We waste our lights in vain, like lamps by day.

Mercutio: I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind

Romeo & Juliet, Act 1, Scene 4

Verona

I will never forget the first time I saw Romeo & Juliet. I was young and despite knowing the outcome of the tragic love story I was utterly unprepared for the blunt realness of the characters, the utter truth of their emotions and intentions, and the stark, gut-wrenching sadness of the climactic scene which left me breathless, shaken to my core, unearthing emotions that I had never known in my short life but were curiously understandable and resoundingly authentic.

Since then I have performed, directed, taught, and studied the play in many different forms and each time, without fail, the work reveals further shades of beauty, paradox, irony and consequence. And each time I am left astonished by the power and truth of this most ubiquitous of tales.

One of the great geniuses of Shakespeare is his acute awareness of narrative timing: when to reveal certain information and to whom, making the audience an unwitting and unwilling party to circumstances the characters are unaware of until it is too late, positioning the viewers in that torturous realm of bearing too much knowledge while possessing too little power, and with nothing to do but watch helplessly as events hurtle toward their inevitable conclusions. And with this very deliberate tactic Shakespeare masterfully underpins the ever-present power of fate that the characters observe in the throes of their helplessness throughout the play.

Fate and premonition feature large in Shakespeare’s work, and the audience is constantly challenged to consider the play of cause and effect in each character’s arc, the agony of thwarted plans and mislaid intentions. Shakespeare uses this powerful form of character-sympathy to great effect, causing us to align ourselves not only with Romeo and Juliet, but with the entire cast, the good and the bad. We find ourselves in admiration of Tybalt, entranced by his unflinching honor and prowess, qualities even the cynical Mercutio is forced to respect in his appraisement of Tybalt’s character. We are ever grateful for the presence of the able but peace-loving Benvolio, loyal and caring to a fault, but a man’s man when the occasion calls. The Nurse and Friar Lawrence play stable, wise adults amidst the tumultuous broil of youthful passion, but are real enough to make mistakes and to accept their own powerlessness in the face of the all-consuming hatred between the two households.

But above all it is Mercutio who steals the play. From the moment he first appears we feel the tangible pull of his tragic fate as strong as that of Romeo’s. Yet in a way his story surpasses even his friend’s in the depths of its heart-wrenching sadness because he is the only one who is ultimately faultless and can see the entire charade for what it is: “nothing but vain fantasy, which is as thin of substance as the air and more inconstant than the wind.”

Mercutio is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s ‘fool’ characters whose mocking humor betrays his insight into the reality of circumstances; the futile struggle against the pride and inconstancy of man. His death is among the most telling and tragic moments of the stage, because with him dies the truest of all loyal, wise and innocent spirits.

For even up until his death Mercutio truly wants to believe in the invincibility of his friendships, he wants to believe in the love that Romeo proclaims, he wants to believe in the innocence of their youthful rebellions, he wants to believe in the honor and nobility of Tybalt’s pride, and yet he knows that it is all doomed. This, as much as his defence of Romeo’s honor, is what drives him in anger to challenge Tybalt, knowing as he does that underneath their boyish tussling death waits concrete and inevitable.

John McEnery’s portrayal of the character in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film interpretation is one of the truest renditions yet. From the madness of the Queen Mab speech through to his untimely death, the sheer mortality of the character quivers beneath McEnery’s every mocking phrase and slapstick outburst. Never once does he misinterpret or let slip the intensity of Mercutio’s loyalty to Romeo, even in the throes of death. McEnery’s Mercutio knows the imminence of his fate, and yet when he meets it, he wrestles still with the senselessness of the loss of his young life at the hands of an ancient, baseless feud. This is what makes his famous curse so much the fullness of despair and fatality: “A plague on both your houses!”

Mercutio

Taking us far beyond a simple, tragic love story, in Romeo & Juliet Shakespeare captures completely the beauty and violence of young male friendship, rivalry and loyalty, and through each new interpretation it is those scenes, full of hot-blooded mateship and mischief, that are most savoured, that enthral our emotion and attention: the lewd and tempestuous fight scene at the opening of Act 1; the bizarre yet insurmountably potent Queen Mab speech; the verbal jousting between Romeo and Mercutio in Act 2; and finally the catalytic opening of Act 3 which brings about the death of Mercutio and Tybalt and the banishment of Romeo, and which, some would argue, is the truest climax of the story, packing as much emotional significance as even the lover’s tomb scene.

Romeo & Juliet is more than a tale of ill-fated love and the impotence of pure intentions amidst an ancient vendetta of hate; it is the embodiment of the nobility and beauty of friendship and loyalty, never so strong as in the emotional upheaval of blind youth.

It is a celebration of the colour, life and passion of human relationships, a message that Mercutio sings loud throughout the play and which will never ring dull on the ears of a contemporary audience, not in the past, not now and certainly not into the future.

 

Elise Janes

 

Ronan & Julia

 

I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars.

– Romeo & Juliet,  Act 1, Scene 4

Image 3

Ronan rubs his fingers against his eyelids, scrunching his eyebrows towards the top of his nose.

‘Mm hmm, sounds good,’ he says.

‘Not finished,’ says Julia, ‘we then go to Malawi Beach, to Chipata, Chipata to Lusaka, Lusaka to Livingstone.’

Ronan sighs.

‘Julia?’

‘What?’ she snaps, scratching at her scalp.

‘It’s off,’ he says.

Julia pulls at her white harem pants and bites her lip.

‘Us or the trip?’ she says, quietly.

Ronan raises his eyebrows, wide-eyed.

‘The trip.’


Ronan taps a shiny, black lace-up boot against the linoleum and plants his hands on his hips.

‘Time to be a real adult,’ he says.

‘Yeah, you’ll kill it,’ Julia says, wiping a dollop of yoghurt off her night-shirt.

Ronan chuckles, shuffling towards Julia. He leans in close to her and plants a warm kiss on her lips.

‘I’ve got to go, Grub,’ he says.

His keys jangle sharply as he shoves his phone into a trouser pocket. He leans in to the mirror, running pale fingers through his hair, before standing back to pout, ever so slightly.

‘Bye,’ he says, unsmiling, picking up his leather briefcase.

When she hears his footsteps disappear down the hallway, Julia rubs at her scalp and lets out a shaken sigh. Balancing her tub of yoghurt against her leg, she carefully reaches for her notebook on the bed-side table. She curls her lips thoughtfully and begins to write.


She’s swirling a Rose and French Vanilla tea bag around in a mug when Ronan walks through the door.

‘We need to talk,’ she says.

‘My day was good thanks, how was yours?’ Ronan says, winking.

Julia stands, letting her white dressing gown hang open, loose on her shoulders. She plants her palms on Ronan’s upper arms and squeezes, hard.

‘I’ve decided I’m not going to wait, Ronan. I’m going, with or without you.’

Ronan’s face remains smooth as silk.

‘Ok,’ he says, shrugging his shoulders.

Julia’s heart suddenly thumps hard in her chest. Her ears burn.

‘What the hell, Ronan. You’ve always known how much this meant to me. I’m staying here for you and your dumb, new job and you’re telling me now, that this whole time, it was fine?’

‘Don’t freak out, Julia. I’m just tired of having this same old conversation. You’re not a baby. You can do what you want.’

Julia stomps backwards, gripping her mug tightly, a sound, like a growl, emanating from her mouth. Ronan watches as she smashes the mug onto the floor. Hot liquid spreads across the linoleum.

Ronan darts for the door. Julia pounds at the tea nd broken china with the palm of her hand.


Ronan is on his lunch break when he gets the call from Julia’s mum.

His palms slide against the steering wheel. His heartbeat pounds against his temple.

He twists his head every few seconds to glance at his phone on the passenger seat.

The phone soon fades into sleep-mode. His chest aches as the seat belt presses hard into his body.

Approaching the intersection, he forgets to check the traffic lights.


‘We’d like to know why you did it, Miss Capulong.’

Julia rubs at the acne on her cheek.

‘I want to go to Africa,’ she says.

‘What do you mean?’

Julia giggles.

‘He should have known it wasn’t Mum.’

‘He never met her, Miss Capulong. How could he have known?’

‘I dunno.’

‘Miss Capulong, you know you’re not supposed to use the phone without a nurse’s supervision.’

Julia picks at her fingernails. Her forehead creases.

‘I wanted him to how it felt to live without me. I thought, maybe, after the joke, he’d find it easier to let me go again?’

She bites her lip and scratches at her scalp.

‘He stole my passport,’ she mutters, ‘so, I’m not crazy.’

The nurse sighs.

‘Ok, Miss Capulong.’

‘Travel is my life,’ Julia says. ‘He knew that. Travel’s my life and he made me think I had to stay.’

‘Well, Miss Capulong. You’re going to stay with us now,’ the nurse says.

Julia ignores this.

‘Malawi Beach,’ she whispers, eyes wide and unfocussed. ‘To Chipata, Chipata to Lusaka, Lusaka to Livingstone.’

‘Sorry, Miss Capulong?’ the nurse asks.

Julia growls, pounding her fist into the hospital bed.

‘Chipata, Chipata to Lusaka, Lusaka to Livingstone,’ she says. ‘I’m not crazy. I’m not!’

 

Carmel Purcell

 

2016: A Literary Calendar

New releases from four Booker-prize winners; posthumous works from Christopher Hitchens and Terry Pratchet; a tribute from William Shatner; and several commemorative reimaginings for Shakespeare’s 400th death-day. It’s shaping up to be a veritable feast of a year.


January

And Yet: Essays
Christopher Hitchens
Essays
A posthumous collection of observations that proves Hitchens is nothing if not entertaining. Whether or not you agreed with his worldview he possessed an articulate charm that still shines through in his writing.

1129-BKS-Popova-master675

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe
Lisa Randall
Science
Ranked by Brainpickings’s Maria Popova as the best non-fiction work, and if that’s not high enough praise I don’t what is. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of dark matter? Read her full review for the New York Times here.

The Noise of Time
Julian Barnes
Fiction
Whether you like Barnes or not he’s won a Booker prize so it’s worth keeping an eye on his stuff. This one appeals to me particularly because it’s about Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the greatest string composers of the 20th century, and is set amongst the chaos of Stalinist Russia.


