The Name of the Rose

Book: Umberto Eco, 1980. Film: Dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1986.

– Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus. – Umberto Eco

– Some people believe football is a matter of life and death … I can assure you it is much, much more important than that. – Bill Shankly

Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred. – James Joyce

Comedy is a serious business. That is the unlikely but vital message at the dark heart of The Name of the Rose, the unlikely but vital hit of the dark heart that was the 1980s. Umberto Eco, who died last week at the age of 84, saw an unlikely gap in the market in smelting together two of the decade’s chief publishing obsessions – medieval sword-and-sorcery porn outside the academy, and maddeningly opaque literary theory within it – into an unlikely airport book we could all feel proud of buying. Both novel and film tell the story of William of Baskerville (or ‘Bashkerville’, in Sean Connery’s inimitable lilt), a Franciscan monk and super-sleuth, summoned, along with his trusty novice, Watson … I mean Adso (Christian Slater), to a remote, unnamed, mountaintop abbey in the wintry north of Italy. Their job: to solve a spate of mysterious deaths which the baffled Benedictines think the work of the Devil, but which William, the confident rationalist, knows the work of smoke, mirrors, and man. Changing hearts and minds in this place, though, might be too much for even the greatest of intellects.


Finding out killers in the midst of any cut-off community is always something of a priority, as any Cluedo character will tell you. But as if things weren’t bad enough, the abbey is also to host an MPs-expenses-style debate on the Church’s wealth and the ethics of those churchmen – quite literally – emptying the dregs into the gaping mouths of the poor below. Throw in the threat of the Inquisition being sent to torture confessions out of whoever seems best, or worst, if William can’t crack the case in time, and you have enough psychic pressure and looming scandal to turn your tonsured hair white. For the sweating Abbot (Michael Lonsdale), the bodies can’t be swept under the straw matting quickly enough.

While it may seem redundant to offer *minor* spoiler warnings for a 36-year-old book, the story as it appears in both book and film is a clever – at times queasyingly cerebral in the book’s case – and compelling whodunit I wouldn’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure. I say in both as Annaud’s film departs from its source in several unsubtle but skilful ways, honouring Eco’s postmodern relish for matters textual in referring to itself as a ’palimpsest’ of his novel (is this the only time that word has appeared in the opening credits of a film?) Indeed, one scene has Connery thumbing a book, excitedly proffering it to his flummoxed sidekick as the work of Umberto de Bologna (Eco worked at Bologna for much of his academic career. That I just explained the joke makes me the kind of smug dupe he would have eaten for breakfast).

So The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery on the face of it, though Eco’s book, part inspired by Borges, and conceived in a pre-internet world still reliant on books, essentially hinges on the idea of the library as a tool of human liberation. The library Eco creates, like all medieval scriptoria, is closed to the dispossessed, the peasants and lepers who forage beneath the abbey’s rubbish flue, the outcast sects branded with heresy in their misguided fights for social justice. Salvatore, the hunchback (Ron Perlman), and Remigio, the cellarer (Helmut Qualtinger), have embraced lives of bloated ease within the abbey walls, having long since turned their backs on the religio-political ideals for which they fought as younger men. It is for these ideals that they will be framed for the murders and executed by the Grand Inquisitor, Bernardo Gui, Eco’s version of Arturo Ui (played brilliantly by F. Murray Abraham). Here the problems are societal and political, the circumstances very much historical. But the library is also, literally, labyrinthine, its more nebulous and dangerous secrets unavailable even to those with access, and here the debts are literary and allegorical. Though Brother Malachi, wandering in from the pages of Ulysses, is the librarian, the real custodian – just in case we weren’t already on the scent of reference – is Jorge of Burgos, the abbey’s creaking, blind patriarch.

And this, in a nutshell, is the Eco method, the novel’s grand experiment throughout. It is, like culture, like consciousness, composed of fragments, a sort of greatest hits of things we’ve seen and heard, making grindingly complex theory about books accessible in the form of, well, a book. And a page-turner at that. Parts of it are admittedly too turgid for the pages to turn all that readily, and the film shows itself more agile and purposeful in getting through these moments. The complicated episode Eco supplies to establish William’s Holmesian powers, the hunt for Brunellus the horse, Annaud replaces with the more everyday act of William scenting out – as it were – a toilet for his cross-legged companion. And in so doing he takes us economically to one of the book’s key philosophical stances on bodily comedy as a conduit – again, as it were – to human kindness.

Currents of the Rabelaisian carnival are forever boiling to the surface in this story. Clearly its expression is forbidden, but in the frigid deep of abbey life its need is abundantly clear. William, the Franciscan, allows a good piss joke to his novice, even stressing it as foundational to all we do: ‘In order to command nature, one must first learn to obey it’. Annaud remembered, like all great comedians, to start with the first principles of the body. Comedy is forever at the periphery of our material existence, gesturing towards something greater than ourselves, and it’s no coincidence that one of the first places Joyce, Eco’s greatest literary mentor, takes Bloom is to the lav. Indeed, Nabokov insisted that one letter is all that separates the comic from the cosmic, and while the flush of the commode is hardly comedy’s most celestial height, in this place, it’s a start.

The guidebook to a richer approach – Aristotle’s second book of Poetics, on comedy – is within the abbey’s walls, if only anyone could find it. Or survive a reading of it. Shortly before it is lost forever, it speaks of using vulgar persons, of taking pleasure in their defects, and there’s plenty to go around in the cast of characters Annaud assembles. We’re treated to a delicious roster of mugs, of human gargoyles and hunchbacks, clumpers and toothless droolers, oily fatsos and reedy creeps, each one a dermatologist’s wet dream, coated in boils and welts with hair loss like mange. But here comes the payoff: Aristotle’s tract, William notes, was an instrument of truth, and William, the great student of nature’s great book, the determined reader of signs, believes that truth will set us free. Cocking any kind of snook at human weakness will only seem shortsighted and cruel unless the ultimate goal is liberation, as a great genealogy of comic masterminds – from Swift, through Joyce, to Monty Python – had the discipline to suggest. Moral responsibility is a hazy and contentious thing, but the struggle to attain whatever it may be is intrinsic to the job of satire. Mocking others for our own satisfaction and not their own good does nobody, least of all ourselves, any good. Comedy, at its best, skirts the margins of tragedy’s undiscovered country, lets us know it’s there while reminding us of all we can still reclaim, that things don’t have to be that way – and that, surely, is something worth joking about.

Still, your next laugh could be your last. Annaud’s film captures the texture of medieval life, and how brutally hard it must have been, more convincingly than anything I’ve ever seen, and all its departures from the book are rooted in the coldest earth. In choosing to stage the executions of Salvatore, Remigio, and the girl, rather than have Gui’s thugs do it offstage, as in the book, Annaud stakes another significant claim to an independent vision, or to the palimpsest he offered us at the start. In the world of oppressive, fatal superstition it conjures, we almost understand how the earthly mess of burning wood and flesh, against the starlight, could be rationalised or accepted as a divine consummation, a moment of spiritual release, so incomprehensible is the sight. But again the body triumphs, the peasants revolting at the grim torture, killing Gui and freeing the girl before fire consumes her. Critics have dismissed this move as pulling back from the book’s tougher outcomes, but in the morning-after remains of the two smouldering pyres next to one still untouched, the spectacle seems lonely, small-scale, earthbound, and only faintly commemorative of last night’s frenzied events and what they could possibly have been about, or, indeed, worth. Annaud reinscribes the story with a fresh sense that it is against ignorance, neglect, institutionalised cruelty, the desire to crush individual will and communal spirit, to suppress laughter, that comedy must be mobilised. Not against the innocent, groaning in the dark.

The world of the story is unusually full of exiles from love, either through self-abnegating vows or the genetic hand they’ve been dealt. Adso is a monk, institutionally bound to loneliness like the others, but, unlike the others, young and beautiful, and for one glorious night – or, rather, about 45 glorious seconds – he gets to experience a consummation devoutly to be wished. The book’s fictitious events are set in 1327, and those interested in sleuthing out every trace of debt might observe it as the year of the greatest (fictitious?) event told through ostensible memoirs in literature, when Petrarch supposedly first saw Laura. While she existed to the poet only in name, her corporeal being forever beyond his reach, the girl is to Adso the only physical love of his life, whose language he cannot understand, and whose name he never learns. Annaud, perhaps taking his cue from the hefty nod to Romeo and Juliet in the book’s title, and perhaps from the traditional grammar of screenwriting – not many of the best films end on a dense theological discussion – offers a possible local habitation for the ‘rose’, if not a name. That this is not exclusively about romantic love seems plain. The film’s final moments miraculously channel the book’s insistence on the difficulty, impossibility even, of knowing anything into an eddying celebration of human relationships, love in all its forms, and loss. And this, perhaps, is the greatest of gifts to the semiotician: to end on the one painful mystery that will always slip the net of all description to remain unsolved.

Python’s Life of Brian, which can be felt under the skin of this film, is, make no mistake, one of the great philosophical works of the twentieth century, the stalking horse of its comedy notwithstanding. There, as here, the level of the aim is not so much at organised religion as slipshod interpretation: bad thinking as the prison of the human soul. William wants to teach Adso to read the world’s signs with greater skill, to rescue him from ignorance, just as Adso wants to save the mysterious peasant girl from her poverty. William is in many ways a time traveller, a prefiguration of modernity. He is both William of Occam and Holmes as described by Watson in A Study in Scarlet (the Baskerville connection waving at us like semaphore in case we didn’t already spot where he’s from). He has been dragged hundreds of years out of time into a place not yet ready for him, and it is fitting that he leaves the novel through the back door, passing silently from the pages of history, reminding us he was never in them in the first place.image-29-10-2016-at-13-23

Our only knowledge of where he might have gone comes from the written work of his loyal pupil. Teaching is one of the many ways we try to free one another, the hope that the student will surpass the master and advance the world by inches. That Adso will not do this is very clear. In this case, it’s too much to ask. But we remember, in the end, that his beloved master’s teachings have survived to us only through his account, and that the outcomes of this stirring detective story were determined long before we began reading. We are reminded that an old man, his master’s spectacles on his nose, left a parchment for the postmodern ironist to discover in an archive in about 650 years’ time. That the ironist chooses not to ironise at the last minute honours the great comic vision of the great comic novel about the great comic text that is forever lost. We learn that the time they spent together changed the man’s life in ways he never forgot, and it is that, ultimately, that he lights on as the most important thing he ever learned. What will survive of us is love.

In grateful and affectionate memory of Umberto Eco (5/1/1932–19/2/2016)

Wolf Hall

(BBC, 2015)

To begin with, I liked it. Quite a lot. Four stars. Out of five (it wasn’t perfect). The opening minutes are especially hamstrung by clunky history-lesson dialogue, for which I recognise the need, though the sense of being chaperoned by a script has rarely been stronger. In the off-centre phrasing, the sheer wrongness of idiom, lies a terror that we may not get the message, and it grates. Norfolk’s (Bernard Hill) ‘Wolsey, you’re out!’ opens, but worse is to come. ‘You wanted it all to rule, didn’t you?’ He did? ‘Well I am here now, and I will chew you up, bones, flesh, and gristle,’ he says, confirming the desperation of the defiantly wrong visual choices leading up to this moment. We have already been lectured at by doomy captions in the doom font – it’s 1529, we learn, and the King is not a forgiving man – as doom music follows armed riders towards a crepuscular manor house. Can something be wrong?

The panicked impulse to blurt out all your secrets from the get-go betrays a struggle for narrative control, which finally comes, perhaps predictably, in the camera’s first access to Mark Rylance’s hawkish, silent melancholy (his opening line is in fact an inaudible whisper; it is enough for us simply to see him). By putting himself in command of the film rather than at its disposal in this way, he settles its chaotic rhythms, seeming to sit back from Peter Straughan’s bull-in-a-china-shop screenplay until its energies are spent and it is tame enough to be around. For all Rylance’s, shall we say, eccentricities, the bugger can act, and the novel’s history-as-ontology method has far more purchase in the alert nuances of his face, passing sadly through the maze of the world, than anything the spoken word can here provide.

The source of his achievement is aspectual: we see his Cromwell in complex, subordinate relation to the flow of time, and while ‘great people’ mould parts of their life on the public stage of history, they also lose large chunks of it, as we all do, within the cracks of lived experience. Like change or earrings. The great commonplace of historical narration is of telling either how, or simply that, people are made by nature, opportunity, circumstance, love, acts of will, pain, abuse, devastating loss, petty disaster. But much harder to capture are the simple acts of being – within rooms within days – the small sorrows of the long hours, the faultlines that grow as we are pushed steadily out of everything that we own and are.

Lives are also, of course, cracked apart by seismic sorrows from time to time. The scene in which Cromwell’s young family dies of the sweating sickness, so quietly and quickly that the event seems to pass from the world with the brief seconds that see it out, is astonishing to watch. He outfaces its terrible matter-of-factness with some of his own, his tears more an absorption than an outpouring as he works immediately to salvage the wreck with whatever resources he can gather, starting with the decision to go and murder his father. He doesn’t do it, though it’s an opportunity to replay and conquer the past, which he also doesn’t manage. But the path to the abuses of his early life laid open by the loss of his family is compelling, seeming to suggest that in building close ties around ourselves we seek protection from pain, from the world’s indifference, and, perhaps most of all, from the shame of who or what we used to be. When the stays of love are taken away, it all comes flooding back.

