The lowest in modern history

It can be argued that those Christians who are against gay marriage ought to reverse their position and welcome anyone who wants to get married, for the simple reason that fewer and fewer marriages are taking place, and marriage is increasingly seen as an optional extra for a committed, long-term relationship. For example, according to this report:

In Italy there were fewer than 200,000 marriages last year, the lowest number since the first world war.

Daniel McArthur is one of those Christians opposed to gay marriage (see Bakers against the wall), and he notes that marriage in Northern Ireland “is defined as the union between one man and one woman” (if it’s merely a matter of definition, then surely it’s a simple thing to change?). That progressive views on homosexuality are increasingly making religious convictions irrelevant is of course important evidence for the weathering of religion. But changes in social attitudes towards heterosexual marriage ought also to be of concern to Christians like McArthur.

Antonio Golini, chairman of Istat (Italy’s National Institute of Statistics), commenting on “the lowest [number of marriages] in modern history” said:

“The fall has been very significant and beyond all expectation. There are cultural and economic causes for this phenomenon. The cultural causes are that marriage has become less important from a religious and civil point of view, because many young people live together without marrying.”

In a country home to the head of 1 billion Catholics, where the church still claims significance, where once sex before marriage would have been unthinkable (at least in public), the fact “that marriage has become less important from a religious” point of view is a most welcome sign of weathering.

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Bakers against the wall

According to this report, a family-run bakery in Northern Ireland, run by devout Christians, “could face legal action after it refused to make a cake with a slogan that supported gay marriage for a customer.” The firm’s 24-year-old general manager, Daniel McArthur, defended the refusal on the grounds of conscience and made the biblical connection clear:

“The directors and myself looked at it and considered […] that this order was at odds with our beliefs [and] with what the Bible teaches.”

The implication here is that because McArthur is appealing to conscience and the Bible his claims are beyond scrutiny by those who do not share his convictions. This is to commit the Liberty Fallacy (Dacey 2008:24):

Conscience is free, so it must be liberated from shared objective standards of rightness and truth. Call this the Liberty Fallacy.

Since he’s the one making the contents of his conscience public, McArthur does not commit the Privacy Fallacy:

Conscience is personal, so politeness and civility forbid bringing it up in public. Call this the Privacy Fallacy.

By pointing to the fact that this bakery discriminated against a customer on the grounds of sexual orientation, we are not falling for the Liberty Fallacy but engaging in a moral argument in which certain values — e.g. non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or skin colour — are weighed in the scales against those of bronze-age goat-herders that got written down in a book that — unaccountably to some — remains in print. A reasonable and compassionate person can then arrive at their own judgement.

Of even greater concern than the homophobia that stains this kind of behaviour is the lawlessness of this Christian’s throwaway remark: “the main thing would be obeying God’s law before we would obey man’s law.” That really spells trouble for any civic society.

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Antony and Cleopatra

By William Shakespeare Directed by Jonathan Munby Presented by the Globe Theatre on 29 July 2014

Cleopatra, the alluring and fascinatingly ambiguous Queen of Egypt, has bewitched the great Mark Antony, soldier, campaigner and now one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire. When Antony quarrels with his fellow leaders and throws in his lot with Cleopatra, his infatuation threatens to split the Empire in two. Virtue and vice, transcendent love and realpolitik combine in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s greatest exploration of the conflicting claims of sex and power, all expressed in a tragic poetry of breathtaking beauty and magnificence.

The stage was smoking, incense wafting up between the boards of the extension at the front, which made more room for both war and for lolling about in luxury. Carpets and cushions are scattered about, stepped around by nimble red-robed dancers and Cleopatra’s women in anything-but-virginal white, and doing moves designed to do anything but “cool a gipsy’s lust” (1.1.10).

Eve Best comes on, barefoot, in leather breeches and flowing robes, shaking a sword, every inch a “wrangling queen” (53). Clive Wood is a fine match as Antony, once a soldier in the field now indulging in “lascivious wassails” (he’s more used to swinging his pearl earrings than a sword). A woman wearing the trousers and a man swept across whole seas by passion — the order of nature is already topsy-turvy and tragedy is the inevitable outcome. We expect Antony to think of nobility in martial terms, in terms of power politics and conquest. Not for him such a “Roman thought”: instead the nobleness of life is “to do thus” (39) — he grabs Cleopatra for a long, lingering snog.

