Bloody, bold, and resolute: ‘Macbeth’ by the Festival Players

A creepy production highlighting the unstable power balance in Shakespeare’s classic: The omnipresence of the witches is pitted against Macbeth’s unsettling manipulation and control, all overthrown by Malcolm- and yet still a subversive waits in the wings.

 Can I credit “the instruments of darkness” with leading me to this production? I doubt that Mrs Bruton-Lang will appreciate being referred to thus outside her role as one of the three witches, but nonetheless I’m very glad she did. Approaching the Festival Players’ production as both an audience member and student of the text, I found director Jane Durant’s ‘Macbeth’ ominous from the very beginning. The atmosphere of danger projected by the stark and dark set provided an ideal background for the scenes of intrigue, horror, and murder which followed, which suited in particular the portrayals of the “Weird Sisters” and Macbeth himself.

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The witches in this production were given a greatly increased role; not confined to two or three scenes, their insidious figures appeared behind the Macbeths at many pivotal moments. Their malevolent influence on proceedings was impossible to ignore, and as such the sense of the occult was far stronger. They became less tangible crones- the “withered and wild” old women who were stereotyped as witches in Shakespeare’s day- and more spirits of malevolence. The banquet scene, for instance, showed their feeding of “false creations” to Macbeth’s eyes and mind.  With the greater room given for their characters and the greater influence they had in the play, a disturbing question was posed: What did the witches seek to gain from this, that led them to “trade and traffic with Macbeth in riddles and affairs of death”? Naturally, this did nothing to soothe the heightening tension as  ‘Macbeth’ progressed toward its climax.

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Also of note was the fascinating portrayal of Macbeth himself: I am used to reading him as far less understanding of his own nature, a warrior who almost blunders through his first few murders. Jez Malpas played a Macbeth who seemed to know what he might become before he assassinates Duncan; he showed a man who is aware of his own power and capabilities for violence. Not only was this intriguing and frightening, it worked very well with directorial decisions to not show the bloody dagger, butchered ghosts, and horrifying apparitions with which Shakespeare liberally sprinkles his play, as the psychological torment of Macbeth (as opposed to the presence of real ghosts) was played up, and served to draw the audience ever deeper into the turmoil of this dangerous man’s mind. -“Full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” This was aided by the power with which he delivered such speeches as “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” and “Blood hath been shed ere now”.

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The fight between Macbeth’s impulsions under the influence of the witches and his wife’s more cold-hearted execution of murderous plans, joined by Malcolm’s force in the second act, combined to produce a play of total uncertainty and insecurity. Macbeth, secure neither on his throne or in his mind, faced Macduff in a truly dramatic and well-directed final showdown- but even with the very conclusion of the play, the audience was left with one last plot twist, and a total lack of resolution: a new threat to the just re-established order of Scotland. The question posed throughout of where the power lies made this production a fascinating watch.

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Happy Birthday Shakespeare! (Also Happy Death-day, but that’s a bit morbid to dwell on.)

Exactly 451 years from his birth- and 399 from his death- Shakespeare’s influence is still well and truly alive.

Ah, William Shakespeare. The Bard. The greatest literary genius our fair isle has ever produced (sorry Rowling- although you do come close.) Now, I know many in the younger years- and actually many sixth formers who have long since absented themselves from the English department- may quake in their boots at the name of Shakespeare. That’s perfectly understandable; he is, after all, built up into a figure of legend and the idea of approaching his texts can seem formidable. However, on this anniversary of both his birth and death, I wanted to appreciate the impact he has had on our culture, particularly all the brilliant things people have made from Shakespeare, and pick out the best of his legacy.

Naturally, this encompasses my all-time top 3 movie modernisations, but besides this I wanted to pick out famous quotes. Yes, everyone knows that “To be, or not to be” is Shakespeare, but sayings like “dead as a doornail” originate from him too.