February

Leonard: A Life
William Shatner
Biography
Of course we want to read a book by the endearing Shatner. Especially a tribute to his late friend and co-star Leonard Nimoy, immortalized as Spock in Star Trek, in the 50th anniversary year of the original series premiere.

Shylock Is My Name
Howard Jacobson
Fiction
The first in a legion of Shakespeare nods in this the 400th anniversary year of the great bard’s death. True to form Jacobsen focuses on the Jewish character from The Merchant of Venice in an exploration of fatherhood and morality. And as another Booker winner, his stuff is usually worth a sniff.

The High Mountains of Portugal
Yann Martel
Fiction
Yet another new release from a Booker winner (this seems to be the year), this is the novel I would choose above the others so far due to the sheer originality of Martel’s voice. In the vein of Life of Pi, Martel again tackles the quest narrative in a story about treasure, murder and of course, animal companionship.

This Census-Taker
China Miéville
Novella
Miéville has been around for a while but his appeal is now taking off beyond the ranks of genre fanatics. A startlingly inventive speculative writer, here he deals with the relationship between a young boy and a stranger who might save him from himself.


March

Anatomy of a Soldier
Harry Parker
Fiction
Debut novel from a former solider about a British captain recovering from a horrific bomb injury. What sets this novel apart is that it’s narrated from the point-of-view of 45 inanimate objects. 

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails
Sarah Bakewell
Philosophy/Biography
An exploration of existentialism from 1930s France through to the liberal movements of the mid-century, by examining the lives and relationships of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Raymond Aron, among others.

Hot Milk
Deborah Levy
Fiction
A Booker-shortlisted author, Levy’s new novel is about a mother and daughter finding refuge in a Spanish village, and explores all the trauma and triumph of female relationships and identity.


April

Fragments
Elena Ferrante
Writings
One of the hottest authors around and still her true identity remains a mystery. Having recently concluded the highly acclaimed Neapolitan quartet, this year she releases a collection of observations through short pieces, interviews and letters.

The Bricks That Built the Houses
Kate Tempest
Fiction
Winner of the Ted Hughes prize for poetry and nominated as a rapper for the Mercury music prize, Tempest’s new work is a novel about three youths escaping south-east London together, running from various forms of oppression in the hopes of liberating themselves from self-loathing, loneliness and unconsummated desire.

Francis-Begbie-1024x659

The Blade Artist
Irvine Welsh
Fiction
Another grungy British novel, and who wouldn’t want to read the latest Welsh? Particularly when he returns to one of Trainspotting’s most divisive characters, Francis Begbie.


May

A Life Discarded
Alexander Masters
Biography
A ‘found’ biography, compiled from 148 volumes of diary discovered amongst discarded building materials in Cambridge.

Selection Day
Aravind Adiga
Fiction
May is a busy month for releases but do not miss Adiga’s latest novel. Yet another prior Booker-winner, his new work focuses on a young boy in present-day Mumbai.

The Gustav Sonata
Rose Tremain
Fiction
I would recommend Rose Tremain’s gorgeously rendered novels anyway, but when ‘Gustav’ and ‘Sonata’ are mentioned in the title it’s a no-brainer. Two boys hold onto friendship over thirty years of life spanning World War II.

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
Kate Summerscale
True Crime
In the vein of her previous bestseller The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Summerscale turns again to murder in Victorian England, this time writing about the trial of a 13-year-old boy.

Zero K
Don DeLillo
Fiction
Another big name release for 2016, DeLillo addresses mortality and the privilege of extreme wealth when a man tries to save his wife from terminal illness.


June

Hands: What We Do With Them – and Why
Darian Leader
Psychology
The latest in the line-up of fascinating psychoanalytical works, Leader examines what’s really going on when we fiddle with our fingers.

The Games: A Global History of the Olympics
David Goldblatt
Historical
Just in time for the 31st Olympiad in Rio, Goldblatt delivers on the success of his football history to give us the highlights of the world Olympics.

the long earth

The Long Cosmos
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Fiction
Of course this is a must-read no matter who you are. The grand finale of The Long Earth series concludes a life’s work from Pratchett, who died shortly after its completion last year.

Vinegar Girl
Anne Tyler
Fiction
Another Shakespearean tribute from the Booker crowd (A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted last year), Tyler delivers a quirky interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew.


July

The Girls
Emma Cline
Fiction
Already sold to Scott Rudin for film adaptation, this is one of the most hotly anticipated debuts of the year. A young girl in the 1969 summer becomes involved with a commune similar to the Manson Family.

The Muse
Jessie Burton
Fiction
Set in Spain and London in the 30s and 60s, the author of The Miniaturist spins a tail about a painting, a Caribbean immigrant and a bohemian artist.

You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know
Philip Gourevitch
Historical/War
Gourevitch returns to the subject of Rwanda after his startling and brutal coverage of the 1994 genocide.


August

A Horse Walks into a Bar
David Grossman
Fiction
A perplexing and enthralling novel about a comedian whose life disintegrates on stage during an act in a small Israeli town.

Beast
Paul Kingsnorth
Fiction
A Booker long-lister this time, Kingsnorth returns with a quest novel set in the Midlands moor. His debut The Wake established him as an author of remarkable linguistic inventiveness with his use of a shadow version of Old English.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
Ed Yong
Science
Yong discusses the incredible influence of microbes on the lives of all earthly animals, released off the back of a successful Atlantic column, science blog and viral TED talk.

The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu
Charlie English
Historical
The story of librarians smuggling manuscripts out of Timbuktu when it was on the brink of Islamic occupation, combined with an exploration of the city itself as it was first discovered by the western world in the Victorian era.


September

bolshoi

Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet
Simon Morrison
Arts/Historical
What’s not to love about this exploration of art under pressure? Russia, ballet, tsars, Putin, Bolshoi, beautiful people, famous composers, and life in the spotlight.

Here I Am
Jonathan Safran Foer
Fiction
We’ve waited eleven years for the next Safran Foer novel, and if you haven’t read his previous two make sure you start from the beginning with Everything Is Illuminated. His new work also examines Jewish identity, this time set against the war in Israel.

The Lesser Bohemians
Eimear McBride
Fiction
A new novel from the author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing which won the Baileys Prize in 2014. Set in the 90s in north London, a young woman moves from Ireland to study acting and begins an affair with an older actor.

Who Rules the World?
Noam Chomsky
Sociology
The controversial intellectual claims the greatest threat to future peace is the USA.


October

Blood Riders
Gary Oldman & Douglas Urbanski
Fiction
Any work of fiction by esteemed Brit actor Gary Oldman sounds enticing enough, let alone this, the first in a proposed series of Wild West vampire novels. Watch him in 1992’s Dracula to get yourself in the mood.

Bookworm
Lucy Mangan
Literature/Historical
Mangan collates her vast experience to provide an insight into the beauty of childhood reading and the classic books that have profoundly influenced generations of young people.

Total Intoxication
Norman Ohler
Historical
An examination of the use of drugs in the Nazi party as a tool of war and experimentation.


November

The Power
Naomi Alderman
Fiction
A satirical reimagining of a society in which girls are the stronger sex, from the author of The Liar’s Gospel.

heat_of_darkness_by_vonmurder-d5iqtca-e1429274327859

The Worlds of Joseph Conrad
Maya Jasanoff
Literature/Historical
Jasanoff uses Conrad’s life and works to examine perspectives on world culture and geography at the beginning of the 1900s.

Venice: An Interior
Javier Marías
Design
Marías, esteemed Spanish author of A Heart So White and The Infatuations, turns his eye to the beauty of Venetian design.

 

Elise Janes

Five Fathers: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of fictional dads that doesn’t lead with Atticus Finch, so here he gets a category all of his own. This guy had it all. A lawyer raising two kids, teaching them to be real humans (the audacious character of Scout alone is testament to his fathering abilities) and defending the indefensible from the vilest aspects of human nature, all the while dispensing ageless advice to his children on the front porch of their Alabama home.

In tribute to Father’s Day (and the reality that some will find it a mixed affair), here are a few of the best, the worst and the strangest dads in literature.

 

The Good

  1. Jean Valjean

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

“Because things are not agreeable,” said Jean Valjean, “that is no reason for being unjust towards God.”

At the bequest of a dying Fantine he rescued Cosette from the despicable Thernadiers and despite being a fugitive, remained a steadfast adoptive father and all-round good guy until his death, never once losing faith despite all he endured. That takes some guts.

 

  1. Mr Bennet

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly sisters.”

Some deride him for his sarcasm and his ambivalence toward his wife, but considering what he had to work with these are shown to be quite endearing qualities. It is his relationship with Elizabeth, the knowing-ness that passes between them, which makes him one of the best fathers in literature.

road-cormac-FS-aug-03

  1. The Man/The Father

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

“He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”

Leads his son through a wilderness of post-apocalyptic destruction and teaches him indispensable survival skills, navigating the ambiguous morality that arises from such desperation. His tenacity alone is enough to garner him father-of-the-year.

 

  1. Arthur Weasley

The Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling

“Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?”

His light-hearted perspective on life and unflinching defense of his children and the marginalised Muggles makes him almost a lovably clownish Atticus Finch. And without exception his seven children are among the greatest humans (?) on the planet.

 

  1. Thomas Schell

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

“Honey! I got to go! Other people need to use the phone! I’m gonna be fine, you’re gonna be fine! You listen to me! You made my life better and I want you to know that absolutely love you. I’m going to call you back in a few minutes.”

Proof that even in absence a father can be fundamentally influential in his child’s life. Oskar goes in search of a perceived secret message from his father who was killed in 9/11, and finds himself again.

 

The Bad

  1. Pap Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

“I’ll take you down a peg before I get done with you. You’re educated, too, they say—can read and write. You think you’re better’n your father, now, don’t you, because he can’t?”

Drunk, abusive and sadistic, he is everything a father shouldn’t be. The only thing we are grateful for is that he produced such a son as Huck and spawned one of the most famously epic tales of childhood adventure known to literature. We are not sorry to learn of his death at the end of the book.

