Author Q&A with Marina Fiorato

Beatrice and Benedick book coverLitro: What appealed to you about revisiting Much Ado About Nothing, and specifically the characters of Beatrice and Benedick?

Marina: I’ve always loved the play ever since it was my set text at ‘A’ level. Beatrice and Benedick were so fresh and funny and modern, they just leapt off the page. I was particularly impressed by Beatrice’s freedom of speech and her wit – she takes on the men at their own game. I’ve read in various critiques that she was an anomaly for her times, but we must remember that this was the era of Elizabeth I, an extremely feisty and witty woman who never let a man best her. I bet Elizabeth enjoyed Much Ado.

Litro: Have you seen any of the screen adaptations of Much Ado (including Joss Whedon’s recent version)? How did they compare with your own reading of the play?

Marina: Yes. I loved the Branagh/Thompson version – I don’t think it’s perfect by any means, but it is such a sunny, happy interpretation that it is irresistible. There is an undeniable (and unsurprising!) chemistry between the two leads, and I am, of course, a sucker for an Italian setting.

I also saw the Joss Whedon interpretation, and although I enjoyed it I think that the modern setting presents certain problems for the text. It is harder to sustain misunderstandings if everybody has a mobile phone, and CCTV cameras are everywhere. And it is not quite as sinful, these days, to have a chat with a man who is not your fiancée the night before your wedding. You might have some explaining to do, but you would not be shunned from society, as you would have been in the 16th century when a woman’s chastity was everything. The most interesting thing about it for me was that the film begins with a love scene between a younger Beatrice and Benedick, clearly referencing an earlier relationship, which is what my book is all about.

Litro: Is it right that you studied Shakespeare in some depth at University? How did that affect the way you approached this book?

Marina: Yes, I wrote my dissertation on the value of Shakespeare as an historical source, concentrating on courtship and the making of marriage in the plays. When I began this novel I was glad I had all the academic background, but then I had to throw it all away, and just let the characters speak. The characters are not aware of their larger historical context. No one lives as if they are on a timeline and no one thinks they are old-fashioned. Beatrice and Benedick think they are desperately modern, and I try to remember that.

Litro: How conscious were you of following in Shakespeare’s footsteps, especially in terms of the language he used and the themes he presented?

Marina: To begin with the weight of his genius absolutely crippled me. I had what I thought was this terrific idea that all the characters would speak as if they were in the play, in iambic pentameter as far as possible, using numerous references from the text. The first scene I wrote was dreadful, so stilted and false and mannered. No one speaks that way. So I stopped trying to be ‘Shakespearean’ ; I was on  a losing wicket in any case, because no one can do that better than he. So I threw out that idea and just wrote the characters I knew, with a contemporary cadence. And that’s when Beatrice and Benedick began to speak to me.

Litro: You present several Moorish characters in the novel, as Shakespeare did in his plays. But modern attitudes towards race and ethnicity are very different to the attitudes in his day. How did you tackle this difference?

Marina: This was an interesting one. I was aware that I didn’t want to be too ‘modern’ in my interpretation of inter-racial relationships at that period. But, just as today, there was a vast difference in how Moorish people were treated in different parts of Italy and I reference this in the novel. In Padua, which was a university town stuffed with all different nationalities and races, Moors were treated respectfully. Verona had a black patron saint, Saint Zeno, and a liberal attitude to her Moorish citizens.  Some places changed over time; Sicily, because of her proximity to Africa, was somewhat of a melting pot. One of her festal icons, Grifone, is a black conqueror, and for centuries the Moors integrated readily into Sicilian society, resulting in many mixed race families such as the Crollalanzas in my book.  But attitudes changed with the Spanish occupation, when the Moors were expelled from the island in line with wider Spanish policy. And that, as they say, is when the trouble began.

Litro: I’m sure you’re aware that it’s the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth this April. If he were still alive, what would you write in his birthday card?

Marina: Thank you for the words, words, words.

Litro: And finally, what can we expect from you next? Do you think you’ll ever revisit the Bard?

Marina: Funnily enough, once I finished Beatrice and Benedick I was completely in that zone – I trawled my favourite plays for characters that were begging to be brought to light, to tell their own stories. Creatively speaking, I would love to do that but the cold hard truth is that it will all depend on how Beatrice and Benedick does – if it finds a wide enough audience then yes, bring on the Bard!

Photo: Ian Pickard
Photo: Ian Pickard

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato is published by Hodder & Stoughton in Trade Paperback on 8th May, £13.99. Buy it from Foyles.

Marina Fiorato is half-Venetian. She was born in Manchester and raised in the Yorkshire Dales. She is a history graduate of Oxford University and the University of Venice, where she specialized in the study of Shakespeare’s plays as an historical source. After university she studied art and since worked as an illustrator, actress and film reviewer. Marina was married on the Grand Canal and lives in north London with her husband, son and daughter. She is the author of six novels: The Glassblower of Murano, The Madonna of the Almonds, The Botticelli Secret, Daughter of Siena, The Venetian Contract and now Beatrice and Benedick. She was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Historical Fiction Award for Daughter of Siena.




Getting Rid of Ovid

Beneath III (detail) by Colin Robson
Beneath III (detail) by Colin Robson

I saw him last night. I could smell almonds and spices and something rank that pulsed the air. I looked up and he was there.

Cock raised, spit-white flying in a perfect arc so high it kissed the moon, he emerged from the pool like a Titan. Flesh and muscle shuddering, each giant foot sending the earth quaking, the moon’s cold light shrouding the colossus in a strange, primal blue. He shook his head, and the spray turned into a mighty shower of hailstones that swept the sky. Lowering clouds suddenly appeared and shed their load onto the land beneath.

I stood, spell-stopped, as the giant became a blaze of colours dissolving seamlessly into shapes of many humans trapped by some invisible force, madly trying to flee, and the more they fought the more their bonds tightened. One woman, rooted to the spot, looked for her toes, and screamed as her feet, her legs, her breasts and shoulders turned to wood. A massive scorpion reared up his tail. From it poured black poison that spelt out perque omnia saecula fama, vivam across the heavens: Through all the ages shall I live in fame. [private]

The Titan resumed his human shape and from his mouth emerged demented, savage women, floating towards me, their heads alive with black writhing snakes, their shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth. I tried to flee, but the earth rose up and turned to stone around my legs. My hands were stripping rotting flesh off dead sheep that came alive, squealing in pain. Their flesh metamorphosed into monstrous embryos wrapped in birth skins, choking on black blood. The little kicking limbs burst through the leprous crusts and I saw my hand steeped in overgorged, livid dyes. Sulphurous fumes blinded me as a mighty crack and a pain too great for words told me my arm had been ripped from my shoulder. I heard a laugh that issued from some hell resounding deep inside my head. I think I howled at the loss of my writing hand before I lost consciousness.

*

“You’re going to commune with a centuries-old ghost, take him by his poet’s balls and castrate him?”

“Something like that.”

“You’re mad,” he says, throwing the covers aside, his arm stretching above my face to reach for the cup.

Why does his armpit sweat smell of blossom buds and mine of rank weeds? His breath, heavenly air of grace, brushes my cheek and every part about me quivers. I watch his ruby lips – two succulent cherries – close over the rim.

Stop. This little catalogue of barren metaphors must go. Fuck it, every beloved has ruby lips. He gives me the cup, settles his hands behind his head and looks at me.

“He’s not your Father, Will.”

I’m always surprised at how Hal hits the mark. The heartless shield hides a feeling heart.  But then he knows what it is to staunch a secret sore. Perhaps that’s what we share. Child’s pain unpurged.

“I’ll come with you if you like. You’ll need my strong chest to cry on when you discover Ovid’s not actually around these days to get his sweets sliced off.”

“No. If you’re with me with your exquisitely nuanced Italian tongue I’ll be brain-sopped in wine and watching it lick every open-arse in Rome.”

He slides his hand under the pillow, a flicker of steel, and the point of the dagger is poised at my throat. I am curiously aroused. I twist his wrist, our eyes strung in carnal strings. The knife is at his thigh. The blade drops.

And we were wrestling in a frenzied clasping of pleasure and pain, fisting each other’s throats and waked half dead with fucking.

*

Re-birth. Re-surrection. Re-suscitation. Re-fucking-naissance. I have written these four words thirty nine times. I have scrawled them, neatly scribed them, flourished then, ferociously scratched them. Dead words on a page that cannot themselves be brought to life.

The nibs, snapped to shards, sit before me, the little pricks. Whoever heard of digging up old bones and grafting on flesh, pumping in blood and turning ancient dust into a breathing body?

How to make past and present coalesce is my impossible quest.

Re-incarnation. Re-vivication. Re-. Re-. Re-. The words blazon the fatal defect of the endeavour, its certain failure to allow origins. I dip my pen in black ink and a poisonous riot of dyes screams onto the page. Dies onto the page. Strainèd touches of rhetoric, promiscuously bestowed on all, the whores.

I must resurrect the bastard and get rid of him. This is absurd. He’s a ghost. His bones are not haunting me. It is the words. That proud full sail of his great verse entraps and paralyses me in its embrace. I am his Hermaphroditus, he the seductive, enervating other, ever threatening to overwhelm, enfeeble and emasculate my fertile powers of invention. Is nothing fucking new?

*

First, I have to get Hal’s poem done.

*

He leapt out of bed like a young gazelle. Stop it. He just climbed over me and got out of bed.  I look at his beautiful frame, Nature’s perfection, bathed in a shaft of mote-filled sunlight and know not what I can write. Describe Adonis and the counterfeit is poorly imitated after him. If I compare his cheek to a red rose that only makes the veins too grossly dyed. Isn’t it more that Nature’s beauty steals from him?

            Why should false painting imitate his cheek,

            And steal dead seeing of his living hue?

Hal’s been in love with poetry for most of his nineteen years. I try to forget this.     He’s sniffing through my pages. “‘Fertile chastity’? Fruitful virgins next! So what’s all this shit about art’s sterility?”

I wish I’d never started telling him about his fucking poem.

“‘To The Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and Baron of Titchfield.’ It’s a start.”

“‘I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship…’ We’ll never know until you start bloody writing it.”

“‘If the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I will be sorry it had so noble a godfather’… de-da,de-da, ‘Your Honour’s in all duty, William Shakespeare.’ My fawning spaniel now, are we!”

He snorts. “Is the rest of it going to be this turgid and banal?” I tap my temple and put on my Stuff-You-I’m-The-Poet face. “They are my Notes.” He puts on his sonorous player’s voice.

“‘Fecundity metamorphosed into sterile artifice.  Nothing new can be born pure because that which is has been before. Rhetoric disembodies the body. How must a poet be chaste?’  Fuck me, Will, why don’t you just write the thing? No coition? No fucking! You’re going to have Adonis reject her?”

He’s screaming disdain now. “‘Ceaseless tumescence stopped by a metaphor’? ‘Seminal purity’! I thought it was going to be just a ticklish tup in the undergrowth like all the other Venus and Adonises. Not a constipated treatise on ARSE Poetica.”

I love this. His greasy mouth’s more foul than mine.

“Ticklish it will be I promise.”

“‘Rose-cheek’d Adonis’?”

He looks at me with that look which always makes me want to thrust his smile down his throat.

“As in Ovid’s Corinna?”

The sly moue of derision plays on his lips. The wondrous beauty of his face is transformed in the instant to graceless ordinariness.

“I thought you said this poem was going to be astoundingly original? Why not just burn all his books?”

*

I am a child, under the mocking eyes of that sack-sodden butcher growling up vomit as he finds me in bed, crouched beneath my little midnight tent, the last stub of wax scalding down my fingers, whispering, louder and louder, body, brain, bursting with the hot terror of the words as I read.

The sun-god’s horses run wild. Panic strikes him.  Phaëthon’s knees tremble with sudden fear, and over his eyes came darkness through excess of light. The earth explodes in flames.  The dark boiled, the scorched clouds smoke into his eyes.

The words on the page catch fire, burning me up with flames of tears till I think my heart will be blazed into a handful of dust. I’m crying out to the boy: “But you only wanted to find out how to know yourself!”

Jove aims his thunderbolt at the boy, takes aim and…

My little heart is swollen into my mouth.

“Don’t let that cruel flame fly!”

…and hurls the spiked flash into the young boy. The chariot explodes and Phaëthon is hurled from the car and from life. His body set on fire, he falls, with a long trail through the air, as sometimes a star from the clear heavens, although it does not fall, still seems to fall.

And my Father’s standing over me, telling me to stop “rubbing off on that cesspit of lies” as he grabs the book and holds it above the candle’s dying flame. “No!”

I’m to rise at four. And I’ll be scraping fetid flesh off the hides of once-breathing sheep, retching from the stench, one word bleating, bleating, bleating inside my head like a savage hammer. Revenge.

And I wonder now, will it be my fate never to know myself?

When I tell Hal this story he goes quiet. We hardly have to voice our thoughts on the subject of fathers.

*

“‘So this is how poetry gets written. Take a conceit from Ovid, a figure from Spenser, a hyperbole from Lyly and Sidney, and the poem has begun.’”

The lovely face comes back. Now he’s gripped once again by the ink from my brain.

His excitement excites me, and my joy flies back to me. Now he understands what I’m doing.

“‘Turn a blushing cheek into a crimson shame, tumescent female pudenda and pubic hair into round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough…’”

He’s striding in circles about the room, declaiming my words like a skilled player.

“Jesus, Will, what are you doing?”

I’m gulping back wine when I vowed to stay off it all week. I think I’m even growing wings. Re-quickened, unafraid, my heart grows wide and remembers when it stopped as my pen outran the page and produced perfection.

“‘Say, as everyone else does, that the face is more white and red than doves and roses are, and there are your first two stanzas. But…’”

“…once you start, Hal, you find you cannot stop.”

We are dancing around the bed, beating time to the rhythm of the words, one hand on each other’s shoulder, the other hand clutching our wine. Mine is red, his is white. We are spinning and twirling, spilling doves and roses from our cups and see them mingled into blushes on the bed.

“Play with an extended metaphor to make lips red sealing-wax and a thousand kisses the price of a human heart…”

Hal stops at this last line. “Jesus, Will.” And there’s a tear in his eye. He looks at me with perhaps love. Then shrugs off the moment and goes back to the pages.

“‘Flesh can be a dove, a lily, white sheets, alabaster or snow. What it cannot be in written poetry is…’”

I leap up, punching the air. “…Flesh!”

When we wake, the sun too bright for open eyes, brain clotted with last night’s wine, Hal sobers me up.

“So what’s a word poet to do without his doves and roses, his ruby portals, his heavenly balm and round rising hillocks? Call sweat, sweat?  Call flesh, flesh?  Call blood, blood?”

Fuck him, he’s right. Why not just give up? Why not just dribble out imitations of Ovid, paint bodies with tired tropes and soiled conceits like everyone else does?

“So what’s this poem going to say?” Hal my rhetoric master is back to mock me.    “The Goddess of Love has fingers, arms, legs, feet, a face, eyes, two breasts, and a cunt. Perhaps you should have her picking her nose.”

Why am I writing this fucking poem for him anyway? But whatever else it will be, it is my quest to birth a miracle.

*

What’s this? A tiny pulsing form nestles in my hand and takes shape, a little embryo laughing and kicking in its womb. But what’s this other form, muscling its way in? A second burden. A massive boar, its huge fangs digging deep gashes into my little seeded life. That Latin bastard’s here again. I look down at my sweet darling. It lies, polluted, dead, in its stinking casing.

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse that made a tomb of this womb?

            If there be nothing new, but that which is

            Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,

            Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss

            The second burden of a former child?

So. That’s it. Another abortive birth. The old story. Conceive a child and nourish its growth.  See it ripen, then watch it bud and be blasted in a breathing while.

Fuck off, Ovid. I’ve had enough of you for one day.

That’s when I decided to go and find him. I know. Dead for one thousand four hundred years. Fool. It’s hardly on a scale of escaping the slavery of my Father’s putrid workshop and travelling that mere one hundred miles to spend my days personating the postures of a strutting player. Instead of stretching leather, I stretch my hamstring and turn the world into a scaffoldage for tongue and thigh.

* * *

And so I am here in the land of the ancients, in the land of my beloved. Who I also hate. I am giddy: expectation whirls me round. The land is beautiful. I want to hold the light as it moves towards me, capture its quiet power. The very air seems renewed. I sit and write, sit and write. I’ve even, dear God, stuck some poems on trees, hoping he may find them.

*

He came to the pool again tonight. I think the old cock finds it amusing to watch me peck at my words and stab them.  All around I feel him. The shape-changer of language and bodies and poetry’s shadows.  Here is where his teeming brain took flight, the fecund source of his squabbling petty gods, cruel arbiters of life and death. And of their hapless victims, all playthings of the gods. Yes, you knew too well how they mock us for their sport.

Here is where you created that ceaselessly changing dizzying universe, comic now, tragic next. Your brave and madly arrogant (Oh so brave!) taking on your mighty predecessor. How you must have loved undercutting Virgil’s epic style, turning divine gods and goddesses into undignified captives of their desires.

There is Myrrha, trapped as the tree’s tentacles wrap around her sobbing body. The poor girl who prayed to be free of life and death, because she could not be in a world where she had deceived her father into fucking her. You turned her into a tree, and her beautiful boy Adonis issued from it. And there he is. His blood shed from the boar-fang’s wound, transformed by Venus, in her grief, into an anemone.

I look up and see the couch of clouds where Love and War writhed in ecstasy, hear the laughter of their audience, their fellow divines, delighting to see their coitus interrupted. My poet loved to put on a play.

*

I smelt him first. Sheep shit, blood and entrails high above the herbs and almonds. My heart was knocking in my chest so hard my toes were shaking. There he lay, naked, legs splayed – picking his nose. Ovidius Naso, old Big-Nose for smelling out the odiferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention. I noticed that his cock, at rest, was small. Very small. God in heaven, what am I thinking? Cocks and pens and picking noses. This is it. I’m here. He’s there, ten feet from me. He heaves up his huge hill of flesh, rattling up phlegm.  I watch the foul, turd-coloured gobbet spasm to the ground.

Shit in heaven. What am I doing? How did I ever think I could…. Could what? The sun has boiled my brain.  A pen scratching on parchment. Scars charactered on skin. Words cut into flayed flesh. That is what we do. Is it not lamentable that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment – to scribble insubstantial words on? My Father did not trouble to answer such a lily-livered question. Just told me to stir the shit in the pot to get the skins well soft. “And make sure you don’t let the pole touch them!” Blood and bits of flesh float in a whirlpool of death.

*

“How did you do it?” I stood there, bold and brave. No good beating about the olive bush.

He smacked a fly flat on his arm before he looked at me.

“Do?”

“Virgil.”

His eyebrow rises. ‘How do you think?’

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”

“And why do you want to know?”

He slips a hand under his buttocks and pulls out one of my poems. I’m thinking I bet he’s farted on it.

“Because I want to get rid of you.”

“I did as you are doing now.” He gestures for me to sit beside him. To tell his tale.

“‘I sing of arms and the man,’ Virgil said. And I said, ‘Well, I sing of lust and the gods, mate. Unruly cocks and divine huffs. Hospitable cunts and inglorious deities and petty spites and gruesome rapes, and how power is wielded to crush and maim and murder innocent mortals.’”

Could he have hated Virgil this much? He glanced at me quickly, and I realised I had voiced the question.

“Hate. No. Without him I might not have taken an axe to his damned unities and created a new form.”

He leaned forward and spoke with earnestness.

“Take me, take him, take the best, tell the story differently.  Sing it anew.”

“I know that. It’s how.”

“I can’t help you if you don’t tell me anything.”

“I want bodies to sing my song.”

*

An almost full moon cast a strange blue light on the land. The colossus was snoring. He had filled my head with such thoughts I could not easily fathom. But the one that kept my brain in a whirl were that dreams tell of true events. And I said Yes because I know that truth in playmaking lies in its ability to deceive. Fiction lies in order to explore truths. Words can breed violent acts and love.

And that’s when I realised what Ovid had done with Virgil and all the poets and playwrights that came before him. He did not hold a mirror up to Nature. What he did was to create a wholly new fictive world – of mutability and change.

Ah! But the bodies that change weren’t breathing, were they Ovid?

*

The snoring has stopped. He stirs.

“Shall we go?” he says.

I look puzzled.

“If you’re going to chop my balls off, I imagine you’d want to do it in high drama out-storming the roarers and tossing them into the briny depths.”

*

His naked form emerges from the sea. Grown to a mighty boar, I rear up behind him. I hesitate. Is this patricide? I aim for that bolt dangling between his legs, but he’s quick. He twists my writing hand till it creaks and I scream as the curved blade takes to the sky. I turn, he’s gone. I dive beneath the waves to find him, forgetting to breathe hard first. He’s a strong swimmer, but I catch his foot and thrust it upwards through the surface and he’s upended, spluttering beneath the salty whips, fighting to find his breath.

But still he lives. We break through to the air, clasping each other like angry lovers. I summon beyond-human strength and thrust him down into raging waters, and limp to the shore.

Time is waiting for me. He offers me the iron sickle Cronus wielded to cut off his father’s testicles. I take it. My beloved poet’s face disappears again and again beneath the waves, but I find him straight away.

But something weakens me.

Will I be able to write without him?

I dive down between the legs that have held me up like crutches, and in one fell slice, the deed is done.

Red and white mingle into boiling pink foam. No, not red. Not white. Real Blood. Real flesh.

I emerge from the sea, triumphant, tossing the testicles behind me.

But I am weeping.

I look back, and there is Venus rising from the pink froth. She raises her beautiful arm and paints words across the sky. Not in his language now. In mine:

            Through all the ages shall I live in fame.

*

It must have been close to midnight. The words on my pages metamorphosed into human forms moving, speaking, breathing. Not trapped on the page, silent like an Ovid poem. So this is why I had to come here. Bodies, real flesh and blood. Lines scratched on skin become bodies.  Summon the world into presence. Here. Now.  If gone, gone.

*

Hal’s sleeping. He told me he likes the poem. But he still doesn’t understand why I had to go to Italy to write what he calls a frisky little piece. He did appreciate the way I turned Venus into a whore with words and Adonis into me – the poet struggling to remain chaste.

Don’t know what he’ll make of this one.

            Who is that says most which can say more

            Than this rich praise – that you alone are you.

If he doesn’t like it, fuck him. [/private]




Shakespeare’s Words

The Bard (detail) by Kate Murray
The Bard (detail) by Kate Murray

Do my fingerprints still linger

in the acting recesses and forgotten pockets

of the places I touched with words?

If you go to Stratford and see the pubs

and walking tours and monuments

to the idea of me, you’ll find I am not there.

I’m not in the foundations of the house

that birthed me, the ruins of its hips

sunk into the grass for all to stare at,

nor in the faithful Globe Theatre,

a product of your need for material ghosts

who can mouth my best words

without melting into solid boards.

And as for the critics who try

to breathe on my bones, dressing me

in half a dozen alleged facts or hedged bets

and matching me like a criminal

to my portrait, they should know that I never

inhabited that portrait, any more

than my mind was confined to that house.

So to all those who would take me

and shrink me to a life, I say this:

measure me by the space

inside my words, not my tiny face.




Doted

Photo by Petras Gagilas (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Petras Gagilas (copied from Flickr)

Doted is a strange word, isn’t it? On the one hand it means a fondness or an uncritical affection; the feeling an adult might have for a small child or a pet dog. A couple newly in love might dote on each other too. When our hypothetical couple get to know each other better this doting wears off because the honeymoon stage is just a stage and once it passes there’s a tendency for the cold light of day to get into things. The relationship is never the same again; scientists on the internet say you get two years: tops. That first doting is immaturity and foolishness. A kind of infirmity; a lack of sound judgement: caused by love. The word is related to dotage; an archaic expression denoting madness, senility, dementia. When Lear curses Goneril, first with sterility and then, if she must have a child, with an ungrateful one, she dismisses his ranting as merely a product of his dotage. Her father’s cursing doesn’t count because he’s too fond and too old.

***

When I was little I was close to Mum’s parents and never met Dad’s. It came as a surprise to me that they were dead. When I found out, I asked him when and how his Mum went. I’d never known anyone who had died before. [private]

“It happened some time previously and from a lack of breath,” he said. Then he slapped at his leg and forced out a laugh. It was long and loud; a machine gun rattle.

When I was really little, I used to join in the laughing. He had a reputation, amongst people who didn’t know him, for being a good fun kind of guy. Life and soul. Something like that. When I was a little older, I noticed something. This laugh, be it ever so loud and out of control, was something he performed with his eyes open. He kept his eye on you because he wanted to make sure, perhaps, that you got the joke. That there would be no more questions.  He fed himself his own punch-lines too, well prepared and wedged into the conversation whether they made sense, or not.

“Did you go to her funeral? Where was it? In a church?”

I’m like a dog with a bone sometimes. That’s what people say about me. I didn’t drop it. I never do.

“The only thing you need to know is this,” he said, “the good Lord said, ‘come forth’ but she came fifth, and only won a bag of nuts,” he bent over laughing, yelping with it. It sounded hard. Like work, like pain.

I asked him what his favourite subject at school was.

“Noughts and crosses,” he said, then the laugh. This time, it sounded more like what it was: pleasure at my frustration.

I asked which colour was his favourite.

“What’s yours?” he said.

“Red.”

“Yes, that’s mine as well.”

I wouldn’t hold his hand. Even then I knew that laugh was too loud, too long. He wasn’t in complete control over it. Other people walking through town that afternoon turned their heads to look at us. He became shameful.

***

Despite the laughing Dad never seemed that happy. He worked twelve hour shifts in a factory that turned plain cardboard into waxed cardboard and turned the waxed cardboard into fish finger boxes (I only know this because Granddad worked there too.) Dad complained about the long hours and having to come home to an untidy house full of children that were rapidly outgrowing it. His primary pleasure in life was walking the dogs. There were two: a black and tan mongrel beset with persistent, incurable mange that Dad had adopted from the RSPCA and called Max, after Mad Max, because as soon as he’d brought the puppy into the house, the thing had gone totally crazy and started to play the fool, jumping into the air and snapping at flies buzzing around the lampshades. That dog had grown up into whatever the canine equivalent of a depressive recluse is and when it wasn’t being walked, slept under Mum and Dad’s bed. We could hear it scratching itself raw, spraying dandruff over the carpet and whimpering through the artex-swirled ceiling.

After we got Max, Dad developed an interest in wildfowling, guns and the shooting of birds. He decided he needed another dog, a better one than Max. So Earl arrived: an expensive, pedigree black Labrador that lived outside in a large kennel Dad built especially for him out of old wooden pallets from the paper factory. Earl was not a pet, and not to be petted. We weren’t to feel sorry for him, out in the cold on his own. Earl was a working gun-dog and the twice daily walks which were mere exercise for Max and a time to do his business were training periods for him. Dad took them seriously and conducted the sessions for an audience of plastic, life-sized decoys of teal and mallard. He directed the action with a stop-watch and a stick. For a time, not a long time, I got up early, before school, and accompanied Dad, Mad Max and Earl on these walks/training sessions.

We lived in a small terraced house – a two up, two down that had been, sometime in the Seventies, been made into a three up, two down. The place lay in a warren of terraced houses just like it, between the town centre and one of the arterial roads out of Preston to the south. Grey though it was, we were only fifteen minutes’ walk away from the nature reserves and farmland on the south bank of the Ribble and the dirty footpath alongside the north bank of the river which led along it to the docks.

The mornings I went out with Dad he strode too fast for me and I had to trot alongside him to catch up. He had a routine and the dogs knew it. Off the leads here, stop to collect sticks here, pause to look at the river and check the weather here, perhaps a cigarette and a chance to do your business here, turn and come back here. I was additional, an imposition. He mainly ignored me, walking fast and, as he walked, gesticulating and muttering under his breath. Sometimes he would lose himself completely and start speaking out loud. It never made much sense, but the odd phrase or two became clear: picking his teeth up off the floor and time and time and time again and have it out once and for all and no need to get so aerated and told you, more than once, to stop creating. He’d get all worked up and walk faster and faster, jabbing his finger in mid-air, droplets of spit flying off his lips and building up at the corners of his mouth.

What was he doing? Replaying, perhaps, a scene of injustice he’d suffered at the paper factory, or allowing himself the chance to say something to a superior he’d never be able to get away with in real life? Maybe he was talking to his Mum, getting off his chest things he should have made time to say before she’d had her lack of breath and been called forth. He could have been hearing voices: paranoid, nasty little accusations about his wife, his eldest daughter, about how people always seemed to be staring at him, judging him, wanting something, maybe planning to steal or kill something that belonged to him. Why would they do that? The bastard, ungrateful kids. Or the clever fucks writing newspaper articles. Smart Alecks on the telly, every night, without fail.

It frightened me. I wanted him to stop doing it. His rages, tantrums, his smashings up of things and people were evidence enough that there was something not quite right. Worse after drink, but not much better without it. But this muttering to an invisible audience was worse, somehow. It was public and embarrassing. I asked him about it. Of course I did.

“What are you talking about?”

He’d frown, wave me away, tell me to shut up. Sometimes, I would insist.

“You’re arguing with yourself. What are you thinking?”

My demanding infuriated him and however I worded the question, smartest of all Smart Alecks, a little bastard fully determined not to be frustrated this time, he waved me away or ignored me entirely. He would carry on ranting or he would explode and drag me back to the house by my shoulder, my arm, my hair, throwing me through the front door and complaining to Mum that, yet again, I’d managed to ruin everything and would she do something with me, once and for all, otherwise he wasn’t going to be responsible for the harm he would do to himself or someone closer. When I was with him he was beside himself.

Alone with Mum and complaining about him, she’d only sigh wearily.

“What did you say to him this time? You must have said something to set him off,” she’d ask.

“Nothing,” I’d reply. “I said nothing.”

***

I go to the best Uni that will take me and study English Literature because he can barely read and it will piss him off. But all reading King Lear does is make me want to call Mum. I stand at a payphone and we skirt around what I want to ask, giving it plenty of room to breathe; to come forth.

She says, “of course, you were his firstborn”, and, “when you came along and up until you were two years old, he doted on you.”

“Doted” is the actual word Mum uses when she tells me about this, the word she uses to batter back the memories I have. So I will give you only three examples because then you will know I am not lying and because all fairy tales obey the Rule of Three.

One

This man who doted on me until I was two deliberately slammed the front door on my hand. Then he did it again. My sister called 999 and told the operator he was killing me. When the police arrived he spoke to them in the kitchen and denied everything. Later, when invited again to answer questions, he told a social worker that I’d been “creating” and he’d been trying to pull me into the house, to close the door and stop me from running away.

Two

This man who doted on me until I was two was cleaning his shotgun in the living room when something I said or did angered him and he held it against my head and told my brother and sister to watch. Told them about leprosy. I thought that was what Lazarus had died of but I wasn’t sure. I knew better than to ask: he didn’t read The Bible. He told them it was very catching and they had to treat me as if I had it from this day forward. He hit me on the forehead with the end of the gun. Pushed me over with it. Told me if I ran out of the house and got run over he would stamp on my dead body and laugh.

Three

I am ten years old, in pain, irritable. We are all at the kitchen table, eating. My mother has just taken me into the bathroom and run the shower on full blast and told me that I’m not ill: this is a good thing. I can have a baby now.

I am wet between the legs and I get up to fetch my water glass from the living room. When I forget to close the kitchen door, this man who doted on me until I was two takes my plate off the table and throws it into the sink, where it smashes spectacularly, gravy hitting the window.

My sister smiles slyly.

Mum asks him to show some patience.

He says: “I showed enough patience when she first started; the dirty little bitch. She can’t use it as an excuse all week.”

***

After Dad threw us out we visited my Uncle Jackie and borrowed clothes from my cousins to tide us over. A bit later, Granddad and Jackie visited Dad at the house. Apparently they held Dad down on the couch while he thrashed and ranted and foamed, just to give Mum a chance to duck in and grab our things. She’d let us know there wouldn’t be time to collect everything. The three of us – me, my sister and brother – made lists. We weren’t to expect to get everything from the list. I asked for Toby Bear, a bashed metal colander and my Steven Livingstone adventure game books with the lime green spines, which, I argued, were numbered and came as a set and so counted as only one item. For herself, Mum took a pair of peacock feather patterned curtains she wanted for making into a quilt, a dressing table set made of irradiated green glass and a banana box she’d covered with brown paper and thumb tacks to look like a treasure chest. Inside were the family photographs.

