Category Archives: visuality

Seeing Ninagawa: Macbeth and Titus

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This week at the Shakespeare Institute was a particularly exciting one. A delegation of colleagues from Waseda University in Tokyo came to see us and speak about the late, great theatre director, Yukio Ninagawa. Their visit coincided with the Ninagawa Company’s most recent residency at the Barbican in London, where they performed their revival of Ninagawa’s 1985 production of Macbeth (the production that first brought him to fame in the UK). The Institute and Waseda hosted a special symposium on Ninagawa at the Japanese embassy in London on Friday, and then on Saturday I was lucky enough to get to see the production myself (at last!). I won’t review it here, other than to say that it was genuinely astounding in many ways and that interested readers can find out more from Michael Billington’s expert account for The Guardian.

What I would like to do is share a bit of writing that I’ve been working on that relates to another Ninagawa production: the Titus Andronicus that he brought to the RSC in 2006. Like his Macbeth, which Billington describes as ‘unashamedly pictorial’, this Titus was a visual wonder — a fact that has led me to focus on it in an essay I’m writing on Shakespeare, the senses, and twenty-first-century performance. For this essay I’m selecting one production to illustrate the power of each of the senses in the theatre, and while Ninagawa’s productions are sensuous in many ways, it probably won’t surprise those familiar with his work that I’ve decided to choose his Titus to talk about sight.

Below is a draft of part of the section — still a work in progress, but moving in the right direction I hope!

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Many contemporary directors have sumptuously embraced the possibilities of visual experience, in particular those also working in opera or film, but there is arguably no greater practitioner of the art in recent memory than the late Yukio Ninagawa. ‘Always visually ravishing’, ‘staggering aesthetic beauty’, ‘so beautiful, [it’s] painful to look at’—these are the kinds of phrases that critics in Britain, as well as Ninagawa himself in his interviews with them, have applied to the director’s work (‘Yukio Ninagawa’ 2017; Billington 2017; Ninagawa qtd in Secher 2006). It perhaps comes as little surprise, then, that he originally aspired to become a painter before turning his attention to drama in his twenties (Huang 2013).

Consider his iconic staging of Titus Andronicus, for instance, which played in Stratford-upon-Avon for a week as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2006-7 Complete Works Festival, making it ‘the first Japanese-speaking Shakespearean production to be performed in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’ (Kawai 2009: 276). A vast, icy-white stage, almost blue in its frigidity, framed the action of this vicious revenge tragedy, providing a pristine canvas onto which its gore might spill. But audiences soon found that stage blood was in short supply: in an echo of Peter Brook’s 1955 Stratford production, billowing strands of ‘Kabuki-derived’ red yarn twisted and hung from each character’s newly opened wounds, be they Alarbus’s severed limbs, Lavinia’s mouth and wrists, Chiron and Demetrius’s bulging necks, or Tamora’s back as Titus drove a knife into it in the final scene (Billing 2007: 205). The effect was at once patently artificial and uncannily shocking: against the antiseptic white of the stage, and the contorted agony that constantly emanated from the actors’ faces, these stark rivers of blood pointed like arrows to the unspeakable violence at the heart of the play. At the same time, in their strange, emblematic beauty, they released the production from the trappings of naturalism and set it adrift in a mythic, dream-like world.

 

Figure 1 Lavinia (Hitomi Manaka) in Titus Andronicus, dir. Yukio Ninagawa, at the Royal Shakespeare Company (2006). Photograph by Keith Pattinson for the RSC.

 

No scene illustrated this heady mix of brutality and beauty more vividly than that of Lavinia’s mutilation in the forest. After the close of Act One’s court scenes, which featured a towering statue of a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the stage went entirely to black. Just a few seconds later, or at least so it seemed, lights returned to reveal a dazzling stage filled with dozens of huge, pearly lilies, set against a jet-black scrim and dappled with blueish light. This ‘scenographic … coup de théâtre’ literally set the stage for the nightmarish violence that soon followed (Billing 2007: 206). After Bassanius’s murder, and Chiron and Demetrius’s off-stage attack of Lavinia, the latter returned and staggered downstage, shrieking in horror and swathed in streams of garish red. Behind her followed Tamora’s howling sons, naked other than the bloody loin cloths that covered their genitals and the lurid strands of crimson yarn that decorated their bodies. Against their grotesque laughter, Hitomi Manaka’s Lavinia stumbled towards the edge of the stage, where she sank to the ground and raised her ribbony stumps to the sky for all to see. Positioned front and center in this perfectly composed mise-en-scène, Lavinia’s searing pain was thrown into relief—both visually and viscerally—by the ethereal beauty of the stage that surrounded her and the intense contrasts of red, white, and black that it presented. When Marcus at last entered, his niece moaned in dread, draping her long hair over her face and frantically trying to hide herself, to no avail, behind one of the set’s delicate lilies. No matter where she went, the shocks of red that issued from her arms and mouth made sure that all eyes remained fixated on her.

The stunning dissonance at work in Ninagawa’s rendering of this sequence goes some way to explaining why such a gruesome moment has become the production’s most reproduced, and implicitly most celebrated, image. Unspeakable violence and astonishing beauty sit side-by-side, with each extreme intensifying the other through the force of their juxtaposition. ‘When will this fearful slumber have an end?’ (3.1.251), Titus asks in response to the butchery inflicted on his family, but witnesses to Ninagawa’s extraordinary vision of the play have been less willing to wake from his other-worldly dreams. The fact that the majority of the production’s international audiences did not speak Japanese contributed to this sense of captivating, even hypnotic, estrangement, as well as a heavy reliance on the visual—or, as one critic put it, the experience of ‘hearing with eyes’ (Gilbert 2007: 39). With Shakespeare’s original words gone, Ninagawa’s use of colour, composition, and contrast translated the play imagistically, ‘turning [its] horror into visual poetry’ (Macauley 2016). In this sense, Ninagawa more than realized his early dreams of becoming a painter, though on a bigger and more dynamic canvas than he likely ever imagined.

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What I did this summer

Summer has officially been and gone, and almost as if on cue the leaves here in Stratford have started to redden and fall. A new cohort of students has arrived, and just three days into the term it feels as if they’ve always been here. The only difference is that I’m on study leave this term, observing all these changes from my window rather than being in the middle of things.

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Life at the Shakespeare Institute

For this precious term of leave I of course have many research goals, and hopefully I’ll be writing more about some of them on this blog in the months to come. But for now I thought it might be helpful to look back at what I’ve been working on this summer, not least because taking stock often helps me focus my mind as to what comes next.

While my blogging over the summer has been woefully thin, my academic writing has, happily, been much more fulsome. (I did win a readers’ award for my blog in July though! Official badge below.) Earlier this year I finally wrote up a long article on cinema broadcasts of Shakespeare productions, and I’m very happy to say that the finished version will soon appear in Shakespeare Bulletin as ‘”The Forms of Things Unknown”: Shakespeare and the Rise of the Live-Broadcast’. In many ways this article is the direct result of the thinking that I’ve been doing on this blog for the past four years, so it’s especially gratifying to be able to announce its forthcoming publication here.

In addition to this I’ve also been working on a chapter for an essay collection on Shakespeare and live-broadcasting edited by Pascale Aebischer, Susanne Greenhalgh, and Laurie Osborne, which will come out with Arden next year. My chapter, ‘The Audience is Present: Aliveness, Social Media, and the Theatre Broadcast Experience’, analyses a large set of tweets from two 2016 broadcasts and uses them to make a case for the importance of experiential ‘aliveness’, which I suggest is related to, but ultimately distinct from, the more familiarly debated concept of ‘liveness’. Both pieces have been a pleasure to work on and I’m very excited to at last be publishing research on both the formal and experiential dimensions of theatre live-broadcasting.

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The NT Live team filming Lyndsey Turner and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican – back for encore screenings in a couple of weeks.

