Shakespeare up close

One recent afternoon, I took the opportunity to visit the newly reconstructed Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as to watch a performance of King Lear. Since my last visit in the mid-1990s, the Cotswolds town where William Shakespeare was born and is buried has come more than ever to have the feel of a theme park, with local hotels and restaurants offering "Hamlet" brunches and "Cleopatra" lunch specials -- or so it can seem at times.

The new theatre complex has been built so as to attract even those who have no interest in seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, at work. There are new restaurants and riverside cafés, exhibition and gallery spaces and a 36-metre-high tower -- "That Tower", as some locals call it -- which allows for fine views over the surrounding countryside and delighted my young son. The red-brick and glass interiors are attractive, though some friends who live close to the town and know the theatre well are unhappy about the way the old and new structures have been remodelled to create a hybrid of architectural styles. I listened to their objections but could not agree.

The Elisabeth Scott-designed Royal Shakespeare Theatre was opened in 1932, replacing the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre of 1879. To watch a play in that space was not unlike going to the cinema to watch a film: the audience was lined up in neat rows, impassively facing the action on the main stage. The reconstructed theatre isn't at all like that.

A thrust stage extends deep and directly into the audience. The intention, even in a theatre with more than 1,000 seats, is to create a sense of greater intimacy, of confrontation and interaction between the watched and the watchers.

I had an excellent seat in the stalls and relished the experience of closely observing the strain and concentration on the faces of the players. Lear is such a visceral play, and this latest production was thick with blood and water and perspiration. I left the auditorium at the end of a long evening, exhausted yet thrilled by the spectacle and the grandeur of the setting.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear