Thursday, 1 October 2015

Speaking In Tongues

The current production of 'Hamlet' at the Barbican looks magnificent.The sets, the costumes, the vision; all are marvellous and the experience of the play offered here is spectacular.

But Hamlet is about language.

I don't mean the actual language of Shakespeare, the iambic dance of the verse, the four century old vocabulary that phases in and out of modern comprehension, the poetic reliance on imagery that is so much more important than the mechanism of the (borrowed) plot.  That's a common factor across all his work, his genius is based on it, and you either want to make the effort to understand it, or you don't. The crib notes, glosses and "translations" (No Fear Shakespeare, anyone?) which litter the internet might drag schoolkids through GCSEs, but ultimately they miss the point.

I mean it's about voices: ancient and modern, mad and sane, rational and mysterious; distinct and various registers of speech which descend on the characters of this passion play like enchantments or translation matrices, forcing them to speak in languages which are alien to their everyday selves: haunting soliloquy, mad scene, death scene.

Unlike some productions (notably Branagh's and Jacobi's) which have concentrated on external action, Lyndsey Turner's production feels firmly rooted within Hamlet's psyche.  His soliloquies take place outside normal spacetime -  Cumberbatch spotlit inside a kind of bubble, splashing around in existential angst while the everyday action of the court goes on in imperceptibly slow motion around him.

As the programme cover with its doppelganger child actors hints before we take our seats, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the prince as a man who doesn't really want to grow up.  In this production we first meet him sitting crosslegged on his bedroom floor, playing old records on a battered gramophone.  His father - the mentor he admires and loves - is dead, and his assassin has married his mother.  All kinds of Oedipal ferment has been unleashed; if Freudian psychology says a boy is meant to pass through a phase of wanting to kill his father and supplant him in his mother's affections, at least metaphorically, then in that sense Uncle Claudius has stolen Hamlet's thunder.

Cumberbatch's Hamlet  reacts to the trauma by regressing into childhood, diving into the nursery dressing-up box, playing with toy soldiers, breaking the rules of adult behaviour. His "antic disposition" is partly a way of  playing with the idea of himself as  a warrior in his father's image, or (in his interaction with the Players)  a Machiavellian strategist; but his rejection of Ophelia - petulant, here, rather than cruel -  plays into the idea of a man-boy who's still too close to his mother to be a husband himself.  His crucial scene with Gertrude at the end of the first half is really the psychological climax of this production of the play; having used the language of disgust to force his mother to look into herself and own up to her own sexual frailty, he also reveals the flaws in his own.

O Hamlet, speak no more!  
Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,  
And there I see such black and grainèd spots  
As will not leave their tinct.

 Angry at himself for revealing so much, he hits out wildly and kills an innocent.  Polonius dies, the walls of the castle fall; the windows shatter, and the stage goes dark. For good or ill, childhood is over.

Attempts at action always end badly for Hamlet. Whenever he tries to be  "a man"; live up to his father's ferocious medieval legacy by adopting the persona of the avenger, he also adopts a suitable dialect:

'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood
And do such bitter business as the bitter day
Would quake to look on. 

It's the sort of thing Macbeth might say. But underneath the would-be warrior lies the manchild who fears not only his own indecision but his own dubious motivation.

Soft, now to my mother.—
O heart, lose not thy nature, let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.
Let me be cruel, not unnatural.

These words are ambiguous when we consider that not only did Nero murder his mother, but was suspected of committing incest with her.

After the first half's explosive finale, the characters are left to thread their way disconsolately over the rubble and broken glass which strews the stage. Hamlet's momentary lack of control has burst the dream open, leaving Denmark to rot in the aftermath.  Here, the production reveals some of its weak points.  Ciaran Hinds makes a low-key Claudius, neither noticeably wicked nor especially contrite.  We wonder how he can have gathered together enough gumption to kill the king and marry his widow. There's no real outrage in his reaction to the Players, no sense of struggle in his chapel confession scene.  His language of confession pays mere lip service to the concept; redemption is simply unavailable. In the second half of the play, his plot against Hamlet feels exactly that; a plot device, empty of emotion.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: 
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

Ophelia wanders amidst the rubble like a refugee, her home in ruins like her mind.  She is literally displaced; her wits, as Hamlet says, are mortal and when Gertrude tells the news of her death we are already inside an extended death rattle for the world as these people have known it.  Duels notwithstanding, Hamlet has no power to stop the process.  Inevitability takes over, Fortinbras's forces advance, the endgame approaches and Elsinore, littered with the bodies of its people, dissolves into the landscape.

It's a spectacle, a feast for the eyes, and Benedict Cumberbatch is extraordinary in it; simultaneously subtle and powerful, nobly commanding and pitiably immature, bringing psychological nuance and dangerous physicality to a role which can sometimes reduced to a kind of  decadent fin de siecle aesthetic or bashed away at like an obstacle to be overcome (Mel Gibson, I'm looking at you here).  The rest of the cast do a workmanlike job at best, though Anastasia Hille as Gertrude brings warmth to an often unsympathetic role and Sian Brooke's Ophelia is moving in her pathos.

But in the end, Cumberbatch outshines the rest of the cast because his Hamlet is far and away the most intelligent interpreter of the play's language, and language is what Shakespeare is all about. It's where the magic lives. That's why when he dies, the rest is silence.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Magic Mirror: Soundgarden's Photofantasm

I've read a lot of books about music in my time, and I've got the groaning bookshelves to prove it. The worst of them are cold-hearted exercises in corporate PR, or pirated knock-offs thrown together to make a quick buck from fans with little regard for quality or originality.

Then there are the best of them: the labours of love written by people whose love for the music in question goes way beyond profit or logic.  Those who believe in it not simply as a product, but as art. Whatever the format, you can tell one of these creations a mile off.  Merri Cyr's glorious photographic love letter to Jeff Buckley, A Wished For Song, is one.   The vivid orange, 320 page "catalogue" which accompanied the V&A's 'David Bowie Is' retrospective is another. 

Photofantasm deserves to be classed with these.

Jaye & Mike English's massive photobook (I weighed it - just shy of 7lb) is special not only because of its quality, but because of its provenance.  No professional writers or official photographers have been hired here to record Soundgarden's comeback for posterity. There are no interviews with the band, no posed studio shots, no corporate branding.  If Soundgarden ever decide to publish a book about their long career, that point is still some way off in the future.  Instead, Photofantasm draws on the most powerful and positive resource any band can have - its fanbase.  This book is by them, and for them. A magic mirror held up to the band by those who love it, reflecting and projecting. In many ways, it's simply a reply.

Ruairdhri with his copy
And what a reply the fans have put together.  Every show on Soundgarden's world tour since they made their reappearance in 2010 has its own section, bursting with reminiscence in words and images.  People tell their stories about the shows; the often epic travels as they follow the tour across continents, the sacrifices made (one fan sold his entire Soundgarden record collection to afford travel and tickets), the precious autographs and glimpses of the band backstage, the cameraderie of the queue for a place on the rail.

Every setlist is included, every local tour poster has been reproduced in full-page colour.  Fans with creative talent of their own - notably artist Photocoyote, American fan Jeff Becker and young Scottish fan Ruairdhri - have created new, specially commissioned original artwork which appears in the book for the first time.

 Even when a few of Soundgarden's fellow travellers have been coaxed into contributing, they do so as fans of the band rather than industry professionals. Everyone from System of a Down's Serj Tankian and Korn's Jonathan Davis to Chris Cornell's own brother Peter is quoted about what the band has meant to them in the development of their own artistry, and there are some engaging behind-the-scenes anecdotes scattered through the text. Journalist Mark Yarm has written a foreword. A few pro photographers have contributed their own shots, although it's testament to the talent of the fans - most notably Jaye and Mike English themselves - that so many concert shots snatched from the crowd compare so well with work done from the photo pit.

But for all the fantastic photos this book contains (take a quick peek here), my favourite visual is actually verbal, from English fan and musician James Morgan, on 2012's open air show in Milan.   What can I say; I'm a writer.

Noting the full moon that had been providing a fitting backdrop for the concert so far, Chris Cornell looked to the sky, pointed, and addressed the crowd: "Look at the moon.  It understands everything about you. It's still trying to figure me out, but it's got you covered."

Vintage Chris. Do I have any criticisms? Well, yes. I wish every one of the 592 pages was clearly numbered, because I wanted to note down all my favourite bits and find them again quickly. But that's nitpicking. And there are worse ways of spending time than flicking idly through pages like these. 

The limited edition book (1000 copies) is beautifully produced in hardback, printed on high quality photo paper in full colour with a sturdy sewn binding.  Basically, it's an heirloom - a beautiful collector's item that's come straight from the grass-roots and has no absolutely no profit motive. Yes, it's been made by amateurs.  But the word 'amateur' means "one who loves" - and only people with a profound love and understanding of their subject could even begin to make a book like this.

Last word: Photofantasm ends with a valediction and a memorial to Tiffany Patterson-Gross - a long-time fan who became Soundgarden's VIP guest at 2013's Seattle show shortly before she lost her battle with cancer. Proceeds from sale of the book go to help cancer charities in her honour. 

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

On The Edge: Alexander McQueen's Savage Beauty

The lenticular image of the face and skull of Alexander McQueen which now hangs on my living room wall is impossible to adequately reproduce on the internet.  Perhaps that's the point; endlessly morphing according to your viewpoint, catching the light, playing with the borderlines between life and death, one thing and another.

