Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

Shakespeare is good on treachery – and those deprived by gender, breeding and culture, can only dissemble and manipulate to achieve their ambitions.  Once a great King, Lear is an old man, over-ripe for plucking.


The RSC production of Lear is being staged at the New London Theatre at the top of Drury Lane – sixties concrete, thrust stage – not unlike The Crucible in Sheffield.  Ian McKellan plays Lear.  He is quite magnificent; he manages the nuances of dementia with great insight and consummate skill.  He opening scenes show an ageing King, still clinging to the trappings of power and dispensing blessings to his people and largesse to his family.  But this is a King gone soft.  A widower with three daughters – who knows how such a once powerful man would have behaved, exploiting his wife’s family, cheating on her – perhaps his daughters are not all by the same woman anyway – there is a history there.  But now, this great King wants to know that he is loved before he dies. 

He sets up a test for his three daughters.  Which of them loves him most?  Goneril and Regan try to outdo each other in their affections.  Cordelia, who up until then had been the favoured one, can say nothing. ‘Nothing’, splutters Lear, ‘Well, nothing can come of nothing.’  She loves her father as is his due; no more, no less.  If she loved him as much as her sisters say they love him, then how much love would she have left for her husband.  Lear is furious.   Wasn’t she the favoured one? 


Cordelia is banished and goes off – without a dowry – to marry the King of France; not a bad outcome for her under the circumstances.  Lear’s kingdom is divided into two, but as son as his two elder daughters have the power, they set about stripping their father of his.  There is no way they are going to tolerate him playing the great King any more.  They will give him house room, but he has to behave and not embarrass them.              

Cordelia and Regan are the real villains.  Not only do they usurp their father’s power, but it is clear that they are not above betraying their husbands and indeed each other to gain absolute power.  One wonders again what the father would have done to them to make them wreak such vengeance on the men in their lives.  They are both in love with Edmund, the ambitious bastard son of Gloucester, who has plotted the disinheritance of his half brother, Edgar, and the exile and mutilation of his own father on grounds of treason.  Edmund is a nasty piece of work, who promises to marry both the evil sisters, setting them against each other.   

Treachery begets treachery.  There are all too many ambitious people around to do the bidding of those in power.   The bad guys are evil; the good are fools.  There is little exploration of deeper motives in Shakespeare.  It’s black and white. That’s what makes good theatre, just as Eastenders makes good television.  It is just too confusing to explore the deprivations that have created the insecurities that have precluded trust.  It’s a dog eat dog world; if you don’t exploit others, you will be exploited yourself. 

But who are the fools?  Yes Lear has lost his devious edge along with his power and judgement, believing in the myth of his own benevolent omnipotence.  He has to be stripped of all reason and live as a beggar with madmen to recover a kind of tragic sense and stature – Lear removes his clothes to reveal a sceptre of a size that is impressive in one so old.  Edgar becomes poor Tom, a filthy, naked lunatic, to avoid capture and certain death; he is only playing the fool.  Gloucester is blinded but gains insight in his sightless state.  And what of the King’s fool?  Of course, he is the wisest of the lot of them.  He is played by Sylvester McCoy.  What would you expect of a doctor who is able to travel in time? 

A large spider stands outside the Tate.  It crouches black and malevolent in the space between the rows of silver birch.  People walk under it,  laugh, take pictures.  Seen from a certain angle, the sun behind, its legs frame the dome of St Paul’s, a symbol in white marble suspended beneath the creature’s body.  To them, it is another photo opportunity, to the sculptor, it is her mother. 

Louise Bourgeouis was born, 96 years ago, into a rich middle class family.  Her father and mother were entrepreneurs; they bought up ancient tapestries, restored them and sold them on at great profit. They lived in Paris.  Her parents employed a nanny to look after Louise, but this nanny became her father’s mistress.  Her mother knew and tolerated the situation – for ten years.   Louise also knew, but nobody had told her.  Like a dark spider, her mother silently bent her head over her work of restoring old tapestries and said nothing.  Louise hated her father and his mistress for their deception and betrayal, but she also hated her mother for her silent complicity.  Imagine the four of them sitting down to dinner every night, exchanging polite conversation about the events of the day, but saying nothing.  Louise could trust nobody.  

‘Art is a guaranty of sanity.’  It was art that held her life together over the years. She has continually worked through the stresses of her childhood, her marriage, her removal to New York, her fears of sterility, motherhood,  the conflicts between her the domestic role and her work, the death of her husband, her sexuality, through the medium of her art.  Never actually conforming to a particular style, her work has constantly changed, keeping  pace with the movements of 20th century art,  adopting new techniques whenever these seemed appropriate.  Bourgeouis is fiercely independent; her work intensely personal.    

Her series of drawings entitled Femme a Maison, where a naked woman stands, a house where her head should be, expresses how domesticity comes to preoccupy the thoughts of even the most intelligent women.   Her ‘Personages’  are sculptures made of wood that represent the friends and family she left in France.  A Portrait of Jean Louis  explores a mother’s ambivalence towards her child.  Much of her work is very sexual, visceral even.  Although Avenza revisited is sculpted in plaster and plastic, the globes seem to float in a thick mucus which pours out in thick strands on to the floor.  Other work is more sexually explicit;  the penis features prominently, but take a closer look at them.  Janus fleurie appears to be set of male genitalia, torn off and suspended by the tip of the penis, but are the ovoids at the base of the sculpture testes or are they breasts?  And isn’t that the female vulva between them. Her work has been considered an expression of feminism, but Bourgeouis refuses to be labelled.  She is her own person.

But Louise Bourgeois never forgot the traumas and tensions of her early life.  It was a theme to which she constantly returned, especially it seems, towards the end of her life.  Her massive installations – cells as she calls them – in cages or surrounded by doors – exhibit all the symbols of her childhood – the double bed with a red plastic counterpain, the pillow with ‘je t’aime’ embroidered on it,  the enormous blood-stained tear drop above the bed,  her father’s large black coat on a hanger suspended from the hat stand.  And then there’s the spider again, crouching over a cage containing her mothers chair and scraps of tapestry pinned to the walls.  In another room, a replica of a New York rooftop water container are metal stands containing glass vessels, only these do not contain water, they contain feelings – emotions. 

Many of her latest works are in fabric, stuffed heads made out of fading tapestry,  a pregnant headless female, lying on her back, with a large open razor, the handle emerging from the chest, while the blade hovers above the abdomen, seven figures made out of pink corduroy, lying on a bed with their arms around each other – but look carefully, several of the figures in this tender scene have two heads, looking in opposite directions and the genitalia are prominent and clearly conjoined.            

Bourgeois preoccupation with the dangers of illicit sex has continued to influence her work to the end of her life.  They are her revenge against her parents, her means of surviving her childhood and they provide us with a courageous and explicit expression of how art can express the intolerable pain of a fragmented childhood.  Others might have became depressed, taken to drugs or alcohol.  Not Bourgeouis;  her life force has compelled her to harness her childhood trauma to create objects of great emotional significance and in so doing exposed the essential meaning of art.     

‘Prepare to engage warp drive,’  his eyes, betraying no emotion, seem to scan into the far reaches of the galaxy. 

Warp drive engaged, Captain, responds Lieutenant Uhuru.

‘Make it so!’

The laconic manner and imperious hand gesture marked Captain Jean-Luc Picard out as the greatest commander of the USS Star Ship Enterprise ever.  This man had no doubts.  He was created to lead humanity’s quest for new civilisations far from their own planet, ‘to boldly go where none had been before’.   Nothing could ruffle his demeanour; attacks by alien vessels, magnetic storms that eliminated his ships protective shield, even having his brain invaded by the terrifying Borg.  As long as Picard was in charge, we were safe.   

For an actor of the stature of Patrick Stewart, the commander of a star ship is not the most demanding role; a bit like James Bond; look cool and say little.  But Stewart is a great actor; he has gravitas.  He dominates the stage.  But he doesn’t do strong and silent.  This year he has teamed up with one of the most innovative new directors in British theatre to create a production of Macbeth that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and stay up for next 2 hours. 