The following scene, then, in which he grants his young ward’s request to take his surname, is a potent reassertion of control. Kindness is needed if we are to suffer well, as is resolve, and so we gradually come to understand, the episode’s initial fumblings notwithstanding, that Rylance’s poise is not just rooted in the patient endurance of temporal shift. It is a discipline, a forged will of iron – in happy metaphorical relation to his blacksmith’s origins – that can overcome both the external world and the assaults of memory and self-doubt. The scene in which he contemplates a prayer book, his mind’s eye tracing the ghost of his daughter’s fingers over the illuminated lettering, snapping back to coherent decision-making at the realisation he must move to protect Wolsey, is a powerful study in this.

It is the same will that enabled the poor boy’s rise among potentates, just as it now enables his steadfast loyalty to them. The scene at Bonvisi’s supper in which Cromwell confronts More over his rise to the Lord Chancellorship, as Wolsey’s bucket plunges into the well, is a masterclass in tonal and political check – ‘What’s that? (Pause) A fucking accident?’ At this point we question our hearing, and realise that the effect of the shock has been cumulative. Here, as at all times before, Rylance doesn’t so much speak the lines as decant them, measuring out meaning in ceremonial calculation and drawing off impurity. The even cadence with which the expletive infiltrates the sentence, a word being snuck out in disguise by its confederates, is a stunning effect. Perhaps, despite the warnings of his mentor’s collapse, this is a man tough enough to keep control of Henry’s ear.

In times gone by, artworks depicting Henry VIII were obliged to figure out a politic shorthand, a language of stately euphemism for the heavy consequence of befriending, serving, or, worst of all, marrying the King – see Sir Thomas More or All Is True for evidence of this. No such subtleties are permitted, or indeed needed, here, and though Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) is yet to prove the extent to which his tyrant mind is to be feared, there is still the sense that those of the King’s sphere don’t live so much with or near him, as around him in a quaking diaspora. But Cromwell is different. The bizarre confidence of his rejoinders to Damian Lewis’ Henry sets him apart, both from others and from anything his ill reputation can do to precede or hamper him. Knowing he has won, at least for now, he tells servants to paint the Cardinal’s crest brighter than before, and abandons us until the next instalment.

Other honorable mentions must go to Mark Gatiss, who gives a brilliantly reliable Mark Gatiss as Stephen Gardiner, while Saskia Reeves’ Joan Broughton brings balance to Rylance’s stoicism with some poignantly crafted regular feelings in the scene of his wife and children’s deaths. Jonathan Pryce is an excellent Wolsey, whom I shall miss when he goes. He was looking increasingly peaky and thoroughly out of favour as the episode wore on, while the tightly wound potential of both Lewis and Foy, shown only in sample-size portions here, suggests a change of method might be on the cards. Rylance, through the necessary remove of the camera, manages miraculously to honour the novel’s strange proximities – Mantel both courts and studiously avoids the first person – and to put us alongside him in history’s great waiting room. I rather hope things don’t succumb to more frenetic outward energies, though doubts remain, and it will be interesting to see if the methodical pace can be upheld in the coming weeks. More superficially, though not insignificantly I think, I watched the episode on a recently acquired 40-inch HD television, with which I am in love, and which renders anything, anything – adverts, the news, Cadfael repeats on ITV3 – beautiful and compelling to watch, and the solemn grandeur I saw in Wolf Hall‘s handling of character in time may read as the everyday hallmarks of a boring show on another device. One of our finest Henrician scholars has suggested as much, and I take very seriously the points he makes. We shall see …

Coriolanus (Donmar Warehouse)

Dir. Josie Rourke. NT Live broadcast seen 30/1/2014 at Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse


A Coriolanus that couldn’t be seen live for love nor money. I wonder why. Cramming Tom Hiddleston – subject of the molten desire of millions – into a space as small as the Donmar always meant this show would be beyond the reach of those unwilling to self-abase beyond a certain limit. If you weren’t vigilant enough to hawk for hours over the website for the tickets’ release, hardy enough to brave Covent Garden in a sleeping bag, or impulsive enough to get on eBay and do something most would regret, the NT Live screening can only have been a good thing. Of course, the screen absorbs a little of the vague and elusive quality we understand as ‘atmosphere’, though it was a communal experience nonetheless and carried – albeit from a distance – the vital charge of uncertain outcomes that live performance both demands and delivers.

It’s hard to imagine the play itself behind this mania. Beyond its relative unfamiliarity, there’s no denying Coriolanus’ arid and inhospitable climate: its siege mentality, its unflagging dialogic hostility, its almost total indifference to ordinary needs. Though perhaps unostentatious in language – compared to the alphabet soup of the late plays it immediately precedes – the energy it expends on creative, clear vituperation, on making people understand that they are either under threat, not liked, cowards, wasting their breath, going to die etc., is both remarkable and oddly stirring. There is a sort of lumpen precision at work, words making surgical cuts as they land despite being wielded like clubs, and the antagonistic verbal textures weave a grim vision of a world holding you determinedly at arm’s length. By the throat.

It may come as little surprise that Coriolanus inspires its fair share of alienating criticism to match its rabid misanthropies: this is the play of inscribed bodies, of feminising wounds, and mothers who suffocate, though it might more practically be imagined as a study of the fallout zone around one crazy man. There is so little on show that one can claim legitimately as ‘relatable’ – not that that’s a precondition for enjoying theatre – beyond what is for most of us baffled and unfocussed political grievance that it seems somehow to let us off the hook, or not let us get near it in the first place, shrinking into a cautionary tale beyond the realms of regular experience. Don’t put monomaniacs on the spot or in charge if you know what’s good for you.

The clearest challenge, then, to what seem the orthodoxies of this play is the casting of lovely, sexy, kindly Tom Hiddleston as Martius. Google ‘tom hiddleston co…’ and the search bar rushes to offer up a choice between ‘coriolanus’ and ‘cookie monster’, both, incidentally, works urging the need for self-regulation in their own way (Alone I ate them!) One can always see the play beneath the palimpsest of production, and we must check our own sense of what constitutes textual fidelity: the play is like this, therefore the production should honour that. But who should play Coriolanus? Ray Winstone? Godfrey Bloom? Roy Keane?


Director Josie Rourke shrugged evasively at Emma Freud’s suggestion that having ‘the sexiest man in the world’ in the lead role couldn’t hurt the production’s chances. She did, however, maximise the opportunity throughout the show to combine Hiddleston’s daring and commitment as an actor with other attributes he happens to possess. As a man faced with the image of a much more attractive, half-naked man’s muscular body spasming beneath the shock of a gelid shower, I felt an almost psychic duty to read the image exclusively as one of lonely, puritanical suffering, torture and humiliation, the frailties of human flesh, hoping everyone else would do the same, though there is little doubt the production was cashing in its chips among other (gasping and giggling) sections of the audience demographic at this point. And good luck to it too.

