Playing with Viola: Shakespeare in Love
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Mark Lawson: From Wolfgang to Will, there’s no such thing as a full-time genius

In Shakespeare in Love, he is more Bart than Bard: a feckless, penniless hack dramatist with writer’s block who has terrible ideas for plays – “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”.

The most demanding task for biographical drama is the convincing depiction of genius. You can make an actor look and sound like Einstein but it is harder for the audience to believe that the animated waxwork onstage came up with E=mc2.

This test was recently set in extreme form by the opening of two plays featuring supreme artistic figures: Mozart in the Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979) and Shakespeare in the Noël Coward Theatre’s West End adaptation of the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, for which the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard was reshaped by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters).

An obstacle in putting such figures onstage is that viewers think they recognise the characters. Shaffer, in Amadeus, notoriously subverted this certainty by giving “Wolfie” a first entrance as a giggling, overgrown child indulging in coprophiliac pillow talk with his future wife.

Something that had never struck me until I saw the works in close succession is that Shakespeare in Love plays the same initial trick of presenting the icon as an apparent idiot. While “Will” is not a shit-wit at the level of “Wolfie”, he seems highly unlikely to end up having the Royal Shakespeare Company named after him.

More Bart than Bard, he is a feckless, penniless hack dramatist with writer’s block who has terrible ideas for plays – “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” – and whose best lines are nicked from Christopher Marlowe. But, as well as being a dramatic tactic, these bathetic scenes also express the historical and psychological truth that someone who ends up as “Mozart” or “Shakespeare” does not possess that identity throughout their life or at all times of day.

And, having established an unfamiliar Wolfie and Will, Shaffer and Stoppard et al play flatteringly with our knowledge of their real work. The standout moment in Amadeus has Salieri – the mediocre court composer whose rumoured poisoning of his brilliant young rival inspired the play – performing a plodding welcome march, which the wild child then competitively picks out from memory before shifting around some notes to turn the dour tune into the beloved “Non più andrai” from The Marriage of Figaro. Similarly, Shakespeare in Love introduces a dog called Spot so that the audience can enjoy a knowing chuckle when the mutt is shooed offstage with Lady Macbeth’s line, “Out, damned Spot!”

As well as reading the work into the life, both plays more conventionally do the reverse. Shaffer’s Mozart, after hearing of his father’s death, immortalises Papa in the ghost father in Don Giovanni. And Shakespeare in Love is, in effect, a prequel to two of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays, in which Will falls in love with a rich young woman called Viola, who first inspires the plot of Romeo and Juliet and then, when she is sent overseas, lends her name and sailing to the heroine of Twelfth Night.

At a further level of personal excavation, these dramas about the making of art may also offer glimpses of their makers. Will’s complaints about his profession – theatregoers’ tendency to cough and reviewers criticising repetition (“Not Verona again!”) – can be assumed to reflect Stoppard’s and Lee Hall’s experiences. And Peter Hall, who directed the premiere of Amadeus, suggests in his published Diaries that Shaffer saw himself as Salieri, recognising that, though successful, he lacked the immortal genius of a Pinter or a Beckett.

The role of Salieri was defined by Paul Scofield and, while Rupert Everett at Chichester unsurprisingly fails to equal Scofield’s astonishing vocal range, he commands the stage powerfully and gives a greater sense that the Italian might have been maddened and mad enough to kill Mozart.

Shaffer’s obsession with the relationship between God and man in Amadeus now sounds more operatic than theological and it is Shakespeare in Love, though taking itself less seriously, that seems to have more to say about creativity, although, in both cases, some will hunger for something by Wolfie or Will, rather than about them.

 

The white rose in bloom

Yorkshire is having an astonishing summer: the Tour de France, J K Rowling’s appearance at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime-Writing Festival in Harrogate and the £100,000 Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year awarded to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The current exhibitions show why the park was chosen. Thoughtful curating gives its underground gallery to the septuagenarian German-American Ursula von Rydingsvard, an artist who has been neglected in Europe. Her intricate wooden sculptures break up and then remake trees in images that, given a life stretching from Nazi Germany to New York, can be read as metaphors of destruction and recovery.

In contrast, Ai Weiwei is among the world’s most famous artists but exhibiting him in the park’s 18th-century chapel creates illuminating culture clashes: images of Buddhist temples decorating a structure built for Christians, an iron tree in the churchyard.

It’s further proof that England’s greatest county contains the nation’s finest gallery. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism