Frankenstein At The National

Content note: discussion of rape, racism, ableism, oppression, violence towards women of colour.

I remember watching Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre back in 2011. Those heady days when I could sit in close proximity to lots of people in a darkened room and watch other humans move about on a raised platform, I’m talking about theatre darrling. One of the production’s clever tricks was to have the two lead actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, interchange the roles of Dr Victor Frankenstein and the Creature on different nights. I took my seat not knowing who I’d get and as one hundred light bulbs glared and fizzed there appeared before me a very naked Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. I had a whale of a time.

Nearly ten years later and last week I decided to watch Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and was once again impressed by the production, especially the quality of acting and the versatility of the staging as we were taken from busy steam trains to the Orkneys and way off into the Arctic. However, what I noted this time round is despite the supposed universality of the Frankenstein myth – when man plays God he does it very badly and lots of people get hurt (yup, pretty accurate) – the play’s protagonists lacked contextualisation. We are never asked to spend much time exploring Dr Frankenstein’s identity as a wealthy, white, able-bodied man who has the luxury to spend time building a human from bits of corpses and then immediately do a runner once things don’t go quite to plan (namely, he finds the Creature too ugly). Hmm, a man making a mess and not taking responsibility for it, sound familiar?

Another central theme of the Frankenstein story is how the monsters which haunt us are often of our own making. The Creature can very much be seen as parts of Victor’s psyche made manifest, some of which transcend his own capacity for morality while others turn to murder and rape (as implied in the book, as depicted on stage). And again, the Creature as a projection of Victor, a contextless man, also lacks context, he is an embodiment of feelings, sensations and impulses concocted in a laboratory. Whereas in our everyday world we create contextualised monsters all the time, for example, in the way racist white people treat black people, bigoted men treat women, prejudiced able-bodied people treat people with disabilities. Oppression often involves the projection of things we hate or do not understand about ourselves onto others. Yet watching Victor and the Creature clash on stage I felt they were robbed of any ability to offer a more nuanced take on oppression precisely because they lacked context. This relates to the diverse casting of the play with a brilliant Naomie Harris trying to get some mileage out of the brief stage time given to Elizabeth Lavenza before she is graphically killed by the monster. However, just as with the parts played by George Harris and Jared Richard, I would argue the production doesn’t ask us to think about race. The fact a black woman is raped and murdered on stage is less significant than the fact that Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s fiancé, is raped and murdered on stage because it’s his story after all (even though we’re never asked to explore much of who he really is).

Despite oppression, sexism and ableism being key themes of the story, the play fails to adequately explore them because it never really bothers to explore the contexts and privileges of the protagonists. In Victor we could see the embodiment of white, able-bodied, male, privilege writ large, outsourcing his violent desires to his reviled white, male Creature constantly facing violence for being “ugly” and “different”, but instead we just see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller duking it out on stage. Frankenstein is an amazing novel which had much to say in 1818 and still has much to say today but Frankenstein, Danny Boyle’s production, while repeating many of the original messages didn’t say much more for 2011/20. Perhaps what the play inadvertently reminds us is that within supposed ‘universal’ stories lies an awful lot of unspoken privilege and injustice.

Homophobia In Twelfth Night At The National Theatre

Twelfth Night, it’s a Shakespeare rom-com classic: twins, ribaldry, much confusion and a bunch of marriages. The National Theatre very kindly shared their brilliant live version online, which I watched again last night. For the second time I was blown away by Tamsin Grieg’s show stopping performance as not Malvolio – the uptight steward – but Malvolia, the female version, who is tricked via a forged letter into believing that her mistress, Countess Olivia, loves her. Malvolia is over the moon, she even starts dancing in a fountain. “I thank my stars,” she shouts grimly, trying to smile, “I am happy.” She’s quick to don yellow, cross-gartered stockings (all things the Countess hates) and it’s not long before Olivia has her locked away only to be further bullied by her tormentors. Thus, thanks to the NT’s gender switch it transpires that the fate of a woman who loves another woman is…torture. Damn.

As Tamsin Grieg said in a recent interview, “I was very nervous of making Malvolio a woman and therefore a lesbian, considering what happens to the character in the play, which is monstrous.” And it’s true. For all Malvolia’s arrogance and her nastiness towards some of the other characters, her fate is one of torture at the hands of a bunch of sadistic homophobes. Grieg also said that, “Malvolia is a deeply wounded human being who becomes OCD and bullies the other people in the household in order to cope.” So we’re also seeing violence towards someone with a mental health condition. It’s no surprise that the play ends with a distraught Malvolia crying bitter tears in the rain swearing revenge on those who have bullied her, while most of the other characters are busily getting married. Damn.

