The metaphorical life

From anti-capitalist zombies to existentialist New Orleans, this week’s world of arts brings allegor

Zombies and Brains: The un-dead and the well-read

The living dead are back in cinemas across the UK, bringing a new onslaught of films about flesh-eating zombies and the unintended consequences of scientific experimentation.

First, zombies terrorise a small town in Texas after an experimental biological weapon is accidentally released from a remote US military base in Planet Terror, released in the UK tonight, on 9 November.

Then a few weeks from now we’ll see the UK premiere of I Am Legend on 19 December (with the national release on 4 January). In this film a biological war leaves Will Smith the lone survivor destined to battle against a breed of mutants.

I love zombie films, but perhaps not as much I love the critics who over-intellectualise these flicks as paranoid allegories for capitalism’s automatons who trawl the strip malls of our consumerist culture like the zombies in Romero’s 1979 Dawn of the Dead.

Yes, it’s true that Marx once called the capitalist system "vampire-like," evoking images of blood-sucking middle-managers preying on the working class.

But the intellectual elite seem to have run away with their metaphors, descending deeper and deeper into the theoretical esoteric of the "politico-aesthetic."

Curl up with one of Amazon’s "10 Best Zombie Flicks" and a copy of Mute magazine’s excessively theoretical article Zombie Nation, and see for yourself if the zombie sub-genre is truly a radical satire of capitalists devouring themselves (the ultimate in consumption!).

Meanwhile, the most radical consequence of pop culture’s devouring obsession with zombies is more likely the surprising proliferation of "Zombie walks."

Sprouting up around the world and mixing cultural critique with flash-mob style, Zombie walks – where people dress up like zombies and gather for marches and rallies of the un-dead – have kicked off from New York and Boston to London and Amsterdam.

Check out a video of London’s Zombie Walk from Leicester Square in August 2007. Also, see www.brains4zombies, the parody of Amazon that is "Your online home for Brains and Brain-Related Products."

Related

The web editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion page, Tim Cavanaugh wrote a piece on Reason.com this February on "We the Living Dead: The Convoluted Politics of Zombie Cinema."

Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, 2005

"Cowardice, Complicity and the Withering of the Soul of America," Zombie Nation in Counterpunch, 2 November

Waiting for Godot in New Orleans

As US authorities scurry to the rescue of their beloved Golden State, recently scorched by epic forest fires, residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward are still waiting – for their homes to be rebuilt, for their streets to be repaved, and for their neighbourhoods to be repaired and repopulated.

And as the government takes care of their Hollywood stars, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has arrived in New Orleans.

As the time drags on without reprieve, residents of the city will see free, outdoor performances of Godot this weekend. New York’s Creative Time and the Classical Theatre of Harlem are behind the production.

A play with a history of radical performances, Waiting for Godot has been repeatedly staged at San Quentin Prison in California since 1957. Then, in 1976 a mixed-race production was staged in apartheid South Africa, and in 1993 Susan Sontag staged it in wartime Sarajevo.

Meanwhile, the Beckett-acolyte Tom Stoppard’s newest play Rock ‘n’ Roll– about 1960s Czechoslovakia, socialism, and the Plastic People of the Universe – is up on Broadway in New York.

The political possibilities of theatre are then further explored in London this month with the production of The Lady of Burma (on from 7 Nov – 2 Dec at Riverside Studios), about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democratically-elected leader of Burma currently under house arrest in her country, amid the unfolding crisis.

Related

NPR’s story on the New Orleans’ productions of Godot

Anthony Minghella on Beckett in New Statesman

Clifford Odets’ 1935 play Waiting for Lefty, has workers waiting for Lefty, the union’s elected chairman, who never comes.

Bollywood does Dostoevsky

Tonight’s newest Bollyood blockbuster, Saawariya, is based on Dostoevsky’s short story "White Nights".

A love story about a chance encounter between an itinerant musician and a worker in the city’s red-light district, the romantic musical opens in the UK 9 November just in time for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

But it’s not the first time Bollywood has tackled European classics -- recall the industry’s adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Bride and Prejudice), where "the Bennet family becomes the Bakshis and Mr Darcy becomes a wealthy American." Bollywood has also done numbers on everything from Fight Club to Othello (Omkara) and Macbeth (Maqbool).