Yet Hiddleston’s performance deserves a wider focus than a narrow debate about whether or not he is too sexy, or hard enough, for the part. He seemed to draw his feelings from a more complex wellspring than the usual austere broth of atavism and anger, and thus was able to convey different states of being at the same time. It was a sustained and intelligent drive at nuance, and the constant knowing reminders from both actor and production that this was, lest we forget, a theatrical essay, somehow comfortably divested the show of the wearisome burden to convey these impulses naturalistically. Thus pressure was relieved, and room made for a reading both heartfelt and critical, an imaginative grasp beyond the apparent purview of the character’s hard-boiled factory settings towards emotions it is not clear he possesses. All this was particularly evident in the ‘I banish you’ sequence, the return to Corioles, and of course ‘O mother, mother! What have you done?’, in which the Teflon lacquer of antipathies was many times scoured off by tears that betrayed real wounding, albeit our willingness to invest was probably made stronger by the sympathies pretty people traditionally inspire.


For those of us without such exterior capital, Mark Gatiss’ Menenius was a welcome point of contact, perhaps embodying best of all the production’s larger intent to strip away spleen and cerebral control and be smart from the heart. He was notably perceptive and articulate in the pre-show preamble, and as soon as he broke up the tawdry opening rabble-rousing by launching into the body parable with an unusually refined marriage of sanguine comedy, emotional directives that felt honest, and skilful political manage that felt more necessary evil than manipulative game, it was clear that his alert sincerity was to be the vital organ through which much of the production’s bile was purified. He conveyed a clear understanding that matters of policy are no more abstract than the maintenance of personal ties if people are on the other side, and was both barometer and lightning rod for the cumulative shocks of each breakdown in relations.


Other honourable mentions go to Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger as a pair of wonderfully sleazy, corrupt and mutually-obsessed tribunes; Peter De Jersey as a noble and careworn Cominius; Hadley Fraser was a bullish Aufidius, while Deborah Findlay’s Volumnia captured very well the double-back hypocrisy of a matriarch who spends an entire play damning cowards who beg for life on their knees, only to end it doing exactly that. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, whom we learn was brought in to reprise some of the crusading strength she showed as news anchor Katrine Fonsmark in Borgen (described by Mark in Peep Show as ‘like The Killing but with more bureaucracy’), played Virgilia. Yet as the role seems ultimately to afford little beyond fretting, crying, kneeling and proffering a knock-kneed boy to an unhinged father, like Shelley Duvall in The Shining, the parallels went somewhat unfulfilled, despite the skill and feeling underpinning her performance. Continuing the focus on overt theatricality, it was nice also to see a thoughtful redistribution of all small parts among a three-strong ensemble (Rochenda Sandall, Mark Stanley and Dwayne Walcott).

The pared-back austerity and claustrophobia of the Donmar space was a good holding cell for the play’s intensities. This Rome is not, as the pre-show interviews remind us, the mighty empire of the Caesars. It is a walled city, fearful of assault, in a land of walled cities, fearful of assault. And, as long as there are guys like Martius, they should be. Outside the walls are hinterlands best not crossed, lest they lead you, sooner or later, to your enemy’s gates, which here seem to be somewhere near Scarborough (the Volsces all put on their best Geoffrey Boycott to signal that we were not in London – I mean Rome – anymore). The first raid on Corioles played like an extended advert for Tom Hiddleston’s bum, postured and backlit atop chairs like David Copperfield in a messianic 1990s Vegas magic show, though despite what Rourke might have envisaged it felt overall quite a spare, or perhaps uncluttered, production, with no real movement work beyond a lengthy, naturalistic piece of fight choreography when Martius and Aufidius face off in Act 1. Design features gradually fell away, though vague political slogans were sprayed onto the walls throughout and a red square was painted on the stage to convey – what? The walls tightening? A combat arena? Moscow? – the potentially interesting but by no means clear symbolism to which geometric shapes drawn on stages usually amount.


All the chair work around a mostly ever-present onstage cast felt very Cheek by Jowl, who in turn feel very Brecht. My eyes caught the drain installed around the stage early on which made me wonder whether things might get a bit German, if you will, in the impulse to heighten fraught psychological and political states by covering the stage in water and dirt.  It didn’t disappoint, though being English we couldn’t possibly let it stay there, so actors in the moment and stagehands in the interval hovered with mops and brooms to clear it all up as soon as it landed. Naturally, wet floors in the workplace are a clear health and safety issue, but the gesture nonetheless greatly undermined the attempted devil-may-care-ness of it all, especially as I was revisiting in my mind – as I often do – the extraordinary devastation in which The Berliner Ensemble left the RSC’s Courtyard stage after each performance of their Richard II in 2006.

The grand opera of Hiddleston’s death scene could not but recall the image, so familiar from Coriolanus stage histories, of Olivier dangling by his ankles, though from all accounts that mirrored the performance entire in being done at white heat, the actor’s tyrannical control allowed free rein to the last. It was a headlong dive at glorious self-annihilation, the actor as classical hero in the mould exalted by Tynan, martyring body and soul in a daredevil and genuinely high-risk climax intended to cement stage immortality. Hiddleston’s grand exit was, unfairly I felt, robbed somewhat of agency and momentum by the fiddly fastenings that sought quite literally to shackle him into an idea and serve him up, finally, as directorial motif. Awkward mechanics were given further precedence as Fraser’s bare bodkin popped the large blood bag under the hanging Hiddleston’s breastplate so that the earlier shower sequence might be unsubtly relived. Okay, it’s a strong image, but a counterintuitive one in that it cut off the final peroration of betrayal, grief, defiance, or anything else Hiddleston’s face, had we seen it, might have chosen to convey.

But this was a fine production, perhaps overshadowed in that respect by the oddity of the cultural phenomenon it became. Tidal waves of adoration, goodwill and near-Beatlemania crashed upon a caustic and mean-spirited play, staged in the darkest depths of a London winter in an old banana-packing factory. Well, a cinema really. Like Martius himself, this production in its original setting was, unlike the performance, impossible to get close to.

The Great Gatsby

Dir. Baz Luhrmann (Warner Bros., 2013)


The great green metaphor glowing out of reach. The great American dream. The great age of innocence corrupted and transformed by the wiles of industrial boom and bust. Locating the wellspring of The Great Gatsby’s greatness can be a tired fumble at the best of times. Published in 1925, and hemmed in by Ulysses on one side – hence the three-year shift in removing the action to the summer of 1922 – and the crash of ’29 on the other, it is seen as both a work of homage and of uncanny premonition. The debt to Joyce’s intimidating tome is wittily showcased in Luhrmann’s film, Nick Carraway grinning blithely at a pristine copy sitting on his desk and declaring his ambition to match the feat in his own writing when time serves. While Ulysses launched its sustained assault upon both the form of the novel and the fabric of English itself, Gatsby, albeit part of the modernist experiment in its grainy portrayal of consciousness as lived experience, was a straightforward even conventional story of love and death in its broader plot points. And yet the poetic strictures of its style aim with lucid precision at what turned out to be Fitzgerald’s lasting achievement with it: crafting 170 perfectly wrought pages on the most strained verities of regular human feeling without taking a single emotional false step.

Such subject matter provides the toughest examination of quality, pitting writers against a densely packed minefield across which only a very select few – Shakespeare, Joyce, Austen, Nabokov, Wharton perhaps – might make it unscathed. The sentimentalist or the sermon giver will be quickly exposed in the negotiation of what is required here: setting understated generosity squarely in the midst of the harshest of truths and the worst of company. That The Great Gatsby achieves this at a canter sets it apart as a towering mastery of form disguised as a short and seemingly inconsequential fable. The great tragedy its author suffered was that the disguise proved too good, and the book’s rare distinction went unrecognised even to his death. The oft-anthologised final sentence with its stirring conviction that the sad search for what we once were haunts all of our endeavours has seemed the manifesto of this strange masterwork. But the book knows only too well that it is the lonely expanse of the present – with its stinging barbs, its humiliations, its casual disappointments – in which we feel the struggle against the shame of our own existence most keenly.

Its draining effects are written all over Carey Mulligan’s careworn face when it is introduced to us in the first of many soft, lingering shots aimed more at scrutiny than at wistfulness. I first encountered Mulligan onscreen, as most did, as Ada Clare in the 2005 BBC adaptation of Bleak House, and so pure and involuntary seemed the goodness she was able to communicate through every uncontrolled facial mannerism, every smile, every breath and movement that it was hard to imagine she was acting. It is a wrench therefore to see the worn-out depths of her eyes here, peering over the chaise longue on which she and Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan ride out the longueurs of formless days anaesthetised by privilege. If remaining afloat on the ocean of back then is what might save us, here and now is where we have come to be wrecked; yet as hard and desperate as it feels, it’s where we live, and where we greedily search the faces of others for a beacon of kindness to bring us home.


Luhrmann is expertly attuned to one of the novel’s finest tricks in convincing us at length through Gatsby’s boundless, blind affection and Tom’s shrunken soul that Daisy is the one in need of rescue. It is only when she is allowed to act out on her own, to cease to be defined by the wishes and the lusts of suitors, that we realise she’s not worth it. Gatsby’s love is founded on an epic misreading, and what he takes for hidden depths dammed up, Nick, the novel’s narrator, takes rightly as open shallows following their natural course:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made …

The real recipient of kindness in the story, of course, the one who recognises it when it comes and knows its worth, is Nick. If we cannot trust in the unswerving decency of the character then the enterprise will fail, and the casting of Tobey Maguire, a proven specialist in nice guys with a tendency to voice-over narration (moral centres, in other words) is a savvy choice. His open sensitivity mixed with eager desire in The Ice Storm lent stability to the desperation pervading the film, and his Peter Parker showed that even superhuman power might be tempered by ordinary conscience.

Mulligan and DiCaprio seem the more perfect for these thirty-somethings cut adrift from the promise of youth in that we have watched the transition unfold and carry their past performances along with us. It is nearly twenty years since DiCaprio’s Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, which seemed the stuff of documentary so faultless and uninterested in pity was the portrayal, and Luhrmann cannily foresaw his potential even as a relative unknown to be a beguiling enough muse to carry and define Romeo + Juliet. We also see through the lines accumulating in the recesses of his face back to the tuxedo-clad younger man sipping champagne in the film that wrought the transformation to old-fashioned legend status, the behemoth period piece Titanic (a film rendered far less conventional by his bright man-child presence).

What he and Mulligan share is the sheer excellence of their ability to pretend to be someone else while at the same time seeming to advertise in their quick eyes the inmost part of their real selves. They are without and within, offering us what we accept as full disclosure in their pitch-perfect working of an elaborate and glorious lie. In short, they are movie stars, and equal to the tough convergence of ethereality and fixity that bringing literary characters to the screen demands. Theirs is a beauty that balks at screen tradition in their various ways, which also serves them well here. Mulligan is desirable not through any starlet voluptuousness but a strange mix of the ordinary and the seraphic, and DiCaprio, in spite of an increased bulk nowadays, retains the boyishness that makes him a slightly off-centre choice for a leading man by Hollywood standards. But that frame and face that won’t quite pass for conventional masculinity also render him a rare cinematic creature, captivating and aloof, mercurially energetic.

Luhrmann found many contrivances for the romantic visual of wetting DiCaprio’s hair in Romeo + Juliet (as did Cameron for that matter), sending him sloshing into as many sinks, pools and rainstorms as a two-hour piece with, frankly, other narrative concerns, could bear.  We might therefore read the moment at which he comes in, soaked from the rain, to meet Daisy as gloriously self-referential in that he here looks – in a moment shorn of all vanity and music-video soft pornography – like a doofus in a sodden suit. Maguire even reminds him to sweep the lick of hair stuck to his forehead not into artfully dripping locks but into the best of a bad situation, gluing it to his scalp like a comb-over. And yet the brilliance with which he delivers his response to her aching first line reclaims and multiplies any lost dignity, the feat rendered more special in that everything is working against him.


Joel Edgerton, last seen cage-fighting with Tom Hardy in Warrior, is a fine choice for Tom, who, Fitzgerald tells us, has ‘a body capable of enormous leverage – a cruel body’. Edgerton ploughs through the scenery in his strident, bullish energy, an eternal slummer in spite of the high ideals his birthright demands. His lack of mystique as a performer relative to DiCaprio is also a nice touch, his overbearing strength and presence much more earthbound and easy to fathom. When he reveals the secret of Gatsby’s millions it is with the easy smugness of a vandal defacing sacred property: ‘We’re different from you’ he says; ‘it’s in our blood’. Yet the wildness that grows in DiCaprio’s eyes and his screamed command for him to ‘SHUT UP!’ as the taunts become unbearable are less a jealous defence of reputation and privilege than a wounded fury that the purity of his hopes might be harnessed with the sullying grime of money. Gatsby’s great folly is his belief against all odds that the past and the vitalising potency of its dreams can be repeated through acts of will, so long as a financial platform adequate to the task can be secured. What better place for the railing satirist to act out the vast emptiness of unfulfilled longing than from within a fortress of money? Yet Fitzgerald had the courteous sense to gift the character the hope and the enduring love that renders this failure spectacular and necessary. Someone must stand up for that part of ourselves, however ridiculous it may be, that craves transcendence if we are not to be ground away by the compromises of rational want alone.

Gatsby is also a colossal mess, of course, a man divided and self-alienated by the fear and delusion that act as a counterweight to his enormous benevolence. DiCaprio is grimly alive to this fact, his eyes maintaining a complex balance between honest panic and practised control, occasionally softening into a conveyance of regret that seems to channel all that is right about the book. He calls at times upon some of the mania of his other great loony tycoon, Howard Hughes from The Aviator, as he grows lost within himself, brooding, unmoored and drifting into the unreachable. He is only glanced peering out of windows for the first third of the film, either in silhouette from our side or as a hand worrying at the curtains from his. His eventual foray to fill the screen comes complete with the perfect rendition of ‘that’ smile, the easy control belonging solely to the performer and not the character. That this formula is reversed for the onset of collapse in his later scenes is equally extraordinary, holding a steely nerve in not reaching too hard for our sympathy or our approval.