I learned about the rule of three that winter from my English teacher. There are three Billy Goats Gruff. Rumplestiltskin visits three times. How many ugly sisters does Cinderella have? Our Cordelia had two. Three adjectives were very much excellently better than two. Two examples of a thing allows us to detect a pattern, and when the third breaks it, we’ll feel both relieved and surprised. It will be, Mrs Butterworth promised, satisfying. We’d be marked on our creative use of the technique.

Blood, sweat, tears.

Mum lies on the couch under her peacock tail curtains and sifts through her treasure box, touching our paper baby faces.

One

In this photograph I am nine months old and improbably blonde. Wearing a silver christening bracelet. On a swing, laughing. The sun is bright: I’m wearing some pale, striped cotton thing. There’s a tall privet hedge behind me and the depth of field renders my skin breath-takingly perfect; the hedge is a whirl of dense green against a late-spring sky a shade of blue that belongs to the eighties: you just don’t get it anymore. Dad isn’t in the picture because he is lying on the grass under the swing tickling my feet to make me laugh. The swing-park is a park-and-ride now.

Two

I am a toddler, perhaps eighteen months old. Wearing a duffel coat and sitting in a ride on Blackpool Pleasure beach. The ride consists of a seat (into which I am strapped) attached to a red and yellow plastic disc that rotates, flashes lights and plays It’s a Small World After All. At the height of the disc’s rotation I am four feet off the ground, in arm’s reach of Dad who is in the photograph, holding my hand and smiling.

Three

I am two now and I am wearing a pink dress and white Clark’s shoes and white ankle socks with a frill around the top of them. The dress has a yellow kite and a blue balloon appliquéd onto it. Dad is holding me up. He is wearing a vest and brown corduroy flares. He standing in front of a blue mini car on the street in front of our house. I am frowning and pointing at the camera. Go away. He is doing the laugh: I can tell by how he’s holding his shoulders; the way his tongue is raised out of his mouth.

I am still on the phone to Mum. I am always on the phone to Mum.

“When did he stop doting on me?” I ask.

Except I don’t use these words. I can’t bear to say them out loud. I say something like, “what changed?” or perhaps I do the laugh I have learned and say, “well that’s not quite how I remember it.”

The receiver is slippery in my hand.

“You learned to talk,” she says, matter of factly. As if it’s obvious. Family common knowledge. “You started talking, and asking questions, and you wouldn’t stop.”

***

Mad Max died before I went to university. He went quickly, during the night. It was probably a heart attack caused by old age and neglect. Can a dog die of mange? Earl went a couple of years later. Dad telephoned me to tell me what had happened when I was in a pub in Sheffield, having lunch with a friend. I hadn’t spoken to him in months and I tried to make my excuses but he talked over me, ploughed on, insisted I listen while he told me what the vet had told him.

Earl still slept outside, and Dad had been woken in the night by the sound of his metal water bowl overturning and scraping against the paving slab as the dog thrashed and yelped, its mouth foaming. He’d carried him in his arms – a 50 pound baby – into the back of his car and turned up at the emergency clinic wearing only his vest and some old cords.

Dad went off at a tangent here. He talked about the mess on the inside of the car; the difficulty in driving with the dog having seizures beside him; the bite on his hand the vet had advised him to “get looked at”. He digressed further and described what a gentle nature the dog had; about how well disciplined and loyal he was, about how this bite on the hand that had fed him wasn’t evidence of anything to do with Earl’s character but only how affected he’d been by whatever sudden illness he was suffering from. A brain tumour, perhaps.

What he didn’t tell me but found its way into his story anyway: the dog had a crate in the back of the car and Dad was assiduous about using it but this time, for Earl’s last journey, Dad had him in the front passenger seat, stroking him as he turned the steering wheel with one bloodied hand.

Too dramatic?

As he spoke, going on and on in grief-stricken circles, I made apologetic gestures towards my friend; wiped curly fries through a puddle of mayonnaise on the side of my plate; signalled for another pint. You could still smoke inside pubs then. I worked my way through my packet, smoking one after the other until my eyes were dry and my throat stung.

Dad told me about our street; how it had gone downhill since we’d moved out. Scallies and junkies and taken to hanging about in the back ginnel to do their deals. Maybe one of the scallies was worried about being caught with something on him he shouldn’t have and had chucked a bit of contraband over the wall. That was the word he used: contraband. And guess what? The dog really did have something in its stomach, some piece of latex, which implied he might have eaten something he shouldn’t have. Perhaps cocaine or amphetamine, the vet had suggested, judging by the symptoms of its death. The vet was very curious about it all. Was going to do a post-mortem. Maybe even get the police involved. She’d know for sure in a day or so. She was a woman but she was still very good. Very sympathetic, but women are, aren’t they?

I said nothing.

Dad started from the beginning. He wanted to tell me the story again right back from the time he was awoken in the dead of night by the metallic noise of the water-bowl being tipped over and hitting the flags in the yard.

“I’m out, Dad. I can’t talk anymore. I’m with a friend. I’ll ring you back tomorrow, yeah? Let me know what the vet says.”

I didn’t phone him back, even though Mum, who had been divorced from him for seven years said she was worried about him, that she felt sorry for him.

***

The new dog is another black Labrador and its name is Princess. I haven’t spoken to Dad in several years now and I doubt, very much, that I will again. But I still live where I used to and so does he. Very often, as I am driving my children around I see him crossing that main arterial road on the way to the river, wearing camouflage gear with a lead in his hands. Princess is trotting fast, trying hard to keep up, and Dad is shouting as he walks. He is gesturing to himself. He jabs the innocent air with such force that people have to cross the street to avoid him.

I had to stop at two kids. Medical reasons. I have one he barely knows and probably wouldn’t recognise and another he has never met. Mum says he’s opened savings accounts and divided my inheritance between the two of them all the same. Sometimes I want to stop the car and ask him a question but I always drive on and leave him to it. My father dotes. When a tree’s heartwood rots botanists describe the trunk as ‘doted’ so perhaps I dote too.

It is eminently possible, given the realities of Elizabethan theatrical practice, that for some early productions of King Lear, Cordelia and The Fool were double cast. My poor fool is hanged, Lear says, and the audience in the know, the audience who have, just for the moment, suspended their suspension of disbelief and allowed themselves to notice that the actor playing Cordelia is also playing the fool, is allowed the tiniest of morbid chuckles. They’re allowed to pat themselves on the back: they weren’t fooled after all; they always knew Cordelia was an idiot in disguise, and a poor one at that. [/private]




Soho

Rapha Cycle Club, Soho by Nathaniel Fowles
Rapha Cycle Club, Soho by Nathaniel Fowles

She was born bow in hand, slinging her very first arrow through her mother’s skull, slaying the malignant cunt dead where she lay, then one more just after, swift through the bitch mid-wife’s throat who was holding a dagger high and ready. Her father had long since fled, knowing full well the thing he was and the thing his daughter would be. He had only asked that she be named after her birth-cry, a cry he had heard on conception, a cry so trill that when she was born it carried for miles and drew blood from every eardrum north of the river, a cry she cried long after her banishment, both a lament for the dead and the dead to come, and a warning for all time that she was born bloodthirsty and in chase, a cry and a name to stay a reminder that even if it meant death, even if it meant every death, she would never stop her hunt—a cry and a name to mark a ferocious fucking juggernaut to which respect must be given and caution shown. [private]

The thing was, out in the wilds, abandoned and alone, chasing and crying, she began to burn, a trickle at first from the embers of a countryside campfire but as she grew, the fire raged terrific in the window of a gin shop, then glowed brilliant and furious like a trillion tellies and singed the air around. And when her ironstone skin burnt molten white and beautiful, and it didn’t quench or even cool, it became quite clear that she would never age, that she would always be young, feckless and desired. And so, despite the warning of both her name and her cry, the masses flocked to her. They trampled Messiahs and rules and whole villages in the stampede, all wanting, all craving her eternity. They washed her warmth on their faces—gulped down her phosphorescence and liquid crystal diodes, inhaled her rays of curling, spiralling beams, her LED’s, her twinkling flashes—all dazzled and itchy, numbed and light-stoned.

