Tuesday, 29 January 2013


I was supporting a colleague yesterday to run a training session on how to speak persuasively. I love this work, it's always so interesting to be with a group who are being asked to focus on a specific aspect of psychological and interpersonal functioning.

As the session beds in, pre-emptive intellectual defences are gradually eased away, and an intense, very intimate focus on feelings takes its place.

What I love about this is that it's an opportunity to think about feeling, which is a deeply difficult thing to do, because it entails the attempt to see one's self clearly, a near impossible task. We are like cats, trying to work out what that long flippy appendage behind us is, yet unable to recognize that it's part of us.

Frustration is an emotional response to a perceived impediment. Our English word for it comes straight from medieval Latin, frustrare, disappoint

The feeling of frustration can be connected to further emotional reactions, notably anger and disappointment. One can feel frustration at one's own failure to achieve a goal, frustration at not overcoming concrete external barriers (even if they are impossible to challenge, like a hurricane or earthquake, a hiring freeze, or getting a small baby to sleep).

Very often we experience frustration at the intransigence or incompetence of others, whose sadistic, belittling, indifferent or stupid behaviour blocks our own attempt to achieve something.

Humans experience frustration from birth — being born in the first place is pretty frustrating, because it constitutes a deeply painful transition from a state in which all needs are automatically and instantaneously fulfilled, to one of utter vulnerability. Birth puts us in a position in which we are desperately needy, unable to control even our own limbs. We spend the rest of our lives (whatever else it is that we are trying to achieve) either struggling to, or making sure that we can, meet our own needs, whether alone or through others. The first frustration is, sad to say, the caregiver, who simply cannot give enough to compensate the infant for his or her loss of complete comfort (the womb). Not being able to meet an infant's needs can in turn be very frustrating for the caregiver....

Frustration is thus inextricably built into love.

Of course, none of us can remember this early experience of frustration, which goes some way to explaining how deeply ingrained our responses to feeling it must go. When we start to feel frustrated, it is likely to be difficult to pinpoint exactly what that feeling consists of, where it starts in the body, and what course it will go on to take, mutating perhaps into other kinds of feeling.

Sources of frustration can appear at any time in one's day to day experience, and in one's overall experience of life, whether in career development, personal relationships, State interference, war, pestilence or famine, or not being able to afford a second home. We cannot predict it, or say how long it will go on. Wealth will not protect us from frustration. Nor will intelligence. Nor will youth.

It's what the feeling of frustration leads to that is important. Classic positivist responses are towards rational or logical problem-solving thoughts or actions, based either on personal change or practical alterations. We think, 'if I do this, then I will be able to resolve what is frustrating me — if I am nicer, calmer, more hardworking, then I will get what I want'. Or we think, 'let's get together, find the resources we need, and we will be able to solve this problem'.

What happens, however, if these positivist steps do not lead to resolution? This generates a further conflict for us. In the West, children and young people are taught that logical positivism will produce good results. All we have to do is think, either alone or together, and we will overcome. A truly terrible conflict is created when we come up, as individuals or as groups, against things we cannot solve, overturn, overcome or avoid through the power of thought or action.

Under such conditions, we are likely to become sullen, angry, or even enraged, lashing out either at the apparent source of the barrier, or at ourselves. We may become bitter, resentful, cynical and ironic; mocking the attempts of others to remove the impediment. Alternatively we withdraw completely, accepting defeat and abandoning all hope of a solution. Disappointment takes over and suppresses further activity. Depression ensues.

In the workshop I co-facilitated yesterday, there were two examples of deep frustration, which came out in the roleplay towards the end of the session. One individual felt that, no matter how carefully he made the case, he would never be able to obtain sufficient resource to support him to do his job properly. An intelligent, intellectual man, he had retreated into irony. He entered into negotiation roleplay already defeated and assuming the worst, jibing at his manager with passive aggressive rhetorical questions. Acting the manager, it was self-evident that his request would immediately be refused — it was easy to bat away the frustration, and reinforce the man's powerlessness.

Another individual also entered negotiation feeling that she would not obtain the support she needed to perform her function to its fullest potential. She however, had converted that anticipatory frustration into a simmering anger, which prompted her to treat her interlocutor sometimes as an equal (inappropriate when approaching someone from whom you need something), but at other times as an intellectual inferior (an absolute no-no). She, too, was extremely intelligent, conducting her negotiation in a foreign language. Physically strong and powerful, she could understand, but not accept, the invisible cultural barriers that were in her way, behaving as though she wanted to take them apart with her hands.


So what are we to do with frustration? It is a universal experience. We are all going to experience being thwarted at some point, however advantaged we are. If we are very unlucky, we are going to come up against irrational obstacles that we will be powerless to dissolve, circumnagivate, subvert or dismantle. We have choices in our own responses, some positive and active — but which may not work, others extremely destructive and negative, which are guaranteed not to work. Here are some things to try.


Deliberately resituate the obstacle in the broadest possible perspective. In the great scheme of things, even David Cameron and Gideon Osborne will go away eventually, and Michael Gove cannot live for ever. Your baby will be dry before he is an adult. Your mother won't always refuse you money for magazines. Maximise the spatio-temporal frame around your problem, and it will seem much smaller.

If you are frustrated by, say, your own mortality, your gender and its limitations, your class and its vicissitudes, try the opposite move: narrow down your perspective until you locate the small shivering problem that is really frustrating you, like the state of your intray or the rudeness of another mother at school pick up.

Imagine the obstacle in the bath. Obstacles to humans are usually other humans abusing power in some way, and they look silly when naked themselves, which is how they've made you feel, by turning down your promotion request, or your exceedingly good idea. If you imagine your problem in an irresistibly silly context, it can be a pathway to another form of diminution of the problem.


Devise 100 things you would like to do to defeat the problem, as obscene, sadistic and pointless as you wish. Don't show this list to anyone else. Add to it when you feel the urge.


Ask yourself whether you are being genuinely reasonable in your own demand. Is it really realistic, given all the factors, that your request is going to be granted, that your great idea is really viable, that you should have a promotion, or time off, or a book contract? Are you absolutely sure that you are entitled to what you want? Have a think about the kind of feedback you've had from superiors, colleagues, loved ones and friends. Was it justified? Did you listen to it? Were you given some good advice you've overlooked through pride? Above all, have you made up one kind of frustration to mask not achieving something else?

Before you go down the road of massive frustration, look very hard at your own capacities, and what it is you're trying to achieve. Are you really going about solving your problem or getting what you want in the most productive way? You are special, you are unique, you are brilliant, but you are not indispensable, unless you are the mother or father of very small children. (If this is part of your frustration, remember that frustration is part of love. Looking at your children when they are asleep is probably the best tonic.)

Alternative dimensions

Experiment with completely different activities like cooking, singing or exercise (unless you are a frustrated chef, opera singer or fitness instructor) — looking for fresh outlets for creative energy can alleviate feelings of frustration. Try something well outside your comfort zone. Do yoga with old ladies. Dance. Teach a child to read. It will not make the problem go away, but it will boost your serotonin levels while you suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Voluntary work, that old chestnut. Amazing how your spirit soars when you're not being paid, but you know you're doing something for the common good. One part smug, one part righteous indignation. Just don't let anyone called you a 'silent hero'.


Read up on assertiveness and practise it relentlessly. Look people in the eye. Listen more than you talk. If you are belittled, pause, relax your shoulders, then say in a completely neutral voice, "Please don't talk to me that way". The effect will be spectacular. Just don't say anything else.

Watch your own reactions for aggression, passive or otherwise. Bite it back. Not splurging on the feeling of frustration goes some way to preventing frustration turning into an obstacle in its own right. Sometimes you'll just have to talk about your frustrations, but be aware that venting them also encourages them to grow.

Read widely in general. Other people's books have an amazing capacity to alter perspective and dimension. Just don't read about frustration, it's so frustrating.

Keep a mood diary, rather than a diary of your boss's behaviour in anticipation of a tribunal.


Bide your time. If you can possibly avoid a showdown, do so. They almost never work. This isn't quite the same as withdrawal, in the sense that you have not given up hope of overcoming your obstacle and attaining your goal, you are simply keeping your powder dry.


As infants we simultaneously loved and hated our caregiver for being simultaneously perfect and imperfect. Very confusing time, infancy. As adults, we have long forgotten about this, but perhaps it's worth remembering that we are in love with our frustrations — what thwarts us is what we love. After imagining our frustrators in the bath, what about imagining taking them out to dinner and listening to all their problems? 

Thursday, 24 January 2013

What's in a name, Mary Beard?

I'm delighted that Professor Beard is so constantly herself, or perhaps herselves, in all her fantastic intellectual variety. I'm thrilled that she is a role model for other women.

Bearding Mary might have seemed funny at first, but the trolling that has been aimed at her is, as she puts it herself, truly 'vile'. 

Thank you, Professor, for not spending time plastering yourself in makeup. For not wasting hours of your uniquely multiple public intellectual's life in salons. How would you get everything done? Thank you for spending your time... professing instead, which is what you're paid to do. Thank you for being intelligent, for having common sense, and for having the intellectual humility to know what you know, and listen when you don't. What you do encourages other women to do the same.

Thank you for wearing, doing, saying and thinking as you please, in conversation with others. Your freedom to do this, and your openness, is one of the signs that Britain is a 'free' country.

The comments aimed at Professor Beard, on the other hand, have absolutely nothing to do with freedom of expression. They are hate comments, explicitly hoping to curtail her personal freedom, and are deliberately based on her gender and sexuality. Rather than argue with what she says, obscene comments are designed to bypass her intellect and turn her into an object, which can then be treated in any way the commentator chooses. This is about power.

Professor Beard has been verbally abused, and there is a direct line connecting this to the case of the physical gang rape and murder of the 23-year-old student in New Delhi. If you allow abuse of any kind to take hold in any society, it will gradually corrode attitudes, and enable the unthinkable, justify the undoable. Eve-teasing in India constitutes a perpetual low-level abuse of women, which is aimed at their submission. Opposing this in public is vital, and that's why I'm so grateful to Beard for speaking out in the UK. She calls it 'citizen activism', and plays down the gendered dimension of the abuse she has received, which I also applaud — verbal abuse diminishes all of us, male and female.

The orthodoxy to which so many other women seem to feel they must conform, corseting themselves in tinting, dyeing, dieting, plastic surgery, tanning, manicuring, etc is nothing but a massive waste of the precious golden minutes we have to be alive. It is the behaviour of victims who believe the bullying messages coming at them from all sides, telling them they are acceptable in public life on condition that they cripple themselves in some form. Corsets gave way to hobble skirts, but now women turn their very bodies into corsets.

I don't want to get dragged into the side argument of "but women do these things because they want to, for their own pleasure". That might be true for some women, and I don't judge them — some of my best friends wear makeup. The 'personal pleasure' argument, however, is often used to obscure the real problem, which is the entry to public life.

As Beard suggests, the fear of abuse must put able women off entering the public realm. The playing field is already stacked against women — not in terms of education, in which women (or rather girls) excel, but in terms of sustaining a career through the years of starting a family and raising children. Women are vulnerable to verbal abuse directed at their physical appearance, because women's bodies are designed to give birth, and women instinctively protect themselves as potential vessels of new life, whether or not they actually have children. Women, like men, are sexual beings, and sexuality is ultimately geared, through pleasure, and whether we like it or not, at reproduction. Duh.

No, the point I'm trying to make is that targeting women through abuse of their physical appearance is always and only a power play intended to belittle and subjugate them. In the public sphere, men's physical grooming is conducted through conformity: men conform to uniform codes on a spectrum from the dandy to the grey suit, and simply don't attract the physical denigration reserved for women.

It might be argued that women in public life also conform to various codes of dress. But the difference is that male dandies promote their clothing, its cut, the materials used, while females are tricked into promoting their bodies in and through their clothing.

Professor Beard cuts right through the recessive intricacies of a debate like this, because she is, at all times, herself, doing what she loves to do, which is communicate, teach, learn and debate. She is a woman with alternative points of view to the mainstream, speaking within the mainstream.

Hooray for Mary, for freeing everyone.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Writer's Life

I turned down an offer to write a Proust biography in 2006. I didn't want to write on the writer, having spent several years drowning in his book while I swam my way through a doctorate.

Why so snotty about biography?

I had been indoctrinated as an undergraduate with the idea of focusing exclusively on reading text — privileging close reading to the exclusion of history, whether personal or contextual. In fact I was taught to despise history and biography as being unworthy of study in their own right, in order to bring the study of language further into the light. This was the late 1980s, the heyday of critical theory.

