Category Archive • Theatre
December 21, 2004
Defensible space contrast in Birmingham

Last night I concocted a Samizdata posting on the identical subject, the closing of a play at the Birmingham Rep that was alleged insulting to Sikhs, to one that Perry de Havilland posted about while I was doing mine. So I scrapped mine. He linked to this story, I linked to this BBC report, to this review (which was written before thing got violent), and to this further comment (when the violence had happened and the production had been cancelled).

I ended what would have been my Samizdata bit by speculating (and hoping) that we had not heard the last of this row. Nevertheless, I rambled over much the same ground as Perry had traversed more concisely, so I refrained from posting mine.

But now, it seems that indeed we have not heard the last of this row, and that Birmingham may not even have seen the last of the play itself being performed:

The manager of a Birmingham theatre company is considering staging a play cancelled after a violent demonstration by members of the Sikh community.

Mr Foster told BBC Radio 4's PM: "I think it's one of the blackest days for the arts in this country that I've ever experienced.

"If I'm really honest, I think the people who have made the decision ... have actually been cowards and I don't think we should be cowards in this country.

"We can't allow violence to dictate what we produce in this country in artistic forms."

Well said mate.

However, I cannot help wondering if the contrasting attitudes of the boss of the new Birmingham Rep, where the play was cancelled, and of Mr Foster, who now wants to stage the play at the old Rep, might have something to do with the fact that the old Rep looks like a far easier place to defend against a violent mob.

Here's the New Theatre:


I couldn't find a picture of the old Rep, but I did manage to dig up this map, here.


I know which one I'd rather try to stop rioters trying to get into. The new edifice seems to be surrounded only by open country, and to be pretty much made of glass, a hopeless combination. Definitely not a building to be throwing stones from, even if only metaphorically. The old Rep, on the other hand, seems to be stuck in a small street, defended by being flanked by buildings on either side, like the one's in London's West End, and I'm guessing it's much more solidly constructed and less vulnerable to missiles than the new place.

BirminghamRepOld.jpgAh, and now I have found a picture of what I think must be the old Rep building. It's only a tiny little picture, but it makes my point well, I think.

With only a bit of skill, the Police could probably stop rioters getting anywhere near the old Rep, and if rioters did get near it they'd do far less damage. Plus, if anybody bent on doing damage contrived to sneak in before showing their violent hand, they'd have a far harder time escaping.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:38 PM
September 16, 2004
The Globe Theatre on the telly again

I have just watched the first half of the televised Measure For Measure from the Globe directed and starred in by Mark Rylance, the same team, in other words, who did that magnificent Richard II, also on BBC4 TV.

This Measure for Measure has been, for me, somewhat of a disappointment. The funny bits weren't funny enough, and worse, the serious bits werent' serious enough.

David Starkey, commenting at half time, said it all. The basis of the play is that it is set in a world which takes sex seriously, and somehow that has to come across. There are rules for sex, and God help you if you get caught disobeying them. This did not come across here. I thought momentarily that maybe that could be accomplished by setting it in some decaying Muslim Fundamentalist state, which is falling apart but still lashing out with the remnants of its dogmatic certainties. But that wouldn't work because fundamentalist Islam blames women for everything, and in Measure for Measure, Claudio is to be punished for his adultery.

No, all I want to see is a better production. The other commenter, the actress Juliet Stephenson, herself a notable Isabella apparently, said that it was good to see all the arguments so clearly laid out. But they didn't sound clear enough to me.

But now the second half is underway, and Shakespeare's sheer genius as a script writer is now sweeping everyone and everything along, and everything, despite all the confusions of the first half, is being made clear. The underlying situation – so serious for those in it, so weird in the way the Duke set it all up – simply cannot be denied, for all the tittering.

There was much talk at half time of The Duke being James I, but to me he comes across as more like a self-send-up of the God Almighty Playwright himself. Shifting the characters hither and thither. Slinking away to let them do their worst, yet still spying on them. In charge, yet not in charge. Enraged when some of the characters (Lucio in particular) subvert his plottings and make nonsense of his delusions of omnipotence. Hah! What a strange play.

And a production of two halves.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:59 AM
July 08, 2004
Professor Ken Minogue is now a drama critic

I could probably afford the occasional trip to the theatre, but the prospect does not appeal. And what definitely does not appeal, because this I definitely cannot afford, is to acquire the theatre habit.

But for those who would appreciate regular theatre criticism from an elegantly conservative viewpoint, there is now Professor Kenneth Minogue to turn to. He is now this blog's theatre correspondent.

Here's a taste of his recent review of a recent Globe Theatre production of Much Ado About Nothing:

Thespians in Britain have long since taken up a moral doctrine in which the identities of actors must be subordinated to a generic humanity. By something like a kind of brainwashing, we are to be trained barely to notice and certainly not to respond to the physical identity of the actors. This may be politically admirable, but it makes for terrible Shakespeare, and often for feebly spoken verse. Physical details are important. Falstaff has to have a pillow in his belly, Helena must be taller than Hermia, and a Richard III calling 'A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!' from the turret of a tank (as happened in a recently film) cannot but bring one up short. The effect of this kind of political correctness at the Globe is just to make its performances look like end of term productions.

The polite but deadly skewering is a Minogue speciality.

Picture of the skewered production:


A quibble though. Is Minogue perchance referring to the (relatively) recent Ian McKellen film of Richard III? Maybe he isn't. But if he is, then that line was – according to my recollection – spoken not from a tank but from a jeep, the wheels of which were rotating futilely in the mud. Richard's cry sounded a little odd, but not illogical. A tank was (memorably) involved at the beginning of this movie, when a tank smashed through the wall of a library, again very effectively. In general, I loved that McKellen Richard III. Cursory googling reveals no Richard III movies since that one.

If it was another movie that Minogue was thinking of, my apologies. If I'm right that it was this particular Richard (and that it was a jeep) then the point that Minogue is making is still a good one, even if imperfectly illustrated.

Later: yes. I have the McKellen Richard III DVD. I checked. It was a jeep. But the wheels were not stuck in the mud. The jeep was just stuck futilely over a concrete overhang, denying the back wheels any purchase on the ground beneath.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Professor.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:41 AM
May 04, 2004
Oh what a rogue and peasant slave Trevor Nunn is (or: why I prefer dead entertainment to live entertainment)

Today I found myself in Waterloo Road, and the walk back home took me past the Old Vic theatre. They have a production of Trevor Nunn's Hamlet running there, and it's being much talked about. So I went in to see about how much it might cost for me, or maybe me and a friend, to see Trevor Nunn's Hamlet.

The crappiest seats to watch Trevor Nunn's Hamlet, where you don't actually get to sit down at all, to watch Trevor Nunn's Hamlet, are £10. The crappiest seats where you do get to sit down and watch Trevor Nunn's Hamlet are, if I remember it right, £12.50.

TrevorNunn.jpgThe genuinely decent seats for Trevor Nunn's Hamlet are £37.50. This is way out of my league. No offence to Trevor Nunn's Hamlet (keep reading, we'll get to offending Trevor Nunn's Hamlet quite soon now) but this is more than I can afford. What if I really like it and want to go again, to Trevor Nunn's Hamlet? What if I want to take another friend to Trevor Nunn's Hamlet. That's a whole trip to the South of France.

One of the more annoying affectations of the British subsidised theatre is that even when a production clearly has a Big Star Performer, as here, they nevertheless list the actors in alphabetical order. So who the hell is playing Hamlet? Impossible to tell.

No problem about telling us all about how important Trevor Nunn is though. He gets start billing on the posters. You'd think he was playing Hamlet. "Trevor Nunn's Hamlet." As they say in America: please. You do eventually learn, if you follow that link and read past the big picture of Trevor Nunn, that Trevor Nunn's Hamlet is actually being acted (as opposed to directed/produced) not by Trevor Nunn as you might have expected, but by a certain Ben Whishaw, 23.

Guess who's playing Gertrude. Correct. Mrs Trevor Nunn.

In case you are confused, and given that Trevor Nunn doesn't actually act Hamlet in Trevor Nunn's Hamlet, did Trevor Nunn perhaps write Trevor Nunn's Hamlet. No again. Trevor Nunn's Hamlet wasn't actually written by Trevor Nunn at all, but by William Shakespeare (1564-1616). True. Not Trevor Nunn at all. Trevor Nunn just told the actors where to stand and organised the rehearsals. Just for that, Trevor Nunn gets to have Trevor Nunn up on the poster in big letters. TREVOR NUNN.


Franciscus4.jpgI made my way to Neil's barrow of second hand classical CDs in Lower Marsh, prior to visiting Gramex, where second hand classical CDs are sold indoors. Gramex had few pickings, but at Neil's barrow I got a CD of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor opus 132, which is by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and which is one of the peaks (one of a set of peaks in the form of all the late Beethoven String Quartets) of Western Civilisation, played by the Franciscus Quartet, or by Franciscus Kwartet as it says on the front. It's a Dutch production, recorded in Delft in 2003.

Price: £1.

I've just listened to it. It's excellent.

If I could watch a second hand DVD of Trevor Nunn's William Shakespeare's Hamlet for, say, a fiver, as many times as I wanted, and with as many friends as I wanted, then I might be interested.Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:26 PM

April 27, 2004
James Burbage opens London's first theatre and his son gets fat

As threatened here already, John Richardson's The Annals of London is going to be a rich source of postings here. 1576, for example, starts very enticingly:



On 13 April James Burbage, who lived in Holywell Street, Shoreditch, leased a piece of ground on which he built London's first playhouse. It was called simply the Theatre, and its site was that of today's 86-90 Curtain Road. Made of timber, it was probably circular or polygonal in shape. At the end of the theatre's 21-year lease, the building was dismantled and moved to Bankside, where it was resurrected as the Globe.

Because of the prevailing puritanical view of theatrical performances, companies of players sought the protection of noble patrons. Burbage was adopted by the powerful earl of Leicester and was granted a royal patent to perform. It is likely that works by Marlowe and many of Shakespeare's plays were performed here during the Theatre's brief life.

Burbage's theatre opened in the autumn. A few months later, probably early in 1577, the Curtain Theatre began in the same road, south of today's Holywell Lane; it is thought to have been built by one Henry Lanman. Superficially it would seem that Curtain Road derives its name from its theatrical past, but in fact there were no curtains in Elizabethan theatres. The theatre and road instead were named from a cluster of buildings which probably supplanted a fortification wall (curtain wall) here.

The Curtain managed to survive until 1627, but was gradually eclipsed by the fame of the theatres in Southwark.

burbage.jpgThe 1602 entry concerns James Burbage's son Richard, the celebrated actor, for it was in that year that Hamlet was premiered, at the Globe, with Richard Burbage in the title role.

But by then Burbage had become rather fat. Which is why …

… It is suggested that the lines:

King: Our son shall win.

Queen: He's fat and scant of breath.

were written by Shakespeare to take account of his friend's unfit state.

It can't have been the first time that a script got rewritten to accommodate an actor who looked different to the originally envisaged character, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:46 PM
March 21, 2004
It was Polonius who said that!

One of the most often quoted quotations, and one of the most severely misunderstood, goes as follows:

This above all, to thine own self be true, …

This is routinely attributed to Shakespeare, and of course that is not completely wrong. Shakespeare did indeed write this line. But what is routinely forgotten is that these words were written by Shakespeare, yes, but spoken by Polonius, a character in a play (Hamlet) which involves a lot of extremely unpleasant people, Polonius being one of the more repellent among them. Polonius is a conniving, deceitful, duplicitous, pompous, court creature. All of which makes the next bit of that quote (from Act I scene iii, if you doubt me) especially ironic:

… And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

It doesn't follow at all, of course. Being "true to yourself" is a classic excuse for telling lies to other people.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:33 PM
January 06, 2004
How digital radio and digital TV has temporarily turned my clock back

My life just now is going through an odd phase. It will not last because it is absurd, but while it lasts it is strange, and I at least will enjoy reading about it in, I don't know, five years time, when the problem I am now mired in has been solved, and I've forgotten about it. (Never forget that my number one reader here is me. That explains a lot.)

But back to this odd phase. I'm talking about the fact that before I went digital, I could record TV programmes, and radio programmes, semi-satisfactorily, but now I can't. Now I'm sure that there are simple procedures for solving these problems, but the trouble is that just for now it they are too complicated. I'm sure that if I could get a routine going, I could record radio programmes on my hard disc and then play them back through the speakers attached to my computer. I'm pretty sure that I can't record digital TV now, until I get a "TiVo", or whatever those things are called. Recording digital TV on videotape is worse than analogue TV on videotape, because the sound is utter crap.

Please spare me the helpful advice about all this. There are more important things going on in my life right now than being able to record every digital signal that enters my kitchen. When everyone else is kitted out with the relevant stuff I'll get it too, and that will be that.

But meanwhile, my life has reverted to the pre-video-recorder age. My weekly clock is now governed by the Radio Times and its contents. I find myself inventing non-existent alternative dinner engagements, so that I can watch certain movies or listen to certain classical concerts, or watch a cherished re-run of Ab Fab.

Take last night. Basically, the job in hand was to write this about how Michael Jennings wants a job. I had promised it for Monday, and did actually finish it in the early hours of today. But alas, BBC TV 4, on channel 10, was simultaneously broadcasting, live from the new-olde Globe Theatre, London, the Mark Rylance Richard II. Which was fantastic.

Basically, I have nothing much more to say about this production than that. It was fantastic. It was outstanding. Rylance's characterisation of Richard was the most convincing I've ever seen. Bolingbroke was very fine. The John of Gaunt speech was very fine. Blah blah blah. Fine fine fine. Anyway, I had to watch it. It was last night or never (although actually of course they'll rerun it several more times and it will be available soon on DVD).

And in among it, I did the piece about Michael wanting a job. So, with digital TV, I write a bad article and Michael has to settle for a dead-end job. No digital TV, the article is brilliant, Michael becomes a billionaire uber-geek and lavish sponsor of Brian's Culture Blog which proceeds to take over the world. Such is history. Anyway, as I say, it's an odd time in my life.

And then this morning I had to get up at the crack of … well never mind, to listen to a promising Dvorak chamber music recording on Radio 3. Radio 3 is now a near continuous delight. Thank god it isn't all as good as some of it is, or I'd never do anything except listen to it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:36 PM
October 09, 2003
Echoes of Macbeth

I like this piece by Friedrich Blowhard about Macbeth.

Friedrich's Macbeth reminds me of Shaka Zulu, whom I've just been reading about. He too was one weird guy, whose motivations don't seem to have been purely "political". He too seemed to be spoiling for a fight all the time, rather than merely a man who had to fight to achieve mere worldy ends. On one occasion, he banned sex for an entire year throughout his realm. Couples where the wife got pregnant were executed. How weird is that? Also, in Africa in those days and I daresay in these days too, the political atmosphere is altered somewhat by the tendency of sons to murder their fathers to get the top job, and the consequent tendency of fathers to murder their sons in order to prevent their sons from getting the top job.

