The Shoemaker’s Holiday

By Thomas Dekker Directed by Phillip Breen Presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre on 28 February 2015

Rowland Lacy loves Rose Oatley but it’s not going to work out. An aristocrat and a middle class girl aren’t supposed to marry, not least because Rowland is a very bad boy and her parents really don’t approve.

When his father sends him to war to reform his ways, Rowland must take drastic action to avoid any chance of unnecessary personal injury and secretly pursue his love. He goes from riches to rags. Losing himself among the craftsmen of London he assumes the guise of a Dutch shoemaker (he learnt Dutch on his gap year of course) at the shop of the larger-than-life Simon Eyre and his wife Margery who are decidedly on their way from rags to riches.

The Company. Photo by Pete Le May

The Company. Photo by Pete Le May

There is no stained glass in the large rose window above the stage, since Rose Oatley, although the daughter of the Lord Mayor of London, is too low born to marry Rowland Lacy. Their roundabout route to nuptial bliss provides the plot of this highly enjoyable caper, which hangs together with only a couple of blemishes and awkward plot moves (that Lacy’s desertion from the army doesn’t earn him a death sentence or at least entirely ruin his reputation is implausible). The design evokes a medieval guildhall, with gargoyles poking their faces out from sturdy oak beams (are they portraits of RSC staff?), and cold flagstones for a floor. Bells ring, and the cast enters to sketch out the story and promise us entertainment:

It is nought but mirth that keeps body from earth.

Lacy is already planning his own desertion for the purpose of pursuing Rose, but he shows no fellow feeling for the newly married Ralph. Jane is distraught over losing her husband, and he’s not best pleased either at the thought of another man stepping into his shoes, or taking his place in the marriage bed. Jane, it turns out, does not cuckold him, despite being tempted by the rogue Hammon and his money, and only considers remarriage when she hears a false report of his death in France.

Sandy Foster as Sybil and Thomasin Rand as Rose Oatley. Photo by Pete Le May

Sandy Foster as Sybil and Thomasin Rand as Rose Oatley. Photo by Pete Le May

Sybil is Rose’s maid — witty, resourceful, energetic and indispensable. She provides an antidote to her mistress’s lovesickness, and agrees that Lacy is mild — “as a bushel of stamped crabs.” Sybil is Rose’s maid — witty, resourceful, energetic and indispensable. She provides an antidote to her mistress’s lovesickness, and agrees that Lacy is mild — “as a bushel of stamped crabs.” For the hunting scene, she runs around the stage holding up a couple of antlers on her head and blood streaked on her neck. The antlers, rags of flesh still hanging from them, have been freshly ripped from a stag. She’s loving both kinds of sport — the hunting of deer and the mating game her mistress is playing:

Impale me and then I will not stray.

A woman may have many suitors to choose from, and she must convince any man intending to invest in their offspring believe that she will not switch affection once she’s chosen him.

Lacy is now Hans, a working shoemaker who enters Eyre’s shop and tries to be one of the lads. He can’t quite hide his gentlemanly origins, sipping his flagon of beer with his little finger extended, rather than chugging it down in one. Josh O’Connor does a very good comically bad Dutch accent, which either decays into a guttural clucking like a chicken being slightly strangled or else he pauses and then gives up, pronouncing the word in his own English accent.

David Troughton as Simon Eyre. Photo by Pete Le May

David Troughton as Simon Eyre. Photo by Pete Le May

David Troughton is outstanding as Simon Eyre, a working man who aspires to high office but who doesn’t forget his origins or his former workers and “the gentle craft” that made his fortune, or allow his ambition to give him (too many) airs and graces. That said, he does enjoy pulling on a fine cloak and cassock, which make him “as proud as a dog in a doublet.” His wife, too, enjoys her elevation, but has more trouble remaining grounded as she floats about in her new finery (she could double as Queen Elizabeth I in those royal portraits). Her farthingale is a fashion where the correct answer to “Does my bum look big in this?” is a resounding “Yes!” It gives her an extension upon which could be balanced a whole cocktail cabinet, not the single glass made famous recently by one of the Kardashians.

Vivien Parry as Margery Eyre. Photo by Pete Le May

Vivien Parry as Margery Eyre. Photo by Pete Le May

Vivien Parry gives Margery Eyre the mayor’s wife a higher register than when she was merely wife to a shoemaker, an affectation that convinces precisely no one of her sophistication. She may be trying to speak posh, but she has retained her catchphrase — “but let it pass” — that serves as a period to almost every utterance. Her husband’s is a nobler claim — “Prince am I none, yet am princely born” — that he trots out even in the presence of the king, without reprimand.

Like Polonius, the previous mayor, Sir Roger Oatley has qualms about his daughter marrying above herself. Before she learns of Lucy’s new position, she has to fend off other predatory men who have her father’s approval if not hers. in the case of Hammon, she makes her dislike of him very clear:

Hands off!

She is not being coy, since she has no intention of ever marrying him, but her father mistakes her mind:

Curse thy coyness.

She will later say that her love for Lucy has given her the strength to bear her father’s hate.

Hammon, meanwhile, moves on to what should be, for a man of his wealth and status, easier pickings, but he also underestimates Jane’s resolution. He interprets her resistance as “come to me when she says go away.” In the programme, Carol Chillington Rutter describes this as “the misogynist’s dictum” but this is too blanket a claim. Sometimes, of course, a man does mistake a “no” for a “yes” (or, in the case of rape, ignore the “no”) but Ruttter is ruling out legitimate mating strategies in which the female tests the commitment of the male by making him wait for sexual access. She means “not yet” when she says “not now” — if the male is still interested after being denied immediate access, then she can be more confident that he is after a long- rather than a short-term relationship. That said, Hammon is a ham-fisted suitor with zero sensitivity and would be unlikely to get the girl even in the most propitious of circumstances. We delight in his ultimate comeuppance at the hands of Jane and the shoemakers. Hodge tells him:

He who sows in another man’s field forfeits his harvest.

So she gets to keep the fine new dress she was to be married in.

Thomasin Rand as Rose Oatley, Vincent Carmichael as Earl of Lincoln and Josh O'Connor as Rowland Lacy. Photo by Pete Le May

Thomasin Rand as Rose Oatley, Vincent Carmichael as Earl of Lincoln and Josh O’Connor as Rowland Lacy. Photo by Pete Le May

Lacy and Rose are finally brought together, with salacious commentary from Firk:

Can you dance the shaking of the sheets?

He foils the attempt of her father to interrupt the marriage ceremony, and he admits:

I never go to church.

At a time when there were penalties for absence and when piety was a widespread social norm, this aspect places him even further outside of “decent” society — and yet he is clearly a good man in many respects.

Simon Eyre approves the match, and so we have at least one figure of authority — a lord mayor in a gold chain no less — looking benignly on young love. He sums up the order of the day with typical concision and precision:

Wed and to bed!

The Company. Photo by Pete Le May

The Company. Photo by Pete Le May

Unlike in Shakespeare’s history plays, where kings are integral from the first scene, the king’s appearance towards the end of the play seems grafted on. To the republican in all of us, giving the king a walk-on part is satisfying, and dramatically he serves to resolve, at least superficially, the awkward matter of Rose having married above her station, and to a traitor. He pronounces:

Love respects no blood.

This sentiment, of course, runs dead against every single royal family’s overweening respect for blood in their matchmaking. He asks:

Are you pleased, Lincoln?

Lacy’s father has to say “yes” when he means “no” and the king suggests:

Where there is much love, all discord ends.

If that were the case, and if Christianity were really a religion of love, then there would be no schism and no sects, to say nothing of the wars that would be fought between Christian nations.

He names the new hall built by the mayor “Leadenhall” and Simon Eyre makes good on his promise to feast the apprentices. TJ. The good feeling doesn’t last long as the king promises to get back to making war on the French, which will mean more of his subjects dying and coming home maimed.

Cast: Ben Allen, Askew; Ross Armstrong, Warner; Daniel Boyd, Ralph Damport; Vincent Carmichael, Earl of Lincoln; Laura Cubitt, Seamstress; Hedydd Dylan, Jane Damport; Sandy Foster, Sybil; William Gaminara, Sir Roger Oatley; Michael Grady-Hall, Lovell; Jack Holden, Skipper/The King; Andrew Langtree, Dodger; Joel MacCormack, Firk; Tom McCall, Hodge; Josh O’Connor, Rowland Lacy; Vivien Parry, Margery Eyre; Thomasin Rand, Rose Oatley; David Troughton, Simon Eyre; Jamie Wilkes, Hammon

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No true Muslim

In the 1970s Anthony Flew (1998:49) created his “no true Scotsman” fallacy:

Imagine some aggressively nationalistic Scotsman settled down one Sunday morning with his customary copy of that shock-horror tabloid The News of the World. He reads the story under the headline, “Sidcup Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Our reader is, as he confidently expected, agreeably shocked: “No Scot would do such a thing!” Yet the very next Sunday he finds in that same favorite source a report of the even more scandalous ongoings of Mr. Angus MacSporran in Aberdeen. This clearly constitutes a perfect counterexample, one which definitively falsifies the universal proposition originally put forward. … Allowing that this is indeed a counterexample, he ought to withdraw, retreating perhaps to a rather weaker claim about most or some Scotsmen. … instead he amends his statement to: “No true Scotsman would do such a thing!”

If he were writing today, he would have no shortage of examples to choose from, since, after each atrocity carried out by people who self-identify as Muslims, there are always available for interview countless others who declare, in effect, that no true Muslim would do such a thing.

Consider the report in this edition of the Sunday programme by Kati Whitaker, who joined the new chief executive of the Christian aid agency World Vision on a recent visit to the Zaatari refugee camp on the Syrian–Jordanian border. There, she speaks to Muhammad, a carpenter who eventually fled his home town in Syria when the army burned down his shop and killed his friends and family. He was first arrested and jailed for 17 months. She asks:

You experienced such terrible things in jail. Weren’t you tempted to think, how can God allow that sort of thing to happen?

He replies:

Whoever arrested us didn’t know God, I’m sure, and doesn’t believe in him.

The problem of suffering — how can a good God allow bad things to happen? — shouldn’t be conditional on whether the sufferer believes in God. Otherwise, there would be no “problem” when a newborn dies in its mother’s arms.

In any case, Muhammad (who comes across as a decent man and deserving of sympathy) doesn’t answer the question, but instead states that the people who did the bad things to him are atheists, and he’s not far short of implying that atheists are very likely to bad people (as many people around the world actually believe). Indeed, simply being a kaffir or non-believer is enough in the eyes of some Muslims to warrant a death sentence (see Rewinded to the cutting part).

Muhammad went on to commit the no true Scotsman fallacy:

They’re definitely not Muslims, because our religion is all about forgiveness, it’s not about execution and beheading. This is terrorism. This is not Islam.

What he should have said is:

This is not my Islam, but an Islam that belongs to a previous age and one to which we should not return.

Otherwise, how does he explain the Koran advocating, for example, the death penalty for apostasy?

Believers always claim that they are the ones following the true message of their religion, and it’s the others who are misguided. No believer ever admits to subscribing to the false message, and very few ever change their minds sufficiently to admit that they once followed a false message.

To imagine there’s a “true” version of any religion is as forlorn as to imagine there’s a “true” version of, say, the English language. There is in fact no single English language, but as many languages are there are English speakers. That’s not to say mistakes can’t be made: just as we all sometimes get in a muddle over grammar, so do Christians sometimes ascribe a saying to the wrong Gospel. The crucial point is made by Huddleston and Pullum (2010:5):

Grammar rules must ultimately be based on facts about how people speak and write. If they don’t have that basis, they have no basis at all.

What matters is how religious people ultimately choose to live their lives.

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A reverend rails and scoffs

As if it wasn’t bad enough being beheaded, having a representative of the church standing by, lending their supposedly considerable moral authority to the proceedings, must have caused some to question their faith. Anne Boleyn, it seems, was not one such person, although she may have had more cause than most to rail against the injustice of her sentence (see Rewinded to the cutting part). She had the name of “Jesus” on her lips as the blade struck.

A century later, in America, Christians were still killing Christians. John Fiske (Persecution of Quakers in Colonial New England) relates how several Quakers — William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson and Mary Dyer — were banished from Boston in 1659. The city was in effect a Puritan theocracy, and unfriendly to everyone not of their persuasion. All three returned, “to expressly to defy the cruel law”:

All three felt themselves under divine command to resist and defy the persecutors. On the 27th of October they were led to the gallows on Boston Common, under escort of a hundred soldiers.

Waiting for them there was the Rev. John Wilson, who “railed and scoffed” at the two men from the foot of the gallows as they were hanged. Mrs Dyer had been reprieved on condition she left Boston, which she did, only to return:

In the following spring she returned to Boston and on the first day of June was again taken to the gallows. At the last moment she was offered freedom if she would only promise to go away and stay, but she refused. “In obedience to the will of the Lord I came,” said she, “and in his will I abide faithful unto death.” And so she died.

Like Cromwell, who tried to find a way for Anne to escape death, the governor of Boston, John Endicott, “begged the Quakers to keep away, saying earnestly that he did not desire their death” but the law was the law and there was a limit to any ruler’s discretion. The nuisance of Quakerism had to be dealt with:

At first the Quaker who persisted in returning was to be flogged and imprisoned at hard labor, next his ears were to be cut off, and for a third offence his tongue was to be bored with a hot iron. At length in 1658, the Federal Commissioners, sitting at Boston with Endicott as chairman, recommended capital punishment. It must be borne in mind that the general reluctance toward prescribing or inflicting the death penalty was much weaker then than now. On the statute-books there were not less than fifteen capital crimes, including such offences as idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, marriage within the Levitical degrees, “presumptuous sabbath-breaking,” and cursing or smiting one’s parents.

Eventually, the law caught up with public opinion and was modified:

The Puritan ideal of a commonwealth composed of a united body of believers was broken down, never again to be restored. The principle had been admitted that the heretic might come to Massachusetts and stay there.

Thank goodness there are no Americans today who wish a return to theocracy — oh, the good folks at the Thomas More Law Center, for example, may beg to differ, given their mission “to restore and defend America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values”.

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Rewinded to the cutting part

Last night’s final episode of Wolf Hall concluded with the beheading of Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London in 1536. She might have been burned, not beheaded, if Henry had not commuted her sentence, and she might have been hacked to death with an axe if he had not brought in an expert swordsman from France to perform the execution. One reason for its dramatic power is that we cannot imagine such a scene today, in London, with government officials and priests and courtiers looking on, some making jokes, some just standing by to see the mighty fall.

This kind of judicial violence has long since disappeared from Britain (no thanks to the Christians who oversaw every aspect of its implementation). It would be a brave playwright who inserted the following dialogue into the final act of a comedy (The Comedy of Errors, 5.1.126–30):

SECOND MERCHANT. To see a reverend Syracusian merchant,
Who put unluckily into this bay
Against the laws and statutes of this town,
Beheaded publicly for his offence.
ANGELO. See where they come; we will behold his death.

A couple of ordinary characters are taking a bit of time out of their day to go and see an old man have his head cut off, simply because he’s an illegal immigrant.

Today, the television audience must be spared a too graphic representation of the execution: even a pretend beheading after the watershed would be too much.

Too much for most of us, that is, but not for those women who were “captivated by the violence” they saw broadcast by Islamic State, according to a study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (see Lured by Isis: how the young girls who revel in brutality are offered cause):

Examining the social media accounts of six European women who ultimately travelled to Syria and Iraq, they discovered that one described the brutal murder of the American aid worker Peter Kassig and 18 Syrian hostages as “gut-wrenchingly awesome”.

The report continues:

Another woman, who watched a different beheading video, wrote: “I was happy to see the beheading of that kaffir [non-believer], I just rewinded to the cutting part,” and called for “more beheadings please!”

The division into “believer” and “non-believer” is perhaps the most basic one that any religion can make. While atheists are obviously non-believers in all religions, Christians are non-believers in all religions but one, and have been finding out to their cost in the Middle East that believing in the wrong religion makes you a non-believer in the eyes of Muslims.

In a discussion after the broadcast of Wolf Hall, the director commented on how Islam is as old now as Christianity was in the early 16th century, the implication being that we may need to wait a couple more centuries for Islam to catch up. The danger here is complacency, to think that religion was responsible in any way for the change in attitude towards such barbarity. For example, are we to believe it took sixteen centuries for Christians to realize that beheading someone was wrong? In any case, religions pride themselves on being unchanging, so the change is more to do with the processes explored by Steven Pinker (2011) in the Better Angels.

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Carol Felstead and the Creation of a Satanic Myth

Carol Felstead and the Creation of a Satanic Myth in the United Kingdom

Dr Kevin Felstead at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit on 24 February 2015

Hypnotized, sedated and brainwashed, Carol’s childhood memories were eradicated and her mind was reordered through 20 years of protracted psychotherapy. Assigned a new identity, separated from her family, a myth was created around Carol which helped stoke the entire Satanic Abuse panic in the United Kingdom.

Out of the blue, in 2005, Carol phoned her brother and said that she wanted to return home. One week later she died in mysterious circumstances. Her family then embarked on a quest to discover the truth about Carol’s life and death. Caught up in a frightening conspiracy of silence, misinformation and institutional cover ups, they discovered what really happened to her mind, body and soul.

In 2014 Carol’s family were granted permission by the Solicitor General to apply to the High Court to order a new hearing and to quash the findings of the original inquest into her death.

An unusual talk for APRU, in that as well as the academic content this was an account of a tragedy that has affected a whole family for around three decades (one of Kevin’s brothers and his father were in the audience). Not only has the speaker had to cope with the loss of his sister, he has had to come to terms with an extraordinary series of events and tackle the police, the medical profession and the justice system in an effort to get at the truth of what happened to Carol. See

Our beloved daughter and sister Carole Myers (formerly known as Carol Felstead) happy and healthy aged 20, as a student nurse, shortly after Carol achieved her childhood dream to become a fully qualified nurse. This picture was taken before meeting Dr Fleur Fisher and before Carol became a victim of Recovered Memory Therapy.

See also this article — “Family win new inquest on ‘satanic abuse’ nurse” —  in The Times.

Carol was Kevin’s sister, who grew up a healthy and normal person with good school reports and a happy home life. Things began to change in the mid 1980s, when she became argumentative. She told one of her three brothers that their parents favoured them over her, and then came out with a whole string of “memories” that were all factually incorrect. It was as if she couldn’t remember her own life and her family didn’t know what to make of the gradual deterioration in her relationships with her family. There were several strange events. On one occasion in mid winter, her father visited her house but she didn’t come to the door. He fell over on the icy path, and then saw Carol at the window, laughing. When she broke up with her boyfriend, it was as if she was reading from a script — and she appeared to have no empathy. She became difficult to contact, although she always said that she had no problems, and then virtually disappeared. The last time anyone from her family saw her in person was in 1995.

On 21 and 22 June 2005, Carol made two calls to her brother, Richard. She sounded medicated in the first call, and more herself during the second. On 29 June, she was dead, although the family didn’t learn of her death for another few days. An unknown (at the time) person declared herself as Carol’s next of kin and executor. A funeral was held, which turned out to have been illegal. She left a Life Assessment Document, under new name of Carole Myers.

The family was shocked to hear from the coroner of allegations of sexual and physical abuse. These were false, but involved her parents and claims of child prostitution, drugs, satanic child abuse. Carol’s mother was supposed to have murdered her sister, Joan Julie, forced her to sit on the corpse and then burned the house down to conceal the murder. The facts make this not only false but impossible. Joan Julie actually died in hospital in 1962, the house fire took place in 1963 and Carol was born in 1964.

On 7/7, over a week after Carol’s death and on the day of the London bombings, Fisher made a call to Carol’s insurance company from Carol’s flat (which she had already emptied), and said that she was ringing on behalf of Carole Myers:

I’m her next of kin and she’s died… She was a survivor of brutal family abuse over many years.

(After many years, the family finally obtained a recording of this call, which was played in part during the talk.)

The treatment that Carol received — recovered memory therapy — would have shamed a medieval quack. Her medical records are staggering, both in their quantity and what they revealed about her treatment. She spent most of the final decade of her life in and out of institutions, including the Tavistock Clinic, and she had the great misfortune of being under the “care” of Dr Valerie Sinason, a child psychotherapist who has, almost single-handedly, kept alive the notion that some children in Britain have been the victims of Satanic or ritual abuse.

Because one of the beliefs of this therapy is that the body “remembers” when the mind doesn’t, Carol’s therapists looked for signs of abuse on her body (which reminded me of what happened to women suspected of witchcraft). Carol became a legend within this community and was taken to events and appeared on helplines, as well as being prescribed vast amounts of psychotropic medication — her illness based on wholly false story.

A new inquest has been ordered and the family hopes that the true story will eventually come out.


Carol was even given therapy while she was in hospital, which made her worse.

People who have actually been abused may try and file their experience away, and not dwell on it or allow it to ruin their lives, but they do not forget and they have no problem remembering what happened. Victims of recovered memory therapy are very different: before seeing a therapist they have no memory of even the most horrible abuse, the reason being that such abuse never took place.

Carol deferred to professional authority, and so was vulnerable to suggestive questioning on the part of doctors who claimed to have relevant expertise.

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It could have killed her

In this family values column, Susan Boyle talks about her mother’s refusal to abort her after doctors advised it:

Doctors advised Mum to abort me because she was 45 and going ahead with the pregnancy could have killed her. But she was a devout Catholic and refused point blank. I’m only here today because she kept her faith.

If we consider the happy outcome, this is a good news story. Boyle’s mother survived the pregnancy and would live to 91, and her child also survived and went on to achieve great success.

The difficulty arises because this kind of faith — holding irrational beliefs in the teeth of contradictory evidence — does not usually lead to such good results. Someone might have faith in their ability to drive after drinking four pints. The fact that they arrive home without having killed anyone does not vindicate their decision to take such a risk.

For Susan Boyle, her story can be cast as a triumph of faith over reason, but who tells the story of the mother who died in childbirth, perhaps praying to the last that her “faith” will carry her through?

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The Comedy of Errors

By William Shakespeare Directed by James Farrell and Emma Sampson Presented by the HandleBards at the Vault Festival on 22 February 2015

When two sets of estranged twins find themselves in the same city, unbeknownst to each other, confusion and chaos abounds in Shakespeare’s age-old manner of mistaken identity and screwball comedy. The HandleBards is Shakespeare done differently — a fast-paced, bike-powered whirlwind of a show, with the actors playing all the parts in Director James Farrell’s wild 1930s indie-folk frolic.

HandleBards-LogoFantastic — and that’s not just because we were bribed with boiled sweets from an old-fashioned paper bag as we entered. I’m still reeling from how the HandleBards managed to rattle through pretty much the whole play in 90 minutes and with only four actors (Paul Moss, Callum Cheatle, Tom Dixon and Callum Brodie), supplemented by an enamel plate and several tennis and badminton rackets, and towards the end by three audience members, not to mention the three bikes on stage (compared to the one offstage in last week’s Last of the De Mullins).

As impressive as the doubling and shuffling of roles, the comic timing and the gender swapping is the verse speaking. For example, the syllable at the end of these lines gets its iambic rising stress (1.1.21 and 2.1.107):

Unless a thousand marks be levièd…

I see the jewel best enamellèd…

That a cycling-themed show should carry the rhythm of the pedal stroke over into blank verse should not, perhaps, be at all surprising.