Lolita with Jeremy Irons

  1. Humbert Humbert

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

“You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine.”

Marries Charlotte Haze to get close to her daughter, Lolita, which makes him her stepfather and legal guardian when Charlotte dies, leaving her at his mercy. Enough said.

 

  1. Michael Henchard

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

“MICHAEL HENCHARD’S WILL
That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.”

An alcoholic who auctions off his wife and child, never bothering to find them until they return eighteen years later while he is in the middle of courting another woman whom he has already disgraced. Lovely.

 

  1. Mr Wormwood

Matilda, Roald Dahl

“A book?! What d’you wanna flaming book for? …we’ve got a lovely telly with a 12-inch screen and now ya wanna book!”

This quote alone places Mr Wormwood into the lowest percentile of humans. A used-car salesman who deceives his customers, alienates his genius daughter and terrorizes her lovely teacher Miss Honey, he is the definition of terrible-dadness.

 

  1. Archibald Craven

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

“My mother died when I was born and it makes him wretched to look at me. He thinks I don’t know, but I’ve heard people talking. He almost hates me.”

Yes, we feel sorry for him because his wife died but, no, that does not give him any right to abandon his sick son in a dingy room, especially when all his son needs is a bit of love and natural beauty in order to make a miraculous recovery.

 

The Ugly

  1. King Lear

King Lear, Shakespeare

“…he that makes his generation messes to gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved, as thou my sometime daughter.”

Definitely not the only terrible father in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, but certainly one of the most memorable. He makes the ugly list because he tests his three daughters to see who loves him most in order to decide who should inherit his estate, all the while completely blind to their true natures. He deserves to succumb to madness, and does so with spectacular pomp.

 

  1. Don Vito Corleone

The Godfather, Mario Puzo

“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

You could argue that as a father figure, the Don is actually a great family man. Everything he did was for his ‘family’ after all, including making people offers they couldn’t refuse. Yet his actions lead to the death of two of his sons and the corruption of another. So, yeah, ugly.

 

  1. Jack Torrance

The Shining, Stephen King

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Another alcoholic dad, Jack adds to the mix by trying to kill his family with an axe. You could argue it’s not all his fault. But that doesn’t make him a better dad.

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  1. Heathcliff

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

“Linton can play the little tyrant well. He’ll undertake to torture any number of cats, if their teeth be drawn and their claws pared.”

Thus is Heathcliff’s view of his son, another sickly boy confined to a dingy house and his father’s intense disregard. Though it’s hard to really stay angry at Heathcliff because he is so damn brooding and so passionately in love with dead Cathy.

 

  1. Nick Dunne

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

“We weren’t ourselves when we fell in love, and when we became ourselves – surprise! – we were poison. We complete each other in the nastiest, ugliest possible way.”

Though he stays with the crazy wife because of his unborn child, we can all see the direction Nick Dunne is taking by the close of this book, foreshadowed by the misogynistic outbursts of his aging father. You could say it’s all her fault, but then again, is it?

 

Elise Janes

 

The Many Forms of Form

Literature and philosophy have been inseparably entwined in the thoughts of humankind since we first had such thoughts about such things. Almost all our modern thinking about narrative structure and form has its foundations, at least in part, in Aristotle’s famous examination of story, Poetics, which itself was a product of centuries of development of dramatic art and narrative experimentation.

school of athens

The stories we tell have impact far beyond narrative content and plot elements such as character, place and time. Indeed the way we say something is just as important as what we are saying when it comes to the influence and interpretation of meaning in narrative art.

Form is a many-faceted concept for just this reason. When we try to list form or define it in some way, we inevitably find a myriad of cross-overs between other literary elements, most particularly structure and genre (even Wikipedia has trouble). These techniques and concepts become indelibly linked in our cultural consciousness as a byproduct of the way we develop certain constructions around certain types of stories.

Literature can be said to be divided into the grand dichotomy of poetry and prose. But even there we have problems when we start to identify the way in which these two literary metrics can be presented.

Then we may try to list the grand narrative media in an exhaustive and mutually exclusive list of constructs, from longer narratives:

  • Novel
  • Epic poem
  • Drama

To shorter narratives:

  • Poem
  • Novella
  • Short story
  • Vignette
  • Legend
  • Myth
  • Folk tale

And then we should consider the performative arts who often have their own distinct formal constructs:

  • Theatre
  • Film
  • Song

And then we ask, should dance be included or is it non-literary, even though it is also a narrative form?

Then consider informative texts. Do they have their own structural conceits? Do they classify as separate forms of writing?

  • Historical novels
  • Literary non-fiction
  • Biography and autobiography
  • Documentary
  • News
  • Persuasive arguments
  • Thesis & analysis

What about functionality and purpose? Does that play into the divisions of form?

  • Fairy tales
  • Morality tales
  • Teaching parables
  • Analogy & symbology

And of course broad-spectrum genre is a major form qualifier:

  • Fantasy
  • Epic
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Drama
  • Quest

And the many derivative narrative structures that have sprung up over the most recent decades as technology plays into the way we communicate our stories to each other:

  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Music videos
  • Short films
  • Tweets
  • Status updates
  • Flash fiction
  • Vines

All of these forms, from the grand multi-volume works to the one-hundred and forty characters, have intricately linked cultural associations attached to the way they are presented. A play in the Shakespearean style may have five acts, employ poetic metre, follow the conventions of tragedy or comedy, and even include songs and musical numbers. A fantasy narrative may take the form of either a multi-volume novel or an epic poem, media themselves bound in pre-conceived structural nuance, employing well-rehearsed act-divisions and conventional literary techniques such as catalogue, dialogue, monologue, and even deeper formative layers of allusion to legend and myth.

Narrative form as a classifiable entity came under specific academic study in the 1950s, after the great revolutions of the Modernist period threw all previous conventional understandings of form into flux. Since then several schools of thought have sought to demystify the question of form for philosophical and technical reasons, in aid of both the audience and the auteur.

Clearly this is a topic too vast for one discussion, or even one series of discussions. So over the coming weeks we will explore the modern concepts of form and structure and how they apply to narrative art in contemporary practice, examining the theories of narrative form developed since the 1950s. We will touch briefly on the works of structuralists such as Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye, to that of post-strcuturalists like Michel Foucault and then on into the most recent decades where the advent of screen culture has brought about the revival of the oldest known form of story-telling, the ubiquitous and oft-bemoaned three-act narrative.

To get yourself started, have a look at the seasonal myth theory of Northrop Frye and then this brilliant introduction to Joseph Campbell’s hero narrative.

Look close enough and you will see these monomythic stories everywhere, leaving us to wonder whether there are a myriad of different forms as diverse and nuanced as life itself, or if there is really only one true story, told over and over again in many different guises, tracing back over all narratives since the beginning of time.

 

Elise Janes

 

Anthology: Poetry

Like visual art and music, the world of poetry is also full of seasonally-inspired works, from Frost’s snowy woods to Shakespeare’s summer sonnets. The following represent two sets of seasonal poems examining Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, one set from the northern hemisphere and the other from the southern, in this case exclusively Australian bush poetry. The contrasts are interesting and readily apparent. Where the northern poets described distinct climactic features easily recognisable from the bias of classical canonic art, the bush poets experienced the seasons in terms of rains, crops, the quality of light and the subtle changes in flora and fauna.


NORTHERN HEMISPHERE

Vernal Equinox
Amy Lowell, 1874 – 1925

The scent of hyacinths, like a pale mist, lies

between me and my book;
And the South Wind, washing through the room,
Makes the candles quiver.
My nerves sting at a spatter of rain on the shutter,
And I am uneasy with the thrusting of green shoots
Outside, in the night.

Why are you not here to overpower me with your

tense and urgent love?

 

Summer Song
William Carlos Williams, 1883 – 1963

Wanderer moon
smiling a
faintly ironical smile
at this
brilliant, dew-moistened
summer morning,—
a detached
sleepily indifferent
smile, a
wanderer’s smile,—
if I should
buy a shirt
your color and
put on a necktie
sky-blue
where would they carry me?

 

October
Robert Frost, 1874 – 1963

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
To-morrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away;
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

 

To Winter
William Blake, 1757 – 1827

O Winter! bar thine adamantine doors:
The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark
Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs
Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car.
He hears me not, but o’er the yawning deep
Rides heavy; his storms are unchain’d, sheathed
In ribbed steel; I dare not lift mine eyes;
For he hath rear’d his scepter o’er the world.
Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o’er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.
He takes his seat upon the cliffs, the mariner
Cries in vain. Poor little wretch! that deal’st
With storms; till heaven smiles, and the monster
Is driven yelling to his caves beneath Mount Hecla.

 


SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE 

September in Australia
Henry Kendall (1839-1882)

Grey winter hath gone, like a wearisime guest,
And, behold, for repayment,
September comes in with the wind of the West
And the spring in her raiment!
The ways of the frost have been filled of the flowers,
While the forest discovers
Wild wings, with the halo of hyaline hours
And the music of lovers.

September, the maid with the swift, silver feet!
She glides, and she graces
The valleys of coolness, the slopes of the heat,
With her blossomy traces;
Sweet month, with a mouth that is made of a rose,
She lightens and lingers
In spots where the harp of the evening glows,
Attuned by her fingers.

The stream from it’s home in the hollow hill slips
In a darling old fashion;
And the day goeth down with a song on its lips
whose key-note is passion;
Far out in the fierce, bitter front of the sea
I stand, and remember
Dead things that were brothers and sisters of thee,
Resplendent September.

The West, when it blows at the fall of the noon
And beats on the beaches,
Is filled with tender and tremulous tune
That touches and teaches;
The stories of youth, of the burden of time,
And the death of devotion,
Come back with the wind, and are themes of the rhyme
In the waves of the ocean.

We, having a secret to others unknown,
In the cool mountain-mosses,
May whisper together, September, alone
Of our loves and our loses.
One word for her beauty, and one for the grace
She gave to the hours;
And then we may kiss her, and suffer her face
to sleep with the flowers.

Oh, season of changes – of shadow and shine –
September the splendid!
My song hath no music to mingle with thine,
And its burden is ended;
But thou, being born of the winds and the sun,
By mountain, by river,
Mayst lighten and listen, and loiter and run,
With thy voices for ever.

 

Summer
Louis Lavater (1867 – 1953)

I am weary,
Weary of bracing myself against the sun’s hot hand;
I am weary, and I dream of cool places . . . .

I see a grassy couch
Under a canopy of leaves;
A reedy river murmers by,
Crooning an old, old melody
Tuned to a long-forgotten scale,
Made when the world was young.

Rolled to the river’s edge the hills lie fast asleep;
Pale stars slip o’er their ledge and sink into the deep:
Down in the deep they sink to slumbrous peace,
Down in the deep they drink the water of peace;
In the quiet deep they quench their fires in sleep
And drown in a cool green dream.

The sun insists his burning hand upon my head;
I am weary, and I dream of cool places.

 

When the Sun’s Behind the Hill
C J Dennis (1876 – 1938)

There’s a soft and peaceful feeling
Comes across the farming hand
As the shadows go a-stealing
Slow along the new-turned land.
The lazy curling smoke above the thatch is showing blue,
And the weary old plough horses wander homeward two ‘n’ two,
With their chains a’clinkin’, clankin’, when their daily toil is through,
And the sun’s behnd the hill.
Then it’s slowly homeward plodding
As the night begins to creep,
And the barley grass is nodding
To the daisies, all asleep,
The crows are flying heavily, and cawing overhead;
The sleepy milking cows are lowing sof’ly in the shed,
And above them, in the rafters, all the fowls have gone to bed,
When the sun&’s behind the hill.
Then it’s “Harry, feed old Roaney!”
And it’s “Bill, put up the rail!”
And it’s “Tom, turn out the pony!”
“Mary, hurry with the pail!”
And the kiddies run to meet us, and are begging for a ride
On the broad old “Prince” and “Darkey” they can hardly sit astride;
And mother, she is bustling with the supper things inside,
When the sun&’s behind the hill.
Then it’s sitting down and yarning
When we’ve had our bite and sup,
And the mother takes her darning,
And Bess tells how the baldy cow got tangled in the wire,
And Katie keeps the baby-boy from tumbling in the fire;
And the baccy smoke goes curling as I suck my soothing briar,
When the sun’s behind the hill.
And we talk about the season,
And of how it’s turning out,
And we try to guess the reason
For the long-continued drought,
Oh! a farmer’s life ain’t roses and his work is never done:
And a job’s no sooner over than another is begun.
For he’s toiling late and early from the rising of the sun
Till he sinks behind the hill.
But it grows, that peaceful feeling
While I’m sitting smoking there,
And the kiddies all are kneeling
To repeat their ev’ning prayer;
For it seems, somehow, to lighten all the care that must be bore
When the things of life are worrying, and times are troubling sore;
And I pray that God will keep them when my own long-day is o’er,
And the sun’s behind the hill.

 

A Ballade of Wattle Blossom
R Richardson

There’s a land that is happy and fair,
Set gem-like in halcyon seas;
The white winters visit not there,
To sadden its blossoming leas,
More bland than the Hesperides,
Or any warm isle of the West,
Where the wattle-bloom perfumes the breeze,
Ant the bell-bird builds her nest.

When the oak and the elm are bare,
And wild winds vex the shuddering trees;
There the clematis whitens the air,
And the husbandman laughs as he sees
The grass rippling green to his knees,
And his vineyards in emerald drest–
Where the wattle-bloom bends in the breeze,
And the bell-bird builds her nest.

What land is with this to compare?
Not the green hills of Hybia, with bees
Honey-sweet, are more radiant and rare
In colour and fragrance than these
Boon shores, where the storm-clouds cease,
And the wind and the wave are at rest–
Where the wattle-bloom waves in the breeze,
And the bell-bird builds her nest.

 

Elise Janes

 

All poems are in the public domain and sourced from http://www.poets.org and http://australianpoems.tripod.com

 

Shakespeare, Spacey, and the Sublime

A review of documentary Now: In the Wings on a World Stage

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At first the idea of Hollywood denizen Kevin Spacey helming a world Shakespearean tour seems slightly self-indulgent, if not rather absurd. And few besides Spacey would have the audacity to film the whole experience for a limited-release feature-length documentary. However the result, Now: In the Wings on a World Stage, is more than surprisingly fresh, it’s a moving and, dare I say it, inspirational reminder of why theatre is one of the oldest and most enduring art forms.

Many critics of the film have majored on the self-congratulatory nature of such a project for Spacey, or the lack of focus on audience response and the small amount of live performance included in the final screening. These reviewers have wildly missed the point of the whole endeavor (ahem, Mike McCahill), which was never to be a screened version of the play, nor a sociological examination of the reception of Shakespeare throughout different cultures. The film exists to demonstrate the human quality of bringing an ancient text to life and at this it exceeds magnificently.

