Acid house Shakespeare: Sex, drugs and do-si-dos

I have never seen such a druggy, cannabis-hazed, acid-housed production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Meanwhile, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are failing to earn a standing ovation for their Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

Could Michael Grandage’s exposition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream derive from a misreading of a single line? When Oberon asks Titania to “take hands with me/And rock the ground whereon these sleepers be”, Shakespeare intends a dance so gentle that it will rock the mortals to sleep, as in a cradle. This Dream (runs until 16 November), however, is a rock opera, with pumping pop music, festivalgoers stripped to their underpants, and whole lot of loving goin’ on under the most dilated of full moons.

Obviously the forest police have announced an amnesty on narcotics for the summer solstice. Although the play’s whole plot rests on opiates – the juices of a “little western flower” being sprinkled on Titania and Lysander – I have never seen such a druggy, cannabis-hazed, acid-housed production of this comedy.

The conceit works beautifully well but the play was almost bound to succeed in any case, thanks, as it were, to its “dream” cast. They consistently surprise. Pádraic Delaney is an unashamedly Irish Theseus but returns as Oberon, looking and sounding like a public school-educated Russell Brand. Sheridan Smith, who once said she had a “common face”, starts off dead classy as Hippolyta, with a tight blonde perm, a Thirties wool suit and a clipped, Anna Neagle accent. As Titania, she’s a punk vamp, a Toyah Willcox with work at the rougher kind of cowboy bar on her CV (she can toss a leg over the rail of a spiral suitcase as impressively as Mae West).

Thanks to her TV work as Mrs Biggs and on Jonathan Creek, Smith is a box-office draw. Even more so is David Walliams, who does a lovely, deep-voiced, overeager Bottom, with a habit of dripping his outstretched hand slowly down the faces of his fellow amateur comedians. He makes an aria in many registers out of his death throes in the rude mechanicals’ play, ending them by pressing Thisbe into his groin, fellatio ad absurdum. Funnily enough, though, the actor I enjoyed most was Katherine Kingsley as a sexually aggressive and self-dramatising Helena. Such a danger is she that Demetrius (a buff Stefano Braschi) has to prise her legs together during one attempted female-on-male rape.

The play’s usually interminable first scene passed in about five minutes. After an early interval, we resumed at Act III, Scene Two with Puck’s summary of the action. Given his willingness to dress Walliams in Up Pompeii gear to get a laugh out of his resemblance to Frankie Howerd, I wondered if Grandage considered prefacing this recap with “Previously . . .”. Although the period details skid between 1930 and 1990, this is a version directly aimed at 2013 attention spans.

Grandage’s production may have psychedelic inspirations, but the director’s great gift to Shakespeare, and to us, is to make him line for line, and plotline by plotline, completely clear. There is a risk, particularly with this play, that by doing so, more elusive magic evaporates, and yet so much is gained by clarity. For one thing, you get the jokes.

Over the river at the Old Vic something else extraordinary is happening. Vanessa Redgrave, 76, and James Earl Jones, 82, are failing to earn a standing ovation for their Beatrice and Benedick in Mark Rylance’s Much Ado About Nothing (runs until 30 November). In many ways this is an admirable production. Rylance relocates the action from Renaissance Messina in Sicily to 1944 and Home Counties England, where an airbase is welcoming home an all-black USAF squadron, over here and, after the deprivations of war, oversexed. The nightwatch becomes an elderly Dad’s Army home guard, augmented by Boy Scouts and led by the terrific Peter Wright as one of theatrical history’s few tolerably funny Dogberrys (he is even better playing the Friar).

However. People come to Much Ado for Beatrice and Benedick, the prototypes of every romcom couple who start out hating and end in lurv. Here, our enjoyment is jeopardised by a terrible anxiety that they will forget their lines. On the first night, after some touch-and-go moments, my feeling was merely of relief that they had got through it.

Redgrave looks great, shirted and trousered like a land girl. She has a conversational way with Shakespeare that still works but it is a low-key, autumnal performance and Beatrice’s change from merriment to seriousness is not really marked. Jones, whose fine baritone voice has become muffled with age, speaks many of his great speeches sitting down, and at dictation speed. These two, so well paired a few years ago in Driving Miss Daisy, invent a whole delivery style – ponderous repartee.

Yet what’s most annoying is that the production makes no particular point of the casting. When Benedick concludes that the world must be peopled this surely is the moment for a sly, sarcastic tilt at his future girlfriend’s age. But nothing is made of it. Leonato customarily refers to Beatrice as “niece”. Could Michael Elwyn not put some spin on that? There is much to be said for colour-blind casting. Age-blind, not so much.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing are playing at the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2 and the Old Vic, London SE1

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, so well paired in Driving Miss Daisy, are failing to earn a standing ovation. Image: Getty

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 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder