The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed Beth Steel's play Ditch plugged in the Guardian Guide this weekend: "Following the sell-out London transfer of Stovepipe in 2009, HighTide transfers Ditch from the HighTide Festival to The Old Vic Tunnels for a limited season:

"I've listened to all the stories of my generation, then watched 'em get sick or fade away. And it wasn't this world that killed 'em. It was the other... the memory of it."

Britain, the near future. Much of the country is underwater and the government has been reduced to a group of fascist strongmen. In a rural outpost of the state, the men patrol the moors for illegals whilst the women run a self-sufficient farm to provide what all they need to survive. The living conditions are harsh, every meagre ration is grown from scratch and they must battle with inclement weather and a draconian government. As their numbers dwindle, they struggle to retain a semblance of civilisation in the face of the inevitable onset of global war.

Stark and imperative, but shot through with a sense of warm compassion, Beth Steel's debut play Ditch is a clear-eyed look at how we might behave when the conveniences of our civilisation are taken away, and a frightening vision of a future that could all too easily be ours. Ditch is a brutal and uncompromising play, with a grounded, earthy sense of humanity. The result is both heart-rending and chilling, depicting a convincing, bleak vision of the future.

Beth is a good friend of mine, so I'm thrilled her play is getting all this well-deserved attention. Anyway, for more, see Ditch the movie (well, trailer!) on YouTube; or just head over to the Old Vic website.

Pinch, punch, first of the month... And thus the first day in the 38 Plays: 38 Days challenge to read a Shakespeare play every day for the next thirty-eight days (or thirty-nine if we read on and bag The Reign of King Edward III).

Today, we start with The Two Gentlemen of Verona (which is online at e.g. Project Gutenberg; I'm using The Oxford Shakespeare). Wikipedia's synopsis reads:

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a comedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1590 or 1591. It is considered by some to be Shakespeare's first play, and is often seen as his first tentative steps in laying out some of the themes and tropes with which he would later deal in more detail; for example, it is the first of his plays in which a heroine dresses as a boy. Two Gentlemen also has the smallest cast of any of Shakespeare's plays.

The play deals with the themes of friendship and infidelity, the conflict between friendship and love, and the foolish behaviour of people in love. The highlight of the play is considered by some to be Launce, the clownish servant of Proteus, and his dog Crab, to whom "the most scene-stealing non-speaking role in the canon" has been attributed.

Via the BBC:

It is a year since the death of Anthony Minghella [well, he died in March 2008, so this has been on the BBC site for a wee while] had shocked and saddened those close to him as well as his fans.

Before his celebrated career in film winning awards for The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley, the producer and director studied at the University of Hull and then became a lecturer at its drama department.

It was here that he produced his first piece of work, a musical stage adaptation of Gabriel Josipovici's Mobius the Stripper, which had broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside in 1976 (more...)

Happily, the BBC provide some audio extracts: Extract 1 from Mobius the Stripper; Extract 2 from Mobius the Stripper.

It is not only in Hamlet that Shakespeare presents us with the travails and terrors of madness: it is a recurrent theme in very many of his plays. (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest... well, actually, every play of his that I know some little about reflects on madness in some way; I understand that Shakespeare uses the words 'mad' and 'madness' more often in Twelfth Night than in any other work, so doubtless I should focus my attention there soon.) Sadly -- and this has happened to Dickens too, I think -- Heritage stops us seeing Shakespeare for the troubling and unsettling writer that he manifestly is: "The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." The times are ever-troubling; and it is always the time to speak in a heartfelt way against the present's deadening cant. These are not sane times; Lear is as untimely as it has ever been.

Shakespeare was writing when what constituted the written English language, what constituted the very tools which he went on to fashion into the best ever expression of those tools, was still particularly unsettled. And how he wields words seems to reflect a view of the self that suggests that what constitutes the self -- fashioned on the stage merely by the playwright's words, of course -- is itself ever-unsettled. Shakespeare’s language is an erratic, antic, fizzing brew which captures, and expresses existentially, a particular take on the non-fixity of the human state. He is a poet not of an age, but for all time because time is written into the ambiguity -- the play -- of his writing, and into the ambiguous, uncertain, unanchored, disarranged characters he sets before us. His language moves -- his characters move -- as we move as time moves...

Fools, as numerous readers have noted, are wont to be wise, and kings can often be very foolish. If he had been fully in his right mind, Lear, surely, should have known that his daughters, Goneril and Regan, were far from virtuous, were far from the ideal caretakers for his Kingdom in his dotage. That is, unless we are to presume that they became so particularly venal only after being gifted a share of their Father's estate -- which pushes our credulity too far, I think, but does reinforce the idea that once Lear's madness is large in the land, other madnesses will be loosed and liberated. Lear's unquieted state is apparent, if not at the absolute moment he begins to divide his Kingdom, certainly at the instant he forgets the previous dutiful, loving nature of his favourite and youngest daughter Cordelia; he certainly fully loses control when her lawyerly response ("I love your majesty According to my bond; nor more nor less") mocks and highlights his frankly ridiculous decision to divest himself of "of rule, Interest of territory, cares of state". (Cordelia, of course, is not quite herself at this juncture either; two suitors await in the wings when she says: "when I shall wed, That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry Half my love with him, half my care and duty.") There is madness in the air, then, as soon as we began to read or watch the play. The moment Gloucester believes of Edmund that his other son Edgar could ever conceive of his murder, we know for sure that the mayhem that has infected Lear's brain will flow through the whole of his realm.

It has been a commonplace since at least Foucault wrote his History of Madness that the pathologising medicalization of several morbid unhappinesses has robbed us of access to the kind of Foolish wisdom that attempts to support Lear and his friends throughout the play in counterpoint to Lear's own self-destructive, but occasionally self-illuminating mania. When a king shows himself a fool it is time for his Fool to show wise counsel. This Foolish, supportive wisdom is echoed in the subplot in which Edgar disguises himself as Tom of Bedlam and guides his now cruelly blinded father to a limited form of spiritual rebirth at Dover Cliff.

My grandmother who died, aged 97, three years ago, quite mad from dementia and the attendant ravages of age, was central to my upbringing -- "The oldest hath borne most: we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long." She is central still to my moral universe. Her socialistic dictum, that you can only sleep in one bed, the concomitant of which is that those who have more than one bed declare themselves to be embedded in excess, remains core to my worldview. Her degenerative illness manifested itself in many tragic and demeaning ways, but two strange Shakespearian wisdoms arose: she confused family members (I was often thought to be my father, and vice versa); and she disremembered the trivial and the everyday whilst clearly recalling events from 50, 60 and even 70 and more years ago. The pattern, I'm sure, is familiar to everyone with elderly and infirm parents or grandparents. Time's tyranny was now, with her, differently manifest. And, of course, came at a high and often distressing, sometimes comic cost.

I do not believe in ghosts, but during my own recent weaknesses, my grandmother has been fully in my thoughts. So fully that I've smelt her cooking in my flat and, on my pillow, the distinctive, beautiful scent of her face and hair -- a memory which must come from my own now distant childhood. I have, in truth, felt much closer to her than I did during the long years of her failing mental and physical health.

Lear is certainly not a play only about madness, it is, speaking colloquially, a mad play. It is such a beguiling work because it is a bit all over the place. Sometimes, Shakespeare's poetry takes him so far into the human that he feels timeless, but many aspects of Lear can't help but foreground the Jacobean. The messy nature of the play, however, also underscores something very human -- humans are not neat! Their emotions, their desires, their hopes and fears are messy, ridiculous, unfounded, grandiose, illogical, perverse. Their madness sometimes allows them to see the world's madness, sometimes reflects that madness, and sometimes is merely an awful, lonely, destructive vortex...

A kind of order is restored to Lear's domain at the end of the play. But the order comes at a terrible human cost, and the order is itself contingent: Lear dies, whilst humbled and grief-stricken, still haughty and half-mad; his favourite Cordelia dead in his arms; Gloucester is blind; and, of course, Goneril, Regan and Edmund's corpses litter the stage. Humankind cannot bear very much reality and is ever loath to admit that death has undone so very many. We are not only born astride our own graves, but arrive wailing into an overcrowded cemetery: "When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools." Learning to live with ghosts isn't an option but an essential life skill. Lear leaves an unstated, dying curse in the air: this is ever his kingdom, and we are never out of it.

It is often quite obvious why a particular text speaks to us in a particularly powerful way at a particular time in our lives. As with anything human, however, the reasons might be obvious, but they are not always clear or clearly linear. We might be sad and look to something uplifting; or we might seek to find consolation in something that mirrors our melancholy.

I have no wish to parade the details of my own recent, continuing and sometimes crippling grief here, but I have been thinking a lot about why certain texts have touched me so profoundly of late and why others have left me cold -- left me, that is, how they found me and offered me no way out of my grief nor any way into themselves with the concomitant comfort that that might gift.

My grief has been all the usual and varied colours of sadness and madness. It has been searing, voluptuous, numbing. I foresaw that it would be -- I have been unhappy, unsettled, unbalanced before (who has not?). I did not foresee that, this time, for much of the time that I was most antic and most lost, most peculiarly undone, I would have taken from me (I would, I suppose, take away from myself) that which had always been of such solace to me. Quite simply, I could not read.

The chapter and verse of what caused this unsettling self-loss, all the tawdry trivia that led me to lose one of the things that has always been one of the anchors by which I keep myself tethered and focussed, are of no importance. But I lost much, not least my home (not my house, this is not a tale of financial woe, corruption or swindling) and my "girls" (my beloved dogs, who now live away from me and with my family) and more besides. These are quotidian losses: people lose more than I lost everyday. Indeed, my loss is hardly fully loss: it is a subtraction of excess tied to a form of self-imposed internal exile. These are slender removals, unrare ravages, commonplace catastrophes. They are, in truth, unworthy of comment or further delay.

Moving away, I presumed a royal road, if not to health, at least to non-grief. I hoped some enforced quiet would allow time for restorative reflection and, almost the same but not wholly synonymous, time for reading. But I could not read. I could not settle. I could not sit still. I could not read. (I could, as ever, drink -- and drink I did.) Later, when I could settle, when I could sit still... still, I could not read. I became adept at staring into space. I hadn't realised it was such a skill. I did not realise that it could become something so exceptionally honed. I never imagined it could be preferred over anything and everything; most especially, over reading. But sitting still and staring is not a story. So I shall move past my unmoving, and move on.

In early December, I picked up a cheap paperback copy of "Hamlet". I'd never read "Hamlet" nor even seen it performed. The play has such cultural weight that a presumption of familiarity is attributed to anyone who might by considered by others to be "well read" (or some such). But the play -- the play that Harold Bloom calls a "poem unlimited" -- had almost wholly passed me by.

I'm not sure why I picked it up. I'm not sure why of the countless books in my book-lined, book-overloaded little flat, this tatty copy of "Hamlet" suggested itself as the book that might awaken me to books. But it did. And it did so insistently. You will all, I'm sure, know the outlines of the story of "Hamlet" better than I did. And, surely, unconsciously, half-consciously, I knew that something in the story of Elsinore's Prince would unsettle my settled misery, would unencumber me of grief's sometimes comforting carapace, would make me aware that my own madness was merely the mildest confusion, a pale mania, cousin to mourning but a distant relation worthy of consideration but not the insistent indulgence I had been giving it.

Hamlet runs ahead of Hamlet. And the rest of the players are, at least, two steps further behind. Why does the Prince overmourn a father it seems likely that he loved dutifully and diligently but not excessively? The Fool Yorick gave him more love as a child than did his uxorious, unfatherly father. It was Yorick who played with him ("He hath borne me on on his back a thousand times") and Yorick who received the child Prince's tender love ("those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft"). And why does the Prince bait and berate Ophelia? Unable to love her, it seems, and able only to play with her feelings (played, perhaps, and perturbed, for sure, by his own feelings) and then able to put on a play for her, Claudius and the court, a play that seems to suggest that our several performances of our own, presumed self-same selves are always aware of an audience and are doubly inauthentic -- to our never self-same selves and to those hypocrite lecteurs ever beyond and baying.

Hamlet is a study in the negotiation we each make with the (in)authenticity of our self, and our grief, and with what that self loses even as it becomes more madly itself via the very losses it witnesses and articulates. Further, we witness the loss that articulation itself is -- and non-articulation too: Ophelia's madness leads to her early ruination and death, and to one of the play's most beautiful set-pieces in Gertrude's speech about her drowning. We witness ambiguous double-binds and, binding, rooted ambiguity.

In my own minimal madness, I read "Hamlet" and I heard Hamlet call. Heard him speak to himself, of himself and half-realise he could hardly keep up with even that utterly, definitionally, self-limiting performance. I realised, along with Hamlet, lesserly, that my own disquiet was perforce undone by its (limited) creativity and coherence: the coherence of my incoherence mocked my incoherence. But, better, more simply, I read. I sat still and I read. And I read some more.

