Sunday, August 19, 2012

Shakespeare, Silver & Exact

One last hurrah for The Hollow Crown, in The Sunday Guardian.


The last couple of months have been an interesting time for Brit-watchers worldwide. The economy continued with its very public meltdown. The republicans declined to be gentlemanly about the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and the left were vocal about the social engineering that was taking place in London in the name of the Olympics. Great Britain may not have stuck its fingers in its ears and said, ‘Not listening!’, but a good part of what was called the Cultural Olympiad seemed to be an effort to drown criticism with celebration.

There was a lot of poetry and theatre and despite the success of the Poetry Parnassus, the figure that stood, Parnassus-like at the centre of the Cultural Olympiad was Shakespeare. Versions of Shakespeare’s plays from all over the world are being staged at the Globe as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, including a couple of plays from India. Inevitably, many of these interpretations will be post-colonial readings of the Bard’s work (though so far no one has heard the Daily Mail call these performances plastic-Shakespeare).

It was only to be expected that Britain would wants its own version of Shakespeare – an ‘official’ version, as it were – if not competing, then rising above the competition. BBC2 very cannily commissioned Sam Mendes to produce a four-part series of Shakespeare plays titled The Hollow Crown, covering the plays Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II and Henry V. This series was telecast on BBC2 through July with three different directors – Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre (directing both parts of Henry IV) and Thea Sharrock – taking charge of the plays.

Though differing somewhat in individual style, the four films are remarkably consistent in tone and world-view. This argues for a very clear brief given to each of the directors to keep their eyes on the title of the series. ‘The Hollow Crown’ comes from Richard II’s soliloquy in the play (III. ii): ‘for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps death his court,’ Richard says. We are to understand through these films that kingship is merely a loan and that death puts an end to all ambitions:

 Ill-weav’d ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
 Is room enough.
                                    Henry IV Part I, V. iv.

Rupert Goold gilds Ben Whishaw’s brilliant Richard in the iconography of St. Sebastian; Richard Eyre makes of Henry IV a private soap opera about fathers and sons (even beginning the second film with a quick episode recap); Thea Sharrock makes – rather cleverly, if controversially – the boy who accompanies Bardolph & Co. to the French wars grow up to become the Chorus.

Death universalises everything but we must remember that of these four plays, Shakespeare called only one of them a Tragedy: Richard II. The other plays were clearly Histories. We could even call them historical fiction, because Shakespeare was writing in response to the politics of the Elizabethan era. He was attempting to create a narrative that answered questions about Britain’s identity as a nation-state – about divine right, inheritance (and the rights of women to inherit kingdoms), the disease of ‘civil blows’ and the uses of ‘foreign quarrels’.

Politics are absolutely central to the plays but The Hollow Crown deliberately drowns the political with the universal. The coup at the heart of Richard II is less important than Richard’s own self-dramatisation – though it could be argued that this was always in the script. The deeply-discomfiting warmongering of Henry V (which Lawrence Olivier unashamedly played up in the 1944 film commissioned by Churchill as part of the war effort) is deflected by a muted performance by Tom Hiddleston as Henry V. In fact, in one scene before the Battle of Agincourt, Sharrock has Henry kneel in a field to pray. He becomes aware of the Boy/Chorus watching him and hastily composes himself as if he knows that history must remember him as the king who never faltered. This is an interesting cinematic moment, almost prescient, because the next time these two characters are together in the same frame it is at Henry’s funeral, which also bookends the film.

It is only in the figure of Henry IV, played by Jeremy Irons, that we get a sense of a beleaguered king beset on all sides by civic unrest, hard-pressed for money, ailing and prone to fits of anger and insomnia. Henry IV may not be a tragic figure like the Richard II and Henry V of this series, but he is certainly made all too human.

There, if you want it, is the series’ politics.

It is hard to read these plays as anything but an examination of national identity but – in these fraught and multicultural times – The Hollow Crown does a very good job of helping Britain forget that. It is no mean achievement to make us watch a king and see everyman.


Why must we care about kings? Why should the kings of another country and another time matter today? Is ‘king’ a codeword for ‘politician’?

Surely, at a time when politicians the world over are navigating the treacherous waters of failing economies, calls for self-determination or secession, and expensive and futile wars, these are questions we must ask? It’s hard not to make politicians out to be the villains of the piece. And never has their rehabilitation been more urgent, if we are to hold on to the template of the nation-state.

It has long been one of the functions of the dramatic arts to provide us with psychological insight into the minds of those we consider villainous. This rehabilitates the ‘villain’ and allows us to feel better about ourselves because of our ability to empathise with the struggles of a divided self. Everyone is humanised by empathy and all the things that divide us – our race, gender, nationality, our politics – are bridged by this impulse to see a bit of ourselves in even the most unsympathetic characters.

