-determined his meanings with this multivalent image.) For the hapless Trepliov as he lays the dead bird at her feet, it seems to be an improbable love-token. For the hardened Trigorin, accustomed to factoring experience into art, it’s a subject for a short story and a metaphorical premonition of Nina’s vulnerability. He asks to have the dead bird stuffed (thus reconverting it into a prop). When the result is presented to him two years later, he claims to have no memory of making the request. The returning Nina of Act Four identifies with the seagull. Or does she? The Russian language has no definite or indefinite article, with the result that her famous words, ‘Ya – chayka’, hover in the gap between ‘I am a seagull’ and ‘I am the seagull’.

I saw this production late in 1975. Sadly, at a distance of 36 years, I remember very little of it: only a single image, like a tableau, perhaps the play-within-a-play in Act One. When I try to recall Mirren’s performance as Nina only one adjective comes to mind: ‘demure’. Actually, I don’t suppose it was anything of the sort. By Act Four, when Nina has had an affair and an illegitimate child, she has left behind whatever ‘demureness’ she started out with. I surmise that what stuck in the memory (irritatingly elbowing out any other thoughts) was the contrast between Mirren’s appearance here and the last time I’d seen her on stage, three months earlier, as frazzled rock chick Maggie in Teeth’n’Smiles. Gone were the slashed skirt and platform shoes, to be replaced by sober, buttoned-up period dress.

So I must turn to the critics for a reminder, who I find, whatever reservations they had about the old-fashioned staging and some of the casting, were united in their praise for La Mirren. Benedict Nightingale was struck more by the similarities between Maggie and Nina than the differences:
As Ms Mirren played them, the two women didn’t come from separate species… When her Nina reappeared in Act Four, she gave the impression not of a badly wilted flower but of a plant that had grown hardier with time.
Robert Cushman made the same point:
Miss Mirren… begins almost as Alice in Wonderland, and is superbly unabashed about it. But along with Alice’s wide-eyed hero-worship goes Alice’s instinctive practicality. There is nothing distracted about her final scene; the famous antiphony (‘I’m a seagull; no, I’m an actress’) becomes a balancing of possibilities and there is no doubt that the second will win. She is not going to become a thing in anyone’s dream. The part, though Miss Mirren finds a totally different style for it, is analogous to her rock singer in Teeth’n’Smiles, both doomed in theory, both survivors in fact.
Gavin Lambert also noted her approach to the final scene. Nina’s famous monologue is ‘usually played for tragic vulnerability,’ but ‘Helen’s performance implied that Nina, in spite of her hopeless obsession with Trigorin, was sustained by her belief that she could become a great actress.’ Charles Lewsen admired how, with ‘superb irony’, she ‘entirely eschews pathos in Nina’s final scene, quoting Konstantin’s symbolist play with a smile that displays the boy’s work as poor art, but a perfect expression of what has been.’

Nina’s final scene is critical to the play’s success. There are many, David Hare among them, who think that Chekhov’s playwriting is at fault here, condemning any actress who attempts the part to failure. Michael Billington points out that, after Trepliov has filled in her back-story for the benefit of the audience, ‘Nina herself enters out the night and has to convey two years of personal and professional failure in about ten minutes.’ Oleg Yefremov of the Moscow Arts Theatre has written:
The main question at the end, of course, is whether Nina is broken, finished as a person, or has attained a wisdom that will help her to believe. We have to understand why she has come, why she is seeing Trepliov again. (Chekhov on the British Stage, p129)
Peggy Ashcroft played Nina in a much-lauded 1936 production. Ashcroft’s biographer describes her trepidation as she approached that final scene. Fortifying herself backstage with a sip of brandy ‘to take off the edge of terror’, she sat ‘alone in a corner with a shawl over her head working herself up to her big entrance while the wind and rain effects whistled all around.’ Influenced by the director, Theodore Komisarjevsky, she believed that Nina was ‘destroyed’ by the end of the play, that her ‘protestations of belief in her future career’ were ‘only a covering up of her disbelief’ in herself. Helen Mirren’s approach to the character forty years later was very different.

[Note. Galina von Meck (1891-1985), whose translation was used in the production, was a grand-niece of Tchaikovsky: true cultural aristocracy. I’m guessing that Anderson had little or no Russian and adapted from a literal version she supplied. That’s how these things tend to be done in the London theatre, as I know to my cost. But I’d be interested to hear otherwise. Anderson’s diaries, as published, tell us nothing about this period at all.]


Michael Billington, Peggy Ashcroft (1988)
Robert Cushman, ‘Down in the country’, The Observer, 2 November 1975
Hugh Hebert, ‘A change of scenery’, Guardian, 18 September 1975
Charles Lewsen, ‘Chekhov’s perplexing challenge’, The Times, 29 October 1975
Patrick Miles, ed. and tr., Chekhov on the British Stage (1993)
Sheridan Morley, ‘Helen Mirren makes the West End’, The Times, 23 October 1975
Benedict Nightingale, ‘Life in the theatre’ in Helen Mirren – Prime Suspect: A Celebration, ed. Amy Rennert (1995)

Monday, 21 November 2011

O Lucky Man! (1973)

O Lucky Man! is, in a sense, a film about how we should live. Mick starts out in the first half of the film in search of status, gain and profit and is sent to prison; then he tries to lead a Good Life and that is equally disastrous. The end is a sort of ironic evocation, I suppose, of the Zen attitude to living, which is to live life and accept it and to smile the right kind of smile but not to ask why. In that way, I suppose, the film is open-ended.
(Lindsay Anderson, ‘Commentary’, 1994, in Never Apologise, p128)
Nobody realises what a mess of loneliness and inadequacy I am inside.
(Lindsay Anderson, Diary, 17 March 1972)
My own film career has been peculiarly disastrous: even O Lucky Man! was a box-office failure, though I think it’s the kind of film people will come back to twenty years from now.
(Helen Mirren, quoted in The Times, 23 October 1975)
Generally, the British film industry has made a poor fist of reflecting Britain back to itself. Lindsay Anderson’s films were an exception. Embodying the contradictions of the director’s personality, they succeeded in marrying his individualistic auteur style with the demands of popular entertainment. O Lucky Man! was one of the most original films of its time. Somehow or other Anderson and producer Michael Medwin secured American finance for a film that resolutely resists the upstairs-downstairs, heritage-industry clichés that our American cousins expect. The Britain it portrays, albeit with the broad brush of satire, is venal and tawdry, populated by bent coppers, mad scientists, ruthless tycoons, flagellant judges and sex-starved landladies. Through it all, wearing a perpetual optimistic grin, is the irrepressible Malcolm McDowell as travelling salesman Mick Travis. Up and down he goes, on a picaresque roller-coaster of a plot. About half way through the film (which clocks in at just under three hours overall), he escapes from Dr Millar’s laboratory and is nearly run down by a minibus. It contains Alan Price’s band returning from a gig in the North, and, buried under a fur coat on the back seat, Helen Mirren. ‘This is Patricia,’ says Alan by way of introduction. ‘She’s very intelligent. She’s making a study of us.’ The well-heeled daughter of immoral financier Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson), Patricia swiftly seduces the fresh-faced hero. On a city rooftop they share a champagne breakfast. Patricia dismisses Mick’s success-worship as ‘old-fashioned’ but supplies him with enough tantalising detail of her father’s wealth to inspire Mick to blag his way into the old man’s office and secure himself a job. No less avaricious than her father, Patricia meanwhile dumps Mick to marry the Duke of Belminster. Alan Price has a lyric on the soundtrack that sums up the spirit: ‘It’s around the world in circles turning’. When later we encounter Patricia and her Duke, the wheel of fortune has indeed turned and the once-affluent pair are sheltering on a bomb site among destitutes and meths-drinkers.

