Monthly Archives: August 2015

All’s well… in some art, if not always in life


Judging by this year’s Edinburgh Fringe programme, younger stage producers have not entirely lost interest in Shakespeare’s best known plays. The programme lists productions of Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Much Ado about Nothing and no fewer than six of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  But the less famous are not ignored:  there are also four versions of the implausibly gory Titus Andronicus and two of the “problem play” All’s Well That Ends Well.

The latter in particular has raised its profile within the last few years through productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe, so I thought it was high time I found out about it.



Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, the 21st century working facsimile of the Elizabethan theatre, as seen from the River Thames.


The plot  is based around the love of Helena, a doctor’s daughter, for the higher-class Bertram, and about the association of these members of the Spanish state of Rousillon with the King of France. It includes confusions over identity, exchanges of rings and practical jokes.  So in some ways it has similarities to Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice.

Definitely at the conventional end of the spectrum was Elijah Moshinsky ‘s production for the BBC, part of the project to screen all of Shakespeare’s plays between 1978 and 1985. The design of the production was clearly based on paintings of the 17th century, such as Vermeer or Rembrandt, in line with the inter-disciplinary interests of the then series producer Jonathan Miller.  The full text was used, and the pace was slow and precise, which did  often bring out nuances and depths.  One intriguing directorial touch, pointed out by Alistair Nunn,  is the physical intimacy of the scene between the ailing King of France and Helena, who is reputed to have inherired considerable healing skills from her late father. Perhaps  part of Helena’s cure for the royal illness is sexual intercourse, suggests Nunn!

A familiar modern take on You Tube is an outdoor production by California-based Shakespeare by the Sea in 2013, screened by a local TV station.  Period costumes and performances in a lively if broad fashion.

In Edinburgh this month, Fusion Theatre’s approach was more maverick. The play’s locations moved from Rousillon and France to the kingdoms of Tesco and Asda, thus justifying a design of casual clothes,  portable shelves and shopping trolleys.  A lot of startling physical movement was employed. Frankly, it did not always illuminate Shakespeare’s text, but it certainly did work in showing the shifting desires of Bertram for Helena and Diana, and also in the fight to trap Parolles, which ended up with him blindfolded by shopping bags and with head and shoulders trapped in an upturned shopping trolley.

The uses of the title phrase within the play perhaps point to its reputation as one whose conclusion is not entirely happy. Helena uses the phrase after she has successfully carried out a “bed trick” with Diana’s paid cooperation in order to sleep with Bertram, and, later, when she arranges for the King of France to see the letter which will reveal the trick.  However, at the end, the King suggests only that “all yet seems well”. He seems to foresee that the relationship between Bertram and Helena, built on deceit and manipulation, is doomed to failure.

My own feelings were more positive:  amazed that it has taken me so long to read or see the play but delighted to have now made its acquaintance.


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Cultural honours


When UK government honours are announced twice a year, it is those recipients who come from the areas of sport and entertainment who tend to receive the greatest attention.

I always think that two of the key events in the history of cultural honours must have been the knighthoods given to Laurence Olivier and to Matt Busby.

The former led to a succession of elevated thespians, such as John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness and Peggy Ashcroft, and, in recent times, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Sher and Kenneth Branagh, whose status seem especially to impress international audiences.

But Olivier did not get the knighthood merely for being an accomplished and successful actor. I am sure he received it in 1947 specifically for directing and starring in the successful film Henry V which was perceived to be an important wartime morale-booster.

In turn, Busby did not get his knighthood for being the manager of a successful British football team who won the European Cup in 1968.  He got it for being the manager who built a European Cup-winning team from the one who had suffered multiple casualties in the Munich air crash ten years before.

Busby’s knighthood led directly to one for Alex Ferguson. Since Busby had been given a knighthood for leading Manchester United to victory in the European Cup, the popular media argument went in 1999, Ferguson should be given a knighthood for leading Manchester United to victory in the Champions League. However such argument forgot or ignored the difficulties which Busby, himself seriously injured in the Munich air crash, had to overcome in order to reach his success. Neither Ferguson nor the club needed to overcome any similar challenges in that later era of TV millions.

This has gradually led, in my view, to a serious level of honours inflation. There are a lot of actors and sportsman (you make your own list) who have been given the top honours merely for a decent length of performing career or a number of Olympic medals. Some athletic knights or dames have been so honoured when they are young enough to be still competing.

