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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage