Monday, 17 September 2018

Read Not Dead: 'The Queen's Arcadia' returns to Christ Church, Oxford

As cover versions go, Verdi's Falstaff (libretto by Boito) has the edge on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, knocked out to gratify the whim of Queen Elizabeth I. The RSC's current production is indebted to Barbara Windsor, Benny Hill, and the triumph of Essex (not the Earl) on reality TV. The cast go hell for leather and don't bother to mine it for Lear-like pathos. Costumes are a clever blingy mock-Tudor. There is a cute toy dog. I'm pleased to see they are recycling the throne from their last history cycle.

What can Read Not Dead, Globe Education's Leverhulme-funded early-modern resuscitation team, do with a less performable text? Samuel Daniel's The Queen's Arcadia, another play written for royalty (King James I's consort, Queen Anne of Denmark), was first performed in the blurry acoustic of Christ Church hall, Oxford, in 1605.

Think Love Island without the profondeur. There are lovelorn nymphs and shepherds (one suicidal), slick poetry by the yard and a section about the evils of smoking designed to flatter King James I, author of A Counterblaste to Tobacco.

One day you're Dean of Christ Church, next you're so much lumber

On a CPR course I was mortified to break five ribs on the dummy but the trainer shrugged... And Read Not Dead's bone-cracking techniques are what's needed to keep the patient alive. They scamper through the text before the public performance, then they read for their lives, moving as much as they can in limited territory, improvising to get out of scrapes, galvanised by currents of mutual support. Their risk-taking provides the drama when the text sags.

All the cast had the enlivening qualities the loyal Read Not Dead audience expect: I particularly liked David Collins and Colin Blumenau as the 'ancient Arcadians' propping up idealism, John Hopkins and Sid Sagar making the best of the stock 'funny' doctor and lawyer, and Ross O'Donnellan for a breath of fresh air and cute-toy-dog-handling skills as the shepherd Carinus. The programme note makes a brave attempt at spelling dastardly ('darstedly').

Prop dog politely ignores bread on floor
Also in 1605, away from theatricals, seething religious divisions built up to the gunpowder plot. Nowadays the country is riven by the disastrous cult of Brexit. Christ Church has provided more British prime ministers than any other tertiary institution so, in hall, portraits of Eden, Gladstone, Douglas-Home, Lord Salisbury and others too numerous to mention look down on the political shambles. The sunlight hitting the glass over the paintings picks out over-generous traces of cleaning product, perhaps Windolene, applied vigorously by someone right-handed.

Nothing catches my heart more today than seeing shepherd's purse in the pavement opposite Worcester College:

Here's my sheep-crook and my black dog, I give it to you.
Here's my bottle and my budget, I bid it adieu.
Here's my sheep-crook and my black dog, I leave them behind.
Fine laurel, fine floral, you've proved all unkind...

- From Sheep-crook and Black Dog, English folk song

Friday, 7 September 2018

Gaveltastic new book

Checking proofs
It's banging! More Hammers than the London Stadium! More gavels than you can shake a stick at!

A relentlessly detailed new book, The Presidents' Hammers by Diego Tonus, considers 'their anthropological, psychoanalytical and socio-political perspectives'. It unravels gavels around the world, including handbag-sized toffee hammers used to smash windows by the Suffragettes. Pope John XXIII was tapped on the skull thrice with a silver hammer to demonstrate that he was dead. And time was when 'lewd women' were not permitted within a gavel's throw (literally) of a masonic lodge.

Electronic image of a gavel's sound
This book also takes a Hegelian look at the absence of the gavel. There is a despairing chapter by Twitter's own @igavels (inappropriategavels on tumblr) about the promiscuous use of gavel imagery in depictions of UK courts, even though judges here don't use gavels.

Trying to prove a negative, the book includes some of my necessarily gavel-free drawings of R (on the application of Miller and another) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the UK Supreme Court case which determined that Parliament should have a vote on triggering Article 50.

Instead of these drawings I offered to sketch the bench itself to show that no gavel lurks alongside the documents, laptops and, in Scott (FC) v Southern Pacific Mortgages and another, Lady Hale's folkloric embroidered spectacles case*. My offer was politely declined in favour of parading our national humiliation of Brexit.
*Not a gavel
Still, I did suggest what a judge could do with redundant gavels:

For those daydreaming about a special honour - garter stitch
Incidentally, Lord Thankerton, one of the majority in Donoghue v Stevenson, used to knit on the bench, presumably as an aid to concentration. If anyone knows what he knitted, or has a surviving artefact, I would be grateful for information.

For any judge with a thwarted craving for gavel action, this book would surely be a fulfilling gift. Diego Tonus has made authentic replicas of a collection of 53 gavels in the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, 'ones that had belonged to revolutionary and emancipatory movements from the 19th century up to recent times'.

There is a touching humanity in Diego's preparatory technical drawings of each gavel and its wounds.The picture here shows impact marks as well:
Copies of The Presidents' Hammers are available here.