It was assumed, firstly, that I would just know historical and biographical facts, and secondly, that they were of a lower order of knowledge than interpretations of the text. There was such a debate about the valency, credibility and construction of historical perspective, that I was able to wriggle through university history-free. It shocked my history-loving mother.

I did read several biographies of Proust once I was swimming in aforementioned doctorate, although I went on despising them, and pretending I hadn't read them.

Bit like pretending one doesn't look things up on Wikipedia.

Again, why so snotty about biography? 

Well, if I'm honest, there's definitely a part of me that can't stomach Proust's actual leisured, wealthy life, illnesses and complex sexuality, although I can intellectualize with the best of them about the polymorphic properties of sex as they are represented in A la recherche.

Ultimately I shy away from Proust's practice later on in life of watching rats fight with each other in order for him to achieve orgasm. Proust was an idol and an inspiration as a writer — I had feet of clay when it came to rats. It was a truth I would rather not have known about the writer, and I can't decide whether or not it impacts on my understanding of A la recherche, or its moral worth.

In a similar way it's hard to decide whether right-wing German philosophers like Heidegger or critics like Paul de Man should be thrown out of the syllabus.

Is that a compelling reason to be snotty about biography?

My one watertight defence is that Proust himself argued against looking for analogues in the life of its writer in order to explain a book. In fact, this is the very wellspring of A la recherche. His novel began life as an essay against the literary critic Sainte-Beuve, written in the form of a conversation with his mother. Characters started to emerge within this essay, and he put the novel together as a series of stitched-together sketches. Structure emerged.

Recently, however, my thinking on all this has been challenged, as I struggle away with my own writing.

I have been reading Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's outstanding critical biography of Dickens, and have realized for the first time (ignoramus that I am) that his novels emerged out of sketch writing. He started in life as a jobbing writer and journo, started to get known as Boz, for writing sketches and observations of London Life (he was a blogger, essentially), and out of that characters emerged, to whom readers responded by asking for more. So much about his practice was a relationship and response to readers in real time, plus a very high degree of self-performance.

I came to realize that it is very useful to a writer (a wouldbe writer) to read about a writer's creative practice -- what real writers actually do to get their stuff written.

More recently still, Rachel Cusk has written a perceptive and intelligent piece in the Guardian on the rise of the creative writing course, and the justification for including such courses within 'the academy'.

She takes issue with the argument against them, that 'creative writing can't be taught'. This is the same argument that has always beset literary criticism: that 'taste' cannot be taught.

In French studies in the 1980s, the desire to level the playing field against charges that it was elitist constituted a vulnerability, which gradually allowed critical theory to ossify the subject, rendering the study of texts sterile, in the effort to make close reading somehow objective.

What was great about studying French literature when I did was that it seemed in the vanguard of critical thought, and grain by grain, through arguments and bits of reading, I learnt to appraise whatever text came my way. What came with this, however, was the inability to read my own writing with anything other than a critical eye — and this is where I would have cherished the communality that Rachel Cusk describes. I was constantly searching out whatever was creative about studying literature and thought, and actually found the outlet in innumerable (probably terrible, though I loved them) plays as an undergraduate. The creative writing course — there was only the UEA's MA in existence when I left college in 1991 — would have fused the critic and the actress in me, and been a panacea to both.

Ah well. I'll just have to set up my own.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

What exactly IS self-esteem?

So I come from the generation that grew up knowing they were supposed to have self-esteem. Work on it, build it, have it respected by others, etc etc.

The term is such an embedded cliche it seems to hold little power any more. When Gok Wan does his thing, he is wholly focused on enabling women to reevaluate their self-esteem, and encouraging them to believe that they are 'worth it'. It seems so cheesy, so easy to laugh at.

So I looked up 'self-esteem' on Wikipedia.

Self-esteem, apparently, is an evaluation of one's own worth. Only under conditions of capitalism could psychology be commodified in this way, it seems to me. That it took Carl Rogers to invent the notion of 'unconditional regard', that we needed to be told or sold the idea that we ought really to be nice to each other, speaks volumes about the appropriation of essential humanity by its own false representations of itself.

