SHAKESPEARE’S LAST WORD

Shakespeare’s last play is generally considered to be THE TEMPEST, first performed in 1611, and if that’s the case his last word is the last word of that play. I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Barbican in London a few weeks ago. The production stood out for two reasons: First, the extraordinary special effects, including an amazing hologram of drowning men, during the storm scene that kicks everything off. Secondly, for the remarkable performance of Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Simon Russell Beale is a man who speaks Shakespearean verse as if it’s his first language which makes him very easy to understand.

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Simon Russell Beale as Prospero

If you want to read a quick precis of the play before going any further you’ll find it here. Incidentally the children in the video are incredibly sweet.

https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-tempest/the-plot

Now back to that last word. At the end of the play Prospero has a speech which he delivers directly to the audience. Parallels have been drawn between Shakespeare and Prospero. Prospero’s mastery of the island has been seen as a mirroring of Shakespeare’s dominance of the English stage. So when Prospero steps away from the other actors at the end of the play and speaks directly to the audience this is what Prospero/Shakespeare says to us:

 

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s my own;

Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,

I must be here confined by you, 

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

Since I have my dukedom got

And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell;

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands.

Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want*

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crime would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.”

*lack

THE TEMPEST: EPILOGUE

So if you’ve got this far there we have it  – the last word is free. It’s an unbearably  sad speech, I think, although it’s often spoken with a light touch. When I heard Russell Beale deliver it I thought I understood it but reading through it now I stop and puzzle over it more. What is meant by a ‘prayer which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself …’? Does that simply mean a prayer so loud that God hears it? But I can’t imagine that Shakespeare thought a loud prayer would be more likely to be heard than a quiet one, can you? And what exactly is a prayer that pierces, let alone assaults? Or am I over complicating matters? This is the wonderful thing about Shakespeare – you can think you’ve got a hold of him and then he slides out of your understanding, like a feather on a breeze. But follow the feather and a whole new world opens up. Prayer. Pierce. Assault. Mercy. Contemplate those four words for a while and they may lead to some interesting places. And don’t forget that to Prospero this prayer matters because otherwise, ‘my ending is despair.’

A final word on the use of special effects in Shakespeare. THE TEMPEST, because the main character is a powerful magician and there is a strong supernatural element, lends itself to this kind of production. The storm and also the depiction of Ariel trapped in a tree by Sycorax the witch will stay with me for a very long time. But you need exceptionally good actors to act with avatars and holograms otherwise the special effects overwhelm the verse. Fortunately there aren’t any special effects that I can imagine overwhelming Russell Beale, so this production is a triumph! It’s on until the 18th August and I highly recommend it.

THE WINTER’S TALE or HOW NOT TO WRITE A PLAY

winters-tale-branagh

Judi Dench as Paulina in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

In my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN (published on 26th January) one of my characters, Terry, is an actor taking on the role of King Leontes in  THE WINTER’S TALE. Back in the day I had an idea I might like to write a play. I made the mistaken assumption that because I liked writing dialogue in my novels, plays would come easily to me. By the end of the course I felt like someone who walks past a BT engineer when he’s in the middle of fiddling about in one of those dark green wire-filled boxes. You stop and look and think how can he know what he is doing? Writing plays, I had discovered, was much more complicated and technical than I had ever imagined.

However, here are some things that my teacher would undoubtedly have advised against:

  • do not get rid of a character by having him eaten by a wild animal. Exit pursued by a bear? No,no, no – it’s not on;
  • check your geography. If a country is landlocked (Bohemia) do not give it a coastline;
  • don’t just have someone come on stage at the beginning of the second act and say 16 years have passed. It’s clunky;
  • do bother to sketch in a bit of back plot if you decide to hurl your character into a jealous, paranoid, fury that destroys his family and his kingdom;
  • you can’t tell the audience a character has died and then bring her back to life with the words,    ‘It is required you do awake your faith!’. Suppose they haven’t got any?
  • don’t write a speech like this because it will traumatize the actor who has to try and make sense of it and no one in the audience will understand it:

“Affection! Thy intention stabs the centre.

Thou doest make possible things not so held,

Communicat’st with dream (how can this be?),

With what unread thou co-active art,

And fellow’st nothing. Then ’tis credent … “

And on and on … into greater and greater obscurity.

THE WINTER’S TALE (Act 1.Scene 2.137)

  • do not write one act as if you are a Scorpio and the second act as if you are a Virgo; try for a bit of consistency. Take it from me a mash up of Othello and As You Like It will not work.

All the above are things that Shakespeare does in THE WINTER’S TALE. The plot of which goes something like this. *SPOILER ALERT*. King Leontes the King of Sicilia starts behaving like Tony Soprano without the therapist. He accuses his best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, of having an affair with his pregnant wife, Hermione. He puts Hermione on trial which leads to her death, the death of their son and the banishment of his infant daughter, Perdita. Too late it becomes clear he has made a terrible mistake and he and his kingdom are plunged into an endless winter of sorrow and grief. Jump 16 years. Perdita has been raised by a shepherds in Bohemia. She returns to Sicilia and is reunited with her father. Leontes is invited by Paulina to visit a statue of his late wife. When he touches the statue it is warm and it is clear she is not a statue but very much alive. He is reconciled with her and his kingdom returns to prosperity.

The first time I read the play I closed it with these profound words of literary criticism, ‘It’s bonkers and I’ve no idea how you’d act it.’ Then I went to see it and I thought aren’t actors mysterious, magical beings. I heard that speech spoken in a way that I felt the actor understood it even if I didn’t. I still thought it was nuts, and for the most part I found the second act pretty tedious (too many nymphs and shepherds). As soon as women start waving herbs about in Shakespeare it’s either too twee or a death is in the offing and I tend to switch off. But I could also see that it was powerfully nuts.

Then I went to see it again and it really got under my skin. Here are some of my thoughts.

  • It is a really odd play.
  • It is also a very powerful play.
  • It has one of the most tender of lines in it, ‘Oh, she’s warm,’ and one of the most savage, ‘Burn it,’ in reference to the infant Perdita.
  • It has one of the best roles for women in Shakespeare, in the character of Paulina. A woman who will not stop telling Leontes how wrong he is, a woman who is not afraid to speak truth to power. It’s an absolute powerhouse of a role and as you can see from the photo above it attracts some powerful actors.
  • Don’t go and see it if you’ve recently been bereaved; it will break your heart.

In TITIAN’S BOATMAN my character Terry, while struggling with the role of King Leontes, suffers a nervous crisis. Now come on! Don’t tell me you’re not a little bit intrigued by that scenario. Have you seen the play? Or have you read Jeanette Winterson’s novel ,The Gap of Time, a modern day version of it. What did you make of them?

SHAKESPEARE’S WORST LINE

 

IMG_20150605_150920_kindlephoto-398534It’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year. By the end of the year we’ll all be sick to death of the old boy. So in the spirit of January – broke, suffering from SAD, looking for the divorce lawyer’s number, scraping the glitter from the end of one’s nose  for the nth time, here is my offering on what must surely be one of the worst lines in Shakespeare.

It’s near the end of King Lear and is spoken by a Gentleman – poor man:

“Tis hot, it smokes;

It came even from the heart of – O! she’s dead.”

KING LEAR ACT 5 SCENE III

Try saying those lines out loud in the privacy of your own home. Try saying them and not cracking a smile. Imagine rushing onto stage and belting out that line in front of an already emotionally drained audience. Just imagine. Incidentally he’s talking about a ‘bloody knife.’ Err, a smoking, bloody knife.

I saw this line delivered in Derek Jacobi’s King Lear. The audience was relatively elderly, very attentive and I would say reverential. There wasn’t a school girl or boy in sight. But when the poor unfortunate actor who had to deliver that line burst onto the stage and belted it out, the audience burst spontaneously into hysterical laughter.  Maybe that’s the point of it. After all by that stage it’s all been a bit much – elder abuse, eye-gouging, horrible curses, war, and madness. Oh, a typical Christmas, then. So maybe the audience needs to laugh and the line delivers the sort of hysteria that is never far away at funerals.

I think the line works better if it’s delivered in a horrified whisper. No, actually I think the line works best by being cut. After all you wouldn’t wish that line on your worst enemy, would you?

If you think by the above that I am immune to the joys of Shakespeare you’d be wrong. I love him. In fact tonight I’m off to see The Winter’s Tale with Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh and I can’t wait. And I’m curious to read Jeanette Winterson’s novel, The Gap in Time – a modern day version of the play.

How about you? Are you looking forward to the following year of celebrating Shakespeare? Do you like Shakespeare? Do you have any favourite bad lines?

CREATIVITY AND MENTAL HEALTH

Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess

Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess

The other day I came across Anthony Burgess’s book on Shakespeare. It’s wonderful, highly idiosyncratic, waspish and very entertaining. Just what you’d expect from a polymath like Burgess.

This quotation caught my eye:

“If everybody owes God a death, the hardworking artist owes fate an occasional physical or mental breakdown: he cannot build so many new worlds without damaging his own fabric.”

Interesting, isn’t it? It certainly rang bells for me. Not, I should hasten to add that I’m comparing myself to Shakespeare or Burgess. Frankly, a lot of the time I even struggle to identify myself as a hardworking artist. However, what I do know is that if I pay no attention to my physical and mental welfare and simply write, things start to happen. Things that I don’t like. So I try to keep an eye on myself and life being what it is, I’m sometimes more effective at doing this than at other times.

The queen of managing a healthy creative life is Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way. Her tools are deceptively simple and some of the best I’ve come across:

  • morning pages – writing 3 sides of A4 every morning as soon as you wake up;
  • the artist date – ‘a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside to nurturing … your inner artist.’

She is very good on being healthily creative. She is  very good on lots of things.

Here’s Burgess again:

“It was time for Shakespeare to turn his back on London – not perhaps for ever, but for longer and longer periods of rural peace which should imperceptibly merge into a sort of retirement. Sort of: no writer ever really retires.”

This was certainly true of Burgess, who kept working through his final illness and was writing on his deathbed. So if you’re intending to be in the writing game or ‘creating’ game for the long haul and there is no retirement, it might be a very good idea to get some healthy habits and  find out early on what works for you.

On the other hand, if the mere idea of a healthy artist fills you with ennui …

If the above leaves you cold, cold, cold and Julia Cameron is not to your taste …

If you yearn for a bit of catastrophic, dramatic, ‘acting out’ from creative types …

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink

I’d highly recommend Olivia Laing’s book The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink? It should perhaps be called why male American writers drink but that quibble aside, it’s brilliant, very well written and fascinating in an utterly gruesome sort of way.  She writes about Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Great writers – great drinkers. Car crash lives. I loved the book; I also love my morning pages and artist dates.

What do you make of Burgess’s quote? Do you manage to build worlds without damaging your own fabric? Are you good at cheating fate? Any tips to share on mental health and the creative life? I’d be delighted if you left me a comment.