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. They 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 an explanation 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 is a scene early on, quite random, but telling. A woman knocks on Claire’s door while she’s at Sue’s, and she’s so terrified of dealing with religious talk of God and love that she insists Sue send the woman away. Sue tells the woman firmly:

We’re not interested.

That specific 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. 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 there is a straightforward correlation of such commitment with the institution of marriage, however it’s instantiated (and it is found the world over in all kinds of societies). 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 (a) to think of this as a sickness when in fact it’s an adaptive strategy for the sex with the cheaper gamete, (b) to think of this as a phenomenon generated by contemporary America when it can be observed in all cultures, and (c) to think of this as applying to all men all of the time. Men do actually want to get their genes into future generations and do understand (evolutionarily speaking) that to do this they better, at least with the “right” woman, pull their fingers out and contribute.

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 didn’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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A lethal assumption

In Secular values, not religion, make us a tolerant society, Oliver Kamm argues that, when trying to reach reasoned and compassionate judgements, religion is more often a source of confusion than light:

Despite their outward differences, however, religions typically have a lethal assumption in common: that faith is a virtue. How often have you heard someone described as a person of deep religious convictions and for this to be meant as a criticism?

In this piece, A. C. Grayling gives several examples where faith is anything but a virtue, beginning with the Woolwich killers of Lee Rigby. They had deep religious convictions and were certain that faith supported their actions:

Although defenders of religion like to portray faith as a source of peace and fellowship, and condemn those who commit atrocities in its name as untrue believers, the daily news media show how far this is from being invariably true. In fact, the relentless drip of bad news about religion-prompted violence in the world shows that the more zealous people are in their religious beliefs, the more likely they are to behave in non-rational, antisocial or violent ways.

(The self-serving nature of the apologetic response — that what they did was not out of true faith — is apparent once we consider that no apologist ever challenges admirable acts of goodness or charity if they are claimed to have been inspired by faith.)

Unfortunately for apologists, religion has too consistently provided a whole range of lethal assumptions on which individuals can act. Grayling describes such people as “neither ordinary nor sane”:

They exhibit a defining mark of psychopathology: the ability to proceed by perfectly rational steps from mad premises to horrible conclusions, while yet displaying in most of their surrounding behaviour the appearance of normality.

History “welters in the blood of religion-inspired mayhem”:

The problem is the complete and unshakeable assurance that religion gives its votaries that what they do in its name deserves praise. Agents of the Inquisition burned heretics to death to save them from the consequences of persisting in their sinfulness, so that they would spend less time in purgatory. So it was, they believed, an act of kindness to kill them. The current crop of terrorists do not bother to claim kindness towards their victims; hatred – or, at a poor best, revenge – is the frankly avowed motive. But here the justification is that unbelievers are worthless, deserving nothing but death.

In More than a scientific equation, Melvyn Bragg mistakenly links certainty with reason when faith and its dogmas have done far more damage over the centuries. As Grayling concludes:

The absence of question marks and their prompting of reflection, caution and the search for good evidence are not required when it comes to the eternal truths of faith.

True reason is always nurturing the next question mark, while true faith is always grinding its heel to crush curiosity out of existence. As Bob Dylan sings in “With God On Our Side”:

And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side.

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The Campaign to Eradicate FGM

The Campaign to Eradicate ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ in the UK: Moral Progress or Moral Hypocrisy?

Brian D. Earp at the Conway Hall Ethical Society on 20 July 2014

The orthodox position concerning ‘female genital mutilation’ (‘FGM’) is that it is so profoundly harmful and/or oppressive that it must be considered both morally and legally impermissible, not only in ‘Western’ contexts such as the United Kingdom, but also in the cultures in which—under a different description—it is traditionally carried out. However, in recent years, a competing discourse has emerged which suggests that the harms and/or problematic meanings that have been associated with ‘FGM’ may not be as straightforward as is typically assumed, and may even be comparable to those of a number of ‘Western’ practices that have failed to attract the same degree of censure. Such potentially comparable ‘Western’ practices raised by various critics include female genital ‘cosmetic’ surgery, intersex genital ‘correction’ surgery, and infant male circumcision. If these practices are in fact comparable along the relevant dimensions, then it would raise the possibility of a cultural or moral double standard on the part of ‘Western’ governments and agencies with respect to this very controversial practice. In this talk I assess these competing positions and propose an ethical framework for evaluating ‘FGM’ that both acknowledges the genuine harms of the practice and yet which avoids the charge of moral hypocrisy.

