Monthly Archives: September 2015

Brilliant Birmingham

A new academic year’s around the corner, which in addition to chilly weather and a pleasing number of beer and cider festivals means more trips for me up to the Shakespeare Institute’s home base, the University of Birmingham. Most of the daytime is spent in meetings, making plans for the semester to come, but around the edges of those days comes time to explore the city, to eat amazing food, to talk to people, and to head off to the theatre when night falls. In the past week I’ve been able to see three very different and very brilliant new plays, each fronted by the wonderful Birmingham Rep. They’re not all digital, and they’re certainly not all Shakespeare, but each seems relevant, in one way or another, to some of the ideas I’ve been thinking about on this blog.

Charles III by Mike Bartlett, on national tour. An imagined history play that opens with Prince Charles taking the throne after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth… it’s not so much a Shakespeare adaptation as it is inspired by Shakespeare’s craft and style. Written mostly in verse, and with three interweaving plotlines, Bartlett’s play echoes questions about power and kingship that surface across Shakespeare’s history cycles while still feeling very much like a new and separate creation. The verse itself is, perhaps inevitably, strikingly different from Shakespeare’s own — lyrical passages or poetic phrasings are rare, with Bartlett instead favouring a more functional, prosaic, and often very funny brand of iambic pentameter. The Shakespearean inflections build as the play progresses, most notably in the characterization of the three male royals: Charles emerges as a Richard II-eque anointed king, William as a seemingly inscrutable and ultimately rather crafty Bolingbroke, and Harry as, well, Prince Harry/Hal. The result is smart, provocative, and surprisingly profound. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Charles III is packed with philosophical and political debate, but it’s never straightforwardly ideological. It voices royalist and republican views, but it resists taking sides in its examination of what monarchy represents in the twenty-first century. How do we reconcile the glitz, the celebrity, and vapidity with the history, the ceremony, and tremendous energy that goes into keeping the idea of monarchical power, in such reduced shape and form, alive? Is this a ‘golden age of monarchy’, as Charles ironically calls it, which ‘bothers no one, does no good, and is / A pretty plastic picture with no meaning’? If so, what’s the point?

Photo Credits: Tristram Kenton

Black Tonic, The Other Way Works, touring next to Bristol and Bradford. ‘Interactive theatre meets mini-break’, according to the production publicity, and that’s as good a one-line description as any I can think of. Staged in a real hotel (the Radisson Blu in Birmingham’s case), the show guides an audience of just four people through a detective story crossed with a meditation on the experience of space, time, and identity in a 24-hour, networked world. We begin in the lobby before taking the elevator up to ‘our room’, where scenes start occurring in the corridor, in our bedroom, in the room next door, in a conference room nearby, and eventually on the street outside of our window. The production makes the most of the strange no-space that corporate hotels can be: ‘we want you to think that you’re the only one who has slept in this bed’, a film on one of the room televisions tells us, that we’re in an intimate, safe, private space that exists only for us. And yet we know that this is in fact a strangely public space, that hundreds if not thousands of people have been here before us, that the labyrinthine corridors connecting our rooms lead us through alien, artificially lit spaces maintained at night by people we rarely see… in other words, The Shining was set in a hotel for a reason. I won’t give away too much about the plot, which centres around two different couples that a sinister relationship manager is trying to break up, but I will say that I found the production’s mix of narrative storytelling and ambient immersion brilliantly judged, and the acting and technical coordination truly impressive. Hiding in a bathroom with a fellow audience member and an actor, watching another scene unfold in the reflection of the mirror in front of us, was a voyeuristic and visceral highlight, as was setting my mind adrift in the soundscapes and visual beauty of the production’s two inset films. On a more techy/digital note, I left thinking about how digital modes of performance might integrate with very human, embodied, and experiential kinds of theatre, and furthermore how they can be as much about intimacy and isolation as about collectivity and the global.

Black Tonic 2015 Trailer from The Other Way Works on Vimeo.

