Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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Sadiq Khan: the new Mayor of London, a self-identified feminist and lover of chocolate HobNobs (aka my kind of guy)

  1. Didn’t do one of these last week because I just hadn’t written enough about books to justify yet another . So this is a two-week catch-up.
  2. The Paris Review interviews with famous authors are all online and free to read. I had no idea. I thought you had to buy the four big fat volumes of them. I might do that anyway, but for now, holy shit, it’s the Grail.
  3. The BBC and Netflix are collaborating to re-produce Watership Down as a four-part series starring John Boyega and James McAvoy. I don’t know how to feel about this. I’m feeling all the feelings.
  4. Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Which…just…I mean, there’s nothing left to say about this, really. Although the ever-illuminating Samantha Field’s analysis of Trump from a progressive Christian point of view gave a name to many of the horrors of his candidacy.
  5. Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London: the first Muslim mayor the city’s ever had, and nice to see Labour back in City Hall after eight years of Conservative buffoonery in the form of Boris Johnson. I voted for him (Khan, I mean.) I wasn’t used to voting on paper—I’ve only ever voted postally in this country, and my memories of accompanying my dad to the American polling station as a kid involved those shonky-looking electronic voting booths. It was kind of amazing to literally put a pencil mark on a piece of paper and stick that paper in a box. It made me feel closer to the democractic process, somehow.
  6. Brown eyeliner. Is a thing. That I actually rather like. It’s a softer look than my usual aggressive line of black, and has the added advantage of not rubbing off on the Chaos’s face/shirt/forehead (although that may just be because it’s a better brand.)
  7. Last week was basically pretty shit. A family member died, I felt like a disappointment at work, and I barely got any writing done. The only thing that was okay was that the weather was so beautiful, I went to Parliament Hill Fields for lunch every day.
  8. We went out to dinner in Great Portland Street with some old college friends on Friday. The restaurant was lovely, the tasting menu was delicious, everything was going well, until loud angry shouting noises began emanating from the kitchens. They were repetitive, and seemed to be relating to the fact that a delivery driver was demanding cash payment immediately, without the approval of a manager. After about two minutes of this (and the restaurant was so small that literally everyone could hear it), Lydia, who is a police officer, stood up and—in her glittery night-out top, holding her warrant card—wordlessly walked into the kitchens. It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. She came back five minutes later and, when questioned, said only, “I told him to shut up and go away unless he wanted to be charged with a public order offense.” Our friend Adam asked, with disappointment, why she hadn’t arrested him, to which she replied, “On a night out? Think of the paperwork!”
  9. Last weekend, the Chaos was going to be in Cambridge on Saturday. Given the bad week, I was really worried I’d spend the whole day in bed, eating cookies. So I made a plan—and then it was gloriously upended by my cousin Sarah, who is a tour guide at the National Theatre. She put out a Facebook plea for people to turn up on Saturday so that she could do an Architecture Tour, which is partly outside (it was gorgeous weather). In the event, I was the only person there, so I got a private tour, which was great: I learned loads about the building (including the rationale behind its ugly design), and we went into the tech workshops, where she showed me a half-finished set and loads of props, most of them horrible and gory (severed heads, bloody leg bones). I also saw one of the horse puppets from War Horse, which is hanging from the ceiling in the backstage area behind the Lyttelton Theatre. It’s just as complex and beautiful a piece of machinery as you’d expect.
  10. Do you guys know Tinyletter? It’s sort of an email subscription service, I think. I subscribe to one called Friday Poem: does what it says on the tin, is often beautiful and always timely. Here’s a different one by Helena Fitzgerald that really rang true with me, on public grief for celebrities as a rehearsal for the real thing.

I am in blood stepp’d in so far…

I went to see the new film of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, with Papa Bear last week. It’s not a play that I feel very personally about (although my brilliant little brother has played Macbeth, and has helped me to understand the text better through his performance). So I had few expectations, apart from hoping to be dazzled and provoked. Both of these things happened, and I’m still trying to figure out how and why I felt as I did about the whole film, so I thought I’d expand my remit a bit to talk about it here.

