Monday, 26 November 2012

The Tempest (2010)

Do we become what we are, or are we what we become?

In the 1970s, when I was first aware of Helen Mirren, I wouldn’t have predicted the future she has made for herself. Nor, perhaps, would she. In a revealing interview she gave to Sean French in 1989, she looked back on a hoped-for future in European arthouse cinema:

What I wanted to do was to make films in France, in French. My own personal taste has been more towards European than American film. I don’t basically like American films. I think they’re fairly stupid, most of them. So I even went to the extent of renting a flat in Paris and getting an agent. But of course it was totally impractical. I mean why would anyone employ me, who couldn’t speak French very well, as opposed to some wonderful French actresses?

In the Seventies, if I’d thought about it, I would probably have imagined the 60-something Mirren dominating the British stage as a theatrical grande dame. I still think her time could be better spent, and her interpretative talents better used, on the stage than making “fairly stupid” – no, correct that, utterly stupid – Hollywood films like National Treasure: Book of Secrets or Love Ranch. In those days we used to hear the term “serious actress” a lot; Clive James applied it to Mirren in his withering review of her first encounter with Michael Parkinson. (The great and the good also used to talk about “serious music”, which meant classical music, i.e. the only music to be taken seriously.) In a way Mirren was ahead of her time in resisting the categorization implied by the term:

Journalists are always asking me, begging me, down on their knees, to say “I’m not a sex symbol, I’m a serious actress,” please say it, please say it. And I’ve always categorically refused to say that because I’ve always felt that you don’t have to talk about your work in that sense. You just do it. (Observer interview, 1989)

The peculiar impact of the early stage and TV work that I’ve discussed here came from a fearlessness in the face of contradiction and category distinctions; it lent freshness to her classic roles; even in period dress, her Shakespeare seemed to be of the moment. That could have translated into film, especially if we’d had a vibrant home-grown film industry, but it didn’t. I recall reading an interview with John Fowles in the late Seventies somewhere (was it in Isis, the Oxford student magazine?) where he said that Mirren was his personal choice to play the French Lieutenant’s Woman on screen. But the backers wouldn’t wear it, of course, it had to be a bankable American star – it had to be the mistress of funny foreign accents, it had to be Meryl Streep.

So this blog has ended up revolving two thoughts. The first is that I feel no great enthusiasm for the Mirren of 2012 with her homes in Los Angeles, London and Italy, Mirren the go-to interviewee for soundbites on every subject under the sun, purveyor of bland truisms served up for American TV stations, Mirren the red-carpet regular, to the women who congregate on the many fansites now devoted to her a poster-girl for the childless (or ‘child-free’) by choice. Doubtless the fault is mine, and the consequential loss mine too. Having failed to become, I remain what I was, still (in memory) dawdling outside the flat in Fulham I once identified after she surprisingly responded to a teenage fan by including her address in the letter.

And then there’s a thought about a thought of hers. You might call it the ‘Shakespeare in Love’ fantasy. Repeatedly she has said that Shakespeare would have written better female parts if he’d been writing for real women, not for boy-actresses. It was a sentiment echoed by Sir Harold Hobson in his famous verdict on her Lady Macbeth: “I really do regret that Shakespeare never knew Miss Mirren. We would then have had a different play.” Although in recent years she has been rarely seen in the English classics, there is one exception, and it allowed her to refashion Shakespeare in her own image. In 2010 she appeared in Julie Taymor’s film adaptation of The Tempest. In order to reclaim one of the plum roles in Shakespeare, Prospero was recast as ‘Prospera’. This required some rewriting of the protagonist’s backstory. We learn that the original Duke of Milan had encouraged his wife’s interest in magic, but when he died and left Milan to her, her brother Antonio spread rumours that she was a witch and had her banished. As the editors of the latest Arden edition observe, “this intriguing shift makes Prospera, Duchess of Milan, more clearly an alter ego of Sycorax” and “Shakespeare’s emphasis on confinement broadened to include the patriarchal entrapment of women”. I like this movie a lot. Shot in the volcanic landscape of Hawaii, it’s visually stunning, as a filmic Tempest should be. Some of the casting is strong (Ben Whishaw as Ariel, Felicity Jones as Miranda), some less so (Reeve Carney as Ferdinand, and Russell Brand as Trinculo, who’s a lot funnier in a lengthy riff included on the DVD extras than he is in the film). But, bestriding the action, the stand-outs are Djimon Hounsou, in a superbly physical performance as Caliban, and Mirren herself, alternating solicitude for her daughter with the calm exercise of power over her enemies.

The question that hung in the air as Beth Gibbons sang the play’s Epilogue over the end-credits was this: couldn’t one find a fresh take on the play without having to rewrite it? What if Prospero’s magic powers include gender-bending? He might live on the island as a woman, Teiresias-like, only reverting to his old self when he reveals himself to the courtiers at the end: “I will discase me and myself present | As I was sometime Milan” (5.1.85-6). Until she encounters the “brave new world” of the shipwrecked gentry, Miranda has no fixed concept of manhood, having only her father and Caliban as examples.

Of the making of books about Shakespeare there is no end, and an ever-fruitful topic is the gender assumptions that underlie the plays and poems. Are they the product of an androgynous sensibility – in which case Mirren-style revisionism is wide of the mark – or do they proceed from a benighted Elizabethan mindset which needs to be corrected for the twenty-first century? One day I may add to the termite mound of Shakespearean criticism by writing about these things, but for the moment let your indulgence set me free.

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.  

Sean French, “The tabloids’ thespian”, Observer, 27 August 1989
Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T Vaughan, “Introduction” to The Tempest, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series, revised edn (2011)

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Cymbeline (1983)

By William Shakespeare (c1610)
Recorded July/August 1982
BBC TV, 10 July 1983

Sometime in 1611 Simon Forman, astrologer, quack, womaniser and ardent theatre-goer, made an entry in his ‘Bock of Plaies and Notes thereof’. He’d just been to see a play about ‘Cymbalin king of England’. We don’t know where – it was probably at the Globe, where he also saw Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale – but we can be sure it was Shakespeare’s play that he saw, for he records the plot in great detail. Frustratingly, that is all he sets down. The aspects of the production that would interest us – the staging, the acting style, the audience reaction – go unmentioned. What his account does show, and in this he may have been a typical member of the audience, is that he was swept up in the plot, not stopping to notice either the poetry or the characterisation.

Four hundred years later, Cymbeline still seems plot-heavy: a succession of strange and fabulous events strung together with the intention of evoking shock and awe, an unsatisfactory retread of themes that Shakespeare had dealt with rather better before. Sexual jealousy had been treated with a comic outcome in Much Ado About Nothing, with tragic results in Othello. Here we are closer to the anti-realism of the Jacobean masque. I’m attracted to Frances Yates’s approach (although I’m not sure it finds much favour with modern scholars.) She viewed the play in historical terms, as a court entertainment, its contrived plot designed to flatter King James and his heir, Prince Henry, on whose young shoulders rested hopes for a Greater Britain and European peace under Protestant hegemony. Why, in the play, do the Romans land in Wales, not the most obvious point of arrival for a march on ‘Lud’s town’? Because the young prince had recently been invested as Prince of Wales and because Milford Haven was the port at which Henry Tudor had landed in 1485 to establish the Tudor dynasty, a dynasty to which James I was keen to claim his own succession.

Once again, the ‘female’ lead adopts male disguise. But unlike Julia (Two Gentlemen of Verona), Portia (Merchant of Venice) or Rosalind (As You Like It), Imogen is a more assertive presence before she dons male attire. In his last treatment of the cross-dressed heroine, Shakespeare seems, in Michael Shapiro’s words, “to reverse his usual polarities by having an assertive female character become a shy and vulnerable boy”. If All’s Well That Ends Well canvassed the possibility of the heroine as free agent, in Cymbeline I sense a resurgent conflict between psychological realism, which is hospitable to Free Will, and Romance, which is deterministic, a genre where characterisation is subordinated to the working out of a providential plot.

Poetry was somewhat of a casualty in the 1983 BBC production, which made heavy cuts to the text. For example, we lost these crisp lines where Imogen, exiled from the court, contemplates a new life abroad, prefiguring the vision of international harmony with which the play ends (and strangely prophetic of our love-hate relationship with Europe in the twentieth century):

I’th’world’s volume
Our Britain seems as of it but not in’t,
In a great pool a swan’s nest. Prithee think
There’s livers out of Britain. (3.4.138-41)

As Imogen, Mirren gave an impassioned performance, but as she admits in the DVD interview accompanying the reissue of her BBC work, she had an uphill task. The play contains one of the toughest challenges in all Shakespeare, “horrendously difficult… the hardest, hardest scene in the world to play.” Imogen, recovering from the effects of a sleeping potion, wakes up next to a dead body. From the clothing she supposes it to be the headless corpse of her husband, Posthumus; in fact, it is that of the oafish Cloten, who has put on the other man’s clothes. Implausibly, she then confirms the misidentification by enumerating the body parts (“I know the shape of’s leg; this is his hand”, 4.2.310). Mirren played this more literally than other actresses; where others have delivered these lines turned away, only half-looking at the body, she went so far as to nod with an increasing, terrifying certainty as she proceeded with the identification. Roger Warren suggests that, while other readings may be more convincing, “it takes great courage to play the scene Mirren’s way, and it makes the valuable point that what is factually untrue is nevertheless horribly real for Imogen.” In similar vein, the line “Give colour to my pale cheek with thy blood” (4.2.331) was literalized by following a stage direction in the Oxford Complete Works, “She smears her face with blood”; other editions suggest “Falls on the body” or “She embraces the body”.
Mirren says that her approach to Shakespeare is to look for her own “secret story… what is it speaking to me about?” From this she derives her “internal energy”. In Cymbeline the story concerned “learning about love, learning all the fault-lines in love and how to repair them”. Certainly, the director, Elijah Moshinsky, was concerned to present Imogen as a fallible character. When Giacomo, her husband’s false ‘friend’, whispered poison in her ear (“I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure”, 1.3.136), she almost fell for his seductive charm, almost allowed him to kiss her before breaking away.

If Forman heard ‘poetry’ on stage in 1611, he doesn’t record the fact. “Hang there like fruit, my soul, | Till the tree die” (5.4.263-4) – Posthumus’s words of reconciliation addressed to the wife whom he has wronged: Tennyson considered these to be “the tenderest lines in Shakespeare” There is much else to admire in the play’s tissue of language. I have always loved Guiderius’s elegy to the supposedly dead Imogen/Fidele, which I first encountered in the musical setting by Stephen Sondheim:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. (4.2.259-64)

Jonathan Bate points out that the final couplet acquires additional meaning when one realises that, in the Warwickshire dialect of Shakespeare’s day, a flowering dandelion was a ‘golden lad’ while one about to disperse its seeds was a ‘chimney-sweeper’.* Proof – and conspiracy theorists still demand proof – that the author of the ‘Shakespeare’ plays was originally a country boy and not some toff in a stately home. But the couplet also tells us something about interpretation. You don’t need the footnote about Warwickshire dialect to appreciate those lines; the contrast of light and dark, of the exalted jeunesse dorée and the begrimed working man, is already pregnant with metaphor. Yet, coincident with vague and ambiguous signification, with intimations of death as universal leveller, the lines are actuated subterraneously by a precise, directed image which roots us in the realities of field and hedgerow. If I labour this point it’s because elsewhere, in my efforts to explicate popular song, I am attacked for marring people’s listening pleasure by suggesting that lyrics can have precise meanings that complement – but do not cancel out – the subjective meanings that all of us bring to our experience of the arts. It’s always a smart move if the defence counsel can call in Shakespeare as an expert witness.

Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World As A Stage (2008)
Michael Shapiro, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages (1994)
Roger Warren, Staging Shakespeare’s Late Plays (1990)
Frances A Yates, Shakespeare’s Last Plays: A New Approach (1975)
*Bate as quoted in Bryson, p192. I’ve been unable to locate Bryson’s exact source for this. Anyone know, apart from the man himself?