Friday, 26 November 2004

Hamlet (Michael Maloney)

Saw Hamlet at the Barbican on Tuesday - a version by a Japanese director with Michael Maloney as Hamlet. I was bumped up to stalls row G from my upper circle side seat, so it was far from selling out. There were loads of students there - I’m guessing A-level rather than university (I’m so old now that I can no longer judge reliably), and most of them were girls, which suggests rather an imbalance in the students, unless there were girls colleges there. Being so full of students meant that there was more sniggering at bits they thought ‘over the top’ than there would usually be (so, more than none), like Hamlet’s dead father in purgatorial agony (which I thought was good, actually) and Ophelia hitting her nethers while mad (not so much). The girl to my left, with two others (and friends in other rows), asked me how much I paid for my seat, but I had to tell her that I, like her, had been bumped up, so I didn’t know how much extra her new seat would have cost her - probably about another £20. The girl on my right, on her own and possibly university rather than school, was making notes in the dark during the performance.

The stage was empty apart from eight strands of barbed wire running floor to ceiling, and twelve lightbulbs of varying sizes hanging from the ceiling. The bulbs would come on, and/or swing, at various times: I couldn’t work out if there was a pattern to the times. Barbed wire and bare lightbulbs I guess picked up on ‘Denmark’s a prison’, but the fact of the Japanese director made me think of prisoner-of-war camps, and Tenko in particular, which probably wasn’t a good thing.

The last Hamlet I saw had an excellent Polonius, played as a loving father and wise counsellor, which I’d often thought would be an accurate way to do it; this one took a more traditional approach, unloving father and tedious and dull man, unloving to the extent of being quite aggressive towards Ophelia. This always makes the idea that Ophelia goes mad with grief rather puzzling. This one took the interesting approach that in the scene where she meets Hamlet in the corridor as bait, and he behaves madly and leaves, and then she has a speech beginning ‘o what a noble mind is here o’erthrown’, you see that the encounter has disturbed her, and that her own mind has begun to be overthrown.

If Polonius was a dull fool, he wouldn’t be the king’s chief advisor; nor is it likely that the multitude would, after Laertes’ return after his father’s mysterious death, rise and call for Laertes as king. But then, it has to be said that Shakespeare plays are full of contradictory things that don’t always bear close analysis. Right at the start, right after Horatio and the guards have seen the ghost, they have an expository conversation about political events, which seems nerveless, given that they’ve just seen the ghost of their late king. You could play it that they’re just talking about anything to take their mind off the unbelievable and fearful experience they’ve just had, but I don’t remember seeing it done like that..

It’s a play about two families, really - probably the two leading families in the land - , all of whom are dead at the end of the play. The students in particular - Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - just find themselves drawn into and caught up in events bigger than and beyond them. Horatio makes good decisions, R&G not so good. Though again, R&G are pretty consistently played as slimy and duplicitous, perhaps to make Hamlet’s cold-blooded treatment of them seem more acceptable, where in fact I think they could reasonably be played as friends who want to help Hamlet and do their best for their king; they’re just out of their depth, and are unfortunate enough to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, when Hamlet decides that from this time forth his thoughts will be bloody or be nothing worth (a moment done well here, with a look offstage after R&G which gave little doubt where his bloody thoughts would begin).

Hamlet, Ophelia, Horatio (Horatio’s a good part - best mate, good bloke) and Claudius were quite good (Peter Egan - last saw him in Noises Off). Gertude (Frances Tomelty), Laertes were okay. Fortinbras was terrible. The player queen was Japanese, and his English wasn’t great. The play interlude, especially the prologue dumb-show, was the only Japanesey thing about the play, apart from the armour of the guards and the dead king.

The scene where the players arrive and Hamlet gets the chief player to make a speech in which he moves himself to tears - I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do that speech in a way that makes it at all interesting or moving, which I think reflects that we don’t find moving what they used to, rather than any poverty of acting.

Today I bought a ticket for the RSC version of Hamlet currently on. Watch this space for more tedious pontificating about the play in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 23 November 2004


I discovered the Foxtrot cartoon strip via My Yahoo content, and I do like it. They have several US political cartoonists in the Yahoo content options, and they're often pretty good too - I don't know if it's chance that they're all left-wing, or if it's that there are no funny right-wing cartoonists.

shakespeare in quarto

Since I'm going to see Hamlet again tonight, here's a link to the British Library's site built around their stock of Shakespeare in quarto.

freeway blogger

An interesting website by a man who spends his time writing political signs on cardboard and putting them beside motorways, getting lots of exposure for little outlay. Some of the slogans are very good.

Monday, 15 November 2004

More from Andrew Bonar's Diary and Life

When giving reproof, he was as faithful and fearless in carrying out the Apostle’s injunction: ‘reprove, rebuke, exhort,’ but in a way that seldom gave offence. He used to say, ‘A man is never safe in rebuking another if it does not cost him something to have to do it.’

A gentleman whom he knew to be very excitable told him that during his illness he had had a vision of angels, and had felt one of them touch him as he lay in bed. Dr Bonar quetly remarked, ‘Have you a cat in the house? Don’t you think it may have been the cat?’

The story with which he closed his address on that same evening [his ‘Jubilee’ meeting in 1888] was one which he often told in illustration of what humbles a minister, and delivers him from self-satisfaction.

A Grecian painter had executed a remarkable painting of a boy carrying on his head a basket of grapes. So exquisitely were the grapes painted, that when the picture was put up in the Forum for the admiration of the citizens, the birds pecked the grapes, thinking they were real. The friends of the painter were full of congratulations, but he did not seem at all satisfied. When they asked him why, he replied, ‘I should have done a great deal more. I should have painted the boy so true to life that the birds would not have dared to come near!’

The Club of Queer Trades

'I agree that they [in the poor parts of London] have to live in something worse than barbarism. They have to live in a fourth-rate civilisation. But yet I am practically certain that the majority of people here are good people. And being good is an adventure far more violent and daring than sailing around the world.'
GK Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades; Penguin, 1946; p37. (First published 1905)

The revolt of Matter against Man (which I believe to exist) has now been reduced to a singular condition. It is the small things rather than the large things which make war against us and, I may add, beat us. The bones of the last mammoth have long ago decayed, a mighty wreck; the tempests no longer devour our navies, nor the mountains with heart of fire heap hell over our cities But we are engaged in a bitter and eternal war with small things; chiefly with microbes and with collar studs.

- ‘Will you have a cigar?’ I said.
- ‘No, thank you,’ he said, with indescribable embarrassment, as if not smoking cigars was a social disgrace.
- ‘A glass of wine?’ I said.
- ‘No, thank you, no, thank you; not just now,’ he repeated with that hysterical eagerness with which people who do not drink at all often try to convey that on any other night of the week they would sit up all night drinking rum-punch. ‘Not just now, thank you.’

- ‘Do you believe that truth is stranger than fiction?’
- ‘Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction,’ said Basil placidly. ‘For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it.’

- ‘Any more arguments?’ he said, when introductions had been effected. ‘I must say, Mr Grant, you were rather severe upon eminent men of science such as we. I’ve half a mind to chuck my D.Sc. and turn minor poet.’
- ‘Bosh,’ answered Grant. ‘I never said a word against eminent men of science. What I complain of is a vague popular philosophy which supposes itself to be scientific when it is really nothing but a sort of new religion and an uncommonly nasty one. When people talked about the fall of man they knew they were talking about a mystery, a thing they didn’t understand. Now that they talk about the survival of the fittest they think they do understand it, whereas they have not merely no notion, they have an elaborately false notion of what the words mean. The Darwinian movement has made no difference to mankind, except that, instead of talking unphilosophically about philosophy, they now talk unscientifically about science.’

Tuesday, 9 November 2004

three of my favourite jokes

Who led the Pedants Revolt?
Which Tyler.
(first heard on R4, a perfect R4 joke, requiring a knowledge of history, grammar and punnery)

Why do elephants have big ears?
Because Noddy won't pay the ransom.

What did Vesuvius say to Pompeii?
I lava you.
(I knew this joke for ages in my younger days before I realised it became funny when said in a supposedly Italian accent. I say it regularly to Bethan now.)

The Harlem Gospel Choir sings three Beatles songs

My mother and I went to see the Harlem Gospel Choir at the Royal Festival Hall. (They were fine, though we'd have enjoyed them more without the accompanying band - the arrangements were of the mellow jazz/funk style which seems popular in contemporary Christian worship.)

They said they were going to sing three Beatles songs. I guessed they would be All You Need is Love, Let it Be and With A Little Help From My Friends. They were All You Need is Love, Hey Jude and... Imagine. They Christianised the lyrics to Hey Jude, so it was a surprise that they left Imagine intact (or, frankly, sang it at all). 'Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky ... Imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.' Praise the Lord, indeed. Perhaps they weren't listening to the words.

Thursday, 4 November 2004

Bonar on suffering

He had been engaged to give an address to the Young Men’s Literary Society on an evening just a day or two after Mrs Bonar’s funeral. He could not take the subject he had intended, but he came as he had promised, and gave an address on some things connected with the Holy Land. The inexpressible sadness of his whole appearance, and his marvellous self-control, made a deep impression on all who were present. ‘God does not tell us,’ he said, ‘to *feel* it is for the best, but he does ask us to *believe* it.’
- Andrew Bonar, Diary and Life; Banner of Truth, 1960; p456.

We have got more from Paul's prison-house than from his visit to the third heavens.
- p459

There were two thoughts he often left with God's people in sickness. ... The other thought was that they are *teaching angels* (Ephesians 3:10). Angels learn much by visiting God's people. They know nothing of suffering themselves, but they learn from the patience and joyfulness of suffering believers. When the sick one enters heaven, some of the angels will say, 'Oh, here is my teacher come!'
- p460

Van Morrison in Lewis

'Van Morrison once visited Lewis and Harris and Scalpay to hear the Gaelic psalms for himself. The equally legendary Robin Morton accompanied him as guide and minder, anxious that Mr Morrison would not set the cat among the pigeons by asking the good religius folk of the Free Church about any possible connection between Gaelic psalm singing and African (pagan) chants. But on reaching the Free Church manse on Scalpay the resident minister beat Van Morrison to the shout: "Don't you think, Mr Morrison,'" said the minister straightaway, "that there is a fundamental connection between our Gaelic psalm-singing and African chanting?" It's called playing an ace, or spiritual - as well as musical - discernment.'
- Angus Peter Campbell, West Highland Free Press, 12 August 2004.

four more years

My first reaction was that the American people must be stupid. On reflection, they're just selfish, greedy, short-sighted, arrogant and insular. As we all would be in their position, I expect. Their position being similar to that of the British Empire in the 19th century. They deny the empire thing, but it's just a different kind of empire.

The only thing I think George W has in his favour - his professed faith - is ironically the thing that seems to be causing most concern to post-election commentators, who fear how he is going to repay his debt to his right-wing evangelical constituency.

It's a great shame the US evangelicals have become so closely identified with the right. You can see why some moral issues have drawn them there, but right-wing economics in particular have become part of the package (with their own theological justifications). Self-made self-sufficient individualism is held up essentially as a biblical virtue but owes more to perceived roots in their immigrant forebears and the American dream.

Outrageous summary of political theory: Jesus says, Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself; the left wing says, love your neighbour as yourself; the right wing says, love yourself.