Tales of the supernatural

The Tempest, Passion Play and The Weir reviewed by Andrew Billen.

The Tempest; Passion Play; The Weir
Shakespeare’s Globe, London SE1;
Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2;
Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

In his speech at the end of his daughter’s wedding masque – delivered here with great poetry by Roger Allam – Prospero makes literal sense of what every theatregoer fancies. Actors, or at least the characters they inhabit, are spirits who melt into thin air at a play’s end. The lines have particular resonance at the Globe, not least because “the great globe itself” gets a namecheck. They also provide a challenge for this production’s director, Jeremy Herrin: to create magic on the bare boards of the replica Elizabethan stage. Technically it is not possible to create the kind of effects available to, say, Jonathan Kent at the Almeida in 2000, who plonked a swimming pool in the middle of the stage.

There is another curious thing about the Globe. It is a tourist attraction but it delivers Shakespeare at RSC standards, against the elements, which were little short of tempestuous themselves on the night I went. Like Gonzalo, every cagouled groundling would fain die a dry death. The Globe heavily relies on the magic of Shakespeare’s language.

Not all of the production soared. Colin Morgan, whose supernatural provenance is impeccable, having played the BBC’s Merlin, was an unethereal Ariel. James Garnon was far too sleek and pretty to be the monster Caliban, although he worked hard to compensate, early on pulling off an audience member’s see-through mac and eating it. Jessie Buckley was a delightful Miranda, however, looking for once the required 15 years of age, and Sam Cox as the drunk butler Stephano had good moments, including a brief impersonation of David Attenborough: “This is some monster of the isle – with four legs.”

Magical, though, this production was not and that may even have been deliberate. The arrival of the shipwrecked parties was interpreted as a gigantic reality check for Prospero – but his magic was coming to an end anyway. Allam played the duke as an aphasic and failing tyrant, more irritable than terrifying, forgetful of the plots against him, barmily preoccupied with his daughter’s virginity. Like the shivering audience, he demands at the end to be released of his supernatural bonds.

Formally speaking, there are two magical elements in Peter Nichols’s Passion Play, a 1981 piece about middle-class, middle-aged adultery revived under David Leveaux’s spare direction. The first is that the parts of the husband and wife are split so that there are sometimes two Jameses and two Eleanors onstage. The second is the religious music of Bach and Handel that pipes up on the excuse that Eleanor is a singer. Zoë Wanamaker and Samantha Bond make a good fist of exploring the pain of Eleanor’s betrayal. Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton are less successful at generating sympathy for the adulterous James, a scruffy picture-restorer with no obvious charms or views beyond a churlish atheism. The real mystery is Kate, played by the barely dressed Annabel Scholey as pure body: what is in it for her, this shagging with old men? Perhaps she, too, needs a double on stage to tell us.

It is the play’s theatrical conceits that do for it. The stage becomes crowded with viewpoints. Not only are they not always clearly differentiated, they trip over one another. Perfectly zingy dialogue is interrupted, as it were, by footnotes. As for the sacred music, its main effect is to make this shabby tale look monumentally irrelevant and also dated – a product of a pre-Aids society in which educated people behaved in a manner these days most often seen on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Tales of the supernatural are the stuff that Conor McPherson’s The Weir are made on. A couple of old soaks and their more successful neighbour Finbar scare each other and the barman with ghost stories. The tales speak to the lonely ghostliness of a depopulated land but they are also treasured, polished to perfection in each retelling, because they are means of connection: to the past and, for the narrators, to one another. Brian Cox, Risteárd Cooper and Ardal O’Hanlon outdo themselves in the excellence of their monologues, so much so that one fears for Dervla Kirwan, playing a newcomer to the community. Will she be able to compete? Yet when her story of personal tragedy comes, it sweeps all away.

Josie Rourke’s revival of this 1997 play reveals it to be a masterpiece, a study of the inadequacy of male company, the insufficiency of consolation and humanity’s determination to get by on what it has. It is funny, wears its sadness lightly and grips from the moment that Cox, as the bachelor Jack, enters the pub and aggressively wipes his boots. For the next 100 minutes, you believe you are in the pub with him and his almost-friends. The Donmar dissolves in favour of Sligo. That is magic.

Jessie Buckley and Roger Allam as Miranda and Prospero in Shakespeare's Globe's current production of The Tempest.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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