And there’s one for everyone in the audience(s): Macbeth and the ordinary spectator

Programme cover for Macbeth, Swan Theatre, 1999.

It’s the end of May and I’m almost a month into researching my masters dissertation. I’m writing on Greg Doran’s 1999 production of Macbeth at the Swan Theatre, and looking at it through two very distinct prisms: one is concerned with how the participants (actors, directors, etc) write, think, and remember it, and the other deals with different groups of audiences — critics, academics who either review it for publication or try to position it into the performance history canon, and lay audience members. This project germinated out of the fact that so many from the first set have written and/or talked about it so much — Harriet Walter wrote a short book about it in the Actors on Shakespeare series; Antony Sher has written extensively about it in Players of Shakespeare and in his very good autobiography, Beside Myself; and Greg Doran has given several interviews in print and elsewhere. To that end, I’ve become interested in how an actor or director’s memory works differently from someone who may not be intimately involved with the production at all — Peter Brook writes in The Empty Space about how, for the general spectator, memories of performance almost become images, like ‘silhouettes’, which for me describes my own way of remembering shows that I’ve seen in the past. They become narrowed down to one solitary image that stands out from the rest. I’ve mentioned to people that the one image that remains from seeing Propeller’s Richard III is the sight of Richard Clothier’s Gloucester standing alone onstage after becoming king, a crown on the stool near him. He begins to laugh — it’s a horrible, high, cold laugh — and the lights cut to blackout. It’s now the interval. Other shows have worked the same: it’s Cillian Murphy sporting a pair of homemade wings and hanging over scaffolding with a microphone in his hand, disco lights reflecting off his body, at the end of Misterman; Pippa Nixon serenading the audience (and Alex Waldmann) with a Wye Oak song while balloons flood the stage in King John; and more recently, the party that forms the end of As You Like It, as the revellers bounce around the stage singing and dancing. They’re completely wet but they’re deliriously happy, and every single time I watch it, their euphoria rubs off on me too (I will review it soon, promise).

This leads me onto the type of literature that I’ve been looking at lately. A fantastic introduction to audience studies is probably Helen Freshwater’s Theatre & Audience, which argues for the normal audience member’s inclusion in performance research. Freshwater makes a very valid point that relying on critics in order to ascertain the reaction to a particular show has its limitations. This is particularly glaring where Shakespearean performance is concerned, as critics come to a show with certain preconceptions and previous productions in mind (as much as I really don’t like Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet, one gets tired of critics referencing the ‘advice to the Players’ when talking about his performance: see here and here). This is something that I will need to be conscious of when talking about those who were paid to come and watch Macbeth, whether to sell it to the public, discourage people from seeing it, or (if they were reviewing it for an academic publication) to generally discuss its successes and failures in an attempt to place it in dialogue with previous or concurrent productions of the same play. Or even similar or wildly different ones at that.

So what I want to figure out is what do ordinary audience members remember from this production (urgh, I hate using the word ‘ordinary’). What are the lasting images? If not, what are the sounds, the moments, the words that stick out in the memory? Do they, too, place this Macbeth in dialogue with the likes of Trevor Nunn’s 1976 production or other productions that they have seen? Do they compare Sher and Walter to other Macbeths and Lady Macbeths that they have seen, or measure them up by some general cultural consensus that determines what they ‘should’ be? (Obviously owing to her firsthand experience, Walter is especially good on Lady Macbeth’s cultural legacy: see Actors on Shakespeare.) Whether these memories are big or small, verbose or concise, they are welcome, and fascinating in any way. So, naturally, please get in touch. And generally, suggestions/ideas/comments are always welcome.

[P.S. I’m giving a paper on ‘Reading Shakespeare: Macbeth at the RSC and the actor’s account’ at this year’s BritGrad conference. Do come along if you’re interested in hearing yours truly yammer on about Sher and Walter for twenty minutes flat. I promise it will be interesting. Somewhat.]

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REVIEW: The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 20th Century Fox)

‘ah, something mildly interesting is in the distance’

[Brief warning: If you haven’t read the book and don’t want it to be spoiled, please don’t read this. Similarly if you haven’t seen the film, I guess. But seriously, read the book first. It’s better.]

There’s a moment early on in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, as we’re told how Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) goes to Yale, ends up on Wall Street, and subsequently living in West Egg. ‘I always wanted to be a writer’, he informs us (or rather, his psychiatrist) in voice-over, as he comes across a large pile of books and picks up the first on top. ‘ULYSSES’ is the title of that book, as Nick wistfully and briefly considers it, then regretfully puts it back on top of the pile. This is a significant moment, folks: Artistic Temperament doesn’t matter here, as we quickly cut to a open book about markets and finance, telling us that right now for Nick, Money Matters and he’s going to sell his soul to the devil because hey, Wall Street right? This, my friends, is SYMBOLISM, and A PORTENT.

This perhaps sums up Luhrmann’s approach to adapting the film. Instead of adding in delicate touches and subtle details, he uses too broad a stroke. Judging by his previous work (Strictly Ballroom; Romeo + Juliet; Moulin Rouge!; Australia), Luhrmann tells great love stories between star-crossed or mismatched lovers, love stories that more then often end in great tragedy (‘Come what may, I will love you until my dying day’, sing along everybody!). The affair between Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) is the anchor around which the novel fixes itself — and it becomes even more so of an focus in this adaptation, with lingering gazes, fingers grazing the other, and stolen passionate kisses, while Lana Del Rey wanly asks in the background, ‘Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful…?’ This, to some degree, works, leading to some very nice private moments between DiCaprio and Mulligan. But to focus so solely on making their love for one another the centrepiece of this film sacrifices the seedy, unfavourable aspects which underpin their relationship, and also sacrifices other aspects of Fitzgerald’s story which matter too. Sure, Gatsby isn’t who he claims to be, and he’s a fraud, but he does it all for Daisy so that’s alright, isn’t it? We also know that Daisy isn’t entirely perfect either, but the script never fleshes her out, and we never really find out what is wrong barring a few phone calls, the odd glass in her hand, her quivering voice, and THE ABSENCE OF THE KID (where is she, asks Kate Beaton? Here’s her answer). Positioning their relationship in the same framework as Christian and Satine or Romeo and Juliet doesn’t work, and ensures that we simply don’t care about them. In general, it’s a story told in too bold outlines, neglecting the subtleties and intricacies that make the novel so special to read.

The less than romantic aspects of the novel — the thin line of darkness, melancholy, and sadness — are neglected in Luhrmann’s film. Maguire’s Carraway gets carried away with it all, but he’s too bug-eyed, wide eyed, and cherub-like, nor does he possess the necessary complicity and world-wearyness that Nick needs. Nick in the novel is also reminiscent of the Bastard in King John in his idealism, loyalty, and lack of a clear moral compass (think of the commodity speech: ‘And why rail I on this Commodity? | But for because he hath not wooed me yet’), but instead, Maguire simply depicts him as an irritating, dislikeable Gatsbyite who writes the ‘novel’ to Deal With His Problems on the suggestion of his psychiatrist (I’m not sure if this framing device works, though there is a slight nice touch at the end concerning its title). Seeing as Nick is our guide into Gatsby’s world, and the audience’s point of view, this is a shame. Poor Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker is resigned to the sidelines as her relationship with Nick barely gets a look-in, and is consigned to simply being Gatsby and Daisy’s Token Gal Pal. Thankfully, Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is a man you love to hate, but is unfortunately given a Benedict-Cumberbatch-in-Atonement moustache, because without it Luhrmann assumes that you wouldn’t be able to tell whether you can trust him or not.

Luhrmann’s greatest mistake, however, is cutting one of the most important, and most poignant, scenes from the novel. This is the scene where Nick meets Gatsby’s father, a man of humble origins, at his son’s funeral — a funeral which is notable for the fact that no-one from his infamous parties turns up to it. The film tries to grapple the novel’s concern with emphasising the gulf between Gatsby as a veneer and Gatsby as he really is, but Luhrmann’s decision to overlook a broad demonstration of this is confusing. Cutting his father, a living reminder of Gatsby’s past, perhaps robs the potential of reinforcing this gulf, and also creating a sense of pathos. It’s empty and melancholy, and for me, the saddest scene in the novel — and it is sadly missed from this film. (Non-sequitur: I have no idea if this is intentional or not, but did DiCaprio’s unconvincing appropriation of ‘old sport’ grate on anyone else either? Anyone?)

I don’t think I need to wax lyrical too much about the music; enough has been said about its usage. I do agree with those who think it’s distracting — these songs are good on their own, but they also take us out of Gatsby’s world. There seems to be an attempt to replicate a similar aesthetic to Moulin Rouge! in its patchwork appropriation of past and present, but in all fairness, as I’ve continued to emphasise, Fitzgerald’s novel is a completely different beast to a musical set in 1900s Paris which wears its debts to early cinema, cabaret, and Marc Bolan on its sleeve. I wonder whether Luhrmann is running out of ideas, or fails to realise that different sources of material may not respond well to the same techniques.

By focusing so much on making Gatsby look good rather than making us feel for the characters or illustrating its shallow underbelly, this ensures for a missed opportunity of a film. (That said, I’ve yet to see the Robert Redford version.) Poor DiCaprio and Mulligan try their best, but the end product is the equivalent of being hit in the face several times with a sledgehammer. We’re bored as a result. If you want a contemporary demonstration of the destruction of the American Dream, I suggest you go and listen to The National. Or perhaps go back and read the novel again.

The Burning Question: Why Are Aspie Women Weird?

Logging into wordpress today, I had a cursory glance at the search terms that have recently led people to my blog. Other than terms relating to The Great Gatsby (seems like a lot of you like Leonardo DiCaprio), I noticed one which was slightly different from the rest.

It was: ‘why are aspie women weird’.

Gosh, good question anonymous Google / Bing / Yahoo searcher person. It’s a burning question that I, and so many of us weird aspie women and other allistic women (‘allistic’ means that you specifically don’t have autism/AS, by the way), have been attempting to answer for 800 years. It’s a question more important than why the sky is blue, how many children had Lady Macbeth, and why there was a potato famine in the 1840s. Actually, anonymous Google / Bing / Yahoo searcher person, how weird would you rate allistic women? Are they a weeny bit weird? Weirder even? Or, like Little Bear’s porridge, just right?

I notice that I’m making a lot of generalisations about allistic women here, anonymous Google / Bing / Yahoo searcher person. Not every allistic woman is the same, and it’s incredibly unwise to make such oversweeping statements. But anonymous Google / Bing / Yahoo searcher person (this is becoming a mouthful here), women with AS are not all the same too, nor are anybody on the autistic spectrum. I don’t know what image you have in your mind of what aspie women are and ‘should’ be, but if I were you, I’d scotch it right now. Because that image may fit one girl or woman, but it may not fit another. And it certainly won’t fit another after that. You know that analogy that the Tenth Doctor (you watch Doctor Who, right? Well, I’m assuming you do for the purpose of this) makes about time? That ‘it’s a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff’? You could compare that to autism. It’s not narrow and contained, it ebbs and flows, and people occupy different positions on the spectrum. Well, something like that. By the way, we’re not all made of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, just so we’re clear.

I realise I’m dodging your question though, and I’m sorry for that. I guess my answer for you would be, I don’t know, My Little Ponies? Thomas Middleton? The polar bear from Lost? Or we all could blame Seamus Heaney. OK, now it is official: Seamus Heaney made aspie women weird. Thank you all for your time, and don’t let your aspie women near his translation of Beowulf. Thanks for saving the internet, anonymous Google / Bing / Yahoo searcher person. You might just save the world one day.