Anderson’s diaries have been published and they give a detailed and fascinating account of the troubled making of this film. ‘Patricia’ seems to have caused more grief than other characters, both in writing and casting. On 12 February 1972 screenwriter David Sherwin (who was evidently battling his own demons at the time) talks ‘vaguely and vehemently about how awful were Mick’s scenes with Patricia in the script; how they needed to be rewritten’. On 28 May they are still reworking the rooftop scene: ‘we hammered something out which at least seemed to have the merit of giving Patricia a positive character’. Mirren, we learn from the diaries, was not his first choice for the part. Interviews began on 7 January, when Anderson saw six or seven candidates. ‘Two attractive but rather freakish drop-outs are the most sparky’ but not posh enough for the financier’s daughter. On 2 February he sees more potential Patricias. He’s impressed by Fiona Lewis (‘authentically upper class’), less so by Helen Mirren, whom he finds ‘rather humourless (or seemingly so): prepared to think I find her RSC tradition “absolute shit”.’ Having decided that Mirren was ‘not very charming’ and ‘rather bossy’, he casts Fiona Lewis, although not before seeing some other actresses (an occasion that leaves him ‘sick and loose from the bowels’ on 15 February.) By the time principal shooting begins, he is regretting his decision, as the rooftop scene continues to drag: ‘Fiona is very weak and so makes it difficult – impossible – to build up Patricia into something big. I had a momentary attack of desperation this morning: surely I should have cast Helen Mirren?’ (18 May). But still he doesn’t go straight to her. He now decides he wants Vanessa Redgrave for the part (20 May). The next day he visits Redgrave in her dressing room at the Shaw Theatre and drops off the script. ‘She seemed to be ready to accept it pretty well sight unseen.’ His optimism must have been misplaced, for by 29 May we learn he has recast the part and is rehearsing Mirren as the new Patricia: ‘The scene reads quite well – the first time… well, say the second or third.’

Most actors in the film play two or more parts. Mirren remains in one part, except for a brief cameo as the bespectacled receptionist in the audition scene at the end. (She must also have appeared in the silent montage of the ‘Prologue’. Anderson’s diary on 11 August 1972 refers to her playing the Landowner’s Mistress in a scene presumably omitted from the final cut: ‘good sport, [she] puts on a curly C&A wig! She is not charging for her work this week – which is more than we deserve!’)

It’s instructive to compare the peppery account of working relationships that emerges from Anderson’s diary with the magnanimous verdict that Mirren gives elsewhere. In her book In the Frame she writes:
I had a funny relationship with Lindsay. We seemed to be old friends from the moment we met, able to tease one another and loving each other, or at least I loved him (p132).
In an interview for Venice Magazine in 2006, she elaborated:
Lindsay was very private, and yet intensely loyal to his actors. Very serious, and yet always you felt he was laughing at himself and everything else. He always seemed to be having this very dark internal laugh at the whole thing. He really put his inner being into his movies, I think. He really loved humanity, in a very Platonic way. He didn’t strike me as being very sexual, and he would seem to have this sort of Platonic love for the men he worked with, but also for a number of women. He adored Celia Johnson, for example.
She was one of the contributors to Gavin Lambert’s memoir of his friend. Although she admits to finding Anderson a less ‘gentle’ director in the theatre than on the film set, ‘he was so intelligent and articulate and talented that I longed, like many others, for his approval’. She has a more down-to-earth reason for his reluctance to cast her in O Lucky Man!: ‘He thought I was too fat.’ Once filming was underway, she sensed the writers’ difficulties with the rooftop scene:
It… seemed to go off in too many directions. But Lindsay was enormously patient with me. He made a few simple suggestions while feeding me champagne, and got me quite drunk. I thought I was terrible. But it worked.
From everything I’ve read about this brilliant, maverick figure, I conclude that the key to Anderson’s personality was an inclination to hurt the ones he loved; it was, for him, a sort of test. On this film, production designer Jocelyn Herbert was his chosen punchbag. One of his close circle of regular collaborators, she once got such a tongue-lashing from him that she walked off set. ‘I came to realise that he treated all his favourites that way,’ she told Gavin Lambert later. ‘Abuse was a kind of affection.’

Lindsay Anderson, The Diaries, ed. Paul Sutton (2004)
Lindsay Anderson, Never Apologise: The Collected Writings, ed. Paul Ryan (2004)
Gavin Lambert, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson: A Memoir (2000)
Alex Simon, ‘Helen Mirren: screen queen’, Venice Magazine, April 2006 (available here)

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Teeth'n'Smiles (1975/6)

By David Hare

Royal Court Theatre, London, September 1975

Revived: Wyndham’s Theatre, London, May 1976

Jesus College, Cambridge, 9 June 1969, the night of the ‘May Ball’. (For reasons lost in the fog of history, ‘May Week’ in Cambridge is in June.) This is the setting for David Hare’s 1975 play about a rock band on the skids, who are hired to play to an indifferent audience of party-goers. As Hare recalled in an interview,

It was an extraordinary clash of two worlds: these May balls with people dressed up and performing a complete parody of a life that was over many, many years ago, and into that crashed these rock bands, like travelling people on the move.

(Time Out, 1975)

Hare was an undergraduate himself at Jesus from 1965-8, which makes this one of his most autobiographical plays. It was not a happy period for him. ‘At the time I didn’t know there was anything else,’ he told Ronald Hayman. ‘I thought that was probably what life was like. When I discovered it was just Cambridge, it was the biggest release of my life.’ Tempted to the college by the prospect of studying with veteran Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams, he quickly grew disillusioned. As well he might: while Marxism has virtually disappeared from the intellectual armoury in the decades since, the tradition of the May ball, which the young ideologue found so anachronistic in the 1960s, survives and flourishes into the new century. Somehow this disenchantment and bitterness found its way into the play, as he explained to Georg Gaston:

I would say that Teeth’n’Smiles is about the fag-end of idealism. It’s about utopianism when it turned sour. It’s about that stage people reach when they will do anything for an experience, and having originally enjoyed the vitality of the experience, they then become addicted to the experience.

(quoted in About Hare, p88)

The plot is minimal. The band bicker and while away the time between sets with silly games. There’s a drugs bust. Maggie (Helen Mirren), their lead singer, burns down the marquee, apparently in a self-willed effort to get herself sent to prison: Hare got very cross with the critics for failing to pick up on her motivation here (‘it was beyond their scope to engage with such an idea’) but perhaps, like me, they just found it implausible.

The university background is only lightly sketched in, represented by two stereotypes: a tongue-tied medical student, Anson (an early role for Antony Sher), and an obsequious college porter, Snead (Roger Hume). The playwright’s real interest is the band and its internecine strife. Maggie is testing their patience to breaking point. Can they carry on like this, having to sober her up in a cold bath before each show? No one understands why she’s unhappy. Arthur (Jack Shepherd), the band’s songwriter, has a stab at interpretation. It’s not that ‘she doesn’t know how to be happy’, he suggests, rather that ‘she’s frightened of being happy’. She saws off whatever branch she happens to be sitting on at the time. Pompous utterances like ‘the quality of the singing depends on the quality of the pain’ may trip off her tongue, but she betrays by a smirk that she considers any claims for pop music’s wider significance to be ‘bollocks’. In short, Maggie, inspired – certainly in Mirren’s portrayal of her – by Janis Joplin, is a train-wreck: unreliable, self-pitying, addictive, yet born to be a frontwoman.

