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I already feel better today than I did a year ago. A year ago, I spent much of the day sobbing.


This day last year was a day of sobbing interrupted by long dull aching.  It was a bereavement day.  I found that the nearly empty church was a very useful, insofar as if you feel like sitting in a crouched position, clenching your hands together, and letting tears roll down your face – they tend to let you do that there.

I’d been living in Ireland so long (despite traveling constantly back to the UK for all sorts of family and professional reasons), that I did not even have a vote in the EU referendum.  In other words, my European citizenship was to be stripped from me without me having any say in the matter.  Alienation without representation is tyranny.

On June 24th 2016, I spent the day feeling contaminated.  Following a campaign based on lies, hatred, and stupidity, it seemed to me that Britain had forfeited both the self respect and the generosity to call itself a nation living among other nations.  All identity is relational.  To break off relations like this with no plan in place to re-establish relations is not protective of national identity but rather threatens identity meltdown.

I went home and changed my Twitter and Facebook descriptors to “stateless migrant”.  Living in Ireland had/has never made feel less “British”, but rather far more critically and self-consciously “British”.  When I lived in London, or Cambridge, or Reading – I never felt “British” in the same way.  I wasn’t “the British guy” then – I was just “some guy”.  Migration, exile, diaspora – whatever you want to call it – does not dilute identity but focus it.

Mind you, a year ago, I was also Irish at heart, as I now am by law.  Ireland had (and has) given me a home and a family, and a role, and a community and a circle of friends and a whole set of attitudes and instincts and a way of looking at the world.

There are people of course, many of whom write tabloid headlines and editorials, for whom feeling that you are more than one thing is an inherently discordant and dangerous thing.  They preach that feeling a sense of empathy towards more than one nation is to be discouraged.  For them, identity is a zero sum pie made of limited slices – and the more you feel of one sense of belonging, the less there is for any other.  For such people, love is a finite non-renewable commodity and you’ve got to be careful how much of it you give.  Theirs is of course, a drab, joyless and colourless universe.  However, they have been in the political ascendancy of late.

For the rest of us – for just about everybody I know – love is not a pie but a muscle that grows with exercise. Feeling that you can love more than one place, and wanting both those places to contribute to something bigger than either of those places is the only sensible or creative way to want to live.

I’m now a proud Irish and European citizen.  But these identities don’t erase a British identity.  They can’t even erase an identity that already definitionally erased.  I don’t have a double strike through option on this keyboard – a way of expression a sous sous rature Britishness.  And of course erasures just draw attention to the effort of suppression.  The more you try strike something through, the more people will struggle to try to read it.

But my Twitter and Facebook descriptors now read “Irish and European citizen.  I can now travel to Madrid or Rome from Dublin and feel that I’m somewhere different but not foreign to me.  I’m a citizen of Europe and nothing European is alien to me.  And if my tax euros help to fix potholes in a road in Greece somewhere, then that’s partly my road, and if I ever drive on it (or even if I don’t), I’ll take a certain pride in it.

Meanwhile, the recent refusal of the British people to give hard Brexit a mandate and the re-engagement of young people with the political process makes me want to stop typing Britain and start typing Britain/”Britain”.  This does not make me think that there is a country called Britain at the moment.  But I do believe that human beings in general, including human beings inhabiting the north west corner of Europe, have a way of eventually working things out, and that one day, reasonable, hospitable, creative, imaginative and charitable energies will listen to one another and create a relationship of harmonious polities each of which is proud to be part of something bigger than itself and “Britain” is one of the words that might be used as part of this polity building nomenclature.

This process will take decades.  I don’t believe I’ll live to see it completed.

Anniversary of Britain’s “Day of Eternal Shame” haunts millions.



As someone who was born and grew up in Britain/(“Britain”?) I now have a markers in my various calendrical devices to remind me to apologise to every single person in the world on account of the awful awful events of exactly one year ago.

Exactly one year ago, following a campaign that shocked the world with its stupidity, fear, nastiness and mendacity, Britain/(“Britain”?) effectively gave up on itself, surrendered the self-respect and national honour required for any electoral unit to continue to call itself a real country.

Of course, there were good people who voted “Leave” and people who voted “Leave” for what they felt were valid reasons to do with electoral accountability.  But such people were not in the ascendant during the campaign and nor were their valid reasons.  Even many “Leave” voters must feel ashamed by the dominant narratives of the “Leave” campaign, and the obviousness of the lies that were deployed.  The famous 350 million to be spent on the NHS.  The idea that Turkey was about to join the EU and that its entire population would instantly move to Swindon.  The imminent and unstoppable European army.

Worst of all of course, was the dramatic spike in reported racist incidents.  Worst of all was the fact that many people who’ve lived in Britain/(“Britain”?) for years or decades, now discovered that there were too many horrible people living near them who wished them gone.  It is not that most people in Britain/(“Britain”?) are horrible – only that the horrible people have been in the ascendant and for many foreign nationals, the horribleness was too prevalent for them to do anything other than sadly start to pack their bags.

Of course, the horribleness was not created by the campaign out of scratch.  It’s been there for years.  And I, who grew up in the UK and keep returning there and spending significant time there did not realise its extent. And this is what Brexit has done for me – a lifetime of what I’d stupidly cherished as happy rememberings are now contaminated.

I did not recognise the extent of Britain/(“Britain”?)’s horribleness because I am a coward and an idiot.  My critical and ethical failings are severe and deep rooted. I have been running away from evidence I find troubling.

For the remainder of my life, the day of 23rd of June will fill me with a sense of profound moral failure and personal culpability.  It will be a day of contrition and confession.  As someone irretrievable marked by their upbringing in the UK, I say today as I will say on the anniversary of this day, always, sorry.

If Hard Brexit impedes the easy transit of this stuff – how wedded are you really to Hard Brexit?


Human milk, that can help save the lives of premature and low birth weight infants, currently speeds across all thirty-two counties of the island of Ireland.  It is logged, pasteurised and distributed from the milk bank in Irvinestown, Co. Fermanagh, and sent via a variety of means to infants in need on both sides of the (currently) invisible border.

As we speak (assuming we’re speaking), negotiations are taking place to try to figure out to what extent abandoning the principle of freedom of movement between the UK and the EU is compatible with a so-called “frictionless border” in Northern Ireland.

Shamefully, of course, Britain’s moral commitment to the Good Friday Agreement formed no substantive part of the EU referendum last year and no substantive part of political discussions as to the form that Britain’s leaving the EU might take.

EU negotiators have had to prod the British government into taking care of the peace and security of the UK, in other words.

But EU negotiators have also had to remind British negotiators that if they reject freedom of movement then something has to be done about a border between the EU and a place called the Rest of the World which has suddenly become Britain’s best friend.  If Britain continues to insist on the version of Brexit demanded by Theresa May’s backbenchers then some form of “checks” will be inevitable.

I’m very very biased.  My own perspective is over-determined by very specific personal circumstances.  I’m the parent of an infant, born prematurely in Canada, who died because of a condition (necrotising enterocolitis) that is rarely if ever seen among children with access to human donor milk.  I’m the parent of an infant, born equally prematurely in Ireland, who lived and lives and flourished and flourished and who was given donor milk from birth.  That milk crossed the border twice on its way to our son.  The donors (we’ve been told) were from the Republic, but the pasteurising was done in the North.

Even if there were a Milk Bank in the Republic, milk needs to defy lines on the map and get to where it’s needed.  A premature baby (preemie) in Letterkenny should not have to deal with Dublin rather than Irvinestown.  Anything which slows down traffic, anything which subjects vehicles to custom checks, anything that makes crossing the border more intimidating, or stressful, or prolonged, or unpleasant – erodes the good will and convenience that enables the distribution of human milk to the most vulnerable human beings in Ireland.

So I’m very biased when it comes to ongoing Brexit border talks.  I can’t help but think of the issue in terms of whether or not babies live or die.  I would not make for a cool or calm negotiator.

All Productions of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar are about Donald Trump.


Rewatching an old and very traditional looking TV production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar yesterday, I was of course reminded of the fact that it’s all about Donald Trump.

It’s about Donald Trump because I’m watching it now, in the year 2017.  And to watch it now, in the year 2017, is to watch a play about a global superpower with a republican constitution fretting over how to deal with an authoritarian personality cult and a man who seems to acknowledge no boundaries.  It is to watch a play about what to do about someone who has built devoted populist power base that challenges time-honoured assumptions regarding the division of power and constitutional precedents.  It’s also about a man afflicted with “illeism” who constantly needs applause and whose speeches are mainly about how great he is.

Anyone who can watch Julius Caesar in the year 2017 without thinking of Donald Trump is probably too dim to find their way to a theatre in the first place.  It doesn’t matter whether Caesar is wearing a toga, or renaissance era trunk-hose, or a shiny suit and an orange wig.  In the year 2017, Julius Caesar is about Donald Trump because there is no such thing as a “pure” period production.  No matter how much you try to recreate an original staging of a play, the audience is a “modern” audience and brings a contemporary context to a viewing of the play.

Of course, it’s well known that in 2012, a production was staged with Caesar as an Obama lookalike.  This did not provoke the same level of outrage as the recent Trump themed production.

Of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, it’s by no means clear whether the assassination of Caesar was “a good thing”.  Brutus, the “noblest Roman of them all” confesses to himself that the assassination is a pre-emptive rather than a retaliatory strike.  Has the Caesar/Trump destroyed the constitution yet – and if he hasn’t – what do we have to do to stop him before he does?  Brutus and his co-conspirators all wind up dead, of course, and the republic is never restored.  Following a civil war, a line of emperors is established that lasts for centuries?  Could Brutus and Cassius have predicted this?  Should they have?  Is chaos always preferable to tyranny?

Are the conspirators really libertarian patriots or are they liberal elitists, with an aristocratic disdain for the plebs who love Caesar/Trump?

These questions can never be resolved by a reading of the text, but they can be answered to some extent by particular stagings which necessarily stress some aspects of the play at the expense of others.  Staging the assassination of an Obama lookalike in 2012 makes for a play radically different from the staging of an assassination of a Trump lookalike in 2017.  But even if both 2012 Caesar and 2017 Caesar had been played by balding white guys wearing togas – the plays would have been experienced very differently.  Because 2017 is not 2012.

Can the staging of a play lead to violence?  Well, I suppose the clearest case might be John Wilkes Booth.  There can be no doubt that this rather histrionic actor thought of himself as Brutus.  Indeed the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre can be theorised as a kind of melodramatic “final performance”.  There was no need to stage a production of Julius Caesar in 1865 in which Caesar wore a stovepipe hat and a beard.  For those predisposed to see Lincoln as a tyrant – Lincoln was Caesar already.

Like Brutus,  Booth succeeded and failed.  Lincoln was killed, but Booth and his co-conspirators also wound up dead and the South still lost.

Booth was a southern sympathising racial supremacist who hated Lincoln.  He was also an actor.  Shakespeare did not make Booth kill Lincoln.  Shakespeare, very selectively quoted, merely gave Booth a rhetoric and a mood.

Regime-changing tyrannicide is a policy with unintended consequences.  All sorts of tyrannical leaders have been toppled – some comparatively recently, leading to chaos followed by worse tyranny.  Shakespeare seems to be aware of this, but he still allows the strength of Brutus’ republicanism its rhetorical appeal.  Of course, the most intelligent reading of the play is to reject all forms of directive intentionalism and merely assume that Shakespeare wanted to create a compelling piece of theatre – one that involved giving various opposed characters wonderful dialogue.

The other thing to remember about Julius Caesar is that it’s not a story that Shakespeare made up.  It’s an actual historical event that really and truly happened, an event that has variously inspired, shocked, and fascinated generations of people.  To censor a story that might provoke political assassination effectively, you’d need to outlaw history as well as theatre.  Put Plutarch in the dock.

Either you confront the central dynamics of the story – a republic in a state of constitutional crisis – conspirators traumatised by a populist demagogue who threatens the entire political order etc. etc. etc. or you try to prevent people from making historical analogies and comparisons.

I’d always claim that the best antidote to bad history is more history.  If theatre provokes, as it should, then let it provoke in complex and thoughtful way.  There is no staging of Julius Caesar that retains any percentage of Shakespeare’s original text that can be regarded as crude propaganda.  In 2017, the play is about Donald Trump.  But it’s not a play that tells anyone to kill anyone else.

Plays don’t kill people.  Neither do movies.  Neither does gangsta rap.  People kill People.  Usually with guns.

Homo Ludens. R.I.P. Brian Cant.


When my generation grieves for Brian Cant or John Noakes, what we’re sad about, in many ways, is the loss of people we can’t remember the world without – people who have been famous for as long as we’ve been aware that certain people are famous at all.  Such people have not only been famous for the duration of our lives, but famous in a way that the littlest of lives comprehended.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know the name or the face or the voice of Brian Cant.