The presence of so many scare quotes in the title and abstract of this talk and of phrases like “competing discourse” point up a couple of distancing mechanisms this speaker used effectively to deal with this subject. They also contributed to the talk being less fluent than it might otherwise have been, which wasn’t helped by Earp overshooting by 25% of his allotted hour.

Earp studies the ritual modification of the bodies of children for non-medical reasons. (Modification for a medical reason might be heart surgery to repair a faulty valve, which is generally assumed to be less morally controversial.)

The need for moral caution is greater when children are involved, especially if the surgery depends on a norm or a value that the child might grow up to reject. It’s not always easy to distinguish medical from cultural, religious and aesthetic reasons, but the further away the surgery is from being needed for the child’s well-being or survival, then the more non-medical the reason. The extreme example is female genital mutilation (FGM), which is widely assumed to confer no benefits and to cause only harm.

FGM is often held up as a counterexample to the charge of moral relativism, since it is thought to provide a universal claim we can all sign up to: that it is always wrong, wherever it is carried out in the world. That FGM is morally wrong has been adopted as policy by the WHO and the UN, which says that FGM “violates the right to physical integrity of the person.” Many regard this as an advance in social justice; for others it is suggestive of cultural bias.

According to critics, this policy smacks of moral hypocrisy: the specific moral principles used to condemn FGM are not being applied to practices that are common in Western countries, and what appears to be a universal standard turns out in fact to be a relativistic double standard. In his talk, Earp contrasted the merits of these two perspectives.

FGM involves the removal of part of the female genitalia. There are no known health benefits; indeed, in both the short and the long term it’s thought to be harmful. FGM is so clearly barbaric that it’s become a knockdown argument against any charge of moral relativism. The danger is that Western literature on the subject has become less critical, more constrained and predictable, producing a standardized discourse as if in an echo chamber.

It has been said that Western observers gaze between the legs rather than at a woman’s beliefs. Women who participate come from a range of backgrounds, and in some communities this rite of passage is a cause for celebration. [On the BBC a few days after the talk there was moving testimony from a woman who recalled her experience of FGM, and it was not good. It was also carried out in secret, and she had no idea what was coming, which argues against it being a rite of passage and more of it being -- mistakenly -- thought of as a necessary operation, believed to ``preserve'' women for marriage. See also Parents who allow female genital mutilation will be prosecuted.]

These women who support FGM are not given any standing in international debate, where there is often an appeal to patriarchy — it’s assumed that FGM is done on the orders of men. However, there’s a diversity of cutting practices, which are done for many reasons, and there’s no consistent relationship between the status of men and women. Indeed, FGM can be done against the wishes of men and it isn’t only girls who are initiated — boys are also cut at the same time. It is often thought to prepare young men and women for adult roles. Nelson Mandela wrote about his own trial of bravery and stoicism, about how an uncircumcised Xhosa man is a contradiction in terms.

The foreskin is seen as a “female” part of the penis. Conversely, FGM involves the removal of the “male” part of the female genitals. Many African men and woman are perplexed by the Western focus on the female ritual, while ignoring the male ritual.

Infibulation is both extreme and rare, but there are also rare and extreme forms of male circumcision.

A common view is that female circumcision removes the clitoris and so desexualizes a woman, while the removal of the foreskin has no equivalent effect on male sexuality. This much seems obvious but it’s not the case that all forms of FGM remove the clitoris, which is mainly under the skin anyway. In any case, many circumcised women experience orgasm and many uncircumcised women do not experience orgasm — sexual satisfaction is not entirely determined by specific tissue.

Many African women see the clitoris as an unattractive male appendage and they can feel more beautiful and experience a positive effect on their sexuality after surgery. This is not unlike clitoral reshaping or labial trimming undergone in the US (so-called designer vaginas).

If a British girl who feels her genitals are deformed can be considered for surgery that is legal (although we may prefer she try some kind of counselling first), doesn’t ethnic society have a similar right to bodily modification?