In the words of the Times reviewer, ‘Helen Mirren erupts onto the platform, her hair cascading, her voice yelling from a pale face topped with lifeless eyes…’ The stage direction for her first number indicates the energy level Hare intended:

Then without a break the band go straight into the next number. Dazzling light. MAGGIE joins them, singing, burning off the fat as she goes.

I saw the original production at the Royal Court and made some scrappy notes at the time. Re-reading them now, I see that I was impressed by Mirren’s incredible attack; the energy was most emphatically there. I found her singing pretty awful; but somehow it didn’t matter too much, so carried away was I by the bravura of the performance. I was unsure about her accent, which wandered in and out of mockney. On reflection, that may have been intentional. Maggie is supposed to be emblematic of another 60s phenomenon: the inverted snobbery that made a middle-class kid aspire to be working-class. I found the play funny and very believable in atmosphere, but at risk like so much social realist writing from a sentimentality that oozed through the gaps between the expletives and the dirty jokes. A portentous and overlong speech by Saraffian (Dave King), the band’s manager, about the bombing of the Café de Paris during the War slowed up the action.* In a scene I pronounced ‘cloying’, Maggie and Arthur, one-time lovers, reminisced by the light of their glowing cigarettes. I seem to have responded better to the alcoholic excess of Maggie's second set as she bad-mouthed the audience (‘this is meant to be a freak-out not a Jewish funeral!’) before attempting to debag the keyboard player. Despite my conviction that Mirren was (to quote my adolescent self) a ‘High Priestess to interpret sacred texts’, I obviously revelled in the sight and sound of my favourite Shakespearean actress getting low and dirty in a modern drama.

In interviews given at the time, Mirren said she found continuity between this part and others she had played. She also found aspects of herself:

I’m very like Maggie in many ways, only she’s much more ballsy and gutsy than me. I endorse most of what Maggie says, in fact in many ways it’s difficult to talk about her because I feel so close to her...

When I was first offered the part I was so scared. I’ve never wanted to play a part so much since I played my first part when I was seven years old [Gretel]. I get very bored going to the theatre now. I’d much rather go to rock concerts [JJ Cale, Dr John and Led Zeppelin are among her favourites]. So when I was offered the part of Maggie, a singer, well, I’m not a natural audience, I’m a performer, I had to do it. Of course I felt scared about the singing, I love singing but I can’t sing. [Nick Bicat, music director for the production, says she can sing ‘because she’s herself and very brave’.]

(Time Out, 1975, parentheses in the original)

There aren’t many good parts for actresses. Maggie is a good strong part and that’s quite rare in modern theatre. So I like it for that. I don’t like it because it gets to me in a funny sort of way. Perhaps too close to sides of me I don’t much like. But it just makes me feel unattractive.

… Maggie’s doing it [struggling with a boring middle-class background] in one way. I don’t think that’s the only way to do it, possibly. But I’ve always had this sneaking admiration for people who go to the extremes of energy and wit. They’re terribly, horribly destructive often, but there’s something really fascinating and very lovable about them. I find it very difficult to let go. I mean I find it practically impossible to let go. I just get very sulky instead. I don’t think I can do a Maggie at all. I’m too self-conscious.

… When I played Miss Julie, it was the same cathartic experience, because you let it go. You let it all come out without ever actually committing yourself personally – although I do try to commit myself personally as much as possible on stage and try to make it as real and present as possible.

(NME, 1976)

Reality irrupted into the make-believe in ways no one had anticipated. One night as Mirren waited to go on, she was disturbed by a commotion from the street outside. It was a drunken Keith Moon, fabled drummer of The Who. He stumbled into her dressing room, told her how he’d heard great reports of the show, and then attempted to join her on stage. He was stopped by the management. She says she’s always regretted that missed opportunity to share the stage with a real rock’n’roll legend.


*In the Gaston interview (About Hare, p89), Hare admits this speech is a weakness of the play. Interestingly, he compares it to what he calls ‘the worst famous example of this sort’ – Nina’s speech in Act 4 of The Seagull where she recounts what has happened to her in the interval since Act 3. Chekhov telling, not showing. ‘It’s a speech that defeats every actress I’ve ever seen play the part,’ says Hare. (In 1975 Mirren went straight from Teeth’n’Smiles into rehearsals for The Seagull: she played Nina.)


Ronald Hayman, ‘David Hare: coming out of a different trap’, The Times, 30 August 1975

Charles Lewsen, ‘Evening of zestful good humour’, The Times, 3 September 1975

‘End of the acid era’, Time Out, 29 August 1975, 12-15

Andrew Tyler, ‘The acid dream is dead and lying in the West End’, New Musical Express, 12 June 1976, 8-9

Richard Boon, About Hare: The Playwright and the Work, 2003

Postscript, June 2013.
An interesting <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7bji1hBgAg">interview</a>
has turned up on YouTube. On 25 May 1976, as Teeth’n’Smiles transferred to the West End, Mirren appeared on
BBC’s news and current affairs show Tonight discussing the play
with interviewer Donald MacCormick. The segment includes a clip from the dress rehearsal
(one of the musical numbers). 

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Country Wife (1977)

By William Wycherley (1675)
BBC TV, 13 February 1977

Mrs Margery Pinchwife is a character that will last for ever, I should hope; and even when the original is no more, if that should ever be, while self-will, curiosity, art, and ignorance are to be found in the same person, it will be just as good as just as intelligible as ever in the description.
– William Hazlitt
The character has lasted, even surviving bowdlerisation during a couple of centuries when Wycherley’s variety of bawdy was considered indecent for public consumption. As we meet her in Act II, the “country wife” of the title (Mirren, in this TV production) is recently returned from her first visit to the London theatre, allowing the playwright to put a little self-referential joke into her mouth:
Indeed, I was a-weary of the play, but I liked hugeously the actors; they are the goodliest, properest men…
Like any good comedy, The Country Wife is constructed as an intricate mechanism. Three plots interlock. The first concerns the notorious rake Horner (Anthony Andrews), “one of the lewdest fellows in town”, who causes a false rumour to be spread about that he has been rendered impotent by a bungled treatment for the pox. This gives him free access to the ladies of the town, whose husbands suspect he is no threat to them. The second centres on the maniacally jealous Pinchwife (Bernard Cribbins), who has married an innocent country girl in the belief that she will not turn out to be a “jill-flirt”, a “gadder” and a “magpie” like all town-wives. Mayhem ensues as Pinchwife’s best-laid plans to frustrate Margery’s open and amorous inclinations only drive her into the arms of the libidinous Horner, who is determined to cuckold the old fool. In the third plot, a ridiculous fop and would-be wit, Sparkish (Michael Cochrane), loses the hand of Pinchwife’s sister Alithea (Ciaran Madden) to the more resourceful, and deserving, Harcourt (Jeremy Clyde). The three plotlines converge in the last Act, where Margery Pinchwife’s final recourse to dissimulation implies that she is learning the ways of the city even if she must remain a country wife, “for I can’t, like a city one, be rid of my musty husband and do what I list.”

Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr recently, Helen Mirren ventured the opinion that Shakespeare would have written better female parts had he been writing for women performers, not boys.* It’s a good discussion point, although I’m not sure I believe it. I’m not even sure she believes it herself. In an earlier interview, the one that accompanies the DVD boxset of her television work, she talks with enthusiasm of the Jacobean tragedians and how they created fabulous women’s parts. She’d played three of them: Castiza in The Revenger’s Tragedy, Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling and the title role in The Duchess of Malfi. Well, of course, these parts were all written for, and originally created by, male actors. It was only with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that professional actresses were welcome on the English stage. After a visit to the playhouse on 3 January 1661, Pepys recorded in his diary that that day was “the first time that ever I saw Women come upon the stage.” Eighty years later, once actresses’ place was firmly established, Colley Cibber assumed that their predecessors, the young men of “effeminate aspect”, those “ungain Hoydens” en travesti, must have been incapable of “Grace or Master Strokes of Action”. But the likelihood is that the boy actors of Elizabethan and Jacobean London made a decent fist of it, much as, in Japanese kabuki theatre to this day, there are male performers who specialise in playing women’s parts with uncanny verisimilitude. A spectator who saw Othello performed by the King’s Men in 1610 was totally convinced by the acting of the boy playing Desdemona:
…killed by her husband, in death she moved us especially when, as she lay in her bed, her face alone implored the pity of the audience.
So Wycherley belonged to the first generation of British dramatists who had the luxury of writing with professional actresses in mind. Mirren feels that, in creating the character of Margery Pinchwife, he didn’t use this to his advantage:
It’s an interesting role. She’s a little bit of a pawn, and everyone else is being funny around her, and she’s just being very sweet and innocent in the middle of it all. I don’t love those Restoration comedies, actually. They’re funny, but they’re threaded through with such cynicism and cruelty, and the women’s characters are rather cruelly treated in general, although they’re great women’s characters. But the writing is usually coming at them from a slightly cruel standpoint, and I don’t love them. You know, you’re either a beautiful young innocent or you’re a corrupt old bag, and there’s nothing in between. (Interview, 2007).
If there was any scope for characterisation “in between” we could rely on Mirren to find it, and she may well have done so in her take on the part. Margery is a “pawn” in the power struggle between men, but she’s also one of the few characters to emerge with any dignity at the end. Her admiration for the town gallants and obvious interest in sex – comedy-rich sources of outrage to her husband – suggest that she is not quite as “innocent” as she seems. Cruelty is certainly there: when Pinchwife dictates a letter that Margery must send to halt any further dealings with Horner, he reinforces his authority over her with threats of violence that, to us, are anything but comic. On the other hand, what follows immediately is his come-uppance: a delicious monologue where Margery dupes him by secretly composing a love letter to “poor, dear Mr Horner” and substituting one letter for the other. In Mirren’s reading, this is nicely executed and full of imaginative details, as she alternately writes furiously and gazes dreamily into space.

All in all, whatever her own reservations about the part, a very engaging performance: sign of a talent for comedy that she’d used in The Bed Before Yesterday and would draw on much later in Calendar Girls.

* Sir Harold Hobson seems to have agreed with her on this. In his cringeworthy review of her Lady Macbeth, he wrote: ‘When the stage was occupied only by Macbeth himself, Macduff and so on, I was wishing the author would get rid of them and let us see what was happening to this marvellous actress. I really do regret that Shakespeare never knew Miss Mirren. We would then have had a different play.’

Colley Cibber, Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740)
William Hazlitt, ‘On Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar’ (1819)
Elizabeth Howe, The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660-1700 (1992)

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Miss Julie (1971)

By August Strindberg (1888).

Translated by Michael Meyer.

RSC, The Place, London, 1971.

Miss Julie (Helen
Mirren), the daughter of a Swedish count, attempts to escape an existence
cramped by social mores and have a little fun by dancing at the servants’
annual midsummer party. She is drawn to a senior servant, a valet named Jean
(Donal McCann), who is particularly well-travelled, well-mannered and
well-read. The action takes place in the kitchen of Miss Julie’s father’s
manor; here Jean’s fiancée, a servant named Christine (Heather Canning), cooks
and sometimes sleeps while Jean and Miss Julie talk. On this night, behaviour
between Miss Julie and Jean which was previously a flirtatious contest for
power rapidly escalates to a relationship that is fully consummated. Over the
course of the play, Miss Julie and Jean battle for control, which swings back
and forth between them until Jean convinces her that the only way to escape her
predicament is to commit suicide. Throughout the play the Count is an unseen
presence, represented on stage by his boots, an authority figure who is both
Miss Julie’s father and Jean’s employer. [Summary adapted from Wikipedia].

A hundred years after his death, Strindberg is still a
revolutionary. Actors are often baffled by the inconsequentiality of his
dialogue. Characters talk not only to
each other but also past each other.
In the preface to Miss Julie he said
that his aim was to avoid “symmetrical dialogue” in pursuit of the realism of “psychological
process”. There should be no interval, he went on, no pause to give the
spectator “time to reflect and thereby withdraw from the suggestive influence
of the author-hypnotist”. If people can listen to a parliamentary debate for
ninety minutes, they should be able to endure a play of similar length. More
prescriptions follow in the opening stage directions. Make-up should be
minimal. He favoured sidelighting over footlights, an auditorium in complete
darkness during the performance, and actors with the courage to turn their
backs to the audience throughout an important scene. First and foremost, the
action should be played out on “a small
stage and a small auditorium”.

Some of this was followed through in Robin Phillips’s
production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1971. The original venue was
The Place, the headquarters of the Contemporary Dance Theatre, which the RSC
had hired to create a theatre space seating 330 people, for a limited season.
According to company historian Sally Beauman, “the audience sat on tiers of
wooden benches, perched above the acting space rather like students in a
medical theatre watching the demonstration of an operation”. This came
somewhere close to Strindberg’s ideal of an “intimate theatre”; certainly there
was no room here for the dramatist’s particular bête noire, theatre boxes “with their tittering diners and ladies
nibbling at cold collations”. Later, the cast and set were transferred to
Pinewood Studios and the whole production filmed, enabling it to be seen by

In emphasising his economy of means, Strindberg pointed out
that the plot of Miss Julie would
have sufficed for a five-act play. With most plays of this era we wouldn’t wish
them to be longer than they are; indeed, lines, whole speeches even, are often
cut in modern productions of fin-de-siècle
drama. Yet here, in the compression-chamber of a one-acter, nothing seems

The production, as seen on film, captured the fluctuating
power relations between the principals which are the play’s strength. McCann’s
Jean is a somewhat empty vessel but Mirren’s Miss Julie is brimming with
contradictory impulses. Imperatives alternate with seductive entreaties as she
leads him on, then knocks him back, exploiting her power over him as his employer,
her ascendancy over him as his social superior, and her mesmerising effect as
an attractive woman. “Kiss my shoe!” she orders at one point. He meekly
obliges. “Je ne suis qu’un homme,” he confesses as she removes a speck of dirt
from his eye with rather more physical contact than is necessary. She “plays
games far too seriously” for his liking.

Further into the play we learn of a back-story about
power-play in her parents’ generation. Her mother, a proponent of women’s
rights, never wanted to marry and, when prevailed on to do so, contrived to
keep control of her own finances. She brought up her daughter to know
everything a boy knows. “I’d learnt from her to hate and mistrust men,” says
Miss Julie. “She hated men… and I promised her I’d never be the slave to any
man”. When Miss Julie briefly became engaged herself, she humiliated her fiancé
as her “slave”, forcing him to jump over her riding crop like a trained dog.
The death-instinct also runs deep in her family. Her father is a failed suicide.
When Jean kills her greenfinch (a shocking scene even if only hinted at), she
begs him to “kill me too!” before launching into an extraordinary speech where
the roles are reversed again. Now she is his destroyer: “I think I could drink
from your skull,” she says, carefully measuring out the words. The bell rings,
announcing the Count’s return. At once Jean slips into his livery and back into
his old subservience. “I can’t order you,” he tells Miss Julie, as she looks to
him for command.

The play is still notable for its pioneering sexual realism.
In the words of Strindberg’s biographer, Michael Meyer:

Before Strindberg, sex in drama
is something in which only married people or wicked people indulge… Miss
Julie’s tragedy is that she does not want to make love with Jean; she does not
want to sleep with him; she wants – there is no other word for it – to be
fucked by him, like an animal. When it has happened, she despises herself for
having allowed it, and him for having done it; but she knows she will want him
again; so she sees no alternative but suicide.

No alternative? My problem with this play is the ending.
“It’s horrible,” says Jean, his final line in the play, “but it’s the only
possible ending.” Is Miss Julie’s (implied) suicide a motivated outcome of what
has gone before? Is it not a melodramatic nemesis for such a complex character?
In his preface to the play, Strindberg represents the class conflict between
mistress and servant as a confrontation of old and new ways of being; an “old
warrior nobility” is disappearing in favour of a “new neurotic or intellectual
nobility”. Burdened as she is with an inherited and fatal sense of upper-class
conscience, his heroine, finally, “cannot live without honour”. I would prefer
something more open-ended; but to call for it is probably to misunderstand
Strindberg’s determinism, which understands Miss Julie as

a victim of the discord which a
mother’s ‘crime’ implanted in a family; a victim of the errors of her age, of
circumstances, and of her own flawed constitution, all of which add up to the
equivalent of the old concept of Destiny or the Universal Law.(Preface to Miss Julie

Benedict Nightingale, one of Helen Mirren’s most perceptive
critics among the London press corps, recognised that this was a breakthrough
performance for her. Maybe “the rivets joining her ideas together still
sometimes showed”, but in general

she brought what was becoming her
trademark full-bloodedness to the role, raging and roaring in upper-class
contempt at Jean… but it was the character’s psychosexuality that mainly
preoccupied her. Her hands quivered, kneaded her handkerchief, flailed
frantically, blindly, at her wooer, as if her body was in a state of civil war,
in terror and disgust driving her away from him and then, with a sort of
morbid, self-destructive fascination, to him, into his arms and into his power.


Sally Beauman, The
Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades

Michael Meyer, Strindberg: A Biography

Benedict Nightingale, ‘Life in the theatre’, in Helen Mirren: ‘Prime Suspect’ – A Celebration, ed. Amy Rennert

August Strindberg, Plays: One, tr.
Michael Meyer (1976)

Parkinson (1975)

February 1975. The Labour Party in government under Harold Wilson. It was the week of the Conservative leadership election that brought Margaret Thatcher to the top of her party. In The Observer, Clive James, whose weekly TV column was always the first thing one turned to on a Sunday morning, was engaged in his favourite sport, baiting Michael Parkinson:
This week’s number 2 lady superstar was Helen Mirren, who squared off against Parkinson (BBC1) in yet another doomed attempt to scale down her vitality within the limits of the medium’s butter-brained expectations. Parky kept referring to ‘your physical attributes’, apparently oblivious to the fact that his gesturing hands were busy grasping a pair of imaginary breasts. La Mirren bashfully dodged such frivolous questioning but seemed all unaware that no other form of questioning was available – as a serious actress she seemed to think that the true topic for the evening, serious acting, was somehow being purposely held back. The truth was, of course, that it had never been conceived of: whatever Parky might be, he isn’t devious. When she told him that Playboy was a disgusting magazine, there was no reply, the opinion doubtless having been dismissed as an aberration. She sneezed. Her shoulder-strap fell down. O! that I were a glove upon that hand! That I might touch those physical attributes!
(Clive James, Observer, 16 February 1975, Review section, p28)
Thirty years later, and the man himself is in apologetic mood:
… you can really admire someone, and long to meet them, only to be disappointed when you do. My first meeting with Helen Mirren was like that. I enjoyed her as an actress and thought she was a beguiling woman, an intriguing blend of intelligence and sex appeal. When she first came on the show she wore a revealing dress and carried an ostrich feather. This might have accounted for a clumsy line of questioning about whether or not her physical attributes stood in the way of being recognised as a serious actor. Ms Mirren bridled and wondered if I was asking if breasts prevented her from being taken seriously. I was wrong-footed and blundered on to a point where I could feel her hostility. We didn’t meet again until many years later, and we recalled that first meeting. Helen said she thought I behaved like a complete ass and I couldn’t disagree.
(Michael Parkinson, Parky: My Autobiography, pbk edn, 2009, p206)
I remember watching this interview when it was originally broadcast. I squirmed. The nation squirmed. Perhaps I squirmed more than most – an adolescent punch-drunk on literary studies, imagining myself some obscure vassal and Mirren my liege-lady:
She look’d as grand as doomsday and as grave;
And he, he reverenced his liege-lady there…
(Tennyson, ‘The Princess’)
It was hard to visualise Parky crammed into the stalls at The Other Place, Stratford, or peering down from the gods at the Aldwych. Cricket was his thing, surely, not Shakespeare? Since then, the whole interview has been issued on DVD (in a box set of her work for the BBC) and, inevitably, uploaded to YouTube.

It makes curious viewing now. These days Dame Helen is a frequent guest on chat shows. She comes across as amiable and relaxed. She’s happy to answer questions on any subject under the sun and can be relied on to deliver herself of headline-grabbing – and occasionally bonkers – opinions. She seems unfazed by, even prepared to laugh about, some of her past indiscretions, positively basking in the admiration that is now accorded her (and not averse to milking the applause, I notice, as she makes her entrance). In 1975 her younger self was much more suspicious of the publicity machine. And with good reason: in portraying her as “Stratford’s very own sex queen” (a notorious headline of the day), the British media were a threat. They could undermine the seriousness of purpose which radiates from all the work she did at the time (which was primarily in theatre – she had little profile as a film actress when this was recorded). Sure, the Parky interview is “sexist”, though not particularly so by the standards of the time, or the standards of his other interviews. What seemed to bug her was not so much the line of questioning as the fact that he refused to “spit it out” (as she put it). Euphemism was the enemy here. Once he’d embarked on a risky interview strategy, old-school gallantry held back the Greatest Living Yorkshireman from naming of parts.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Herostratus (1967)

The Australian film-maker Don Levy was one of a rare breed of artist-scientist. His first film, a satirical short about student life at Cambridge, was made while he was studying at the university for a PhD in theoretical physics. Later he made educational documentaries on scientific subjects for the Nuffield Foundation before moving to California in the 1970s to teach film studies. Herostratus, his only full-length feature, stands apart, as one of the most bizarre British films of the 1960s.

The title comes from Greek history. Seeking eternal fame, Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The outraged Ephesians brought him to trial and sentenced him to death, forbidding anyone to mention his name thereafter. One chronicler, Theopompus, defied the edict, which is how the name comes down to us. Legend has it that, on the very night of the arson attack (July 21, 356 BC), the future Alexander the Great was born in Macedon. According to Plutarch, the goddess was too preoccupied with Alexander’s delivery to save her burning temple. There was an irony here that appealed to Levy, as he told interviewer Clare Spark in 1973: “during his lifetime Alexander burned down thousands of temples… but nobody ever said his name should be struck from the records.”

In the film, ‘herostratic’ fame is given a contemporary twist. Amid the building sites and rising office blocks of a bleak post-war London, an alienated young man (Michael Gothard) vows to commit suicide. Fittingly for this media-savvy age, he resolves that his end will be a public act cutting through the false consciousness of late capitalism. So he crashes his way into an advertising agency and persuades the campaign-hardened executive (Peter Stephens) to take him on as a client, his suicide being the ‘product’ they will bring to market.

The ideas anticipate Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, first published in French in 1967. The “spectacle”, Debord argued, is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, a point of degradation at which “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”.

Recounting the plot gives little idea of the film’s dream-like character. Scenes are structured “contrapuntally” (Levy’s word); the colour balance on the original filmstock was carefully contrived to evoke moods. This is Art, with a capital ‘A’, which may explain why, challenging as the film’s contents were, actors were keen to get on board. When the British film industry was turning out generic pap like the Carry On series, the prospect of a home-grown arthouse movie must have been enticing indeed. However, the filming, which extended from summer 1964 to spring 1965, took a huge toll on those involved as Levy, by his own admission, drove his cast to confront unwelcome truths about themselves. Gabriella Licudi, the lead actress, suffered a breakdown during filming and retired from the business not long after.

The resulting film gives a vivid idea of what it would be like to crack up mentally. Gothard’s derangement is expressed both as outward violence – in one frightening early scene he trashes his rundown bedsit to the sound of loud choral music – and in inner turmoil, as intercut images flit across the screen, suggesting the randomness of uncontrolled thought.

Although Herostratus had limited public release at the time, its impact on industry professionals is undeniable. Alex in A Clockwork Orange, clad in white jumpsuit, is a clear descendant of Levy’s self-harming hero. A surreal animation sequence anticipates Terry Gilliam’s contributions to Monty Python by several years.

If you’d asked anyone watching this in 1967, when the film had its British premiere at the ICA, which of the participating actors looked like a future Oscar winner, I doubt anyone would have given the right answer. Conversely, if you’d told them that within 25 years both the director and the male lead would commit suicide, they’d have been sad but not surprised.

Mirren’s contribution (from about 54 minutes into the film) is barely more than three minutes long and seems to form part of a broadbrush critique of consumerism (or ‘commodity fetishism’, if we want to get heavy). To its credit, the scene also provides one of the few moments of humour in an otherwise very dark film. The ad agency is, one supposes, filming a commercial. Rubber gloves are the product, but sex is what sells, regardless of the product, and the camera lingers lasciviously (as it will so often in her later career) over Ms M’s mountainous cleavage. Once she’s delivered her lines, Gothard scoops her up in a fireman’s lift and bundles her off set, Mirren protesting loudly. Trust me: it makes slightly more sense in context, but not a lot. It would be interesting to know how she became involved in this project, which fell somewhere between her second and third years with the National Youth Theatre. It’s unlikely that she looks back on her first screen appearance with any great affection. When she was on Frank Skinner’s comedy chatshow a year or two back, Skinner sneaked a clip from her rubber-gloves routine into the middle of the interview. She reacted by mock-headbutting him.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Macbeth (1974/5)

Among actors, Macbeth has always been considered an unlucky play, and not without reason. When Olivier played the title part in 1937, he narrowly escaped death when part of the scenery collapsed and demolished the chair in which he had just been sitting. In a 1942 production starring and directed by John Gielgud there were no fewer than four fatalities. Two of the witches, the actor playing Duncan and the designer all died in the course of the run. The set was then repainted and used for a light comedy, whereupon the lead actor in that production also died.

Fortunately, nothing so serious blighted Trevor Nunn’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, first seen at Stratford in late 1974, which transferred to London in early ’75. But it was not without incident. Nicol Williamson, playing Macbeth to Mirren’s Lady Macbeth, refused to rehearse. ‘I think his plan, if there was such a thing, was to hold back until the first night and then just let it explode,’ Mirren recalls. There was no love lost between the principals: he was ‘just horrible to me… he hated me,’ she says now. I don’t know – perhaps they had smoothed over their differences by the time of the London run – but I saw the London version twice, both times in a state of heightened emotional awareness brought on by my having developed a massive crush on Ms M, and I wasn’t conscious of animosity between the leads so much as chemistry of a very different kind. One felt this was a characteristically modern reading, playing up the sexual co-dependence of the Macbeths’ marriage.

The idea is surely in the play, and it has a long history. In 1884, Sarah Bernhard upset straight-laced Victorian critics by dwelling on the lady’s ‘insidious erotic influence’. AC Bradley railed against this interpretation in his 1904 lectures on Shakespeare:
... there is not the faintest trace in the play of the idea occasionally met with, and to some extent embodied in Madame Bernhard’s impersonation of Lady Macbeth, that her hold upon her husband lay in seductive attractions deliberately exercised. Shakespeare was not unskilled or squeamish in indicating such ideas.
Yet ‘seductive attractions’ were precisely what Mirren’s Lady Macbeth used to further her ambitions. Her body would be the reward for an obediently performed murder. Associations between sex and violence were established from the beginning. When we first saw Lady Macbeth, reading her husband’s letter (I.v), she held it in her right hand while toying with a small dagger in her left. Then, as she invoked the ‘Spirits | That tend on mortal thoughts’, inviting them to ‘unsex me here’, she used the dagger to draw blood from her arm. The lines of soliloquy that follow were carefully delivered: ‘Come to my woman’s breasts | And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers…’

When Williamson entered, Mirren threw herself with unequivocal affection into his arms, sensing ‘the future in the instant’. Greeting his wife with ‘My dearest love’, Williamson held her for what seemed like minutes before breaking the embrace to speak the next line. Her conversational tone at ‘Your face, my Thane’ troubled some critics (‘she giggles, as if he had just seen the gas bill’ – Wardle) but suggested an easy relationship between them as he entrusted ‘this night’s great business’ into her ‘dispatch’.

Act I scene vii, where Macbeth prevaricates before the murder of Duncan, seems to me highly charged with eroticism, even on the page, as Lady Macbeth taunts her husband with lack of manliness: ‘From this time | Such I account thy love.’ Macbeth declares he will ‘do all that may become a man’, to which she responds, ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’. Williamson and Mirren intensified their intimacy at this point.

There was symmetry between I.v – Macbeth, back from the war, greeting his wife with ‘My dearest love’ – and II.ii, as Mirren received Williamson with a jubilant cry of ‘My husband!’ and an ecstatic hug after he’d killed Duncan.

In this production the sexual dynamics of the marriage were exposed to view, so that Lady Macbeth’s decline began at the point where the frisson goes out of the relationship. As Irving Wardle wrote of the Stratford production, ‘Up to the coronation, Miss Mirren is sex triumphant; afterwards, her collapse begins from the sense of being sexually discarded.’ To be precise, no sooner has Lady Macbeth entered ‘as Queen’ (III.i) than Macbeth orders her out of the room to plot the murder of Banquo without her aid. In III.ii she asks ‘why do you keep alone, | Of sorriest fancies your companions making?’ At the exhortation to ‘sleek o’er your rugged looks’, Mirren offered her embrace to Williamson, but engrossed in his own thoughts, he ignored her, and she dropped her arms.

