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Heaven Blogs #1: The Origin Story

I’ve picked up a lot of new followers recently, which I imagine has something to do with the EdFringe entry for Heaven Burns going live… which probably means it’s about time I wrote something about the show!

 

The short introduction to Heaven Burns is this: I’ve been fascinated by the Scottish witch hunts since my teens, so when I started writing plays it was only a matter of time before I wrote one on the subject. That play was Heaven Burns, which I wrote in 2015. There was a rehearsed reading at Previously… Scotland’s History Festival that year, followed by two years of looking for a home for the script. After a lot of rejections I was on the point of shelving it, but then the Assembly Roxy Theatre Award came up and I decided to give it one last shot… and I won! Heaven Burns will run for three weeks at Assembly Roxy during #edfringe2018.

 

As we get into workshops and rehearsals I’ll be sharing bits of the preparation process here. Until then my plan is to talk a bit about where the play comes from and the process of creating it, starting today with the very earliest point in its journey – my interest in all things witch-related.

 

I can’t pin down the origin of my interest with any certainty. I was a spooky child and anything with a supernatural element was right up my street. From Babette Cole’s The Trouble with Mum and Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch to Bewitched and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, if there was a witch involved, I was sold. The concept of magic made sense to me, possibly because I experienced a lot of powerful hallucinations in childhood and the possibility of growing up to command an army of museum exhibits didn’t seem like a stretch.

 

As I grew up it became increasingly clear that the world didn’t work the way I thought it had. Like all 90s teenagers I dabbled with the kind of magic that has to be spelled with extra letters, but all it did was bring me to the realisation that things like Wicca aren’t for me. I was looking for something that doesn’t appear to be available within reality. Not to mention that styling yourself a witch was just so bloody popular in the late 90s, and I was an angsty pretentious teenager who wanted nothing to do with things that were popular, so I had to find a way of satisfying my interest while still feeling different.

 

God, being in my teens was exhausting…

 

The answer, I decided, was to look to history. By this point I’d started working as a ghost tour guide, because if you work in the arts in Edinburgh it’s pretty much mandatory that you do your time telling scary stories to tourists. I’d developed a bit of an obsession with the bubonic plague, particularly the epidemic during the 17th century, and had started reading more widely about the period in order to flesh out my mental picture of the society it affected. That led me on to reading more about the witch panics, which fuelled my interest in learning much more about them than we covered on the tours.

 

At this point, being a young and undisciplined reader, my ability to evaluate sources was limited. It took me a while to get the hang of reading critically, but as I got better at it I began to realise how little I understood. Next thing I knew I was down the research rabbit hole, trying to wrap my head around the complex factors that contributed to the witch hunts – Scotland’s shift to Calvinism, folk belief and its overlaps with Catholicism, James VI and all his emotional baggage and subsequent paranoia, the ravages of the plague, family dynamics… even the weather causing crop failure and lost fishing boats. The more I read, the more interested I became in what it must have been like to live one’s everyday life in that society, and that’s what started finding its way into my plays.

 

My first Fringe play, Creepie Stool, contained a sneaky reference to the North Berwick witches. Old Bones, which opens in Prague later this month, engages more explicitly with the events leading up to the North Berwick trials – I’ll be writing a separate post about that in a few weeks. Heaven Burns, the first of my plays to focus solely on the witch hunts, is set a bit later and deals with the brief heyday of the witchprickers, and particularly with one named John Dixon, who turned out to be a disguised woman named Christian Caddell.

 

Spoilers for the play? Not really. Between the blurb and the opening scene, those of you who see it won’t be in any doubt as to the situation. I first heard Christian Caddell’s story from Susan Morrison of Previously… Scotland’s History Festival. She had encountered this little-known figure, unearthed by Dr Louise Yeoman while working on a BBC Scotland documentary, and thought it was such a powerful story that she actually had it printed on the back of her business cards. I’ve still got that card somewhere, and it’s to Susan that I owe the initial spark of the idea for the play.

 

As I searched for what little information there is on Christian, I noticed that she was operating in Morayshire at around the same time as Isobel Gowdie, whose story I had learned in my earlier studies. Isobel is a very unusual case, since she presented herself to the parish authorities and freely accused herself of witchcraft, apparently without being under any kind of duress. She confessed at length and in great detail, telling about her coven’s activities and contradicting prevailing opinions about the Devil’s proficiency as a lover. Her eventual fate is lost to history, but the records of her confessions remain. Christian Caddell, or rather John Dixon, doesn’t seem to have been involved with her trial – but John Innes of Spynie, who hired the disguised Christian to prick witches near Elgin in 1661, was the Notary Public who recorded Isobel’s confession, so they at least have some common acquaintance.

 

This was enough to set my imagination to work. Did the two women ever meet? What would have happened if they had? What kind of fervour spurred Christian on to hunt witches? What makes someone accuse herself of witchcraft when it carries the death penalty?

 

I don’t claim that the play answers these questions, but it does explore one possibility – and I’ll be talking more about how I chose to treat the historical subject matter and how I see its contemporary relevance in future posts. For the moment, I’ll leave things here and not risk turning this into the mega-post where I attempt to explain every thought I’ve ever had relating to Heaven Burns. If you’ve got any questions that you’d like me to answer in future posts, comment away and let me know!

 

And get your tickets for the show, I’d love to see you there. Cast announcement coming soon!


The Nastyversary

A year ago yesterday I received a book in the post. This book:

Nasty Women author copy

My contributor copy of 404 Ink‘s Nasty Women. The look on my face is somewhere between pride, joy and sheer bloody terror based on the growing realisation that this book was something much bigger than I’d anticipated.

I’d first heard about 404 Ink through my husband, Mark Bolsover, who had spotted them on Twitter and foretold their greatness/retweeted them a lot. As the deadline for submissions for the first issue of their lit mag approached, Mark kept nudging me to send something in. I kept putting it off because the only thing I had to send was a monologue and I doubted they’d want it. Then, half an hour before submissions closed, 404 tweeted a gif from one of my favourite songs.

Muse gif

I don’t think it was that actual gif, but it was close enough. It made me smile – 404 Ink has the best damn gif game out there – so I thought “fuck it, why not” and fired over the monologue. It was selected for the lit mag (which surprised me) along with a piece of Mark’s work (which didn’t surprise me at all), so for the first time we were published together.

We went along to the launch, which turned out to be one of the most useful events I’ve ever been to. It was our introduction to Interrobang, Chris McQueer, and most importantly of all to Heather McDaid and Laura Jones themselves, the powerhouse women behind 404 Ink.

At that point I knew they were doing an anthology called Nasty Women and I was aware that the call for pitches was due to close shortly. Again, I’d been ignoring it – not because I didn’t feel I had anything to say, but because the one thing I really wanted to write about was so damn personal that I didn’t really want to write the pitch. That changed when I actually met Heather and Laura in person and decided that I liked them and thought they seemed sound. Again, I thought “fuck it” and proposed a piece about my experiences with hormonal contraception and the toll it took on my body.  Again, they accepted something I’d felt sure they’d reject.

Writing the piece should have been a more nerve-wracking experience than it was, but given the speed with which the anthology was pulled together, there simply wasn’t time to get spooked. The piece was written, sent in and ready before I had much of a chance to think about it. Besides, it was an anthology by a new publishing company being funded via Kickstarter – not much chance that anyone beyond a fairly niche crowd would actually read it, right?

How very, very wrong I was.

The crowdfunding campaign spent its first couple of days bouncing along at a nice rate, which I attributed to a combination of Heather and Laura being savvy about it and to the large number of contributors who were sharing the link. Then Margaret Atwood backed it and tweeted about it and suddenly everything went absolutely bonkers. The project was 100% funded. Then 200%. Then 369% (iirc). There was extra money (always appreciated). There was publicity.

…there was a sudden certainty that people were actually going to read my essay.

And they did. I have no idea how many copies of Nasty Women have been sold over the past year. What I do know is that friends have sent me photos of it in bookshops in different parts of the UK, that it was the best-selling book at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, and that Audible turned it into an audiobook. I know that copies have been ordered by people all over the world.

Which means that there are now a lot of people out there who possess in-depth knowledge of the state of my uterus and more about my sexual history than my mum would have been happy with. I mentally apologise to my mum on a regular basis for my need to share my life with strangers – but I think she’d be happy about the results of my oversharing if she’d lived to see them. I don’t just mean things like Book Festival bestseller status, but the responses I’ve had from other women.

I had always assumed that the extent of my troubles with contraception was unusual before writing that essay. Nobody seemed to talk much about it, and the doctors I saw acted as if I was a statistical outlier. But after Nasty Women came out, several women left reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and their blogs saying that they’d had similar experiences. At the Glasgow launch I found myself having intense, hasty conversations at the signing table with women who wanted to tell me that they’d been through it too. It’s been the same at every Nasty Women event I’ve been involved in since. Older women talk to me about the early days of the Pill and the things they went through. Women my age and younger open up to me because they know that I know. I’ve had medical staff tell me that the essay gave them a new perspective on the patient’s experience. I get emails and Twitter messages from strangers telling me that because of my essay they’ve requested bone density scans, adjusted their calcium intake, rethought their contraception.  One even sent me pictures of the passages she’d highlighted and shown to her GP in order to get a gynaecology referral to discuss sterilisation.

Even though it feels strange to have given strangers such intimate information about me, it makes me incredibly happy to have those moments with readers. It’s often quite emotional, because they’re often talking about it for the first time or I’m the first person they’ve spoken to knowing for certain that there’s a shared experience between us. That’s a big thing to be trusted with. Which is why, for all it has felt exposing and raw, I know that writing that piece was the right thing to do and I’m glad I didn’t have time to talk myself out of it.

My essay isn’t the only one that provoked this kind of response, of course. Skim through the reviews on Goodreads or Amazon and you’ll see lots of readers name-checking the writers whose pieces really spoke to them. I’ve seen my fellow Nasties’ work recommended in threads on social media discussions about the issues they explored. I’ve heard them talk about the readers who have engaged with them, who’ve reached out to share their own stories in return.

In addition to bringing us into contact with the readers, the Nasty Women anthology brought us into contact with each other. I didn’t realise, this time last year, how much of a bond I would feel with my fellow contributors. Ren Aldridge described it as feeling like she’d joined a coven, and I’d agree with that. We haven’t all met in real life, but that doesn’t matter – even the Nasties that I’ve never met are special to me, and it makes me happy when good things happen to them.

Most of all, I feel incredibly happy when good things happen to 404 Ink. Laura and Heather have gone from strength to strength, won one award after another, and continued to be genuinely lovely human beings who do their work with principles and respect for their writers (and they have the best office dog ever). I’m very glad to have them in my life, on my CV and on my bookshelves.

The moral of this story: Writers, find publishers who tweet gifs from your favourite songs and send things to them.


