The year of reading dangerously: books to look out for in 2014

The <i>New Statesman</i>'s culture editor takes a look forward at the books set to dominate the year.

On the morning of 28 June 1914 the Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip fired two shots from his Fabrique Nationale semi-automatic pistol. One of them killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. A month later, the world was at war – a hundred years later, we are still living in its shadow. The publishing industry began its centenary activities early, with histories by Margaret McMillan, Jeremy Paxman and Max Hastings last year. In 2014 the flood of doorstop books continues. Historians are tackling the prelude – in That Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge (Viking, January) – and the epilogue, in The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order (1916-1931) by Adam Tooze (Allen Lane, May).

Contemporary literary responses are collected in No Man’s Land: Writings from the World at War (Serpent’s Tale, January), while The Hundred Years’ War: Modern War Poems (Bloodaxe, April), edited by Neil Astley, makes the connection to current conflicts and the nebulous war on terror. Why are we still so obsessed with the Great War, and so anxious about our commemorations? Frank Furedi tackles this head-on in First World War: Still No End in Sight (Bloomsbury/Continuum, January), arguing that those four years of horror bled into a century of entrenched culture wars.

Naomi Klein would argue that there are greater disasters on the horizon. Her The Message (Allen Lane, September) is a call to arms in the face of catastrophic climate change. In Russell Brand’s issue of the New Statesman last year Klein advocated direct action, reasoning that “It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start. And it might just buy us enough time to figure out a way to live on this planet that is distinctly less fucked.”

We are not short of impending crises. In On Liberty (Allen Lane, September), Shami Chakrabati shows that our democratic institutions are under just as much threat as our environment. Danny Dorling’s All That is Solid (Allen Lane, February) examines the UK’s disastrous relationship with housing. Our right to shelter is as fragile as our right to privacy, a theme picked up in two books on last year’s NSA scandal – The Snowden Files: The True Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding (Guardian Faber, April) and No Place to Hide by Snowden’s contact Glenn Greenwald (Hamish Hamilton, May) – and an account of the News International saga, the rather grandiosely titled Hack Attack: the Inside Story of How One Journalist Exposed the World’s Most Powerful Media Mogul by Nick Davies (Chatto & Windus, April). Our right to protest? Equally at risk, as the Kremlin’s treatment of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot showed: Words Will Break Cement: the Passion of Pussy Riot by Marsha Gessen (Granta, February) tells their story.

Rhiannon Cosslett and Holly Baxter, co-founders of the Vagenda blog and authors of The V Spot on newstatesman.com, would approve: their first book, The Vagenda (Square Peg, May) shows readers how to tackle insidious media misogyny through “articulate activism”. Read it alongside Laura Bates’s shocking catalogue of true stories in Everyday Sexism (Simon & Schuster, May) and Laurie Penny’s essays on gender, Unspeakable Things (Bloomsbury, July).

On 18 September, a referendum will ask “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The historian Linda Colley does some groundwork with an examination of what has held the UK together – and what is driving it apart – in Acts of Union and Disunion (Profile Books, January) and the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray presents his vision of an independent Scotland in Independence (Canongate, June).

A contender for “big idea of the year” is Sapiens by Yuval Harari (Harvill Secker, September 4), a number one bestseller in Israel, and nothing less than a 360-degree history of humankind and a prophecy about our future: its publisher claims it will change “the way we view our world”. Michael Lewis has changed the way we view the financial world in books such as Moneyball, The Big Short and Liar’s Poker – his new, as-yet untitled book in April (Allen Lane) is bound to be an event, as will the second volume of Simon Schama’s snappily written The Story of the Jews (Bodley Head, September).

Back on home turf, there are plenty more histories, both sweeping and specific. David Kynaston’s superb Modernist Britain series continues with A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 (Bloomsbury, September). Two Labour MPs take on British institutions: Chris Bryant in Parliament: the Biography, Volume One (Doubleday, March) and Tristram Hunt in Ten Cities that Made an Empire (Allen Lane, June). That magic “ten things” formula is applied to pop music, in A History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus (Yale University Press, September). The New Statesman science columnist, Michael Brooks, goes one better with his account of “11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise”, The Edge of Uncertainty (Profile, October).

Various historical figures are to be disinterred in 2014. To coincide with the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall, the joint chief curator of royal palaces Tracy Borman attempts a biography of the “real” Thomas Cromwell (Hodder & Stoughton, September). Boris Johnson paints Winston Churchill as a “resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians” in The Churchill Factor (Hodder & Stoughton, October) and Churchill’s own biographer Roy Jenkins is given the definitive, doorstopper treatment in John Campbell’s account of a “well-filled and well-rounded” life (Jonathan Cape, March). Across the Atlantic, John Updike gets his first landmark biography in Adam Begley’s Updike (HarperCollins USA, April).

Life stories of the still-breathing include Alan Johnson’s follow-up to his extraordinarily successful memoir This Boy, There’s a Place (Bantam, September); in the year of Monty Python’s reunion, Terry Gilliam’s neatly timed autobiography (Canongate, October); Vivienne Westwood: The Authorised Life Story, co-written with Ian Kelly (Picador, October) and Not That Kind of Girl: a Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned by the creator and star of the cult American comedy Girls, Lena Dunham (Fourth Estate, October). Hillary Clinton’s memoir (Simon & Schuster, June) will be read closely by those curious about her intentions for the 2016 presidential elections.

In fiction, several major British novelists have offerings in 2014. Martin Amis returns to Auschwitz in his 14th novel, The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Cape, August); Hanif Kureishi tells the story of an elderly Indian writer and his white English biographer – echoing the real-life relationship between V S Naipaul and Patrick French – in The Last Word (Faber & Faber, February); the Cloud Atlas author, David Mitchell, goes back to the future in The Bone Clocks (Sceptre, September) and Sarah Waters sets The Paying Guest (Virago, September) in 1920s London. Will Self publishes Shark, a sequel to the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella (Viking, September), and Ali Smith follows There But for The with another intriguingly abbreviated title, How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, August). There’s also a novel from Nick Hornby (Viking, September) and new books from two acclaimed Irish storytellers, Colm Tóibín’s 1960s-set Nora Webster (Viking, October) and Sebastian Barry’s The Temporary Gentleman (Faber & Faber, April), picking up the story of the McNulty family at the end of the Second World War.

Some Granta Best of Young British Novelists alumni have headline billing and some are still waiting in the wings – but this could be a breakthrough year for Adam Foulds (In the Wolf’s Mouth, Jonathan Cape, February) or Andrew O’Hagan (The Illuminations, Faber & Faber, June), both of whom have novels circling around the Second World War.

Two American masters return in 2014. Fans of Marilynne Robinson will be giddy at the prospect of a new novel, Lila, which lands in October from Virago, after two prime cuts of short stories: Can’t and Won’t (Hamish Hamilton, April) by Lydia Davis, the translator and author who won the Man Booker International last year, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark (Faber & Faber, March), her first collection in 15 years. You never have to wait that long to hear from Joyce Carol Oates, who, at 75, still publishes novels at the same rate as the Beatles released LPs. In January, there’s Carthage (Fourth Estate, January), about a troubled Iraq war veteran, and in June, a collection of Gothic novellas, Evil Eye (Head of Zeus, June). Oates has something of a kindred spirit in the macabre film director David Cronenberg – God knows what evils he will dream up in his debut novel Consumed, first announced in 2008 and now finally coming from Fourth Estate in September.

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

BBC
Show Hide image

BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown and the tricky question of staging the Henry VI plays

The War of the Roses plays are great crowd-pleasing popular hits. So why are adaptations so hard to get right?

This week sees the arrival of the second series of BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown, subtitled “The Wars of the Roses”. It’s nearly four years since the first, commissioned and screened as part of the “Cultural Olympiad” that ran in parallel with the London Olympics. Both series were executive produced by Oscar winner and James Bond director Sam Mendes, but largely directed by people who chiefly work in theatre, rather than television or film. The 2012 run won four Baftas, including for Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell Beale’s performances.

The plays that comprised series one (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) are universally acknowledged to be a prequel tetralogy to four plays from earlier in Shakespeare’s career, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. It’s these four later-set, earlier-written plays that are being adapted into the three episodes of the second series.

Of these plays, Richard III, twice made into successful and important British films, is by far the most famous and frequently performed, attracting star names like Martin Freeman and Ralph Fiennes to London stage productions in the last three years alone. Indeed, its title character is so important in British culture it's hard to tell where the historical figure ends and Shakespeare’s character begins, as discussion surrounding that King’s reinternment in 2015 demonstrated.

The least well-known of the plays is Henry VI Part 1. The initial commissioning announcement for this series implied the first episode would consist of Part 1, with the second conflating Part 2 and Part 3. While believable in terms of the content of the plays, it’s not practical in terms of their respective lengths, and the first episode covers both Part 1 and Part 2.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is Henry VI Part 1 performed least of these history plays, it’s even less often performed in full. The first recorded production after Shakespeare’s own lifetime was on 13th March 1788 in Covent Garden: a good 170 years after the author’s death. The next was when Sir Frank Benson staged it in 1906, another century-and-change later. After those gaps, the mere 47 years until the next production, at Birmingham Rep in 1953 (starring Judi Dench as Joan of Arc), is nothing. For the first time in nearly 400 years it was possible for someone to have seen two productions of the whole play in one lifetime. I wonder if anyone did?

Next was Terry Hands’ 1977 RSC production (with Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret and Alan Howard as the King – the actors saw their characters’ marriage’s foundation as “bondage in the chapel”) followed by another RSC production in 2000 (which has been revived more than once since) and one at The Globe in 2012/13.

The plays that make up The Hollow Crown series two work less effectively than those that formed series one when asked to standalone. Not only do they work better as a cycle, but they depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do. Even the often-performed Richard III works better with the Henry VI plays behind it: The Hollow Crown’s Richard, Benedict Cumberbatch, has noted that you really need the Henry VI plays to understand the Richard who comes on stage and announces a winter of discontent, and both cinema versions incorporate pieces of Henry VI Part 3 to set the scene.

Accordingly then, a few scenes from Henry VI Part 1 are often excerpted and combined with Part 2 to create a composite play even in ‘Complete’ stage runs of Shakespeare’s Histories (e.g. the RSC in 1963 or Michael Bogdanov’s radical 1980s productions). One such scene is the moment when the various nobles pick either white or red roses from a bush to indicate their respective loyalties (while not the origin of the phrase “The Wars of the Roses”, this scene is what prompted Sir Walter Scott to coin it). The Red Rose of Lancaster, unlike the White Rose of York, is not contemporary to this stage of the conflict, being invented by Henry VII after his victory in 1485.

Other scenes, such as the funeral of Henry V or Plantagenet having his rights to the Crown explained to him, almost always make it through. Mostly, though, the play is dumped, much if not all of the material featuring Joan of Arc removed due to concerns about her portrayal as a witch. These traditionally came from a religious, rather than a feministic perspective, particularly in the years around Joan canonisation in 1920. Although Shakespeare must get points for having the play’s Dauphin predict that La Pucelle would one day be a Saint.

The Hollow Crown’s director/adapter Dominic Cooke has kept much of the Joan of Arc subplot, but interestingly cut the sub-plot featuring the peasant rebel and pretender Jack Cade, which forms a fair chunk of Henry VI Part 2. This is usually included, as it’s considered an important counterpoint to the aristocratic rebellion happening elsewhere in the play.

Almost always lost are the scenes featuring the English soldier Talbot (played in The Hollow Crown by Philip Glenister), usually because someone involved in the production considers the rhyme scheme in which they are written to be lacking. In context, this is rather odd, as not only was Henry VI Part 1 a massive hit when originally performed, but Talbot was regarded as the play’s most notable and successful element.   

For much of Shakespeare’s career he wrote exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (after 1603 renamed The King’s Men) the theatrical company for which he acted and wrote, in which he owned a one-eighth share, and which performed, over the years, at various venues across London built or owned by Shakespeare’s fellow actor, Richard Burbage, and/or Burbage’s brother Cuthbert or their Father, James.

Very few records related to this company survive. Earlier in his career, however, Shakespeare wrote for a variety of companies, including for those performing in venues owned and run by Philip Henslowe, the bear-baiter, financier, social climber and public official. Extensive papers related to Henslowe’s business dealings were deposited in the library of Dulwich College, the then poor, now private, school founded by Henslowe’s son-in-law, the actor Ned Alleyn. From these we learn that a play “Harey Vj” was performed on 2nd March 1592 (Henslowe’s spelling is non-standard, perhaps eccentric even in the 1590s: at one point he renders Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus as “Titus &ondronicus”, something which has always given me great joy.) “Harey” or Henry, was  marked “ne”, usually taken to indicate that the play was new, and the box office takings are indicative of a premiere: that that afternoon it took 3s 16s 8d. As admission to the Rose was a penny a head for groundlings, rising to up to 3d if you wanted to sit in the galleries, and its capacity was around three hundred, this a full house. The play was performed more than a dozen further occasions over the next few months. The practice of the time was to rotate plays, allowing people to see a large repertory in very quick succession, rather than the modern practice of long runs.

There are also few surviving documents in which people record their own responses to theatrical events of this period, but for Henry VI Part 1 we have one: The writer Thomas Nashe’s ‘Piers Penniless’, which was registered with the Stationer’s Office (the 1590s equivalent of copyright registration) in August 1592 sees Nashe praise the play, saying:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators, at least, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Henry VI Part 1 has been made for television by the BBC three times before, always as now as part of a longer sequence. An Age of Kings (1961) reduced it to an hour, and The War of the Roses (1965) was a version of the RSC’s 1963 productions, retaining their cuts. Only in 1983 did it play (practically) uncut, running for nearly three hours.(It was cut into two 90m episodes for the American market.)  This magical production directed by Jane Howell contained within a single set representing a children’s playground, which she later utilised for parts 2 and 3 and Richard III as well, is an abstract, defiantly unrealistic staging of the play about as far from The Hollow Crown’s mimetic, shot-on-location style as it’s possible to imagine. The rival dukes arrive on hobby horses, and at one point its Talbot, Trevor Peacock, does what we’d now recognise as a “Miranda Hart Look To Camera”. It’s quite a lot to live up to.

The new BBC version has an exception cast (I mean, look at it), and the production standards of the first series can’t be faulted. It’s hard to argue that first series of The Hollow Crown didn’t draw on richer and more complex plays than the second, but the Henry VI plays particularly showcase an earlier Shakespeare, whose work is more boisterous and direct; simplifying hugely, they have a little more action and a little less introspection. They’re exciting dramas of civil strife and internecine warfare, with quite a lot of sex and violence: great crowd-pleasing popular hits.

There’s no reason at all why they can’t be again.