Many feared the gaudy, giddy cabaret of the Luhrmann method would bulldoze the staid matter-of-factness with which the novel doles out its disapprovals of the world. Never one for moodiness or whimsy, his camera is a whirling dervish of acquisitive energy, drinking in images at high speed and spitting them back in our faces, yet such frenetic motion serves precisely to offset the moments of calm in which the real emotional jolts are delivered. It worked brilliantly in Romeo + Juliet, and here, in addition to the Busby Berkeley-meets-The Birdcage extravaganza of Luhrmann’s party sequences – which hogged the trailers and gave the wrong impression of their prominence in the overall piece – we are treated to some majestic visions in the camera’s flights across the water from West to East Egg, its queasy descents from the top of newly-built skyscrapers down to crammed street level and careering in the wake of Gatsby’s citrus-yellow sports car. We take in slowed-down, yearning flashbacks to an impoverished dust-bowl childhood, the tempest raging around Dan Cody’s yacht, and, perhaps most significantly, explosive cine-reel-style layered montages of Gatsby’s plight in the trenches – this is also the story of an attempt to reconnect with a time before a war. The recreation of the 1920s New York cityscape is wondrous, not least because of the slightly false textures, both in colour and in movement, well exemplified by the florid reds of Myrtle (Isla Fisher) and Tom’s chaotic hothouse.


Much agitation has been stirred by the presence of musical anachronism, and we might indeed read the repeated use of Jay-Z – one of the film’s producers – and Beyonce’s music among flappers and coat tails as one piece of product placement too far. Yet the reason we are here in the first place is to anatomise the collateral damage inflicted upon poor souls by the wealthy and the shallow, charging headlong at private pleasures, and the only debt this truly owes to the 1920s is that they were then then. What the story really needs conjuring is the now. Fitzgerald must have hoped the book would enjoy a lengthy afterlife, and would no doubt have approved of Luhrmann’s recognition of the need to slap his audience awake with the sharp sting of the familiar. The simple device of breakbeats and the lyrics of ‘Crazy in Love’ intruding on a jazz soundscape is enough to remind us of our complicity in all this. We could be, and probably have been, any one of the perfunctory bacchantes lapping up the free booze and the cheap adulation at that party. Any fixation on period detail, and Luhrmann’s occasional refusal to honour it, is to miss completely the book’s insistence on the empty performance of fleeting fashion when used as a substitute for authentic human sympathy.

Luhrmann and his screenwriter, Craig Pearce, have shown themselves astute handlers of great material before, and Gatsby summons that same created world – recognisable in physical form yet steeped in the energies of linguistic fantasy – that drove Romeo + Juliet. Their approach to adaptation takes account of our desire for immersion, and Gatsby is a dashing and repeatedly clever synthesis not just of then and now but of the world as we experience it and as it appears in our literary imagination. There are losses to vex purists – Daisy’s daughter never appears, neither does Gatsby’s father – but Luhrmann has spoken in interviews about the need to retain focus on the bond linking narrator and subject in the final act of the film. Indeed, sensitivity to the demands of a medium is the very thing that brought Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, with its infinite unspoken mysteries, forth from the declamatory Trimalchio. Once Gatsby is dead and the camera begins to float, first above his body, then the city, then across the water to the green light upon which we fade, there is no room in this astonishing sequence of visual poetics to stop to talk about the boy he once was. We’ve already seen it, and as integral and important as it is to the novel, its inclusion here would have had the dissipating whiff of the director’s cut about it.

It is a fool who ‘trusts the text’ in any case. Obdurate and insistent on its place as an impossible ideal, it can usually be trusted only to undermine the efforts of screenwriters and directors fighting to pin it to the screen. Not this time.

The Hollow Crown – Henry IV Part 2

Dir. Richard Eyre, 14 July 2012 on BBC 2

(Originally published 21 July 2012 on the Year of Shakespeare website; republished in A Year of Shakespeare, Arden/Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 240-3)

We begin, again, in the tavern – this production’s spiritual home – following a urine sample up the stairs to Falstaff’s room. After Part 1’s somatic creakings I more than expected to find within a wart-nosed cane wielder grimly awaiting the lowered thumb, but instead we get a spruce knight in red velvet, gloved hands either hugging the seat of benevolence or darting eagerly at the air. Beale, finally allowed off the leash, purrs the lines with quick invention and mischief, making it harder to fathom why the chance was so sniffed at in the more yielding Part 1 – humour exists in this play, but Shakespeare makes us grub in the dirt for its filthy lessons. In fact, the whole world has got the colour back in its cheeks. Jeremy Irons’ Henry, last seen reaching for the handle of death’s door, looks as though there’s nothing that half a Valium and an unbroken nine hours wouldn’t cure. While not his fault – throughout we get the sense of a dignified, powerful performer at the mercy of a series of directorial whims – it must be observed that he, indeed everyone, seems better. Maybe it was inversion by design, or maybe a realisation that signs of life would have to be put back if the entire cast was not to expire before Act 2.

Eyre has made resolute provision for the defence of the fourth wall in his adaptation as a whole, and there are still no soliloquies here – even Henry’s insomnia and Hal’s bedside grapplings with crown and destiny move from private to public. In practice this requires a good deal of strained reworking, some of the more evasive tactics (using voice-over or cutting outright) having been discussed in the last review. Falstaff’s great solo set-piece from Part 2 about sherry drinking was crowbarred in as dialogue to mollify a rather morose ‘do I not dwindle’ episode in Part 1, which in hindsight may have been to ensure that the much-loved lines were at least retained, realising there was no way for Part 2 to support them unless Beale – horror of horrors – talked to the camera. Throughout, there is a sense of helpless surrender to the ennobling grammar of celluloid, though why the fear of direct eye contact? One senses a conviction that it would wound the essential dignity of the project as a whole – we are here, first and foremost, to tell sad stories of the death of kings – yet such po-facedness strips proceedings of the very wits Shakespeare took such care to season them with.

Henry IV Part 2 is a play in which, fundamentally, nothing happens, and it is useless to try to thrash it into service as a pulse raiser. We must bed down in its mulchy topsoil, plug in to the circadian rhythms of Shallow’s orchard and slowly photosynthesise, like one of his apple trees, in a zen-like acceptance of inertia. These are not shortcomings. There is something frankly haunting about the burden of memory allied to the generosity with which quotidian experience is handled – delicate, complex layers of regret and understanding that seem, at their most closely observed, beyond this production’s grasp. The ‘chimes at midnight’ scene is horribly rushed, the line itself knowingly portentous (Falstaff eyes the abyss and David Bamber’s Shallow whines tearfully). It’s a moment of unnecessary panic, lunging clumsily at pathos, more so as it goes unchecked by Falstaff’s – soliloquised – account of the old man’s simian lechery.