In an age when it’s easy to roll your eyes at the excessive celebrity and attention-seeking antics of those in the acting profession, this film serves as a reminder that actors essentially love their craft, surely a human right to which we are all entitled. Away from the glimmering screen realm, theatre throws performance back into the raw essential nature that makes it such a vulnerable exposé of human experience. A touring production is one of the most intimate and exhilarating collaborative experiences an artist can have, and it is the wide-eyed wonder seen on even the most weathered of faces in this film that reminds us of the simple, unifying power of doing something great together.

NOW-DVDI quickly found myself desperately wishing to have been amongst the fortunate audience able to share the Bridge Project Company’s ambitious production. The documentary, directed by Jeremy Whelehan, follows the trans-continental cast and crew of Sam Mendes’s Richard III production as it tours from London’s Old Vic Theatre, across Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, finally landing for its closing week in Brooklyn’s BAM theatre. Revealing beautiful moments of cast and crew interaction, the complex mechanics of hosting a world tour, and the magnificence of Richard III itself, the film is both intimate and grand; a fitting tribute to what must have been an incomparably unique performance.

The cast is a surprising mélange of well- and lesser-known thespians. A particular delight is English screen monarch Gemma Jones in the role of the murderous king’s mother, Queen Margaret. The documentary reveals her not only to be the esteemed matriarchal veteran of the tour, but also one of its most risqué party girls, at one point referring to actor Isaiah Johnson: “…a magnificent piece of manhood. I’d like to see him without his clothes on.”

These backstage antics enhance our wonder at the actors’ onstage transformation in the small glimpses of performance that Whelehan includes in the film, providing just the right amount of detail to demonstrate the tone and impact of the live production. The diversity of the cast is particularly exposed through the bold decision for actors to maintain native accents. While the idea of Shakespeare through a North American twang is mildly offensive to any English-speaker, the resultant blend actually creates a strange sort of dialectic harmony that enhances characterisation and stage chemistry.

And the chemistry is surprisingly taut, as the actors bring to stage deep reserves of anger, fear, lust and desperation. While Spacey flits back and forth throughout the film like a benevolent omnipresent deity, it is refreshing to see Whelehan focus on some of the more obscure tour members, extracting personal anecdotes and demonstrating without much effort the vast emotional impact the production is having on all members of cast and crew.

Spacey has more than proved his mettle in an array of screen triumphs, further cemented by his Best Actor Oscar for 1999’s American Beauty (also directed by Sam Mendes who likewise received an Oscar). While his eccentric oeuvre lacks the consistent brilliance of actors such as Gary Oldman and Dustin Hoffman, he has nonetheless brought vibrant life to some of the most unique and captivating roles, notably in LA Confidential and The Usual Suspects.

Lately his work on the acclaimed Netflix show House of Cards has reinvigorated his silvering career, and it is the same beguiling barefaced ruthlessness seen in Francis Underwood that suffuses his portrayal of the crippled King Richard with breathtaking aggression. Critics of the production were unanimously impressed, though the more astute noted the absence of that particular shade of self-exposure that truly masterful Shakespearean actors bring to such roles. Despite the brilliant savagery of his delivery there was still that underlying Kevin Spacey-ness in his performance. But you do forgive him for that every time he smiles his trademark conspiratorial twinkle at the audience.

Theater The Bridge ProjectThe production makes creative use of live-filmed screening, stark lighting and a bare stage that both imitates the brutality of the play and also throws its lush characterisations into sharp relief. When the lights fall and Spacey, costumed like a deranged groomsman, bursts through the central door hunch-backed and lurching violently on a cane, the first word of text explodes forth from his twisted scowl rendering the performance space at once silent and yet alive with a fervor of expectation and wonder: Now! It’s hard not to feel tingles up your spine, even second-hand through the movie screen, when we hear that most venerated of first-lines and we know the true master, the bard himself, has arrived.

The blunt immediacy of theatre makes it tangibly powerful. Almost as soon as that line is spoken it’s gone again and we are left somewhat stunned in the wake of its poetry, savagery and beauty. “It can only exist there,” as actor Jeremy Bobb says, “The fact that you can miss it – is pretty awesome.” This onrush of hyper-awareness is what brings adrenalin to theatrical experience, and this weighty responsibility grows in the cast throughout the world tour as they sense the vast impact such a magical experience is having on all of them. That the tour is now over, that the production no longer exists except in documentary form, makes viewing it through these excerpts that much more rare and wondrous.

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Whelehan wields some magnificent travel scapes, taking us from the peaceful spiritualism of Buddhist temples to the Great Wall of China and the expansive beauty of a desert sunset. One particular highlight, which is tracked parallel throughout the documentary, is the performance in the Epidavros amphitheatre, an awe-filled experience for both cast and audience alike. As night falls and golden lights illuminate ancient stone tiers in an ethereal glow, we see the time-lapse blossoming of the stage area and an immense anticipation arises. After following several of the actors through make-up and preparation, we see the audience begin to fill, eliciting expressions of humility and wonder, and whispers of disbelief from cast and crew. A voice-over from Mendes observes the suspended exhilaration that only live theatre can bring: “It’s like feeling the heart-beat of the world.” This is what Whelehan’s film sets out to capture, and this is what it delivers, with precision, honesty, and a little stage magic.

 

Now: In the Wings on a World Stage can be downloaded from iTunes or streamed online.

 

Elise Janes