Review: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 26 May 2018.

Earlier this year, The Sun ran a story about a new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the headline “FLAKENSTEINS: Snowflake students claim Frankenstein’s monster was ‘misunderstood’ — and is in fact a VICTIM.” The article was mainly a thinly-veiled excuse to sneer at, among other things, the concept of human rights, but the story was also picking up on a similar article in The Times earlier that week: “Frankenstein’s monster? He was stitched up, say millennials.” The Sun piece caused a predictable round of social media guffaws thanks to its reactionary tone and apparent ignorance that reading Frankenstein’s monster sympathetically is common practice.

This mildly amusing social media storm casts an unexpected light on Jonathan Wright’s translation of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. Also published this year, and shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, one of the themes that Frankenstein in Baghdad explores is the relationship between press sensationalism and the politically complex nature of victimhood. The title ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ itself appears in the novel as a sensationalist media headline, grafted by an unscrupulous editor onto a more sober article by one of the novel’s journalist characters. All the news reports we see are distorted and partisan, and a general atmosphere of confusion and distrust permeates the novel, suitable for the book’s setting between 2003 and 2008. As one character remarks, “We are in the middle of an information war,” and the nature of Baghdad’s ‘Frankenstein’ is one of many contested facts.

The plot is, if not straightforward, at least easy to follow; a Baghdad junk dealer, Hadi, begins collecting the stray limbs and organs of the city’s many bomb victims, stitching them together into a gruesome “Whatsitsname” in the hopes that it might be “respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.” When a hotel guard, Hasib, is vapourised by yet another suicide bomber and his soul is left with nowhere to go, he possesses the Whatitsname and begins pursuing bloody vengeance on the killers of its constituent body parts, attracting the attention of, among others, the Baghdad press, government, and occupation forces.

The book’s large cast means the reader never gets comfortable with a single perspective, and the book’s structure is consistently wrong-footing. Each chapter is broken into five sub-chapters, an appropriately fragmented style which jumbles the chronology and subjectivity of the book’s events. This structure also serves the novel’s absurdist sense of humour, the more outlandish conceits blending in with the surreal detachment from the rest of the war. (A personal favourite moment comes just after the Whatsitsname’s escape: “Hadi went outside and looked up and down the lane for a sign that something strange had happened, but he wasn’t willing to stop any of his neighbours to ask, ‘Excuse me, have you seen a naked corpse walking down the street?’”)

The Whatsitsname himself is a compelling presence, even if the novel’s structure means he’s out of the picture for longer than one might expect. When we do hear from him, it is usually via people who have some professional interest in his existence. His longest section of narration comes via a digital recorder handed to a journalist (the veracity of which is questionable; the possibility that the tape is a hoax is repeatedly brought up). Our experience of the Whatsitsname is deliberately mediated (at one point via a literal medium), and this formal distance prevents the reader from ever trusting or siding with him completely.

What little we do know is continuously warped by rumour, or by simple misinterpretation. At one point the Whatsitsname commits a triple murder in which three homeless men are found dead, having apparently strangled each other. The authorities perceive it as almost artistically perverse (“If Hazem Abboud had seen this and taken a picture, he would have won an international prize”) but the Whatsitsname later explains it was a darkly comic accident. This disconnect is further heightened when the Whatsitsname is profiled in the Baghdad magazine al-Haqiqa (literally ‘the Truth’ in Arabic), and is illustrated by a photo of Robert Deniro from the 1994 film adaptation of Frankenstein. The media, along with almost every other character in the novel, consistently misinterprets and misrepresents the Whatsitsname, contributing to a general sense of unease and distrust around the creature.

In his own telling, the Whatsitsname discovers that, as he takes revenge on the killers of his constituent parts, the avenged parts decay and drop off. To retain a complete body, therefore, necessitates further killings to acquire new parts. At one point he acquires a cult of followers who end up stealing the corpse of a man killed fighting in the streets, forcibly grafting his less innocent organs onto the Whatsitsname’s body, before they themselves are mostly wiped out by infighting. From there, the Whatsitsname begins killing less and less discriminately, even starting to murder innocent people, implicitly because the murderous intent of his new body parts has been incorporated into his personality.

The Whatsitsname’s anxiety over his own makeup is a fascinating tension throughout the novel. Composed of a multitude of people’s remains, from a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, at one point he declares himself “the first true Iraqi citizen.” This mixed identity bleeds into later anxieties about the morality of his actions:

The Whatsitsname was now at a loss for what to do. He knew his mission was essentially to kill, to kill new people every day, but he no longer had a clear idea who should be killed or why. The flesh of the innocents, of which he was initially composed, had been replaced by new flesh, that of his own victims and criminals.

