Monthly Archives: November 2014

Duchesses, cardinals and revengers


Around the time that my interest in the theatre developed in the early 1980s, there seemed to be a general resurgence in interest in staging the English Jacobean plays of the early 1600s. Within a few years I was able to see productions of such plays as John Webster’s The White Devil, Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, Thomas Middleton ‘s  A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling and  John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

To me, as to others, the plays’ mixing of sex and violent death was undoubtedly part of their attraction. The plots of most of the above involve promiscuity, adultery, murder, corruption, deception and hypocrisy within aristocratic Italian or Spanish (ie Catholic)  families.

Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi  is one play which has maintained popularity,  judging by the fact that during the past few months I have been able to see it three times :  just revived by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and televised on BBC4, live at the Edinburgh Fringe in a production by UCLU Runaground and in a 1972 BBC version currently available on You Tube.

The performances in that 1972 version are slowly and precisely delivered, with appropriate pauses, powerfully evoking how plotting, betrayal and  treachery progresses while the characters appear to observe the correct niceties of behaviour. For example, the scene of the first attraction between the Duchess and the lower-class Antonio, their anxiety and nervousness fighting against desire, is marvellously done.

The newer BBC4 version tended to be brisker. This may say something about the greater challenge of delivering a dense text complete on stage compared to recording with the benefit of editing and multiple takes. Another factor is that almost certainly the younger generation of actors will have had less experience of this sort of allusive metaphorical verse. The 1972 cast includes many who continued after this to have careers which were distinguished and widely ranged : Eileen Atkins as the Duchess, plus Michael Bryant, T.P. McKenna and Charles Kay. In contrast, the publicity for the 2014 version concentrated on their Duchess, Gemma Arterton, probably because she had been in  James Bond and St Trinian’s films – although her performance here is perfectly fine. Sean Gilder, who had just appeared in the very different The Selfish Giant, is also highly competent  in the key role of villain-victim Bosola.

There are moments of comedy and irony in the play, and you will always notice these more often in a  live performance, but I did feel that James Gardon, playing the Cardinal at the Globe , does sometimes veer too far in that direction.

I recall that there was a TV fashion during the 1970s for performing classic plays in period buildings and outdoors, and this was such an example. According to IMDB it was filmed  at Chastleton House in Oxfordshire, which  is now in the care of the National Trust. The latter’s website says that it was owned by “an increasingly impoverished family” until 1991, which may explain why they might have been keen to let it out for a TV production. A large number of spaces are used, indoors and out. It looks and sounds brilliant around the actors in their period costumes,  although there is little in James MacTaggart’s production which would not have worked equally well in a London TV studio.

This version was not part of the BBC’s long-running Play of the Month although it now looks identical.  It appears to have been part of another series called Stage 2 which might have been  a strand of more “adult” plays, or more “adult” treatments, since here we actually see the Cardinal in bed with his married lover Julia, and she is shown unclothed in a couple of brief shots.  In contrast, the 2014 stage production shows Julia always fully clothed and, unsurprisingly, the 17th century stage directions give no suggestion that she should not be fully dressed.

Only in the ending is Dominic Dromgoole’s Globe staging a bit unusual. The dead characters rise up and enter into a sequence of uneasy movements which suggest a film being rewound. Perhaps the point is that the tragedy we have witnessed is the consequence of a plan which might have been carried out quite differently;  perhaps also to remind us that several murders have just taken place without damaging the glossy surface of the ducal court.

Both these productions perform the text fully. The UCLU Runaground company, in contrast, reduced it to 90 minutes, although that is still a substantial length for a serious drama at the Fringe these days.  Although confined to a tiny basement space, their staging worked well, and the young cast performed capably. The design was suitably black, symbolising formal religion as well as death and tragedy. From memory a wooden confessional box was a part of the stage set and some plainchant and church bells were successful elements of the sound.  Certainly their publicity drew attention to the theme of religious hypocrisy with a photo of a crucifix lying across a scantily clad bosom.

Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore  is strictly a Caroline drama rather than Jacobean, since it was written in the later reign of King Charles rather than that of King James,  but it presents a similar story in a similar way to The Duchess of Malfi.  A BBC version of ‘Tis Pity directed in 1980 by future Oscar nominee Roland Joffé transferred the setting, as I recall, from hot dissolute Renaissance Italy to cool amoral Victorian England.  Its excellent cast included Kenneth Cranham, Cherie Lunghi and Tim Pigott-Smith and  I hope one day to see it screened again.


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Some colourful public art…


…to brighten up the increasing winter dullness.



In old Quebec – a trompe l’oeil painting of the historical town.




Belfast has many murals drawing attention to the differences in its religious/political  traditions, but this one in McHugh’s pub/restaurant brings them together.




A ceramic tile mural of Ronda in Spain  – a town atop the cliffs.




In the Hotel Nacional, Havana – a mural depicting some of the more famous who have visited since it opened in 1930.




In the former convent of Sant’ Apollonia in Florence, the dramatic fresco of “The Last Supper” by Andrea del Castagno.




A contemporary church painting which juxtaposes John the Baptist and the cross-channel ferry – in Dover.




The present Kelburn Castle in Ayrshire includes part of a 13th century building, although most of what currently exists was built in the 18th and 19th centuries. In marked contrast, a colourful mural was painted on the exterior by Brazilian graffiti artists in 2007. Reports have been published that the mural will soon be removed – but it is still there.




South of Kelburn, in Ayr itself, a part of an interior mural in the Maclaurin Gallery which refers to the county’s slavery past.  Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became a leader of the abolitionist movement in the USA, was reputedly an admirer of Robert Burns and visited Burns’ Cottage when he visited the town as part of a tour of Scotland in the 1840s.


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Costa-Gavras and “Hanna K.”



A view approximately east of the walled city of Jerusalem, from near the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu.


Costa-Gavras  is one of those veteran film directors who came to prominence in the 1960s and whose work does not enjoy the audience it once did. In his case, it  might demonstrate how a younger generation of both producers and audiences are squeamish about liberal or left-wing perspectives on political topics in cinema, theatre and TV.

Costa-Gavras’ first big success was Z, a political drama set in his native Greece at the time of its military dictatorship, which won a Best Foreign Film Oscar. A few years later, in 1982, Missing, about an American journalist kidnapped in Chile, won a screenplay Oscar and  acting nominations for Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, and was a commercial success. (It was part of a trend for films about Western journalists in combat zones, like The Year of Living Dangerously, Under Fire, The Killing Fields and Salvador).

I knew that Costa-Gavras had made more films in Hollywood and it was coming across one of these on TV recently which brought his name back to mind.  Mad City stars Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta and deals with the often questionable priorities of 24 hour TV news. It made me think again particularly of the film which he made directly after Missing.

That film was Hanna K. I saw it  in Toronto when I was working there in 1983, but, returning, I never saw it advertised either in a British cinema or on British TV. Later still, when I first became acquainted with film fans’ online bible, Internet Movie Database, the film was not even listed among Costa-Gavras’ works. I almost began to wonder whether I had forgotten the film’s full title, or key parts of its narrative.

These days, happily, Hanna K is listed on and until recently it was available to watch on Daily Motion.



Jerusalem, near the Jaffa Gate.


Its story centres around Hanna Kaufman, an Israeli lawyer, who defends a Palestinian, Salim Bakri. She is first assigned his case to provide a routine defence against terrorism charges, but, later, she represents him in a more substantial action to reclaim possession of his family home which had been lost either in 1948 or 1967.

We see Kaufman visit Bakri’s home village. Its former Arab name has been changed as it has now become an Israeli settlement, and very few Arabs still live in the neighbourhood.

Her superior at her law firm, a conservative Zionist, states clearly that the state of Israel must be defended against its Arab enemies, even if it means treating others as badly as the Jews were themselves treated in the past.  He says, “Do you want us to be a minority in a sea of Arabs, create a new ghetto?…Now we have a country, an identity, we must defend it…if necessary (by refusing the rights of Palestinians)”.



The Western Wall in Jerusalem.


The trial of Bakri gains publicity and leads to Palestinian bombings in protest. The authorities are keen to conclude the trial. They suggest that that Bakri be granted South African citizenship and apply anew for ownership of his property. The trial is settled out of court and Bakri is sentenced to the minimum prison sentence of 8 months.

Kaufman’s perspective of Israeli-Palestine politics is criticised  by her District Attourney lover Joshua Herzog as “romantic, abstract, impassioned… idealistic”. When Kaufman learns that Bakri is undergoing a hunger strike in prison, she  arranges for his parole and lets him stay in her own house, to the particular disapproval of Herzog. Bakri voluntarily departs at the end.

The film is fatally weakened by the dilution of its political theme with another of female independence, which Hollywood was embracing at that time in such varied films as Julia, The Turning Point, An Unmarried Woman, The Rose and  Nine to Five. Jill Clayburgh’s starring role in An Unmarried Woman may have led to her rather unsatisfactory casting here. Kaufman is pregnant at the start of the film but she refuses to marry her lover Herzog, staying friendly with her French husband Victor Bonnet. Later, she is seen embracing Bakri but it is not made clear whether he becomes her lover also.  Insisting that she does not want Herzog involved in her new-born child’s upbringing, she comments rather unpleasantly, “Such a fuss over a few drops of sperm”. Finally, she seeks a divorce from her husband as she wants to re-establish her own identity – “because I don’t know who I am anymore”.



On the road north from Judea into Galilee.


The final scene does at least re-assert the political theme. When both Herzog and Bonnet have left her house, sent away by Kaufman, and she is preparing to take a symbolically cleansing bath, there is a ring at the door. A crowd of armed policemen are there – as alerted earlier by Herzog to arrest Bakri.

There is no doubt that Hanna K is a flawed film, full of confusion and compromises. However it is at least a drama where the issue of Palestinian human rights is depicted fairly and where the Israeli position is put under scrutiny. At least some of the filming took place in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. It is most telling that this curio is the best effort on the issue which mainstream US cinema has managed in 30 years.


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