Once the Olympics are over, Britain must wake up from its pleasant daydream, of medals won, of happy guests and happier hosts. When it does, it should remember how the dream began: with Danny Boyle choosing Caliban over John of Gaunt to speak for the island nation.


I'm realising that I am so random with my tags that I can't find my own posts when I look for them. One of these days I'm going to have to sit and tag all the ancient posts from the pre-tag  Blogger days...sigh.

So in the spirit of good housekeeping, all The Hollow Crown posts under this one roof:

Richard II (not really a post, I know)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Review: Cyrus Mistry's Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer

My review of Cyrus Mistry's Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer in The Sunday Guardian last Sunday.

I have come to realise that I like stories with edges & this one isn't a smooth read. Which is not to say it's diffficult or boring; by no means. Just that it has healthy doses of roughage attached.


Those who are recently bereaved are encouraged by custom and by religion to keep their minds on higher things: on the soul's afterlife, perhaps on rebirth or some transcendental narrative of continuity. We are meant to dwell on the metaphysical to forget the horror of the physical fact of death.
Then there are those who are not themselves bereaved but who are never allowed to forget the physicality of death. Like many castes that live on the invisible margins of society performing the most difficult and distasteful tasks, corpse bearers rarely impinge on our collective consciousness.

Cyrus Mistry's novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer takes us into the world of the khandhias in pre-Independence India. The khandhias are a sub-caste of the Parsi community whose job it is to dispose of the dead. Phiroze Elchidana is the son of a priest who falls in love with the daughter of a khandhia, Sepideh, and gives up his life of privilege to marry her. He leaves home and himself becomes a corpse bearer, living with Seppy in their own personal Eden that is Doongerwadi, by the Towers of Silence. Their brief period of happiness ends with Sepideh's death by snakebite, and Phiroze is left with a baby and no possibility of return to his earlier life.

It is not a return he seeks. Instead, through his constant grief, Phiroze retains his early sense of scepticism and a deep, transgressive irreverence for all forms of ritual and religious belief. Phiroze recalls his frequent urge, as a child, to giggle inappropriately at the most solemn moments. As he grows older and loses all interest in his studies, he learns to lie, he samples all the seedier pleasures of the Bombay that lies outside the Fire Temple, and comes back home from visiting graveyards, deliberately not bathing or 'purifying' himself afterwards. Once, he even considers peeing into a fire, knowing how much it would profane the Parsi reverence for the sanctity of fire. He doesn't act on the impulse, but the mere thought is defiance enough.

Like a doctor who can feel desire even after examining suffering bodies everyday, Phiroze experiences a capacious sorrow for his dead wife, even though he deals with death every single day. As a khandhia, he retains his sardonic eye for the process of tending to bodies and the people he interacts with while doing so. But as a man and a husband, Phiroze reflects on death as anyone would who has felt the loss of a dear one: he looks for grand design, feels sure he will meet Seppy again, and yet he accumulates memories of acts of courage and wit to resist 'the monstrous encumbrance of an incoherent and meaningless existence.'

Cyrus Mistry risks much in making this a first person narrative, but Phiroze is a self-conscious narrator, aware of the unreliability of his memory. He constantly questions his own recollection of events or specific feelings he claims to have felt. This, and his unique position of being cast out from the life he was born into gives him the perspective of an detached observer.

At one point, soon after the success of a strike called by the khandhias — which the Panchayat tries to deflect by emphasising the sacred nature of the khandhias' work and promising their liberation from rebirth — Phiroze observes: 'The argument smacked so completely of human rather than divine machination; I could see this more clearly, I suppose, because I didn't belong by hereditary to the sub-caste of corpse bearers'.

There are many things to like in this book — the intricate stepping across time and memory, the dark humour of Phiroze and the other khandhias, and the flickering glimpses of a world outside the confines of the Fire Temple and Doongerwadi. Even the prose that slides from the high-toned vocabulary of the educated narrator to the casual, rough cadences of everyday speech is easy enough to get used to.

But for me, the most impressive thing about this book is the sleight of hand that Mistry pulls off. He offers to the reader a relationship that Phiroze sees as central — the love he has for Sepideh, for whom he gives up his life as he has known it — but it is a love that is hard to understand, because Seppy is mostly absent in the narrative. She is already a ghost and an elusive memory. It is only with the death of Phiroze's father that we see which relationship is really central and held the narrative together. That Phiroze himself is unable to see this, even as he grieves for his father and finds he has nothing more to say, is most poignant.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

'In Praise of Pain' - Heather McHugh

Found Heather McHugh's poem 'In Praise of Pain' via this post and while there are lovely poems there, this one is the one I want to say, when I read, Mine! and to crush and damage and watch as it gives off its light.

In Praise of Pain
Heather McHugh 

A brilliance takes up residence in flaws—
a brilliance all the unchipped faces of design   
refuse. The wine collects its starlets
at a lip's fault, sunlight where the nicked   
glass angles, and affection where the eye   
is least correctable, where arrows of
unquivered light are lodged, where someone   
else's eyes have come to be concerned.

For beauty's sake, assault and drive and burn   
the devil from the simply perfect sun.   
Demand a birthmark on the skin of love,   
a tremble in the touch, in come a cry,   
and let the silverware of nights be flecked,   
the moon pocked to distribute more or less   
indwelling alloys of its dim and shine   
by nip and tuck, by chance's dance of laws.

The brightness drawn and quartered on a sheet,   
the moment cracked upon a bed, will last   
as if you soldered them with moon and flux.   
And break the bottle of the eye to see
what lights are spun of accident and glass. 
                                                              from Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993.

Monday, August 13, 2012

I thought about Lucia and there she was

This happened a few days ago. I was driving along a surprisingly empty flyover and something about the streets made me think of Humberto Solas' 1968 film, Lucia

I was thinking of how young he was when he made it - only 25!* - and inevitably, of how useless I was** and idly wondered when I'd ever get to see these films again. I've never heard of a Cuban films retro in recent times, and I was making a list in my head of films I'd like to see again: Memories of Underdevelopment, Strawberries and Chocolate, The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, The First Charge of the Machete.

But top of the frugal list I could reconstruct was Lucia, followed by Memories of Underdevelopment, and Juan Quin Quin (which was a lot of fun and subversive as heck).

Minutes later, and in an indication that the universe was arranging itself according to my fairly inexacting wishes, I found Lucia in the library. Brand new DVD, no one had borrowed it and it was all for me! me! only me!

So for all the moaning and deep blue posts of the last few days, I have to admit that I am tending towards the ecstatic.

That's all, folks.

(Will put up, at some point, my impressions of the film, which I'm watching after 18 years).


*Wikipedia says he was 27. Oh well. 25 sounds more impressive, no?

**Though, if you consider that my life's ambition is to be deeply committed to doing nothing, no one can accuse me of failing at that.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sudden 'Dirge' attack this morning

"I've paid the price of solitude
But at least I'm out of debt."

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Dylan's last (definitely maybe)

Due on Sept. 11 (Oh, that date) what may be his final album, Tempest.

Don't you love the characteristic modesty with which he compares himself to Shakespeare?

And Prospero.

This is Dylan saying, This rough magic I here abjure.

This is Dylan saying, I'm not here.

Can't wait. Waiting.

Monday, August 06, 2012


You guys are all here today, right?

Sunday, August 05, 2012

After that evening, tonight

The whole day feels like it's been wasted. I sat around, ate,  smiled when I didn't feel like smiling, dressed up, waited. Then we read when we should have performed and were rewarded most unjustly for it.

I feel so annoyed and restless. I feel like throwing things. Instead, I am reading If not, Winter.

Here's Carson on marks - specifically brackets - scattered through the text, and other things:

I emphasise the difference between brackets and no brackets because it will affect your reading experience, if you allow it. Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp - brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.


Then she talks about how some fragments of Sappho survive because lines have been quoted by other writers of the time. But these quotations, decontextualised to suit the purpose of the writer, are tantalising and tell us nearly nothing of what the verse itself might have been. Such as this line found in Appolonios Dyskolos' On Conjunctions: 'Do I still long for my virginity?'


Give a thought, those of you who quote indiscriminately and because you like the jewel and can't be bothered to keep the setting; some day, some scholar will reconstruct someone else's work from your worthless one.


I have known for some time now that my eyes are not what they used to be. I am fairly certain I need reading glasses but since that would mean bifocals, I just prefer to take the damn glasses off and read. Typing these quotations now** I realised I was doing what we laughed at our history teacher for doing back in Class 8: I put my glasses on and removed them a second later only to need them back on immediately after. I am glad there were no children in front of me giggling into their notebooks, though that day can also not be far behind.


For all these reasons, I need Carson. Or maybe I mean, I need Sappho.


* Otherwise known as 'a free space of imaginal adventure'. Also, brackets are exciting.

** Some Carson scholar some day is bound to curse me for being so heedless of the needs of posterity.