Sunday, 30 August 2015

A wilderness of monkeys…

Tubal: One of them show’d me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.
Shylock: Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turkis, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.
– William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

This is what I wanted to call my book. However, my publishers thought it too… complicated.
– Howard Jacobson

Returning, last night, to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see – from a somewhat different perspective – The Merchant of Venice, I was glad that my initial response of “feeling overwhelmingly sorry for Shylock” was reinforced. In fact, at a debate in the Swan Theatre, this following morning – Anti-Semitic Plays? (the highlights of which should soon be on YouTube) – there seemed to be a great deal of conjoined empathy, from the panel, for the “gentle Jew”: from “rising star” Patsy Ferran’s “standing in his shoes” at the age of fourteen, in a school production; to Howard Jacobson’s “retelling” of the play (entitled Shylock is My Name – which will be published in February 2016).

Patsy Ferran (Portia) and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Bassanio) – photo by Hugo Glendinning/RSC

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

That “different perspective”, though, originated in two variations from my initial viewing – “twice blest” – one physical; one sensory. The former stemmed from the fact that I was sitting diametrically opposite to my original position in the Circle – reinforcing, in my mind, the (not-quite-insurmountable) difficulties thrust stages present (although, obviously, not with sounds, but rather with sightlines). The latter was the lack of (what can be intermeddling) captions: which – with a company that is as pellucid in proclamation as this one – meant that I could concentrate more on the drama: and I found myself even more immersed than before in both the language and the action.

As a result – apart from reinforcing the certainty of Ferran’s future that “shines brightly as a king” (she was just as animated and intelligently expressive in the debate) – I really feel I should rectify the absent list of great performances missing from my original review. Again, Jamie Ballard’s heartfelt, anguished, “deeply melancholic” Antonio (“as part of as soulful an interpretation as I think I have ever encountered”) – the “Merchant of Venice” – elicits sympathy, rather than empathy. Makram J Khoury’s transcendent Shylock. Scarlett Brookes’ textbook tortured touchiness as his nervous daughter, Jessica – always on the outside; always seen as an outsider, an “infidel” – prompting the compassion you feel for none of the “narcissistic, Christian-by-name-but-not-by-nature characters”. Owen Findlay’s conscientious Salerio (again, I sense another “all-hail hereafter”). Ken Nwosu’s mercurial, almost out-of-control, Gratiano – contrasting neatly with his boastful-yet-sensitive portrayal of the Prince of Morocco (cleverly changing costumes and character on-stage). And, finally, Brian Protheroe’s “pretentious, supercilious”, arrogant Aragon: channelling Leslie Phillips to perfection (so well, in fact, that his departure was accompanied by loud applause)!

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Sadly, the ending – as I think it always will be: Jacobson described Shakespeare as having “lost interest” – is still weak (despite the wonderful language); although is handled as well it can be, here, I feel. In a way, the prolonged last scene gives you the chance to lament Shylock’s loss; his absence (his implicit wrenching from – to borrow from Romeo – “the devout religion of mine eye”; although Judaism is as much about identity as it is faith, I believe…); to mourn the consequent lack of heart, of focus, of a fulcrum; and reflect on the conclusion that “none of the engendered, concocted couples seem destined for long or happy relationships” – or, as Ferran said: “no-one comes out of this well”.

Once more, I came out entranced, though; immensely moved; and was grateful for the drizzle freshening my face; for the curtained moon painting an eldritch sky-in-negative.

Shall I have the thought
To think on this, and shall I lack the thought
That such a thing bechanc’d would make me sad?

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Brief encounters…

Wombling around Stratford-upon-Avon – as is my wont – sooner or later you will bump into an actor or RSC acolyte: some famous; some not so. At whatever point any such person ranks on that supposed continuum of celebrity, though, if they have had an impact on me, then I will – should their body language not intimate that they “want to be left alone” – thank them for contributing to the richness of my life (maybe, though, not in such highfalutin language): perhaps, if they are willing to tarry awhile (which most of them are), explaining why. Although I have made fun of such encounters, before, most seem genuinely grateful for the gratitude I proffer (and which I do in the spirit of my paternal grandfather: who always taught me – as well as leading by example – that you should offer praise where it is due; and do your damndest to leave each place, each person, you encounter, a little better, a little happier, a little more positive, than before…).

Several such abutments or confluences spring easily to mind: the genial genius Oliver Ford Davies accompanying me into the RSC shop to sign my copy of one of his books; Greg Doran – a gentler soul than perhaps he may first appear – happy to chat about Hal and Falstaff, very early one morning, walking across Avoncroft Gardens, greeted with a smile by (and on a first-name basis with) the various RSC staff getting the theatre ready for the ensuing busy day; Richard Coles’ cheeky, modest repartee; Nicolas Tennant leaning over the dressing-room balcony to continue an earlier conversation about the scarcity of tickets for As You Like It (in which he was a mesmerizing, mirthful Touchstone); Matthew Kelly joshing with the Lady Bard about his part in Volpone – which we are to see later in the week – after being congratulated on the strong season he’s assuredly contributed to in the Swan; laughing with John Nettles about being mobbed by a group of ‘older’ female fans outside Holy Trinity, and how he’ll “always be Bergerac”; fellow Old-Blackburnian Jonathan Slinger sitting outside the Guild Chapel, quizzically watching the world go by….

And two very recent such path-crossings, I think, will stay with me for a very long time. It is too easy, too simple, to assume that actors never stop acting – but they can be humble human beings, too; and don’t we all crave hard-won approbation? I was too scared (not too strong a word, I feel) to approach Makram J Khoury, the first time he passed me by. But the next evening, at the same time, there he was again. He has left a large mark on my heart with his strong, heartfelt, justifiably angry, wide-ranging Shylock – and my plain “thank you” appeared to move him just as much as he had moved me. I was honest when I said that he was the principal reason I was returning to see The Merchant of Venice again, just before the play closes. A Shylock you understand and therefore sympathize, nay, empathize with, is a rare thing indeed….

And then, a couple of days ago, limping back to my car, in the drizzle, a kind soul stepped off the pavement to make room for me. It was only when I looked up from my fumbling feet to say “thank you” that I realized this kind man was “most honest” Iago. “Startlingly engaging and dominant” I had called Lucian Msamati’s portrayal – the pivot around which Othello revolves. His warm hand shook and then clasped mine for what felt like a long time whilst we discussed the shift a black Iago had caused; how I jokingly thought (but it really was – and by a long way) his performance so much better than the strangely-muted Hugh Quarshie (not difficult, when your rôle has so many more lines: but his charisma and power helped greatly…). “You have made my week… – and it’s only Monday morning! What a great start!” he exclaimed – and that velvet voice was accompanied by a bright and sincere laugh that “made my week”, too. A gentleman; a great actor – someone I would easily look up to – happy to talk; grateful to be acknowledged and praised. I haven’t yet stopped grinning….

It seems a miracle to me that anyone can learn so many lines, so many complex words and phrases; never mind make them meaningful, inhabit them. What if – as the marvellous Alex Waldmann did, a couple of years ago – you have major parts, simultaneously, in three of Shakespeare’s dramas: the aforementioned As You Like It (Orlando: 190 lines); All’s Well That Ends Well (Bertram: 240 lines); and Hamlet (Horatio: 273 lines)? What magic does it take to convince us each time, over many, many performances, that you have now become the completely different characters we witness?

Truly, gods walk amongst us mere mortals, here in Warwickshire; treading the boards for our delight. But yet, their footsteps mark the earth in the same way as ours. I still believe, therefore, it is only just – presented with the opportunity – that we should tell them, express in our poor, stumbling words, how much they mean to us; and thank them for their ability, their graft. After all, it is a privilege to live in such a crucible of talent; and we should not take that privilege for granted.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Resistance is futile…

Over and over, studies have shown that access to the outdoors improves quality of life. Numerous epidemiology studies demonstrate that spending time in nature strengthens immune systems, decreases stress, increases the number of positive emotions experienced while decreasing negative emotions, and more.
     Of course, most studies on the physical benefits of nature are mainly focused on the physical benefits of exercising in nature – something that, depending on the nature of your disability, might be limited or restricted. Still, the studies… prove that even being in nature brings significant improvements in physical, mental, and social wellbeing.
     Even better? Studies that do take disability into account show that those of us with disabilities experience not only the same kinds of benefits as non-disabled participants, but also more significant benefits!

Ambling along the banks of the Avon, a few days ago – whilst wondering if my well-trodden pathways would still be there on Saturday morning (they were…) – it dawned on me that, because of my various disabilities, I have unwittingly begun to morph into some subsidiary sort of cyber‑organism. It would seem that I am – or at least becoming – Locutus of Borg. (Locutus of Bard…?)

At the heart, the hub, of my growing artificial neural network – I’m not advanced enough, yet, to feature a positronic matrix – is a “blazing fast A6 chip”, ensconced inside an iPhone 5. Using Bluetooth – mostly in its ‘Smart’ low energy (LE) mode – I have inadvertently surrounded and immersed myself in “a wireless personal area network” that both aids and monitors my passage through (as well as connecting me to) what, for me, can be a quite hostile world.

For instance, my hearing aids connect to my iPhone via a device that dingle-dangles around my neck – my Streamer Pro – turning them “into a small wireless headset”. The Streamer is not some passive contraption, though. With an app on my iPhone, I can use it to control my ‘hearing instruments’, as well – altering their dynamics, and the sound source (they connect effortlessly to our television, landline, hi‑fi, and a personal microphone); as well as initiating (and, of course, receiving) mobile telephone calls; and linking with induction loop systems (such as the wonderful ones at the RSC). I may therefore not just be talking to myself (or the local fauna) – as is my wont – when you espy me walking along, lips moving. I may actually be on a call of strategic national importance (unlikely, though, sadly: as this individual cyborg really struggles with unfamiliar voices on the ’phone); or, more likely, singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody (although I actually prefer the serendipitous, unfiltered sounds of nature, when out and about – so it probably is the sheep who are on the receiving end of my bafflegab…).

Additionally, a Fitbit One – again connected to my iPhone – now counts my stumbling steps; measures my leisurely ambles (in length, altitude, and calorific exhaustion); provides me with slightly-stretching targets, hurdles, to reach, to overcome; and records the familiar routes I take. Eventually, it will monitor my shattered sleep patterns (however random) – but that is for another day… or night. (It is unlikely that I will use it to track my food and drink intake – or weight – I do not have enough health to become that freakish about it….)

And then there’s my Pebble Time, strapped to my mostly-immobile left wrist. (As I walk, my left arm no longer swings – and I have not been able to teach it to, as I have with my left leg… – so previous attempts at tallying treads using watch-like devices have always failed.) This ‘smartwatch’ – which, to me, is a lot more purposeful and cost‑effective than an Apple Watch (despite my thirty‑year ‘love affair’ with the Cupertino, California-based company’s products…) – has too many functions to list here: but, as well as (d’oh) detailing the time and the weather; identifying the constellations; notifying me of inward-bound emails and texts; letting me know when the next bus is due from outside the Peacock; it will control my iPhone’s music (and camera); read my Fitbit One’s step count; oversee my forty winks (until I move to doing so with the One); and – should I suffer from some sudden scrape – send a message, with my location, to the Lady Bard; and, if needs be, call the emergency services. Furthermore, I could – were my vision much better (I have always been very long-sighted) – use it to navigate my way through that “quite hostile world”. (Sadly, the Pebble does not yet interface with my brand of hearing aids – but I hope like heck that this is on the horizon.)

“Wearables have the potential to bring a change in the way disabled people interact with their environment,” says Venkat Rao, creator of the Assistive Technology blog. Dana Marlowe, principal partner of the accessibility consulting firm Accessibility Partners, also thinks wearable technology will benefit people with disabilities, especially those who are “on the go, travel and want instant data.”

Counting my aids (but not my walking stick: as the only ‘disabled’ science it really features is shock-absorption), I therefore, currently, have six (active) interlinked devices on my body – “wearables” – keeping an eye on various inputs and outputs, when out and about. But there is another essential accoutrement that is at the heart of ensuring my innate soundness – the custom‑built, inert, titanium implant, which, effectively, ensures my head remains secured to my body: connecting, and reinforcing, the three damaged cervical vertebrae (no longer separated by the requisite intervertebral discs) that are at the core of my disability. Sadly, although the hardware of my backbone can be repaired (or, at least, conserved) in such a way; no-one has yet invented a foolproof way of restoring the firmware that my mature nervous system represents; nor the software that should flow around and along it. (This is one situation where I think deficit reduction – albeit of the neurological variety – would actually be worthwhile.)

Still, as disability advocates point out, creating technology simply isn’t enough. First of all, existing wearable tech is extremely expensive – prohibitively so for many people with disabilities. According to the Americans with Disabilities 2010 Report, only 41% of Americans with disabilities are employed – compared with 79% of Americans who reported no disability. And for those Americans with disabilities who are employed, reported earnings are significantly lower. For adults age 21‑64 with disabilities, median monthly earnings were just $1,961; for adults in the same age bracket without disabilities, that number is $2,724.

I am not alone… – the ‘Collective’ is always growing. And that’s because disabled people have always been – when available; and when within economic reach – intensive users of wearable technology – principally because of its ability to transform their lives – the most common of which probably is the hearing aid (although, increasingly, the electric wheelchair or mobility scooter – which you could describe as a form of prototype exoskeleton). And you only have to witness Stephen Hawking’s miniscule-motion-controlled communication interface with the world (his ‘voice’) to marvel at how such gizmos can improve people’s lives. And new, dedicated solutions are being developed all the time.

For instance, “The University of Florida is seeking companies interested in commercializing a breakthrough force-sensing device that will allow individuals with severe motor impairment of the upper body to use everyday electronic devices”:

This invention enables electronic devices such as wheelchairs, telephones, and computers to be operated by individuals that may not have fully functioning arms or hands. Force sensors can be placed on certain joints and limbs, which allow the user to control speed and direction. For example, when sensors are placed on the feet, the individual can easily operate electronic devices by pressing down or lifting up his or her toes. Using flexion and extension as a control method is an undemanding task, unlike the conventional joystick. This device is meant to be worn and concealed so that it is easily integrated into normal, everyday clothing. This aspect is especially attractive to children that can “magically” operate their wheelchair or computer without seeming to move.
– University of Florida Office of Technology Licensing: Wearable Force-Sensing Orthotic Device Enabling Disabled Persons to Control Electronics

But similar miracles – including my precious Pebble – are already in daily use; and such things as Google Glass may well also prove beneficial – should development be continued.

Sophie Woolley is a very funny actor-writer, on a pilgrimage. In her 20s, hereditary deafness ruined her ability to enjoy the [Edinburgh] festival that inspired her to get on stage. She performed her own show, When to Run, here in 2006, but “didn’t watch anything else, because I couldn’t hear. I wasn’t able to be spontaneous, which is what festivals are for.” Then two years ago, almost totally deaf, she had an operation fitting her with a cochlear implant; it restored her hearing on one side. Twenty years since she first came, she has returned to recapture the thrill of being a punter…. (I feel safe with her. Her implant is by a company called Advanced Bionics and she is staying in a Japanese-style capsule hotel, so as far as I’m concerned, she is from the future.)
– Rhik Samadder: Lord of the fringe

As more disabled individuals start depending on these technologies, there will be new demands and expectations. Companies will need to develop assistive applications to continue improving these individuals’ quality of life…

One difference in the disabled’s use of “these technologies” is surely that gaping one between fashion and insufficiency. Able-bodied users of wearables may be more conscious of how their devices appear (‘designer’ glasses are already a good example of this, I feel); but, for those who require such technology, it will be functionality that rules – not that we are less discerning (and there will be overlaps): just that faddishness and form are a little less important. For instance, I have never understood why we are happy to demonstrate that our eyes are imperfect – and pay out for expensive frames to perch on our noses – but are ashamed that our ears are similarly failing. My first hearing aids – albeit miniaturized beyond belief (but not invisible – except, seemingly, to those who I need to talk with…) – were therefore a fetching blue colour (to match my eyes, rather than my varicose veins…) – although I was tempted to go with bright red, perhaps with flashing lights on top: so that people can see immediately that they need to speak a little more clearly if I am to comprehend them.

Why should I be embarrassed that I have such a disability? All I require is a little bit of social adaptation (driven by understanding and sympathy) – on a personal, as well as an accessibility level – and I can communicate with you as well as anyone. (Fortunately, I am not the only one that thinks this way: and you can now – thanks to the likes of Kate Cross – if you so wish, express your individuality with your hearing aids “in the same way that people wear fashionable spectacles”.)

Just as “Easy access to information and the accelerating pace of communication have revolutionised most knowledge-based industries,” and created jobs, so the use of such wearable technology can improve the employment prospects of some disabled people. However, one of my major worries with such technology – as with all such modern developments in this sphere – is privacy. How soon before such devices are used to monitor us – not only to our own advantage – but in the interest of those who employ us, insure us, or pay our benefits? And if they have been implanted in our bodies, will we be able to turn them off? Will we want to turn them off?

Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better… stronger… faster.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Out, damned spot (or spot the difference…)

Othello cannot be accepted in part because he simply looks so different from your average Shakespeare character. He is one of only a few explicit characters of colour in the 38 known plays so, certainly at the time when Shakespeare wrote and produced it, Othello’s skin is usually different from everyone else’s on stage…. It is difficult in the heightened hothouse of the theatre to become colour blind, for audiences are meant to notice everything…. Of course we will be constantly aware that Othello is black, even if he is surrounded by a variety of skin colours, as in this production.
Tracy Chevalier: Othello alone

Except we’re not “constantly aware”. Not aware at all. (Well, this audience member wasn’t – even though I had just re-read the play: which I had believed, on entering the theatre, clearly stressed our hero’s differences.) That presumptive (patronizing?) “of course”, therefore, feels like an excuse; an evasive explanation; an almost peculiarly-vantaged, over-enthusiastic vindication of what we – the average white band of middle-class theatregoers – are supposed to feel.

But, because of this lack of awareness, I am sad to report (from my peculiar vantage) that the RSC’s current production of Othello loses something… – that ‘otherness’, that ‘outsider’ quality (and, rightly, I think, according to Chevalier, “the price you pay for that difference”) – the “something” (let’s be blunt, and call it what it is: racism; racial discrimination) that makes Othello such a pivotal (and important – and not just in the specific context of this play…) character. Simply put: that which makes Othello what he is – and before he enters. [Of course, we all bring our individual experiences (of the worlds both inside and outside the theatre) – as well as our individual cultural references, expectations, desires – to each performance; and it should not be supposed by anyone that these overlap or share any commonality in any way: never mind are identical.]

I think that the RSC, to give it credit, has been at the forefront of diversity in casting….

In her programme note, Chevalier also writes (occupying the first ellipsis in that leading quote) that “Shakespeare would be astonished at how global and varied actors and audiences have become”. But I, for one, am not. (And, maybe, neither would Big Bill. Who knows?) I was born four centuries later; and grew up in an extremely multicultural environment and society: far, far removed from that Bard’s Jacobethan past. From his vantage: we are a foreign country, now; enmeshed in a cacophonous, glorious rainbow. We do things differently here. I am therefore – as I presume (and pray) are many of my generation – permanently non-discriminatory: unconscious of skin colour. Additionally, I struggle to bring to mind a company at the RSC that wasn’t readily and naturally so varied anyway – no matter the rôles involved. We therefore take it for granted – surely? – that we will always be “surrounded by a variety of skin colours” in the theatre. Therefore, simply taunted (or driven) to death by an Iago (whose motives have always seemed to me somewhat specious) who just happens, also, to be black – as are quite a few of the cast – the play loses much of its momentum; and Othello (who seems to fit in just perfectly, regardless of skin colour) just becomes another jealous guy.

So, I am not convinced that the resulting simplistic plot – i.e. with “the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on” as the central pivot – with its core subtext removed, is actually enough to power the play on: especially one (like The Merchant of Venice…) where race is so crucial, and should leap from the stage. [Perhaps I was wrong, therefore, in my earlier review to write that Shylock’s casting doesn’t matter “as much as I had imagined”? But perhaps I was also right – in that it is the isolation, that “difference” – that ‘othering’ – which is crucial; and which is so manifestly apparent in that other RSC production…? If all the dots in an Ishihara colour vision test are randomly shuffled, how are we to discern the pattern, the number, the conclusion, the answer that should (for most of us) leap from the page?]

The race of the title role is often seen as Shakespeare’s way of isolating the character, culturally as well as visually, from the Venetian nobles and officers, and the isolation may seem more genuine when a black actor takes the role. But questions of race may not boil down to a simple decision of casting a single role.
– Wikipedia: Othello

This is only my opinion, of course; my reaction. But I left the theatre with such a strong, constant, nagging feeling: chewing away at my enjoyment – and it needed answering. What was missing? Why was I not engaged as much as I had expected? Why wasn’t I moved…? It wasn’t the acting; or the stage design – both of which were excellent (see below) – …so what was it?

Once home: reading the listing of “previous performances of Othello” at the RSC, in the programme, suddenly brought to mind Patrick Stewart and Jude Kelly’s struggle to mount a “photo‑negative” production: where Stewart played a white (not ‘bronzed’) Othello surrounded by black actors. (Oh, how I would love to have seen Ron Canada as Iago!) Is race really the drama’s principal theme, its main motivation? Discuss.

Perhaps it is a subset of my own “cultural references” that leads me to believe it is; that it is important…. It is difficult to break through the bounds of change, admittedly; and put ourselves in Shakespeare’s shoes: but, as Quarshie says, the play “was written by a white man 400 years ago for another white man in black face make-up”; and this must prove part of its problematic perspective.

Probably, therefore, I should just leave well alone, and just say that is for each member of the audience to decide: firstly, if they share my views; secondly, if they are capable of the suspension of belief that is fundamental both to Othello’s sudden conversion to apoplexy, and to his supposed otherness. All I can do is report my own response…. (And, yes, I know I moaned that previous performances of The Merchant of Venice had sometimes been too overtly racist; and now I’m implying that the race in this performance of Othello was too downplayed. But such is life.) “The play’s the thing” – and it’s on until 28 August 2015: so you have a couple of weeks in which to go and make up your own mind…!

Okay: so some brief production specifics. (Phew.)

The set and lighting design is by Ciaran Bagnall – and is incredibly clever: especially in its use of water, and eking every single square inch of space out of the thrust stage and its retreat under the old proscenium arch. The atmospheric music – which I found a little intrusive, at times: masking the speech (in my dull ears) – is written and directed by Akintayo Akinbode. The confusingly-contemporary (or are they?) costumes are by Fotini Dimou. And the whole shebang is directed by Iqbal Khan.

The cast overlaps largely, apart from the three lead characters (Quarshie, who never really seemed to get into his stride; newcomer Joanna Vanderham as a potent Desdemona; and the startlingly engaging and dominant Lucian Msamati as Iago), with The Merchant of Venice – appropriately: given, as Gregory Doran writes in the programme introduction, “We have taken Venice as our starting point for the season”.