Handlebards-6The tartan travel rug we saw at their Shakespeare Shuffle makes its reappearance, hanging between the two grey tents. This creates a space from within which all kinds of performance can erupt. As Egeon, bent with age and handcuffed with — what else? — a bike chain, tells his story of disaster at sea, the six principal characters are represented by two tennis rackets and four spoons, which bob around behind the blanket. For extra authenticity, he gets a cup of water splashed over him (67):

A doubtful warrant of immediate death…

Meanwhile, the duke (Paul Moss) is on the fixed bike, pedalling along to keep three lightbulbs (dimly) lit, and discovering just how much effort it takes to generate even a modest amount of electrical energy. (You’d have to pedal for about five hours without a break to generate the energy — a kilowatt hour — contained in the petrol needed to propel a car a few hundred yards.)

Moss switches from masterful duke to minxish Luciana, while Tom Dixon straightens up from a frail old man into the formidable Adriana, who has to put up with listening to her little sister’s speech in praise of the patriarchy for the umpteenth time (2.1.20–21):

Man, more divine, the master of all these,
Lord of the wide world and wild wat’ry seas…

By this point Adriana is mouthing the words and making the yada-yada sign with her hand. What does her sister know of troubles of the marriage bed (she indicates her wedding ring — a bicycle bell)?

Handlebards-1Callum Cheatle and Callum Brodie create two fine double acts, as Antipholus (of Syracuse and Ephesus) and Dromio (of Syracuse and Ephesus). The two Dromios are quite similar characters (forever on the receiving end of beatings), while Antipholus of Syracuse — a stranger in a dangerous city — is more wary and wondering than Antipholus of Ephesus, whose confidence is justified by him being very much at home (until he is shut out of his own house). One of the reasons Antipholus of Syracuse is so suspicious is that everyone seems to know who he is, while he has no idea who they are — a disconcerting experience (4.3.1–3):

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend,
And every one doth call me by my name…

This is of course exactly why his brother feels so at home. Shakespeare finds a way to dramatize how two different people can arrive at two opposing conclusions about the same social situation (a brilliant illustration of the fascinating subjective/objective distinction).

Antipholus of Syracuse, upon being addressed in such familiar terms by Adriana (a woman he’s never seen before), naturally wants to get away as soon as possible. She begins her speech (2.2.101) in conciliatory manner, before ratcheting up the volume with a commanding (115):

Ah, do not tear away thyself from me…

When she finishes her long question, she throws up her bicycle bell ring, which is caught by Luciana in her paper bag (128–29):

…from my false hand cut the wedding ring,
And break it with a deep-divorcing vow?

A simple trick, but a nice way of breaking up this long speech, and heightening (literally) the meaning of divorce.

She pays Antipholus the kind of compliment a husband expects from his wife (165–67):

Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine,
Whose weakness, married to thy stronger state,
Makes me with thy strength to communicate.

She’s all over him, and reverses the meaning of what she’s just said by picking him up and hauling him halfway across the stage. She is a woman not to be trifled with, although her actual husband does seem to have treated her in this way.

Given the limited size of the cast it seems reckless to create a whole new character, but it’s a stroke of genius to steal from another Shakespeare play and transform Wall into Door for 3.1. With Dromio swapping places, the Ephesian Antipholus the single fixed point outside trying to get in, and various hats and coats and an enamel plate held out on Door’s scarecrow like-arms, the scene is played out with a perfect quantity of mounting absurdity. When Antipholus finally promises to “depart in quiet” (115), Door sighs in relief, as well he might, having just missed a thrashing with a crowbar.

We don’t get to find out exactly what has gone on between Adriana and her substitute husband, but when he emerges he only has eyes for Luciana, who in turn is enjoying the thrill of illicit flirtation with her supposed brother-in-law. She shivers with excitement — “you may move us” (3.2.24) — pulling the jacket of Antipholus of Syracuse, who then launches his “Sweet mistress” chat-up speech. Luciana laps it up — she loves being flattered (72):

O, soft, sir, hold you still…

She kisses Antipholus and screams at the thought of what she has just done.

Meanwhile, Antipholus of Ephesus is becoming increasingly frustrated (there is irony in that he’s the one getting arrested, not his brother, the Syracusan). He is still, or so he thinks, in command of the situation (4.1.103):

Give her this key…

This is, of course, an allen key, the kind that could as easily unlock a brake caliper or crankshaft as a “purse of ducats.”

At the beginning of the play, confusion arises at first through Antipholus of Syracuse talking to Dromio of Ephesus while thinking he’s Dromio of Syracuse. Towards the end, even the two Syracusans are thoroughly at cross purposes (4.3.28–35):

Antipholus of Syracuse. Well, sir, there rest in your foolery. Is there any ship puts forth tonight? May we be gone?
Dromio of Syracuse. Why, sir, I brought you word an hour since that the bark Expedition put forth tonight, and then were you hindered by the sergeant, to tarry for the hoy Delay. Here are the angels that you sent for to deliver you.
Antipholus of Syracuse. The fellow is distract, and so am I,
And here we wander in illusions.
Some blessèd power deliver us from hence!

Doubly so, since Antipholus is an actor already weaving an illusion (Plato would disapprove: the audience is no better off than those miserable wretches in the cave, watching shadows of marionettes dance on the wall). Despite such talk of illusions, Shakespeare presents flesh and blood before our eyes, and puts his characters in very concrete situations.


Moss has dusted off his shuttlecocks that were so handy for his Lady Macbeth and pulled on the inner tube for his turn as the Courtesan. Antipholus wields a silver bicycle pump, extending it to the limit to ward off the “light wench”, who demands (55–57):

Give me the ring of mine you had at dinner,
Or, for my diamond, the chain you promised,
And I’ll be gone, sir, and not trouble you.

She coolly and slowly pushes back on the pump, so that it retracts with a squeak that undermines its power as a weapon, a symbolic detumescence no man wants to see enacted for real.

Moss is nothing if not versatile and pulls on a dishcloth as a wimple as he switches from Courtesan to Abbess. For the exposition scene outside the priory, all four rackets are held up behind the tartan rug, creating a little crowd of onlookers turning from left to right like spectators on Centre Court as the rally unfolds. Finally, the pieces of the jigsaw are fitted together to everyone’s satisfaction, the icing on the cake being the reunion of two sets of twins and a husband and wife.

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Egotistical stuff

In this Loose canon column, Giles Fraser regrets that the devil is being made redundant (but doesn’t address the question, if the devil can be sent packing with his P45, why not God?). Fraser argues that “here is the true site of Christianity’s confrontation with secular humanism”:

Christians have a generally dark and negative view of human nature. Which is why human beings need to take such drastic existential measures as baptism: death and resurrection. This is not a disparagement of human beings — simply a realistic assessment of the egotistical stuff from which we are made.

He may not regard this as a disparagement of human beings, but we secular humanists beg to differ. Christianity gets many things wrong, of course, but this reduction of human beings to “egotistical stuff” is one of the more dispiriting of its metaphysical mistakes. It’s one of those dog whistle words that bypasses critical thinking and whips up hatred.

It’s used, for example, by Terbougie to criticize Marie Curie in Alan Alda’s Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie and by Norman Tebbit, who called Salman Rushdie an “outstanding villain” and asked (Cohen 2012:38):

How many societies having been so treated by a foreigner accepted in their midst, could go so far to protect him from the consequences of his egotistical and self-opinionated attack on the religion into which he was born?

Being “egotistical” is clearly a very bad thing in this context.

But consider the following extract from an article about Lord Browne:

Gay sex between consenting adults is still outlawed in 76 countries. On a recent visit to the Middle East, someone Browne knows well was highly critical of the book. “He said, ‘Why did you write this? It’s not a good idea because it’s nobody’s business, and societies are bigger than individuals, and really individuals should keep it to themselves if they don’t conform with society.’ A fairly classic portrayal, I think,” Browne says with a smile, “of society in the Middle East.”

Individuals who “don’t conform with society” are also likely to be labelled as “egotistical” for pursuing their own degenerate lifestyles and then persecuted for crimes against society, which is exactly what happens openly in those 76 countries, and more covertly in many other countries.

It’s worth remembering that this “egotistical stuff” is at least in part responsible for many of humanity’s most magnificent creations and for the many millions of more ordinary daily actions that benefit others.  Would Michelangelo have bothered painting the Sistine ceiling were it not for a little bit of ego? Would a mother bother caring for her child if it did not share half her genes?

In any case, and contrary to the cynical Christian worldview, Darwinian thinking has a more sophisticated understanding of this “egotistical stuff” (Dawkins 1989:186):

Inclusive fitness is calculated from an individual’s own reproductive success plus his effects on the reproductive success of his relatives, each one weighed by the appropriate coefficient of relatedness.

Hamilton’s formulation of inclusive fitness shows how altruistic behaviour “far removed from personal reproduction could easily evolve” (Buss 2008:232). The selfish gene’s eye view of human nature shows that individuals human beings are never in it just for themselves.

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Review of Nell Gwyn: An Epilogue

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews


Nell Gwyn: An Epilogue – Pleasance, London

Nell Gwyn is not having much fun playing  ‘poor Valeria’ in one of John Dryden’s tragedies. Valeria was a Roman princess who stabbed herself Lucretia-style out of shame. It’s the last thing Nell would do in real life. She’s too busy carving out a remarkable career – on stage and in various beds – in Restoration London. For this role, she’s wrapped up in a bedsheet for a toga and wielding a large wooden dagger. Valeria dies, falls, and becomes a very neatly laid out corpse. Still on the ground, Nell giggles at the absurdity of it all.

