The Homecoming: A Freudian Reading Is a Bit Too Obvious

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 16 February 2017.

This is not a show to beat the fifth week blues. And frankly, thank god for that. Dark, cruel, and deeply sinister, this new production of the Harold Pinter classic is a delightfully absurdist tonic to our horribly absurd time. With its story of a family reunion gone terribly wrong, the play is unafraid to deal with class and gender politics, and as such it feels relevant today in ways it couldn’t have in its original performance in 1964. Do not go in expecting light entertainment, but do expect scenes of perverse fascination, and some of the best acting in Oxford right now.

The action takes place in a shabby old house on the cheaper side of London, inhabited by an old man and what passes for family; two sons, Lenny and Joey, and a despised younger brother, Sam. But when his third son Teddy returns unexpectedly from a six-year absence, with his mysterious new wife in tow, things take a turn for the bizarre. The new daughter-in-law, Ruth, exerts a strange influence on the men of this dilapidated house, and before long they’re actively fighting for her attention and favour. There’s a gradual slide from semi-affectionate banter to merciless infighting, and the whole thing plays out with the quiet illogic of a nightmare.

The set dressing is suitably run-down, with period details like a cheap gramophone and yellowing newspapers, and the shabby armchair (a kind of central throne for the action) looks liable to collapse at any moment, in a suitably obvious metaphor for this household’s patriarchal structure. Even the smell is appropriate; sweat and cigarette smoke permeates the house, and the confined space of the Michael Pilch works well to create the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere the play demands.

The acting is similarly in tune with the script. Adam Cameron Diaper plays Max, the family patriarch, and he does very well with a part clearly written for a much older actor. Rather than focusing on his character’s decrepitude, he plays up the spite and pettiness of the role, while also adding a dimension of pathos to his nostalgic ramblings. Adam Goodbody is obsequious yet oddly creepy as Max’s limousine-driving brother, and Alec McQuarrie plays dim-witted son Joey with well-honed comic timing. Rupert Stonehill is suitably pathetic as Teddy, projecting smug elitism and fragile insecurity with equal aplomb.

But the real standouts are Hugo McPherson as Lenny and Cat White as Ruth. McPherson plays a London gangster, his sharp suit instantly distinguishing him from the rest of the cast. He veers between pedantic arguing and soft-voiced threats, rising to a shout at moments of tension. It’s a forceful, menacing performance, matched by White as the play’s domineering interloper. Initially curious, and eventually actively manipulative, there’s something hypnotic about her presence on stage. The other characters fall silent as soon as she speaks, her voice and eye movements subtly asserting control over the situation. The chemistry between these two is electrifying, and their slow dance/ kiss in the second half is what really sends the play into overdrive.

This isn’t a production for everyone; it’s over two hours with an interval, and the sensation of being trapped in a bizarre situation with people you don’t understand is far from a pleasant one. But for its top-drawer acting, its sinister atmosphere, and its overriding commitment to its aesthetic, this is absolutely a play worth seeing. Just don’t invite the parents.

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Review: The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 16 January 2017.

With any new publication, especially concerning the “universal” bard, it’s worth asking, ‘Who is this for?’ The New Oxford Shakespeare is no different. Coming to us from general editors Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan, Oxford University Press’s fourth iteration of the complete works is actually not one book, but four: The Complete Works: Modern Critical Edition (under review here), The Critical Reference Edition (containing the folio and quarto texts in their original spelling), the Authorship Companion (explaining the editors’ choices in detail), and an online resource gathering all of the above. The Complete Works’ modern spelling and slick cover design marks it as one for Waterstones’ shelves, but its prospects for this audience seem dubious. At fifty pounds it’s hardly in the ‘stocking filler’ price range, and it comes at a time when access to Shakespeare is widening anyway, through live streams of major productions and online resources like Folger Digital Texts. Despite apparently having taken 27 credited editors and consultants ten years of work, The New Oxford Shakespeare seems uncertain of its audience, and for all its critical insight it never quite satisfies.

