Saturday, 30 September 2017
Plato’s ideas had consequences: appropriations of Greek thought in the post-war conservatism of Richard Weaver | Classical Receptions Journal | Oxford Academic
Plato’s ideas had consequences: appropriations of Greek thought in the post-war conservatism of Richard Weaver | Classical Receptions Journal | Oxford Academic
Monday, 12 October 2015
Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
In 1415 a rag-tag army of Englishmen were retreating through France. After a tougher than expected siege of Harfleur and an outbreak of dysentery, their plans of conquest lay in tatters. On 25th October, St Crispin’s Day, they met a French army near the castle of Agincourt. Outnumbered by the fresher French forces, the English stood their ground and won a victory that has resounded down the ages (largely thanks to Shakespeare). The English king eventually married the French princess, a legend was born and a new golden age seemed to be in the offing. As it turned out, Henry’s early death called time on the golden age before it got going and cost his country not only France but its internal peace as well, as the Wars of the Roses destroyed his successors.
So in Henry V Shakespeare captures an England full of hope between the years of treason and rebellion which marked the reigns of Henry IV and Henry VI. It is full of instantly recognizable patriotic scenes such as the St Crispin’s Day and the ‘once more unto the breach’ speeches, but it also occasionally expresses a darker side to Henry’s rule. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s slippery justifications for the invasion, Henry’s doubts before the big battle and his often quite unlikable hypocrisy are all troubling aspects. Henry doesn’t seem to care about the death of his old friend Falstaff and he executes old cronies Nym and Bardolph. There is lots of thanking god, but how much is it a public act? He’s a careful politician, so outward religiosity for the sake of morale would not be surprising. And Henry even admits his own illegitimate right to rule, thanks to his father’s treason against Richard II: ‘Think not upon the fault my father did…’ However, the context of that admission is important. On the eve of battle, all alone, Henry prays to god for his men’s safety. And there is enough elsewhere in the play to overcome any doubts about Henry’s character. Much of our scepticism comes from modern sensibilities perhaps alien to the original audience. Are we perhaps too sentimental in wishing Henry would save Nym and Bardolph? Or should we embrace a ruler who exercises justice without favouritism? The characters in the play are unequivocal: Henry is a great and well-loved king.
In terms of this production, the stage set is immediately both simple and striking. At the beginning, the backdrop is entirely removed and the backstage area creates extra space. During the play, the backdrop occasionally appears, via a clever guillotine device, during intimate moments (or to create Harfleur’s walls). The stage’s floor bears an interesting pattern which, during the great battle, is revealed as an invisible Perspex layer above a textured muddy field. This is nicely done. It was also nice to see a few of the cast from last year’s Two Gentlemen of Verona in minor roles. Having now seen a few RSC plays, the return of actors from earlier productions allows one to appreciate the actors’ impressive versatility. I suspect some of them will one day be well known.
The most recognizable face is Oliver Ford Davies’, who plays the chorus. He got the play rolling with his entry from the backstage area looking for like an elderly and befuddled audience member who had taken a wrong turn. This effect is probably calculated and he got an early laugh when he curiously picked up Henry’s crown only to have Henry stride out and snatch it away from him. Although the main cast wear medieval dress, Ford Davies is bedecked in brown corduroys and a blue cardigan. He is intentionally distanced from the rest of the cast but it doesn’t really work. Admittedly, the chorus must be a difficult part for a modern director to pull off and Shakespeare himself wasn’t exactly keen on them. Its origin is ancient and tragic, and its use in Henry V was perhaps intended to burnish the play’s epic quality. But epic patriotism isn’t really the done thing for the modern intelligentsia. Ford Davies has the odd stab at it (this is the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, so this production has to be at least partly celebratory), but at times he is ironic rather than patriotic and at others he is earnest but over the top. As I’ve indicated earlier, the text at times questions the legitimacy of Henry’s exploits, but it is done with much more subtlety than Ford Davies musters here, veering erratically between over-gesticulating jingoism and sardonic scepticism.
Joshua Richards’ Fluellan is hilarious as the warm but garrulous old Welshman and Jennifer Kirby as Katewas also excellent. Both funny and beautiful, she balances chastity and eager curiosity with great comic timing. In fact, the humour is deftly handled throughout this performance. It was also good to see Jane Lapotaire as Queen Isobel of France. She’s had some health problems but is now back on the stage, even if the role was smaller than some she’s had in the past.
Alex Hassell is a handsome and august Henry, but perhaps not quite tough enough and for much of the play not quite down to earth enough. He also has a slightly annoying tendency to address the audience instead of his fellow characters. Presumably the director asked him to do this, and perhaps the aim is to tie the audience more closely to the action. If so, the effort is wasted.
The St Crispin’s Day speech should be the climax of the play:
‘From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.’
Here it is the biggest disappointment, desperate rather than inspiring. The tone is flat and the result is anti-climactic. The courage of the men is undercut by an attempt at comedy as Pistol almost takes up the offer to go home, and the end of the speech is followed straightaway, almost before Henry had finished speaking, by the announcement of a messenger’s arrival. No cheering, no signs of grim purpose, no response at all from the army. Again, the director was afraid to appear too patriotic. Henry is much better after the wars, and the wooing scene with Katherine is delightful. Even if flawed in places, Hassell’s performance contains enough to convince me that he is a fine actor, surely due a breakout role in the near future if he turns his sights on television or film.
Overall, this production has a few blemishes and compares unfavourably to the year’s best Stratford performances: Volpone and The Jew of Malta. But a comparison with those great productions is unduly harsh. For all its faults, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking work, with a number of standout performances.
Friday, 11 September 2015
Mini-review: Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (BBC Hollow Crown series)
To whet our appetite for Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, let's have a quick look at Henry IV, Part I from the BBC’s HollowCrown series (originally shown in 2012). Before Henry V was Henry V, he was Hal, a binge-drinking hooligan trickster… or so he would have everybody think. In fact, his plan all along was to lead a life of debauchery and then, just when everybody had completely written him off, he would reform and thereby dazzle people all the more with his excellence. While Hal is putting this meticulously executed, if largely pointless, plot into effect, his father is threatened by rebellion. The star of the rebel camp is the son Henry IV thinks he really wants: Harry Hotspur, a dutiful son and brave warrior. Luckily for Henry IV, his actual son comes good by the end and slaughters his spiritual brother to save the kingdom.
Tom Hiddleston as Hal is magnificent. There is a sadness about him at even the merriest times, which
|The Voice: Informing and Educating|
This is a beautifully made production. It’s clearly a work of love and the BBC has invested real cash in it too. Some would perhaps use this as an example of how wonderful the BBC is and how lost we would be without it. Being more of a glass half empty type, I’d say that by showing they can still make programmes which conform to the BBC’s original mission (to ‘inform, educate and entertain’), programmes like this actually highlight just how much complete bilge the Beeb turns out the rest of the time…
Anyway, all in all a great film; now roll on Henry V in Stratford.
Monday, 24 August 2015
Review: Ben Jonson's Volpone, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
The current RSC production of Ben Jonson’s Volpone at the Swan Theatre must rank as one of their slickest, funniest and most glorious productions yet. It has certainly been my highlight of the year.
First, the plot. The eponymous anti-hero, Volpone (The Fox), has a lot in common with Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. Both are charismatic and seemingly amoral individuals with a covetous love of wealth. But both have passions which are ultimately more powerful than their greed. Where Barabas had a pride which when offended drove him to the most horrible acts of revenge, Volpone’s early and enduring flaw is a need to use the greed of other wealthy men to con them out of their possessions. As the victims of his plots are themselves so unappealing, the audience’s sympathies cannot help but side with the flashy and witty Volpone. The plot owes much to popular stories about wily foxes which lay down in fields pretending to be dead. When a bird comes to feast on the corpse, the fox springs into action and banquets on the carrion bird instead. In Volpone, the wealthy fox pretends to be
All is going well and Volpone decides to take his plan to the next level: his parasite Mosca encourages Corbaccio with a scheme to guarantee a place in Volpone’s will. If Corbaccio alters his will to leave his estate to Volpone, despite having a son of his own, then the dying Volpone will surely make Corbaccio his heir out of gratitude. The flaw in Corbaccio’s thinking is that Volpone is actually in the prime of life and it is Corbaccio who is the doddering old codger. The plan is working well until Mosca lets slip to Volpone that the young wife of Corvino is exceedingly beautiful. After going out in disguise and seeing her for himself, Volpone develops a passion of another sort. He and Mosca fashion another scheme so that Volpone can have his way with Celia (Rhiannon Handy). Mosca lets Corvino know that Volpone’s doctors have suggested that sleeping with a young maiden would aid his recovery and that by lending Volpone his wife, Corvino will guarantee himself a place in Volpone’s will. Since Volpone is apparently a drooling, near-comatose invalid, what could be the harm? Unfortunately for Volpone, his two clever schemes become tangled and things begin to go awry…
The stage setting is a real treat. Volpone’s house is like a modern art gallery, all shiny whiteness with his wealth displayed in stylish glass cases. Volpone has a remote control on which he can turn on his CCTV when guests arrive at his door, as well as a large digital stock market ticker surmounting the set. The whole effect is that of a rich and discerning connoisseur. Unlike recent RSC productions, in which the costumes have been somewhat disappointing, in this case the stylish suits of the greedy and the outlandish attire of Volpone’s troupe of freaks are a perfect accompaniment to the elegant set and lively story. Volpone’s regular changes of appearance from powerful grandee to dribbling wreck are impressive, if somewhat revolting up close (think streams of bilious snot hanging off an old man’s chin).