What they get up to before the next scene is hinted at by Cleopatra’s entrance at 1.2.65 in a large, white bath towel (Egyptian cotton?), with not much if anything on underneath. She strides to the front of the stage as confidently as any of us might into our bedrooms after a shower, the difference being that we’re not at the centre of a packed Globe. Enobarbus is already a bit tipsy, and still finding his way around the stage, half tripping over some cushions.

For scene 1.5, a bed is wheeled on, and two great tapestries are lowered a little for the purpose of wafting the reclining queen. This is when we realized just how restricted our “restricted view” seats (E5–7) were: in my line of sight were the timber post of the gallery and the larger stage column, which completely obscured what Best was doing with her women. Whatever it was, it got a big laugh.

We couldn’t miss the entrance of Pompey, Menecrates and Menas in a “warlike manner” (2.1) — two of them abseiled onto stage from the balcony like SAS soldiers in full black gear.

Enobarbus meets up with his old muckers, Agrippa and Maecenas, and is soon getting into his storytelling stride (2.2.216–17):

This was but as a fly by an eagle: we had much more monstrous matter of feast, which worthily deserved noting.

Phil Daniels round this off with a brilliantly blokish chuckle, as unlikely a precursor to one of the great poetic speeches in all of Shakespeare as a beery belch, but somehow entirely fitting (224):

The barge she sat in…

This paints a picture of an aloof queen, regal in her distance (which is supported by the text), but in performance Best plays to the strengths of the Globe and conducts a remarkable bit of audience interaction as she calls for her fishing tackle and her “bended hook” (2.5.13). Even though she was at the far end of the stage, we could see her bend down, having selected an older gentleman from the front row, who gets rewarded with a kiss and envious laughter (which seems so infectious that both she and Charmian were in danger of corpsing). In a few lines she’s both berating and cajoling the messenger, burying his head in her bosom on “a province I will give thee” (83).

Menas makes the mistake of revealing his plan to Pompey before carrying it out, and Pompey is not best pleased (2.7.71–72):

Ah, this thou shouldst have done
And not have spoke on’t.

What is a minion to do? When Exton murdered Richard without speaking to the newly crowned Henry IV, the king was furious.

The news that Octavia is 30 (see Age cannot wither her) does not go down well with Cleopatra, and Best pauses at the edge of the stage with an expression I can’t see but which produces another huge laugh.

Just before the interval she enters in a gorgeous golden cloak with a magnificently gawdy headdress, scattering gold dust in their wake as they process through the groundlings. The front row of the balcony have been primed with their own little glitter bags and soon there are golden showers (not that kind) all round the Globe.

In contrast to this splendor, after the interval Antony will soon be staggering about drunk with a stained shirt and raging against underlings. The first sight that greets us on returning is a dead goat being eviscerated, to give the soothsayer something to go on (and the rest of us something to put us off our snacks). Poor Thidias is dragged off and whipped, and brought back on with the stripes visible on his back. Antony gives him a hearty slap on his back to send him packing, a nice piece of malicious petty violence.

As Antony’s temper flares up, he’s conscious of a cooling of Cleopatra (3.13.187):

Cold-hearted toward me?

He hugs her, mechanically placing each of her hanging arms around his waist.

Caesar’s entrance gets a big laugh (4.1.1):

He calls me boy…

There was a particularly annoying and enthusiastic woman in about seat B57 who took it upon herself to be the first to clap energetically at the death of Enobarbus. Daniels made a good fist of it, from what I could see, but Antony’s botched attempt drew a big laugh, in part encouraged by Wood. In fact, again from what I could see, this was a deliberate move to milk the moment: he gestures, apologetically, both for his character’s incompetence and the playwright’s plotting.

Since where he was lying was to become the monument, he had to be dragged offstage and then brought back on, hauled on in fact by Cleopatra and her women forming a mini tug of war team with a big red rope.

My enjoyment was impaired not only by the poor sightlines but by being dog tired (I even considered bailing out at the interval, not because the performance wasn’t up to scratch but because I wasn’t up to scratch). No GBs and no TJs.