It’s a promising start for Lucy Formby in the title role. She captures the vivacity of one of the first English actresses, and the perennial difficulty of finding the right parts. Nell discards the toga, and tells Dryden (handily sitting in the front row, one of two plants in the audience) that she prefers comedy over tragedy. For most of the show (which runs for 45 minutes), she’s in her own persona as the ‘darling strumpet of the crowd’, trying to be both comedienne and courtesan.

Nell is refreshingly candid – actress, she tells us, is just another word for whore – and she admits she is as renowned for dancing on her back as for the more conventional kind. (Formby, however, needs a little more practice in the jig department. In the wig department, she’s magnificent.)

Nell Gwyn’s early training was under Charles Hart (in more ways than one: she complains of warming his bed while being given ‘cold parts’), but when she catches the eye of the king the jealous Hart thwarts her ambition to play comedy by casting her in tragic roles. His plan to embarrass her doesn’t work, and she does become mistress (a ‘new-fangled thing from France’) to King Charles II.

Formby just about sustains the buoyancy of her character for the duration of the show but is hampered by the lack of respite from one-sided flirtatiousness (there’s a limit to what audience members in the front row can do). Hands on hips is a sassy gesture that works well in small doses, but it’s easily overdone. Like the corsets of the day, the monologue format is constraining, and the absence of other characters limits what can be shown of what must have been a fascinating social world.

The restoration of Charles II after the puritan interlude of the mid seventeenth century was good news for English theatre, and it opened up the stage to women for the first time. Nell Gwyn was at the centre of this renaissance, and her story from orange girl to actress and royal mistress is worth telling. This piece gives us a glimpse into that world, and will benefit from further revision and from being polished in performance.

(See also Nell Gwyn: An Epilogue.)

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Review of Boris Godunov

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews


Boris Godunov – Jack Studio Theatre, London

The whole of Russia is mapped out on the floor of the Jack Studio, roughly sketched by Feodor, the young son and heir of Boris Godunov. The boy delights in showing his father Novgorod and Astrakhan, the Volga, and Siberia, and for a fleeting moment we glimpse Godunov as an ordinary father, proud of his son’s modest achievement. For the rest of the play, he is the extraordinary king who has seized Russia for real.

David Bromley excels in the title role, unbending beneath the weight of a vast empire. He is decisive and imposing: all shrink before his authority, at least at first. And yet he’s also tired and disillusioned after six years of struggle. In soliloquy, he compares rising to the throne with falling in love for the first time (“that looked promising too”). But loving power “is even worse than loving a woman”: then there was only one person who could mark him down as a failure; now, all of Russia is on his case. There’s no gratitude, let alone love, only murmurs and whispers (Bromley growls out this line and captures the tsar’s paranoia very effectively).

The play begins six years earlier, as the people gather in Red Square. The name is the only colourful thing in Moscow, peasants and townsfolk and soldiers are all in shades of grey and black. Twelve of the cast crowd the small, smoke-filled stage, waiting for news of who will be king now that Ivan the Terrible is dead. There are echoes of Shakespeare, as rumours fly of a wise uncle who’s had the crown prince Dimitry killed and who now feigns reluctance when invited to become king.

The colour and clarity of this production are to be found in the range of characters, from a palsied patriarch to an old woman in a metal hat, and in the sharp script packed with startling images. Prince Shuisky, who has a claim to the throne but is now just a courtier to Godunov, fears ending his days in some hole, “with just a rat as a witness.” Shuisky is a noble, self-assured and the best-dressed character on stage, and played with great subtlety by Brendan O’Rourke (who also knows how to wear a cravat). The Orwellian image reminds the audience that no one feels safe in a tyranny.

Not even the tyrant himself. Russia is invaded by an army led by Grigory, an ex-monk and pretender to the throne, a counterfeit Dimitry, as good as the real thing to his followers. Thomas Winsor is convincing as this makeshift revolutionary, a charismatic character who only has to climb on a soapbox and declare “March on Moscow!” to rouse an army.

That line is typical of Howard Colyer’s extremely effective and pared-down style, which constantly adds energy to this adaptation of Pushkin’s greatest play even as it cuts (this production runs straight through at 80 minutes). Colyer’s achievement is the polar opposite to that of the original censors, who sought to drain Pushkin’s script of its force, to crush its life. Although set at the end of the 16th century, wounded authority is familiar in any age. There are still dark corners of the modern world where blasphemy is taken seriously and where authority must not be challenged, and where the threat of both arbitrary and focused violence keeps everyone submissive.

(See also Boris Godunov.)

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