Rejections Suck

Today (well, yesterday, but it was today at the time of writing) has been a rotten day. Two days ago I got a rejection for a thing I really, really wanted. I got shortlisted, which was nice, but still rejected. Then yesterday I got a rejection that I’d kind of expected but got angry about the way it was handled. Then today I got three rejections, including one that I’d had high hopes for. It’s been a pretty galling time, and it’s probably not over – I’m due to hear back on three more things within the next two days. One of them I’m expecting to be rejected for. One I’m expecting but desperately hoping I’m wrong. And one is something I’m on the shortlist for when I didn’t expect to be, so I have no idea what to think. I’m bracing myself for a rough weekend.

 

Normally I find rejections a lot easier to handle. They’re usually spaced out. Some of them hurt, because when you’ve put a lot of work into an application and fallen in love with the project you pitched it’s always galling when the answer’s no… but individual stab wounds to the heart and ego are manageable, and there’s usually a sprinkling of acceptances to soothe the stings. When they’re bunched together like this, though, it feels relentless.

 

The thing is, I know all the reasons not to get upset by rejection. I’ve been on selection panels myself and I know that perfectly valid (and sometimes extremely impressive) applications have to be rejected for any number of reasons. Sometimes it comes down to a simple gut instinct for how things fit together. I’m well aware that rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that your application was terrible (though that is a possibility).

 

This is why I like being told when I’ve made the long or shortlist. I know that not everyone does, I have some friends who hate to be told that. Personally, I appreciate the reassurance that my application wasn’t the first one in the bin. That mine wasn’t the one that got passed around to gleeful cries of “look at this joker!” (This might be something that only happens in the depths of a fevered and anxious writer’s brain, but still, if I’m shortlisted then it can’t have happened at all. Unless they’re shortlisting me for sheer comedy value. Oh god.)

 

However, knowing better than to get upset and actually remaining un-upset are two very different things. I can brush off an individual rejection, but five within three days? It hurts, and I will admit to feeling somewhat bruised and in a deep sulk.

 

The worst thing about it is feeling powerless. I can’t change a damn thing. There’s no undoing the applications, no restoring the moment I began writing them and using a different project instead. There’s no changing the lifetime of experiences that brought me to the point where I felt the need to make these particular shows. And of course there’s no arguing with the decisions made, tempting though it always is.

 

Today I feel useless. I feel like there’s no point in continuing with any of this, like nobody cares about my work anyway and all the work I’ve put into honing my craft is worth nothing. Time is passing, life is short and progress isn’t happening fast enough. I feel resentful towards the years I lost to events that were completely outwith my control. I feel angry and cut off and as if nothing I’ve ever done has any kind of value. I feel like everything is personal even when I know damn well it can’t be.

 

Such is the power of the sulk that I also feel resentful towards the good things that are happening because they interfere with the strop-narrative. Yes, I have the new spoken word show and I’ve got bookings for it and it’s shaping up well. Yes, a show that I wrote is going to Prague. Yes, I got a Tom McGrath award to help with one of my works in progress. These are all things to be happy about, which means that I can’t even just be allowed a straightforward woe-is-me outpouring. Clearly the entire universe is out to torture me by denying me abject misery.

 

The solution, of course, is to buck the fuck up, end the sulk and get on with things. Have the genuine emotional reaction that only my nearest and dearest get to see, turn the entertaining/potentially useful bits into a blog post for the handy dopamine hit that comes from online attention-whoring, go out in the sunshine, restock the cat litter and maybe buy a Crème Egg, then write the things that need to be written today. Read a bit. Do the next round of applications. Get over it. Get over it because freelance life means the next rejection is always just round the corner and if it hits while I’m still in this mood it’s going to be harder to bounce back from. Get over it because freelance life is better than the alternatives available to me and for all its precarity I’m generally pretty happy with it. Get over it because it’s annoying and so is everything else, but at least I can choose whether to annoy myself.

 

I’m pretty sure I intended this post to be a bit more positive and potentially helpful than this. Oh well. Too full of rage for that today.


2017 Retrospective: A Year of Aiming for Rejections

It’s been almost a year since I decided to follow the advice of this article and aim for 100 rejections a year. I would like to make crystal clear that it was not a New Year’s Resolution, I do not make New Year’s Resolutions – I began my challenge on December 14th, which is not even Solstice let alone Hogmanay.

 

However, resolution or no, it’s been a really interesting thing to do. I’ve always had a tendency to look at available opportunities and find a way to talk myself out of applying. I would look at them and think “Yes, maybe I should apply, but I don’t quite fit this criterion and I’m sure there’ll be someone who meets this requirement more closely than me, and what right do I have to do/talk about this thing anyway?” And then I wouldn’t apply, because it seemed like a waste of time and effort when the answer was almost certainly going to be no.

 

The thing is, my attitude was not unreasonable. Arts opportunities almost always attract far too many applications, and you’re much more likely to find opportunities that are an 80% fit than a 100% fit. The chances are there will be somebody better suited or more experienced. The chances are it will be a no.

 

Of course, not applying for things means that I might not get a no, but I definitely won’t get a yes. There can be no acceptances without first applying. So I decided to aim for 100 rejections in order to break myself of the habit of not applying. If I saw an opportunity that looked interesting I would resist the urge to talk myself out of it and just give it a shot.

 

At the time of writing, I’ve sent out 97 applications. These range from sending out short stories or plays to lit magazines to sending full plays to large theatres doing open submissions, to applying for residencies and submitting scripts to companies that have requested them. It’s a mixture of theatre, fiction, spoken word and a few things that I would struggle to categorise. Three applications were sent within the past day.

 

At the time of writing I have 56 rejections. Sharing that publicly is a touch nerve-wracking, since I know that many people believe you should never admit to being rejected for anything, but sod it, there it is. Some of those rejections have stung pretty badly. Others have barely registered. On a few occasions I’ve received rejection emails and had to go and look up what the opportunity was because I’ve forgotten. In 7 cases I was notified that I had made the shortlist, in a further 2 I made the longlist, and in 9 others there was no mention of long or shortlists but I was given specific, encouraging feedback and/or asked to keep in touch. 38 were outright rejections, either with no feedback given at all or with feedback that wasn’t particularly helpful (feedback that directly contradicts itself, for instance, is difficult to put to any constructive use).

 

Three of my rejections led to meetings that led to other things – in one case a bit of R&D on a new piece that took place in October, in another to an ongoing conversation with a company that hopes to develop something with me, and in the third to R&D that will happen in 2018.

 

As for acceptances, there have been 11 of those. These have ranged from having short pieces in new writing events at the Bolton Octagon, Southwark Playhouse and Brighton Rialto, to pieces published in lit mags and to R&D opportunities with BOP Artists supported by NTS and with Imaginate at Summerhall. One project fell through. It happens. But 10 had definite results, which feels great.

 

Of course, my list doesn’t include things I applied for before the arbitrary date on which I began this challenge. A week earlier I had, on a whim, sent a pitch to 404 Ink for some anthology thing that they were putting together. That turned out to be Nasty Women, which has been selling copies all over the world, was the best-selling book at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, and was recorded by Audible a couple of months ago. The list also doesn’t include things I didn’t have to apply/submit for – anything that I was approached for directly is unlisted, and I’ve picked up a lot of gigs by direct contact this year.

 

The applications and submissions I’ve done this year have been quite varied in form and the amount of effort required. Some have been a case of seeing an opportunity, thinking “I’ve got something that fits the bill sitting on my hard drive”, and just sending it along. That mostly happens with lit mags seeking submissions and short play nights doing call-outs for scripts.

 

Others have been much more labour-intensive, involving detailed proposals for the work I want to create, tailored to a specific brief. These, I find, are the tricky ones, partly because you’re having to put your faith in your own interpretation of the brief and hope that your vision matches the company’s, and partly because when you’re creating a very detailed proposal it’s easy to fall in love with the project, which makes it utterly galling if you then get rejected.

 

Fortunately, I’ve found that the proposals I’ve fallen madly in love with and had rejected on initial submission have gone on to have a life elsewhere. Early in the year I pitched for a commission to write a sci-fi radio play, but while I made the shortlist I wasn’t selected. I turned the piece I’d pitched into a short story, which I’ve performed at a couple of spoken word events, both of which led to other gigs. I’ve done well out of that story, and I still have plans to flesh it out into a play. Likewise Unlockable, the project I began developing on my BOP Artists residency, started life as a proposal for a prize with an extremely specific brief. I didn’t win the prize (though I appreciated the personalised and encouraging feedback), but I was determined to work on the piece anyway so when the call for BOP Artists went out a few weeks later, I went for it.

 

Of course, while I might feel like I write applications for a living at the moment, they’re not all I’ve been writing. This has been a busy year. I’ve written three full scripts, one first draft, a second act to an existing script, two short “demo versions” of scripts that will become full length, numerous short stories, some poems (god help me), a spoken word show and the first part of a novel. I’ve done guest and feature slots, I’ve flyted, I’ve performed in a Ferrero Rocher-themed murder mystery (don’t ask). I’ve been on panels for stuff. I’ve got another spoken word show to write in December. I’ve also been teaching. I’m going to Germany tomorrow to give a workshop at the University of Konstanz. I have some exciting news about one of my plays that I can’t share yet. For someone who feels like she never does anything but fill in application forms, I have a fair amount of evidence to suggest that I occasionally do other things.

 

All in all, aiming for 100 rejections feels like it’s worked out for me. So am I going to do it again next year? At the moment I don’t know. Probably, though I don’t think I’ll start it straight away. I have a show to write this month, and once that’s done I’d like to take a bit of time to do the things I’ve been putting off – finishing the collection of short stories and looking for a home for it, starting the next spec script, working on a solo show for one of my long-standing collaborators.

 

Perhaps I’ll start my next year of aiming for 100 rejections once I’ve had a chance to work through some of that. Or, more likely, I’ll find myself with a glut of things I want to apply for and just sort of stumble into it.  In the meantime, 33 responses to go, soon to be 36…


I realise I’m way behind on the Roughly Chronological Re-Read. I should have put it on hiatus a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t my intention to let it lapse for this long. So why has it? A combination of freelance life (I’ve written three and a half scripts since 1 January, plus a number of short pieces) and troubled headspace.

I was doing fairly well – or at least thought I was – until mid-March, when we went to Rome. Then while we were there, a stupid small event hit me right in the PTSD and triggered the worst panic attack I’ve had since about two weeks after the car crash in 2005. I haven’t properly settled since. I’m still very jumpy, I’m having a lot of nightmares, I’m finding it difficult to be out of the house and dread being out of earshot of Mark and the cat.

The silver lining to this particular cloud is that I was already due to go back to the GP to check in regarding the headspace, and it turns out that doing this when I’m rattled and my defences are down is quite a useful thing. It made it harder to downplay the symptoms that form part of my daily experience. This led to my opening up to the GP about things beyond the trauma, which led to her referring me for further treatment. An old diagnosis needs to be re-examined and possibly brought up to date. It doesn’t seem to be something I can manage unassisted any more.