The symbolic meaning of different body parts depends on the culture. Since sex is associated with penile penetration, the removal of the clitoris to Africans is both feminizing and an assertion of matriarchal power. The meaning of the clitoris is not determined by its anatomy and not reducible to bundles of nerves.

Vaginal rejuvination is not dissimilar to reinfibulation.

The so-called Seattle compromise outraged opinion. African parents were perplexed — the Somali women couldn’t understand why a simple pinprick to the clitoris was illegal while male circumcision was widely practiced. Indeed, prominent figures in the US like Kellogg had promoted circumcision as a “cure” for masturbation, and for a whole range of other illnesses. As a result of this kind of thinking, the majority of American males are circumcised. It’s considered normal in the US to perform this operation on healthy infants.

Earp’s hypothesis is that the Westerner always thinks of the most extreme form of FGM, carried out in the least sterile environment by the most medically untrained and least compassionate practitioners; the opposite is the case for male circumcision, which is a minor procedure carried out in well-staffed Western hospitals by fully trained doctors always for excellent cultural and medical reasons. This can lead to the impression that these two interventions are totally different, a distinction not helped by the fact that the female procedure is carried out in Africa (culturally lacking in power) while the male procedure is familiar in the US.

Earp doesn’t think the relevant moral principles have been consistently applied, and that the UN–WHO argument is not universal. There are three strands to this argument:

  1. FGM is harmful
  2. it still involves discrimination even if it’s not harmful
  3. it’s a violation of fundamental human rights

1 It’s not the case that all forms of FGM are painful or traumatic, and although some forms are excruciatingly painful the pain experienced is sometimes seen as instrumental.

The removal of tissue interferes with the normal functioning of body: this applies to the male more than to the female in many cases, but UN–WHO has not taken a position on male circumcision, of which there has been no universal prohibition.

WHO asserts that there are benefits of medical male circumcision but not for female circumcision, and refers to FGM’s negative effects as typical of all forms, while only the positive effects of male circumcision are presented. WHO funds research looking only for harm.

2 FGM is seen as symptomatic of society’s control over women, but this is not always the case, and we need to avoid grand narratives that smooth out diversity.

3 Here UN–WHO is on the strongest grounds re physical integrity, but rights are not absolutely inviolable. If there’s a valid medical reason then it’s not a form of mutilation. The problem is saying exactly what a disease is or what functional disability is, so there’s no universal consensus.

Imagine a bacterial infection in a child’s leg: in violation of the principle of physical integrity it’s in the best interests of the child to saw off the leg. This can’t be put off to the age of consent. If that much is right, then the operation promotes the real goal of advancing the child’s best interests. It is permissible for parents to enhance their child with an operation that is instrumental to their child’s overall well-being, all things considered.

Or consider orthodontics. Having straight teeth is seen as desirable in the US, where braces are put on many children by parents concerned over cosmetic appearance. The child is of course unlikely to object to having straight teeth once they have reached adulthood.

We should be cautious about any procedure that

  1. is irreversible
  2. or can be delayed until the age of consent
  3. or results in an enhancement that is not settled in society.
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More than a scientific equation

Towards the end of this edition of Sunday (06.07.14), the Right Revd John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, says:

Spirituality is important… there are more things in life than we can just reduce to a scientific equation.

In a New Statesman piece (4–10 July 2014, p. 25) Melvyn Bragg is thinking along similar lines as he expresses the “conviction that there is more, or other, to life than can be described with certainty by reason alone.” Setting aside the peculiar association of certainty with reason (reason is far more likely to provide grounds for uncertainty — if it’s certainty you’re after you need dogma held on faith), Bragg is vaguely echoing the truism that Hamlet puts so well:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

What both Bragg and Pritchard are implying is that anyone who thinks otherwise is an intellectual bigot, someone whose “scientistic worldview manifests nothing more than a nasty, unimaginative, and irrational bias against people who hold beliefs” such as their own (Law 2011b:36). They of course appear humble and modest in comparison, and not at all dim-witted for stating the obvious (life, not an equation — who’d have thought?). They are far wiser and more “spiritual” for simply appreciating that the world extends far beyond science’s limited horizon.