This blurring of victimhood and guilt is one of Saadawi’s clearer inheritances from Shelley, though Saadawi’s setting means that the provenance of the monster’s parts is more central here than in the original. Put simply, it matters who has died, and how, to create Saadawi’s monster. What’s more, the idea of a multitude of parties, combined in one messy, unstable body, whose violence only begets more violence, is a functional metaphor for the war itself. It’s a context far removed from Shelley’s Romantic anxieties, and one possessing a disturbing power of its own.

If the novel has flaws, they mainly come in the last few chapters. The late introduction of the character of “the Writer,” who interviews the rest of the cast and diegetically writes the novel itself, feels a bit too neat for a book so otherwise invested in untrustworthy mediation. Also frustrating is a late twist in Hadi’s own subplot which, while an amusingly sick joke for lovers of the original Frankenstein, feels underdeveloped, blazed past without the space to properly move or horrify.

Overall, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a thoughtful, engaging, and darkly amusing novel. It feels particularly relevant not only post-Iraq War, but in our current age of fake news and cultural warfare. Saadawi’s Whatsitsname, like the original Frankenstein’s Monster, is both victim and villain. The struggle to reconcile the two, and to understand their intersections — a task not helped by hyperbolic, even misleading media portrayals — feels more important than ever.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is available to buy, RRP £12.99. The novel is translated by Jonathan Wright.

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Review: The Basilisk Murders by Andrew Hickey

As premises go, ‘stranded on an island with the alt-right’ is surely one of the most nightmarish in recent memory. The Basilisk Murders, the new (ish – this review being a bit fashionably late) novel by Andrew Hickey, makes a savvy move in playing this premise for sick comedy more than outright horror. The alt-right, Lesswrong, techno-libertarians and their assorted fellow-travellers comprise a fundamentally ridiculous ideology, and Hickey mercilessly skewers them over the course of this murder-mystery-cum-satire. The result is a fun book, one that intelligently breaks the mould in key places, but which may not play to people who aren’t aware of why the title image is so funny.

The plot starts out conventional enough – our hero, freelance journalist Sarah Turner, receives an invite to a conference on a remote island, of which she is at first apprehensive, but accepts out of sheer curiosity. What’s less conventional is that she is entirely right to be apprehensive, even before the murders begin. The invite is to “the 1st International Conference on Controlling Existential Threat Through Humane Artificial Intelligence”. Organised by “The Safe Singularity Foundation”, and guaranteed to be swarming with neoreactionaries, it is an environment unlikely to welcome a self-described “bi poly woman” with no regard for ethics in games journalism. Sarah is the ideal character with which to explore the basic bigotry of this ideology, but the scenes of her being condescended to, and at one point even sexually assaulted by one of the conference speakers emphasise the very real danger Sarah is putting herself in by even attending. Sarah’s narration is intelligent and droll, allowing Hickey to entertain the various obsessions of neoreactionism (immortal AIs, matriarchy, “race realism”) without coming close to endorsing them, and this dynamic of exploring a toxic ideology from a radically different perspective is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

Another of its great strengths is humour. Hickey is not shy about the ludicrousness of the psuedo-intellectual right, and gets in some hilarious swipes at silicon-valley libertarianism in particular. A personal favourite moment comes in chapter three, as Sarah attempts to check in to her hotel room:

“A man (of course) a few years younger than me – I’d guess twenty-four – with a trimmed goatee beard, round little glasses, wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with white writing on it saying “The singularity is my retirement plan” was in front of me. This man had a point to make, and was going to continue making it no matter how futile his attempts were or how much inconvenience it was causing anyone else.

“What do you mean, you don’t accept bitcoin?””

This passage is particularly cathartic if, like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of Bitcoin/Blockchain hype in your line of work, and the book is full of delightfully sardonic asides about the foibles of neoreactionism. (Another highlight is when Sarah attends the “AI vs SJW” panel, “in which various people discussed how to make sure that if they created a machine god it would be just as racist and sexist as them”).

Most of the jokes work well, and anyone familiar with this vile little subculture will probably get a kick out of them. But I do wonder how much of the novel will even be comprehensible to people who don’t at least have a basic grasp of the various alt-right movements. The book assumes a certain level of knowledge about LessWrong, Peter Thiel, Reddit, and Roko’s Basilisk, at least enough that the reader can grasp what it’s parodying in any given scene. I already knew far too much about this subculture from reading Elizabeth Sandifer’s work, and even I felt there were one or two references I wasn’t quite getting. The book is an effective piece of satire, but in getting as specific as it does, it may have blunted its broader appeal.