So- films. I’m being incredibly brief here; there are more than 410 adaptations, which, when you consider that movies have only been around for roughly 100 years, is a huge number. I find it fantastic that so many different people have drawn on Shakespeare’s work to produce such creative and varied interpretations- every new piece adds to the ongoing discussion about what Shakespeare meant when he wrote it. The top three I’ve chosen are with teenagers in mind; therefore, my adaptations are…

nFM64Ny7OTJHdQ9-ymSxNQ456333. She’s the Man. This modern comedy transplants Twelfth Night into an American college, with hilarious results. Granted, the “affectioned ass” Malvolio is bizarrely reduced to a tarantula, but don’t complain because Channing Tatum stars as Duke Orsino and Viola goes all out to prove that girls can play football just as well as boys. Stick it to the man, Viola!

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2. 10 Things I Hate About You. An absolute nineties classic, this is not just one of my favourite modernisations but one of my most-loved films, full stop. I always found the sexist ending to Shakespeare’s original Taming of the Shrew frustrating and sad, but 10 Things does not disappoint in the same way. In fact, Kat Stratford is one of my role models in life. If you need more convincing- Heath Ledger. That’s it.

romeo-and-juliet-poster-dicaprio1. Romeo + Juliet. I’m still recovering from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 production (I watched it last week) but nonetheless it deserves its place at the top of my list. In typical Luhrmann style the film is opulent and blindingly crazy, but the story he teases out is beautiful. This goes back to what I said about Shakespeare’s meanings; debate rages over whether Romeo and Juliet is a love story, tragedy, or both, and Luhrmann chose to make his movie a true romance. Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes give touchingly honest and naive portrayals of young love, and if you can look past the fact that every time the characters say “draw your swords!” they pull out a gun, then you’ll have no problem following the language (which is original Shakespeare).

fac288e935875f1cefd619ccd85083abAs for the quotes: When I was in primary school, I sat facing this poster in my English lessons. I will admit that at the time I probably tried to memorise it more for the sake of being pretentious than for genuine interest in the subject, but now it’s fascinating to me to think about how Shakespeare has seeped into our language. Here are some more sayings you may or may not have known were by Shakespeare:

  • “What the dickens!” (Surprised? I am- I’d assumed this came from someone swearing by the author of Oliver Twist.)
  • “Jealousy is a green-eyed monster” (From Othello)
  • “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” (Variations of this abound, and I’d be lying if I said the first time I heard it wasn’t in the St Trinian’s movie.)
  • “Star-crossed lovers” (Perhaps more familiar to my generation as a reference to Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games, this quote comes initially from Romeo and Juliet.)

But to leave it at this, while acknowledging Shakespeare’s extraordinary effect on English today, would be to ignore what I think are some of the most powerful lines and speeches ever written.

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Best of all, this is my favourite performance of my favourite Shakespeare speech, by Joseph Millson at the Globe.

If any or all of this has inspired you to read Shakespeare, watch a film based on Shakespeare, or even has just made Shakespeare seem a little less daunting and a little more exciting, then I consider this a job well done.

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Rest in Peace, Terry Pratchett- Ingenious and Creative Author

Sir Terry Pratchett’s writing was and remains a source of inspiration to me.

By now, I’m sure most everyone will have heard the sad news about Sir Terry Pratchett. This fantastic writer passed away yesterday (12th March) after suffering from Alzheimer’s.

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It is important to recognise not just the loss of a great author, but a great man. However, I do not want to make false pretenses and it is not my place to expound on the goodness of a man I did not know. I send all my thoughts and condolences to Terry Pratchett’s friends and family- and as is said in Macbeth, of this news “no mind that’s honest but in it shares some woe”- but I can best present this remembrance of Terry Pratchett through the only way I knew him; through his books. Acknowledging that he was first and foremost a wonderful human, and that the loss of him is far more than a literary one, I believe it is still appropriate at his passing to celebrate the work he did and what he produced, which was great and varied.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Chronicles were a breath of fresh air to me when I first discovered them, a madcap and exciting take on the fantasy genre. I’d worked through the Inheritance Cycle and Lord of the Rings, and was bogged down in A Song of Ice and Fire. All the common elements of fantasy stories had become tedious and overdone- medieval England with dragons. Where could I find something new? Terry Pratchett offered an answer. His stories are full of new takes on old tropes, bizarre and fantastic ideas, and a happy mockery of the cliche. And it was exciting! This new approach to storytelling frequently made me laugh out loud.

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My personal favourite aspects of the Discworld Chronicles were two things: Firstly, that Terry Pratchett appeared to thoroughly enjoy taking a hammer to the fourth wall. For example, the characters on occasion make a point of fabricating odds of a million-to-one when they want to achieve something because their logic is that “one-in-a-million chances crop up nine times out of ten”, and thus the hero is actually far more likely to succeed. This delighted me because as far as fiction goes, their ‘logic’ is actually pretty close to the truth- which of course is why Terry Pratchett wrote it. It was unexpected and brilliant to see a writer poke fun at these daft concepts rather than pick them up and use them straight. I spent most of my reading time smiling.

The other thing for which I love Terry Pratchett’s stories requires some explanation. There’s another reason I chose to read the Discworld Chronicles. I was so bored with the fantasy books on my shelf that I’d decided to dust off the one in my head; years ago, I had wanted to write a fantasy story and although I’d never got past planning before abandoning it, the place and the characters carried on living in the back of my mind. When I returned to this story-idea after so long, I realised it was full of all the stale concepts I wanted to escape- so I enlisted my friend as a sounding-board for new ideas. Every time, she came back with Terry Pratchett as a source for inspiration. Deities? Look at how he creates a belief system in Discworld. I did- it’s very clever, very subversive, and very very inspirational. Characterisation? Setting? Being honest, I was despairing of ever producing something original until I found Discworld.

Terry Pratchett showed me it can be done. His writing inspired me, not just in its content but in its existence. Creativity and originality is always possible; I learned this thanks to him.

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Ladies of Literature – B is for Brontë

The imaginary worlds created by the Brontës as children and the fierceness of their principles are for me just as inspiring as Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre.

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The Brontë women are most well known for two novels, written by Charlotte and Emily Brontë respectively; Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. These are two classics of English literature, and I’m pretty certain everyone will have heard these titles, if not seen a film adaptation (or even read the books!). Jane Eyre frequently graces ‘Top 50 Must Read’ lists and the like, while the passionate romance of Cathy and Heathcliff is known as one of the greatest love stories of all time.

So, beyond the fact that three Victorian sisters wrote two very famous novels during their lives in one Gothic parsonage, who were the Brontës?

The Brontës were actually a family of six children raised by their father and their aunt. However, only four reached adulthood and just three are well-known. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne lived in the parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire, with their brother Branwell, and I think that even from these very early days of their lives it’s possible to see how they came to write such incredible stories. The deaths of their sisters Maria and Elizabeth cast a long shadow over their childhood, and in later life Branwell began to drink himself to death. This goes without mentioning that the sisters’ very home overlooked a graveyard. Death, it seems, was a permanent fixture in life for them. I have actually visited the Brontë parsonage, now a museum, and it was incredibly atmospheric; it had small rooms, a bleak view, and of course the path onto the Yorkshire moors, just feet from their door. I could so easily imagine Emily finding inspiration for Wuthering Heights on her walks across Top Withens.

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View of the parsonage from the graveyard in Haworth

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Top Withens. This photo of it is actually used on the cover of some editions of Wuthering Heights!

But my favourite part of the museum was the display showing Anne, Emily, Branwell, and Charlotte’s diaries as children. The siblings created imaginary worlds and filled them with their own stories and creations, turning from their initial Glass Town Confederacy to the new lands Gondal and Angria. Emily and Anne created such colourful and imaginative tales for these places, and I was immediately struck by the idea of these girls building their own world around themselves and living in it for much of their youth. I would truly like to have done the same. For me it’s such a lovely idea to believe this is where the sisters’ careers in writing took root, but as they moved into adulthood they drew on real experiences to inform their texts; I mentioned Emily and Top Withens above, while Charlotte and Anne used a lot of what they suffered at boarding school and as governesses in Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey.

Now, for an author to qualify for a Ladies of Literature Letter, I have to deem their work worthy. (Yes, who am I to judge? But fortunately, I am practically incapable of disliking a piece of literature. Choosing one author per letter will be the tricky bit.) The Brontë sisters absolutely make the cut. Wuthering Heights is one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read, and as for Jane Eyre, Charlotte does not tread lightly. When she makes a point, she really goes for it- it’s fantastic stuff. I must confess that as yet I’ve not read anything by Anne, but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is waiting on my bookshelf in anticipation. At the time of publishing, much of what the sisters wrote was highly controversial. I recall one contemporary review of the Brontës saying, “read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights”. Emily’s novel was seen as demonic because it so forcefully challenged the status quo; similarly, the response to Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was shock and outrage. For Victorian women, I’m in total admiration of the way they stood up for what they believed and fearlessly put it in writing. This is Anne’s blistering criticism of the sexist response to Tenant of Wildfell:

“I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.”

And this is an extract from Jane Eyre:

“Women feel just as men feel… they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

Remember, when reading this, that this was Victorian England. These women were fierce!

The unshakable principles with which the Brontës underpinned their writing, even though they had to write under pen-names because they were women, is one of the reasons why I think they are so amazing. Another is that for me what they wrote feels so powerful. I am so pleased that they are my first addition to Ladies of Literature, and I hope further entries can live up to this high standard! Tragically, all the Brontë women died at a young-ish age from tuberculosis, but they remain among my favourite authors not only for the stories they wrote but for the incredible story of their lives.

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RUNNER UP:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Victorian poet and a mover and shaker in circles with Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Tennyson. Wrote the famous sonnet How Do I Love Thee?. A very cool lady.

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Blood Brothers: Compelling and Dangerous

Blood Brothers’ appeal lay in the horrible foreboding with which the story unfolds.

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The Grammar and High School’s joint production of Blood Brothers (4th-7th March), a tale of fate, society, and morality, left me feeling uneasy for more reasons than one. Cleverly directed by Mrs Bruton-Lang, the strong cast and stunning set produced a show from which I could not look away.

This staging of the play opened with the ending- not just the narrator outlining what happens, but the actual ending. It left my eyes glued to the stage in shock for the rest of the first act. Of course, the last scene made no sense at first, but as the plot unwound the pieces fell terribly into place and I found myself dreading the inexorable build-up to the finale.

“And did you never hear how the Johnstons died…
when a mother cried
my own dear sons lie slain”

The bleak death of two adults was juxtaposed with singing and rhymes throughout the play, and for me the effect was unsettling and upsetting- the nursery-rhyme-like phrases jarred increasingly with the plot and characters as they matured. I felt like the director was being ruthless in not letting the audience forget that the people being bargained with were not just two women’s sons, but two young boys whose lives were manipulated selfishly by these women and their choices. I particularly liked the role of the Narrator in these scenes. When, for instance, she stood in the house of Mrs Lyons (as Mrs Lyons was fighting back a mental breakdown), remarking, “There’s no use clutching at your rosary. The Devil’s in the garden, he can see deep inside,” I really believed we were hearing the voices in Mrs Lyons’ head. This piece of verse was also quite frightening in the ideas it suggested, and the Narrator had many such lines with which to repeatedly spook the audience. I feel the character made a creepily convincing and insidious devil’s advocate, and her presence was yet another reminder that this is not a happy story.

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Thanks to the Narrator, the audience was also unable to forget that as the story advanced they had to judge for themselves the cause of such strife. Who or what was to blame for how Eddie and Mickey’s lives turned out? Before the jury: superstition, society, two mothers, and fate. Ultimately, this question was not resolved and the audience was left to contemplate the horrific damage that had been done without having a satisfactory condemnation of any one faction. Perhaps this lack of closure is what let Blood Brothers stick in my mind. I cannot call it fate, but equally I do think that maybe the outcome was inescapable. Why it was so, and how such a tragedy happened, is something I hope the audience mused on long after they left the theatre.

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Let me take a #shelfie – Dracula

Modern vampire tales have been done to death- but the father of them all is far more horrifying than you think.

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I’ll be honest. Going into Dracula, I didn’t expect to be scared. Vampires, how boring is that? Twilight really wasn’t interesting, the CBBC show Young Dracula drained all the excitement from the Undead, and if any of you have seen the farcical film Dracula Untold, you will really get why I approached Bram Stoker’s classic with a heavy dose of scepticism. However, Dracula defied all my expectations- it is amazing. Recommended to me by jamilajj for the fascination it held and the well written characters, I was swallowed whole by the story. Dracula is immersed in Gothic ideas, and I found that the detail, sensation, and vivid horror held me completely captive.

Yes, everyone knows the plot basics. ‘Count Dracula, a vampire?!’ is about as much of a plot twist as ‘Jekyll and Hyde- pause- are the same person‘. But in some ways, this only makes the story more frightening. When Jonathan Harker innocently begins his journey to Castle Dracula (how forbidding and ominous does that sound), unaware of his host’s bloodsucking habit, the reader has the delicious yet horrifying anticipation of knowing what Jonathan is walking into…

Dracula has lots of the common elements of vampire stories, but Stoker’s use of them is far more scary, exciting, and graphic than any descendant. The garlic and bats and no-sunshine-for-this-vampire tropes feel stale sometimes- it is not so in Dracula. Stoker makes them enthralling, which I think is partly because of the more religious aspect to his story; the shining faith of Dr Van Helsing and his band of followers emphasises the dark evil of Count Dracula, and the superstition of it all makes everything dangerous and mysterious. I think these ideas also work much better in the world Stoker sets his story in. There is a particular atmosphere in the time of setting (late 1890s), which picks up the Victorian body horror era of the Gothic, and fitting with this Stoker fills his story with incredible rich detail and description. The locations especially are “vivid and terrible”; Castle Dracula, that “vast, ruined castle”, “reared high above a waste of desolation”, and Mina Murray of course dwells ominously on the beauty of Whitby’s graveyard, high across the valley with paths winding between the empty graves.

However, the story does not stay in Castle Dracula. In fact, once the narrative leaves Dracula’s ruinous lair, it disappointingly doesn’t return. The action is fantastic, full of intrigue and terror, and the finale was so breathless and electrifying that I loved it, but nothing is quite as intrinsically Gothic as the opening of the story- from where the whole mystery starts to creep out of the dark. This isn’t to say Dracula becomes any less immersive and gripping! All the narratives (a variety of journal entries and letters) are first person, and there isn’t a single character you don’t end up feeling for and caring about.

So, if I have any last words on the novel, they are a total 100% read this book. I’ve not read much Gothic fiction, but this is some of the best of what I have read. It’s a true classic, and without a doubt the best vampire story I will ever read.

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Think of the Children! – Book Club, Booked Up

What have we been doing in Book Club?

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This half term in the library: Children’s literature, a topic close to all our hearts. We wanted to delve back into our past and work out what has shaped our childhoods, but in doing so we quickly discovered there were different lenses. We could talk about books for children that we had read, or books about children. Oftentimes these two categories overlap in a big way, but we felt that how we re-approached our old favourites changed what we saw in them. So what did our children’s books say about children and childhood?

Peter Pan is a great first example. As well as depicting the innocence of childhood, Barrie encourages children to dream, even to be “innocent and heartless”, while commenting that the very beauty of these values is in their transience. Peter Pan, we realised, is a tragic, pitiable character even in his embodiment of the happiness of childhood, because he will not (cannot?) grow up, and so cannot experience some of the greatest joys of all. We discussed The Chronicles of Narnia on a similar line, particularly noting how C.S. Lewis seems to take the opposite standpoint. Lucy, Edmund, Peter, Jane and Eustace all die in their youth as children who still have an unshakable faith in Narnia, and are rewarded with being forever young in that world. Unlike Peter Pan, permanent childhood is heaven for them- and unlike Wendy, for whom growing up is the biggest adventure she undertook, Susan Pevensie is punished for growing up and losing faith by being left alone in our world when all her family have died and passed into Narnia.

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It all returns to the idea of how innocence is presented in children’s literature. From that, we explored what authors wanted to see in children in their books. Why did they write the children this way? We forayed into Blyton: Here was a land populated by bonny rosy-cheeked kids and written, we concluded , for easy escapism and blissful imagination. Particularly in contrast to Jacqueline Wilson, who in our opinion seems to want to see and portray the real, flawed, human child in each story, Blyton’s work is saccharine-sweet and unrealistic.

To finish this half-term, we changed direction and had a session on Incarceron- a dystopian children’s series set in a sentient prison state. Definitely a far cry from Blyton! Such criminality and intrigue has led us to our latest topics, which we are eager to adventure into this half-term… Crime fiction, and from there to historical fiction. Who’s excited?

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