And it makes me think back to the MBEs awarded to the Beatles in 1965. That event was one of the first times I became aware of the world of news. The award was specifically for the group’s financial success: services to British exports. Yet there must have been plenty of grumpy old men like me who complained about such an honour being given to a group of long-haired howlers. It was still early in their short career. If it had been done at the end of their career, it might have been more understandable. It suggests that some members of the Harold Wilson government were more attuned to the new modern technological world than some later politicians who would rate highly their antennae in that area.


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Spark, Hitchcock  and Italian art-house   

Until two months ago, although I felt I had a reasonable layman’s knowledge of the writings of Muriel Spark, I had never heard of The Driver’s Seat. Then, at a talk about Spark given by journalist Alan Taylor at the Boswell Book Festival , he mentioned that the 1970 novella was her own favourite.  He also mentioned a forgotten film version starring Elizabeth Taylor, as well as an upcoming stage production by the National Theatre of Scotland .

When I read The Driver’s Seat, I was struck by its structural similarities to Spark’s famous novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – both works use a non-chronological narrative from multiple perspectives –  but also its similarity to films by Alfred Hitchcock. Like Psycho, which begins with a woman at her work and follows her on a dangerous adventure, or Marnie, which looks into her troubled past, or Spellbound, which features a romance with a man who has psychological problems.

The NTS production, directed by Laurie Sansom, plays further on the Hitchcock influences. The mysterious behaviour of Lise is depicted in a way which recalls many of those Hitchcock heroines such as played by Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren or Ingrid Bergman; the heavy use of video brings many scenes stylistically closer to parts of a film; the grey checked patterns of the suits of all the male characters reminded me of the one worn by Cary Grant’s character in North by North-West.

Fortuitously, the film, directed in 1974 by one Guiseppe Patroni Griffi , is currently available on You Tube. Although at the time of original release it will probably have fitted the fashion of the many international co-productions of the era, its visual style now looks closer to arthouse films like Bertolucci’s The Conformist or Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bougeoisie or Costa-Gavras’ Z. The story is told mostly in slow-moving middle- and long-distance shots. People are eerily silhouetted by bright light in airport, hotel, department store, police station and gardens.  Franco Mannino’s piano music helps create a dissonant environment. The political turmoil which is mentioned only in passing by Spark is given a higher dramatic prominence.

As you watch the film now, you would surely spot its influence on the NTS production design even if it hadn’t been acknowledged in the programme or as an exhibition in the theatre. For example, the repeated scenes of police interviews are recalled by the use of video cameras by the actors and the large images thrown up at the rear of the stage. Like the film, the play has a mixed British and Italian cast.

Although the narrative deals with sexual desire, the 2015 play does not add any explicit depictions. It is also interesting to compare the two differing approaches, both 40 years old now, of book and film.

In a few places, Spark uses overtly the words “gay” and “queer” in ways which are different to current usage.  When a woman at the airport says that Lise in her vividly-coloured outfit looks “very gay”, she replies that she is hoping for “a gay time”. Later, the predatory health-food fanatic Bill says he is “queer for girls”.  In 1970, a woman in her 50s like Spark would remember the days when “gay” did more often mean cheerful or light-hearted. But to feature both words in the same short book at a time when homosexuality had just been legalised and was more openly practised and discussed?  It seems mischievous and perverse  – which, of course, Spark’s writing is often regarded as being.

The film finds additional ways to depict Lise’s sexually provocative behaviour . Tastes towards deviancy and bondage are hinted by the way the female airport security officer puts on her rubber gloves and unties the scarf around Lise’s neck to receive the retort, “I can’t stand being touched”. We see Lise tighten her safety belt on the plane with a sigh which suggests pleasure. When Bill says that his macrobiotic diet requires one orgasm a day, she replies defiantly, “When I diet, I diet, and when I orgasm, I orgasm”.

Although the film of The Driver’s Seat looks very different to Ronald Neame’s film of  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one snippet links the two strongly. In another demonstration of her disturbed behaviour, Lise shouts repeatedly at an airport security officer, “You’re all so suspicious! Suspicious! Suspicious”. It brings to mind Jean Brodie’s equally hysterical yelling of “assassin” at her treacherous pupil Sandy at the end of that film. Suddenly you spot the similarities between these two apparently very different Spark characters.

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