His was the voice, of course, behind Gordon Murray’s imagined worlds of  Trumpton, Camberwick Green and Chigley.  Trumpton had its litany of firefighters (“Pugh, Pugh, Barney-McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub”), a litany which I will probably recite on my deathbed to bewildered onlookers.  When I think of Camberwick Green I think of the elegance of the music box and the way in which the segments of the lid opened and closed.  And Chigley was notable for the rather Owenite biscuit factory wherein a six o’ clock whistle inaugurated compulsory dancing for the entire workforce.

He also appeared in two Doctor Who adventures I was too young to see him in first time around.  He played a patrician representative of the peace-loving Dulcians and was thereby squeezed into one of the most ludicrous costumes in the history of the franchise.

But of course, it was in Play School and Play Away that we best remember him.  I have fonder memories of Play Away than Play School – perhaps because it didn’t have “school” in the title.  Play School always carried with it the notion of play as something instrumental – something with a hidden pedagogic agenda.  Play Away felt like pure play – it felt like holiday.  Play Away was Brian Cant’s purest domain.

Brian Cant was an actor and more than an actor.  He tapped the wellsprings of “play” itself.  He was himself, the living, walking, hopping, smiling semantic link between “play” – the thing with a script and a stage and lights etc. etc. – and the activity of “play” that all children engage in.  He was an ur-actor.

Play Away may have been the making of Jeremy Irons, but I do not think of Jeremy Irons as playful in quite the same way.  Ah, but Toni Arthur and Floella Benjamin though….

Brian Cant was the embodiment of “let’s be this” and “let’s be that”.  And everything he played, he played with complete conviction, because nothing is more truthful than joy.  Little sketches would be played out with rudimentary costumes for a few minutes at a time, and then everyone would change roles.  Central to this ludic consciousness was a random element.  Lets allow the first item pulled out of the hamper to suggest the remainder of the narrative.  Whether or not these shows were tightly scripted is not the point.  The idea of improvisation was preserved.  As I attempt to retrieve the youngest possible version of myself – I think of Brian Cant as one of us.

Back in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth-centuries – “actor” was not the most popular word to describe someone who strutted on a stage.   The most popular word was “player”.  Nobody played happier or more influentially than Brian Cant.


Rich people are different… Laurel and Hardy in “Wrong Again”.


No Thomas Gainsborough masterpieces were harmed in the making of this picture.

Stan and Ollie are stable-hands who overhear two separate bits of news and who join them together logically but erroneously.  They determine that a local millionaire will pay $5000 for the safe return of “Blue Boy” – which is the name of a horse in their care.  (The millionaire will in fact pay this sum for the safe return of the Gainsborough masterpiece.)

They show up at the house with the horse but the millionaire just espies Stan from him balcony.  On learning that “Blue Boy” is with them, he delightedly throws down the keys and tells them to bring “Blue Boy” into the house.

Stan finds this odd.  Indeed, in many ways Stan remains wedded to a version of “common-sense” throughout this two reeler, while Ollie insists that the mega-rich are inherently eccentric and that their bizarre instructions should be followed to the letter.  Ollie accidentally reinforces this doctrine when he accidentally knocks over a very ugly nude statue and breaks it into three pieces.  Such is his natural modesty that he avoids looking at it while piecing it back together – resulting in a creature whose breasts and buttocks are facing in the same direction.  Stan treats this disconcerting statue as evidence of the truth of Ollie’s thesis.   Thorstein Veblen could not have theorised to Stan regarding the Leisure Class more powerfully than Ollie.   A twisty-turny hand gesture is deployed again and again in order to describe the essential “difference” of those to the manor born.

However, when the millionaire tells Stan to put “Blue Boy” on the piano where it’s always kept (rather odd – I would never keep a Gainsborough masterpiece propped up on a grand piano) – Stan needs a while to process this command before reporting it to Ollie.

The whole purpose of the film is the scene with a horse on a piano, the leg of the piano breaking, and Ollie trapped underneath the piano bearing the weight of both grand piano and horse while they try to refit the piano leg.  Eventually, Ollie’s face is trapped between the piano and the piano leg.  Stan’s attempts to help are constantly interrupted as he repeatedly leaves Ollie to his agony in order to admonish the horse for continually knocking his hat off.  In the twenty-first century, it’s odd to see how wedded people used to be to their hats.  The idea that you could forget about your hat until the whole horse-piano situation is sorted out would never occur to Stan.

