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

Photo: Getty
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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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