Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘Plays’ Category

#31 Nutshell

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 28/07/2017 at 12:00 pm

#30 NutshellThis novel is an interesting take on the Hamlet story. Inside his pregnant mother’s stomach, a foetus observes a conspiracy to murder. Using poison, with her brother-in-law Claude, the murderous Trudy plans to kill her husband. Like Shakespeare, Ian McEwan has us peer into the mind of his hero. As Shakespeare uses the confiding address of the soliloquy, McEwan employs the instancy of the first person. In both cases, we are privy to the philosophical outbursts of an immature man (foetus).

I am tempted to think of Stewie from hit television comedy Family Guy. In similarity to the talking baby in that show, Hamlet and the foetus have an ironic sense of humour that veers close to the darker side of humanity. Now all we need is a version where Hamlet discusses such things as philosophy with a talking dog. I’m sure somebody is thinking up the idea right now as I type.


#6 Waiting for Godot

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 03/02/2017 at 12:00 pm

6-waiting-for-godotTwo tramps, Estragan and Vladamir, are waiting for the enigmatic Godot beside a tree. They ask each other questions, sing songs, hop on one leg and discuss the maps of the Holy Land; but Godot never comes. Whilst they are waiting, waiting for Godot, three characters join them on stage. First come Pozo and Lucky, master and servant, oppressor and oppressed. For a while, Estragan and Vladamir are bemused, as Pozo whips Lucky and orders him to “think”. After Pozo and Lucky exit, a boy enters, saying that Godot can’t make it today, but that he will be coming tomorrow. The second act is a variation on the first act, again ending with the non-appearance of Godot. In an absurd way, repeating the same actions in an apparently endless cycle, waiting for Godot, tomorrow comes, just as the sun rises each morning and falls each evening.

34: Forty Years On by Alan Bennett

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Plays on 19/08/2016 at 12:00 pm

Forty Years On by Alan BennettYou probably won’t have come across Alan Bennett’s 1969 play Forty Years On. It was his first West End show and follows similar themes to The History Boys, dealing comically with our anxieties about the British education system. In this early work for the stage, the target for Bennett’s satirical pen is the old British public school system, as characterized by the old-fashioned school Headmaster (originally played by John Gielgud). The comedy builds around the staging of a play within a play, of which the somewhat clownish headmaster keeps interrupting to criticize its lavatory humour. As becomes apparent, large parts of the play appear to be based around the headmaster’s life-story, revealing a darker side to the private schooling of young boys.

Upon first reading, what stands out is Bennett’s knack for writing funny lines. His approach to laughter is erudite, often drawing on his wide reading of literature and sound knowledge of wartime history for the basis of his comedy. The best lines are well put together in terms of syntax, with each word having a precise function. These jokes are intelligently placed to draw us to the playwright’s themes, which reveal an intellectual concern for Britain’s flawed education system; an arguably unfair set of divided organizations, dubiously created to reproduce the British class system.

Mr. Bennett has said that not in favour of independent schools. Like myself, he would like to see them abolished, something which our politicians are unlikely to push forward. Unfortunately, the British people continue to live in an unfairly stratified country reinforced by our schooling. But I am an optimist, and suggest that nothing is stopping us from working hard to build bridges between people from all walks of life.

Along wiser paths.

09: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 26/02/2016 at 12:00 pm

Coriolanus by William ShakespeareTen years is a good amount of time for you to decide that you want to gain a masters qualification. Now you are a fully realised adult with a different view of the world. The thousands of pounds you are paying for your course is coming out of your own pocket. Every hour of your reading is an hour well spent on an interesting subject. Books contain hidden codes that unlock the doors of time for you. Fiction works alongside history in a way which informs and enlightens you. Shakespeare’s plays are the turntable of your learning, turning you towards everything that follows and came before.

Excellent. Now you’re ready to read. First point of call: library; second: café.

Take print out of your tutor’s questions. Write ‘2. [3] Enter seven or eight CITIZENS’. Pen quotes. Start writing. Read critical essays in bed. Start editing. Press restart.

‘You must draw evidence for your argument from the text.’

SICINIUS To th’ Capitol, come. / We will be there before the stream o’ th’ people; / And this shall seem, as partly ’tis, their own, / Which we have goaded onward.