I know my usual policy is to speak quite openly about the Crazy on this blog, but at the moment I can’t. Putting what’s going on in my head into words just now seems like an exhausting challenge, and I feel like if I do I’ll run out of words and won’t have them available to use for work.

The Re-Read will resume shortly, and I’ll be fine. The headspace may be challenging but this is just the latest iteration of something I’ve dealt with all my life. I’ll talk about all of this in due course, when it’s processed and I have useful things to say.

 

Until then.


The Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 10: Romeo & Juliet

Before I begin, a quick apology – I just discovered that there have been comments on these posts that I haven’t replied to. I hadn’t realised that WordPress was no longer sending me notifications for each individual comment, and without notifications I didn’t realise that comments were being posted! I’ll go back and get caught up. Apologies if I appear to have ignored any of you! It was unintentional.

 

Date:  Circa 1595.

 

First read:  In a shortened version, around 1993, then the full text in 1996.

 

Productions seen: Hunners. The Animated Tales in the early 90s, then a production at the Brunton Theatre on a school trip, then over a dozen others over the years.

 

Productions worked on: Bits and pieces during training, one adaptation, one production (in Kent’s Cavern in Torquay, which remains one of my favourite shows to have worked on).

 

Edition I’m using:   Penguin Popular Classics.

 (I am pinned under a cat at time of posting and unable to set up the standard photo. This will be added later.)

 

Observations:

 

  • After Love’s Labours Lost, this is such a relief! The pacing and structure are just so much better. It’s not perfect – the wrapping up of the plot after R&J are dead still goes on a bit too long, as do the Capulet domestic scenes (the party planning, for example, and the musicians after Juliet’s death), but it’s a definite improvement.
  • The use of the Chorus in this is strange. There are prologues for the first and second acts, then the device is simply dropped. It puts me in mind of the way the Christopher Sly device in The Taming of the Shrew is similarly started and discarded.
  • Normally I don’t find the comic relief in R&J too tiresome, but I think I’m still burned out from LLL. Samson and Gregory were getting on my nerves this readthrough. And for the first time, so was Mercutio – but only a little, and only during the Queen Mab scene.
  • Act 1, scene 5 – how on earth does Capulet’s servant not recognise Juliet? The Capulet family’s domestic arrangements are a mess.
  • I really don’t understand Friar Laurence and the Nurse’s willingness to facilitate all of this. Yes, there’s the Friar’s vague idea that a marriage between Romeo and Juliet might bring the feud to an end, but that seems… well, unlikely, to say the least. Capulet claims to be prepared to throw Juliet out of the house for refusing to marry Paris, so I’m not convinced that he’d be easily persuaded that her marriage to a Montague was a good thing. I can imagine that getting them married seems like a better idea than saying no to them and risking them going ahead and having sex anyway, because it’s easy to imagine what damage could be done by Romeo ruining Capulet’s daughter and Friar Laurence doesn’t seem to trust Romeo to keep it in his pants. Still not a good plan, though. Intervening with their parents might have been a better idea…
  • Also, that still doesn’t explain the Nurse. She’s got so much to lose if she gets caught in any part of Juliet’s plan, and unlike Friar Laurence she doesn’t have the safety net of the church. In that respect she’s a strong, well-observed depiction of someone who doesn’t think ahead. Bloody frustrating to read though.
  • Every time I read this script I get angry all over again about all the times I’ve seen Juliet played as a drip. She’s really not. Imaginative and romantic, definitely. Insane, possibly. But she is anything but a drip. She’s decisive to the point of madness, she takes control wherever she can, and the girl’s sharp as a tack. Her first exchange with Romeo, her encounter with Paris, her conversation with her mother in the wake of Tybalt’s death – they’re all beautiful exchanges of wits.
  • Speaking of wits, if Richard III was the play where Shakespeare really mastered the concept of dramatic irony, Romeo and Juliet is the one where he decides that opposites are great fun and should be employed at every opportunity. Not a bad thing – certainly less irritating than his craze for relentless couplets in LLL.
  • And speaking of irritating, after all these years I’ve still never warmed to Romeo. A really strong actors with a particular kind of intensity can distract attention from Romeo’s flightiness and stroppiness (and I’ve been fortunate enough to see and work with actors who can), but it’s still there in the text. Even with judicious cuts, it’s hard to get past the childishness of his nature. Which leads me on to my next point…
  • How on earth did people start thinking of this as a romantic play? Fortunately there are plenty of people who argue otherwise now, but I get a little surge of WTF every time I see a production being marketed as a great love story. Does anyone really think that if the plan had worked and Juliet had made it to Mantua, their marriage would have been a happy one? I’d give it a week before she’s back in Friar Laurence’s cell demanding to know whether a marriage is really legal if there are no witnesses.
  • Once again I found myself feeling very sorry for Paris. Poor guy didn’t sign up for any of this. All he wanted was to marry a girl whom he thought might possibly grow to like him and whose family approved, and instead she dies and he gets stabbed. I get the impression he genuinely likes Juliet – his visit to her grave clearly isn’t just posturing, since it’s done in the dead of night and he takes pains not to be seen. I wish we got to know a bit more about him, though that might make his getting the short end of the stick feel even more unjust.
  • Seventeen years after studying it for my Highers, I still think this is an odd choice for a curriculum text. The rationale seems to be that it’s about a couple of teenagers, so give it to teenagers to study and they’ll find it interesting because it’s about people like them. I remember being 16 and finding that mildly insulting, because I damn well knew not to snog a stranger at a party and then mistake it for love and marry them the next day. It took age and experience to see the play for what it is, to realise that it’s commenting on the mad intensity of young love rather than celebrating it. At 16 I found the power struggles of Macbeth far easier to identify with, but perhaps that’s just me…

 

NEXT TIME: Richard II


The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 8: Henry VI, Part I

Date:  Probably 1592.