A Translation of Shadows, Stan’s Cafe, touring around the UK. In a week of unusually difficult to describe shows, this one is perhaps the most summary-defying. But let’s try anyway… inspired by the early twentieth-century tradition of the Japanese benshi — that is, live performers who provided in-person narration for silent films (including dialogue and scenic description) — Stan’s Cafe’s new show explores the relationship between art and interpretation, showing and telling, mimesis and diegesis. In the process it also considers the relationship between art and reality, but let’s set that to the side for now… The show opens with an imaginary, modern-day benshi taking the stage, welcoming his audience, and introducing the film — Shadows — that we are about to see. The lights dim, the film begins, and so does the narration, which is energetic and amusing if fairly mundane (‘here’s a train’). The benshi‘s running commentary is rather like having the director’s track turned on while watching a DVD, with bits of trivia and anecdotes peppering the narration. He directs us in the art of reading a film (‘everything is included for a reason’), and he draws our attention to changes in camera perspective as well as the back stories of the actors. His approach is the antithesis of Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’, which argues that critical ‘interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone’. And yet, as the play continues, he also becomes the illustration of her essay, with his increasingly controlling commentary revealing ‘a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it with something else’. That something else is the story and the actors as he chooses to imagine and experience them, and so Prospero-like he begins interacting with and manipulating the ‘shadows’ that we’re watching on the screen. In a tweet after the show, I described it as Lost in Translation meets Synecdoche, New York meets Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I still think that’s as good a summary as I can manage; sometimes it’s easier and more accurate to say what something’s like than what it actually is. There’s one more show tonight in Birmingham, before the production sets off for Blackpool.

Photo Credit: Graeme Braidwood

So that’s it for a brilliant week in the theatre, which clearly left me with abundant food for thought. One final note is that at the start of the week I had the chance to visit Birmingham’s new Impact Hub in Digbeth, which is a creative co-working space dedicated to building ‘a better Birmingham, one that is fairer, more democratic and more inclusive’. They have some beautiful working spaces, and some really inspiring plans, and I hope to find myself back there, as well as the Birmingham REP, in the weeks and months to come.

The Impact Hub

Othello @The RSC, stage and screen

Some thoughts on the RSC’s Othello, which I was able to see on both stage and screen this summer. In each case I caught the production at an extreme end of its run, seeing it live on stage in its early weeks (still officially in previews, I think), and live in the cinema the night before it closed. It’s worth mentioning then that some of the observations below might have as much to do with how a production evolves over time as to how it changes across media. But caveats aside, I’d like to start with a few of the ideas that stuck out for me after seeing the production in June, and then turn to the further thoughts I had after seeing it at the end of August at the Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse.

This production deals with race in a more interesting, complex, and meaningful way that most. It’s not just that it features a black Iago — though that of course is important. Out of a cast of 18, I counted at least 6 actors of color, a major institutional achievement in its own right (same goes for the director Iqbal Khan, and for the 6 female actors). In this far more diverse company than is typically seen on big national stages, Othello becomes not a lone black man in a sea of whiteness, but one citizen among many in a racially and culturally heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world. This doesn’t mean that issues of race disappear — far from it. Instead, it challenges us to think about how racial dynamics work when they can’t be reduced to easy binaries (black/white). It’s no mistake, I think, that the production’s most racially charged scene doesn’t actually focus on Othello, but rather is the party in Cyprus, where what seems like harmonious celebration soon descends into aggression and social conflict.


The women are really good. And I don’t mean this as faint praise, particularly when it comes to Desdemona. She is so easily an utterly naive, docile, submissive, and subservient wife — how can this be avoided in performance and her character made into someone modern audiences can feel more than perfunctory pity for? Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona is lively, impetuous, child-like, and perhaps even childish. She is naive, but with a palpably fierce sense of loyalty and justice. She’s not okay with what’s going on with Othello, she just really doesn’t get it until the end. Emilia on the other hand tends to give actors more to get stuck into, and Ayesha Dharker brings out the complexity and subtlety in her part. One of the many strengths of her portrayal is the vulnerability she brings to the role; Emilia can easily become the cynical, worldly wise counterpart to Desdemona’s foolish waif, but here she is also complicated by her own insecurities and shaped by a moving tenderness.

Othello is not blameless before Iago gets to him, and military life is certainly not noble.
The most obvious way we understand this is through the extra-textual torture scene inserted after the party scene and before Desdemona starts her ill-fated attempts to get Cassio re-instated in his post. To be a part of military culture, this production suggests, is to be a part of brutal and even inhumane campaigns against other countries, cultures, and their people. And if we might be tempted to think that Othello is merely the distant manager of a rouge troop, we are soon corrected by his own swift and decisive turn to torture when Iago starts suggesting to him that Desdemona is not all that she seems.

Hugh Quarshie’s performance as Othello is muted and even under-powered. There is a still core at the centre of Quarshie’s Othello that makes him imposing, compelling, but also at times inscrutable. His is a quiet and contained Othello, obviously enraged by his situation (or so the torture of Iago would suggest) but also strangely affectless. No wonder Desdemona is confused. For me this got worse as the production went on, and made the second half particularly difficult to grasp. The final scene was among the flattest I’ve seen, with Othello’s ‘It is the cause, my soul’ speech unfolding a bit too much like a to-do list. Though other exchanges in the scene did suggest more passion and conviction, they never grew into something greater, and the end effect for me was a disappointing woodenness. Over the course of his career, Quarshie has been famously outspoken about how the typical understanding of Othello’s emotional journey is an inherently racist one. But re-reading that journey caused its own problems in terms of clarity and power of character, leaving me underwhelmed as I left the theatre.


So, with all this in mind, what did I notice, rethink, or experience differently on a second viewing, this time from my seat in the cinema?

First, and most importantly, the camera finds nuance where the stage does not. Quarshie’s Othello was still oddly contained when viewed through the camera lens, but certain choices about his character’s emotional arc did become clearer. What I saw in his Othello this go round was an ample dose of Hamlet — his lurching from stillness to rage and back again looked more cerebral deliberation and manipulation than wooden inscrutability. When he slapped Desdemona, calling her ‘that cunning whore of Venice / That married Othello’, I was surprised to find myself thinking of Hamlet and Ophelia’s nunnery scene. Disgust and righteousness were the top notes, hurt and loss the undertones; misogyny and misanthropy were present in equal measure. In the final scene, no nervous chuckles could be heard, and the focus of the camera helped intensify and structure the dialogue that I had previously found flat and strained. To my surprise, the lines that popped out for me more than ever before were Othello’s comments on the handkerchief, and the difference between murder and sacrifice:

By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in’s hand.
O perjured woman! thou dost stone my heart,
And makest me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice:
I saw the handkerchief.

What he’s talking about here is emotion, and the way it colours his actions — something I only realize now from reading Frederika Bain’s chapter on affect and execution in the collection on emotion that Richard Meek and I brought out this year. In it Frederika shows how executions were supposed to be accompanied by minimal to no affect — these killings are just and deserved, and so they are governed by reason rather than passion. Murders, on the other hand, were marked by their lack of emotional restraint, with the unbridled feeling that accompanied them actually serving as a sign of their criminality. This is of course a historical approach to the issue, but it struck me as strangely appropriate in thinking about Quarshie’s performance. Containing emotion becomes a way of consolidating Othello’s political, social, and intellectual power; he is not a gull, or passion’s slave, but rather a deliberate and righteous judge. The problem that remained for me, however, is that I don’t believe that reason and passion are opposing forces, and I don’t think Shakespeare did either. While the camera helped me find nuance in Quarshie’s performance, I still felt that by denying Othello fuller emotional expression he also denied him his full power and complexity.


Second, the camera can make assertions in places where the stage simply suggests. There are several examples I could talk about here, but let’s just go with two. In the staged version, the added torture scene doesn’t directly involve Othello, but he is certainly implicated: first and foremost by being the leader of these men, second by shuffling around the edges of the stage while the scene is going on, and third by initiating torture himself in a later scene. In the filmed version, his complicity and command are made much clearer — at the end of the sequence we get a framed shot of Othello looking through papers in a file (the tortured prisoner’s?), a choice that specifically directs the political force and affective discomfort of this interpolated scene towards this one man. Likewise, at the very end of the production, we close with a final shot of Iago, down on his knees, laughing diabolically as the lights go out. His laughter continues to reverberate in the darkness until the lights come up and the applause begins. I have no memory of this choice from the night I saw it on stage, which makes me wonder if it simply wasn’t part of the production at that early stage. But even if that is the case, its importance is deliberately underscored here, as is Othello’s participation in a kind of warfare that is far from dolce et decorum.

Finally, I really like those floating crane shots. Basically, every time they appear in the film, there’s a comment in my notebook saying something like ‘really nice shot!’, or ‘beautifully filmed!’. Even when this is the torture scene, or Othello manhandling Emilia, or indeed the Willow song. Give me a sustained wide shot, and I’m happy. Add some visual wonder to it, and I’m positively elated. Like the stadium shot in sports, these views let me see what’s going on and anticipate action before it actually occurs. But having read Barker’s book this summer, I’m also aware of the fact that not everyone feels this way. Am I over-prizing the long shot, and the kind of perspective it allows? How many different ways are there to see, and feel, a play?