And yet this kind of reading can be overdone. Bernard Levin, in a column written around this time, made a right charlie of himself by obsessing about Ms Mirren’s mammaries. In I.vii, as in I.v, Lady Macbeth references her breasts; but the context as before is that of breast-feeding:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.
Coleridge’s gloss on these lines is of interest:
… though usually thought to prove a merciless and unwomanly nature, [this passage] proves the direct opposite: she brings it as the most solemn enforcement to Macbeth of the solemnity of his promise to undertake the plot against Duncan. Had she so sworn, she would have done that which was most horrible to her feelings, rather than break the oath…
The thematic associations of maternity, fecundity and dynasty have to be present. After all, the original prophecy that drives the plot is that Macbeth shall be king, but Banquo’s issue, not Macbeth’s, will later occupy the throne.

But if I had suspicions that the production was emphasising one aspect of the play at the expense of others, I couldn’t resist the many memorable details in Mirren’s performance:

- After Duncan’s murder (II.ii), using a napkin of purest white, Mirren tried to wipe off the blood but she was unable to clean either her own hands or Macbeth’s; they left the stage still bloodstained.

- In II.iii Lady Macbeth faints. Nunn had devised some business to motivate this. Duncan’s catafalque was brought down the stage and Mirren, confronted with the result of their crime, perhaps reminded of her ‘father as he slept’, broke down under the strain. Her hysterical outburst was interrupted by Williamson, who took her by the shoulders, turned her round and led her to the door.

- In the banquet scene (III.iv), after Macbeth had addressed a stool for minutes on end, a white-clad Mirren rushed to sit on it. (The entire production was in blacks and whites, as if viewed in silhouette.) Afterwards, fighting for control, she moved compulsively about the room as she reacted to Macbeth’s raptness in the face of Banquo’s ghost, at one point clinging to the back of a chair to regain her self-possession.

- In the sleepwalking scene (V.i), the Doctor and Gentlewoman treated her as a disturbed child implicated in a business she didn’t understand. Marvin Rosenberg summarises:
Mirren wore a stark white robe as she acted out the movement to her desk, from which she took her paper. She turned half-front as she began to speak, still seated, working hard at her hand washing. She seemed to lick or spit on a handful of robe which she rubbed fiercely against her palms. She was wildly urgent in the scene, her anxiety-ridden voice returning to the tones of childhood.
Nunn’s aim in the original staging, so he told the company’s historian Sally Beauman, had been to confine the awesome spaces of the Stratford stage, producing ‘a chamber stage within the proscenium’. This was Mirren’s first production after a year of intermittent travelling with the Peter Brook company. In November 1974 she’d had a letter published in The Guardian complaining that the RSC’s expenditure on costumes, sets and staging had become ‘excessive, unnecessary and destructive to the art of Theatre’. I suppose if you’d spent the previous months performing on a bare carpet in African villages and Native American reservations, any of the trappings of European theatre would seem extravagant. Whether as a result of her protests (which were not well received by a company management suspicious of unauthorised contact with the press) or an unrelated design re-think, the production was notably sparser by the time it reached London. No set now, just massive ebony furniture dragged about by black-cowled scene shifters, which seemed to trap the actors within its confines. Williamson by the end was clambering up and down a pile of furniture, like a chimpanzee in a cage, spitting out his ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech. Irving Wardle listed the changes in his review of the London production:
Gone are John Napier’s heavy ecclesiastical furnishings, the traverse curtain shadow plays, spotlit asides, coronation pageantry, and the witches swinging on chandeliers. In their place, Trevor Nunn bases his production on the naked physical properties of the stage. It is like moving from an Italian cathedral to a primitive Methodist chapel.
Macbeth is the shortest of the Shakespeare tragedies. The brevity and speed of the play are astonishing, especially when played, as it was in the 1975 production, without interval in two hours flat. Lady Macbeth's sinewy, unmetaphorical language, so often rooted in the colloquialisms of Shakespeare’s day, was a perfect fit for the unforced style of verse delivery that Mirren had learnt from her RSC mentors. Although histories of the play usually give preference to Nunn’s later production with Judi Dench as the Lady, I will always cherish this one.


Sally Beauman, The Royal Shakespeare Company (1982)
AC Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)
ST Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Raysor (1930)
Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers (1987)
Bernard Levin, ‘Bringing the followers of Thespis back into the temple’, Times, 3 December 1974
Helen Mirren, In the Frame (2007)
Helen Mirren, ‘Stage set for an empty pageant?’ [Letters], Guardian, 13 November 1974
Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth (1978)
Irving Wardle, ‘A Christian tragedy’, Times, 30 October 1974
Irving Wardle, ‘Macbeth’, Times, 6 March 1975

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Apple Cart (1975)

By George Bernard Shaw (1929).
BBC TV, 19 January 1975.

It’s hard to imagine now, but in the 1970s the BBC had a series called ‘Play of the Month’. One Sunday every month, two hours of prime time viewing on BBC1 (and remember there were only two BBC TV channels in those days) were devoted to a single classic drama. For those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go to the theatre, it must have been their only exposure to Chekhov, Ibsen or Shakespeare. God knows how people would stumble across that kind of education nowadays.

The choice of dramatist in January 1975 (sandwiched between Colditz and the Ten O’Clock News) was less fortunate: GB Shaw. Oh dear. Let’s check in at this point with the greatest English theatre critic of the twentieth century:
In most writers, style is a welcome, an invitation, a letting down of the drawbridge between the artist and the world. Shaw had no time for such ruses. Unlike most of his countrymen, he abominated charm, which he regarded as evidence of chronic temperamental weakness… His puritan, muscular, moor-tramping soul (superbly mirrored in Higgins’s hymn to the intellect in Pygmalion) bred in him a loathing of all things, whether poems or gadgets, that were designed to comfort the human condition without actively trying to improve it. (Kenneth Tynan, ‘The Demolition Expert’, Observer, 22 July 1956).*
The Apple Cart is two hours of pompous prating, relieved only by an amorous episode in the middle where it flashes into half-life. In a future England, the Cabinet arrives en masse at King Magnus’s palace to deliver an ultimatum. Either the King accepts his limitations as a constitutional monarch and ceases meddling in politics or the Prime Minister will go to the country on a monarchy-democracy issue. Ultimately, the King capitulates, but not before he has struck terror into their hearts by threatening to abdicate in order to stand for Parliament in an upcoming Election. Meanwhile, in a farcical twist, the American ambassador seeks audience, bringing the joyous news that the USA has cancelled the Declaration of Independence and, like a prodigal son, decided to return to the Empire. What in 1929 was topically provocative – the Prime Minister foresees an outcome where the ‘real centre of gravity… will shift either west to Washington or east to Moscow’ – remained tangentially so in Cold War Britain, which I suppose explains the BBC’s decision to flog this very dead horse in 1975.