Did we really need the laptops (although the almost-slapstick aerial-placement scene was very funny…); the television; Iago’s overwrought mysophobia (aping Lady Macbeth’s breakdown); the rap battle; the (extremely haunting) Zimbabwean song; the waterboarding (and other grisly tortures); Roderigo to look like he was gap-yearing in Cyprus…? I dunno. My feeling is that, shorn of such gimmickry (I know: here he goes again…), there is a gripping, tighter, more meaningful production trying to get out (and one that might not feel quite so slow, so episodic, so fractured…).

The performance of the night was, for me, Ayesha Dharker, as Emilia: who grew in reality and emotion as the evening progressed, reaching her zenith on discovering Desdemona’s body and realizing her husband’s treachery: “Speak, for my heart is full.” Sadly, mine wasn’t….

Monday, 10 August 2015

Deaf, not dumb; human, not insect…

On David Cameron: “He’s the most facile, superficial Prime Minister there has ever been,” claiming that “he just shoots from the hip” and makes one-off commitments that “he cannot deliver on”.
– John Buttifant Sewel, Baron Sewel: reported in The Independent

As the Tories increasingly head Farage- or even Trump-wards, David Cameron is currently in hot water (mind you, Philip Hammond is no better) for his use of intemperate language in describing the human beings who are trying to enter Britain – both to better themselves, and to escape from régimes (some supported – or not opposed when they should have been – by the British Government) where they almost certainly have no future. (Mind you: it is probably better to be “in hot water” than drowning in the Mediterranean….)

Whatever your feelings around immigration and the free movement of people, it should be difficult to witness the suffering these people have to endure without being moved – either emotionally, or practically – especially if you are in a position of power: able to actually do something about the situation. But, as always, our PM’s response – both in action and in terminology – is overly (and consciously) simplistic, and extremely patronizing in the way it is communicated. (If Iggle Piggle is the master of anything, it is gesture politics.) It is all too easy to find yourself believing, therefore, that Cameron has no heart; and, given the track record of his administration, scant regard for the huge majority less fortunate than him and his extremely rich cronies.

I begin any conversation by warning you: “I’m terribly deaf.” But you don’t take it seriously. You think I’m exaggerating, or you start by raising your voice then forget moments later, speaking at a normal pitch again, leaving me helpless.

When I was at school, my two main interests – apart from reading and re-reading as many books as I could lay my hands on – were music and art (both consumed and produced with great passion – if not consummate skill…). It was not unusual to be asked, therefore, which sense – hearing or sight – was the most important to me: and I would have answered then, as I answer now… both. (I always was – according to my dad – “an okkerd bugga”.) However, as age and infirmity take their toll, I have been luckier with my eyes than with my ears (as a synecdoche for my complete, complex, and failing, aural system). And yet my principal, practised distractions from the pain that rules my life are still art (usually in the form of photography) and music (now confined, though, to rehearsing that with which I am already on good terms). Some books, I know, I could always listen to, if my eyes failed me: but I would sorely miss their texture and smell.

But… losing your hearing – however it goes; and whatever other side-effects you may personally be unfortunate enough to experience: tinnitus, hyperacusis, diplacusisalways comes with one accompanying characteristic, albeit externally-expressed, symptom: you will suddenly be rendered utterly stupid in other people’s eyes; and will, therefore, be patronized, Cameron-style, within an inch of your life. Not only by a large portion of the general populace; but especially by those entrusted with treating you. And the higher the level of supposed knowledge of your condition, or expertise, the more developed, the more habitual, the condescension. (And god forbid that you should proffer some “expertise” of your own – there is nothing so despicable as the ‘expert patient’.)

My idea of a Utopian world is for everyone to go around like Teletubbies, with subtitled screens on their tummies.
– David Lodge: Mail Online

Such medics do not just (although sometimes simply do not…) try and speak distinctly: but in that peculiar toffee-nosed way many English people reserve for residents of foreign countries that they have visited without even attempting to glean a few native words; as well as to babies and toddlers, of course. Their high-handed ignorance in sending out distorted, nonsensical signals is somehow transferred to you, contemptuously – it is your fault for not being able to comprehend the gibberish they utter, or receive it clearly. It is your fault, in other words, that you have lost your hearing. (In ‘ye olden days’, no doubt, it would have been simpler: we would probably just have been born cursed by the local god – and then sacrificed to them.)

And, sadly, once these haughty halfwits have mounted their high horses, there is no way to remove them from the saddle of superciliousness (well, except, perhaps, with the use of a particularly pointed epithet (or stick)). The habit becomes increasingly ingrained, each time they deal with some poor sod who has – through no fault of their own – no chance of comprehension. (I wonder if those who specialize in treating the blind are more sympathetic?)

We did not choose to be born or become deaf; as those who flee for their lives did not choose to be born into state-sanctioned hatred. Do not treat us, therefore, as if we are the deserved lowest of the low. Instead, please offer us the hand we need… – your hand.

I believe that freedom of movement is a human right, not a trade agreement.
– Jeremy Hardy: Red Pepper

By the way, I am sure that all of us have ‘immigrant’ blood in us – and surely (certainly, in my view) this is cause for celebration? (Immigration, after all, is “good for all of us” – whatever your visceral response to it.)

My very-distant ancestors came over with William the Conqueror; and there are almost certainly additional, more recent, ‘foreign’ bloodlines incorporated into the Bardic mix that I am unaware of. Furthermore, my son is a quarter Polish (which includes a slight sprinkling of Lithuanian): and rightfully proud of his Eastern European heritage. When his grandmother and great-grandmother escaped the oppressive Communist brutality of the late 1960s, they were welcomed with open arms into the working-class community they settled into in the north-west of England. But this contrasts all-too-sadly with the treatment of Africans, West Indians and Southern Asians arriving in the same area at the same time…. Is it therefore wrong to wonder if those now attempting to cross into this country via Calais were white, if they would be treated with the same level of contempt (and labelled so pejoratively, with such utter inhumanity) by our illustrious leaders? (It just seems to me that racial stereotypes run deep in some quarters….)

Once upon a time, though, we were renowned for our deep and deliberate generosity to refugees; but perhaps, with the passing of the likes of Sir Nicholas Winton – who, incidentally (and with unconscious irony), the PM himself described as a “great man” – such altruism and sympathy, such concern for our fellow humans, should also be mourned…?

We seem so deaf to the needs of others; so blind to the future of this planet and those we share it with. Is it too late to ask that we look without ourselves for a change; develop a more open regard for those around us – the ‘Others’ that we could (and should) gain so much from? It is all too easy to habitualize disdain for those who are ‘different’: those who we see as somehow ‘beneath’ us – whether this is caused by fear or by ignorance – and this is made worse when that “disdain” comes from those who are supposed to care and to help.

We should look and listen – always – and we should be more open to learning from them and about them instead: even if we profess such knowledge our speciality. Such people have much to teach us – especially about ourselves – whatever level of society we inhabit; whatever our rôle is in that society – whether ruler, carer, or just another in a very long line of extraordinary human beings.

Look closely at those who patronize you. Half are unfeeling, half untaught.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Saturday, 8 August 2015

I stand for judgment…

One must go for a film with an open mind; a film best impacts you when your mind is a blank page to the film.

With plays – well-known ones; especially Shakespeare’s, therefore – it is natural to see (and foresee) a production through glasses coloured by the vision at the heart of the previous version you witnessed; or your individual reading of the text (or one impressed on you by a keen, but perhaps narrow-minded, teacher of ‘ing-lit’).

So, I must admit that, when, many moons ago, I booked my ticket for last night’s performance of The Merchant of Venice, my expectations were “low and in a bondman’s key”: I was attending mostly for the captions, as well as fulfilling the servitude of an all-consuming completeness – desiring to see every run the RSC puts on at Stratford, whenever possible: especially, of course, of the work of my beloved Big Bill. (Or ‘Big Willy’, as they call him in the States – or, perchance, The Notorious B.I.L.L.?)

But, this ‘problem play’ is (or, should I say, was…) way down my ranked list of his dramas: firstly, because the portrayals of Shylock I have experienced usually did little to quell or balance the insinuated and inferred anti‑Semitism; and secondly, because, at least on the page, it is tough to garner any empathy with (let alone sympathy for) (m)any of the narcissistic, Christian-by-name-but-not-by-nature characters. (Besides, none of the engendered, concocted couples seem destined for long or happy relationships – you therefore do not (ahem) will them on: doomed, as they appear, to fade out of their professed love as they fade out of the closing tableau, finally lit only by candles….)

[Incidentally, Vaughan Williams adapted much of Lorenzo and Jessica’s musical discourse from this one-scene fifth and final act – “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!” – interpolating brief comments from Portia and Nerissa – for his compact-but-breathtaking masterpiece, Serenade to Music. “In arranging Shakespeare’s text, [he] followed the word order, but cut words, phrases, and whole lines, and repeated at the end eleven words from the third and fourth lines”. The resultant beauty reportedly “moved Sergei Rachmaninov to tears”; and has been described (perfectly, to my way of thinking) as “fourteen minutes of sublime poetry coupled with some of the composer’s most transcendent music: a divine pairing that ascends to heavenly heights”. Sadly – and unusually for the RSC – I found Marc Tritschler’s “music concept for this production… based on the historical background of the play”, to be fitful and intrusive; more technical than emotional in its delivery and effect.]

By the way, my precursory lack of enthusiasm for The Merchant of Venice was not helped by chancing on some lousy – but, as it turns out, of course, either too early, or just plain wrongreviews. (This one – by Louder Than War’s Dave Jenning – thankfully matches more closely my experience and delight.) I (not to mention the other critics) really should know better, by now, shouldn’t I…?

Anyway, I need not have worried: yesterday’s performance – directed (and a tad trimmed) by Polly Findlay (behind the marvellous Arden of Faversham, last year) – opens the play up in such a way that no longer are we facing a world of simplistic monochrome judgments and two-dimensional portrayals, but a multicoloured, timely interpretation that writes its dualities and realities large; and where reflection and depth – as demonstrated by the conspicuously burnished set – are the order of the day. As Gregory Doran writes in his introduction to the programme: “We have attempted to take a bold and uncompromising look at issues [what it is to be an outsider; the themes of racism and revenge] which resonate with contemporary audiences…” – and they have, to my mind, succeeded admirably.

The production isn’t faultless, though: featuring several annoying – and ever-present – (what I can only describe as) gimmicks (much, I felt, like the over-insistent soundtrack). The massive perpetual-motion pendulum – at the back of an almost permanently empty set – is quite distracting (and I wasn’t sure if it was either a very obvious representation of Bassanio’s core bisexuality; or something far more obscure that had passed me by – “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st But in his motion like an angel s[w]ings…”). I also found it quite disconcerting to observe the majority of the cast queuing up on benches, in each wing, throughout: waiting their turn to strut their stuff (or perhaps having missed the last number thirty-two bus, er, gondola, to Belmont…). Additionally, with no vomitoria, the actors had to occasionally clamber on and off the thrust platform. Hilarious, perhaps, if you’re lethargic Launcelot Gobbo (Tim ‘Banana’ Samuels), lounging in the stalls, joshing with a surprised, but seemingly willing, audience member. Tough, though, on a seventy-year-old Shylock (Makram J Khoury). However, such a position clearly signifies his sentenced, sententious downfall: moving him literally beneath the other characters.

Once on stage, though, all members of the company are flawless – even if, again (as with Othello – which I shall be reviewing fully, next week), I wondered what the point was of casting a woman as ‘duke’: not that Rina Mahoney wasn’t authoritative; but to describe her by her male title, and then address her as “Lady” is a dissonance, for me, too far (and I am not, generally, against such cross-casting – it just requires justification).

[Talking of such… Nadia Albina (easily proving Sarah Bernhardt wrong) – here as Nerissa; and as the Duke of Venice in Othello – brings a gripping presence to the dramatics that bodes well – from my perspective – for the transparency and inclusion of disabled (different-in-a-good-way) actors at the RSC. I would love to have seen her in the rôle she understudies – Portia (however mesmerizing and pitch-perfect Patsy Ferran is: demonstrating a deep-but-fragile strength; mixed in with some wonderful, subtle, girlish coyness, and fleeting, knowing, expressions) – such is the charismatic authority and intensity of her bearing, her portance.]

Diamond flaws are not always a negative phrase. In fact it is these flaws that often lend a diamond its distinctive beauty. It is often these flaws that make a stone look unique.
– Wikipedia: Diamond flaws

And yet – despite all my quibbling – as you may have gathered, I was entranced. I also came away (curiously unlike Lewis Carroll) from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre feeling overwhelmingly sorry for Shylock – my sympathy having moved on (as perhaps it is designed to be) from Jamie Ballard’s anguished, heart-on-his-sleeve-wearing Antonio (weeping openly, but quietly, centre-stage, before the house lights go down – as part of as soulful an interpretation as I think I have ever encountered): a man who never though, in my opinion, really earns his redemption. This empathy for “The villain Jew” is, in this instance, perhaps a consequent emotion of my still-strong memories of Jasper Britton’s belligerent, broken Barabas – thoughts abetted by a still-tender, all-too-immersive understanding of what it is to be on the receiving end of such senseless discrimination and victimization.

All the same, Khoury – an Israeli Arab: not that, in the end, this matters as much as I had imagined (although it is consummate casting) – brings an essential humanity and rationality to the character; an almost undeviating forbearance in the spitten face of xenophobia: that makes the essayed enaction of his desired revenge all the more perturbing (and which – if their reactions were any measure – drew in the youngsters at the front of the audience in a way I found both heartfelt and heartening).

Only on for another three weeks or so, I shall be rushing back to the RSC box office to try and grab tickets for another viewing: knowing that, last night, I witnessed something almost-indefinably special, quirks an’ all – perhaps it is the pace and sheer energy of the production; the mostly youthful cast (as with Maria Aberg’s 2013 stunning, thrilling As You Like It…)? – wanting to impress it more forcefully into my memory; knowing (gladly so) that it will tint and taint the way I see, I read, the play, the next time…. Hopefully, then, I will be in for another remarkable revelation.

The word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation.