Shakespeare’s Restless World

Remember that class artefact-oriented BBC series from a few years back, A History of the World in 100 Objects? Sure, we all do. Well Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum and the guy who was responsible for that, did a similar series on Shakespeare, and it’s ace.

Maybe a bit too into finding modern-day parallels, but expert analysis, well-acted excerpts and does a great job of bringing in the whole of society, rather than just royal fracas.

Melvyn Bragg: The Matter of the North

After watching Game of Thrones I’ve become terribly sentimental about the North of England, so the timing on me finding out about this series was bang on. Public service broadcasting at its best, the BBC’s resident brain Melvyn Bragg goes through the history of the North of England, from the Norman invasions to The Beatles. Judi Dench is also in it, being class. Public service broadcasting at its best, etc. etc.

Samuel Beckett’s ‘Molloy,’ performed by Barry McGovern

mcgovernThe video embedded above is one of my favourite voices, Barry McGovern, reading my favourite section of one of my favourite novels. It is an auditory delight for me on an incalculable number of, or three, levels.

Molloy is one of Beckett’s first wandering vagrant characters and the focus of the first part of his 1951 novel, Molloy. Throughout the narrative he wanders uncertainly around an uncertain city and through an uncertain countryside (albeit one with a distinctly Irish ambience) before being apprehended in uncertain circumstances and made to commit his narrative to paper. The reasons for this are not stated clearly.

McGovern narrates a point in the novel at which Molloy finds himself at the seaside, determined to initiate a routine through which he can suck sixteen small stones that he has acquired for an equal amount of time. The more he thinks about how this system should be instituted, the more complicated the issue becomes.

This video functions more like a soundscape than a straightforward audio rendering, something I think more aural interpretations of an author’s works should aspire to, especially considering Beckett’s willingness to experiment with radio plays during his lifetime. A slower voice (also McGovern’s?), more drained of enunciation and distorted, both from its apparent distance and possibly from its sounding like a tape recorder, repeats what Molloy has just said and at some points also manages to outrun his lagging train of thought, emphasising Molloy’s cognitive decline, as if such a thing needed to be emphasised. Occasionally the voice will add words to McGovern’s initial enunciation, or deliver them with a far more pronounced terseness, as if the responsorial Sam cannot stand being in thrall to the tedious explications.

The recording is also interpolated with a number of non sequiturs  in the form of an motor starting up and a garbled atonal note from a trumpet. These come to prominence as Molloy is frantically outlining his scrupulous methodology, undermining the sense that his approach proceeds along rational lines, or that he has a sympathetic listener. Whatever is causing this noise seems pretty determined to drown Molloy out.

McGovern’s voice occasionally increases in volume and apparent proximity, as if he’s suddenly leaning quite intently into the microphone. These articulations have a surreptitious intimacy to them and expands the range of McGobern’s expression into three or so, normal McGovern, whisper-in-your-ear McGovern and the tape recorded McGovern. This triumvirate McGovernance suggests the increasing diminution of self-presence, a crucial theme in the Trilogy of MolloyMalone Dies and The Unnamable. The failed unity of the three is established roughly halfway in when the narrator allows the tension to build for the barest second, before two of them pronounce ‘all!’ slightly out of step with one another.

Sound, sound, sound.

Two Scenes from Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’

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For about seventeen minutes, we have the same shot of Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham on either side of a small table in a private room in Prison Maze. Fassbender is leaning forward for most of it, sitting back only at one point, when Cunningham accuses him of political nihilism and criticises his political strategy for its insufficient valuation of his life and those of his fellow Republican prisoners. Other than that, motion is minimal; it is only the blue smoke from their cigarettes that provide any sense of movement, whirling about in the darkened room in the infinite number of slightly haunting ways that smoke does, only serving to highlight the men’s static, almost silhouetted, figures.

From a thematic perspective, representing the two as mostly immutable has the effect of visually stating the irreconcilability of their viewpoints, Fassbender representing Bobby Sands’ commitment to starve himself, the rock to the hard place of Cunningham, as Father Dominic Moran, advocating the nitty-gritty, unsexy work of community building. It could be said that what we have here is a visual thesis and antithesis, an argument between life and death.

The metaphor never stultifies the scene of course — the most notable thing about it is its dynamic exchange of dialogue, which is naturalistic and casual. For its first half it is devoted to what resembles mere patter or small talk, as the two spar over their early lives in the two very different Northern Irelands that they grew up in. The scene is uncompromising for potential outsiders to the conflict and its history; casual references to Northern Irish geography and the various factions within the IRA and the British state abound.

The shot change, when it does eventually come, results in a close-up of Fassbender, in which, over the course of four and a half minutes, he tells a story from his childhood. His narrative involves putting dying foal out of its misery in front of a number of boys taking part in a cross-border cross-country running initiative. He tells the story as a means of impressing upon the priest his level of commitment to the cause, and his justification for refusing to compromise. Once the camera has followed Fassbender’s cigarette, it once again becomes still, and remains fixed, and Fassbender looks at a point just beyond it. The fixity of his gaze is starkly unstinting, at only one point at the start of the story does he look away, point having misspoken.

twoThe consequence of having such a tight focus on Fassbender, particularly wearing the expression that he does, is that we are brought right into the remit of his intensity. The immovability of his gaze, the taunting angle of his eyes, just bisecting the camera, and by association the viewer, makes clear the irrelevancy of circumstance to his character and his strength of will. The shot is intended to cow us, as is attested to by the countershaft that contains Cunningham. He does not maintain his gaze as Fassbender does, but looks around, turning over the implications of the narrative, his realisation of his inability to change Sands’ mind. His capitulation is just as haunting as anything else in the scene, “Couldn’t have that on my conscience, no.”

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He also doesn’t speak any dialogue in his close-up, Fassbender dominates his frame, but Cunningham seems trapped, uncomfortable.

Another scene of significance to the film, and our understanding of Sands, is the polysemous ending, in which Sands dies, which appears to be interspersed with fragments of memory from the cross-border cross-country running he tells Father Moran about. But there is a problem of interpreting the scene as just a manifestation of Sands’ memory, or merely an instance of life flashing before his eyes. For one, would the priest that beat Sands for drawing the foal have allowed him to participate in the event afterwards, second, his friends aren’t singing pop songs, as Sands remembers, but a Belfast variation on the ’Everywhere We Go’ song. We could put this down to Sands’ faulty memory, the loss of a somewhat unimportant detail, but it seems like a slip that shouldn’t be ignored, based perhaps off the vividness of the foal episode.

fourNext we have Sands running through the Goath Dobhair countryside, apparently by himself, having long outrun his friends, referring to his speed in his conversation with Father Moran. The overt connection of Sands in a darkened wood, following unclear path with his death shouldn’t require too much unpacking, but what could have been a very of-itself closing sequence rises to something a lot more evocative and almost supernatural, when we recall Sands’ belief that in his next life, he’d find himself closer to the land in some way, and that Gaoth Dobhair is, in his eyes, paradise.

fiveThe sudden looseness of the camera, the quick edits from the birds on the tree to their departure and sudden drunken veering in the night sky, not to mention the apotheosis and abrupt bathos of the score, is probably beyond my ability to wholly digest and reproduce, and it is in the resonance of the inferences and loose ends that the power of the shots reside.

Declan Kiberd at the Theatre of Memory Symposium

Declan Kiberd giving a rather brilliant talk on the state of Ireland, memory and its relationship to culture. Great readings of Yeats, Joyce and the revolutionary generation abound, albeit greenwashed slightly. Also has a dig at the revisionist historians, which I would make more of if it wasn’t for his great idea for a new, radical arts policy.

The Radio Drama of Samuel Beckett and Dylan Moran

dylanI’ve been a fan of Dylan Moran’s stand-up for as far back as I can remember, since I saw his first stand-up special Monster. I think I was about twelve, and Moran’s misanthropic and depressive whimsy got lodged deep into my world view, and influenced me to try stand-up the few times that I did, aswell as slur the way I speak infinitesimally. I’m not sure if the way I speak now is my actual voice. I would obsessively Google clips in the hopes of finding bootleg gigs, as Moran has always been quite good modifying and improvising local and topical material unlikely to turn up in his one-hour specials, the best example of which is his commentary on the 2011 Irish presidential election in Roísin Dubh, Galway.

It was during one of these excursions into the vortex of ‘Related Videos’ that I turned up a radio play that Moran wrote for the BBC, entitled ‘The Expedition,’ in which the protagonist, Aidan Clarke, addressed his absent girlfriend Isabel, in a series of recordings. Their relationship seems to be reaching a breaking point, but nevertheless, Aidan updates Isabel on his progress on a hike with her brother Leonard, though, in the same manner of Eminem’s ‘Stan,’ it is uncertain how the protagonist will get the recordings will make it to her, and why also, he renders them episodically, if it is the case that he will play all of them to her when he returns from his hike.

I would be surprised if Moran didn’t have the drama of Samuel Beckett in mind here. The most obvious parallel is his 1958 play Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an ageing man, apparently a writer, pores over a directory of recordings that he has made on every one of his birthdays, and makes a new one. Rather than dwelling on the details which his young self imparts with most fervour, his aesthetic realisations about life, love, art and all that, Krapp is most interested in returning to recollections of his bygone sexual conquests. Krapp’s Last Tape is far more engaged with the medium in which the recordings are contained than Moran is; the only signal we have that what we are listening to is the imprint of a magnetic field is the click-click noise that each monologue begins with.

Like Krapp’s Last Tape, however, it does chart the decline of its protagonist, from getting nippy and passive aggressive with his partner to succumbing to psychosis and delusion in the play’s second half. Albeit psychosis with comedic intent. It is in these sections that the whimsy that characterises Moran’s act enters the play, the marrying of surreal situations, such encountering a camel in a blizzard on a mountain, with the quotidian experience of being a tourist out of water, trying to amiably make chat with a local. His increasingly choppy and erratic syntax, as well as his estrangement from conventionally expressed emotion may well recall Beckett’s later, scatty prose works: ’I want to say that I want to go home, the wind. The wind.’

It is a cliché generally observed in Irish comedy journalism that such acts driven by their loquaciousness and absurdist perspectives be compared to Flann O’Brien, in who’s writing we see similar things. And this is fine, Moran probably read him and I think Tommy Tiernan is a fan, but it ignores the fundamental aspect of stand-up, and what makes it a form worth discussing on its own terms; the performative element.

Moran’s comedy is primarily character-based; we respond to his material in ways that if another, more Apollo Theatre type stand-up were to make them, we wouldn’t, because he is, in a very short period of time, capable of conveying to an audience what kind of comedian he is. His coming onstage stage in Monster for example features a glass of wine, extravagant arm gestures, a half-hearted audience greeting, and a spot of bother with the mic stand.

This affectation of partial incompetence or world-weariness is what makes his observations on boozing and drugs in his first special, and his take on family life in his second and those thereafter so good. In the former we see that he’s probably the type to have partaken his fair share of intoxicants. In the second, the absurdity is compacted, as he hasn’t quite shaken off the image of the perpetually drunk sexily dishevelled raconteur. In saying so, I don’t demean character-based stand-up. Stand-up, as traditionally practiced, requires repetition of material, glossed with the illusion of spontaneity.

Flann O’Brien is a very different creature. I’ve sometimes been at odds with his current critical reputation, which seems to me to depend more on his columns than his novels, The Third Policeman, At-Swim-Two-Birds and An Béal Bocht. Seeing him as an anticipator of contemporary Irish stand-up seems to miss how withdrawn he is as an author from his work, how hermetic and alienating his writing style is. In The Third Policeman for example, the bicycles seem more animated than the allegedly human characters, who barely seem to have advanced beyond the sentience of Syngean automata. Fintan O’Toole has spoken well on this peculiar sense of rootlessness in O’Brien’s writing, and wondered how it is possible for such an archetypal postmodern stylist to emerge from a society which hadn’t quite entered modernity yet.

This impersonal note sounded in O’Brien’s fiction is almost antithetical to the notion of comedy as practiced by Moran, who’s stage persona manages to be vital, even when channeling Beckett.