Another possible Macbeth reference caught my ear recently. Apparently the recently deceased Alec Guinness wasn't much of a dad. No touching or hugging or affection, etc. One day, however, he did try to give his son a cuddle, and he called him his "chicken". "I'm not your chicken!" said the son indignantly, running away. Was that a reference, I wonder, to that appalling moment in Macbeth when Macduff learns that "all my pretty chickens and their dam" have been murdered by Macbeth's people "at one fell swoop"? I bet it was. And I bet Guinness identified with Macbeth like crazy. He must certainly have played him a few times. And how about this? (see paragraph one) – a small part in Macbeth seems to have played a big part in getting Guinness started as a pro actor.

Now I have to go looking for where I read that bit about his son the chicken (not).

Can't find it. I think it may have been in the paper Sunday Times, in one of the cultural appandages, a week or two ago. The episode is in a new biography of Guinness, I think, and I read a review of that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:18 PM
April 11, 2003
On the how and the why of canons

Here is what may be another of those feeble Brian's Culture Blog postings that I warned you about. A quota fulfiller, as I've long been calling such postings on my Education Blog.

In my film list piece, I touched on the Posterity thing. How does stuff make it into the "canon"? This, after all, is why it matters if something is considered to be Art or not. If it is deemed to be art, more people will be told about it in future decades.

Well, I don't now have anything profound to add, but meanwhile, this, from Aaron Haspel, is good stuff, in answer to Michael Blowhard's original question:

Woody Allen's movie Crimes and Misdemeanors features an incredibly annoying TV writer, played by Alan Alda, who keeps repeating, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Well, the Canon is the fashion plus time. It's subject to exactly the same vicissitudes. Shakespeare largely owes his reputation as the greatest English writer to two 19th century German critics, the Schlegel brothers. Nobody read John Donne 100 years ago. In 1921 Sir Herbert Grierson published an anthology, featuring Donne, of "metaphysical" poets, borrowing the term from Samuel Johnson, who used it disparagingly. T.S. Eliot picked up on Grierson, emphasizing Donne's "difficulty" when difficulty was all the rage. An entire generation of academics, steeped in Eliot, began to teach Donne, things picked up steam, and now he is a "classic," and the streets are littered with college graduates who know nothing of Donne except that he is "metaphysical." Note that in this process one critic, maybe two, formed an independent opinion of Donne's actual merits.

The problem with art that is addressed by having a canon is how long it can take to get acquainted with it.

Profound thought. It is much, much easier to get a rough idea of a painting, and of how much you like it, from one minute's acquaintance, than it is to make a similar judgement of a novel, or even a longer poem. Not necessarily easy, but easier. So the relative power of the literature canon-arbiters is likely to be bigger than that of their confreres in the visual arts, a state of affairs that will only be reinforced when just about all paintings of any merit are available for view in decent repros on the Internet, which is surely not the case yet, but equally surely soon will be.

That's one of the advantages that Michael Blowhard has over me, besides being cleverer and more knowledgeable and everything about these things than I am. He likes pictures, and he can show them in a form that gives us a very good idea indeed of what he's talking about. I can do the same with architecture, once I get the aesthetics of this blog semi-organised.

But one of my biggest cultural enthusiasms is classical music, and although I can say that the Brahms Violin Concerto is very nice, I can't show it to you for twenty seconds confident that you will immediately get, at a glance, that it has a longish first movement, a delightful shorter slow movement with a famously prominent oboe part, and a nice upbeat gypsy-style finale. I can tell you all that, of course, but what have I really told you? Not much, frankly.

Thus, we can expect the classical music canon to remain more solidly in place, alongside the literary canon, for a while yet and maybe for ever, and at any rate compared to the paintings canon.

Or maybe, the paintings canon is going to get a lot, lot bigger, and a lot more blurry at the edges, to the point where time also becomes a consideration, the time it takes you to glance at that many pictures. And what Michael is doing is throwing a few thousand more pictures into the canon at this technologically opportune moment. He probably says that somewhere.

Gotta rush now. Tonight I'm giving a talk, about "culture" – wouldn't you know? - and I have to, er, get it ready. So apologies if any typos (and worse) take a bit of a while to get cleaned up.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:32 PM