3 Hamlets, or splicing Shakespeare

We didn’t plan it—it somehow happened to us, that we ended up watching three versions of Shakespeare’s play spliced together in equal parts to make a whole.

First came the newest, Andrew Scott’s of 2018, a well-received theatre production reconceived for television. It began with a gimmick but a hypnotic one, a pretend-report on Danish television of the funeral of a king, big black cars driving away from a churchyard avoiding the photographers. Then the security guards’ windowless cave dominated by a chessboard of surveillance screens tuned on the castle ramparts, where the Ghost soon appeared, grey, indistinct, and uniformed like a bureaucrat. The scene was enlivened by electronic noises, especially a loud crack like a fuse blowing which signaled the Ghost’s disappearance.

This version easily beat the nearby competition, Kuznetsov’s Russian of 1964, recently taped from television, lugubrious, pompous, with endless stone corridors after promising footage of the sea washing against cliffs, and, worst of all, extreme faithlessness to the text*, of which it didn’t even attempt an approximation. In fairness, it’s a mood-piece, the furthest thing imaginable from a precise rendering.

So we rejoiced in how the Scott version left every word clearly distinct, and Hamlet, mainly silent, made a strong positive impression on me (though not on E) with an Irish accent and mobile face that reminded me of an Irish friend and seemed to exude intelligence.

We settled into this, intending to see it through, but before long Scott’s way of speaking the verse began to grate. He was breaking it into the smallest possible pieces, waiting between words as if to see how long a silence he could get away with, as if he was thinking out the sense of the line on the spot and discarding unused possibilities before settling on the one he liked best, as if the character’s famous hesitation and delay had infected every second of his existence and made him aware of choices a hundred different times in every utterance. He filled up the unexpected silences with moving his hands like birds fighting strong currents of air and with widening his eyes at one surprising thought after another. It was a convincing picture of mental liveliness but it pulverised the discourse and made you feel you’d had a series of memory lapses, a strong but painful experience.

Like many or even most people I come to Shakespeare with lots of baggage. As a student I had to learn some of these speeches as a way of getting inside the language, which my extremely charismatic teacher thought was what the plays were all about. I agreed with him then, and have only partly diverged even now. Without the language, what have you got? But I can only say this as someone who has been comprehensively defeated by Shakespeare’s language.

Reading Shakespeare in intense bouts which last a few months at roughly ten-year intervals has been one of the great experiences of my life, and the last time it happened I thought the time had come to write a book about the plays. The months stretched into a year or more, and bigger and bigger mountains of notes grew up. Intimidated, I decided I had to begin writing with one of the plays which interested me least. Except that, as often happens with this writer, when you look harder, his most awkward or mechanical product reveals new depths, and the despised Comedy of Errors, instead of a heartless manipulation of its creatures, conjures up an existential abyss in which human personality is dissolved by the simple device of taking away a couple of its customary props. In spite of this encouraging discovery, that lonely first chapter was all I ever wrote.

Unable to bear the destruction of all continuity in Hamlet’s soliloquies, we gave up on Andrew Scott’s version after an hour and 19 minutes (about a third of the way through) and resolved to carry on after a Spartan supper with Laurence Olivier’s film of 1948.

It wasn’t easy to make an exact splice so I tried to find the arrival of the players at the castle, a subject undoubtedly dear to the author’s heart, but an easy place to make cuts. Hamlet even goads one of the old players to deliver an old speech he remembers, very histrionic and completely out of context, but the actor is so carried away by the grotesque rhetoric that he ends in tears. This preposterous speech about wandering around the burning ruin of Troy coated in layers of other warriors’ (I think) blood like a basted roast is a favourite of mine and one of the purest demonstrations of the irrational magic of language. It is cut completely from the Olivier version, so it was a waste of time looking for it.

