Disconcerting, awkward, with some lucid moments, painful and embarrassing to witness, Nicole Cooper’s adaptation and direction of Shakespeare’s last solo play has almost none of the sympathetic magic of Bard in the Botanics’ Medea. Alan Steele underwhelms as Prospero, muttering majestic lines almost inaudibly while fidgeting with his ratty cardigan then suddenly giving vent to crazed shouted rants. Jennifer Dick, unlikely Ariel (why the purple hair?) and Nurse has rare moments of celestial spell casting but mostly is a wry, compassionate and practical carer. Lynsey-Anne Moffat is every woman who ever loved a failing father, as admirable Miranda, and nicely evil as Antonio. Nicole Cooper, in time-honoured tradition of the director stepping in for an absent actor, brought a butch n’ femme energy to her romantic role as Ferdinand and at least some petulant power to Caliban.
Halfway through, when I really wanted to leave, I observed my emotional reaction and worked out why I hated it. I’m an unpaid carer, both my parents have had dementia. My employer is trying to sack me for standing up for disabled rights. I’m just back from a short holiday which was (mostly) lovely for my mother but no respite for me. I was looking forward to an evening of captivating escapism and instead I was confronted with all my domestic stress onstage.
The craft of theatre is such that last month I was ready to forgive a murderess of children and yet this I struggle to find sympathy with an old man losing his mind. The most poignant part for me (I didn’t cry) was Prospero failing to turn on the radio. I saw my father hopefully pushing the DVD of The Great Escape into the video recorder.
No, it didn’t make sense. The glasshouse/ care-home transition wasn’t clear and the cross-dressed actors playing doubled roles of characters mistaken by a mad old man, switching often without a change of costume, was confusing. Ariel’s prettiest lines were spoken to the lively golden carp in the pond as she exited towards the sound desk—and throwing away Miranda’s most famous line on a potted plant is frankly unforgivable.
But it’s the banality of death by dementia, gradually losing the loved one who once stood robed in might and could command the elements, that’s the drama of this performance which I was so desperate to avoid. Because I can’t and no-one who cares can.
Disconcerting, awkward, with some lucid moments, painful and embarrassing to witness, dementia is a misunderstood tragicomedy happening all around us. Caring for someone losing their mind means bursting into tears at the sink, drying your eyes and making yet another bloody cup of tea.
I hated this performance because it took me inside a failing mind, once so wise, that I can’t fix. Go see it!
It’s fashionable in the freedom movement to criticise Critical Theory but various reports over the last few days have made me think about the importance of one of its commonplaces:
Identity is multiple, contested and transitory
Me, paraphrasing everyone else
For those sensible people who stay far, far away from pretentious artsy varsity courses, Critical Theory is basically what happens when you subversively say “it ain’t necessarily so!” but get really arsey about it – and publish expensive books and well-cited papers that repeat the same point from various angles, like very dull sermons, using a lingo that’s so complex it’s indecipherable even to the author (this is known as “dense”).
The various reports that have made me reconsider the value of this pretentious commonplace (one of the ways to get points in CT is to know the “archaeology” and “genealogy” of words and this one can have me expounding for hours about mnemonic systems and topoi – but it just means something that everyone always says) were on the Tory leadership contest and Unionist bonfires in Northern Ireland.
It struck me, rather unkindly, that people of ethnic minorities tend to be British when it suits them. Then I reflected, more fairly, that that’s exactly what the British establishment has done to ethnic minorities. So tit for tat! In the bad old days when Britannia ruled the waves, the people overseas were told that the Empress Victoria, out of an over-abundance of condescending kindness, had decided to mother ’em all and that henceforth they were to consider England (shieldboss of the universe and shorthand for the UK) their one, true and only Home.
So kind of Queen Vic! That, of course, was all very well as long as all these grateful subjects stayed away. When they decided to come Home, the British establishment quickly decided that that’s not really what they’d meant at all. At least not for most of them. Robert Winder (in his annoyingly Anglo-centric but entertaining book) sums it up:
Immigration is one of the most important stories of modern British life, yet it has been happening since Caesar first landed in 53 BC. Ever since the first Roman, Saxon, Jute and Dane leaped off a boat we have been a mongrel nation. Our roots are a tangled web. From Huguenot weavers fleeing French Catholic persecution in the 18th century to South African dentists to Indian shopkeepers; from Jews in York in the 12th century (who had to wear a yellow star to distinguish them and who were shamefully expelled by Edward I in 1272) to the Jamaican who came on board the Windrush in 1947. The first Indian MP was elected in 1892, Walter Tull, the first black football player played (for Spurs and Northampton) before WW1 (and died heroically fighting for the allies in the last months of the war); in 1768 there were 20,000 black people in London (out of a population of 600,000 – a similar percentage to today). The 19th century brought huge numbers of Italians, Irish, Jews (from Russia and Poland mainly), Germans and Poles.
This book draws all their stories together in a compelling narrative.
As a Roman Catholic, Scots-Irish, English, German (possibly Lutheran but probably Jewish), French, Pictish, Viking, I’m clearly connected to events over the water – which in Glasgow means the Irish Sea – especially around the 12th of July, anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne when the Pope played chess with most of Europe and his most powerful piece against the Catholic King James VII & II of the recently United Kingdom was the Protestant pretender William of Orange. Confusingly, although apparently a Te Deum (this glorious version from Tosca starts about 2:50) was sung in Rome to celebrate the victory, the commemorations since then have been markedly anti-Catholic. There are other incongruities with the popular version of this history, as James Connolly (who uses the more accurate term Episcopalian for Anglican) points out – among them the embarrassing fact that the oppressors of the Presbyterian “planters” (English and Scots immigrants to Ireland) were not the Roman Catholics.
Before I studied Critical Theory, I was a student of Church History. As Umberto Eco reminds us, all this supposedly modern stuff about who’s who and what’s what was already being debated (because they weren’t stupid enough to deny that there’s a debate, that it’s worth having and that it’s complex) in Mediaeval times. (If you’re interested, it really starts in section 2 HERE.)
If you’re already bamboozled and wondering if I’ll ever get to the point, I already have done. Identity is multiple, contested and transitory. We’re each not just one thing, we can’t force anyone to recognise us as anything (not without a struggle at least) and things change – and so do we.
I’d like to end this cleverly by showing that all the identities I favour are actually rock solid and all the ones I oppose are shaky but I’m afraid it works both ways. My only conclusion (and it’s not very clever at all) is that thinking of Us and Them just doesn’t work – because either there was, or there is, or there will be, so much of Them in Us and vice versa.
Identity politics, or standpoint epistemology if you want to get fancy, has a certain value. Much as my experience of being a paid carer for various client groups and an unpaid carer for both my parents at different times overlaps with some of the skills of motherhood, being male, I never have been and I never will be a mother. But I might be able to use my experience to understand theirs, to some extent, without presuming to know all about it. Or to be one of them. Or to make the mistake that this part of their identity, itself shifting in time and place, sums them up completely. Venturing now into the murky world of politics, from the comparative safety of academic (I mean they’re only trying to sack me for defending the law, what’s to be afraid of?) that’s something to keep in mind. People and demographics groups are not the same thing.
We’re so much more interesting than a single identity.
Thanks to Piotr Siedlecki for releasing his image Kaleidoscope Flower into the Public Domain.
The classics scholar Martha Nussbaum titles a chapter in The Fragility of Goodness, her magisterial work on tragedy, “This story isn’t true”, a reference to the Palinode (recantation) of Stesichorus in Plato’s Phaedrus 243a.
Stunned this evening by the performance of the erstwhile lovers under Gordon Barr’s direction of Medea, this phrase came to mind but as affirmation not pious negation: this story is true.
Kathy McCain’s plain spoken version starts, as does Euripides’ lyrical original, with the Nurse as narrator—but rather than relating the back story of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece, the devoted servant, played with forthright Scotch common sense by Isabelle Joss, states “this is not a love story”.
And yet, Nicole Cooper as Medea is (at first) so lovely. We feel this woman; those of us in the double rows of seats lining the link section of the Kibble Palace who know the story ken fine what she will be driven to do but, already, she has won our sympathy.
By the time the strapping Johnny Panchaud playing Jason strides into the scene (could this man look any more like the perfection of masculine beauty?) we are not immune to his considerable charm—and, clearly, neither is his ex-wife Medea—but our hearts are already taken and as charm fades into smarm the chilling modernity of the version hits us.
This is not a love story, it’s a story about ambition, manipulation, rejection, and gaslighting.
Alan Steele does well as Creon and the Tutor, the former adding menace and the latter plot points, but anyone who has experienced the persuasive power of a master manipulator—either in domestic or workplace abuse—can understand why the physical threats of the King matter little to Medea: Creon may hold her life in his hand but Jason has crushed her heart.
90 minutes is a very long time to maintain almost constant emotional intensity. The few workaday props give the female characters some business and the sparse music and subtle lighting adds tension but Cooper is emoting onstage most of the time—and we simply cannot take our eyes off her. Nor she us. An extraordinary ability to elicit complicity. We feel we are her friends.
The Greek speech is so well done. Language in this version is a gift, not a barrier. “To ksero, I know”, Medea tells us, “den thelo tipota, I don’t want anything”. It adds to her exotic appeal and, shrieked offstage, indicates her raving madness.
This is a woman driven mad by a man everyone else thinks is a hero. The moments when they embrace are precisely such a mindfuck because that’s exactly what gaslighting is: attempted mental rape. This story is true because a myth observed with attention highlights the painful realities of our human experience (ancient or modern our nature doesn’t change) that we would rather ignore.
The poet recanted after being struck blind, for the impiety of blaming Helen, daughter of a God, for the destruction of Troy. Perhaps we should judge Medea with similar caution: diabolical and divine, mother and murderess, this stunning performance by Bard in the Botanics bids us ask ourselves—under such circumstances, life torn asunder by men, a cruel king and a callous hero, backed by an army, can we really blame her?
Recently I’ve had the joy of spending time afloat on boats in Scottish lochs with friends who are supporters, members, former and future candidates, and officers of my UK political party FreedomAlliance—and it strikes me that there are some political lessons to be learned from messing about in boats. So this post is a kind of extended metaphor: what can nautical know-how teach us about being good party politicians?
Assemble a reliable crew
In order to do this, at least informal vetting has to take place and even people who are friendly, efficient and well-intentioned may have different points of view. It’s important, before setting out on a joint endeavour (such as an election campaign) to check that everyone has the same vision of the desired outcome as well as the same expectations of what contribution (which might not necessarily be financial but certainly an expenditure of time and effort) will be expected of everyone.
A sailing trip for some might mean a weekend of being drenched by spray hanging off the windward side of a close-hauled boat with the leeward gunwale just above the water; others might look forward to a crewman rubbing on their coconut suntan lotion while they sip a cocktail. Meanwhile the skipper might assume that everyone wants a not-too-challenging bit of sailing with time for a long lunch but with lifejackets always on, except at anchor. It’s worth checking!
In political terms, it’s perfectly possible to work with someone who says they’re basically a ‘paper candidate’ because they just don’t have the time or energy at the moment to do more than (maybe) an hour or two of leafleting and one afternoon of canvassing on the high street. That works if what you’re trying to do is just raise awareness of the party and of its policies on various issues. What’s more challenging is when someone puts forward great ideas and promises to action them, taking party resources to do so, then doesn’t. Some people are drawn to politics for the ego trip. One indication that you may have a good candidate is when you ask them to stand and they initially say ‘no’ then later confess they felt guilty about expecting others to do it for them.
Know the tide
If a political party were a boat, then the tide would be the predictable rhythmic movement of the primary element that upholds it and sets it in motion: public opinion. Tide tables and charts, calculations of similarity and difference, an eye on the calendar and the chronometer (clock), all these help a skipper gauge the strength and direction of this force but there’s nothing like local knowledge. While lazy tides in the upper Clyde vary only a couple of meters, less than 2 degrees of latitude south in Morecambe Bay, tides five times as high race in and out at the rate of a galloping horse.
There are some deeply-felt emotional commitments of the general UK public and of regional populations and local communities which, though manifesting seasonal changes, are predictable. The wise politician takes these into account when planning and navigating a course.
Sense the wind
The wind, in contrast, is a fickle element. Although, with the varying temperature of land and sea some breezes may be predictable, the wind can change suddenly in speed and direction. Even the prevailing wind, popularly thought to be simply southwest in mainland Britain, can not only vary with location but also with the season (northeasterlies are at least as common in springtime). They say a week is a long time in politics, well you can say the same about an hour at sea. The wise sailor is prepared to haul in, let out or reef (decrease the area of) the sail, change course and to drop the sail altogether and use the engine or just heave to, batten down the hatches and ride out the storm!
Being buoyed up by the media is exhilarating, as long as it lasts, but can be exhausting and only a fool relies on the constancy of the mediated crowd. It’s simply not possible to sail directly against the wind and heading too close to the wind can risk severe tipping (if the sail’s in tight) and the sail flapping. Conversely, sailing “goose-winged” (head sail out on one side, main on the other) with the wind behind you certainly gives you speed but a sudden gust can result in an accidental gybe sending the boom (bottom bar of the mainsail) swinging across the cockpit, knocking unwary heads, and precariously positioned crew overboard!
The political lesson here is keep a weather eye out and don’t rely on whatever the public is feeling this week, especially whatever the media is reporting they’re feeling, to continue. A reckless career can very easily go overboard! Without public backing nothing can be done but if sails are the policies put up by the party, then they can be scaled up or down and set out differently in order to work wisely with the fickle force of mediated opinion.
Ready the ropes
Seamanship’s a lot like being a Boy Scout or a Girl Guide (which are not the same, by the way): you have to be prepared. Sailing is all about opposition of forces, and ropes help maintain and direct the resultant force, so you need to have them handy and to know how and when to tie, untie, pull and slacken them. But ropes can be a hazard if you trip over them or they wrap themselves round the propeller!
The ropes don’t act directly on the forces driving the boat but they link most of the parts of the boat that do (the exceptions being the rudder operated by the hand-held tiller and the propeller operated by the engine). So, in the party, these are the links between the structure of the party and its policies, links that are the means of raising, deploying and replacing those policies. These internal party functions must be handy, reliable under strain and must keep to their designated place.
So, for example, means of internal and external communication by email, telephone, mail and internal mail, newspaper, television, radio and social media. This is the running rigging of a political party. It’s important to be able to identify these connections, to have them available for use and to understand how to use them.
Be clear about decision-making
There are two situations I feel are unsuited to democracy: cooking and sailing. Someone has to be in charge because if every decision is taken as an opportunity for renegotiation then the broth will spoil with too many cooks and the entire crew will end up overboard. Sometimes people simply have to do what they’re told, and sometimes, in a crisis, they will have to be told curtly and without immediate explanation.
There are several caveats to the above paragraph.
Firstly, a tyrannical skipper risks mutiny. This can be as mild as mates delaying their return from the pub cos they’re having more fun on land than at sea or as extreme as fisticuffs aboard. I’ve never witnessed the latter but I have been on a tall ship continuously at sea for weeks and it was clear that the extremely competent captain and first mate placed a very high value on crew morale.
Secondly, if an explanation (and apology for tone) can’t be given immediately it should not be delayed when the crisis is over.