Gloucestershire – inexplicably wintry in this production – is all well and good, but the film really wants to get back to London, to the lonely watches of Irons’ palace and the Turkish baths in which Hiddleston’s Hal and David Dawson’s Poins now fritter away the time. The principal debt to the interior designs goes to Caravaggio, with lots of bodies in dark rooms lit from the side, though he never painted flesh without making it suffer. Here the director turns travel agent, offering us poolside vanities – Poins artfully flexing his pectoral muscles into optimal relief – in a scene that ought to demand squalid impatience, frustration, thwarted ambition. The levelling of complexity hinted at earlier is probably as true of the darknesses as the delicacies. After a tearful embrace at which Irons rears up for an open-mouthed, frog-eyed fatal seizure, we see him laid out in state, Hal crowned, Falstaff duly rejected and a final lingering shot of Beale’s face. Yet there is no bird that sings of the wars to come, no steely realpolitik advice from father to son about busying giddy minds with foreign quarrels, no admitting that he will die having failed to make his penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The whole thing has the uncomfortable air of censorship about it; the cynicism of motive that is so artfully concealed in Henry V is here, for the only time, allowed unambiguous voice, and its suppression is miscalculated.

That I actually rather enjoyed this film as a whole might seem like a bizarre parting shot given the ravings of this review. It is certainly the play that best serves the overall moodiness of The Hollow Crown series, and, to end where I began, if the tavern is where we are most at home, it is where this production’s greatest glories are to be found. I take back what I said about Julie Walters’ Quickly. She is magnificent in Part 2, an unsentimental life raft for the souls not waving but drowning around her, and Maxine Peake’s Doll is, and may continue to be, the best reading of the role I have seen. In a moment that at first had me rolling my eyes, she straddles Falstaff and tries to stir him manually into life; yet we see, with honest poignancy, desire outliving performance in his apologetic admission ‘I am old, Doll’. She dismounts unceremoniously and lies near him in patient forgiveness, in bounteous understanding, and in love. The sense of fragility conveyed, that a breath might wither all, renders it worthy of entry into the pantheon of great interpretations of this play.

The Hollow Crown – Henry IV Part 1

Dir. Richard Eyre, 7 July 2012 on BBC 2

(Originally published 13 July 2012 on the Year of Shakespeare website; republished in A Year of Shakespeare, Arden/Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 238-40)

It was perhaps fitting, tuning in to this instalment of the BBC’s Hollow Crown, that the start was delayed by action from the All England Club. While Johnny Marray was busy becoming the first British men’s doubles champion for over seventy years, we were awaiting the play that – as Simon Schama had devoted a good portion of his Shakespeare telling us some two weeks earlier – is the place we go to find it. All England. From the lowliest ostler under Charles’ wain to the burdened King under the canopies of costly state, Shakespeare gave it a local habitation and a name, and, more importantly, a voice.

It is curious then to see in Richard Eyre’s Henry IV Part 1 a distinctly more Brueghelian than Shakespearean figuration of England in a production that seems primarily visual in its storytelling aims. Brueghel’s surrealism is absent, but the warm tones of his alehouse interiors, straight out of ‘The Peasant Wedding’, in which life is celebrated, and, in the latter half, the white lonely expanses of ‘Hunters in the Snow’, in which it is tested, are powerfully evoked. There might also be a touch of Beerbohm Tree in the curious visual sentimentality about the Eastcheap scenes, not least because that is where we begin, with a remarkably clean-cut Hal – his anachronistically designer-looking leather doublet and blond locks out of place even in this sanitised vision – looking fondly at a snoring Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale) with his Doll. All around are the filmic tropes of yeasty Shakespearean low-life: black toothy grins; thirsty quaffing from earthenware goblets, with the overspill soaking into thick whiskers; buttocks slapped in ribald jest; shirts and smocks loosely, post-coitally thrown on; every available hanging adorned with drying linen or dead rabbits. This is all in sharp contrast to the slate-grey chastity of the lifeless court, a world of covering up under furred gowns, fingerless gloves and sheaves of parchment. We intercut between both at a remarkably brisk clip until Hal’s ‘I know you all’, rendered as a voice over as he picks his way through the teeming tavern, brings phase one to a close before we have really stretched our legs.

The unfortunate effect of such haste is that much of the rich linguistic texture that this play takes unusual leisure to wallow in is emptied out like piss from latticed windows. Of course it’s only a two-and-a-half hour film so cuts are unavoidable, yet England as seen in the play’s great variety doesn’t have a pictorial life; it is found, rather, woven into the infinite magnanimities of speech. Falstaff surely suffers the most in this textually stripped back environment, the Gadshill robbery being an excellent case in point: instead of his corpulently unimprovable musings on how to get his thick rotundity off the earth once down to listen for horses we get a long shot of a flustered fatso amidst a dusky wood, intercut with close ups of the dashing Prince and Poins laughing wordlessly.

Falstaff’s constant, mercurial soliloquising is one of the more insistent reminders that this play, however we might try to purge it of non-naturalistic features in order to serve it up as a screen narrative, is incorrigibly stagebound. Not for Eyre though. This is first and foremost a film, and one that insists you lock yourself squarely into the taut emotional patterns dictated by the lens’s roving eye. The eye is a lot less roving than that of Rupert Goold’s Richard II, in which the camera frequently came down with the documentary shakes, but that was in keeping with the private struggles of an individual in continual invasive close-up. Here our subject is a nation, and the camerawork is staid and magisterial, the mood sober and cold. Falstaff’s honour speech comes as a mournful voice-over as he troops, Henry V-like, around a wintry camp preparing for battle, and it is the battle, indeed the artful filming of the battle, to which the whole thing ultimately aspires, borrowing heavily from Branagh’s muddy clashes, the snowy wastes (largely CGI shots to my eye) lending an extra gravitas, though again pictures take precedence over words.

Beale, in the performance he does give, makes, as always, bold and coherent decisions. His is a thoughtful, morose Falstaff, defying almost every textual cue for bombastic confidence, the lines suffused with fatigued acceptance. At Hal’s ‘I do, I will’ we see a close up of glassy-eyed bewilderment, a sad foreshadowing of the rejection to come, though I hope he still has somewhere left to go by then. The infinite resources of personality in the role are dramatically pared back, yet it is perhaps the most daring, intelligently restrained reading of it I have seen, opting for cagier strokeplay where most would swipe for six. The rest of the cast is strong, albeit unnecessarily famous. Michelle Dockery has, for better or worse, managed to transcend her existence as Michelle Dockery in the British public’s imagination, and is now Lady Mary from Downton Abbey, having drunk from the poisoned chalice of being in a television series that has become, against all reasonable expectations, insanely popular. It is unusual, therefore, to find her cast in what is, in this production at least, a minor role as Lady Percy, one that could have been less distractingly filled by an actress who needed the work. But it is consistent with the project as a whole, where no role goes unfilled by the usual suspects of big-budget British costume drama. Patrick Stewart and Davids Suchet and Bradley took minor parts in Richard II, while here Julie Walters gives her best Mrs Overall as Mistress Quickly. Alun Armstrong, mainstay of all BBC Dickens adaptations, skirts the margins as a broad Geordie Northumberland, though he will of course come into his own in Part 2 when he is called upon to mourn the loss of his son, Hotspur, played with compelling force by his real-life son, Joe Armstrong.