Olivier’s troupe of players is a huge throng (as against Scott’s 3 or 4), with clowns and jugglers galore, and creates an enormous diversionary hubbub. To a degree that surprises us, Olivier’s is a thoroughly diversionary version of the play. You get the words clearly enunciated but you get a lot else, especially yards and yards of heavy and expensive fabric. Gertrude drags a large and bulky train. Important characters like Hamlet and Horatio are dressed like Roman generals, wide in the chest, plastered with metal arabesques and hung with garlands of braided cord that remind me of our Christmas tree. I am seriously distracted by Hamlet’s costume and wonder what an experienced actor like Olivier can be thinking of to allow people to be upstaged by their clothes.

The architecture of the castle suffers from a similar excess of detail, as if trying to include everything it knows about the Romanesque in an arcade glimpsed briefly, like a dish with too many ingredients. How perceptions change—formerly this must have conveyed a wonderful fullness; now it seems out of place and much too much.** Now we run to another recent version that I’m pleased to find I have a DVD of, with David Tennant as Hamlet from 2008-9. This suits us perfectly, pared down to an essence. How long will it take for this one to acquire its weird period flavour too? Ophelia’s grave is like an incision in a road leading to a sewer and the Gravedigger is a municipal employee. This seems a very apt analogue for Shakespeare’s salt-of-the-earth guy shut in the prison of his specialised trade. By the end, like the old actor playing Pyrrhus, I’m fighting off tears contemplating Hamlet’s fate.

 

 *based on a translation by Boris Pasternak, which is then translated back into English, and must have more value, at least in Russian, than I found in it.

 **in 2012 I loved the Olivier version.

The New York Times and Trump’s first year

Another documentary, another boring subject! We’re only halfway through Trump’s second year and already we want a rehash of his first? That sounds like the quintessence of staleness—material well known, and too close to have been forgotten. On top of that nearness, the far-ness of dealing not with the primary subject himself, but a second hand view through the distancing filter of the media.

How did anyone know there’d be such a good story here? I suppose the campaign of 2016 gave warning of that. One characteristic of the Trump era is that things don’t hold still, but move at nerve-wracking speed. We have never seen anything like this before, and might thus imagine that Trump is setting the pace himself, like a reality show host manufacturing rivalries, creating bogies, throwing out childish nicknames.

But these four programmes show over and over again that ‘events’ do not sit there for the taking, clearly marked and distinct. Especially when the government is bent on keeping you from finding out, the task of recognising what will constitute a real event with important consequences often presents an intellectual challenge of a high order. The nature and significance of the famous meeting between Donald Trump Jr and Russian emissaries had to be pieced together out of scattered hints threatening to vanish under a flurry of lies.

Often stories don’t have single authors and contributions come from far afield. The cast of characters is vast and verges on confusing. These films disobey one of the basic rules for creating human interest: pick out one or two individuals and stick with them, making a person stand for an amorphous group. The filmmakers opt instead for breadth, jumping from reporter to reporter to convey the headlong plunge of this terrible period in the history of the country.

Participants in the films never allow themselves a melodramatic phrase like ‘this terrible period in the history of the country.’ They avoid heat and vehemence to a superhuman degree. Their devotion to finding out the truth is expressed in tellingly individual ways. In a quixotic quest for neutrality one reporter hasn’t voted in the last two presidential elections. A striking expression of their search for accuracy is the evolution of headlines for crucial articles, shown on screen as successive versions blotting each other out.

These are films about Trump in which he hardly appears. That seems a stroke of genius. We see him very briefly around the white supremacist episode in Charlottesville, once when he is saying there is fault ‘on both sides, on both sides,’ repeating the key claim as a fragment, drumming it in. The other clip is equally chilling, when he is blaming ‘the fake media’ for what happened at Charlottesville and sicks the crowd on reporters sitting at their desks behind flimsy barriers at the back of the hall. The scene turns nasty and the reporters pack up their gear and file out silently.

Americans will still be obsessively interested in these topics for a long time to come, however and whenever Trump’s direct influence on events ends. However it all finishes, the quiet persistence of the team of reporters and editors we meet in these films stands right now as a heroic example, inspiring hope for better days.