Absent the satire, the novel falls back on its murder-mystery mechanics, which are something of a mixed bag. The structure feels arbitrary, with sections set over individual days sometimes blurring into one another, and the pacing meanders a bit in the middle. Some of the supporting cast feel interchangeable (one of the problems with having so many of them be white male alt-righters) and there were a couple of murder revelations that made me go ‘which one was he again?’ It’s a shame, because the final reveal of whodunnit is rather clever, hinging on one of the most memorable parts of the book so far, and the villain’s motive is literally chilling. There’s also a fantastic twist to Sarah’s family-drama subplot, and some clever little details to the investigation itself. Moments like receiving a red herring death threat from a Tumblr Anon, or Sarah tweeting out the killer’s identity as she tries to escape give a pleasing ‘of the moment’ vibe to the more Agatha Christie-ish parts of the plot.

The Basilisk Murders is a cathartic little romp, provided at least some awareness of what it’s sending up, and feels like a natural response to the world of 2017. An interesting companion piece might be Sarah Pinsker’s And The There Were (N-One), a more overt Christie pastiche about a conference of all the multiversal versions of a single woman. The basic image, of being surrounded by strangers, any one of whom may wish death upon you for largely inscrutable reasons, feels rather appropriate for this particular cultural moment.

The Basilisk Murders is available to buy on Amazon, RRP £3.77, or free via Kindle Unlimited.

Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

CONTENT WARNING: This review discusses industrial and animal abuse, as well as detailed descriptions of cancer symptoms. It also discusses the book’s ending, if spoilers are a big deal for you.

Science fiction these days seems to be intractably stuck in both the past and the future. Which is to say, the present. Brooke Bolander’s new novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing, embodies this generic mandate. Set in both the past and the near future, it nonetheless speaks to our chaotic cultural moment. While the execution occasionally falls short, the book is most fearsome, and most timely, in its depiction of solidarity among the oppressed, even as it is unflinching about the reality of that oppression.

The novella reworks the historical stories of both Topsy the elephant and the Radium Girls, respectively an elephant publicly executed on Coney Island and a group of women systemically poisoned in an effort to save money. This does involve fudging the dates slightly Topsy was electrocuted in 1903, while the Orange New Jersey factory opened in 1917, yet the novella depicts these events as happening simultaneously. This allows Bolander to create a general commentary on the early twentieth century, and her version of events, in which Topsy’s electrocution causes a nuclear explosion off the coast of New York, is open about the cruelty and exploitation on which modernity was founded.

The narrative shifts between multiple protagonists, both before after the Topsy disaster, as well as media cuttings, commemorative songs, and a Kipling-inspired fable about an ancient mother elephant. This might sound like information overload, and the cacophony of voices is very much part of the novella’s effect, but Bolander manages her transitions impeccably. Every narrative jump feels natural, and each one either helps the story progress, or injects fresh perspective on what has come before. Pacing overall is absolutely flawless; the book is precisely the length is needs to be, building ruthlessly to a telegraphed ending that still manages to shock.

The book in general is long on horror, as befits its heavy subject matter. The novella opens with a description of a mountain contaminated by nuclear waste, long after humanity’s extinction, and the irradiated elephants who live there.

“At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.”

The problem of nuclear waste lasting longer than human civilisation is a real and terrifying thing, but this abstracted horror soon gives way to more visceral nastiness, as we meet the character of Regan, an elephant handler poisoned by radium paint. Regan spends most of the novella slowly dying, and Bolander describes this in agonising detail:

“The ache in her jaw has gone from a dull complaint to endless fire blossoming from the hinge behind her back teeth, riding the rails all the way to the region of her chin. It never stops or sleeps or cries uncle. Even now, trying to teach this cussed animal how to eat the poison that hammered together her own rickety stairway to Heaven, it’s throbbing and burning like Satan’s got a party cooked up inside and everybody’s wearing red-hot hobnails on the soles of their dancing shoes. She reminds herself to focus. This particular elephant has a reputation for being mean as hell; a lack of attention might leave her splattered across the wall and conveyor belt. Not yet, ol’ Mr. Death. Not just yet.

These metaphors may feel overwrought at first, but they effectively convey Regan’s overwhelming pain, the sentences carefully modulated so that they never feel monotonous. The subtle, jerking moves this paragraph makes towards describing Regan’s interactions with Topsy help convey the conscious effort Regan is making to concentrate on her work. Her pain may be enormous, but she literally cannot afford to dwell on it.

These lengthy, painful descriptions are a clear, and even affecting, part of the book’s point, but there are moments which risk tipping over into simply aestheticising that pain. Worse, though, is the occasionally crass depiction of Regan’s fellow workers. There’s a rather clumsy attempt to sympathetically characterise her abusive foreman, and at one point Regan receives a letter from fellow Radium Girl Jodie that feels a little patronising in its efforts to demonstrate how these women have been denied education.

“Regan,

Just want you to no, aint no hard feeling about the way things paned out. You all did best you cood lookin out for me like blood kin when you no I never had no body since Mama past away. Even yor own mama used to give me a seat at the tabell when holy fokes sooner feed scraps to a stray tomcat than a big uglee plain mannerd girl like me.”