Shakespeare’s plays are so rarely set according to his original stage directions,  but nothing was to prepare us for the shock of this presentation.

With a barrage of explosions,  we are transported to a grim white tiled basement kitchen, with ovens, fridge, a crackling television and a service lift with great crashing metal doors.  In the early scenes, this serves as a field hospital.  Soldiers are brought in injured or dying and are treated by the three nurses, identically clad in uniforms of black and white stripes, dark stockings and shoes and and broad white headcloths.  But these are no ordinary nurses. They are deathly pale. There are black shadows under their eyes.  They move mechanically with no emotion in their faces, no sense of  compassion in their ministrations.  These weird nursing sisters deal in death.  One soldier, shaking with loss of blood and breathless tells of Macbeth’s bravery and is despatched with an injection in the neck.  Macbeth arrives in army fatigues, is told that he will be Thane of Cawdor and King thereafter.  Slowly their poison takes control of his mind.

Macbeth is a dark tale of ambition and creeping corruption.  Though notionally set in Scotland, it is inspired by Stalin and the great terror.  ‘A dead man is no problem’; Stalin once said, ‘no man, no problem’.  At first it is his sexy and manipulative wife, played brilliantly by Kate Fleetwood, who persuades Macbeth to do the deed that will expedite the sisters’ predictions.  But before the blood has had time to congeal, the knowledge of their crime destabilises the new King and Queen.  Macbeth’s is a rule of terror; he sees threat to his power everywhere and is corrupted by his fear to became a ruthless shell of a man.  The changing balance of their relationship is thrillingly captured.  Lady Macbeth loses her grip on reality and kills herself,  but by then Macbeth is so dehumanised, he barely notices.  Believing the sisters predictions of invincibility – he will not be vanquished until the very trees move against him and can never be killed by any man born of woman, he defends his tyranny with a reckless and cynical intent, until Macduff tells him how he was ‘untimely ripped from his mother’s womb’ and he embraces death with a laugh.

The art of the actor is to show us the way we are.  Through Stewart’s interpretation, we see the gradual destruction of Macbeth’s humanity.  When first he meets the sisters, he is the affable comrade in arms soldier, returning tired but happy from a successful campaign.  Under assault from his less ambiguous wife,  we see his integrity wilt under darker forces of ambition until it is totally consumed.  Such a husk of a man cannot inspire loyalty, he employs terror to maintain his power.  So at the dinner party to celebrate his coronation, he snatches the bottle away from the terrified Ross and when Lennox dares to light up in his presence he takes the cigarette out of his mouth and crumples it onto his head, chucking while his adversary quakes.  Those who might threaten his precarious hold on power are dealt with ruthlessly, Malcolm is killed, then Banquo is attacked in a jolting train carriage, Ross is tortured,  and when MacDuff flees to England, his wife and children are slaughtered.  Like Mugabe, Amin, Stalin and Hitler, Macbeth has assumed the mantle of a tyrant, who understands the importance of virtue and morality but has been seduced by the destructive lure of power.  His fear can be subdued by further killing, but it soon rises up again.   And when there is longer any flicker of humanity,  one is left with terror.   Ask any child.  A parent’s anger is not nearly as frightening as a complete absence of emotion.   Zombies, murderers and psychopaths are really scary people.  The sisters look like the undead; they have claimed Macbeth as one of their own.

The production maintains the tension of a familiar story by surprise.  The appearance of the Banquo’s ghost at the banquet is staged twice, once in the eyes of Macbeth in all its blood-gouted horror and once in the eyes of the guests, where a crazed Macbeth appears to be screaming at nothing.   The horror of the murder of Macduff’s family is evoked by the ominous sound of a thug unpeeling gaffer tape.  And in the sleepwalking scene,  the kitchen tap suddenly runs with blood even as Lady Macbeth tries to clean her hands with bleach.

Be afraid, be very afraid, Jean-Luc may have defended his emotion, but we always sensed it was there; he would have made a great dad!  But now Jean-Luc has turned into one of the Borg.  Expect no mercy. 

Macbeth is playing at the Geilgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, until mid December