Volpone’s four greedy victims are well-cast. Miles Richardson as Voltore makes an excellent posh but amoral lawyer, Matthew Kelly as Corvino is again excellent (following his turn as a lusty friar in the Jew of Malta) as a buffoonish no-nonsense northern businessman, Geoffrey Freshwater as Corbaccio is likewise again excellent (following his turn as Kelly’s equally slimy and hypocritical brother friar in the Jew of Malta) and Annette McLaughlin as Lady Politic Would-Be plays an excellent tartish gold-digger from a slightly lower societal echelon (Eastenders-esque). Orion Lee’s Mosca is a model of understated, servile cunning, manipulating his social superiors with élan. Volpone’s also gets his kicks from the entertainment provided by
More than anything, this play gives licence to its leading actor to showcase his talents – and Henry Goodman is clearly very, very talented. The shifts from ailing invalid to wily Machiavel are dazzling enough as displays of raw panache, but then he takes the RSC to another place entirely in the balcony scene. Disguised as a charismatic street vendor, adopting a thick Italian accent and hawking his ‘miracle’ juice (‘To buy or not to buy, that is the question…’), Volpone becomes a different kind of conman entirely, and the results are genuinely hilarious. There was even a touch of improvisation when Volpone interacted with an audience member and received an unexpected answer. In the attempted seduction scene, Volpone shifts gear again and becomes an energetic, if unsuccessful, singing Lothario. Again, credit should be given for the set design: the neon lights, ‘sexy’ music and the bed rising through the floor are like something from a teenage boy’s fantasy circa. 1975. Cheesy, but a perfect match for Volpone’s animated self-confidence. Eventually, Volpone’s tragic flaws are his need to screw over the other characters and his overweening self-confidence. Like the Jew of Malta’s Barabas, Volpone cannot quit while he’s ahead and he tries one more jape out of ‘sheer wantonness’. But Goodman makes what is really an unlikely act of hubris look entirely natural.
This production was marketed as an analogy for the greed and corruption that is so often blamed for the 2008 financial crisis. This connection is strained, partly because Volpone is so clearly more interested in the human aspects of wealth acquisition (getting one over on his rivals) rather than any City slicker hunger for big bonuses. But partly it just wouldn’t work because the play is not a simplistic morality tale about the dangers of corporate greed. Luckily, the marketing doesn’t match the reality and there is no sustained attempt to stress the topicality of Volpone vis-à-vis today’s greedy bankers. Besides the stock market tracker in his living room, Volpone’s only business dealings are the con tricks he inflicts on his friends. Volpone might be a bit of a Bernie Madoff, but Madoff was really a sideshow to the main event. The other small flaw in the production is there in the original. There is a parallel plot involving Sir Politick Would-be which has almost nothing to do with the main story concerning Volpone and it looks like an entirely superfluous effort to add some buffoonish humour to a play that really doesn’t need it.
This is a high-spirited play, joyful and boisterous, but it is also refined. The balance that has been struck between these two aspects should probably not be a surprise from a director as renowned as Trevor Nunn and an actor as versatile as Henry Goodman. Go and watch it.
Thursday, 13 August 2015
And now for something completely different...
Call for Papers
Fifth Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in the Reception of the Ancient World
14th-15th December 2015
Abstracts deadline: 31st August 2015
It is with great pleasure that we announce the fifth Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in the Reception of the Ancient World. AMPRAW 2015 will be a two-day conference aiming to provide both UK and international postgraduate students from all disciplines with the opportunity to present their research to the growing academic community focusing on classical reception.
This year's conference will be held from Monday 14th to Tuesday 15th December 2015 at the University of Nottingham.
We will build on the successful trend of recent AMPRAWs, and this year the focus will be “Orthodoxy and Dissent”. This theme relates to many aspects of reception studies, and will further widen the scope of AMPRAW into the areas of material and visual culture, translation studies, and political thought.
We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers (with a subsequent 10 minute discussion) that engage with the following key questions:
• Has there been and is there still an orthodox view(s) of the ancient world?
• How have dissenters challenged this picture?
• Is dissent against orthodoxy essential for art?
• Do issues of orthodoxy and dissent help to highlight or shroud issues of contemporary discourse?
• In what ways have the ancient world and its artefacts been used to reinforce or challenge authority?
• Is there an ‘orthodox’ way of teaching Classics today?