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The Comedy of Errors

By William Shakespeare Directed by Richard Stride Presented by the Groundlings Theatre Company at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside, on 18 July 2014

Two sets of twins separated at birth arrive in the same city without meeting for one crazy day, as multiple mistaken identities lead to confusion on a grand scale. Shakespeare’s furiously paced comedy is brought to life in brilliant colour by Elizabethan costume. Nationally acclaimed Groundlings Theatre return to London with one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies.

Piles of travelling cases crowd the small Rose stage, and although these are regularly shuffled around like so many Lego bricks, no use is made of the larger performance space beyond. With its pool of water and shoreline, it would have made a natural stage for some of the scenes in this play, which begins with Egeon’s account of seafaring in search of his lost son and his shipwreck (cut from this production) and which is entirely set in Ephesus, a busy port, and almost entirely out of doors.

The cases also serve as costume boxes and as possibly the smallest ever dressing rooms for Emma Uden (Luciana) and the versatile Stuart Frank (playing five roles), who emerged early out of two of them, no doubt to their great relief. (The day had been the hottest of the year so far, and although the Rose was probably cooler than most fringe venues it was still pretty warm.)

One character who would never have fitted into even the largest case was Dromio, played by the excellent Helen Oakleigh in a (modest) fat suit. I don’t think it says anywhere that Dromio is fat, or that he’s thin, but this costume decision worked brilliantly for this larger-than-life and larger-than-his-social-role-would-have-you-believe comic character.

The decision to have two actors doubling up the roles of Antipholus and Dromio worked less well. Even those familiar with the play will find some parts hard to follow, and anyone new to the play will probably be thoroughly confused. It doesn’t help that while Oakleigh is up to the challenge of taking on two Dromios, Mark Flynn is overwhelmed by his twins, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus.

This production begins oddly, with Flynn, dressed as a harlequin, somersaulting onto the small Rose stage and doing a card trick. Not quite sure what the acrobatics is for (there’s a reference to “nimble jugglers” but this is not a flattering one) — it turns out to be much less risky than the monumental task of doubling up as both Antipholi (Flynn wasn’t really up to playing one of these parts, let alone two).

Luciana is a prim younger sister, played by Uden in round glasses, long red plaits and lipstick emphasizing pursed lips. She delivers her “Man, more divine” speech (2.1.20) while her sister is receiving a neck massage from a scantily clad male servant, and, contrary to her sister, is clearly thinking that, yes, men are divine. (When it seems her husband is about to enter, he disappears, gimp-like, into the nearest box, only to emerge again to continue the massage after the false alarm.) Anna Mallard as Adriana is strikingly dressed as an upper-crust lady of the 18th-century French court, complete with pompadour, another bizarre costume decision. That it weirdly worked as well as it did is thanks to Mullard’s great performance. She has conviction, and carries off the part with verve and vivacity and comic timing.

Crucially, she helped smooth over some of the cracks that threatened to open up and swallow this particular performance whole. There was a strange scene that seemed to have no basis in the text (the actors playing the two sisters switched roles to become market traders, selling bracelets and fish), and which caused the lead actor playing Antipholus to freeze, and disappear offstage. For a few terrible moments, while the three female actors improvised and ad libbed, I wondered if we’d see Flynn again. He did get his shit together, and admirably came back on for his “But, soft, who wafts us yonder?” — which is Adriana’s cue to launch into her long “strumpeted by thy contagion” speech, which she handles brilliantly while soothing her husband. The character is trying to coax him back into the marriage, while the actor may have been trying to coax her fellow performer back into his role.

The scene at the house of Antipholus, which has both Dromios coming together on either side of the door, creates a difficulty for the single Dromio, who has to respond to a recording of his own voice. There is an inevitable time delay, which although short is still long enough to break up the dialogue (an effect not dissimilar to Flynn’s lack of fluency).

Antipholus of Ephesus tells the wrong Dromio (4.1.103–5):

Give her this key, and tell her in the desk
That’s covered o’er with Turkish tapestry,
There is a purse of ducats, let her send it.

This is a good example of a piece of knowledge that only one of the twins could have.

Antipholus of Syracuse is talking to the right Dromio, who reports his dealings with the wrong Antipholus (4.3.33–35):

The fellow is distract, and so am I,
And here we wander in illusions.
Some blessèd power deliver us from hence!

This is immediately followed by the stage direction Enter a Courtesan, a lovely piece of surreptitious irreligion.

Stuart Frank earns his crust with five parts, including a brilliant courtesan (who is an epistemic lynchpin of the play) with a mad blond wig and a high voice. He goes on to play the Abbess, in a box, whose door is wrecked by Luciana, who places it back precariously (and caused us some anxiety as Adriana kneeled in front of it and could have been clobbered at any moment — although she would probably have been saved by her wig).

Adriana expresses one of the basic rules of logic (5.1.188–91):

Ay me, it is my husband: witness you,
That he is borne about invisible.
Even now we housed him in the abbey here,
And now he’s there, past thought of human reason.

If a man’s in Oxford, it’s a logical contradiction to also claim that he’s in London at the same time.

Dromio and Antipholus grab two audience members from the front row to stand in for the absent twins — a brave (or foolish) piece of participation that wasn’t helped by Flynn first choosing a man who was actually physically disabled in some way (I’d seen him walking very slowly and bent over into the theatre). The two guys who finally took to the stage were game enough, but this really wasn’t a good way to round off a great play, which should end on an emotional high as the two Dromios are reunited and leave the stage arm in arm.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By William Shakespeare Directed by Sean Turner Presented by Permanently Bard at The Castle, Harrow, on 17 July 2014

I normally chafe at the affectation that substitutes “The Bard” for “Shakespeare” (like the pointless variation of “tome” for “book”), but I make an exception for this excellent theatre company, Permanently Bard. As well as being a terrible pun, entirely in keeping with some of Shakespeare’s best, its aim is to lubricate the consumption of his plays with quantities of beer. What’s not to like, especially when its productions are this good? In any case, with the location in this pub’s beer garden, which has its own little bar in the corner, I can think of “bard” as some kind of hybrid spawn of “bar” and “garden” and forget its association with badly written tourist information leaflets.

The warm-up song — Susan Boyle’s “I dreamed a dream” — is possibly a cheesy lure for those in the audience unaccustomed to Shakespeare (to be endured by those of us snobs “who’ve seen the play before”), but its awfulness is soon swilled away by a few lines of blank verse.

The perennial challenge of staging any Shakespeare is to transport the audience to another world and then make them feel at home in that world. With this play, in one sense we have far to travel — to ancient Athens, to Fairy Land — and so a modern beer garden — with its pub sign, a blackboard chalked up with Twitter handles and audience members tucking into hampers and rattling bottles of wine in buckets of ice, everything all too visible in the early evening light — makes that journey that little bit harder. Against these distractions is the simple fact of being in the open air, which always gives a different feel to a show, like having lessons outside at the end of term. Anyway, who says such things can’t be part of a Shakespeare production? The actors don’t mind, and seem entirely at ease in this setting.

One sign of this is Jack Harding’s shoulder tattoo, which might have been covered up as “inauthentic” in a more puritanical production, but here it actually fits perfectly with his character’s pugnacity. Lysander suggests Demetrius marries Hermia’s father, since Egeus prefers him as a son-in-law (imagine saying this to your prospective father-in-law even in 2014!). Egeus rebukes him with “Scornful Lysander!” (1.1.97). There is another side to Lysander, of course. The reason he takes such a risk insulting both Demetrius and Egeus is not because he’s a blockhead but because he’s so much in love with Hermia.

Alone with him, Hermia repeats that she too is no fan of arranged marriages (142):

O hell! To choose love by another’s eye.

This is strong stuff, and although Josie Catherine is physically the smallest of the cast she has all the fiery energy needed for the part. Lysander takes his cue from her confidence to leap up onto the box centre stage and declaim with a magnificent bombast of which Bottom would be proud the “jaws of darkness” speech (150). Coming back down to earth, however, when it comes to proposing to Hermia, he’s nervous as hell. To pluck up courage he helps himself to a sip of someone’s beer (the kind of liberty easier to indulge on licensed premises and out of doors).