 

First read: Circa 2005.

 

Productions seen: None, other than the bits and pieces I worked on. I’ll get round to seeing the 2016 Hollow Crowns at some point.

 

Productions worked on:  A couple of scenes at drama school.

 

Edition I’m using:   Same as for the other parts of Henry VI! Signet Classics.

Cheating by having one book for all three plays. Don't tell anyone.

 

Observations:

 

  • Part of the way through this readthrough my husband flippantly referred to this as the “Star Wars prequels” of the War of the Roses plays. I think he hit the nail on the head. Calmer than the sequel/originals, more focused on the politics and less on the dismembering each other’s relatives and avenging dismembered relatives. But also less fun, a couple of decent action sequences notwithstanding.
  • Remember when I was writing about Richard III and I commented on Shakespeare’s passion for dramatic irony? Well, here we go again… So many hopes, wishes and promises concerning the peaceful future of England. LOL, Shakespeare. I see what you did there. I really hope you had friends who took the piss out of you for the devices you overused the way mine do.
  • Compared to the other Henry VIs, this one is much better paced. A reasonable amount happens in each act, it’s not a relentless flurry of events. I didn’t find it particularly interesting in terms of language, though. No big stand-out speeches that I’m still thinking about the following day, and only a small handful of individual lines. “Hung be the heavens with black” is a great turn of phrase, though.
  • We all remember how I feel about excessive couplets, right? OH. MY. GOD. Why must everything RHYME? I don’t appreciate it, Shakespeare or Nashe or whoever’s responsible, I really don’t. Especially outside of the comedies.
  • I barely get a sense of Henry VI himself as a character. Once again the chronology is strange – Part II opens with Margaret being handed over to Henry (having presumably had quite a time with Suffolk on the voyage), but he doesn’t come across as the same boy king non-character he is in Part I. The signs of his piety are there, I suppose, but it seems odd to see him less well-developed in the later play.
  • So Joan de la Pucelle, right… There’s a lady who deserved her own play. Shakespeare’s treatment of her is one of the things I find most interesting about this piece. Nowadays the only narrative we get regarding Joan of Arc is that she was a young woman who thought herself called by God to cross-dress and fight on France’s behalf. She was either a saint (in the colloquial rather than technical sense until 1910) wronged by those who failed to believe in her divine mission or a mentally ill girl wronged by a society that didn’t know how to help someone with hallucinations. The decision to reframe her religious extremism as witchcraft… I find it fascinating and would like to revisit this and give the matter its own post some time in the future. I’m not entirely convinced that it works, I think it’s a less sophisticated use of the supernatural than in Richard III and comes across as kind of a rehash of the Margery Jourdain material from Part II.
  • In addition, the need to tear down a French heroine says a great deal about the political relationship between England and France. God has to be on England’s side, which means he can’t be speaking directly to girls in drag on the French side, can he? And not only is she not touched by God, she’s an actual witch. And she denies her own father, crudely-drawn yet rather sympathetic bumpkin that he is, and she has the Dauphin dancing on the end of her seductress’ string, and she’s willing to sully her own reputation for the sake of a cowardly escape from her rightful execution. As character assassinations go, it’s a very thorough one.
  • Note to young female actors looking for audition speeches that aren’t woefully overdone – dear Joanie is your friend. Read this play.
  • Not having read the Histories for a long time and struggling to keep my IVs, Vs and VIs straight, I had a moment of confusion when “Sir John Falstaff” appeared. I’d forgotten about the existence of Fastolfe, as the historical figure in question was called and as his name appears in some other editions. A strange editorial choice on the part of Signet Classics, I think. The First Folio has a lot to answer for.
  • Well done to the Dauphin for being the only person in the entire War of the Roses who has any common sense in relation to corpse mutilation. Pro tip: if you’ve just slain some enemies and your friends want to chop them up as part of a power play, just say no. It’s not big and it’s not clever. And keep your handkerchief firmly in your pocket.
  • Suffolk and Margaret OTP ❤ ❤ <3. Someday I’ll figure out why I love these too so much, even though their relationship is woefully underdeveloped, there’s nothing right about either of them and he eventually dies a very silly death. It might have something to do with their first encounter featuring one of my favourite metatheatrical moments ever, where Margaret gets fed up with him talking in asides the whole time so she starts doing it too just to make a point.
  • Honestly, I don’t have much more to say about this one. It fills in some gaps that I’m not entirely sure needed to be filled in. It has occasional moments of interesting, ear-catching language but all too few. I’d like to see it on stage at some point, since I suspect it would come to life on stage – but given that it’s so heavy on couplets I will be very selective where ticket purchases are concerned.

 

NEXT TIME: Love’s Labours Lost

BONUS CONTENT: Our cat decided he’d come and listen to us read this one. He appeared to be properly into it. This is my husband reading it to him.

Mark reads Henry VI Part I to the Bobs

 


The Roughly Chronological Reread, Week 7: The Taming of the Shrew

Date:  1592 – 4.

 

First read: Leon Garfield’s abridged version around 1992. I tried the full version about a year later and got horribly bored with the Lucentio plotline. Read the whole thing without skipping bits when I was in third or fourth year at secondary school, so 1997/8?

 

Productions seen: Shakespeare: The Animated Tales in the 90s, more student and Fringe productions than I care to remember, plus a handful of adaptations ranging from very loose ones like Kiss Me Kate to faithful updates like Sally Wainright’s very clever version for the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold.