Thus far, a wide range of abstracts have been submitted, testament to the breadth of opportunity that classical reception offers. We would encourage abstracts focusing on any aspect of the ancient world and how it has been received in any context since.
In addition to this year's panels, AMPRAW 2015 will feature a keynote lecture, and practitioner-led workshops from visiting speakers. Our exciting agenda already includes a keynote speech by Dr. Gideon Nisbet, whose latest work has focussed on reception of epigram (including a translation of Martial), and a workshop by Clare Pollard, the poet who recently published a contemporary verse translation of Ovid’s ‘Heroides’. Further details and panel topics are to follow in due course.
Evening entertainment is to be arranged for Monday 14th December, and will be in conjunction with the Centre for Ancient Drama and its Reception (CADRE). Bursaries may be available to conference-goers and speakers alike, thanks to generous funding offered to us. Confirmation and details on how to apply for this will follow in due course.
Please send your title and a 200-300 word abstract (including your name, affiliation and level of study) to firstname.lastname@example.org, by the 31st August 2015.
For up-to-date conference news and further details, please visit our website: ampraw2015.wordpress.com and get involved on twitter @AMPRAW2015.
We look forward to receiving your abstracts!
The AMPRAW 2015 Organising Committee
Saturday, 25 July 2015
Shakespeare's Richard III at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, 25th July 2015
A bit of a change this week after a visit to a community production of Richard III at Leicester’s Curve Theatre. My expectations beforehand were not especially high, but the production gave me a number of pleasant surprises. The set had a professional look. The industrial minimalism thing is getting a little tedious at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but this looked just as good as the ones they’re churning out in Stratford. There was an unpleasant David Lynch-esque humming sound effect before the show started: it reminded me of the last moments of consciousness before having a seizure, but for people without such a point of reference it probably wasn’t so bad. An unpleasant but arresting moment occurred at the very beginning of the play. A shirtless Richard gave his ‘winter of our discontent’ speech and we were treated to a very realistic, scabby, sore looking hump which a nurse then injected with a syringe. It was always unlikely that such a great beginning could be maintained, and so it proved.
It would be harsh to single out any individual because the problems ran through most of the cast. Many of the speeches were given at breakneck speed, giving the impression that the lines had been learned without being understood. This might also have been a problem caused by lack of editing: it would have been a good idea to make a few changes here and there, but perhaps being amateurs there was not the confidence to start messing editing the Bard. As it was, there was too much hurried talking and not enough acting. Some of the cast found it difficult to project their voices clearly, whilst others overacted their scenes (my companion actually preferred the latter approach, as it at least had the benefit of making sure you could understand what was happening). The industrial setting sort of went with the kleptocratic Russia theme, but this theme was only applied intermittently in costume and there was no real effort to draw deeper parallels. Occasional fur coats, orthodox priests and paramilitaries wandered around with a Church of England Bishop and, at the end, a bunch of World War One Tommies. The fighting at the end perhaps went on a little too long for a professional production, but this cast have clearly had a lot of fun arranging the battle scenes that it is hard to begrudge them a little fun with them.
The actor in the title role, Mark Peachey, was the highlight of the night and, on balance, made this a pretty
Friday, 10 July 2015
Film Review: Great Expectations (2012)
Adaptations of classic novels inevitably confront a dilemma; how do you maintain authenticity when reworking a slow-motion story for an audience with a twenty-first century attention span? But the makers of the 2012 Great Expectations film had a smaller dilemma than usual. Great Expectations the novel, originally published in instalments, is fast paced, there are attention grabbing twists, and Dickensian characters, with their odd, visual mannerisms, are well-suited to film. So the pitfalls are shallower than usual – but they still exist. Director Mike Newell has surrendered to temptation and sexed up the action, so we’ve got a gruesomely burnt body and masses of extra, aimless menace. The stand-out performances are Holliday Grainger’s sultry but vulnerable Estella, and the Magwitch of Ralph Fiennes’, who capably surpasses Robert de Niro’s 1998 portrayal. But the interpretation of Miss Havisham is a squandered chance. Helena Bonham-Carter relishes playing flamboyant half-mad icons so the archetypal character of Miss Havisham should have been a triumph. But a curiously flat performance turns that initial excitement as stale and dusty as Miss Havisham’s ancient wedding cake. The greatest disappointment, though, is also the most fatally fundamental. Pip needs to be likeable enough that we forgive him for his shameless social climbing and abandonment of his decent but embarrassing friends. But he is too driven, and the viewer never really wills him towards a happy outcome. Nonetheless, there is enough here to entertain: fans of literary exactitude will be reasonably gratified whilst newcomers and radicals will still be enthused.