Blogging Braddon: 1 The transfer of the Braddon archive to Canterbury Christ Church University

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A small ink sketch by Mary Braddon (Mary Braddon Archive)

It is a good feeling when something is finally achieved and the metaphorical boil is lanced, so to speak! For many years a huge and weighty cultural responsibility has been bourn by me and my good friend Susanna Avery and the members of her family. Relief has come at last in the form of the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers (ICVWW), based at Canterbury Christ Church University.

I must admit I had some sleepless, fretful nights over this. I knew, and Susanna knew, and a handful of like-minded academics and scholars knew of the significance of the archive of Mary Braddon’s unpublished material. But it has been a long and difficult process to have it universally acknowledged as an important find, partly because Braddon’s reputation is still being steadily revived but mostly because academia moves at the speed of glacial time – inching along at an agonising and frustrating pace.

The day that Susanna told me about her great-great-grandmother who was a ‘Victorian novelist, but no one has ever heard of her’ is now ingrained in my memory. It was a turning point for both of us for many reasons. I discovered the work of Braddon off the back of that comment. I determined that I would investigate her, initially as a rarity in order to create an original slant for my MA dissertation, and afterwards because of the pure enjoyment her novels offer. Into this equation came the added curiosity of the small cache of original Braddon papers that Susanna’s father kept in his desk.

These were handed on to me for my MA research in the mid-1990s, rapidly followed by the substantial legacy Susanna received which has sat in her attic and spare room for the past decade and a half. This archive was the foundation of my PhD research with the University of Kent, under the supervision of Professor Louis James. The finished result is a monograph about and transcripts of a large portion of the papers, focussed on Braddon herself, entitled ‘Papers Found in a Trunk: A Critical Assessment of the Mary Braddon Archive’, completed in 2005.

At this point I must give thanks to the many friends and well-wishers who, on hearing the topic of my thesis and the circumstances of the find, gave me a copy of A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. It is undoubtedly a great book – but I didn’t read all SEVEN copies! (I know, I know – it was exactly like my situation, sort of…)

So finally, after much preparation and negotiation the archive has been transferred. Life has imitated art, and so on, but at long last the colleagues and the facilities are in place in Susanna’s favoured location in order for the full scale of research to be uncovered. The archive extends to the papers and publications of W.B. Maxwell (Braddon’s son) and Barbara Maxwell. The work of both these family members is a total mystery to me and additional to the main body of papers that belonged to Braddon in her lifetime.

At this point in time, I won’t yet go into a huge amount of detail about the content of Braddon’s papers in the archive. My thesis has a detailed bibliography pertaining to a large proportion of this; items that might figure as landmark finds relating to the broad context of her career. I have discussed some of them in published papers and at different conferences over the years; but now a short moratorium will follow in reference to the public access to the material and further publications.

The principal members of the research team have been gathered and these are: myself as Visiting Research Fellow to the university; Professor Adrienne Gavin and Dr Carolyn Oulton (members of the Christ Church faculty and founders of the ICVWW); and Dr Kate Mattacks of UWE. Between us we will look at the different means by which the archive can be fully investigated. There will be displays and an exhibition, readings at the Canterbury branch of Waterstone’s, a conference, publications and special journal editions, with opportunities for post-graduates in different fields to gain research posts to be involved in the work.

Radio silence will be intermittently broken with regular blog postings here, which will keep the information and progression of research in the public domain. But in the meantime watch the short film for a tantalising glimpse of the treasures waiting to be uncovered.

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Posted in Mary Braddon, Nineteenth Century Culture, Popular Culture, Vicorian/Edwardian Literature | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-first Century: a call for chapters

I am very pleased to announce that Dr Kelli R Marshall and I are collaborating on a Shakespeare publication together. This arises from our joint paper for the PCA National conference this year on the NT Lear Live event. The following is the outline of what we are looking for and can be passed on to colleagues and anyone interested.

Call for Papers

Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century (working title)

Editors: Gabrielle Malcolm and Kelli Marshall / Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

William Shakespeare has long been a global cultural commodity, but in the twenty-first century “Shakespeare” is oft positioned as a social concept with the man almost forgotten amidst the terminology that surrounds the criticism, tourism, adaptation, and utilization of the plays. For instance, the plays themselves are as often re-worked and adapted as performed wholly in their own right on stage. Moreover, there are currently well-established alternative strands, identities, and locations of “Shakespeare” (e.g., metanarratives, gender-reworking, inter-cultural adapting, online streaming), and the growth is as widespread and fast as technology, performance, social networking, and cinema will allow. It is this new and exciting approach to “Shakespeare,” which clearly suits both the adaptation process and the technology and mindset of the twenty-first century, that our volume will consider.

Potential topics for the anthology include the following:

  • Shakespeare depicted on film and TV “outside” the mainstream: reality TV documentary from prison, schools, etc.
  • Adaptation online: podcasts, webcasts, webisodes (e.g., Second City’s Sassy Gay Friend series), YouTube Shakespeare, Shakespeare on Twitter (e.g., Such Tweet Sorrow)
  • Streaming live theatre: the National Theatre Live and not-so-live Hamlet and Lear experiments
  • Meta-narratives of Shakespeare, positioning the works through embedded and presumed knowledge in adaptations
  • Global Shakespeares located within and for national identities
  • Shakespeare as illustrated text: graphic novels, animation, special effects
  • And of course, any other ways of “locating Shakespeare in the twenty-first century”

Please send a 500-word abstract/synopsis of the project to Kelli Marshall  by June 30, 2011. Complete essays of approximately 6,000 words would be expected around September 1, 2011.

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NT Live: King Lear from The Donmar Warehouse, London

Draft paper for PCA conference, San Antonio, Texas, 2011 – in collaboration with Dr Kelli Marshall, University of Toledo, Ohio, USA.

See her updates : http://kellimarshall.net/unmuzzledthoughts/shakespeare/nt-live-notes/#comment-6373

‘Live Theatre as Cinema’

The anticipation was palpable and akin to that felt in a theatre auditorium as people took their seats in the comfortable surroundings of the Little Cinema, Bath. The average age of the audience was post-retirement and seniors. The certification appeared on screen, allocating a 12A rating ‘as live’; which contradicted the information on the ticket that had stated ‘no certificate’. When the live feed began on screen we were drawn in with shots of the audience at the Donmar, an altogether younger crowd. But there were also embellishments for the cinema audience which began very early. It was as if there had to be something extra to mark the event, trailers and features for the remote audience and so we were entertained to a documentary about recent Donmar Warehouse productions, including comments from Jude Law and Gillian Anderson. As interesting as this was, the disadvantage was that we missed the actual first entrance of the actors. The feature abruptly cut to show actors already on stage engaged in the dialogue for the first scene.

So there is no denying that compromises were made. However, the perspective offered to the cinema audience was privileged. The camera position gave front row views from the stalls, and also the feeling of being front row of the upper circle, as well having an almost ‘on-stage’ point of view at times. Proximity to the actors then was everything. There was an extreme, intimate focus in some scenes that offered an intrusive nearness to the live experience. The actors’ every breath was discernible and the physical exertion of the performance was clear. Despite having missed the first entrance of Kent and Gloucester all in all the flow of the performance was unimpeded. They were already into their first exchange when we joined them and this abrupt beginning also signalled some issues with the acoustics. They were slightly harsh and strident in places; and it soon became clear that all of the principals at least wore radio mics. There was some crackling and problems with pitch when some of the actors increased their projection. The ones who came off best were Jacobi, Michael Hadley as Kent and Paul Jesson as Gloucester. Each of these performers, older male actors, with voices in the lower register demonstrated the most suitable tone and adaptation to this cross-over format of live theatre into cinema. It seemed that the problems with the sound levels had been sorted by Edmund’s first soliloquy. At this point the question of the responses in the cinema audience; their participation in the live event, was raised. The Donmar audience laughed at certain points of the speech. The cinema audience chuckled, nervously it seemed, and this was to be the overall tone of the responses throughout. There was a certain deference in the mood of their responses when it came to laughter and later on applause. To clap or not to clap was an issue. The compromise that was reached was a sort of half-hearted ripple amongst some of the audience members that soon dissipated.