 

Reporting Trump’s First Year: The Fourth Estate, 4 hour-long episodes by Liz Garbus on BBC Storyville

The Bhagwan

I met the Bhagwan first in London. Every night at midnight a small group dressed in red went down our street laughing maniacally. They seemed possessed, but conveyed at the same time that they knew what they were doing. They were followers of an Indian guru with their local headquarters in a nearby street. At the time I assumed they were just on their way home from a meeting; now I wonder if it wasn’t something more sinister.

Later I heard their leader, the Bhagwan Rajneesh, on the radio. He had a hypnotic voice and drew out the ends of words with a hiss like the snake in Disney’s Jungle Book. He was preaching freedom while casting a spell to which you might submit.

Now, thirty-three years after the Bhagwan’s most ambitious venture imploded in a remote American location, along come two complementary versions of the history of the cult and the debacle in Oregon. There’s a six part Netflix series called Wild Wild Country with a large cast of outlandish characters you might think it would take a novelist to invent. And there’s a soberer and more compact version from the Oregon Historical Society which talks to an almost entirely different set of locals and a more mainstream group of cultists.

The story begins in India with a successful ashram headed by an ex philosophy professor who attracts well heeled Westerners, who throw everything they have into the pot. We get a sanitised version of why they need to leave India. Later, large scale tax fraud is floated as the stimulus. Anyway, Oregon is selected as the destination, to which the Bhagwan absconds without telling his followers he is leaving. They have bought a huge ranch for which they have extensive plans and soon find themselves in conflict with the nearby town of Antelope, population 40. The Rajneeshis despise the locals, which they don’t trouble to conceal. They soon outnumber the natives and peace and love give way to oppression.

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The star of the Netflix series is not the Bhagwan but someone few viewers will have heard of, his deputy Ma Anand Sheela. She is physically attractive and alarmingly intelligent and energetic. As time goes on she reveals darker sides, more than one. The most wonderful feature of the series is the powerful suspense it creates about the characters and where their warring impulses will lead them next. Inevitably the most profound conundrums are posed by the cultists, but there are enigmas among townspeople and officials too.

Two of the most articulate cultists, a young Australian woman and an American lawyer, speaking in the present, keep us in perpetual doubt about whether or how much they ever got out from under the spell. However many explanations one comes up with for how so many intelligent people succumbed to the Bhagwan’s persuasions, it remains a puzzle without a solution, or at least without a remotely palatable one.

 

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How could the 1960s and the expansion of consciousness and greater openness to experience which they brought have spawned the essentially totalitarian attitudes of cults? ‘Extremes meet’ was Coleridge’s favourite proverb: freedom’s excesses are adjacent to slavery, it seems. The happy grins of the Bhagwanites call up in me a mixture of envy and mistrust, and share something with the calmer stares of lobotomised patients.

The Bhagwan himself remains an enigma to the last. His smile looks witless judged by the standards of the world. Even intelligent disciples find his enthusiasm for Rolls Royces a lovable trait, which they feel compelled to indulge. For me, it rules him out as a spiritual teacher. He was wise to keep quiet for most of the time in Oregon. When he unleashes his ire against the disloyal Sheela his unexpected coarseness is shocking. The morning after her departure he turns up fully informed of her crimes, hidden from him before. Now he judges her regime a fascist state and relaxes the main rules, like the red clothing and his own sanctity. Collapse is bound to follow: god has come out as an unbeliever.

 

McQueen

This wonderful film is billed as a documentary but doesn’t exactly feel like one. True, it is stuffed full of interviews with the amazing crew of youngsters (now older) that Alexander McQueen assembled round him, or drew toward himself by the strange attraction that his early designs exercised on those susceptible. It must also include, when you think about it, much archive footage, especially the reruns of old fashion shows, dating back to the 1990s. I can’t tell how much of their own magic the directors have worked on these materials, which are electrifying.