Meanwhile, the actual painting is safely delivered.  For now.

When millionaire discovers that the boys have brought a horse into his house, he determines to shoot them both dead with a big gun.  This seems to me an overreaction. Fortunately, like most guns from silent comedies, this firearm is only capable of wrecking a policeman’s trousers.  in the kerfuffle,  the painting itself is irreparably damaged with an underlings face jutting out of it.  This is not the fault of Stan or Ollie.

I’ve always liked this film, which is really all about trying to put a horse on a piano and keep it there. There’s the build up to this absurdity, the duration of the absurdity, and a very rushed conclusion to the film afterwards.  This is not a film about wrecking a house.  Comparatively little is destroyed by Laurel and Hardy over the course of twenty minutes.  They rearrange an already ugly statue and perhaps the top of the piano will need to be revarnished.  It’s not “slapstick” comedy so much as comedy that tries to fulfill the logic of an absurd premise.  And there’s something peculiarly satisfying about seeing a horse on a piano.  It’s a bizarre but real accomplishment.  Before we mock them, we should ask ourselves – how well would you or I have done, charged with this (apparent) commission?

They put a horse on a piano, for the tragic and moving reason that they are in thrall to the authority of immense wealth.  If gaffer wants a horse on his piano, he’ll get it.  Who and what are we to argue?  Laurel and Hardy may be “wrong again” in this film, but they’ve been doing their best, darn it.

I have some thoughts on some other Laurel and Hardy shorts…


We Faw Down:

Habeas Corpus:

Two Tars:

Early to Bed:

Should Married Men Go Home?:

Their Purple Moment:

You’re Darn Tootin’:

From Soup to Nuts:

Leave em Laughing:

Battle of the Century:

Putting Pants on Philip:

Hats Off:

Call of the Cuckoo:

The Second Hundred Years:

Flying Elephants:

Sugar Daddies:

Do Detectives Think?

Sailors Beware!:

With Love and Hisses:

Love ‘Em and Weep:

Slipping Wives:

45 Minutes from Hollywood:

Duck Soup:

The Lucky Dog:

“A Near Run Thing”, OR, should the Duckworth-Lewis system have been applied to the Battle of Waterloo?



If the Battle of Waterloo really was won on the playing fields of Eton, then surely some sort of sporting agreement should have taken place whereby a rain-truncated day’s play resulted in a revision of the terms of victory?  What would a proper Duckworth-Lewis version of the Battle of Waterloo have looked like though?   If the overnight rain really did churn up the ground to the point where it was nearly noon before Napoleon’s artillery could be moved into position, then it’s clear that the loss of time could only have benefited Wellington, who was waiting all day for reinforcements from Blucher’s Prussians.  Perhaps Wellington and Napoleon could have met during the morning and agreed on how many people had to be killed on this, a shorter day’s battle.  Bloody the day certainly was, but not as bloody as Borodino and nowhere near as bloody as the extraordinary Battle…

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“Come Hither Hubert…”: The 1984 BBC Production of King John.


King John was not a good man.
He had his little ways.

And sometimes no one spoke to him

For days

And days

And days….

(A.A. Milne)

This was Leonard Rossiter’s swan-song.  I don’t believe he lived to see it broadcast.

Shakespeare offers a puzzling and inconsistent take on (arguably) England’s least popular monarch.   He’s a usurper, he’s arrogant, he’s brutal, he’s foolish and his nerve fails him in a crisis.  It’s often been noted that Magna Carta is nowhere mentioned in this play.  It’s also been cited as Shakespeare’s most protestant play, in part because it seems to draw from John Bale’s much earlier and far more ritualised anti-catholic play on the same theme, but mainly because of the treatment of Cardinal Pandulph.  Pandulph is realised in this production by Richard Wordsworth – the great great grandson of William Wordsworth.  Wordsworth pronounces the will of the Holy Mother Church with the desiccated voice of humourless absolutism.  He’s a chilling presence and he has a hat like an arse.

David Giles, who directed the Richard II-Henry IV-Henry V tetralogy returns for King John and pushes the lush costuming to a point of satisfying parody.  It’s as though he’s learned from the far more innovative Brechtian history tetralogy offered by Jane Howell and nudged his own instincts into a more original staging as a result.  The sets look fake and wobbly – but appropriately so.  We never forget we’re in a theatrical space.  The music, by Colin Sell, but rather unforgivably, it strikes up during the final speech of the play – the celebrated “This England never did nor never shall…” speech.  No excuse for that.

This speech is spoken by Philip the Bastard (or Richard the Bastard) who has more lines than King John and is a far more engaging character – though not necessarily a more compelling one.  He’s played by with cheery aplomb by George Costigan whom you may remember as “Bob” in the 1980s “Thatcher’s Britain” sex romp Rita, Sue, and Bob Too (1987).  Or you may not.  It is the Bastard, rather than John, who enjoys the more effective patriotic rhetorical resistance to papal supremacy.

This production features not just one but two successful sitcom stars.  Behind an enormous beard is Gordon Kaye as the Duke of Austria.  Hang a calfskin on his recreant limbs.  Also note the always emotionally involving John Castle as Salisbury and the fascinatingly ruthless looking Mary Morris as Queen Eleanor.  The very wonderful Claire Bloom (who began her career co-starring with Charlie Chaplin), is Constance – perhaps the most consistently miserable character in the Shakespearean canon.  The monotony of grief – the literal monotone of monomania is communicated not just by Bloom’s performance, but by the fact that all the other characters find her a drag to be around and will avoid her if they can.

As the King of France, we’re favoured with the incomparable voice of Charles Kay, whose tremulous operatic stylings are extraordinary.  If you really want to hear Charles Kay chew scenery in a TV drama I’d recommend going straight from this performance in King John to an episode of I Claudius, where he plays a heroic and high-minded senator being brutally interrogated by Patrick Stewart’s Sejanus.

And then there’s John Thaw – having finished playing a cop with the Shakespearean name of Regan and not yet aware of his destiny as Morse.  John Thaw plays the hapless Hubert as one of life’s eternal losers – an “ill-favoured” man burdened with a conscience. He’s instructed by King John to kill the rightful heir – the cloyingly Christlike Arthur.  He finds he can’t kill Arthur… but Arthur dies anyway in an ill-conceived escape bid which demonstrates the young Plantagenet’s complete inability to judge distances.  You are small.  The ground is – far away.

Leonard Rossiter has some fine speeches.  His final dying speech, the performance of a man who had not long to live, actually sounds like someone dying.  And his “come hither Hubert” speech succeeds in normalising infanticide with terrifying plausibility.

When I was a student and did far too much acting.  King John was the last role I played while I was still something that could just about be called a student.  I played the role within a week or two of submitting my PhD.  It was also a successful role for Thomas Sheridan the Younger (godson of Jonathan Swift, husband of novelist Frances Sheridan and father of dramatist R. B. Sheridan).  Thomas Sheridan played the role opposite Garrick as the Bastard (and Garrick really could be a bastard).  Sheridan seemed to get better press than Garrick for this production and it’s possible that Garrick never forgave Sheridan for this.

My Bastard was not a bastard but a thoroughly nice guy and I wonder where he is?

Years later I end up writing a book about Thomas Sheridan.  What goes around…

I’ve written about some other productions in this 1978-1985 sequence.

Here’s Richard II:

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

Here is Henry VI Part III

Henry VI. Part Two:

Henry VI, Part One:

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

And the Cymbeline:

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:

Thanks to Hollywood, I now know what could have broken the stalemate of WWI Western Front trench warfare a lot sooner…


As a sometimes shy and sometimes smug male liberal feminist ally,  I  ponder what the penalty for “mansplaining” Wonder Woman might be?  Perhaps I secretly fear that Diana Prince might show up in person to administer stern corrective measures.  Are these secret fears or secret hopes speaking to me?

There are some perplexing things about the new Wonder Woman movie that I’d welcome being corrected about.  Diana comes from a secret island of warrior Amazons.  Fair enough.  As a child, however, Diana gets schooled in a theogeny that little resembles Hesiod’s without offering anything resembling a feminist subversion of Hesiod.  All gods, male and female, are nameless apart from Zeus and Ares.  This is the most nakedly patriarchal theogeny I’ve heard of – one erases all goddesses and instead of a war between Titans and Olympians offers a condensed parricidal guyfest.  Conversations between Diana’s mother Connie Nielsen and her sister Robin Wright (long familiar as the central Lady Macbeth protagonist of House of Cards), lead you to suspect that this phallocentric theogeny may in fact be (appropriately enough) bollocks.   But it turns out to be (disappointingly) only slightly bollocks.

There are no female Deities for these Amazons to worship.  This seems odd, given the wide range of Mediterranean and New Eastern goddesses available to them.  Perhaps there is a point being made here about structural theological sexual exclusion, but if so the point needs to be made louder so that people like me can understand it.

Gal Gadot is a wonderful Wonder Woman.  At the beginning of the film, we see her in the present day in Paris.  She’s got a nice job at The Louvre.  The rest of the film is a flashback, reflecting on a World War One photograph she’s in that has puzzled Bruce Wayne.   We learn of her childhood and upbringing on the island prior to the arrival of Chris Pine.  Chris Pine plays Captain James T. Kirk Captain Steve Trevor, a roguishly charming American agent who doesn’t always play by the rules.

Kirk Trevor and Diana then both get dragged into World War One, with Diana (trapped by the confines of her theogeny) convinced that if she just kills the God Ares, then the whole bloody apocalypse will finally stop.

In order to really enjoy this film you have to forget absolutely everything you ever learned about World War One and the geopolitical situation in 1918.  Hollywood assumes that you are a complete historical ignoramus in any case.  I for one am finding the sheer effort of willing myself into unknowingness every time I buy a ticket for a “historically” themed movie somewhat tiresome.

And as we exited the cinema, I had to immediately take the two eleven year olds in our party aside and tell them that General Erich Ludendorff was not killed by Wonder Woman in 1918 but survived the war and was Hitler’s high-profile ally during the 1923 Munich putsch.  This the sort of fact that I used to think was far too common knowledge for filmmakers to discard without some sort of explanation – some sort of “alternate timeline” excuse.

From a political point of view, I am  troubled that Diana the Amazon seems to have no interest in forging any sort of friendship or alliance with any other woman in the course of the film.  With the exception of Chris Pine’s secretary, there are no signs of her empowering any other woman.  There is the villainous chemical weapons researcher played by Elena Anaya whom Wonder Woman decides not to kill.  But that’s it.  Her relationships are all with men.

Furthermore (and this is the English Lit. Prof emerging), she and the other Amazons make casual use of gender-exclusive language throughout the film.  It’s “mankind” not “humanity” that they refer to.  Initially I thought “mankind” might be a synonym for “patriarchy” or “humanity under destructive patriarchal government” – but no – when Diana decides not to give up on humans after all and to cherish their positive as well as negative qualities – they are still “mankind” it seems.

But what’s good about this film apart from the sheer presence of Gal Gadot (no small presence)?  Well, one thing that struck me about this film was its staging of the relationship between superherodom and technological warfare.  If you choose to believe (as you must if you are to relax and enjoy the film) that the war we’re watching is not really the 1914-1918 war but rather “Mechanised Warfare In General”, then what can emerge is a meditation on the limits of what any inflated super hero can really achieve.

The super hero is the creation of an age that is troubled by the obsolescence of individual physical strength and heroism in the modern world.  Where are the heroes in a world won or lost by people pressing buttons?  World War One contained many heroic actions, but none of them were game changing.  No individual serving on the Western Front could make a material difference to the outcome of the war by any spectacular feat of arms.  As the twentieth century progressed, negation of the heroic significance of any individual warrior spawned comic strip fantasies of men (nearly always men) who could reverse this technological impoverishment by restoring the idea that one person punching another person very hard could make a difference.

Oddly enough, the technology that destroyed the warrior mystique was perfected in the mid to late fourteenth century with the perfection of the longbow – that treacherously effective “killing from quite a long way away” weapon.  It is notable that Diana Prince restates classical antiquity’s objection to Ewen Bremner’s occupation of sniper – one who hides and kills from a distance.  A coward.

Wonder Woman is more about this discrepancy between a fantasy of individual superheroic strength and courage and the grim logistical reality of deliberately inflicted death in the modern world than any other superhero movie I’ve seen recently.  It dwells thoughtfully on the absurdity and the necessity of staging gladitorial combat in a nuclear age.  And it concludes on a sombre note as Diana reflects on the limitations of what she can actually hope to achieve.

It’s a shame she couldn’t have organised a wider resistance to patriarchy though….

Telling Sad Stories of the Death of Kings. The 1978 BBC Richard II.


The costumes are gorgeous.  Medieval finery has rarely looked so fine.  Oh, and the horses are real.  David Giles directs a version of the play that never quite has the confidence to push the pageantry to the point of sinister self parody.  But still, it dazzles.

John Gielgud (no less) is John of Gaunt and he pulls of the astonishing feat of delivering the “sceptred isle” speech without it sounding like it’s been plucked from an anthology.  But he achieves this, not by making the speech more colloquial but rather by intoning every single line that’s set down for him – making everything sound like it’s anthologisable.  Richard II, incidentally, is written entirely in verse – which helps.

The wonderful Charles Gray plays Gaunt’s brother, the Duke of York.   There’s a strange bit of extended gallows humour towards the end of the play where the Duke and Duchess hold dissenting views as to whether or not their son should be executed for treason against the freshly crowned Bolinbroke.  Gray is a superb blusterer.

The fascinating thing about Bolinbroke, is that the play never actually gives us the exact point where he stops campaigning for the restoration of his Ducal title and becomes a usurper instead.   There is no speech where he announces this intent, no soliloquy that deals with the decision.  The usurpation is an event which is assumed to have been decided upon rather than an event that lives in a particular moment of decision.

As played here by Jon Finch, Bolinbroke is compelling and tragic in the most elusive of ways.  It’s notable that there’s no scene where Bolinbroke lives to triumph in his successful enthronement.  No sooner does he achieve supreme power, than the guilt sets in.  Nor do we even get to see such moment, because Bolinbroke is never given to the kind of dramatic centrality that seems to entitle him to any moment of regret.  All the regret is belated.  Indeed Bolinbroke never lives in the moment – never lives in a moment that might give him any real agency.  Perhaps that’s his extended tragedy.

And Jacobi’s Richard.  Ah, Richard.  He (and the play) really is a game of two halves.  He is only truly regal after he’s been deposed.  At the beginning of the play, he is the most tiresome of absolute rulers, with a mannered and tremulous voice whose stage management of the non trial by combat is deliberately long-winded and tiresome.

Jacobi’s “hollow crown” speech is profoundly moving.  Only when completely stripped of practical authority, can he sound authoritative.   His final long Pomfret speech is separated into sections and filmed as though this interior monologue takes place over the course of weeks or months.  Not sure how I feel about that.

Shakespeare never mentions The Peasants’ Revolt (1381) in Richard II, but historically, it seems likely that Richard’s head was turned by it.  A teenage boy managed to quell a proletarian uprising with his sheer presence.   In some ways, Richard was born 300 years earlier.  He had fantasies of early modern absolute rule worthy of Louis XIV at a historical moment when  such fantasies could not be logistically realised.  The fourteenth-century he inhabited demanded that rulers keep faith with local magnates and ensure a national as well as international sense of “balance”.  Divine right of kings simply didn’t have the apparatus to support it.

Giles production hints something else associated with Richard’s downfall.

There’s a clear suggestion in the staging of Act One, Scene iv in a sort of bath-house sauna setting, that Richard’s relationship with his favorites is closer than that of a ruling monarch with his preferred politic advisers.   This scene then reinforces the accusation later made against young Bushy and Green by Bolinbroke prior to their peremptory death sentence.

You have misled a prince, a royal king,
A happy gentleman in blood and lineaments,
By you unhappied and disfigured clean:
You have in manner with your sinful hours
Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him,
Broke the possession of a royal bed
And stain’d the beauty of a fair queen’s cheeks
With tears drawn from her eyes by your foul wrongs.

The production can, therefore, either be read as a homophobic narrative which suggests the unfitness of a gay man to exercise executive authority, or as an angry protest against a world in which homophobia unjustly dispossesses a rightful ruler.

Richard II is all about dispossession and not just Richard’s.  No sooner has Gaunt died that Richard takes all his stuff.  And he takes all of Gaunt’s stuff just so that he can go to Ireland and take all of their stuff.  Richard is deposed because his sense of royal prerogative means that nobody’s stuff is safe.

Indeed, this play demonstrates that there’s no secure exercise of power without reciprocity.  No entitlement exists in isolation and one cannot assert one’s own rights without acknowledging those of others.

Shakespeare seems no particular fan of the Divine Right of Kings.  But he’s equally frightened of the anarchy that follows the logic of “might is right”.  If you can’t trust meritocracy and you can’t trust primogeniture, then what can you trust?  Shakespeare is too early for written constitutions and the sovereignty of the people.  All he really trusts is successful theatre.

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

Here is Henry VI Part III

Henry VI. Part Two:

Henry VI, Part One:

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

And the Cymbeline:

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It: