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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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times