The sound was, it turned out, the least of the technical difficulties encountered. The live feed failed after the first scene with Edgar and Gloucester in the second half and just as Jacobi entered for his first ‘mad’ scene. This fifteen/twenty minute interruption was met with a more uninhibited groan from the cinema audience, in an ‘I told you so’ manner (more used as we are to complaining than offering accolades!). Thus far they felt it had been almost too good to be true and the inevitable technical hitch had to happen. However, the actors recommenced with ease. This highlighted the fact that theatre is about ‘liveness’ and tension, with a detectable sense of risk-taking but also the reassurance of the control that the actors have over the material. Commanding performance takes on a new meaning in this context. In terms of framing and the aspect of the camera angles there were times when they seemed quite cautious and other times when they gave an emphasis and a quality to the scene that was unique to this experience. For example, Lear’s confrontation with Goneril after he insults her servant and then curses her was one scene that came across superbly well. The framing when he bore down on her, although keeping his distance, showed the tension in Jacobi’s body. Gina McKee as Goneril was not fully in view, but when she turned after his tirade had finished, she had tears down her cheeks. This was electrifying and an element of a cinematically streamed live performance that I think could not have been repeated in any other context. The ‘Blow winds’ speech began in a stage whisper, which was – I think – a concession on the part of such a skilled, experienced actor as Jacobi, to the sound quality of the acoustic feed. It built to a brilliant crescendo and the ‘unaccommodated man’ speech following was set within an excellent tableau. Also, Kent (who had a great Midlands twang to his accent that suited his language extremely well) when he is placed in the stocks, was filmed using a panning shot that then came in for a close-up as his speech intensified.

One of the things that I was concerned about was how the action towards the play’s climax would be handled. The series of rapid, physical scenes as the warfare escalates, contrast with the quieter, tragic scenes between Lear and Cordelia. The latter scenes need to offer a calm centre to the action wherein the philosophical meaning of the tragedy is concluded, whilst the madness increases and builds around them. The configuration of the shots and framing did not cause this element to slide, fortunately, and there were genuine tears shed around me at Lear’s recognition of Cordelia and at his entrance with her lifeless body. Although, the camera is still ruthless and unforgiving, and in Pippa Bennet-Warner’s case, as Cordelia, and Jacobi as the dead Lear slumped next to her – we could still detect (very laboured) breathing! It brought home just what an exertion such performance is and the stamina and vigour needed to carry it out, let alone to have to repeat scenes due to a failed satellite link.

Posted in film and television adaptation, Popular Culture, Shakespeare Studies, Theatre | 1 Comment

Today’s the day: Peter Brook’s theatrical economy, ‘A Magic Flute’

Most people can have hardly failed to notice the news today about Arts Council England’s (ACE) announcement of their new portfolio of projects and support for organisations and individuals. From 849 regularly funded organisations there are now 695. This article in the Guardian summarises today’s outcomes: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/culture-cuts-blog/2011/mar/30/arts-council-funding-decision-day-cuts?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

 

Of course, none of this comes as any surprise to most; especially those of us that remember the 1980s and the now legendary (but sadly still real) cuts under Margaret Thatcher. As a student in the late 1980s I went to see the heart-rending and life-changing RSC production of Othello, starring Ian McKellern as Iago, Willard White as Othello, Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona and Zoe Wannamaker as Emilia. I had never realised that theatre performance could bring tears to the eyes (I was about 18 years old, mind). The cathartic effect had never had its full impact on me until then. It was at the Young Vic theatre. The RSC performed a series of benefit (for want of a better word) performances in order to help boost the funds of the theatre. It was and is such an exciting intimate space that has made its reputation and based its establishment on supporting up-and-coming writers, actors and directors. After the performance, as we made our way out of the theatre, stage crew were in place rattling collecting buckets, appealing for our loose change. The memory of it still breaks my heart. How could an artistic establishment (of British theatre at large) that had supported and enabled directors, actors, singers, crew, designers, etc. to make such an powerful and important work come to life once more on stage be reduced to begging in the street? And we are back to that now. Today must be a day of reflection as to what the arts mean to our society. But that reflection must rapidly give way to determination and – not to put too fine a point on it defiance.

 

In the face of such disparaging treatment of the arts in the UK we can look to the continent and to well-established names for inspiration. I am not saying that home-grown ability does not suffice, by no means! But inspiration and innovation comes in many forms and from many sources. None better, perhaps, than Peter Brook and his recent production with Theatre des Bouffes du Nord from Paris of ‘A Magic Flute’ at the Barbican. This production audaciously pre-empted the decisions of the current coalition government, that in reality is dominated by and positively stinks of old-school Toryism, and presented a defiant and rebellious re-imagining of Mozart’s great comic opera, with all the respect for the original but with an eye to sparseness and economy that laughs in the face of cuts. It is almost as if the director were saying, ‘Do your worst! I shall still produce a sublime piece of art that can fit, cast included, into the back of a transit van!’ This is the old master; paring down the work, reinterpreting it as an original piece of theatre – instead of trying to compete with grand scale, high budget productions. An economical piece of theatre for our time.

He has had his detractors during this run. http://www.theartsdesk.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=3359:a-magic-flute-cict/th%C3%A9%C3%A2tre-des-bouffes-du-nord-barbican-theatre&Itemid=27

 

But there has been almost universal admiration from most of the prominent arts’ desks and blogs of the national newspapers.

 

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/michaelwhite/100052311/peter-brooks-new-magic-flute-not-bad-for-86/

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/8414337/The-Magic-Flute-Theatre-des-Bouffe-du-Nord-Orlando-Furioso-Barbican-review.html

 

http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2011/03/28/the-return-of-ulysses%E2%80%99-as-travestied-by-eno-and-honoured-by-pierre-audi-and-peter-brook%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98a-magic-flute%E2%80%99/

 

However, it is not so much what he has accomplished on stage that now has significance after today – it is what it represents culturally for the nation in the aftermath of the last twenty-four hours. Brook has shown that a work of art can be accomplished not just in spite of low production budgets but using them as a stimulus for creativity. He makes full use of the simple staging, so that his free adaptation of ‘A Magic Flute’ as he uniquely terms it, could be performed on the stage of an opera house, a major theatre similar to the Barbican, or in a school gymnasium or a community hall. And as reviewer Michael Church states:

‘Apart from the piano, this entire show – performers and props – would fit into a people-carrier, and could be staged anywhere. This lovely ensemble production should be brought back to tour Britain’s provinces in the culture-starved months ahead.’

We will undoubtedly have to reassess how we present performance and make budgets go further in the coming lean years for the arts. This production of ‘A Magic Flute’ (emphasis on the A as a suggestion) is a possible solution. I think, at the risk of falling for the intentional fallacy, that is what Brook had in mind. Here is an example of how you defy the punishing cuts. Mozart, stripped-down, but still respecting the source, performed by young actors and singers with a solo piano accompanist, flexible staging, symbolism, lyricism intact and all in ninety minutes. I think that Brook is offering us a solution; after having lived through it all and been there and done that! As the marvellously elegant retired Australian actress who was seated next to me in the stalls; a Brook veteran and a mine of information, said to me as we applauded until out hands hurt: ‘Now that’s what it’s all about!’

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KING LEAR LIVE An outline of the presentation and performance

NT Live: Donmar Warehouse, Convent Garden, London &

Bath Little Cinema, Bath, UK

3rd February 2011

 

  • Audience anticipating a 19.00 start but the time dragged on
  • Curtains opened and onscreen were scrolling images of the sponsor Aviva Insurance and some production/rehearsal stills
  • Certification notice finally appeared, telling us that the film was a 12A ‘As Live’ (which did contradict the information on the ticket which stated ‘no certificate’)
  • The live feed began around 19.15 with shots of the audience at the Donmar. This gave the cinema audience a perspective from within the auditorium, to enable us to feel part of things
  • The impatience built, however, as we had no indication of when the performance would start and there were none of the usual distractions of sitting in the cinema, such as trailers, etc.
  • Then a short film about the sponsor’s work with Indian street children appeared
  • After which Emma Freud (TV/Radio Arts presenter) introduced us to the live feed from onstage, informing that we are in for ‘a massive treat’ (!)
  • She conducted a very short interview with the director, Michael Grandage, who commented on the fact that the play would be performed for the audience in the theatre, that ‘people in cinemas will know that’ (he expects us to be a literate and patient group)
  • A short film about the Donmar followed, with interviews from actors (Jude Law, Gillian Anderson, Alfred Molina) who had experience of the space, commenting on the proximity with the audience, the intimate scale etc.
  • We were given a perspective on the theatre which allowed the cinema audience to set things in context
  • The set for the production consisted of weathered white painted boards, which clad the whole interior of the theatre, and suggested a ‘pagan’ ‘purity’ (Grandage) and the white cliffs of Dover
  • Once the feed went live the play had already started and we had missed the actual entrance of Gloucester and Kent!
  • Entrances/exits: single USR, and then through auditorium DSR & DSL. The cinema audience therefore lost out slightly on the promenade aspect of the action with proximity to actors for those moments
  • Cameras seem to be set-up SL and SR, with some hand-held mobile units for tracking and also a bird’s eye shot from the upper circle (will have to defer to Kelli on this and her more expert eye!). The bird’s eye shot gave the cinema audience an enhanced perspective on the floor work in the blocking – best vantage point to us there!
  • Best vocal performances for modulation and projection that did not hurt the sound (!): Jacobi, Michael Hadley as Kent and Paul Jesson as Gloucester (tones of the older, trained male voice seem to work best). Plus Jacobi performed the ‘Blow winds’ speech in a stage whisper, contrasted with loud sound effects, which worked excellently.
  • Memorable scenes for framing and tableau: Lear’s curse to Goneril (the tension visible in Jacobi clearly evident in a full-length shot and when McKee as Goneril turned – to reveal tears down her cheeks); Gloucester and Edgar (as Tom) at the ‘cliff-top’ (when Gloucester speaks of his son and we see Edgar framed in shot just beyond). These scenes spoke of both the force and intimacy possible in such a presentation of the play
  • Unfortunate loss of satellite feed during Lear’s first mad scene in the second half. 15 minutes or so to re-connect. Groans from the cinema audience as if to say ‘I told you so’ (it all felt too good to last!)
  • Actors re-played the Gloucester/Edgar cliff-top scene and the play continued without anymore interruptions.
  • Sensitive radio mics picked up rustling and breathing and the unforgiving aspect of the close-up showed the dead Cordelia and Lear clearly breathing (heavily) after the exertion of the performance – a reminder of how much it takes out of the actor!
  • Unexpected issues over the etiquette of performance for the cinemagoer included: to laugh or not to laugh, and when to clap and for how long if the performers cannot hear you!

Posted in film and television adaptation, Popular Culture, Shakespeare Studies | 6 Comments

KING LEAR LIVE! (unless you are watching the recorded version)

The joint submission from myself and Dr Kelli Marshall for the PCA/ACA Shakespeare on Film and TV panel 2011. Please follow the link for the full proposal and original call for papers. Watch this space for updates, notes and commentary prior to the final paper.

http://kellimarshall.net/unmuzzledthoughts/popculture/film/lear-live/comment-page-1/#comment-5408

Find me on Twitter @gabymalcolm.

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A mature captain, corrupted by a young harridan: Macbeth on the BBC and PBS, directed by Rupert Goold.

Rupert Goold’s version of Shakespeare’s tragedy was filmed for broadcast in Britain and America in 2009/10, based upon the successful stage production first seen at the Chicester Festival, England, in 2007. Subsequently it moved to the Gielgud Theatre in London and was seen on Broadway.

Goold is a young director who displays great finesse with the material he takes on. He managed to transfer the stage performance into a thoroughly realised filmed version. Included in this Macbeth were performances, imagery and aspects of mise-en-scene that were nuanced and revealing and enhanced the impact of the text within a modern setting. This is the best way to go about up-dating Shakespeare. As with Baz Luhrmann’s hugely successful and apt for its time Romeo + Juliet (1995), the ability to reinterpret and absorb the extended metaphors of the text into the action, tension and conflict on screen, demonstrates the director’s ability to appreciate both theatrical and cinematic potential.

 

‘Macbeth’ on screen at the hands of Goold sees Patrick Stewart’s performance set in a series of underground bunkers, passages, dank utility rooms, locker/shower rooms and a stainless steel and tiled kitchen. Goold answers questions on elements of the realisation of the piece: http://www.theatrevoice.com/listen_now/player/?audioID=513

The location shoot took place at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, England. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welbeck_Abbey#Tunnels

 

This stately home, of the Dukes of Portland, has a series of underground tunnels and chambers that seems to have served the production extremely well. The atmosphere is one of operatic oppressiveness and sneering, secretive conspiracy. There is both a claustrophobic quality to the film, suited to the Jacobean origins, as well as a grandeur corrupted by decay and discord. This latter quality gives the impression of a dictatorship in decline. And this is emphasised even more by some of the setpiece soliloquy scenes that are reminiscent of the 2004 film ‘Der Untergang’ (‘Downfall’) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Stewart’s Macbeth is played first as a cocky, defiant, cunning usurper and murderer, feeling as though he is blessed by the cursed, bearded witches, until he is eventually shown as a paranoid tyrant in decline. He talks to himself, abuses his servants and cohorts, distances himself from his wife as she spirals towards suicide. This downward trajectory reflects what we know of the last years, months, and days of dictators from recent history. They gradually buckle under the pressure of their own cruelty and find it impossible to maintain control of such disparate threads as jealous co-conspirators, deranged and guilt-ridden family members, and tormented and oppressed minions.

This seems to have been embraced by Goold as a remarkably apt template for a modern version of the play, but he also draws on further elements of cinema and admits to the inclusion of echoes of contemporary popular culture. The aesthetic of the coldness and clinical quality of a kitchen contrasted with opulence and corruption came from, he admits, his admiration for Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989). This disturbing film has suitable parallels with Macbeth. The proximity with butchery and slaughter that is found in a professional kitchen, the ruthless quality that is perceived when considering the slicing and dicing of meat carcasses, adds to the piquancy of the death dealing. Characters are just so much fodder for disposal in the Macbeths’ pursuit of power. At one point Macbeth says:

 

I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

(Act 3, Scene 4)

This is one of the most powerful and telling puns in the play. The final syllables should be spoken as ‘gore’ – running them together. This image of the ‘tedium of gore’ is particularly descriptive of Macbeth’s situation. He must kill and kill again. He is the closest depiction we have of the cinematic and dramatic psychopath before the term was created.

 

How he arrived at this point, according to Goold, was partly down to the allure, the enthrallment of the ‘young harridan’ – Lady Macbeth. The element of popular culture that is plundered here is the resonance in the gossip mags, that were contemporary with the production, of the difficult marriage (and subsequent bitter divorce) of Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. The age gap between Patrick Stewart and his co-star Kate Fleetwood (coincidentally Mrs. Rupert Goold) was equivalent, Goold admitted, to the dynamic between the former Beatle and his second wife, the self-styled ‘TV presenter, model, activist’. He also indicated that their relationship could be just as toxic. So, exploiting the benefit of the casting, with Fleetwood’s mesmerising portrayal of the ‘fiend-like queen’, and her youth contrasting with Stewart’s maturity, Goold was able to conjure a sexually charged, dangerous, murderous collision of their qualities in performance. The energetic, aspirational military man, Macbeth, willingly embarks on his doomed pathway with the urgency and provocation of his lust-filled, unstable wife. There is no more exciting situation in tragic drama, and watching the ambition, torment and murder unfold was riveting.

Posted in film and television adaptation, Popular Culture, Shakespeare Studies | Leave a comment