Between all the politicking of Acts One and Two comes an ‘Interlude’, where the King (Nigel Davenport) relaxes in the boudoir of his mistress, Orinthia (Helen Mirren). More talk ensues, only this time the tone is lighter, the banter more flirtatious. Orinthia speaks to him as an equal. She believes she is far above the common herd and entitled by innate rank to displace the Queen (Prunella Scales) as his consort. ‘I am one of Nature’s queens,’ she declares. ‘If you do not [know it], you are not one of Nature’s kings.’ By turns possessive, imperious, haughty, the character is unshakeably convinced of her own ‘greatness’:
Give me a goddess’s work to do; and I will do it. I will even stoop to a queen’s work if you will share the throne with me. But do not pretend that people become great by doing great things. They do great things because they are great, if the great things come along. But they are great just the same when the great things do not come along.
Tradition records that Shaw modelled the character of Orinthia on that of Mrs Patrick Campbell, who had created the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (a rather better play than this one). Shaw had passionate, but it seems unconsummated, feelings for the actress, which he later translated into the relationship of King and mistress in The Apple Cart. This may explain why the ‘Orinthia interlude’ crackles when the rest of the play drags. But it also needs an actress as beguiling as Mrs Campbell was in her heyday. (In the original British production of 1929 that role fell to the 41-year-old Edith Evans.)

It must be a pretty difficult part to play. Helen Mirren adopted her ripest RP accents, to make of Orinthia a stagey, self-dramatizing hetaira: a heroine in her own eyes, even as the King deflates her by telling her she belongs to ‘fairyland’. It shouldn’t work, but it did, probably because, under or behind the verbiage, there was a physicality about her performance that none of the other actors were able to bring to their roles. Seeing it that Sunday night in 1975, I was hooked. I still am.
*Cf. Clive James’s advice to the aspiring critic:
Any youngster who wants to get into this business should find a copy of Tynan’s first book, He That Plays the King, and do what I did – sit down and read it aloud paragraph by paragraph. It will soon be seen that his sometimes pedestrian radical opinions were far outstripped by his perceptions, which moved like lightning to energize almost every sentence. (Clive James, North Face of Soho: Unreliable Memoirs Volume IV, 2006, p215).

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Changeling (1974)

By Thomas Middleton and William Rowley (c1623).
BBC TV, 20 January 1974.

Scholarship holds that Rowley wrote the subplot and the opening and closing scenes of this play, and Middleton the remainder of the main plot. The subplot, in which Antonio (the ‘changeling’ of the title) pretends to be a madman to gain access to Isabella, wife of the keeper of an asylum, is tedious in the extreme – and painful to modern audiences, given our much improved understanding of mental illness. (In the BBC production the subplot was edited to the point of incomprehensibility, but it was of interest to see Kenneth Cranham, Mirren’s sometime boyfriend, in the role of Antonio.)

In the main plot, Beatrice-Joanna, (Helen Mirren) daughter of the Governor of Alicant, is betrothed to Alonzo de Piracquo, but she loves another, Alsemero. To rid herself of the unwelcome fiancé she employs De Flores (Stanley Baker), a servant in her father’s employ, to murder him, assuming that he can be paid off in gold. What she doesn’t reckon with is that the ‘dog-faced’ villain, who lusts after his beautiful mistress, is looking for payment of another kind. As TS Eliot wrote,
Such a plot is, to a modern mind, absurd; and the consequent tragedy seems a fuss about nothing. But The Changeling is not merely contingent for its effect upon our acceptance of Elizabethan good form or convention; it is, in fact, no more dependent upon the convention of its epoch than a play like A Doll’s House. Underneath the convention there is the stratum of truth permanent in human nature. The tragedy of The Changeling is an eternal tragedy, as permanent as Oedipus or Antony and Cleopatra; it is the tragedy of the not naturally bad but irresponsible and undeveloped nature, caught in the consequences of its own action.
This seems right, and it’s best demonstrated in the critical scene (III.iv) right in the middle of the play where De Flores, having despatched Piracquo, comes to claim his prize. The writing rises to its highest level – not by accident are the play’s most quoted lines to be found in this scene – as Middleton ratchets up the dramatic irony. The first touch is that De Flores produces the victim’s severed finger, still wearing the ring that Beatrice was required to send her fiancé as a love-token. Beatrice reacts with maidenly prudery: ‘Bless me! What hast thou done?’ It should be the first intimation for this ‘irresponsible and undeveloped nature’ that actions have consequences, consequences that she can neither predict nor control. Several times she mistakes his purpose, raising her offer finally to 3,000 florins. De Flores meanwhile must adjust his expectations to the developing situation. He begins the scene assuming that she knows what he wants. When she persists in misunderstanding, he is forced to make his intention plain, evoking from Beatrice her famous lines of self-delusion:
Why, ’tis impossible thou canst be so wicked,
Or shelter such a cunning cruelty,
To make his death the murderer of my honour!
Thy language is so bold and vicious,
I cannot see which way I can forgive it
With any modesty.
This is the turning point of the scene. From here in, De Flores convinces her that as ‘a woman dipp’d in blood’ she is implicated in this crime as much as he is and must yield before his sexual blackmail. Then she finds her loathing of the man turning into its opposite. But in the cumbersome plot machinations of Act Four, involving virginity tests and the use of a body-double, she continues to believe she can recuperate some notion of ‘modesty’, even having transgressed the norms of her society. As NW Bawcutt wrote in an introduction to the play,
She is completely unaware of the real significance of the deed she instigates because in her egotism she is aware of morality only as it protects her and not as it restrains her, and one of the lessons of the play is that these two aspects of morality are inseparable.
Mirren herself finds other qualities in the character:
I’d love to do a modern-day version of The Changeling because I think it’s a fascinating story of someone who is so repulsed, utterly repulsed by someone but actually finishes up completely obsessed by them. I mean he’s ugly; he’s physically ugly. He’s also lower class – he’s the servant – so she can’t see him even as a human being, but he sees himself very much as a human being and he is absolutely obsessed by her. There’s a wonderful story about class. (Interview, 2007).
The Changeling was one of our set texts for English A-level in 1974, so the BBC broadcast was happily timed for this sixth-former. Rarely did text leap off the page with such immediacy. Mirren’s performance as Beatrice-Joanna is, I think, my favourite of her early TV roles. She combined lofty insouciance with determination and scattergun sensuality, a bundle of disparate qualities which are undoubtedly there in the character. And what Una Ellis-Fermor, writing of Beatrice back in 1936, had called the ‘snipe-like darts of her mind’ found their equivalent in the intelligence with which the actress approached her characterisation. Plus, in voluminous flounced gown, absurd wig and veil, she looked great.

Monday, 8 August 2011




Welcome, new readers. This is a blog dedicated to one of the greatest actresses of our time and someone I’ve admired ever since I first set eyes on her as a moonstruck schoolboy in 1974. My plan, over the coming months, is to look back at some of her career highlights. The emphasis will be on her early work, to about 1980, hence the subtitle ‘Becoming Helen Mirren’. I go back to that time, not just because my most vivid memories of her are the earliest, not just because back in the day she was kind enough to answer the self-obsessed scribblings of an adolescent fan, but because I feel no one quite knew – not least Mirren herself – what she would become in the next thirty years. Who in 1974 would have confidently predicted that this self-declared Trotskyite would end up a Dame of the British Empire and a global brand so recognisable that she has only to step out in a bikini or utter an expletive in a TV interview for the Twittersphere to go into meltdown?

Well, perhaps there was one person who foresaw all. In her autobiography, Mirren describes visiting a palm-reader in a back street of Golders Green. This would have been about 1968. ‘He was an Indian man, more like an accountant than a mystic,’ she recalls. He told her that she’d be successful in life but would see her greatest success later, after the age of 45: ‘Not something you want to hear at the age of 23… I realised that I did not want to know what the future held. I wanted my life to be an adventure.’