It turns out that almost every other line in "Hamlet" one already knows. The play reads like a sourcebook to all that has been written since. Bloom suggests that Shakespeare invented the human (a sense of the secular, self-questioning subject). I doubt that. Hamlet uninvents the (notion of a) coherent self even as the most fully human character the stage has ever seen steps forth -- at the birth of subjectivity, Hamlet, our extreme contemporary, shows the subject to be a kind of fiction. Hamlet validates and allows for the self's self-incoherence; the undoing of the self is the self's own self-making. My local madness will pass. Our general madness will not. Something comforting therein is almost claimed.

More Shakespeare news via the Guardian:

A team working on the site where Shakespeare learned his trade has discovered a piece of 16th-century pottery that features a face resembling that of the great man.

It was found during excavation work in Shoreditch, east London, at the site of what used to be The Theatre, lost for more than 400 years and where Shakespeare performed as an actor, as well as staging his earliest plays (more...)

Via the Telegraph, "a painting that may be the only surviving portrait of William Shakespeare made in his lifetime" will be unveiled later today:

The picture, from 1610, six years before the playwright's death, has been in the possession of the Cobbe family since the early 18th century.

It was initially kept at a property in Hampshire but more recently in Hatchlands, the family house in Surrey, which is run by the National Trust.

For three centuries the family was unsure of the identity of the figure in the portrait. According to Alec Cobbe, an art restorer, at one time it had been thought to be of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Although the painting has not been proven to be the bard, it has the backing of the world's foremost expert on Shakespeare, Stanley Wells, emeritus professor of Shakespeare studies at Birmingham University and chairman of the Shakespeare Birthday Trust.

Prof Wells believes it was painted when the writer was 46 years old, six years before his death in 1616 (more...)

The Royal Court is celebrating playwright Caryl Churchill’s 70th birthday with a series of readings of her plays. Mark Ravenhill is directing a reading of her British Civil War play Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, which I have a special fondness for as this is a rare cultural recognition of this heady period. Somehow the Civil War fails to register in our culture as a major historical moment – compare it with other revolutions and civil wars the world over. (It was because of its scrubbing from popular discourse that I wanted Verso to publish an edition of the Putney Debates last year, and I’m delighted to say it was a success.) This may be because, in one sense, it failed, but it did provide Britons with the first coherently expressed demands for democracy and freedom. So how strange that, despite the conflict, the tragedy, the religious enthusiasm and the utopian vision, you can count on the fingers of two hands the cultural product that has been prompted by, or even set in, this period.

My list is:

Literature: Paradise Lost (Milton); Marvell’s poetry; Englishmen with Swords (Montagu Slater); Sexing the Cherry (Jeannette Winterston); and Winstanley (David Caute)

Films: Cromwell (Hughes); Winstanley (Brownlow); To Kill a King (Barker); and Witchfinder General (Reeves)

Ok – so what am I missing?

Apropos the publication of his play Conversation in the Mountains (which Pierre Joris described here on RSB as "absolute awful drivel"), TEV asks John Banville "What first inspired you to write about the meeting between Celan and Heidegger?"

Well, I’ve always been fascinated by the thought of these two extraordinary figures encountering each other—the philosopher who had been a Nazi, the poet whose parents had been destroyed in a Nazi work camp—at the famous “hut” in the Black Forest. The meeting took place on July 25th, 1967, the day after a reading by Celan in Freiburg which Heidegger had attended. The conversation in the hut was not recorded, and neither man gave an account of it. Hans-Georg Gadamer, the philosopher, later reported that Heidegger had told him that “in the Black Forest, Celan was better informed on plants and animals than he himself was.” Besides the flora and fauna, did they talk about the war, about Nazism and Heidegger’s refusal publicly to account for, much less apologise for, his membership of the Party? I could not resist speculating (more...)

This coming Thursday on Radio 4:

Screenwriter Kay Mellor explores the legacy of Shelagh Delaney's play A Taste of Honey, fifty years after it first shocked and enthralled audiences. The play brought social taboos and working-class reality to the London stage as never before. Interviews with the original cast and archive material shed new light on the play's importance for the evolution of British theatre.

Fans of The Smiths and Northerners (Delaney was born in Broughton, Salford, Lancs.) of a certain age and hue will understand my nostalgia for this slice of sociology (which was one of the first things I ever saw in the theatre).