Self-esteem is a mixture of a JUDGEMENT we perform upon our own competence, our ability to cope with Life, and our ATTITUDE towards that judgement. This can be benign and forgiving, or punitive and critical. You might judge yourself to be rubbish in general, or rubbish at one specific thing, while at the same time forgiving yourself for it, and telling yourself you'll just have to try harder. Or you might judge yourself negatively, specifically or globally, and then castigate yourself endlessly.

As we develop from childhood into adolescence and then adulthood, our capacity for self-evaluation increases. We become aware of differences between ourselves and others, and we start to measure these, and assess ourselves against a scale of values, which are internalized from our parents, our education, and whatever it is that is character in us.

The greater the cognitive development, the higher the risk to healthy self-esteem. Positive self-regard can be threatened by an increased understanding that our most dreaded self might plausibly be our real self. A spiral develops, plotted on the coordinates of our need for respect from others, against our need for inner self-respect. If we start to believe, perhaps through a lack of respect shown to us, or through magnifying our own fears that we are not worthy of regard, this spiral will become tighter.

Many people have either outright low self-esteem -- effectively they actually despise themselves. Low self-esteem can lead to full-blown depression. Many others have defensive high self-esteem. They measure their worth highly, yet feel under constant threat from potential criticism. They rely on constant positive feedback. Their high self-regard is permanently in question and under assault.

It seems to me that defensive high self-esteem is an ego position in which judgement of one's self does not match attitude towards one's self. Self-judgement, based on importing external measurements of competence, is called into question by emotions like shame, guilt, doubt, anger, directed against the self. If a person has that kind of war going on internally, it doesn't take much for slings and arrows from beyond the castle to get in.

People with defensive high self-esteem ultimately believe they ought to have low self-esteem, and cannot protect themselves from this belief. The basement of the castle is flooded.

Proust demonstrates a strong example of defensive high self-esteem. So do some people who appear on self-help shows and become aggressive when challenged.

I wonder whether the reason so many people are so moved by the spectacle of Anne Hathaway playing Fantine is that the pity and awe we are supposed to feel when watching tragedy is based on our identification with the movement of degradation when positive self-regard is corrupted into low self-regard.

What now?

Perhaps we identify with Fantine, not because our lives are like hers, but because we recognise that it's possible for anyone to slip into despair.

The Motherload, January 2013

I am embarrassed by my freedom at the moment. Be careful what you wish for.

I have spent the last six years experimenting with different modes of mothering, different employment directions, different approaches to writing, in a sometimes exhausting, sometimes exhilarating attempt to deal with my Motherload.

In that time I have dealt with immigration, housing, education, health, psychology, economics, employment, unemployment, transferable skills, and some other stuff I can't remember now. That was just at home.

Now my son is six, my daughter nine. They go to school. I tutor. My (school) day is my own. By comparison with previous years where I was either a full-time worker or carer, this is unimaginable, golden freedom. I am almost looking for sources of stress, so addicted am I to the need to be needed, so ready for the endless volleys of comment and criticism that come at mothers from all directions.

Now I am ready to write. I am ashamed that I was unable to write my way through those years: others seem to manage it. I couldn't. There are reasons why, and can be summarised as a crash course in home economics, never before learnt, because I spent the first half of my life living, essentially, as a man, even to the point of becoming a Fellow of a Cambridge college. Men still, essentially, don't learn home economics, they may be doing more about the house, but my reality has been that unless I became the spine of the household, it wouldn't work.

That is NOT to accuse my poor long-suffering husband of laziness. He pulls his weight. But I am undoubtedly the Command And Control Centre, a role I hate beyond all reason, but which I am, sad to say, best equipped to do. Why? Because in my life as a literary critic, it was my job to notice and clear up overlooked detail. Children are like novels, sprawling, waiting to be read and appreciated, easy to misread, and needing special consideration if their message is to be heard. I might have been a Fellow, but I was always a Mother-In-Waiting.

Why has it taken me more than six years to realise that tutoring is a wonderful way to carry on the teaching I loved at Cambridge? In the end I haven't needed to transfer my skills at all. My journey around management consultancy, and writing for an education information service, my time as Chair of Govnernors, the freelance consultancy and coaching I've done and still do, have all taught me the value of being a wide achiever, as opposed to a high achiever. So many women make or are forced into that choice. What I would like to aim for is serial achievement.

Perhaps now that my children can make their own breakfast, I have seen the last of cereal achievement, and can get back to my books.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013


A few years ago, Perry Anderson wrote a brilliant piece on French miserablism.

The French national stereotype is an indifferent shrug of the shoulders: it's cool not to care. Anderson's point was that the powerful French tradition of staging a conflict between passion and cynicism, most obviously in the nineteenth century as Romanticism slowly gave way to Realism (echoing the movement from revolution to restoration to republicanism), has turned really sour.

Because the French civic ideal is social justice for all, it has a massive national debt. The state benefits infrastructure is cripplingly expensive, and will not survive the European recession intact. The outpouring of anger and proto-rebellion has been steady for several years now, as workers' rights are curtailed in favour of the employer, and long hard looks are taken at healthcare subsidy.

This generalised economic gloom in the face of austerity has been coming out in French literature and film for some time. Houellebecq's portraits of disenchantment draw their sap from French miserablism.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that English audiences are crying their eyes out at a Hollywood adaptation of a French musical adaptation of a nineteenth-century French Romantic/Realist novel.

As we watch and pity Fantine and Valjean, Eponine, Marius and Cosette (and wonder why Sacha Baron-Cohen plays Thénardier as Fagin), we are of course all wondering how far we have to fall ourselves, whether if we took to the streets we'd all be shot, and how we managed to elect a bunch of right-wing fools to manage the nation's finances by making us pay for each of its mistakes.

Look who's miserable now.

Les Misérables

I took my nine-year-old daughter to see the film adaptation of Les Mis last weekend.

I was slightly nervous about what she'd make of it: the story is, after all, one of grinding poverty, the descent into prostitution of well-meaning women, breaking parole and living as a fugitive, obsessive pursuit, despair and failed revolutions. I mean, I don't let her watch Eastenders, so why would I allow her to see Fantine have no other option but to sell herself to feed Cosette?

In my mind, the justification is that she's got an appetite for storytelling, and knows the difference between fact and fiction. I want to share stories with her that I have found moving, effective, compelling in the past -- although there's always a bit of an issue if I try to ram something I know to be canonical down her throat: she can sniff out my mauvaise foi a mile off. But I feel it's important and right to be experimental. We could always leave, I reasoned, if she was really upset by it. So, in we went.

And was she upset? Well, she hid her eyes when Gavroche was shot. And asked me in puzzlement what the man was doing to Fantine. But frankly the one doing the sobbing was me.

Les Mis is such a tearjerker that you have to draw a distinction between being disturbed by inappropriate content, and responding to the terrible sadness portrayed with empathy. It isn't horror, although some of the events we witness are horrific. And it's not softened by being a musical version of the original novel -- the songs are like an intravenous injection of affect. My daughter was rapt.

I was blown away by the impact of the high Romantic ethos and the melodrama of the musical adaptation. One gave permission for the other, and it tore through all my careful critical filters. Of course at some level I know it's as hammy as a soap opera. But Hugo had something real to say about the degradation of the human spirit under conditions of martial law, and when there is no social safety net. He was, or rather he gradually became, a progressive democrat. Hugh's tools are a fluency in the language of the passions, and a gift for plotting that power through the most aloof, snobbish, detached or cynical mind. He argues for social justice and against meanness of spirit and transmits his message through an irresistible narrative.

Yet for all its high romantic credentials, the central protagonist, Jean Valjean, does not have a love interest. He rescues Fantine out of guilt and shame that his lack of awareness precipitated the chain of events that led to her downfall. And he takes on the care of her child because of the same sense of obligation. The love triangle is left for Cosette, Marius and the daughter of the Thénardiers. The highest form of love is defined by Hugo in no uncertain terms: it is a Christian love of one's fellow men, a kind of unconditional regard for the other, which leads Valjean to forgive Javert over and over again, despite Javert's obsessive and relentless pursuit. Hugo offers an implicit critique of marriage, suggesting that families are social units which can emerge out of all kinds of liaison.

All this lit crit stuff aside, the thing that had me sobbing was Anne Hathaway singing 'I dreamed a dream', in a single take, with a camera close up in her face. I have never seen a performance so powerful.