The most cavernous, lonely halls are chosen as resonating chambers – the crown is, after all, hollow – for the oaky tones of Jeremy Irons’ voice as Henry (the capital of which is not lost on the rest of the performers, with Tom Hiddleston’s solid Hal having a ‘Being Jeremy Irons’ moment in the play within the play). Irons also embodies the film’s concern with having the two plays meet somewhere in the middle. He throws up at one point prior to the battle (in which he takes no part), and clutches his ear at another, having worn an invalid’s beanie hat throughout, importing some of the sickness that will, and should, come later. The overarching desire to impose an atmospheric continuity is a shame, as its absence is one of the great triumphs of the stage originals. Part 1 must remain unsullied by such steeping in overt artificiality and disease just as surely as Part 2 needs to leave behind the promises of health and purpose if we are to avoid sidestepping the shock of its darker moods. How they are achieved will be very interesting to see. A sadder and less prolix Part 1 than is probably necessary, but still one with much to recommend it.

King John (RSC)

 Dir. Maria Aberg, 14 May 2012 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

(Originally published 17/5/12 on the Year of Shakespeare website; republished in A Year of Shakespeare, Arden/Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 101-4)

The stage was set. The stage was carpeted. The carpet was ugly. The plants were potted. The balloons were netted (the balloons were later released). The chandelier was art-deco (still not sure why). The lights were bright. The costumes were catwalk rococo. The King’s a raffish stud. The Bastard’s a woman. The Bastard’s also Hubert. The predictions were dire. The opinions were split. The people were leaving in disgust.

If so, then the people were wrong. On the evidence of the audience size on the night I saw it – admittedly a Monday – there may be some truth to the walkout rumours. Although the full cohort seemed still to be in attendance post-interval, we were a scattered bunch from the outset, but the response seemed overwhelmingly – and rightly – positive. King John is Shakespeare’s political sleaze play, and 2012’s Cultural Olympiad (and all the baggage that entails, which this Year of Shakespeare project as a whole seeks to interrogate) is predominantly about emphasising the Shakespearean now. Pictures of David Cameron and Barack Obama, along with a now slightly dated image of a group of protesters literally figuring Bush as a corporate puppet dallied by sponsors in the programme seemed to confirm alliance to this trend. Yet Maria Aberg’s production pulled away from such brisk topicalities, drawing its overriding energy from a very canny grasp of the play’s experimental oddities as a disturbing fantasy of legitimacy and the abuses of power, rather than a lucid depiction of recognisable events.

Pippa Nixon’s Bastard/Hubert composite started by trying to rouse us with a sing-along ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on a ukulele. Just in case we needed our elbows jogged, a neon sign rearstage reading ‘For God and England’ was revealed post-interval while PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’ played the curtain call out. Edmund Kingsley’s pink-suited Chatillon –  the French all pastel shades and composed swaggers straight out of a Stella Artois advert – was then received by John’s retinue in this Marriott style conference room, bespeaking the cheap, 3-star grabs at decadence that are the hallmark of the grubbing, aspirant, middle-class local politician, all off-the-rack cocktail dresses, dowdy suits and champagne flutes. Alex Waldmann’s John was a notable exception at the centre, dressed in a variety of outfits throughout the night, all of which made him look roughly, in review shorthand, like a member of Kings of Leon (skinny jeans, wifebeater, boots, spangly suit jackets). This was no weedy mummy’s boy, but a smouldering, hedonistic seducer; one unusual clinch between him and Siobhan Redmond’s Eleanor seemed to suggest in fact that even his mother wanted his hands not so much on her apron strings as at the zip of her dress.

The hotel aesthetic was consistent with a powerful technique throughout of bringing remote and unfamiliar settings and experiences into recognisable contexts. It seemed less like international power-brokering than it did a family wedding gone horribly wrong. The wedding theme came to the surface with Louis (Oscar Pearce) and Blanche’s (Natalie Klamar) nuptials played out as a garish party, Alex Waldmann’s John taking to the same mic he had used to address the citizens of Angiers to serenade the newlyweds with ‘Say A Little Prayer’. This evolved into a full–cast chorus and shifted into Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s ‘(I Had) The Time of My Life’, complete with dirty dance number. Its gift to the play was in showing, in this fleshing out of what are textually offstage revels, that no matter how influential people become, they still just want to drink, dance and degenerate, ideally at the right parties, when they get there.

After parties, of course, come mornings after, and one of the triumphs of the production was in its gradual accretion of signs of past merriment (paper hats, party poppers, champagne bottles, confetti), trodden into the carpets and littering the emptying rooms John finds himself in as the world comes down around him leading up to and following Arthur’s death. The moving scene between Arthur and Susie Trayling’s Constance, as Salisbury (David Fielder) tried to summon them back to the throng, showed this world of childish adult hedonism was no place for an actual child to be. Neither did this seem a world in which religion had any genuine purchase, and Paola Dionisotti’s Pandulph, looking like a slightly superannuated Anna Wintour, fostered the visual impression that excommunication from Rome seemed to imply no invites to fashion week, a far more painful exclusion to the numb of soul.

The aforementioned balloons were released, along with a veritable explosion of tickertape, which strewed the theatre, at the second-coronation scene post-interval. As we know, crowns in Shakespeare tend to make islands of men, and fragile, mortal men of kings, and this torrent of confetti covering an empty room served potently to show that the gloss had really come off John’s party pizazz by now. The second half was inaugurated by another musical number from the Bastard, Nixon this time singing Baltimore hipster folk-rock duo Wye Oak’s song, ‘Civilian’, which – perhaps inconsequently, perhaps interestingly – contains the lyrics:

I am nothing without a man
I know my faults
But I can hide them

Though perhaps those about keeping baby teeth in the bedside drawer reiterated the play’s sadnesses surrounding children (either infanticide or the yearning to go back – ‘mother dead’?) Either way, it was striking how much recorded music (songs recognisable in their original form rather than played live) was used in this production, showing a David Chase-esque (Sopranos creator) discernment in playlists as well as his attentiveness to their potential for use as Greek chorus. ‘Within me is a hell’, grimaces John as the poison takes hold, a hell shown brilliantly – again made familiar through an everyday, of-the-body strategy – by Waldmann dancing wildly to Frankie Valli’s ‘Beggin” before collapsing in a heap as the small cluster of scenes preceding it play out as a mad cacophony from the galleries. Cradled in the Bastard’s arms, in a setting familiar to many a Sunday morning cleaner, ‘this England’ contained little to entice the proud foot of a conqueror. A bold and brilliant production tempered by an intelligent critical distance from Aberg both in theorising the play and in applying performance methods to tell the story she sees.