Jodie clearly *can* write she is not illiterate ­ so to have her misspell every other word like this seems like overkill, and the sentences are a bit too lucid to suggest the misspellings are a result of mental deterioration. It’s a small slip, but it is a shame, especially given the novella’s overall success in depicting the humanity of these workers who have effectively been poisoned for profit.

It’s also odd given the savviness of the book’s politics overall. Bolander is heartbreaking in her portrayal of reckless industrial and political elites. Particularly striking are Regan’s long, awkward confrontation with her boss in Part Two, and an early scene where political negotiator Kat realises she is effectively asking a group of elephants to do something for nothing, because it simply had not occurred to her to offer them anything.

“The translator stares at Kat for a little longer than is necessary. She glances back over her shoulder at the matriarch, then back at Kat.

“I just want to make sure I’m hearing this correctly before I translate,” she says, in a lower register. “Did you seriously just show up to what is basically a diplomatic meeting with no bargaining chips whatsoever?””

Moments like these are subtle, yet savage in their portrayal of a system which would not only allow, but encourage this disregard for marginalised groups.

But it’s the ending which takes The Only Harmless Great Thing from savvy and well-crafted story to essential-feeling political statement. Topsy is being marched to her public execution, with both the reader and the main characters knowing it will result in nuclear disaster. At first, she refuses to move. “She smells her ending, and her feet plant themselves, bending-parts senselessly locking.” But then Regan emerges:

“Another human pushes out of the mass the dead girl, still moving, still somehow on her feet when every part of her stinks of corruption. […] She turns, asking in the language of twisted trunk-paws: Are you well? Can you walk? It’s just a little further. We’ll go together.

And even this much We is enough to drive the fear back into the high grass. Her mind stills. Her legs unstiffen. Together they cross the overwater, men flytrailing behind. Together they go to sing the song of their undoing, the joining, teaching, come-together song.”

This final act of compassion, this insistence on solidarity in the face of fatal oppression, is fundamental to the book’s success. The Only Harmless Great Thing is bold, cutting, and exactly what science fiction needs to be right now.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is available to preorder from Tor.com, in ebook and paperback editions.

Review: Skylight

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 14 June 2017.

It was my last ever Oxford play review, and I’m glad I went out with a good one.

Student theatre can often be juvenile. In its weird, earnest, experimental brilliance, it sometimes feels lacking in emotional maturity, but Skylight is the antithesis of that. Its ad copy promises “a dangerous battle of opposing ideologies”, but this is a lie. Skylight is not a Bitingly Satirical Play about Politics. It is a play about three people, stupid, brilliant, a little bit broken, and all the pain and messiness that brings. The play’s naturalism feels hugely refreshing, even vital, as we close another academic year: this is the most human play Oxford has seen for months.

The play unfolds in a shabby little flat belonging to Kyra, a young woman working in the rougher parts of London. We open with her returning, exhausted, after a hard day’s work. As the evening progresses she is visited first by a young man named Edward, who has fallen out with his father, and later by that father himself, Tom, with whom Kyra has a history. The play is largely a two-hander; we never see all three characters together, and the lion’s share of the time is spent with Kyra and Tom. The two of them have had an affair in the past, but Kyra eventually left Tom to care for his dying wife, Alice. This, coupled with class tensions – Kyra is a penniless schoolteacher while Tom is a millionaire – generate the play’s action, which consists of Tom and Kyra talking, reminiscing, and arguing. This is helped by subtle, but ingenious touches to the production. The first hour’s conversation occurs while Kyra prepares dinner, and the decision to cook an actual spaghetti bolognaise during the performance is a masterful bit of verisimilitude.

The actors, naturally, are superb. Natalie Lauren is wearily sarcastic as Kyra, reacting sardonically to the two angst-ridden men, but holding her own in the more emotionally charged scenes. Her portrayal of anger is stunningly lifelike, and her gentleness with the shy and naive Edward lends credence to her character’s job as a teacher. Adam Diaper is brash and confident as Tom, but his swagger belies a real vulnerability. His constant banter and self-absorbed jokes make him intensely likeable, even as we recognise his character is a bit of an arse.

As a couple, the pair are impeccable; we understand intuitively why each of them has made the decisions they’ve made and why the other is hurt by it, and are able to sympathise with both. Luke Wintour is given a much less showy part as Edward, but he sells the character’s restless awkwardness. After two hours of sadness and conflict, the play ends on a note of unabashed sweetness, and it’s created by Wintour’s understated performance.

Skylight is a really special production. The gripes are there to be made – at two and half hours this may be a little long for some tastes, and the period details are messy – but I find myself somehow unwilling to make them. Skylight is proper, satisfying drama, and one of the finest productions I have seen in three years of student reviewing.

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.

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.