‘You need to show how your argument relates to wider reading.’

Now when this was ended, the flatterers of the people began to stir up sedition again, without any new occasion, or just matter of complaint (pp.17).

[Dan then goes on to write a significant part of his essay, drawing mostly on his recent close readings of the play ‘Coriolanus’ by William Shakespeare and ‘The Life of Caius Marcius Coriolanus’ by Plutarch (trans. by Thomas North). Sadly for regular readers of Dan’s book reviews (written throughout the years 2013, 2014 & 2015), this work has temporarily taken precedence over his book reviewing. If you wish to comment on this sudden change of creative direction, please write to the virtual address provided by your internet browser. We are sorry for any inconvenience caused by the disruption to your usual service, and are offering a free complimentary CD of Dan’s first album ‘In Technicolour’ (2007) as way of apology. Terms & conditions may apply or may not apply, depending on which way the wind will blow.]

49: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

In Books, Fiction, Horror, Literature, Plays on 04/12/2015 at 12:00 pm

Macbeth by William ShakespeareUnusually, the play begins with the three weird sisters, whose language is immediately unsettling. Nothing is to be trusted, even language itself is full of deceit: e.g. ‘Fair is foul’ and ‘the battle’s lost and won’. Before Macbeth enters the stage, King Duncan steeps praise upon his ‘valiant cousin’, later promoting Macbeth to the position of Thane of Cawdor. But like the Thane whom he usurps, and the language used by the sisters, Macbeth is not what he seems. We will know this soon after Macbeth and Banquo’s supernatural encounter, by listening to his soliloquies, which reveal his ‘vaulting ambition’. Even ahead of his Lady’s further encouragement towards ‘dreadful action’, Macbeth is thinking in terms of an ‘o’erleap’ of Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland. Just as Macbeth has supplanted the treacherous Cawdor, he will himself usurp the King and plot against Duncan’s rightful heirs. But whereas Cawdor was killed honourably in battle, Duncan will be dishonourably murdered by Macbeth’s dagger, attacked whilst asleep in the bed chamber of his host and hostess’s abode.

Lady Macbeth’s role is to secure Macbeth’s murderous action, which has already been set in motion by the weird sisters prophetic implanting of the idea itself. To achieve this, the Lady summons up her inner masculinity, ready to ‘unsex’ herself and to ‘bash’ the heads of her unborn children to become Queen. The Lady’s disturbed thoughts will eventually unravel into madness, although here at the beginning of the play she is still able to find ambitious reasons for murder within her thoughts and conversations. It is the cold ambition of ‘unkindness’ that she wishes to implant into her husbands power-hungry mind. Lady Macbeth becomes the co-plotter of this terrible deed, putting forward her dreadful plan to drug the guards wine so they are drunk asleep. According to the Lady’s premeditated direction, Macbeth will commit the murder itself, whilst she offers practical assistance; later going back to plant the daggers on the drowsy guards, whose clothes she will stain with the dead King’s blood.

As the play continues, and Macbeth has his comrade Banquo assassinated; at a publicly held banquet, the Lady attempts to control her husband’s shock and horror when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost. At this point of the action, Lady Macbeth appears the more sane of the two murderous co-plotters, attempting to explain her husband’s unusual behaviour as she clears the guests from the room. But by the time her husband is encouraged to commit a series of further murders by the the weird sisters, the Lady’s ability to cover up the crimes we the audience have seen committed will begin to diminish. Following the horrible slaughter of a rival family, Macbeth and his Lady begin to separate into two different forms of madness. Whereas cold blooded Macbeth has ‘almost forgot the taste of fears’, his Lady descends into a sleepwalking fear of her past actions, with the realization that ‘What’s done cannot be undone.’

In the end, Lady Macbeth is the more pitiable of the two.

42: Township Plays by Athold Fugard

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 16/10/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Township Plays by Athol FugardAthol Fugard (1932 – ) is South Africa’s foremost playwright. This book is a collection of five plays he wrote in collaboration with black actors from the townships. The plays were all performed during apartheid, and draw on the everyday experiences of ordinary people. In modern day South Africa, how relevant are these vital and angry plays?

In No-good Friday (1958), a man in his thirties called Willie makes a stand against a township gangster called Shark. Willie starts out studying for a BA, but cannot escape the violence on his doorstep. Throughout, the drama is nail-biting, and we are left riding on the edge of our seats. Nongogo (1959) is about a woman called Queeny, who runs a shebeen (drinking establishment). Queeny is offered a more honest life by the young salesman Johnny, but their plans are scuppered by her Iago-like friend Sam. The third play The Coat (1967), is an acting exercise involving a dead man’s over-garment. The last two plays, Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973), directly attack the actions of the government: the first on the issue of racially defined identity cards; the second on the detention of political prisoners on Robben Island.

This is an excellent book. It includes a brilliant introduction by Dennis Walder, and a brief preface by the playwright himself. But to restate the question I asked earlier, are these plays still important today? Yes, I believe so – and I think they will still be read into the twenty-second century. This is drama that will stand the test of time: thrilling, exciting, politically aware drama. The good sort of stuff that will get you thinking and talking when you come out of the playhouse. If you think that sounds like something you’d like to do, then read this book.

Or form a drama company.

38: The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney

In Books, Fiction, Literature, Plays on 18/09/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Burial at Thebes by Seamus HeaneyThe Burial at Thebes by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013) is a translation of the Antigone myth. It was first published in 2004, nine years before Heaney died in Dublin. His skills as a poet were second to none, and I’m so glad that this book exists. It pretty much follows the original play by Sophocles in terms of plot and character. Where it differs from more ‘authentic’ translations (i.e. ones that try to replicate the Greek), is in its particular choice of phrasing. I wouldn’t dare say that it improves upon other scholarly versions, but the English certainly feels more readable than it does in the Cambridge text I recently reviewed. Somehow, Heaney succeeded in almost perfectly balancing plain and poetic English, whilst staying true to the Ancient Greek roots of Sophocles’ Antigone.

At first glance, the text appears to be a mix of blank verse and plain prose. Just like in many Shakespeare plays, characters of different social standing use English in different ways. For example, when Creon makes his opening speech to the Chorus of elders, it is presented in fine poetic verse. The precisely measured way in which he uses ship imagery – ‘Our ship of state’ (pp.9) – and repetition of certain words – ‘city’, ‘good’, ‘fail[s]’ – are typical rhetorical devises used by politicians throughout history. Creon’s commanding use of language is contrasting to the more bawdy language of the Guard – ‘loony’, ‘old dog for the hard road’, ‘over a barrel’ (pp.12). Although the Guard speaks in an engaging way and uses his own earthly imagery, his inability to speak in blank verse and his lexical choices represent a gulf in class. When we notice the juxtaposition between the two approaches to the English language, the result is actually quite comic.

But this play is not a comedy, and Creon is not a character with a good sense of humour. No, the tragedy that befalls the city of Thebes is a lesson set to hold a mirror up to society. As Professor Simon Goldhill of Kings College London points out, the first audiences of the classic Athenian tragedies were partaking in a religious festival called the Great Dionysia. This pompe would have included the sacrifice of bulls; a strange parade, involving bread and fake penises, led by an aristocratic virgin woman; and the performance of tragic plays, such as Antigone, with a moral message. Today, we do not worship pagan gods or slaughter animals on a night out at the theatre. However, human beings continue to live and love and die, and we still struggle to understand what it all means. This is where literature can help us come to terms with our own lives. By updating ancient texts, writers draw upon the wisdom of those who came before.

May we continue to translate this remarkable play.

37: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

In Books, Fiction, Literature, Plays, Poetry on 11/09/2015 at 12:00 pm

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare 2Caius Martius is a soldier and not a politician. He can kill with consummate professionalism, but he cannot speak in a way which pleases the people. In Roman terms, Caius is seen by the plebeians as a proud patrician, looking down upon the people with aristocratic disdain. For a Jacobean audience, such a soldier – raised because of his exploits in battle, unable to function in a peacetime court, and eventually accused of treason – might have reminded playgoers of Sir Walter Ralegh and Robert Devereux. These recent historic echoes, most likely emanating from Shakespeare’s audience, would have been compounded by feelings of uncertainty surrounding the newly appointed King James I. As Neil Macgregor points out, Shakespeare lived in a ‘restless world’ much like our own.

In twenty-first century British politics, it is difficult to think of a Coriolanus figure. Professional soldiers are rarely celebrated in public, and former troops seldom become prominent politicians (the only example I can think of is Paddy Ashdown). Military prowess has become something mostly valued within the soldiering community, and the idea of the ‘warrior politician’ is perhaps suited to more revolutionary times. Therefore, British actor and director Ralph Fiennes’ recent film version was filmed Serbia and not Britain.

I very much admire the Fiennes adaptation. The script gives me less Shakespeare (bard written words) than other interpretations, but the stunts and special effects team have done a fantastic job. However, the version I continually return to on DVD is the 1984 production from the BBC. When I read Aufidius’ lines, it is often Mike Gwilym’s voice that jumps out at me. Gwilym’s muscular performance and overall vocal control is something to be admired. And, just as a particular actor can inspire a different reading of a text, each printed edition of Coriolanus available (Penguin, Arden, Oxford, etc) will engage with the reader in a different way. For example, this NCS (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) edition (see picture) includes a one hundred and one page introduction, full notes underneath the script, and an incredibly detailed textual analysis section. All of this extra information, spawned from four hundred years of interpretation, will not be of interest to most people. However, for scholars such as myself, it will provide sustenance and stimulation.

And a companion for life.

35: Antigone by Sophocles

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 28/08/2015 at 12:00 pm

Antigone by SophoclesThis Cambridge edition of Sophocles’ play is easy to follow. The new translation is in clear English and sticks to the original plot. Next to the text itself, on adjacent pages, are notes to help engage readers with the play. These notes fulfill several functions, providing explanation and analysis, as well as stimulating thought and discussion.

For the laymen, such notes are an excellent idea. Two and a half thousand years is an extremely long time, and the book’s detailed commentary is designed to help close the cultural time gap. Instead of having to look up Bacchus in a classics dictionary, his story is summarized on the opposite page (lines 1075-1114). Time and time again, I found myself enjoying these notes, which have obviously been written directly with students in mind.

As I prepare for postgraduate study, I am looking forward to studying this timeless Greek drama. From my initial research, I am beginning to understand more about classical literature. This understanding has helped me to appreciate my favourite English poets and dramatists in a more informed way. Just as Shakespeare frequently referenced Greek gods and characters within in his plays, the Romantics also looked back to this ‘golden age’ for inspiration. In particular, Sophocles is credited by Aristotle for inventing the ‘tragic hero’ form. This device, whereby a character such as Antigone or Creon is doomed by a ‘tragic flaw’, has been used by playwrights ever since.


28: Antigone by Jean Anouilh

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 10/07/2015 at 12:00 pm

Anitgone by Jean AnouilhDuring the Nazi occupation of France, the playwright Jean Anouilh reworked Antigone by Sophocles, choosing to keep the plot more or less the same. But Anouilh added many elements of his own, and in particular wrote a celebrated exchange between the idealist Antigone and the realist Creon. This heated conflict is about whether Antigone should become a martyr for what she believes in, or whether Creon can convince her to give up her unlawful beliefs for the sake of stability. In the light of the French Nazi conspirators, this raises interesting questions about whether it is right to break the law under certain political conditions.

It is controversial that Creon is portrayed almost in a reasonable way in the Anouilh reworking, whereas in the Sophocles original he is far closer to a typical totalitarian despot. In the Anouilh version, Creon’s arguments for why Antigone should not admit to her crime of burying her brother’s body are entirely convincing, and the way in which he pleads with his niece is appropriate for an uncle. Creon’s problem is that he cannot reconcile the rational responsibilities of being king with the emotions of a family feud, when at a crucial point during the argument he turns Antigone against him by mentioning ‘happiness’ because he wants to offer his advice as a father figure.

Antigone does not want to grow old and be happy, instead she wants to die young and be miserable. This is why she is unable to compromise when a deal is offered, and why the tragedy is so profound in the end. It is so tragic that the idealistic Antigone cannot listen to reason, so sad that the powerful King Creon chooses not to hear the please of the chorus and must destroy his family because of his principles. Although the debate between idealism and realism is relevant to the World War Two period, I believe that the strength of Anouilh’s adaptation lies not in any comment on contemporary politics, but in its ability to represent the complete unraveling of a ruling family.

Sort of like King Lear or The Godfather.