Into this intimate exchange wanders Helena. That Lysander and Hermia reveal to her their plans to elope is of course essential to the plot, but, when you think about it, psychologically implausible, not just because conspirators like to keep their plans secret but because two people besotted with each other barely waste a moment thinking about anyone else. In this production, there’s a brilliant one-word aside that captures this precisely. Lysander’s line is (211):

Helen, to you our minds we will unfold…

Harding slips in an “apparently” to signal his scepticism over the wisdom of this, giving the word a contemporary inflection that also serves as a counterweight to the more high-falutin poetic language such as “faint primrose beds” and “Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet” (218,219).


(See also A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

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A necessarily good thing?

In this piece on assisted dying, Catherine Bennett quotes one of those opposed to its legalization, Baroness Hollins:

“We are a Christian country with Christian values.”

If we are a Christian country with Christian values (and that is a very big “if”), is that automatically a good thing?

In this edition of Sunday (06.07.14), Steve Evans reports from Berlin on the reaction of faith communities in Germany 100 years ago at the outbreak of World War I. He begins with a recording of the Kaiser, translated as:

Forward with God, who is with us.

Evans then interviews Manfred Gailus, a German historian specializing in war sermons, who says:

The sentiment was, first, we are the greatest people. We are chosen. God is with us, and then behind us and our soldiers. So we do something like a holy war. The parsons always knew what God wanted and they told the people that God has great tasks for the German nation, so it’s a just war, it’s a holy war, and we do right.

Germany was a predominantly Christian country, two thirds Protestant and one third Catholic, and there was little difference between the faiths in their attitudes to war. There is little doubt that the vast majority of Germans in 1914 would have echoed Baroness Hollins and said, “We are a Christian country with Christian values.” I’m sure most British people would have said something similar.

Anyone like Baroness Hollins or David Cameron who wants to claim we are a Christian country with Christian values in 2014 must conclude that millions of Christians in 1914 were simply mistaken about their Christian values. They will need to shift the goalposts, and redefine what are supposedly eternal and universal values, and go along with those like the Right Revd John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, who, speaking later in the same programme, asserted:

So much of what that has made us what we are has come from a Christian source — the love, compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice, mercy, justice, etc.

Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of those warlike values that so fired up British and German Christians 100 years ago, but if Pritchard had been preaching in Berlin in August 1914, he might not have indulged such a benign text.

The problem with Pritchard’s claim is that it is self-evidently bunk: it asks us to believe that the human species, in its two million or so years of evolution, knew nothing of “love, compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice, mercy, justice, etc.” until some chap (who cannot even be proved to have existed) came along two thousand years ago and told us about these basic emotions. That’s about as credible as some chap (who cannot even be proved to have existed) coming back to life.

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A possession?

In yesterday’s post (Putting doctrine before compassion), one former archbishop of Canterbury moved away from the dogmatic position on the sanctity of human life that is held by many Christians. For example, in this piece we read how the head of a Polish public hospital has been dismissed for refusing on religious grounds to carry out an abortion on a woman whose unborn baby suffered from serious malformations:

Professor Chazan is reported to be one of 3,000 doctors and medical students who this year signed a “Declaration of Faith” affirming the Catholic church’s teaching that all human life is sacred from the moment of conception.

Strange as it may seem, I as a secular humanist agree that life is sacred, from beginning to end, but of course this sanctity has nothing to do with the supernatural: it simply indicates a value that is “inviolable in a special way” (Dacey 2012:114). The special cases of abortion and assisted suicide are situations where one sacred value — life — meets another — prevention of suffering — and something has to give.

Another former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in an article entitled “The physicality of prayer” in the New Statesman (4–10 July 2014, p. 24), writes:

So the day begins with a physically concrete and specific reminder that your own individual existence is breathed through by a life that isn’t your possession; and at moments of tension or anxiety during the day, deliberately breathing in and out a few times with the words of the prayer in mind connects you with this life that isn’t yours…

Such largely vacant ramblings are the hallmark of a mind that trades in ambiguous ideas, but there is some clarity nestling here: twice Williams asserts that our life isn’t ours. This is at least a comprehensible idea, but the danger of thinking in these terms — of life as a “possession” — is that it leaves the door open for the belief in demon possession, which should be held by all Christians if they imitate Christ (see this piece by Chris French). After all, if life is a possession and it isn’t ours, it must be somebody’s, and that somebody is sometimes said to be a demon.

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