That's the feeling I was left with after visiting the V&A's recent exhibition of his work, Savage Beauty.  Unusually, I read every single word of the weighty £25 catalogue I came home with; lingered over every image, savoured every impression of the many contributors who shared their insights into his visionary collections.

McQueen was much more than a fashion designer.  To describe him that way is almost an insult to an artist whose work touched on elements of sculpture, performance, installation and theatre. Like the shifting skull, he moved between meditating on aspects of death and decay and vivid celebration of life; always on the borderlines, playing with the edges of viewpoint and consciousness, showing us how one thing can be two things, how a moment can morph and mutate into another. 

Savage Beauty showed us women becoming birds; clothed in feathers like the swan princesses of ballet, yet unenslaved, beyond good and evil. Women becoming reptiles or horned goddesses; women becoming aliens.  It showed me a world of pure imagination, of self-actualisation where a face might be masked, but a thought could become visually and vividly real.

Although McQueen was criticised by the myopic who found his extremes misogynistic, the models who worked with him felt liberated and empowered by his visions and the personae they explored through wearing them.  As Erin O'Connor recalls, "He deconstructed the idea of what a woman should look like...the roles that I played, whether they  were dark, or mysterious, or triumphant - they were always empowered...and he was the enabler. I think he had a real love of women in that sense."  In his eyes even martyred figures like Joan of Arc became victors, writhing in ecstatic transformation inside a ring of fire, wearing a crimson beaded dress which flowed like blood.

The pleasant-feather gown from 'The Widows of Culloden' collection breathed subversion; a shimmering genius loci which belied the image of the Highlands as an elaborate game reserve for the wealthy. It is eternal, unsubmissive, a goddess gowned in the substance of flight, crowned with a [literally] winged victory headdress. Although less controversial than his earlier 'Highland Rape' collection, which expressed a visceral disgust at the atrocities of the Clearances, there was still an underlying anger - a sense of continuing resistance to what colonial Scotland had become, "marketed the world over as haggis and bagpipes", as McQueen said.

The sense of a talismanic power beneath the surface, of change waiting to happen, was central to his work. Antlers might sprout from a bride's head, tearing the antique lace of her virginal veil. Human hair was sewn inside the linings of his earliest collections. Worms were pressed like flowers inside a transparent bodice, prefiguring death and decay to come.

In one memorable moment during the disturbing and surreal 'Voss' show, model Erin O'Connor ripped at her gown of razor clam shells, bloodying her hands as she destroyed a dress which had been itself inspired by the transience of landscape.  The models' bandaged heads suggested surgery - to "change the way you are, as McQueen hinted.

Fascinated by water and the sea, for his final collection 'Plato's Atlantis' McQueen  dreamed up hybrid beings made of scales and fins, as though humans were evolving to adapt to a post-apocalyptic waterworld of the imagination.  Far from hobbling his models, the infamous "Armadillo" boots with their massive heels and platforms elongated their legs and made them into towering but graceful alien forms, crowned with intricately braided or lobed hairstyles.

For me, the garments the models wore in this final creation were almost overshadowed by the overarching dream of  transfiguration; a brave new world that had such people in it.

In a society where "extremist" has become a bad word, Savage Beauty showed a whole world of extremes; of edges and borderlines dreamed by a man who was always pulling away from the here and now. On the wall in the exhibitions's final room were McQueen's own resonant words:

'There is no way back for me. I'm going to take you on journeys you've never dreamed were possible.'  

Monday, 18 May 2015

So This Is Permanence

Saw an article today which told me it was 35 years since the death of Ian Curtis.

I was 22 back then. Just leaving university with an English degree and preparing for a set of false starts in respectable graduate jobs that would reject me...and I them. Civil servant. Teacher. The usual. 

I'd never been to Manchester.  Never seen anything much, really. I had no idea what sort of life Joy Division lived or how they had come by the marvellous sound that they made.  I'd spent my student years in the late 70s rejecting punk for what I saw as its ugliness, its refusal to embrace complexity and nuance and subtlety - all the things I'd learned to love about art.

Joy Division taught me that music could be stark, and still be beautiful. That cruel darkness and despair could be uplifting, that nuance could float in and out of the most brutal of noise. When Curtis performed, he looked like someone struggling to contain an unsustainable power too huge, too lethal for him to stand. It wasn't just the wild dancing - half seizure, half ritual - it was the look of terror that sometimes passed across his face, as though he were in awe of what he was expected to contain.

After he died, I almost wore out their two albums. That sublime death-poetry rang in my head for years. I could never hear very much in New Order, no matter how hard they tried or how popular they got.  Something had Curtis by the throat, and it never again troubled the rump of a band he left behind.