 

Productions worked on:  None, which surprises no-one more than me. Plans are being made for an adaptation, though, so that might change in a year or two if the programming and funding gods smile on me.

 

Edition I’m using:   A very old Signet Classic with someone else’s cuts marked up in it.

imag3887

 

Observations:

 

  • Right, so, let’s acknowledge that this is a crazy problematic play straight off. I find it endlessly fascinating for that reason and love to argue over it. Whatever position you want to take I’ll happily oppose it – the beauty of this play is that you can defend nearly any point of view you care to hold. Before I began this re-read I’d have said that my own position was that a writer empathetic enough to create the kind of rounded, sensitively-drawn characters as are found in his later work would be unlikely to write a straightforward piece of misogyny (even allowing for changing social mores)… now I’m not so sure. The re-read has been opening my eyes to the brutality of Shakespeare’s early work and making me realise that I’ve been projecting the depth and nuance of his best work onto his lesser pieces. For someone who considered herself immune to bardolatry and romanticising Shakespeare’s work, that was quite a surprising thing to notice.
  • So, proceeding on the understanding that I don’t have a damn clue what I think about this play, let’s talk about the framing device. Why is it there? Why do we have Christopher Sly being pranked by some nameless Lord? The implication is that Sly and his “lady” are watching throughout, so why is there no reaction from him at the end? Does he ever go back to his old life? Does he test the lessons the play has taught him on the Hostess we saw at the start, and if so how does he take it? That would answer so many questions about what the play was intended to be. I’d also like to know whether the Sly stuff was part of the original play or was added later on.
  • This isn’t a particularly long play, yet I realised as I was reading it that I’ve never once seen it unabridged. This is because the Lucentio/Vincentio parts are boring as all hell (my considered academic opinion) so everyone cuts them.
  • So much commedia influence on this play, particularly the Arlecchino-esque hijinks with Lucentio and Tranio swapping places and wooing incognito to thwart the amorous intentions of a pantaloon character. I suspect the reason I find the entire Lucentio storyline tedious is twofold. In the first place, commedia thrives on the stage and not the page, and while I have plenty of experience of imagining the things I read, nothing compares to actually seeing it done. (I have never seen this play tackled by a company skilled in commedia.) In the second place, I harbour a suspicion that commedia is one of those art forms that is quite culturally specific and that there’s a lightness of touch needed that I just don’t see in these early plays. (I may be wrong. I know a little about commedia but don’t claim any kind of expertise.)
  • I have a note here that simply reads “Fuck off Biondello.” I can’t remember why I wrote it, but I feel inclined to include it here. Judging by the emphatic pen strokes, I meant it wholeheartedly.
  • Reading this aloud within a few days of Richard III was illuminating. We noticed that more of RIII flowed beautifully and felt easy to speak. Much of the dialogue in Shrew, however, is harder work. It’s much more colloquial and we found ourselves looking up slang terms far more frequently, but it wasn’t just that. It’s also the rhythms and sentence structure.
  • So, Katherine. Not an easy character to understand, in no small part because she never really gets to speak for herself. She has no direct address to the audience, no soliloquy, and without that insight into her mind all her decisions can be interpreted in different ways. Was she born a shrew or has she become this way? Does Petruchio break her spirit or win her round? Does she make that speech at the end because it’s what she now believes or because she’s smart enough to realise what’s going on and wants to help her husband win? She reminds me a bit of Coriolanus in this respect – her lack of a relationship with the audience makes sense, but it also makes her a mystery.
  • The other character Kate resembles, and this is perhaps a far more obvious comparison, is Beatrice. They’re both intelligent, sharp-tongued women, and I’ve been thinking recently that the major difference between them lies in how they’re treated. Beatrice gives everyone backchat and the people around her find it endearing. Kate does it and the people around her cower and condemn her. How would they have fared in each other’s environments? Kate is more violent than Beatrice, it’s true, but I wonder whether that would remain true if their situations were reversed.
  • And Petruchio… I’d love more back story on this character. We know he has recently inherited his father’s estate and is determined to marry rich, and that’s about all we do know about him. Why is he so money-hungry? Is it just avarice, or is he land-rich but cash-poor? Would he really have married anyone as long as she was rich – why not reach for the nearest rich widow, then, as Hortensio does post-Bianca?
  • Something struck me about Petruchio laying out his tactics in 2.1. He’s very clear about his game of opposites – if Kate gives him hell, he’ll praise her for all the characteristics she doesn’t show – and then he lays it on thick. Does he continue with these tactics throughout? It’s certainly one way of reading it, and it would change the meaning of his speech in 3.2 considerably if his declaration that his new wife is his goods and chattel is all part of this game of opposites. Is this the lesson that Kate learns from him and demonstrates at the end?
  • All in all, I came away from Shrew with the feeling that it’s a very uneven play. If the dialogue between Katherine and Petruchio weren’t as sparkling as it is, I suspect it would languish in obscurity. But it does, and it’s that feeling of crazy chemistry between them that keeps me feeling that this is a play about two misfits finding each other and uniting against the world, not about a woman having her spirit broken. But perhaps I just really, really want it to be that way. What a bloody frustrating piece this is.

 

NEXT TIME: Henry VI, Part 1


The Roughly Chronological Reread Week 6: Richard III

Date:  1592 – 1594. I’ve seen suggestions that it pre-dates Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors, but I find it hard to believe that a writer could experience such a pronounced backslide.

First read: Leon Garfield’s abridged version around 1992, then the full version in the early 2000s.

 

Productions seen: Shakespeare: The Animated Tales in the 90s, two or three student productions at the Fringe, Brite Theatre’s excellent Richard III: A One-Woman Show (which is coming back to the Scottish Storytelling Centre next month and you should absolutely go and see it), and most recently the Almeida’s production starring Ralph Fiennes.

 

Productions worked on: None. Which sucks. I’d love to get my teeth into this one.

 

Edition I’m using:  The Oxford Shakespeare.

imag3790

 

Observations:

 

  • It should go without saying that this is a cracker of an opening speech, but I’m going to say it anyway. It’s just so beautiful. Well-constructed, a delight to speak, and it does a fantastic job of setting up the character – not just in terms of introducing the situation and setting up the takes, but in making the audience immediately party to Richard’s schemes and victim to his charisma. It’s hard not to be taken in by the character’s sheer audacity.
  • I love Lady Anne’s line “Poor key-cold figure of a holy king”. Something about the term “key-cold” really appeals to me. The first time I really noticed it was in a sonnet by Alexander Montgomerie, where the speaker describes losing his spirit to his lover during a kiss which “left my cors als cold as ony key”. Apparently keys were used to stop minor bleeding, since pressing a substantial chunk of metal against a cut will encourage the blood vessels to constrict a little. (I don’t know if this is true. I am a creature of the 21st century, I have access to sticking plasters, but next time I get a papercut I’ll do it for science.)
  • MARGARET. Oh, Margaret. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite characters in the whole canon. Never having read the plays in order before, I hadn’t given much thought to the chronology of the War of the Roses plays. Having seen Richard III first, I had mentally inserted a gap of years, maybe decades, between the start of this play and the end of Henry VI Part 3 to account for Margaret’s becoming the “foul wrinkled witch” who doles out the curses so liberally here. I’d never actually paid attention to the amount of time that actually passes – a matter of months. Perhaps rapid ageing is the price she paid for considerably tighter writing, because she’s as vicious as ever but without teetering on the brink of being overwritten.
  • In addition to being the play where Shakespeare got hold of the concept of dramatic irony and wrestled it the ground, this also seems to be the one where he really lets rip with the entertainingly banterful lowlives. There are shades of Aaron the Moor in the dialogue given to the various executioners and murderers, none of whom are as obedient as those hired by, say, Macbeth – these guys can’t resist a bit of chat before they kill. I enjoy their cynical humour immensely. The moments of comic relief are helpful in terms of pacing, being worked in at intervals rather than dumped in large, unwieldy chunks, and their casual approach to death serves to illustrate the effects of such a long period of turmoil.
  • “Enter Queen Elizabeth with her hair about her ears.” It’s the first time I’ve seen this stage direction during this readthrough, and I thought it merited a mention. Hair in disarray, allowed to fall freely over the ears, seems to have been a very common signifier of extreme grief or madness in Elizabethan theatre. Every time I stumble across this stage direction, I wonder what an Elizabethan audience member would think if they were to see how common it is for women today to wear their hair loose (let’s just imagine for a moment that they’ve already got over their shock at literally everything else about 2017).
  • Having found some of the earliest plays to be somewhat repetitive, I think that Richard III shows the playwright starting to come into his own. In particular the scenes with Lady Anne and later Queen Elizabeth, which have similar structures and in which Richard employs similar tactics – the latter scene could have been a tedious rehash of the first, yet the tone and stakes are very different. In theory the stakes ought to be higher in the scene with Lady Anne, since Richard has little leverage and takes quite a risk when he admits to killing her husband. By the time of his scene with Elizabeth all the power is his. He’s king, his manipulative powers have been proven again and again, and it seems unlikely that he’s going to walk out of that scene without her agreeing to marry her daughter to him. Yet the situation has intensified, and what he’s asking is so much more unwholesome even than professing love for Anne over her husband’s corpse. His line about burying Elizabeth’s children in her daughter’s womb makes me physically squirm every time I hear or read it.
  • The use of the ghosts is particularly unusual in this play. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this as the readthrough progresses, but as I recall all the ghosts in his later plays are very much in the world of their beholder, rather than appearing to occupy their own realm in which they can bridge the gap between two physical locations at once. The assembled spectres in this play switch between telling Richard to despair and die and assuring Richmond that they think he’s just the best thing ever, and I don’t remember seeing that device elsewhere. Perhaps my memory fails me. Either way, it’s an intriguing way to treat the ghosts – more of an indication of objective existence than being a figment of a character’s imagination.
  • As to Richard himself, what a character. I often wonder whether he actually believes himself in his opening speech, when he appears to blame his villainy on his deformity. If he does, it’s quite a journey to reach his declaration that he feels no pity for himself the night before he dies. If he doesn’t, then keeping the audience on board throughout is even more of an achievement. I can see why this is a role actors salivate over.
  • Finally, a word to anyone who might be considering a comment about how Shakespeare’s Richard is historically inaccurate and that’s a terrible thing – I don’t much care. It’s not billed as a documentary. Want to talk about the reasons behind this particular representation? Great, fire away, I’m always up for learning more about Plantagenet/Tudor spats across the generations, and very happy to consider plays in their historical context. Just no hit and run “it’s not 100% accurate therefore it is teh suck” comments, please.

 

NEXT TIME: The Taming of the Shrew


The Roughly Chronological Re-Read – a slight delay

Yes, this ought to be a post about Titus Andronicus, and it should have been up a couple of days ago. Alas, freelance life is doing its thing and I have a draft script that needs to be finished within the next few days, so the post is still in note form and likely to remain that way for the rest of the week. Expect it Sunday/Monday!