But what next? Well, I am certainly planning to write at least one, and hopefully two, chapters of my book on Shakespeare and digital performance over the next six months. The one I know that I’ll be tackling is chapter 2, on live recordings and broadcasts, which is a no-brainer considering how much work I’ve already been doing on the topic over the last year (and more). The other one is less certain: it could be chapter 3, on digital or ‘intermedial’ dramaturgies, or it could in fact be chapter 1, on theories of digital performance. I had originally intended to write that one last, since it needs to encompass all of the issues covered in the book’s more practical chapters, but having had a go at theorizing ‘a/liveness’ in the aforementioned edited collection essay, as well as on this blog, I’ve begun to realize that doing some of the abstract work before the applied work is more possible, and productive, than I originally thought.

As I attempt to work all this out, I’m still trying to experience as many digital projects and productions as possible. That means a large helping of theatre broadcasts screened here in Stratford, but also as many digital things as I can muster when I’m on the road. At the start of September my family and I finally had our summer vacation, which we spent exploring Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. During that time I was lucky enough to catch two very exciting and very different digital engagements with the arts. The first was the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and Google Cultural Institute’s ‘Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces’ exhibit, which explores three Bruegel paintings through an immersive film installation. I had already experienced part of the project through Google’s online feature, and in particular its 360º-enabled video for Google cardboard (the video in the link above automatically displays in 360º when you watch it on a VR/Cardboard viewer). In person in Brussels I was delighted to be able to see the full version of the project, a digitally enhanced video projected onto three walls, which illuminated dozens of details in the painting and proved a richly beautiful aesthetic experience in its own right (and my companion agreed!). The project illustrated the value of remediation in a powerful way: this wasn’t just about creating digital copies that could be accessed more widely, but rather about using digital technology to open up existing works of art in a way that might deepen our appreciation of them.

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‘Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces’ in Brussels and at home

When we got to the Netherlands, things got a bit more theatrical: in Amsterdam we were able to see Simon Stone’s adaptation of Medea for Toneelgroep Amsterdam, a company that we and pretty much everyone else in the theatre universe has grown to admire. As is often the case with the group’s productions, live video featured prominently. In this drastically updated version, the two young sons of Anna (Medea) and Lucas (Jason) are making a video of their (steadily deteriorating) family life. On the white box stage, the video feed from the boys’ camera frequently appeared, zooming in on the strain, surprise, and sometimes happiness that crossed their parents’ faces. More abstract, non-diegetic footage, usually filmed from a bird’s-eye view of the stage, also flashed onto the backdrop at times, giving audiences a heady, out-of-body take on the explosive tragedy that we all knew would unfold. As is often the case with live video on stage, the camera simultaneously objectified and personalized its subjects, pinning them helplessly within its frame while also illuminating otherwise hidden traces of their inner lives. Like with the Bruegel exhibit, ‘unseen’ details of Euripides’s ‘masterpiece’ came forcefully into view, both through Stone’s engrossing adaptation and the camera’s penetrating gaze. And I think that’s where I’ll leave things for now: tech as microscope, at once distancing us from ‘originals’ and yet drawing us more deeply in.

Aura, aliveness, and art

A second post inspired in part by Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and the final one — I think — about my research adventures in the US last month.

So I’ve finished Benjamin’s essay now. At a whopping 10 pages, this perhaps isn’t saying much, but the intelligence, weight, and importance of the ideas presented there are not to be digested hastily. I’m still not sure if I know where Benjamin ultimately stood on the issue of technology’s impact on art: it seems clear that he’s disconcerted, dismayed even, by the way reproduction erases a work’s history and erodes its aura. He compares such a process to prying an oyster from its shell — though he doesn’t say it explicitly, the metaphor is surely one of death. ‘Art has left the realm of the “beautiful semblance”‘, he writes, leaving his readers with the lingering question, what happens next?

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The man himself, aura and all.

I’ll come back to that question at the end of this piece, but before that I want to think a bit more about aura, authenticity, aliveness, and digitization. As I mentioned in my last post, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on an essay about ‘aliveness’ during theatre broadcasts to cinemas and online. For me, ‘a-liveness’ is the less visible but just as important cousin of ‘liveness’, that ever-present topic in discussions of performance, technology, and mediation. What does it mean for something to be live, especially in a digital age? I won’t go into the details of the debate now, but my own response to Philip Auslander’s game-changing book, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, can be found here.

What interests me most in this debate aren’t the details of time and space that have often been taken to constitute different degrees of liveness, but rather the experiential and emotional pull that a work of art elicits when we feel its aliveness — by which I mean its vivacity, immersiveness, and depth, its irresistible demand. While liveness in terms of shared time and space can often enhance and even create a feeling of aliveness, I don’t think that it’s absolutely essential to the experience. In my essay, I’m exploring this idea by looking at how audiences at theatre broadcasts use social media — specifically Twitter — to form online communities of shared experience even when they are located at a distance from one another. In such moments I think we can see audiences ‘doing liveness’, to quote Martin Barker, whose research into live-broadcasting I have blogged about here.

Though my work so far has focused on aliveness as an audience activity and even construction — part of the surrounding context for the work of art — as I’ve been writing I’ve also been thinking more about the aliveness that arises from the work of art itself. This seems to me to be very much akin to Benjamin’s aura: it’s that ineffable substance that draws you in, that makes a work of art present, unignorable, captivating, thrilling. The question of what exactly this substance is is worth a series of blog posts in and of itself, so I’m going to resist attempting to answer it here other than to say that, in my view, it is most certainly about aesthetics (a statement that should seem blindingly obvious, but that has become somewhat marginalized in recent decades). Beyond that, I’ll simply offer an image of a work of art that for me is very much alive, in the spirit of showing rather than telling.

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Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani by Lavinia Fontana, c. 1595, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Those who know me well may recognize this image from the cover of my first solo-authored book; a further few may be aware of the fact that it’s a painting that privately obsesses me. This is partly down to contextual issues: why had I never heard of the artist, Lavinia Fontana, before 2013, and how did this extraordinary woman manage to become such an accomplished and successful painter in seventeenth-century Italy? Even more important though are the aesthetic issues: for me, this is a sumptuously engrossing painting, startling in its power of presence.

Interesting, then, that until a month ago I had never seen it in person. I first encountered it online, during a standard search for free images that I might use in a seminar publicity flyer, and later through the website of the Walters Art Museum, which through the institution’s tremendous generosity makes high-resolution images of most of its collection available to the public for free (authors, take note!). In fact, when I emailed the museum to see if I could reproduce this painting on the cover of my book, the staff there not only agreed, but also sent me a 275MB TIFF file. For those not in the know (like me), it turns out that this is really big — much bigger in fact than the original painting from which it was made.

It also means that you can zoom very, very deeply into the image, examining tiny details like the shimmer on each of Signora Hercolani’s pearls or the absorptive gaze in her eyes. When you do this, whatever part of the painting you are exploring, you also realize how much of it is made up of rich, inky darkness. Zooming into the painting is like venturing into the widow Hercolani’s very being, which fills up the frame with its cavernous, shadowy presence even as the work’s symbolic focal points, the loyal dog and the pure white handkerchief, point to her recently departed husband. In her eyes and in this darkness, the painting — for me — becomes all about her.

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So when I found myself in Washington, DC last month I wasted no time in making arrangements to get up to Baltimore to visit the Walters Art Museum and see this painting in person. Thinking back on the afternoon, I remember being not only full of anticipation, but actually rather nervous. What if the painting wasn’t actually on display, despite the fact that the museum website confirmed that it would be? What if I couldn’t find it? How would it be displayed? But, most importantly of all, how would I feel when I saw it?

After some shuffling between rooms I did at last find her, and I was impressed, though not in the way I expected. There it was, this painting that had not only fascinated me for years, but that also stood synecdochally for my own intellectual ambitions and achievements, made material in a book on a shelf back in England. I instantly fell in love with it again, but for different reasons than before: now, it was the love of recognition, of self-affirmation, of fulfillment. What it really wasn’t, to my surprise, was the love of unmistakable aesthetic power. This is not to say that the painting was and is anything other than extraordinary. Rather, it’s that looking at it and into it in person was not, in fact, as powerful for me as engaging with it digitally.

This might be down to the fact that it was now familiar: the shock of the new was gone. Perhaps more significantly, the museum’s method of displaying the painting veers more towards the decorative than the aesthetically imposing. Positioned above three smaller works, the painting is mounted well above human eye-line, meaning that there is no chance of meeting Signora Hercolani’s gaze straight-on. Perched on high, she is suitably imperious, authoritative, and aloof — all qualities that I had previously seen in the painting — but gone is the intimacy that I now realize was so impactful in my first encounter with this work.

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What this is all pointing to, as some might already suspect, is my realization there in the Walters that for me the aura and aliveness of the digital image was much stronger than being physically in the presence of the painting in Baltimore. Some of this is certainly contextual, but a good part of it is also formal. There is simply something about the digital image that I love that is not there in person.

In many ways this personal reflection is positioned as a rejoinder to Benjamin and his belief that aura always sided with the physical, original work. But in another sense, it’s not, because Benjamin himself recognizes in his essay that the ‘mechanically’ produced work comes with its own startling advantages. One is the potential for ‘simultaneous collective experience’, while another is the ‘incomparably more precise’ representation of certain actions. But most significant of all is the way new technologies open up the possibility of new worlds of experience in art: ‘a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye … The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.’

This has certainly been my experience with Fontana’s portrait of Hercolani — so much so that I was unsettled and even disappointed when those new worlds of formation were suddenly closed off to me in person. But to return to my very first question, where does that leave us? Benjamin doesn’t offer much by way of a definitive answer: in the final pages of his essay, he turns to a dark reflection on the growth of Fascism in his own time, and the way Futurist artists like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti were celebrating technology as an integral part of an aesthetics of destruction. He also talks about the use-value of art, about audiences, and about the way the technological arts cater the distracted masses rather than the focused observer. In many ways, the conversation really hasn’t changed, and as I read it I found myself agreeing with most of his essay. One thing I do know, however, is that my own encounter with the Hercolani portrait in digital form has been all about concentration, absorption, and auratic experience. It is in this form that the painting, for me, has truly come to life.

Banksy and digital art – making it and saving it

Banksy’s newest piece of street art has caught my attention twice this week – first for the work of art itself, and the powerful way that it incorporates digital media, and second for the clearing away of the work, and the way it’s being saved for the public digitally.

So let’s start with the work of art itself. It turned up last Saturday across the street from the French Embassy in Knightsbridge. At its centre is the iconic illustration of Cosette from Les Miserables, but with yellowy tears running from her eyes, and gas from a nearby canister clouding her body. Most have read it as a critique of the French government’s use of tear gas in refugee encampments in Calais.

Photo: banksy.co.uk
Photo: banksy.co.uk

This isn’t the first time Banksy has used his work to speak out against the treatment of immigrants and the dangers of xenophobia – for other examples see here and here. It is the first time, though, that he’s included a piece of digital technology that invites viewers to take his image a step further, and to have a look for themselves at the media footage he’s responding to.

Photo: AP/Alastair Grant
Photo: AP/Alastair Grant

That’s right, a QR code. One of those black and white little squares that you really only see in marketing materials these days. In his book The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, Steven E. Jones takes a swipe at these pieces of low-fi, quasi-digital kit, largely for their ineffectiveness (who actually takes the time to scan them?) but also for their feeble and rather outdated gesture towards some other dimension known as ‘The Digital’. I pretty much agree – I downloaded a QR reader to my phone a few years ago when we got an app-based walking tour in Stratford, but it never really worked that well, and eventually I deleted it in order to make space for something else. But Banksy’s use of the QR code really caught my eye, and got me thinking about how it really can work, provided that the thing it connects you with is something genuinely interesting, useful, unexpected, and important.