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Wittgenstein the warrior

For  two years (1911–13) Ludwig Wittgenstein studied philosophy at the University of Cambridge with Bertrand Russell. In July 1914 he happened to be at home in Vienna when his country declared war on Serbia, and he volunteered to join the Austrian army as an ordinary soldier. He ended up fighting on the Russian front, in an observation post directing the fire of his own guns. Towards the end of the war he was cited for bravery.

Apart from luck and patriotism, what had carried him through four years of war? In a letter, Russell recounts how, in September 1914, an off-duty Wittgenstein went into a shop and “found that it contained just one book: [of] Tolstoy on the Gospels. He bought it merely because there was no other. He read it and re-read it, and thenceforth had it always with him, under fire and at all times.” (Quoted in an article by Stuart Greenstreet in Philosophy Now, Jul/Aug 2014, pp. 6–8, which has also supplied the biographical detail for this post.)

Tolstoy’s book had a profound effect on him (to his fellow soldiers Wittgenstein became known as “the one with the Gospels”) and it implanted a Christian faith in him:

Perhaps the nearness of death will bring me the light of life. May God enlighten me. Through God I will become a man. God be with me. Amen.

Here is a man who had recently lived and worked in what was now — to him — an enemy country, in principle prepared to kill those he had lived and worked alongside (in practice, it seems, he was helping kill Russian rather than British soldiers), declaring in effect that God is on his side. There must have been many soldiers less intelligent than Wittgenstein (who was to become one of the 20th-century’s most acclaimed philosophers) who could nonetheless see this as a dodgy piece of critical thinking (see A necessarily good thing? and Forward with God): if a German soldier thinks that God is on his side, and a British soldier thinks that God is on his side, one — or both — of them must be wrong.

The full story of Wittgenstein’s faith is no doubt more complicated than this brief account. The main point for the purpose of this post, however, is simply that Christian faith can contribute to the kind of fortitude we might wish were restrained rather than promoted: military valour.

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Christianity as countercultural

The church has done away with the devil in baptisms because the cloven-hooved, twin-horned, red-eyed lord of hell is a tad offputting to parents who just want a nice sprinkling of water over their baby’s head without too much metaphysical claptrap (No devil in the detail):

The Church of England is making the changes to adapt to a population which increasingly has no Christian background at all. Where once the pattern was for couples to get married, live together, have a baby, and then have it baptised at about six weeks, they are increasingly living together, having babies, and then, after a couple of years, getting married and having the children baptised at the same time.

So, the church falls obediently into step with social and cultural changes that have already taken place, not wanting to be left behind as the rest of the world moves on.

However, this lapdog behaviour doesn’t really sit well with the church’s institutional self-image. This is an organization that has, after all, spent several centuries proclaiming it has the Truth about God and the universe, etc., etc. It’s  long been used to setting the social agenda, not following it, but is now having to adjust to its marginal position on the fringes of almost everyone’s lives.

Such change, however, brings an opportunity for a genuine Christian value (as opposed to all those fake ones such as love, compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice, mercy, justice, etc.) to emerge: counterculturalism. Whenever a Christian wants to demonstrate that they’re thinking for themselves and not following the crowd and bucking the trend, they can claim they’re being countercultural.

For example, in this Loose canon column, Giles Fraser begins by claiming that Christianity is some kind of love story. Apparently, it’s the scary kind “about someone coming to find you, someone seeking you out” — that’s stalking, isn’t it? (See Love without evidence is stalking.) Anyway, the key aspect of this story is that you’re not in control, which could be a nice feeling if you’re properly in love with a real human being, but which seems positively unhinged if you’re the object of affection of an invisible and yet infinitely powerful trans-cosmic doodah:

With the Christian romance, however, autonomy is precisely the problem and not the solution. Here Christianity is at its most countercultural.

Such a declaration could be the ultimate admission of weathering: for two millennia, our culture was Christian and Christianity was our culture. Now, all that’s been worn away and all that’s left are two fingers stuck up at the rest of the world.

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No devil in the detail

In his talk Why I Am Not A Believer, Elliot George cited the example of the recent abandonment of limbo as evidence that church doctrine and the word of God are not immutable. (If there is a god and his word is immutable, then this is evidence that doctrine is unreliable, no matter on whose authority it rests.) It was Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) who admitted that limbo (a “shelf for dead babies”) was “just a theological concept.”