As for the marriages, they need some explaining. Remember the twins – Viola and Sebastian. They were separated in a shipwreck, both thinking the other dead. Viola disguises herself as a man called Cesario and starts working for Duke Orsino who gets her to woe the love of his life Countess Olivia. Trouble is Olivia falls for Cesario/Viola while Viola/Cesario falls for Orsino, who keeps finding himself oddly attracted to Cesario/Viola. And then Sebastian turns up at the end and all manner of confusion/hilarity ensues. Olivia quickly marries Sebastian thinking he’s Cesario while Duke Orsino is over the moon to discover that Cesario is actually a woman, Viola, who he promptly marries. Even Sir Toby Belch and Maria get married (two of the characters instrumental in Malvolia’s torture). As for Antonio the friendly pirate who rescued and fell in love with Sebastian (they even share an early onstage kiss)…he’s left to watch Sebastian get married to Olivia. So it’s happy ends all round for the heterosexuals (who didn’t turn out to be queer after all, phew), while the people who openly love people of the same gender end up bullied and alone. Damn.

So I was left wondering if this was an appropriative queering of a classic by a group of well-meaning (but perhaps slightly ignorant) creative types or if it was a searing indictment of the ridiculousness that is heteronormativity and its associated rituals – I mean, Sebastian marries Olivia within five minutes of meeting her, which is incredibly problematic given she can’t consent to marry Sebastian because she thinks she’s marrying Cesario; Orsino is so utterly repressed he can’t let himself fall in love with a man, inappropriately persuing Olivia instead who has already made her disinterest clear. And there’s the brief scene at The Elephant, a queer-ish bar, with a drag performer who ends up getting punched by Sebastian, along with a number of the other patrons (a needless bit of queer bashing methinks). Not forgetting the queerphobic abuse that poor Malvolia suffers and it’s almost as if the moral of this production is that it’s shit being queer.

File:Johann Heinrich Ramberg - Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from "Twelfth Night," Act III, Scene iv - Google Art Project.jpg
Check out those yellow, cross-gartered stockings! By Johann Heinrich Ramberg

What A Complete Bastardography

“Gay, precocious and mentally unstable from an early age.” That’s how Simon Jay is described on the back of his memoir, Bastardography, and it’s also an apt description of his one-man show of the same name on at Theatre N16 in Balham. Jay hand picks a selection of experiences from his youth whether it’s a fellow kid turning a DIY flamethrower (Lynx can + lighter) on him for being gay or his obsession with the film Psycho and not forgetting his many dalliances with psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses as he skirts Borderline Personality Disorder. The result is a revealing romp through recent history with one of the funniest guides.

Jay isn’t even 30 and this isn’t his first show – his unique take on America’s latest dictator  president, Trumpageddon, sold out at the Fringe before hitting London, he’s put on a musical about a girl with a robot arm and he even collaborated with me on a series of monologues called Universally Speaking (they were particularly good) – but what’s most impressive about the guy isn’t his talent in directing, acting or writing, no, it’s his resilience. That the world threw so much shit at Jay and he turned it into this really rather fabulous production is testimony to his strength. He cracks many a joke, disregards the fourth wall, points out his penis collage, attempts to circle the stage in heels, is candid with his experiences and does all this to a soundtrack of Pocahontas, Glenn Miller and film quotes. Tickets here!

Margaret Thatcher spoke at the start of the play and her words stuck with me. It was her famous speech of 1987 in which she bemoaned the fact that “children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay” and subsequently “cheated of a sound start in life.” The next year she introduced a number of anti-gay laws including Section 28, that forbade any school from teaching that homosexual relationships are ‘acceptable’. Jay was born in 1987 and I was born in 1988. The law was eventually repealed in 2003, when I was fifteen. I wonder what it might have been like to grow up in a world where I had role models and cultural narratives to turn to and I imagine Jay wonders the same thing. Perhaps if things had been different we wouldn’t have been cheated of a sound start in life. So kudos to Jay for turning a legacy of hate into a queer, creative, mental health odyssey that, whilst very dark at times, always shines with love.

Angels In America Is So Gay

Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes is an epic play. It’s epic in length: together Parts 1 and 2 come to some eight hours of stage time. It’s epic in theme: it combines the AIDS crisis with Reaganite politics with tales of migration with unrest in heaven. It’s epic in presentation: angels descend from the skies, burning books rise through the floors and ghosts prance about on stage. It’s so epic in fact that I think it counts as a modern-day myth – it hones in so painfully close on the intimate details of the characters’ unhappy lives that we end up passing through their blood cells only to see stars. Not to mention its exploration of the history of the Jewish people in America, the impacts of the religion of neoliberal capitalism a la Reagan and the pain of being homosexual in a straight man’s world. Not forgetting the ghosts, heavenly hosts and valium-induced trips to Antarctica either! That really is epic.

I saw Part 1 at London’s National Theatre last night. It comes in three sections (we had two intervals!) and I’d say the first third is pretty tepid as the odd set of giant Lego-like structures jars with the up-close introduction to the protagonists. The second third gets a little warmer as the actors get into role (and I stopped comparing it with the epic HBO series which had Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson, tough to beat), even if they did rely a little too much on shouting at other. It’s the third third that blew me away as the seams of reality start to unravel, the Lego bricks get pushed backstage and the sh*t hits the fan. This is when the epic got epic.

Set in 1985 and written in 1993 Angels In America is, in many ways, a period piece but one that still resonates today. It explores the early years of a politico-economic order that we have inherited and isn’t doing well. As one character tells us towards the end of Part 1, “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium Approaches.” So we’re living on the other side of Millennium and very much plunging into the crack, and not the sort of crack you might plunge into on a night stroll through Central Park. Whilst some of the characters appear to be cliché, for example, Belize the sassy, black drag queen (who only gets to steal one scene in Part 1 but will come back with a vengeance in Part 2), I think kudos is due to playwright Tony Kushner for inventing these clichés before they were clichés. However, I think both these concerns are reminders that we need more gay fantasias, lots more. Queer ones too and lesbian and trans and asexual and intersex and as multi-coloured as possible. We also need plays to remind us that today many people live with HIV and live very happily. Of course, many do not and the medication is still not widely available and there is just far too much stigma, as Angels aptly demonstrates. And that’s the thing about myths, while they are embedded in a certain time and place, say, Ancient Rome, a galaxy far, far away or 1980s New York, and focus on certain people’s lives they have the ability to transcend all this and echo throughout the ages. They appear universal because they tap deep into the human condition, a condition that might regularly change its clothes but still beats the same, dark blood. We might learn our lessons one day but in the mean time we can dance with those angels in America (bring on Part 2).

Meaningless Millenials: Clique & Search Party

Life can seem quite meaningless for millennials these days as we’re forced to jump through the increasingly outdated hoops of school all for the sake of one day getting an adult job. However, much debt later and those dream jobs tend to be unpaid internships or going the way of automisation. Meanwhile, Trump, Brexit, climate change etc etc…what do we do!? It’s no surprise then that this nihilistic turn ends up influencing popular culture. Two examples include recent mystery based dramas with Gen Y protagonists, Search Party (TBS) and Clique (BBC). For the former think Nancy Drew meets mid-twenties millennial malaise with a side of Gone Girl and the latter is a less funny Mean Girls meets The Secret History with Scottish accents. Both have meaninglessness at their hearts but for two very different reasons. Oh, and head’s up, there will be spoilers.

Search Party tells the story of Dory, not the forgetful fish, but a 20s something woman living in New York who lacks direction and purpose in life. Naturally, she goes looking for this by going looking for Chantal – an old college acquaintance who is now a missing person. Cue hunting for clues, curious suspects, intriguing red herrings and a whole cast of amazing characters – from her endlessly self-absorbed rich friends to a cult-load of ‘wellness-seeking’ weirdos. Dory’s 21st century world is exceptionally bleak but also very, very funny. Clique takes itself a little more seriously as young students and lifelong friends, Holly and Georgie, fall out over getting in with the in-crowd: four conventionally beautiful young women who have looks and banking internships to die for (literally in the case of one of them who kills herself in episode one). The characters here are familiar clichés: the charismatic lecturer who lures the impressionable young women in with her force of character (and questionable brand of feminism) and the attractive people who do glamorous things (e.g. take drugs, jump into swimming pools with their clothes on, have chauffeurs etc) but aren’t actually that interesting. However, what’s great about Clique is that it’s going all out to fail the Mechdel test – the male equivalent of the Bechdel test – as the guys are left to be annoying, peripheral characters and the occasional bare butt shot.

So both shows are full of selfish and sometimes vacuous characters, however, I’d say Search Party is knowingly presenting them as such in order to skewer them in parody. It takes a mirror to Gen Y’s obsession with selfies, celebrity and self-promotion, and reminds us that it’s all paper-thin (whilst also mistressfully weaving this trope into the denouement). Meanwhile, I feel Clique is being a little more earnest in its vacuity and trying to convince us that, like Holly and Georgie, we really should want to join the clique of coke-snorting, unpaid yet highly attractive interns who don’t say much of interest and are forced to work for/with complete chauvinists. But that’s the thing with cliques – cool from a distance but kinda disappointing once you’re inside. Although I’m not convinced Holly is all that convinced of the clique either so, with three episodes to go, there’s still plenty of time for biting, poignant cultural critique a la Search Party.

Interestingly, one thing lacking in both these tales of millennial woe are significant adult figures. Search Party has the odd wellness guru and disinterested, rich parent, whilst Clique has got the over-zealous lecturer and her weird brother but I feel both series are missing a trick because without adults who can the Gen Yers blame for all our problems? Let’s face it without the baby boomers we millennials wouldn’t be here. Without their inventions, businesses, advertising agencies and super-charged model of consumer capitalism where on earth would we go to struggle to find meaning and purpose? I mean if they’d invested in sustainable energy, steady-state economic models and put community before profit then Dory and Holly probably would have already found themselves and wouldn’t need to go on dangerous mystery adventures. Likewise, their friends would probably spend more time looking out for one another and not wasting so much time setting up faux-charitable initiatives to boost their fragile self-esteems or chasing the next high-functioning sociopath with a six-pack. And nor would everyone be stone broke and forced to pay too much rent because we’d have caps on renting or, who knows, maybe all housing would be social housing. And freaky wellness cults run by overly charismatic yet dubious people who wear too much expensive jewellery wouldn’t need to be invented because we’d all probably be quite happy sharing stuff and looking out for one another. Who’d need an exclusive clique when we’d all have community. Anyways, just a thought. Now quick, back to Instagram!

Fantastic Fascists And Where To Find Them

Yup, finally got round to watching the new Harry Potter film and, boy, does that franchise keep shamelessly chundering on. At least it was sufficiently entertaining and now for some spoilers. Ok, so the plot’s simple: Eddy Redmayne does his trademark stuttering and blinking thing whilst travelling to New York with a bunch of magic creatures in a suitcase. Turns out New Yorkers aren’t very keen on magicians so the magic crew all live in secret and there’s a bunch of outspoken religious loons who preach against witches. There’s also this weird black hurricane mist thing that’s going around terrorising US citizens and trashing buildings. Everyone thinks it’s one of Redmayne’s magic beasts because he spends most of the film letting them escape and having to find them (seriously, buy a new fucking suitcase with a padlock). However, it’s actually an Obscurus. A what? That’s right, it’s the new magic plot device and it turns out that if a kid is forced to suppress their magic, perhaps because their Mom is a quasi-Mormon, witch-hating loon, then all the pent-up magic becomes a ball of dark energy. Fyi, big spoiler ahead. Whilst we spend most of the film thinking the Obscurus is a little girl it actually turns out to be a teenage guy with a bowl haircut. Now for the analogy with fascism.

The young guy and his pent-up aggression are a metaphor for the rise of the alt right, aka fascists. It’s the slow build up of tension as those who’ve ridden off the back of a certain amount of privilege – namely being white and male – are made to feel increasingly angry for the things they don’t have – like lots of money and jobs – and are encouraged to direct that anger at convenient scapegoats – for example, women, people of colour, Muslims, LGBT folk or Muggles. And they are manipulated by those similar to them in appearance, namely white and male (in the case of the film it’s Colin Farrell), but who actually have far more power (Farrell turns out to be Grindelwald, an evil uber-wizard, not to mention the odd homosexual undertone between Grindelwald and the teenage guy because aren’t all older gay men just manipulative perverted villains, cheers JK). Then before you know it all that rage explodes and the young guy’s off on a killer rampage around NY blowing things up. None of this is new though, the fascists have been around for a long time, unleashing violence and hate at whim, and both Brexit and Trump have just emboldened them (curiously both Trump and Grindelwald have bottle dye blond hair).

Apparently Rowling has planned four more Fantastic Beasts films and I guess we’ll just have to watch as magical movies start to reflect real life a little too closely as the alt right fascists (seriously, “alternative” right, there’s nothing alternative about being an utter twat) continue their rise to power, playing on those age-old prejudices that just will not go away. Of course, we could learn our lessons and realise that capitalism is inherently exploitative and unsustainable and rigged in the favour of an elite few. Perhaps all that suppressed rage could be channelled into building a new system because when this one comes crumbling down, as it’s already doing, there won’t be wizards at the end to wave a magic wand and fix all the damage. No, many of us will be dead, beaten up or bereaved and another Fantastic Beasts movie won’t make any fucking difference. Also, it’s 2016 – why are we still watching four white, straight, cisgendered leads steal the show? Come on JK! Other than that I quite enjoyed it.

Why I Love/Hate Black Mirror

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life. These include pessimist, joyful cynic, misanthrope and just the other week, faggot. And sure, if you read some of these blog posts you’ll see I have a pretty critical view of the world. I’m not overwhelmed by the capabilities of world leaders, I’m not hugely inspired by consumer capitalism’s track record and I hate war. But despite this I still like to believe that on the best of days I’m an optimist. I believe that all the answers we need we already have, some of them might be technologies (including ancient ones) but most of them are in us, especially in our hearts. I think the human being has a profound capacity for boundless love, altruism and kindness, and I just wished we lived in a world that made those things easy. Unfortunately, we don’t and this is where Black Mirror comes in and why I love to hate it and hate to love it.

A quick, spoilerful recap of the new series, which I just binge watched. There’s Hated In The Nation, a futuristic cop drama about a bunch of robo bees subtly representing the ‘stinging bees’ of the twittersphere and killing a bunch of people. Loved this one and it had all the hackneyed tropes of police procedurals – cynical, tech-illiterate older cop works with young, tech-savvy cop etc. It also has a really nasty journo who thrives off her online abuse but she’s only around for a couple of minutes. San Junipero was also ace, basically about humans’ inability to just die instead resigning themselves to a seemingly paradisiacal purgatory of endless themed discos or terrible kink clubs (I think I’ll just die, thanks). Men Against Fire had lots of soldiers, shooting and a big metaphor about the dehumanisation of the enemy, i.e. migrants, refugees, people from other countries. Playtest was kinda Inception meets shoddy horror movies and a dig at selfish, gap yah millennials who never call their parents. Shut Up And Dance, a grim take on shame-based blackmail that cashes in on a he’s-a-paedophile-twist.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these were all exceptionally well written, well acted and not necessarily subtle pieces of TV drama, I just get a bit annoyed that Charlie Brooker gets loads of acclaim for glibly documenting how terrible the world is. Isn’t there enough cynical and depressing media out there without a whole series of Black Mirror reminding us how venal and brutal we all are? I mean, anyone for a little hope on television? And that’s why my favourite episode was Nosedive. Not only did it establish that I have a hidden love for Bryce Dallas Howard that I did not know about (maybe because I loved The Village all those years ago) but I just thought it was spot on because in and amongst all the jabs at how selfish and self-absorbed the facebook millenials are there was also redemption. After Howard’s character, Lacie, loses all her popularity and ‘disgraces’ herself at her friend’s wedding she hits rock bottom. Her life nosedives and she ends up unpopular, lonelier than ever and in prison. But it’s there she learns how to let go as she starts a game of insult tennis with the guy in the opposite cell. Wouldn’t we all just love to yell ‘fuck you’ at a world so full of needless insecurities and anxiety-inducing social media? That’s when the episode ends and wonderfully that’s when it seems Lacie’s story begins because she’s thrown off the shackles of pretending everything’s fine and trying to constantly impress others and is learning how to be herself.

And I’ve certainly nosedived before: when I appeared to have lost so much of what I valued only to discover that what I valued was a whole load of bullshit. And even though it seemed like I’d lost everything it turned out that I hadn’t because I had to learn (the hard way) how to appreciate what really was of value in my life. I didn’t always get it right but I did try to learn from my mistakes. And I still have regular mini nosedives, never quite as bad as the ones before, but most of the time I know I can get through them and the low mood or period of difficulty will pass. If I’ve done it before I reckon I can do it again. And maybe little, self-contained nosedives can be useful for really reminding us what’s important. Nothing too big or too scary but a gentle wake up call to tell us to quit focusing on all the bad stuff, start recognising the good stuff and get back to fighting the patriarchy. Or maybe not and this is just me rambling. Either way, do watch Black Mirror. At times it’s violent and just cashes in on shock and at other times it’s joyfully cynical and just downright pessimistic but sometimes it has real heart.