They began to run at full sprint beside her in the chase, calling her name, wanting her in their lives so much that they completely lost the fucking run of themselves, forgetting the warning, hollering for her, reaching for her, craving and yearning to join in her hunt until their breath shortened and the cartilage in their knees ground down, until their hamstrings snapped and muscle tore from bone, and when they finally slowed she was unmerciful, letting loose an arrow that pierced their chests and exploded their hearts, and as they died in her wake, gurgling and spitting blood, they wondered why them because their crave made them mad and deluded and clueless.

And still she chased and cried, chewing up life with grinding teeth, guzzling up months and years, a never-ending canter, beginning all over again, teaching new children through mistakes of the dead in fleeting moments of clarity with a raw and stone-sweet voice, showing them the leaflet touts, the charity muggers, the panhandlers, the addicts, the street sketchers, the human signs, the event promoters and made them take tactic from it all. She showed them the bike thieves slithering around dark corners to check the racks for loose wheels and flimsy cable locks, bolt-cutter boners in their tracksuit pants. She showed them the butter-wouldn’t-melt guys, the not-doing-nothing-to-no-one-officer guys, who whispered blow about, need blow? She showed them the phone snatchers waiting by the tube exits, the long-lost friends putting their arms around the drunk’s shoulders and snatching the wallet with their free hand. She showed them the couples on first dates kissing goodbye, the girl hailing a black cab and zipping off home with a smile on her face then the guy jumping on his phone for the old reliable. She taught from initiations gone awry and situational stalemates and made sure they had the right answer the next time. She taught the angles to play, the tricks of the trade. She taught the role of cheeky scallywag, the entertainer, always sharp with quips and comebacks and then when all that could be learned was learnt, she sent them to the front line of the hunt.

They searched first in art. The writers pickled their livers in the chase, words simply not enough, crying autonomy of language as their hearts exploded from the infallible arrow. The musicians who sang things for sake of the thing turned voiceless and redundant and she often shot them down in their prime, and nights slung on past like a dead animal, and painters, poets, dancers and actors all fell by the wayside.

They searched in love but found it too unstable a thing, a thing that changed with time and could never be fully found because of it.

They searched in money, in Lamborghini Murcielagos, in thousand pound bottles of champagne, in gold-trimming, guestlists and exclusivity, coming back to her, heralding it all a sinking ship, only to be shot through the heart with an arrow for the effort. And forward still they cantered, searching in work, using caffeine in the morning for instant determination, bottled energy in the afternoon, television at night. Hoards of them fell under the arrow.

They searched in fucking. They fucked and sucked and balled, writhed in orgasm, clawed and scratched and bit and caught an ephemeral glimpse but lost it as fast.

They searched their own bodies. They inked and pierced and self-flagellated, scarified and the trapped women chopped their own cocks off and gobbled oestrogen, the caged men popped testosterone to grow dicks in attempt to find something but their search, their search came up empty, purpose always that one cunt hair away, and it was not enough—it did not escape her arrow—and the fiends and moon-juiced, the pot-valiant and the chemically enhanced searched for it one moment, one piece of perfect, everyone, all of them and all at once in pursuit of purpose, trying for God or reason or an answer.

And still she chased, hot on the heels of the thing they did know and could not see, only felt in the tailwinds of her hunt, falling under her bow, unable to keep pace, falling as monstered men and women who knew there was some meaning somewhere but could not quite grasp it, who died cursing her unanswered question. Because in the distraction of their search, they had all forgotten or at least chose not to remember the warning that had been issued alongside her, the name she was given, the cry she cried. The dazzled and itchy, numbed and light-stoned that packed the cemeteries with arrows in their hearts had all forgotten, too. They were but the game. They were never the search. The search was more than they could ever be. They had forgotten that it was all more than just one person, that it was her not them, that she was the search—she was the hunt. Because wanting eternity and being eternal were different things. Because a small part was all that was needed from them. They were never the whole chase and never could be. She would always outlast. She would change and forge the future path, not them and they would fall and would always fall under slings and arrows, because that was what men were for, and nobody would ever be safe from her as she upturned pub and church alike for her cause, stomping through her streets with fists clenched and teeth grit, knocking down entire buildings if she had to, burning and gripping hard in charge, hunting and crying all the while—Soho—Soho—Soho. [/private]




Litro #133: Shakespeare – Letter From The Editor

litro133_shakespeare_singleDear Reader,

As someone who’s rapidly approaching forty, I know a little about milestone birthdays. They come with peer pressure, and reminiscence – and ziggurats of cake.

But none of us come close to the 450 years Shakespeare is celebrating this April. What do you buy someone who’s already Britain’s greatest cultural hero? Maybe a little celebrity love. Benedict Cumberbatch just announced that he’ll be playing Hamlet this summer, and over the last few years everyone from James MacEvoy to Jude Law has been breathing life into the Bard’s words.

But perhaps all this celebrity glamour is blinding us to the real issue: does Shakespeare speak to our minorities? Is Othello all he has to offer for Britain’s new multicultural landscape? Should we pay attention to the celebrities flocking to play his great heroes – or the men and women who take on the smaller roles, who toil behind the scenes to keep Shakespeare’s words alive for today’s audiences?

We’ve put together Litro #133, an issue devoted to The Bard, as a special gift for his 450th birthday – and to shine the spotlight into some dimly lit corners. Our curtain rises on Ben Crystal – renowned Shakespeare producer, actor and author – as he shares Year of the Prince, a contemplation of what it means to play the greatest stage role of all time: Hamlet. Just like every great actor, Ben makes us laugh, and cry, and keeps us rooted to our seats until they bring the curtain down. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to stand in the spotlight and read those immortal words – “To be or not to be” – this is the answer.

Ben’s Hamlet is a tough act to follow, but England’s writers are up to the task. David McGrath uses Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as an inspirational springboard, applying them to one of London’s most notorious neighborhoods: Soho. Then Jenn Ashworth brings King Lear up to date with Doted, a short story that proves (if there was ever any doubt) that Shakespeare’s themes are just as relevant now as they were four centuries ago.

No celebration of The Bard’s work would be complete without a few lines of verse, so Andrew Pidoux does the honours with Shakespeare’s Words, a poetic rumination on the legacy he left behind – not in the bricks of Stratford, or the over-familiar portraits, but in the words he etched into our cultural foundations. That’s followed by Pauline Kiernan’s Getting Rid of Ovid, a colourful exploration of Shakespeare’s own inspirations, and the debt he owed to the great Roman poet. Finally, we talk to Marina Fiorato about her latest novel, Beatrice and Benedick, and the changes in attitudes towards ethnic minorities that the last four centuries have brought.

It’s hard to measure the effect that any single writer, or artist, has on our culture as a whole. There is no formula to quantify artistic influence, no iPhone app to weigh the complex interactions of art and artists through the ages. But one thing is clear: 450 years after Shakespeare’s birth, it’s hard to imagine British literature – or theatre, or cinema – without that distinctive bald-headed silhouette whispering prompts from the wings.

Dan Coxon

Editor




Litro #133: Shakespeare

Cover Art: Photo by Cecília S. taken in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Contents:

Letter from the Editor by Dan Coxon

Year of the Prince by Ben Crystal

Soho by David McGrath

Doted by Jenn Ashworth

Shakespeare’s Words by Andrew Pidoux

Getting Rid of Ovid by Pauline Kiernan

Author Q&A with Marina Fiorato

This is only a taster of our Shakespeare issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.





Year of the Prince

Ben Crystal shares exclusive fragments from his rehearsal diaries on playing Hamlet, and considers where Shakespeare might be headed next…

Hamlet, University of Nevada, Reno
Hamlet, University of Nevada, Reno

It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: [He puts his hand on his heart] I will never play The Dane. When that moment comes, one’s ambition ceases. Don’t you agree? – Withnail and I (1987)

Back from watching a piece of new writing in the London Fringe, but all I can think about is I’ve been asked to play Hamlet.

Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet.

I remember watching Mel Gibson’s cut-to-shreds Hamlet, with Dad. I must have been 14 or 15, studying Macbeth in school and finding Shakespeare dull. I really hated studying King Lear at 17.

Then after playing Ariel in The Tempest, my first experience of acting Shakespeare, it was like light shone down, and I have never had a problem understanding Shakespeare since.

Branagh’s Hamlet came out while I was in university, and I yearned, burned to be in it. It was beautiful, and he’d used the text in its entirety, every word, all four hours of it.

Then watching my first fringe production – in a dark basement in King’s X, produced by the lead, and it all seeming very formal, egotistical, and cack-handed – an ego-project, the kind of thing that now makes my stomach churn.

Then Sam West’s Hamlet, the first professional production I’d seen, full of clapping and moving security cameras on the proscenium arch, the over-seeing of the court played strong.

And Jude Law’s a couple of years ago, which looked stunning but I remember thinking “They’re saying all these beautiful words, but some of the actors don’t seem to know what any of them mean…”

And then the great ones I missed: Daniel Day Lewis so in character he walked off stage never to return, having hallucinated the ghost of his own dead father. Or Mark Rylance in pyjamas at the RSC, and then his second go at the Globe which I did catch, so beautifully simple, playful, wonderful.

This can’t be an ego project. I can’t be a big fish in a small pool, with every word dropping from my lips taken as gold because of my other work in Shakespeare. [private]

***

Hamlet.

Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet. The thing about Hamlet, about all of Shakespeare’s parts, is he gives you the most beautiful, ornate frame, and a blank canvas. You can paint whatever picture you want of the character. It is half Shakespeare, half you. Shakespeare drops the golden bread-crumbs, leading you towards the truth, but it’s still you walking the walk.

And the play has SO many questions. Is he mad? Does he love Ophelia?

What is the truth, the reason behind saying these famous words, To be, or not to be… what kind of person needs to speak them aloud…?

I wrote this a few years ago:

Hamlet is considered to be the most sought-after and the most elusive role for actors, and the play remains the most produced of Shakespeare’s works; countless productions, interpretations and re-interpretations have been dreamt up, trying to nail down The Definitive Hamlet.

When I wrote that, I remember thinking: but I don’t particularly want to play it…

***

Over Skype, my friend Will (a member of my ensemble who learnt all of Shakespeare’s Sonnets off by heart) and I talk about learning all those lines.

Shakespeare’s actors had prodigious memories, despite the booze: both because their culture was filled with more storytelling than ours, and their brains had less input than ours do – no synapse-creating Internet, movies, or adverts. They were the only ones intended to read Shakespeare’s plays – 80% of the people in his time being illiterate – and even they would rarely have read the entire play.

Apparently, there was no scribe/scrivener/copyist on Henslowe’s payroll. We talked tonight about whether they would have copied out their own lines, a centuries old theatrical tradition that was still practiced in the Rep system, and a great aide-memoir. It means Shakespeare’s actors were probably all literate. It’s possible they had their lines written out, or read out to them, but it’s unlikely – paying for scribes would mean wasted time and unnecessary cost.

So they would have written out only their parts – what is the point, if you play Laertes, to write out the middle of the play? What, indeed, is the point in writing out the lines of the other characters in a scene, if you only say one thing at the very end before everyone leaves? It’s a waste of paper (expensive), ink (ibid), and time-consuming (not useful when the play opens in a few days). Better to write out your part and your cue to speak, so you knew when to speak.

And you’d have even less time if you were playing a smaller part, as the full script would be passed to the lead actors first, and they take soooo much time to copy their parts out. So your cue-script, your part, is your entire knowledge of the play until you walk on stage and hear it for the first time.

Some say the first time some of Shakespeare’s actors would have heard the play in its entirety was at the same time as the first audience, and there’s a few companies (my own included) that use this cue-script practice.

It makes for very very live Shakespeare in comparison to the standard, heavily-rehearsed modern productions, where one of the skills you have to develop is not looking or sounding disinterested having heard the lines dozens of times before.

***

Amsterdam, to run a workshop for Will at a high-school in deepest south Holland. Workshops go well, but I keep thinking about Hamlet…

Re-reading it on the train. If I’m going to do this, the first thing I need to do is work out the biggest mountain first: what is To be or not to be about?

Some people say that if an actor is revealing something about themselves and not the character, then they’re not doing it right, but everything I know about Shakespeare is to the contrary. The frame and the canvas. The frame is the verse, and you bring your self, as openly and vulnerably as possible into the brush, when you paint the rest.

Hamlet is more human, more intelligent, more passionate, MORE, than any other character I’ve encountered.

***

Coffee with Hilton McRae. I understudied his Feste in a National Tour of Twelfth Night, the producer Thelma Holt having given me my first professional Shakespeare gig. I was a slightly glorified spear-carrier, Orsino’s man, with Fabian’s letter-reading speech at the end. I met him at the read-through, and said:

– Hi, I’m understudying you.

And Hilt said:

H – Oh god, you poor thing.

And walked away.

But the job was a start, and I enjoyed the craft of trying to bring a real, subtle life to an unimportant character. I invented enough stage-business with files and folders to try and help create the world of Orsino’s court, without turning it into Twelfth Night or The Plight of Orsino’s Man.

I enjoyed the freedom of Feste, as he flew around the stage, slid on the floor up to his Lady Olivia, and as the Clown, had free license to do pretty much anything. The way he moved, I realise now, formed the way my Hamlet moved…

My opening line in the play, after Orsino’s famous “If music be the food of love, play on,” was the nearly-as-immortal line “Will you go hunt, my Lord?”, delivered by yours truly.

I agonised over how to deliver that line:

1. Frustration: WILL you go hunt my Lord? (probably inappropriate to be frustrated)

2. Pointed: Will YOU go hunt my Lord? (as opposed to who?)

3. Strong: Will you GO hunt my Lord? (by himself? like telling a child to go play? really inappropriate)

4. I’ve got an idea: Will you go HUNT my Lord? (as opposed to? moping around wishing for Olivia – not bad)

5. Possessive: Will you go hunt MY Lord? showing allegiance: but, a bit much. And, the play is also not called Twelfth Night or Orsino’s Man’s Love for Orsino)

6. Will you go hunt my LORD? (instead of calling him Orsi?)

Eventually, I asked Hilton for advice in the car-park of the Plymouth Theatre Royal, a few days before we opened.

We’d broken for lunch, and I was glum. Even though I had almost nothing to do, the director wouldn’t release me during the next day’s tech run, for a big film audition in London. That’s the problem with actors. We’ve barely started the first job before we’re looking ahead to the next. And we’re already spending the money before we get there.

Hilton stared down at the floor, then squinted up at me.

H – Well, it’s a question, isn’t it?

– Yeah.

H – So… ask the question. Will you go hunt my Lord? Just ask the question.

Hilton lit his licorice rollie, and walked away, as I stared at the space where he was, slack-jawed.

Best acting lesson I’ve ever learnt. The simplicity. That’s the problem with Shakespeare. Because it’s SHAKESPEARE and it’s LITERATURE, and it’s written in IAMBIC PENTAMETER and it’s POETRY, and can be tricky to understand, it’s easy to lose yourself in a maze of over-analysis.

“Just ask the question.” A note I pin to the inside of my head whenever I realise I’m working it too hard.

Hilton has a reputation for being difficult, but he’s not. He just won’t put up with ANY bullshit, WHATSOEVER. And he’s a great believer in how much information is packed into the text and the metre. This means his acting is terrifically truthful, and solidly based. He chases down the life of a character like a Hound.

I tell him about my concerns about playing the Dane, about what to do with the big speeches. Hilt squints at me, in the warm morning sunlight of Primrose Hill. Then in his lackadaisical Scottish drawl:

H – Thingabout playing Hamlet is, it’s not about the bits you normally get to do. It’s about the other bits, the small bits you never get to say…

The great Sir John Gielgud floats to mind. His first gig was as a spear-carrier in a 1921 production of Henry V. Eight years later he performed what people have been saying since was the greatest Hamlet ever. He then played it something like 4 times more, his final at 45.

His style of acting – and speaking Shakespeare – went out of fashion in the 50s with the arrival of Laurence Olivier, the Royal Court, and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. After that, audiences wanted less musical-poetic, more kitchen-sink, real Shakespeare, of which I am a disciple…

But looking back to Branagh’s Hamlet, which at the time seemed so ground-breaking, it now feels grand. Rather than people speaking poetry, the question is why do the characters feel there is no other way to express what they’re feeling or thinking than in poetry?

***

At the Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival, giving a talk with Don Paterson.

In the Green Room, I meet the great Shakespeare actor Simon Russell-Beale. I tell him I’m about to play Hamlet, and he goes quiet for a moment, before looking me solidly in the eyes.

SRB – Enjoy it. Give it everything you have. And I’ll tell you what they told me: It will change your life.

– How?

He sits back, unblinking.

SRB – It will change you, he repeats.

I sit backstage listening to him and the Archbishop of Canterbury discuss all things Shakespearean, when suddenly he mentions Hamlet and its awe-inspiring hugeness and he name-checks me, as one who was about to undertake this magnificent part, and he wishes me well, and then I’m staring into space and I walk in on myself: it’s actually going to happen.

***

Hamlet, University of Nevada, Reno
Hamlet, University of Nevada, Reno

Before I leave for rehearsals. Possibly driving everyone crazy talking about Hamlet.

Everywhere I go recently, people seem to have others close to them who are dying, or have been close to death. I keep talking about it, because I have these flashes, these moments of panic when I’m really tired or hungover. It’s not natural to always be thinking of your own mortality. In order to understand Hamlet, I need to get my head into his head. Which makes me reflect on my own.

A scientist at the Hay Festival last week said “the people who will be watching our own sun, which is 4 billion years old, burn out in 6 billion years time, will be as different to us as we are from amoeba.”

Humans generally tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of their own mortality, and seek solace in religion, or “something greater”. But Hamlet doesn’t. He thinks “the rest is silence.”

It’s a concept, like trying to conceive of the size of the universe and the things going on around us every day, while worrying about an unsent email. Our minds aren’t built to cope with the macro all the time. And yet I’m facing it more often than I ever used to.

***

I start every day of rehearsals with stick work I’ve adapted from Complicité workshops. Stand on one side of the room. Balance a bamboo stick (about 1.5 metres long) on the tip of your finger. Walk across the space. And that’s it. Just take a stick for a walk, without imposing any play or character on it. But when it falls, and fall it must, catch it as if it’s the love of your life falling into your arms.

It’s a beautifully simple, endlessly fascinating exercise. It allows practice in one’s own physicality, and once a certain level of simplicity has been achieved, walking the stick in character, or with another actor who’s also in character, can make for powerful physical exploration. Watching my company members reach into the emotional core of the play, and someone different every day falls apart, surprised at their sudden tears. There should be a warning on the back of this script.

It’s like this play, more than any other, was once a novel, and all the moments, interaction, speech has been boiled down to the bare essentials, that we’re left with the essence of what they’re talking about.

We spend our lives in bubble wrap, trying not to get hurt. It’s good to feel pain, and ache, both in body and heart. It reminds us we’re feeling, sentient beings, that are so good at masking the experience and extremities of life – we have to tear past that screen, in order to be free, open and vulnerable; to begin work.

One of the exercises I run pushes my actors to face the emotional heart of a text. Once achieved, they can revisit their memory of the high stakes/emotional depths, so in the moment of encountering a similarly high emotion in the text, the chord has already been struck and the note is still ringing in their ears. When it strikes again they’ll remember the experience from today, and with practice find it easier to reach.

The process made them see that there’s a blueprint there, written in, and that they don’t have to do anything other than just be honest, truthful, and direct.

***

…haven’t written a thing in a few days…

…first day off since we opened. let the bruises (like apples on my left hip and lower left knee – I still haven’t worked out where in the show i keep landing badly) heal, my voice recover from this cold, and shrug off a little bit of fatigue, thanks to the opening night party on Friday…

…an amazing show with a nearly full audience…  ELECTRIC to have such a crowd to talk to, to relate to, my friend, as Shakespeare’s monologues were meant to be, not introspective, but live and immediate questions or reflections to and with the Other person in the room: the audience…

…must remember that more. i love the argument in the relationship w the audience in Rogue, the terrible things said in the heat of an argument with a loved one, like Ophelia and I playing ‘I loved you not/i was the more deceived’ in the nunnery scene… the move from humour to explosive anger to self-awareness to apology with explanation in O what a rogue and peasant slave am I… – giving the audience a treat from the clever guy, as he explains what he’s going to do, and the vulnerability when he tells them why he’s going to do it, that he’s afraid…

…the apology, and explanation for getting upset, the trying to calm the angered lover with I have heard guilty creatures… onwards meets with resistance. then the admittance of guilt, to lack of action, and the explanation for that lack of action…

…the scared self-awareness in Now is the verie witching time, and the vile, menacing hatred in Now might i do it…

…the Samaritan call in Too too solid flesh. the knowledge of Now might I do it, but have I been to arrogant with that? am I too knowing? should the action be different? smugness is not attractive in a friend. but to me it makes most sense. answering their question “why don’t you kill him now?”

…the final desperate words to them, You that look pale and tremble at this chance, That are but mutes or audience to this act Had I but time… O, I could tell you. But let it be.

wanting to tell them so much more, everything I never said, that there were hints of in all the speeches…

…this week I think I’ve felt every emotion I have, there’s nothing I haven’t shared, either on stage or off, the only part of me people haven’t shared this week is the porn I look at or checking for zits. oh actually, I think someone saw me today looking at a blocked pore in the dressing room mirror, so I guess it’s just the porn…

i got nothing left.

***

Back in London after three months away on the most extraordinary journey, and to see a production of Hamlet at the Young Vic. They’ve set it in an insane asylum, and despite knowing the play off by heart now, I don’t understand a word. It makes no sense.

This is a bug-bear of mine. There’s been a tendency in recent years for his plays to be ‘concept-driven’, pushing square pegs into a round holes as we try to keep these plays relevant to new generations of theatre-goers – trying to modernise the piece rather than performing it as it was written – and instead of feeling closer to the play, people leave bored or indifferent.

We forget that first and foremost, Shakespeare was an actor. Second, he wrote and acted always and only for the same group of players. They worked together like ants in a hive for over twenty years. As they played together, both actors and writer developed their working relationship into a finely tuned, honed muscle.

If Shakespeare’s actors had their lines in advance, if they came to rehearsal with the words already learnt, lines that had been written to suit their own personal skills, then perhaps they could mount a new play in a few days. Maybe a day…?

What matters are the years and years of experience; working in each other’s pockets, that ensures both repetition and difference. The knowledge and practice that accrue from working in a single company ensure both continuity and innovation. Tremendously intense collaboration between actors and their author.

Russian and Swedish theatre companies spend months, sometimes years working in this way, forming such an ensemble, before beginning more formal rehearsals towards producing a play. With Shakespeare at the heart of our poetic, theatrical and linguistic heritage, perhaps we should do the same

***

Coda

To a pub in Angel for a friend’s friend’s birthday.

Sam West turns up, who I haven’t seen for years. He asks what I’ve been up to.

– I’m just back from playing Hamlet, I say.

His eyes widen, and deepen – a reaction I’ve become used to, from meeting other Hamlets. It’s a look, like people who’ve run a marathon, but without the time competitiveness, or people who have claimed the summit of Everest to see what the view is like. A quiet brotherhood.

Sam and I go out for a cigarette.

S – It changes everything. Your life, your career. I was offered Angelo and I thought, “Well, great. You spend 3 hours on stage as Hamlet. Why would I spend all my time in the dressing room in Measure for Measure?”

Ha. You can understand why Johnny G(ielgud) played it so often.

S – The difference is John never filmed it, and didn’t audio-record it until much later. If you wanted to see him, you had to go. I performed Hamlet 120 times, and a musician friend of mine said to me:

“How can you do that?”

I said, “well, what’s your favourite piece of music?”

“Bach,” she said. “How many times would you like to play it?”

“All my life,” she said.

“Exactly.”  [/private]