This lack of satisfaction is partly due to a frankly bewildering introduction. The first part, ‘Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works?’, takes the standard tack of listing every major historical or literary figure to ever say anything vaguely positive about Shakespeare. This routine list is enlivened by the editors’ knack for cringeworthy phrases. We are told that “Shakespeare is the ghost with the most”, and that The Complete Works is “an anthology of extraordinarily powerful and varied virtual reality game worlds.” Besides the fact that they mix metaphors like a sea of troubles, lines like these feel incredibly patronising, especially addressed to a reader who has already picked up the Complete Works, and so presumably does not need persuading of Shakespeare’s importance. The presentation is also woefully inconsistent. One section attempts to refute accusations of racism in Shakespeare’s plays with a bullet-point list of notable non-white people who have interacted with the bard. All of Shakespeare’s other appreciators are generously discussed in continuous prose rather than simple listing. The introduction also mentions both Delia Bacon and J. Thomas Looney, without once stopping to clarify who these people are, despite its stated aim to create “something more accessible”.

This inconsistency further manifests in the second part of the Introduction, ‘Why Read This Complete Works?’, which explains the book’s editorial decisions. The editors note that this is “the first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works to include music for the songs, whenever a reliable original score is available”. While this is slightly less radical than the editors state (the 2015 Norton Shakespeare’s online edition featured recordings of the original music), it is a genuinely worthwhile move. The Tempest, for example, reads very differently with a more pronounced emphasis on music, and this simple change does more to inspire fresh reading than any waffle about virtual reality. Similarly good are the performance notes accompanying each play. The Tempest opens with the following:

“The play begins aboard a ship at sea. This is often accomplished through the uses of wind machines or sound effects, and ropes and sails manipulated by the actors. In early modern stagings a cannonball was rolled down a wooden trough to simulate the sound of thunder.”

This running commentary draws attention to the gaps and ambiguities of the script, as well as to different periods and types of staging. But while these performance-centric details are admirable, the authorship choices are baffling. Collaboration is this edition’s watchword, reflecting the trend in Shakespeare scholarship over the last fifteen years or so, as seen in books like Shakespeare, Co-Author and William Shakespeare and Others. This edition has grabbed a few headlines for listing Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. Yet its other choices betray its bardolatry; Shakespeare is interminably front and centre, even when his hand in a play is minimal. The collaboratively-written The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas More are represented only by the bits ‘probably’ written by Shakespeare, with no indication of what came before or after, obscuring his impact on the overall script, and frustrating any reader unfamiliar with the plays. This fragmented presentation comes to a head with The History of Cardenio. A lost collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it was adapted by eighteenth century playwright Lewis Theobald as Double Falsehood. In presenting it here the editors have used specialist software to identify the words most likely to have been written by Shakespeare, and left out everything else. This approach results in unreadable gobbets of text:

RODERICK   Why he hath pressed this absence, sir I know not
But [             ]  letters [
Wherein [Cardenio], good Camillo’s son,
[             ] (as he says) [
[                                 ] gold
To purchase certain horse that like him well

know the value of

There is some critical value to an exercise like this, but presenting it this way is not only frustrating to read (and hardly accessible for the general reader), it contradicts the sense of co-authorship the editors seek to emphasise. It may have been better to include the complete texts while typographically demarcating the collaborators. The Oxford Middleton, for instance, put Middleton’s additions to Macbeth in bold, and the Arden Titus Andronicus presents an inserted scene in a different typeface. The insistence on isolating Shakespeare serves to increase his iconic stature, rather than qualify it.

All told, The New Oxford Shakespeare has a distressing tendency to miss the wood for the trees. For the most egregious example we must return to the introduction. In relating Shakespeare to today’s theatre, the editors spend a page on Hamilton, ‘the most conspicuous theatrical event of the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death.’ The influence, it turns out, is fairly minor, but the truly shocking moment comes in reference to playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dedicatory sonnet at the Tony Awards. The editors dutifully mention that it contained “the very Shakespearean tautology “And love is love is love is love is love”.” What they fail to mention is that the sonnet was written in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that happened the same week. This is The New Oxford Shakespeare in a nutshell. For all its worthwhile contributions, its careful attention to detail, and its slick presentation, it suffers from a near total divorce from the context in which its material appears, be it that of 1616 or 2016.

‘The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition’ is available to buy in hardback, RRP £50.

 

Review: Henry V

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 17 November 2016.

King Henry, it should be noted, is a nasty piece of work. He’s an arrogant dictator, ruthlessly purging his own men and committing war crimes before forcing himself on a French princess. This new production of Henry V at the Corpus Christi auditorium has its faults, mostly stemming from a maximalist approach to Shakespeare’s text, but it’s worth applauding for its embrace of Henry as a despicable scumbag. It’s an uncompromising take on the character, but the cast and crew make the play’s nationalist tubthumping a thing of genuine horror.

This production opens with the edited highlights of Henry IV, before transitioning into Henry V proper. It’s an odd decision, and leads to some awkward moments (the ‘Prologue’, for example, comes fifteen minutes in). But it serves to show where things start to go wrong for the young Henry. His youthful love of Falstaff quickly morphs into outright contempt, and the eventual banishment of ‘plump Jack’ is not just cold but outright vindictive.

We see this brutal streak writ large in the older Henry: Laurence Belcher is brilliant as the ranting psychopathic tyrant. Quick to anger and devising elaborate punishments for his own men, Belcher’s Henry deliciously plays a scene of rooting out traitors, as he forces the naïve lieutenants to condemn themselves. Yet he also displays the demagogue’s knack for holding attention. His lengthy deliberations on diplomacy and torture are gripping, delivered with arresting conviction and variety – Henry is many things, but never predictable. The production is pleasing in its willingness to undermine him, too. Henry delivers the St. Crispin’s Day speech to two disgruntled guards rather than an army of fans, and, in the most subtly damning detail, he draws up the peace treaty with hands still covered in blood.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves admirably. James Bruce strikes a perfect tragicomic note as Falstaff and later Nim, nailing the physical comedy of the fat knight. Similarly good are Gerard Krasnopolski as Pistol and Harry Carter as Boy; a scrappy counterweight to Henry’s macho posturing. (Krasnopolski also performs the most impressive leek-eating ever to grace an Oxford stage). Tom Fisher is perfect as the dithering King of France, and Christopher Page is a gloriously contemptuous Dauphin.

The play’s main flaw is over-lengthiness; introductory scenes feel extraneous, and the second half flabby, mainly in service of hammering home how nasty Henry is. There’s also a bit of a problem with accents. There are some appalling attempts at Scottish and Yorkshire accents, as well as the usual cringiness of thesps affecting ‘common’ voices. It’s a nitpick, but when you’re trying to shed light on a complete monster it helps not to accidentally indulge your own stereotypes about non-royalty.

But this is still absolutely a play worth seeing. Belcher is a brilliantly monstrous leading man, backed by a production unabashed in tackling his brutality. Angry, bitter, and darkly hilarious, this is what Corpus auditorium does best. Watch it, and be thankful that we no longer allow thin-skinned psychopaths to lead international armies.

Steven Moffat: A talk at the Oxford Union

This article first appeared on The Cherwell website on 14 November 2016.

“I am rubbish.” This was the opening statement of Steven Moffat’s talk at the Oxford Union on Monday, and it’s an assessment most of the audience presumably disagreed with. Best known for helming Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat’s career stretches back to 1989, and covers such varied genres as children’s TV, sitcoms, feature films, as well as the BBC One dramas which helped make his name. In his brief address before a general Q&A, Moffat stressed the importance of self-awareness.

“I am rubbish. I first became aware of my rubbishness when I overheard my wife on the phone to some camera-people. ‘Don’t get him to take the lens back to Cardiff,’ she said. ‘Why? Because he’ll lose it. I know he’ll lose it. Because he’s rubbish.’ I heard her say that. I took the lens. I lost it.” But rubbishness is a universal trait: “everyone is in disguise as a competent human being.” Diligence is an important factor in success: “you can’t control how rubbish you are… but you can control how hard you work.”

Moffat has been called many things; showrunner, creator, executive producer. But the title he really cherishes is ‘Writer’. “It’s great to be a writer, because we make it up! It’s like you’ve done all the homework, and everyone else copies it.” Moffat was playfully resentful of directors. “They’ll say ‘my inspiration for this movie was this or that moment in my life or this or that artistic vision… and not the 120 pages of finished script my screenwriter gave me! Who else has that, in their job? Oh look, here’s exactly what I need to do.”

The talk then moved into an interview, starting with Doctor Who. Moffat has no patience with the idea of ‘overloading’ the audience. “Children nowadays, teenagers nowadays, are some of the cleverest audiences in history – they’re keeping up with television while texting and tweeting each other, and they’re all getting it. We try never to have a dull moment on Doctor Who.” Catering to adults is fairly straightforward – “it’s like when you go into a restaurant and you eye the children’s menu, and you wish you could order from that instead – it’s the same principle.” There are challenges – “you have to be ringingly clear” – but Moffat was adamant that “to write for children is to write better… everybody likes children’s stuff.”

As well as executive producing Doctor Who, Moffat is co-producer on Sherlock. They’re two very distinct shows, but Moffat finds the differences easy to manage. “I’ve spoken to Mark [Gatiss] about this; we’ve just got to pretend that we don’t work on both. They’re both part of the same landscape, so when a similarity crops up we just try and go with it rather than getting anxious.” It’s not a difference that keeps either writer up at night: “The Doctor is a sort of space Sherlock Holmes anyway.”

Sherlock and Doctor Who are both prestige BBC shows; how does Moffat view the corporation and its future? “The BBC is an unequivocal good – that doesn’t mean every decision it makes is good, or that it’s above reproach, but there’s nothing else in the world like it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. The circumstances which produced it are never coming back.” Moffat is not totally enamoured of the beeb; “Mark says: ‘you love the BBC, but you don’t expect the BBC to love you back.’” Governments naturally go after the corporation; “no-one likes being criticised. If I had power over every TV critic in the world, I’d have them all executed!” Nevertheless, Moffat hopes that the BBC “remains the powerhouse that it is.”

Returning to Doctor Who, an audience member asked if there was anything Moffat could tell us about the next series. There was talk of a return of the Cybermen, perhaps even an origin story, but Moffat seemed reticent. “Anything is possible… but it’s not an idea that I’m aware of. It’s kind of been done, and I’d be hesitant to return to it. But then I generally speaking lie, so you never know”.

Conscious of potential spoilers, Moffat ended with a tease of series 10: “The Doctor will reliably save the day. There will be big speeches and evil monsters. There will be an epic amount of urgent standing. And you’ll all fall in love with Pearl Mackie as Bill.”

Get Rekt Skrubz: A Brief Analysis of MLG Videos

This article first appeared in Cherwell on 4 November 2016. This extended version restores some content that was originally cut for space. I’m very proud of this piece, and I hope it can help us internet-dwellers remain watchful in the future, especially given what happened the week after this piece first came out.

“Dear FAZE POTTER, you have been accepted at Hogwarts school of MEMES AND QUICK SCOPING.” Such is the opening of ‘Harry Potter and the Noscoper’s Stone’, a short film which, at time of writing, sits at 3,219,168 views on YouTube. It’s a prime example of the MLG video: a short, humorous montage of clips from a popular film or TV show, overlaid with text, memes, and video game assets. These videos have become very popular in recent years, and there are plenty of laughs to be had, but like everything else, they come with a dark side.

MLG refers to Major League Gaming, a professional e-sports organisation—like FIFA for professional video game players. In the same way sports broadcasters produce edited highlights of matches, MLG produces montages of players’ most impressive gaming moments: impressive kills, deft bits of strategy, that sort of thing. These montages started hitting YouTube in the early-2010s, along with a flood of copycats, usually amateur players crudely editing together their own footage. This was, obviously, a bit of a joke. Imagine if every pub league football player started putting out edited highlights of their own performance. The videos made use of several stock elements, including blaring dubstep, anguished shouting, and references to popular memes. They were loud, obnoxious and totally ridiculous, which gave them a cultural presence in excess of their actual popularity. It was only a matter of time before the meme lords got to work.

The process was gradual, but between 2011 and 2014(ish) MLG videos transitioned into what they are now: montage parodies of popular media, having moved beyond video games and into film and TV more generally. This new breed of video was similar to its forbears in its over-the-top obnoxiousness and frequent references to video game culture, but the presentation was both more ironic and far more information-dense. The modern MLG video is a compressed tissue of quotations, audio and visual, its humour coming not just from references but the speed and inventiveness of those references, not to mention a significant uptick in editing quality. What was once amateur backwash had become slickly-produced gold; the alchemy of the internet works again.

The MLG effect, like most great art, is better seen in motion than dryly described. You only need to see Albus Dumbledore say, “Welcome back to Hogwarts School of Memes, Weed, and Good Banter” once before never looking back. But the structure and style of MLG is not new in itself, having borrowed most of its tricks from the twentieth-century avant-garde tradition. Jarring shifts in pitch and rhythm are a standard trope of experimental music, and the irreverent remixing of disparate texts is basically Postmodernism For Dummies. MLG is western culture doing what it always does, folding the marginal back into the mainstream in a way which strengthens the latter and legitimises the former. And, as ever, the margins bring their revolutionary power along with them.

The power of MLG is that nothing is above reproach. News, movies, politicians—none of them are immune to this remixing spirit, and there’s nothing they can say that can’t be cut off and replaced with a text-to-speech program making references to cannabis. MLG’s power is its constant and relentless humour —nothing it says is taken seriously. And it is precisely this quality which, as well as being powerful, makes MLG profoundly dangerous.

Do a YouTube search for ‘Donald Trump MLG’ and you will get a slew of results, obviously. Trump is the most-memed politician in living memory. But the most popular videos do not, as one might expect, frame Trump as the deluded, incompetent fool he is; rather, they seem to actively root for him. One of the top results shows Donald Trump “reking” journalist Megyn Kelly at the first primary debate, and another simply shows clips of Trump’s speeches and interviews overlaid with images, often of Donald Trump himself. The presentation is joking, but the effect is to hammer home the message more forcefully than a sincere depiction ever could. This is what makes MLG, and memes in general, so dangerous as propaganda tools.

White supremacist memes featuring Trump are ten-a-penny online, and racist, misogynist and Islamophobic rhetoric has seeped into mainstream discourse. Pepe the frog, once a benign comic book character, has been co-opted by the internet’s worst to such an extent that the he was recently declared a hate symbol. It would be ridiculous to say MLG is going the same way – making a good one requires more effort than most of these people are willing to expend – but memes are beginning to have a material impact on politics IRL.

Nimble America is a non-profit organisation whose activities consist of promoting the Donald through ‘meme magic’ and the power of shitposting. Their aim is to flood the discourse with so many images and perceptions of Trump that support becomes a matter of instinct, rather than reason. In the words of Adam Hess, Donald Trump is “proof that if Hitler was alive today he’d be the biggest thing on Twitter.”

I’m not trying to start a moral panic about memes. But we do need to think more critically about what we encounter online, and with an eye towards memes’ material impact. And if we could avoid shady crooks like Nimble America while we’re at it, that would be good too. Above all, we must be vigilant, and conscious that the ends do not always justify the memes.

Review: The Trojan Women

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 2 November 2016.

Greek tragedy, like most ancient drama, feels wrong in the modern day. The recourse of the playwright, then, is to make that wrongness their point. Set in the mother-and-baby unit of a post-war prison, Caroline Bird’s rewrite of Euripides’s The Trojan Women puts the traumas of its female characters front and centre. Sickly funny and deeply disturbing, it’s a hard, uncompromising polemic, an aggressively feminist reframing of the male-dominated mythology of Troy. As a production, it suffers from technical and pacing problems, but as a political statement it’s one of the most powerful Oxford has seen all term.

The play opens with a bare cell; two women. One old and untethered, one pregnant and handcuffed to her bed. The first is Hecuba, ex-queen of Troy. The other is not supposed to be there. A working class woman imprisoned with a queen, the setup makes for some good jokes, with the nameless one as straight woman to the melodramatic Hecuba. But it’s a source of horror as well as comedy; the women are visited by Cassandra, Helen, even Menelaus himself, as well as their own hapless male guard, and the nameless woman is shouted down constantly. Not allowed to speak, she can only gaze, appalled, at the meaningless squabbles which have destroyed her life. It’s an astonishingly bleak story, and it ruthlessly confronts the horrors of a society stratified by both gender and class.

The script’s ideas are disturbing in the abstract, but the cast help make them viscerally horrifying. Georgie Murphy is effectively traumatised as Hecuba, but conveys a sense of the ingrained prejudices which drive the plot. Marcus Knight-Williams is funny as the guard, pathetic and bumbling despite his petty authority, and Alannah Burns is a chilling Menelaus, all icy psychopathy and insecure shouting. India Phillips is impeccable across her three roles, her sweetly morbid turn as Casssandra marking the play’s creepiest moment. But the standout performance is Elizabeth Mobed as the nameless woman. By turns sardonic, deluded, outraged and anguished, she is the play’s emotional core, and her status as a silent onlooker of history drives home the central point with humanising force.

That said, the play can occasionally feel a bit much. The dialogue is full of over-ripe metaphors, and the script is awkwardly structured. After a few episodic encounters the play’s climax stretches on for more than twenty minutes, and there’s a point at which the horror simply becomes exhausting. But then again, that exhaustion is part of the point – the audience, like the characters, are faced with the absurd horrors of this masculine world, and that exhaustion creates a crucial sense of empathy. So I can recommend The Trojan Women; it’s harsh, angry, and extremely moving, an intimate character piece and a scream of rage against an unjust world. This is what the BT is all about.

Review: Anything Goes

This article first appeared on the Oxford Opening Night website on 12 October 2016.

With the Playhouse newly redecorated for Michaelmas term, where better to start than a musical from the 1930s? Anything Goes is a retro-cool season-opener, and it delivers all the colour and style we’ve come to expect from Playhouse musicals, even if it’s a tad unpolished in places. Upbeat, funny, and energetic to a fault, it’s a jolly romp of a show that will surely make a delightful introduction for the many students getting their first taste of Oxford theatre this week.

Our hero is Billy Crocker, a young stockbroker in love with an heiress engaged to an English earl. With the help of his friend Reno, as well as a helpful tip from a passing gangster, he winds up on a cruise ship with all of the above, as well as being on the run from the law. Hilarity ensues (obviously), and the production team deserve credit for managing the play’s laundry list of elements as stylishly as they do. There’s a lot going on here, but the show hums along admirably, the scenes cleverly interwoven to give a sense of several plots developing at once. This helps maintain a brisk pace, as well as the shared space of the cruise liner itself.

The set is marvelous, with the band sitting up on the bridge like a kind of omniscient narrator. This is a show defined by song, so it’s great to see the musicians paced centre stage rather than cast into the pit. It’s also very much an ensemble piece, so it’s difficult to call anyone the ‘star’, but the all-cast musical numbers are stellar. The ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ sequence which kicks off act two is a masterpiece of choreography, a perfectly-paced bit of dance and gymnastics which goes on for fifteen minutes, running the gamut from joy to heartbreak, with plenty of laughs along the way.

The individual parts are mostly unflashy, but the actors are a treat nonetheless. Toby Chapman is a capable straight man as Billy, reacting dryly to the madness around him, and Josh Blunsden is perfect as the ship’s put-upon captain (watch out for his final scene). Nils Behling is an adept physical comedian, and Laurence Belcher nails the part of the oblivious aristocrat, his cringeworthy love poetry forming the basis of the play’s most quietly brilliant set-piece. But the real standout is Kathy Peacock as Reno; agile, charming, and bursting with charisma, she may also be the best singer of the bunch.

It’s not a flawless show: the opening night saw severe audio problems, and several of the jokes fell flat. There was a sense of attempting to speed through the awkward material, rather than relaxing in its ridiculousness, a feeling not helped by occasionally rushed line readings. But these problems largely fell away by the second act, once awkward banter gave way to elaborate showtunes and personal confessions. Anything Goes is bubblegum theatre; it’s bright, cheerful, and drives away the academic blues, even if the memory of being pleased lasts longer than its actual pleasures. It’s a big, frothy delight, and for the year’s first major student play, that’s one hell of an achievement.