Not to be left behind in ditching doctrine past its sell-by date (by several hundred years at least), the Church of England is to introduce a simplified baptism service which omits mention of the devil. If this report is an accurate summary of the church’s thinking, then it shows they haven’t really thought the change through. In the new version, parents are asked only to say that they “turn away from sin” but one of the motivations for introducing the new version is to avoid putting off people “who are offended to be addressed as sinners.”

Critical thinking is clearly not the church’s strong point, which is to be expected in an institution that for centuries swore a fiction was the truth and now has backtracked because of “a population which increasingly has no Christian background at all.” (In another press release, of course, this same institution will be bellyaching that Britain is still a Christian country.)

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Colour and Perception

Evening lecture by Professor Anya Hurlbert at the Sainsbury Wing Theatre on 25 July 2014

How and why do we see what we see and what are the underlying mechanisms in the eye and brain that achieve colour constancy? At this event, Professor Anya Hurlbert, Director of the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, will be talking about the colour constancy experiment that forms part of “Making Colour”.

We rely on colour cues every day, for example, to discriminate between an underripe banana (green), a ripe banana (yellow) and an overripe banana (brown). We also use colour in our social interactions, to determine the health, say, of a potential mate choice (a green pallor would not be encouraging).

What are the principles of colour perception? What’s going on inside the head when we see colour? Hurlbert’s fascinating talk and her illustrations and demonstrations provided an insight into something we take for granted. On the bus home I happened to be reading Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson (2002:24), who gives one perspective on the visual system as embedded within the adaptive unconscious:

Our eyes alone receive and send over 10,000,000 signals to our brains each second. Scientists have also tried to determine how many of these signals can be processed consciously at any given point in time… The most liberal estimate is that people can process consciously about 40 pieces of information per second.

Wilson would agree with Hurlbert that the “mind is a wonderfully sophisticated and efficient tool” in the way it processes information from the visible world (15–16):

An important source of its tremendous power is its ability to perform quick, nonconscious analyses of a great deal of incoming information and react to that information in effective ways. Even while our conscious mind is otherwise occupied, we can interpret, evaluate, and select information that suits our purposes.

Colour adds beauty to art, but it’s not essential. Leonardo debated the merits of disegno vs colore (form vs colour), and artists and art historians have continued to side with one or the other ever since (Poussin was all about form, Rubens went for colour). [Although Poussin wasn't half bad at colour as well -- his paintings are hardly monochrome!]

The exhibition concentrates on the physical stuff that we see as coloured material, but colour itself is not a physical thing, but a perceptual construct made in the brain. Newton said it first and best in his Opticks: “…the Rays to speak properly are not coloured.” Our brains create a sense of stability under changing light conditions by means of colour constancy. This is essential if we are to accurately keep track of objects under changing illumination (apart from its motion, an object’s colour is a salient feature).

She showed how colour constancy can be flummoxed by using a light that could switch frequencies and change the colours of a Gaugin still life. Since we’re not used to such radical and instantaneous alterations in lighting, we perceive the colours in the illuminated scene as also changing radically.

Colour vision works beginning with light falling on the three types of cones in the retina, which generate signals that eventually end up in the visual system in the occipital lobe. Vision is a process of interpretation where the brain has to sift vast amounts of information to recover salient detail.

Artists are doing inverse optics in order to create the impression of a three-dimensional using just two dimensions. they know how we interpret the world visually and so can fool our brains into thinking they are perceiving a real scene. One trick is the positioning of highlights, which we know are on reflective surfaces nearer to us.

We process luminance and chromatic information, with colour separated into two channels: red vs green and blue vs yellow, resulting in over 16 million colours. The brain is adapted to an environment whose illumination is caused by variations in daylight.

Turner’s Colour Beginning is a perfect illustration of blue vs yellow. Degas’s Coiffure is overwhelmingly and assaultingly red, but although red dominates the impression can change if it’s hung on a different coloured wall.

Vision is essentially trichromatic, but some people are dichromatic, and yet have learned to use the same colour names (say, green) as trichromats. We shouldn’t call them colour blind — they just see colour differently. (Tetrachromats have an extra shifted cone type, with another peak of spectral sensitivity.)

Colour depends on context: the colour we experience is mutable and unreliable (which is why some privilege design over colour). In his Interaction of Color Josef Albers placed two identical Xs against differently coloured backgrounds to show how we can perceive these as different colours. And as artists experiment, scientists create art: two sets of concentric rings results in one ring appearing salmon and the same ring against a different background appearing orange. This optical mixing was used by Pointillists (e.g. Seurat’s Bathers).

Until the Impressionists, most painters treated colour as a property of the objects depicted. Monet was able in effect to switch off colour constancy, and he captured the colour of light itself. The appearance of Ayer’s Rock in Australia changes dramatically over a few minutes, a rare example of the effect that can be reproduced in the laboratory using spectrally tunable illumination.

Hurlbert then explored the two principles of chromatic adaptation and colour memory, and demonstrated these with Turner’s Dunstanborough Castle.

Colour constancy is better for the blue end of the spectrum, probably because in our ancestral environment we lived on the open plain and illumination was dominated by blue light. Our brains have been optimized over evolutionary history to naturally occurring light.


The gene encoding the red–green pigment lies on the X chromosome, so if one is faulty females can compensate by using the other copy. Her son, however, only has one X chromosome and so may express an altered sensitivity.

The naming of colours is subjective in the sense that it varies between individuals and cultures. Russians, for example, have two types of blue where we in the West have only one.

Our visual system is probably evolving only very slowly at the fundamental level, but at higher levels of brain functioning we are having to adapt to new colour stimuli.

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Forward with God

In A necessarily good thing?, Kaiser Wilhelm II is quoted as declaring in 1914:

Forward with God, who is with us.

This king was thinking only of his own nation and his own time, and it would take an artist like Bob Dylan to expose the absurdity of this claim by widening the perspective to more than a single time and place. In “With God On Our Side” Dylan runs through several wars, including World War I, each verse producing another twist on the same conclusion:

For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side.

Counting the dead is of course a monumental administrative task in modern warfare. Going back in history, at least history as dramatized by Shakespeare, we find an exception to this when Henry V, after his victory at Agincourt, asks (4.8.87):

Where is the number of our English dead?

The herald shows him another paper, and he reads out the names of several nobles (90–93):

…and of all other men
But five-and- twenty. O God, thy arm was here.
And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
Ascribe we all!

This is not some afterthought, but a reflection of this deeply pious king’s certainty of the rightness of his actions. Speaking to his soldiers incognito on the eve of battle, he reminds them that “they have no wings to fly from God” (4.1.140–41):

War is his beadle, war is his vengeance…

Alone, and so sincerely, he delivers a soliloquy beginning (245):

O God of battles…

Those, like our current prime minister, who are eager to claim that Britain is a Christian country might be as eager to deny that Christian values took this nation to war again and again, to fight other Christian nations that themselves boasted they had God on their side. Contemporary Christians are unlikely to celebrate Henry’s message to the ambassador from the Dauphin’s court (1.2.244):

We are no tyrant, but a Christian king…

Since they also trade heavily on cherry-picked tradition, Christians are also equally unlikely to dig up Henry out of his grave in Westminster Abbey and expel him to a less sacred burial ground as a warmonger.

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Natural Affection

By William Inge Directed by Grace Wessels Presented by House on the Hill Productions in association with Jermyn Street Theatre on 23 July 2014

Christmas 1962, Chicago, small apartment … Unconventional couple, Sue and Bernie, are awaiting the impending visit of Sue’s delinquent son Donnie with excitement and trepidation. When Donnie makes an unexpected announcement, tensions between the already strained family relationships grow and competition between the two men threatens to destroy the life that Sue has worked so hard to create. On Christmas Eve when the next-door neighbours join the party, anxieties escalate resulting in an inescapable and horrific showdown.

Natural Affection flips the American Dream on its head. A complex, dark and anguished study of discordant family life, William Inge’s play explores the themes of sexual dissatisfaction, loneliness, frustrated small-town dreams, alcoholism and tortured identity.

This lost treasure by an American Icon has, in the playwright’s own words, “been contested, praised, disputed, and criticised.” Inspired by the violence Inge was witnessing in the media at the time, Natural Affection retains the power to shock
and is as resonant today as it was when it was first produced over fifty years ago.

Natural-Affection-JermynLysette Anthony as Sue Barker is onstage and in character as we enter. It’s early in the morning. She’s smoking, and wearing what turns out to be her husband’s exotic dressing gown (which she bought for him), and looking out at the ugly world beyond. The morning paper is full of stories of violence. Sue and Bernie seem to think the contents of a newspaper reflect reality, and that the world outside really is as portrayed in headlines. They are obviously unaware of the driving force for the news agenda: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Anyway, while one type of domestic violence towards the end of the play is sadly all too plausible, the other even more serious kind simply comes across as gratuitous and unmotivated, and awkwardly dramatic. In an essay in the programme, Inge refers to “bizarre and irrational killings and acts of desperation” and claims he felt he “understood a motivation for them.” That feeling does not get translated into anything we can understand, although he is onto the strategic nature of violence when he argues that all violence “comes from our feeling of rejection in a world that continues to make man feel less and less important.”

Much more interesting than his theories of violence is his snapshot of American working women in the early 1960s, and one woman in particular: Sue Barker. She’s the household’s main breadwinner, and has worked her way up to a position of responsibility in a department store. She’s also older than Bernie, and prepared to live with him although they are not married. If this doesn’t horrify those with conventional views of “family values” there’s a random but telling scene early on, where a religious woman comes knocking on Claire’s door while she’s at Sue’s. Claire’s so terrified of dealing with talk of God and love that she insists Sue send the woman away. Sue tells the woman firmly:

We’re not interested.

That line could be generalized to a whole generation, who grew up first not fearing religion and then realizing there was no substance behind the surface. (It’s unlikely to shock us heathens in Britain but it might still give even American liberals a little twinge, given that country’s continuing religiosity.) The cultural divide, which remains to this day, is captured by Sue’s remark:

Who let those people in?

(The superintendent, apparently.)

In this context, it may seem odd or a relic of the patriarchy that Sue wants to get married, while Bernie is holding back till he earns as much as she does. It’s of course a dumb kind of feminism that regards commitment in a relationship as some kind of failure, and since there’s at least some connection between such commitment and the institution of marriage, marriage itself is not necessarily a capitulation. It all depends how the marriage works.

Anyway, there’s a particular reason why Sue is a little jumpy over this issue, in addition to her strong desire to have someone to share her life. The father of her son ran off as soon as he could, leaving her holding the baby. It didn’t turn out well, as Donnie got into trouble and ended up in a youth detention system, described evocatively as “kids in a cage” (which sets off a heartfelt reaction).

She diagnoses a “strange kind of sickness” that makes men not want to be tied to a woman, but run off and behave like a goat. Her mistake is threefold:

  1. To think of this as a sickness when in fact it’s an adaptive strategy for the sex with the cheaper gamete.
  2. To think of this as a phenomenon generated by contemporary America when it can be observed in all cultures.
  3. To think of this as applying to all men all of the time, which is false (men do actually want to get their genes into future generations and do understand, evolutionarily speaking, that to do this they better, so long as they’ve found the “right” woman, pull their fingers out and contribute).

All that said, we can still read about men behaving like goats by opening just about any paper. Here’s one letter from a mother who hates her son because he had secret twins without telling her: he had nothing to do with the pregnancy, has never paid maintenance and when he met his sons very briefly he then stormed out.

Bernie’s reluctance is more complicated than simple fear of commitment. He has a harsh view of those who don’t make it (he doesn’t feel pity for anyone “until they’re washed up”), and yet he sees himself as sliding into failure. He doesn’t want to be a “kept” husband: he’s the one who ought to be supporting Sue. These emotions are mixed in with some good old-fashioned sexist division of labour (Sue’s the one who must get the meals on the table), which leads to some equally good old-fashioned marital quarrels. She gives a sarcastic curtsy when she relents and goes to clean the bath and puts on a silly voice to show her contempt:

I’ll be Florence Nightingale…

That said, they clearly still have a good physical relationship. Funnily enough, that she doesn’t want to have sex while her son in staying in the small apartment is actually a sign of how active their sex life is, and how noisy. And her remark that sometimes “sex gets kind of repulsive” is borne out by researchers into human sexual behaviour, who have concluded that “intercourse is almost too odd to contemplate.” (See Sex actually quite strange.)

