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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

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