See India’s national newspaper, The Hindu on "Shakespeare in Bollywood."

Part of a much larger theme, Bollywood’s adaptations of Western literature and film echoes the similar experience of West Africa, where Greek tragedy in particular has become a model and inspiration for African playwrights. Favourites include: Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Uripides and Sylvain Bemba’s Black Wedding Candles for Blessed Antigone.

Related

The BBC on "Are Bollywood remakes a good idea?" Dec 2006

Kevin Wetmore’s The Athenian Sun in an African Sky: Modern African Adaptations of Classical Greek Tragedy, 2001

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BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown and the tricky question of staging the Henry VI plays

The War of the Roses plays are great crowd-pleasing popular hits. So why are adaptations so hard to get right?

This week sees the arrival of the second series of BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown, subtitled “The Wars of the Roses”. It’s nearly four years since the first, commissioned and screened as part of the “Cultural Olympiad” that ran in parallel with the London Olympics. Both series were executive produced by Oscar winner and James Bond director Sam Mendes, but largely directed by people who chiefly work in theatre, rather than television or film. The 2012 run won four Baftas, including for Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell Beale’s performances.

The plays that comprised series one (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) are universally acknowledged to be a prequel tetralogy to four plays from earlier in Shakespeare’s career, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. It’s these four later-set, earlier-written plays that are being adapted into the three episodes of the second series.

Of these plays, Richard III, twice made into successful and important British films, is by far the most famous and frequently performed, attracting star names like Martin Freeman and Ralph Fiennes to London stage productions in the last three years alone. Indeed, its title character is so important in British culture it's hard to tell where the historical figure ends and Shakespeare’s character begins, as discussion surrounding that King’s reinternment in 2015 demonstrated.

The least well-known of the plays is Henry VI Part 1. The initial commissioning announcement for this series implied the first episode would consist of Part 1, with the second conflating Part 2 and Part 3. While believable in terms of the content of the plays, it’s not practical in terms of their respective lengths, and the first episode covers both Part 1 and Part 2.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is Henry VI Part 1 performed least of these history plays, it’s even less often performed in full. The first recorded production after Shakespeare’s own lifetime was on 13th March 1788 in Covent Garden: a good 170 years after the author’s death. The next was when Sir Frank Benson staged it in 1906, another century-and-change later. After those gaps, the mere 47 years until the next production, at Birmingham Rep in 1953 (starring Judi Dench as Joan of Arc), is nothing. For the first time in nearly 400 years it was possible for someone to have seen two productions of the whole play in one lifetime. I wonder if anyone did?

Next was Terry Hands’ 1977 RSC production (with Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret and Alan Howard as the King – the actors saw their characters’ marriage’s foundation as “bondage in the chapel”) followed by another RSC production in 2000 (which has been revived more than once since) and one at The Globe in 2012/13.

The plays that make up The Hollow Crown series two work less effectively than those that formed series one when asked to standalone. Not only do they work better as a cycle, but they depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do. Even the often-performed Richard III works better with the Henry VI plays behind it: The Hollow Crown’s Richard, Benedict Cumberbatch, has noted that you really need the Henry VI plays to understand the Richard who comes on stage and announces a winter of discontent, and both cinema versions incorporate pieces of Henry VI Part 3 to set the scene.

Accordingly then, a few scenes from Henry VI Part 1 are often excerpted and combined with Part 2 to create a composite play even in ‘Complete’ stage runs of Shakespeare’s Histories (e.g. the RSC in 1963 or Michael Bogdanov’s radical 1980s productions). One such scene is the moment when the various nobles pick either white or red roses from a bush to indicate their respective loyalties (while not the origin of the phrase “The Wars of the Roses”, this scene is what prompted Sir Walter Scott to coin it). The Red Rose of Lancaster, unlike the White Rose of York, is not contemporary to this stage of the conflict, being invented by Henry VII after his victory in 1485.

Other scenes, such as the funeral of Henry V or Plantagenet having his rights to the Crown explained to him, almost always make it through. Mostly, though, the play is dumped, much if not all of the material featuring Joan of Arc removed due to concerns about her portrayal as a witch. These traditionally came from a religious, rather than a feministic perspective, particularly in the years around Joan canonisation in 1920. Although Shakespeare must get points for having the play’s Dauphin predict that La Pucelle would one day be a Saint.

The Hollow Crown’s director/adapter Dominic Cooke has kept much of the Joan of Arc subplot, but interestingly cut the sub-plot featuring the peasant rebel and pretender Jack Cade, which forms a fair chunk of Henry VI Part 2. This is usually included, as it’s considered an important counterpoint to the aristocratic rebellion happening elsewhere in the play.

Almost always lost are the scenes featuring the English soldier Talbot (played in The Hollow Crown by Philip Glenister), usually because someone involved in the production considers the rhyme scheme in which they are written to be lacking. In context, this is rather odd, as not only was Henry VI Part 1 a massive hit when originally performed, but Talbot was regarded as the play’s most notable and successful element.   

For much of Shakespeare’s career he wrote exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (after 1603 renamed The King’s Men) the theatrical company for which he acted and wrote, in which he owned a one-eighth share, and which performed, over the years, at various venues across London built or owned by Shakespeare’s fellow actor, Richard Burbage, and/or Burbage’s brother Cuthbert or their Father, James.

Very few records related to this company survive. Earlier in his career, however, Shakespeare wrote for a variety of companies, including for those performing in venues owned and run by Philip Henslowe, the bear-baiter, financier, social climber and public official. Extensive papers related to Henslowe’s business dealings were deposited in the library of Dulwich College, the then poor, now private, school founded by Henslowe’s son-in-law, the actor Ned Alleyn. From these we learn that a play “Harey Vj” was performed on 2nd March 1592 (Henslowe’s spelling is non-standard, perhaps eccentric even in the 1590s: at one point he renders Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus as “Titus &ondronicus”, something which has always given me great joy.) “Harey” or Henry, was  marked “ne”, usually taken to indicate that the play was new, and the box office takings are indicative of a premiere: that that afternoon it took 3s 16s 8d. As admission to the Rose was a penny a head for groundlings, rising to up to 3d if you wanted to sit in the galleries, and its capacity was around three hundred, this a full house. The play was performed more than a dozen further occasions over the next few months. The practice of the time was to rotate plays, allowing people to see a large repertory in very quick succession, rather than the modern practice of long runs.

There are also few surviving documents in which people record their own responses to theatrical events of this period, but for Henry VI Part 1 we have one: The writer Thomas Nashe’s ‘Piers Penniless’, which was registered with the Stationer’s Office (the 1590s equivalent of copyright registration) in August 1592 sees Nashe praise the play, saying:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators, at least, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Henry VI Part 1 has been made for television by the BBC three times before, always as now as part of a longer sequence. An Age of Kings (1961) reduced it to an hour, and The War of the Roses (1965) was a version of the RSC’s 1963 productions, retaining their cuts. Only in 1983 did it play (practically) uncut, running for nearly three hours.(It was cut into two 90m episodes for the American market.)  This magical production directed by Jane Howell contained within a single set representing a children’s playground, which she later utilised for parts 2 and 3 and Richard III as well, is an abstract, defiantly unrealistic staging of the play about as far from The Hollow Crown’s mimetic, shot-on-location style as it’s possible to imagine. The rival dukes arrive on hobby horses, and at one point its Talbot, Trevor Peacock, does what we’d now recognise as a “Miranda Hart Look To Camera”. It’s quite a lot to live up to.

The new BBC version has an exception cast (I mean, look at it), and the production standards of the first series can’t be faulted. It’s hard to argue that first series of The Hollow Crown didn’t draw on richer and more complex plays than the second, but the Henry VI plays particularly showcase an earlier Shakespeare, whose work is more boisterous and direct; simplifying hugely, they have a little more action and a little less introspection. They’re exciting dramas of civil strife and internecine warfare, with quite a lot of sex and violence: great crowd-pleasing popular hits.

There’s no reason at all why they can’t be again.