Archive for February, 2012

Check? Check

27 February 2012

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This post is in praise of actors, about a moment in Measure for Measure which I saw at the RSC in Stratford at the weekend.

Pompey, the ‘bawd’ or brothel-keeper, is a classic Shakespearian comic, and about two-thirds of the way through, locked up in the city jail, he has a speech which looks like Jacobean babble on the page:

I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession: one would think it were Mistress Overdone’s own house, for here be many of her old customers. First, here’s young Master Rash; he’s in for a commodity of brown paper and old ginger, ninescore and seventeen pounds; of which he made five marks, ready money: marry, then ginger was not much in request, for the old women were all dead.

Then is there here one Master Caper, at the suit of Master Three-pile the mercer, for some four suits of peach-coloured satin, which now peaches him a beggar. Then have we here young Dizy, and young Master Deep-vow, and Master Copperspur, and Master Starve-lackey the rapier and dagger man, and young Drop-heir that killed lusty Pudding, and Master Forthlight the tilter, and brave Master Shooty the great traveller, and wild Half-can that stabbed Pots, and, I think, forty more; all great doers in our trade, and are now ‘for the Lord’s sake.’

On stage, in the Shakespearian-style Swan Theatre, it comes alive, as Pompey, played by Joseph Kloska, uses the audience as the characters, picking them out as he goes through the names and improvising, but just a little, as he goes.

My son happened to be wearing a check shirt, sitting in the front row, and Kloska adapted the line about Master Caper and his “suits of peach-coloured satin” to fit, riding the laughter to add, “You have to work with what you’ve got”. A few lines later he got more laughter by picking out a balding man a few seats along as “Drop-heir”, adding a line to say, “It’s all in the Folios, First Folio, Second Folio”.

It felt as close to the way in which the Shakespearian audience would have experienced a comic actor as is possible for a 21st audience to get.

One other note on the play: one of things you learn when you learn about screen writing is “to love your minor characters”. Shakespeare was there first. The murderer Barnardine is hardly on stage – he only has a couple of scenes – but he steals them both. And it’s all in the writing.

The picture at the top of the post is a production still from the RSC, and is used with thanks.

Especially when it snows

5 February 2012

Waking in London to a landscape of snow sent me looking for an Adrian Mitchell poem I half-remembered. I couldn’t find it, but stumbled on this one instead, an elegy written after the death of their ‘extra daughter’, Boty Goodwin, who adopted the Mitchell family after being orphaned by the sudden death of her father.

Especially when it snows

for Boty

especially when it snows
and every tree
has its dark arms and widespread hands
full of that shining angelfood

especially when it snows
and every footprint
makes a dark lake
among the frozen grass

especially when it snows darling
and tough little robins
beg for crumbs
at golden-spangled windows

ever since we said goodbye to you
in that memorial garden
where nothing grew
except the beautiful blank-eyed snow

and little Caitlin crouched to wave goodbye to you
down in the shadows

especially when it snows
and keeps on snowing

especially when it snows
and down the purple pathways of the sky
the planet staggers like King Lear
with his dead darling in his arms

especially when it snows
and keeps on snowing

I took the text of the poem from Poetry International Web, rather than re-type it, a rich trove that is well worth a visit. The poem is published in the book Blue Coffee by Bloodaxe Books, which remains Britain’s most consistently innovative poetry publisher. The Bloodaxe site also has a video of Adrian Mitchell reading this poem.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Miles and Robert

4 February 2012

Listening to Miles Davis’ record Miles Ahead the other day, I realised with a bit of a start that Robert Wyatt had lifted the opening phrase of ‘The Maids of Cadiz’ for his song ‘Alliance’, on his 1980s record Old Rottenhat. (The Maids of Cadiz is embedded at the top of the post; Alliance can be heard here.)

They’re very different records, of course: Wyatt made Old Rottenhat in the early ’80s in anger about the Thatcherite government and its works, among other things, before moving to Spain for a period of time, although it’s not an angry sounding record. (Actually, it’s pretty much him and a synthesiser, which makes for a very distinctive sound). ‘Alliance’ is a song to the politicians who had left the Labour Party to set up the more centrist Social Democratic Party:

There is a kind of compromise you are master of
Your endless gentle nudging left us polarised
You’re proud of being middle class (meaning upper class)
You say you’re self sufficient (but you don’t dig your own coal)
I think that what you’re frightened of more than anything
is knowing you need workers more than they need you
“A herd of independent minds” Chomsky got it right
Joggling into battle waving old school ties

Of course, he was wrong about ‘knowing you need workers, more than they need you’ – globalisation put paid to that – but that’s a story for another day and probably a different blog.

What struck me here was that musicians and their publishers have ended up in court over far less, but that Wyatt was in a long tradition – going back at least to Bach and Shakespeare – of borrowing something old to start something new. And also that if Miles knew, he’d just smile – or perhaps throw in a quote from ‘Alliance’ the next time he played ‘The Maids of Cadiz’.