When I cautiously asked my little girl a couple of days later whether she thought she should have seen it, she considered the question and said that she wasn't sure it was really aimed at children, but that she was glad she'd seen it, because it made her think.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Outrageous liberty

On Saturday night I was at the Donmar, sitting on the world's slackest grey plastic chair, transfixed by the sight of Harriet Walter playing Brutus in an all-female production of Julius Caesar, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, late of Iron Lady and Mamma Mia film fame.

I've seen Edward Hall's all-male Shakespeare productions, and I seem to recall an all-male bard's production of Twelfth Night from Cheek by Jowl, starring Adrian Lester, in Paris a few years back. Very transgressive, to go back to the theatrical rules of the 16th and 17th century, and have boys playing girls. Very.

I have never seen an all-woman cast playing anything since I cast myself to play Macbeth in the lower sixth, shuddering and squealing manfully as Banquo staggered onto the stage.

I've certainly never seen an all-woman cast do a production of a resolutely macho, sickeningly violent Shakespeare play like Julius Caesar.

Now, I don't get out as much as I used to, and was perhaps irritatingly excited by the whole event anyway, but no amount of gimmickry will ever get me to sit up on the edge of my seat for two hours straight watching ladies shout, not even bingo. It would have to be something prett-y special to make me gasp and clutch the shoulder of the person next to me.

In the end, what was so radical about Cush Jumbo, Frances Barber, Harriet Walter and Jenny Jules et al in this production was that there WASN'T a radical, leftist, feminist, separatist, lesbian agenda. The play isn't about Wimmin's Issues at all. It was simply a bunch of super-talented people acting, making music, and moving us to tears. They just happened to be women.

It's still rare, I grant you, but the fact that it is possible for an off-West End theatre to give the green light to a production that is experimental in its staging and compelling in its energy and performed by women is a marker. Something has shifted.

Here's the visible sign of that shift. One of the actresses was playing the only female character, Portia, Brutus's wife. She appeared on stage with a cushion stuffed up her dress, and did her self-mutilating scene to try to persuade Brutus to reveal his worries to her by any means available.

So far so conventional. But when the same actress reappeared playing Octavius Caesar, a leading general, and still had the cushion stuffed up her costume, it finally dawned on the audience: she is actually pregnant in real life. But because life goes on during pregnancy (in every possible sense) this professional actress is still working. It didn't matter that the general had a bump, because she was acting. It's called 'suspension of disbelief'.

So imagine my surprise when I came home and read the Telegraph's review. I'm not going to link to it, I don't want it on my blog. But let me quote some of its highlights:
Shakespeare never, after all, believed that a single word he wrote would ever be uttered upon a stage by a woman, because the Lord Chamberlain had decreed that female parts could only be played by young men in drag. [My emphasis]
Gosh, did he really? What is mildly surprising is that Tim Walker, calm and moderate author of the review, feels that he has a direct dial to the mind of a man who died in 1616. Yes, I can well believe that Walker knows exactly what Shakespeare thought about women. Funny, isn't it, how many times Shakespeare stages gender confusion in his plays. Or how many references in Julius Caesar itself there are to 'womanish' feelings?  But obviously that kind of textual evidence for Shakespeare's complete awareness of, and play with, the travesties wrought by political correctness couldn't outweigh Tim Walker's unmediated communion with the Bard. We're lucky to have Tim.

And here is Walker's assessment of Lloyd's framework idea for the production:
Lloyd attempts to justify the outrageous liberty that she has taken with Julius Caesar by setting it against the backdrop of a women’s prison, where clearly the inmates have to make do with what they’ve got when they set about putting on a special production of the tragedy. It is an absurd contrivance which serves only to demonstrate quite how imprisoned the director is by a patently daft idea, if not also her political correctness and vanity. 
Yes, 'clearly' they had to make do with just a few props, thereby revealing that they aren't proper actors.

Mmmm, few props, just like Shakespeare. Or travelling Mummers. Or most theatre that doesn't rely on big-budget sets and costumes for its effect.

Two of the actresses come from Clean Break Theatre Company, and have served time. Maybe theatre has helped them. I wouldn't know. I hope so. But setting the production of the play inside a prison, thus making it hard for the audience to reconcile whether they are fellow prisoners or voyeurs, and then revealing the woman playing Caesar as a prisoner officer at the end, were, to my mind, fantastic devices for revealing that the play isn't about men, but about power.

What an outrageous liberty.