As the video above shows, Banksy’s QR code links the viewer to media footage of the very event he is critiquing, and in doing so it layers art with reality, painting with video, street art with newsfeed. It is multimedial and multiexperiential, inviting us not only to revel in his satirical comment, but also to witness a few, harrowing minutes in the lives of people just 100 miles away from London. In a strange way, Banksy’s painting makes this live footage become ‘real’, rather than the other way around. By inserting it into the well-heeled streets of Knightsbridge, by giving it context outside of the numbing repetitiveness of the nightly news, by making it a part of a conversation, it focuses viewers’ attention and creates new impact.

It’s interesting too that the best video documentation of the painting that I’ve found – the piece embedded above – was created specifically for Facebook by the social media outlet AJ+, and doesn’t exist separately as an independent URL. It’s meant to be shared, and unlike the versions that I found on more traditional news sites, it actually mixes in the video footage opened up by the QR code. Plus, it forgoes the heavy, didactic narration of the news presenter and chooses instead to frame the piece through music and single lines of written text. The effect, for me, is far more engaging, exploratory, immersive, and powerful.

Now, the coda – like so many Banksy pieces these days, this one has already come down (or at least part of it – while the bulk of the image was painted on a piece of easily removed plywood, the tear gas can is on the base of a stone wall). Given the price that Banksy’s works now go for, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it makes its way into a private collection. But before the removal occurred, a man from Google came with the company’s Streetview kit to digitally record and document it. In a few months, and certainly a few years, this may very well be the only high-quality, officially archived ‘copy’ of the work available to the public. So what started off as a mixed media piece on the streets of London might ultimately end up as an entirely digital one in the clouds of the internet, increasingly managed by the empire of Google.

This blasted heath: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

Last month I wrote the following post for Oxford University Press’s blog, as part of the launch of the New Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. I’m very pleased to re-share it here as part of DigitalShakespeares.

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Black Cuillin by Graham Lewis. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

How many children had Lady Macbeth? The great Shakespearean critic L. C. Knights asked this question in 1933, as part of an essay intended to put paid to scholarship that treated Shakespeare’s characters as real, living people, and not as fictional beings bounded by the creative works of which they were a part. “The only profitable approach to Shakespeare is a consideration of his plays as dramatic poems, of his use of language to obtain a total complex emotional response,” he wrote. Head-counting in Dunsinane was merely a distraction from the language of the play, which Knights might well have called “the thing itself.”

And yet, the question has often proven irresistible in performances of Macbeth, despite Knights’s now (in)famous denunciation. Indeed, in the opening scene of Justin Kurzel’s sumptuous new film version of Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, we learn that its answer to Knights’s question is at least one. No words are spoken, but beneath a slate blue, striated sky, a toddler’s funeral is taking place. The grieving Macbeths, played by the majestically charismatic Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, each approach the body, taking turns to gently balance a posy on the child’s still hands, and then cover his tiny eyes with coloured stones. Their kinsmen silently watch on, each swaddled in blankets against the brutal Highland winds, before eventually lighting the funeral pyre.


Were he here today, Knights might well have seen such a choice as a painfully literal take on the marital strife that later pushes the Macbeths’ relationship to breaking point, but the truth is that the spectre of child loss has long haunted interpretations of the play. Lady Macbeth’s fierce avowal in the first act that she has “given suck, and know[s] / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks” her has repeatedly led readers, directors, actors, and audiences to wonder what has happened to this child – a question made all the more relevant by Macbeth’s anxious lines about dynasty and inheritance in Act 3. He might have seized the throne, but he still holds “a barren sceptre” and wears “a fruitless crown”.

In Shakespeare’s own lifetime, child mortality was harrowingly common. At the worst of times, as many as one in three babies died in early modern England before their first year, and many more fell victim to illness during their childhood years. By the time he wrote Macbeth, Shakespeare himself had felt the terrible grief of child loss; his young son Hamnet had taken ill in 1596 at the age of eleven, and by August of that year he had died.

Shakespeare didn’t leave any writings that reflected directly on the death of his son – in fact, he didn’t leave any writings that reflected directly on any aspects of his life – but he did represent the world-shattering pain of losing a child in his history play, King John, which he wrote that same year. Here, the bereft Constance refuses to stifle her sorrow for her son Arthur, who has been taken from her and will eventually be killed. Her furious grief becomes the one comfort and companion she can count on in her life: it “fills the room up of [her] absent child,” “puts on his pretty looks,” and “stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.” Even when he is gone, it keeps his memory alive.

In Kurzel’s film, grief likewise proves a potent, world-altering force, conjuring visions in its protagonists’ minds and cloaking the bleak, moody landscape with a heavy loneliness. This landscape itself becomes a powerful character in Kurzel’s reading of Shakespeare’s play, and the winds and fogs circling around it literally atmospheric. Like the great auteur Akira Kurosawa, who carefully selected the “fog-bound,” “stunted” slopes of Mount Fuji as the filming location for Throne of Blood, his Japanese-language adaptation of Macbeth, Kurzel turns the physical world – in this case, the steely Scottish Hebrides – into a central piece of his storytelling.

Aided by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, best known for his work on True Detective and its malevolent, Louisiana skies, the “blasted heath” of this Macbeth is something brutal and beautiful, awful and awesome. Though the film is set in a feudal, medieval Scotland, visually and emotionally it owes most to the Western. Loss, pain, and emptiness are its hallmarks, death its constant refrain. We know at the start that it presents us with a world hostile to young life, and by the end we witness how it eradicates older generations too.

– See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2015/11/justin-kurzel-macbeth-child-grief/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=oupacademic&utm_campaign=oupblog#sthash.wJvPmIqY.dpuf

Visualizing the White Devil

Kirsty Bushell as Vittoria in The White Devil. Photo by Keith Pattison

Woke up this morning still thinking about the thrilling White Devil that I saw at the RSC last night. What I loved about Maria Aberg’s production was (1) it was visual, aural, multimedial, spectacular, (2) it was SMART about the text without being slavish, and (3) it was about NOW. It was also one of the first RSC shows I’ve seen to use video projections in a genuinely interesting, integrated, and artistic way. I was sitting to stage left last night so I couldn’t always make out the washes of image and color that would intermittently stretch over the stage, but I could see enough to realize that they were augurs of sorts of what was to come. In their own abstracted and beautiful way they seemed to represent Flamineo’s claim that ‘Man may his fate forsee, but not prevent’.

The production had a strong sense of mise-en-scène and created several visual tableaus that echoed and perhaps even cited other recent filmic phenomena, among them Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza, the infamous ‘Blurred Lines’ video, The Sopranos, and Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. I can’t do a full review but I wanted to at least try to map out a few of these visual references with some of the pictures currently available from the production.

(1) ‘ORA PRO NOBIS’ = ‘PRAY FOR US’ (#thicke)

Elspeth Brodie and Lizzie Hopley in the House of Convertites in The White Devil. Photo by Keith Pattison

(2) The Cardinal and La Grande Bellezza‘s Jep Gambaradella – the most powerful men in Rome? They both wear white trousers too.

Simon Scardifield as Francisco and David Rintoul as Cardinal Monticelso in The White Devil. Photo by Keith Pattison

And this is pretty much exactly what Francisco wears, though I can’t find a picture:

But most important perhaps are are the opening party scenes, and especially the use of the hermetic white box behind plexiglass at the back of the stage, which reminded me very much of Jep’s 65th:

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Why is it that the most antiseptic images are often the creepiest?

(3) A few more incidental echoes — Joan Iyiola’s Mercutian white wig and black mini-skirt, and Kirsty Bushell’s fallen angel:

(4) Cornelia as a slightly WASP-ier Carmela:

Peter Bray as Marcello and Liz Crowther as Cornelia in The White Devil. Photo by Keith Pattison

And finally, the necromancer and other thugs (no pictures, alas) as less Romantic versions of Furio, The Sopranos‘ most gentlemanly assasin:


All in all, BRILLIANT. Seriously, go see it. (And really SEE it.)