Their neighbours, Clair and Vince, didn’t much like Sweet Bird of Youth. Clair thinks “something should be done about it.” Vince is a grumpy and not-so-old man (he’s 50). In a drunken stupor he confides to Bernie that there’s nothing he likes. He’s lived all this time and he’s never learned what it’s all about. Bernie doesn’t know what to make of this kind of talk, especially since he actually quite envies Vince’s worldly success. He’s trying to knock himself out to get ahead and doesn’t realize, even when it’s right in front of him, that success will not necessarily make him happy.

He resents Sue for taking “a high-paying job away from a man” and for not appreciating just “how hard it is when a man finds out he’s not going to make it.” [Spoiler alert] He strikers her, and she throws him out. Lysette Anthony’s performance here is critical to the success of these scenes, since it would be so easy to interpret her change of mind as craven weakness, when it doesn’t come across that way at all. She wails wonderfully — “no, no, no” — a simple repetition that articulates a depth of emotion.

What doesn’t work so well is what Donnie tries on with her, and what he does then, to a random guest.

Cast: Lysette Anthony, with Louis Cardona, Timothy Knightley, Adriana Maestranzi, Jessica Preddy, Jeremy Smith, Jonathan Wadey

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Henry V

By William Shakespeare Directed by Helen Oakleigh Presented by the Groundlings Theatre Company at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside, on22 July 2014

Can the king of England hold his nerve to embrace his duty, command his men and lead his country to victory in France? Shakespeare’s great play of nationhood investigates the bloody horrors of war and the turbulence of a land in crisis. Brought to life by nationally acclaimed Groundlings Theatre, performed in the splendour of Elizabethan costume this production will leave you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.

Although there was no near disaster as in this company’s Comedy of Errors the other night, there was less to enjoy about this production, which was overly ambitious and involved several unusual decisions. (In fact, one small company choosing to stage two Shakespeare plays on alternating nights might give most sane people pause for thought.) On stage throughout, wearing a mask and at the electronic organ providing an almost constant accompaniment, was Pete Hill, a non-speaking, non-acting member of the cast. Since he constituted one quarter of the available actors (four), this was already cranking up the jeopardy. On what sounded like a harpsichord setting, the opening music was more twinkle-twinkle of the kind heard in an 18th-century salon and not at all martial or rousing or medieval.

With such a small cast there’s inevitably a lot of doubling up, and while this usually leaves me admiring the actors’ versatility in switching roles, here it made me think — as Richard Stride began as the Chorus, then as the king, then as Hostess Quickly — that I’d wandered into the sequel to Pyramus and Thisbe, with Bottom finally getting his way and playing pretty much all the parts. (Stride even gets to roar like a lion on the line: Cry, `God for Harry! England and Saint George!’) Stride also looks more like the older portly Henry VIII than the younger lean Henry V.

A further disappointment was the heavy use of puppets instead of the two other actors (who had both been very good in Errors). Why Helen Oakleigh (as director) chose to spend most of her parts crouched down behind one of the boxes ventriloquizing is a mystery. When she does emerge more conventionally as Katharine, she shows what we’re missing the rest of the time. (Like Stride (who misspoke “custom and courtesy” for “nice customs curtsy to great kings” and “sings” for “sins”), she does fluff a few lines, including “Dites-moi l’Anglois pour le bras” substituting “arm” for “le bras” and so leaving Alice little to translate. Gyani handles it well, correcting Catherine’s pronunciation.)

Unsurprisingly, given the sparsity of actors onstage, there was some audience participation when Henry volunteered three audience members in the front row to stand up and stand in for the three traitors, to be bellowed at by a belligerent monarch, which must have been nice for them.

Bardolph is executed for robbing a church, which makes Falstaff’s stealing of the ring perhaps a worse crime (see Henry IV Part 1), certainly from a modern perspective. (The past week has been full of news about the Malaysian plane brought down over the Ukraine. Reporter Ian Birrell spoke to one witness who alleged he had seen officials from all sides stealing possession from dead passengers — “picking over the remains like the worst kind of common thieves.”)

Even a production like this throws up some moments of insight. I’m not sure I’d ever noticed that while Henry’s Crispin Crispian speech asks to conjure the positive image of old men remembering “with advantages” his heroic exploits on the battlefield, this is later undercut by Pistol’s boast:

To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal;
And patches will I get unto these cudgell’d scars,
And swear I got them in the Gallia wars.


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