Negatives first: my major issue with this film was that the language seemed basically secondary. The cool thing about Shakespeare is that you can put all sorts of window dressing on it, as long as you don’t add dialogue, so that films of the plays can be visually amazing, with silent scenes and characters that create resonance or suggest motive. The downside of that is that the language can easily become less and less important, as the stuff you’re being shown sidelines the stuff you’re hearing. Fassbender as Macbeth delivered most of his lines in a sort of mumbling Scottish-tinged monotone, which I actually didn’t mind per se, but in a few places he seemed to have trouble with where the emphases should be. Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth was quite a lot better; she was inexplicable but definitely human (as opposed to a crazed gender-bending monster), which I’ve always considered a more effective approach to her character. She also got a backstory in the form of a silent prologue that showed her and Macbeth burying their baby, which made her line “I know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” a lot easier to understand. The witches also made the monotone thing work; they all looked like terribly sad, average medieval Scottish women, auguries of the kind of pain and suffering that falls, in a war, disproportionately upon people who have nothing to do with the quarrel.

This version also draws out the play’s implications about children. In an excellent echo of Macduff’s wife and children, the witches appeared with two: a silent little girl and then later a baby. When Banquo is killed and his son Fleance runs (in a scene that isn’t staged in the play), it’s the witches’ silent little girl who appears to him and seems to direct him into thin air, where he vanishes.

Poor Lady M.

Fleance comes back in the last scene (a silent one, so also the film director’s interpolation). He takes Macbeth’s sword from the ground outside the city. It’s intercut with shots of Malcolm, now king, standing in his throne room, then starting to walk purposefully towards the doors. Fleance turns and starts walking away; we flit back to Malcolm, who’s moving faster. The next shot we see of Fleance, he’s sped up in response. They both break into a run. The last shot in the movie is Fleance running away from the camera into a blood-colored smoke: a stocky, freckly eight-year-old clutching a huge sword, the sound of his breathing jogging up and down. It ends the film not on the triumphant(-ish) note of the rightful king being crowned, but with the promise of further bloodshed. Even little boys aren’t exempt; it passes the violence down to the next generation, in precisely the same way that Banquo does when he lets Fleance hold his sword (in another scene that isn’t in the play). You can’t know that your children will live by the sword without also knowing that they may die upon it.

In the light of Shakespeare’s other historical plays, particularly Richard II, it’s also interesting for what it says about kingship. There’s no context or background for how Duncan (a cracking David Thewlis, projecting kindliness and weakness) got his crown. Macbeth takes it from him by murdering him, and there’s a bit at his coronation, the anointing, which made me think of Richard’s lines: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off an anointed king.” (Nor the spot from Lady Macbeth’s hand, evidently.) But obviously that’s not true, because even when the supposed balance of nature is restored (with Malcom’s ascension), there’s Fleance to deal with, and the witches have prophesied that he’ll be king someday. I don’t know whether Scottish history proved them right or wrong, or whether this bit has no historical basis at all (knowing Shakespeare, it could be that). Is there even any point, this plot makes us ask, in trying to determine who the “rightful” king is?

Fassbender gettin’ his crazy on

Maybe Macbeth’s crime is not so much that he slew his sovereign as that he slew a guest. When you hosted someone, you were making a promise, not only to not kill them, but to actively protect them. So Lady Macbeth’s furious speech, “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?”, about how he promised her he’d kill Duncan and promise-breakers are the worst, takes on a whole other sort of dramatic irony. In order to keep a private promise to his wife, he’s going to have to break a much more serious, socially binding promise to a man under his protection. It’s for the same reason that the Glencoe Massacre was so infamous: not just that the Campbells killed people, but that they killed people whom they were obligated to protect. They betrayed their trust fully.

For making me think hard about the play and its text and themes, I think the film was worth seeing. It’s curious, though, how much of Shakespeare’s language is simply elided by being able to direct your audience’s attention through a camera shot, or to force a comparison or parallel through colour or lighting. I’ve seen films of Shakespeare that don’t do this so much, and I’ve seen ones that do it a lot; this Macbeth is in the latter camp, and although that doesn’t make it a bad Macbeth, it does make it seem more like a reimagining, and less like an attempt to be faithful to the playtext.