I have a problem with high fashion, which is just the extreme tip of humankind’s insane interest in clothes. McQueen is wonderful because he understands instinctively what is so awful about the catwalk as conventionally practiced. He doesn’t abandon it though, but turns it into a scene of deep conflict and confrontation, a form of torture for everyone involved, the models or actors and the audience or spectators, who are faced with ugliness so unexpected and elaborate that it comes to seem a weird kind of beauty.

In McQueen’s shows this is wrapped up with feelings about the body, with things done or threatened to young bodies, suggested not by actual abuse of persons, but by violence practiced on the clothes, on the cloth they are constructed of, and by the shapes they are made to assume or prevented from assuming. From the beginning McQueen inspired terror with a pair of scissors, feeling a destructive urge to upset harmonies and continuities by simply ripping large complacent expanses of cloth, or cutting roughly apart elements that had been too neatly joined together.

There is occasional talk about where his urge to deface settled orders comes from, from ‘my dark side’ or from abuse suffered as a child. Family plays an inordinate role in McQueen’s life, not just in the early scenes where he is noticeable for an excitement always on the point of exploding. There’s something in there waiting to get out, ungovernable, and at this point more mischievous than alarming, but never quite comfortable.

Later this will seem an innocent time, when Lee (his name in the family, only changed to Alexander, his original middle name, by Isabella Blow to give him gravitas) applied himself with maniacal intensity to learning the tailoring trade from a fascinating series of employers, conventional and unconventional, who supply some of the most perceptive comment on his character. He impressed them all, but none of them could really contain him. Then, how he got to St Martin’s School of Art, definitely the place to be, but what made him want it or think he could do it?

His first designs and shows are my favourites, made of materials found on the floor (cling wrap) or in Borough Market (thin wire mesh) and paid for with his dole money. Although he had a powerful drive to be noticed, at this point he had to keep himself out of public view in case the job centre caught sight of him. It’s a wonderful moment when he and the art school crew come crashing into Paris, where Lee has been hired by Givenchy, who’ve just lost a key designer.

But it is also the first breath of the frightening worldly success that will destroy him. It’s easy to detect this pattern in his life, too easy, because Alexander McQueen is not just another casualty of the Romantic cult of genius, corrupted by fame, money, stardom. The destruction which is a powerful element in so many of his designs was not just a personal aesthetic but something desperately seeking expression. With success, a nasty side of this seemingly benign character began to appear. He cut old friends off from his later triumphs and abandoned others for supposed betrayals. Fashion’s obsession with the body eventually swallowed up Lee too. He lost weight—we aren’t told how—and stopped being the pudgy mess who was such a paradoxical container for that wild imagination. He succumbed to the frightening treadmill of production, 14 shows a year at his peak, and we get quite a good idea of what these cost in every part of life that isn’t work. How strange that the most ephemeral of trades should make such unending demands on its practitioners.

The film involves us to a daring degree in the rat race of these shows, each outdoing the last in lavishness, weirdness and narrative power. McQueen had always tried to make all the designs, impossible to call them ‘dresses’ or ‘outfits’, take parts in the overall story of the show, but it is also important to let individual designs have their own space. Not in the way they would have it in the big museum exhibitions where they’d be standing there motionless as if on pedestals, but filmically, as they are in the brilliant credits at the end of this film, one dress after another that progresses into kaleidoscopic distortions of itself before the next name and next ‘dress’ replace it. So we end with a fluid sense of how far beyond our ideas of something to wear McQueen took what he constructed. These were as remote from everyday life as modernist art and music have regularly been from what people ordinarily see or hear.

McQueen prided himself on bringing gritty reality to the catwalk, but his work twists clothes beyond recognition to create profound experiences that speak of suffering and death, instead of a dogged concentration on what is wearable. These experiences are often not just costumes, but intensely engaging actions, like large robots spraying a rotating model with paint that begins with bold curves on her skirt and ends with a random spatter of dots on her face and her surroundings.

McQueen, 2018, 1 hr 51 min, directed by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui