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Well, that was…intense. Ian McKellen was asked by the Chicester Festival Theatre, where he started his professional career many decades ago, if he would star in a play of his choosing, and he felt that he would like to “have a another crack at King Lear”. He asked for the smallest stage they had for intimacy with the audience and another a successfull run, they transferred it to the Duke of York theatre in London, which is one of the smallest in the West End, made smaller by removing a load of the seating. I caught an encore of the NT Live performance held at the Curzon Bloomsbury.

Ian McKellan is 79 and has basically said this is his last major Shakespeare role and I am not surprised that he’s giving it up. Over the course of three and a half hours, he gave a high-energy performance that involved a lot of shouting, raving half naked in pouring rain for half an hour, carrying another person across the stage, and generally thoroughly wearing me out and I was only watching him on a screen.

I don’t know where the abbatoir scenes are set historically but it was creepy af.

All the more surprising given that King Lear isn’t actually in a lot of the play and disappears for most of an Act. I’d never seen or read it and so I did not realise that there’s actually a whole load of subplots that I’d never absorbed in popular culture. King Lear is based on a legendary British King described by Geoffrey of Monmouth who divided his kingdom among two of his daughters and immediately regretted it when they failed to keep him in the style to which he was accustomed. Interestingly, Geoffrey’s story ends with Leir taking his kingdom back by force, but Shakespeare evidently thought this a dissatisfying ending and instead has pretty much everyone die horribly.

The Earl of Gloucester about to lose it to a creepy Regan

This was played up in Jonathan Munby staging – a subplot features the Earl of Gloucester, who is hosting Lear’s daughter Regan and the Duke of Cornwall when he is framed by his bastard son Edmund as a traitor, having already dispatched his legitimate brother Edgar in similar fashion (who then spend much of the play also covered in blood and dirt pretending to be mad so he isn’t murdered). Gloucester, having gone out in a storm to look for Lear after he has been turned away by both his daughters as a burden to them, then has his eyes gouged out. This scene is pretty gross and drawn out. It’s set in an abbatoir and Regan’s contribution is to put on the radio and writhe sadistically in delight, which was all quite off-putting. Gloucester is then turned into a pathetic figure and both he and Lear spend much of the next hour gloomily roaming round the stage covered in muck and sweat bewailing the state of affairs.

Two older gentlemen getting thoroughly dishevelled and messed up in the name of art.

It was a good play but the first half lasted about forty minutes longer than I wanted it to, and basically, it’s not Hamlet if we’re looking at Shakespear’s epicly long plays, and really there was far more shouting at the tops of people’s voices than I thought was necessary. A bit too high energy for me.

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We kick off our quest with a RSC live broadcast of Troilus and Cressida at Vue Wood Green. Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakepeare’s rarest performed plays, probably because it is rubbish. The plot is confusing, all moments of high drama are ultimately fudged, and the play just kind of stops suddenly and one of the secondary characters hurriedly delivers a gross-out speech to distract us all from that fact. Set seven years into the Siege of Troy, Troilus is Paris’ brother, and madly in love with a woman called Cressida, whose father has defected to the Greeks. Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus, promised to ah, acquaint them. Meanwhile, the Greeks are all hanging around outside in the city in tents, arguing about what to do and not a little bit annoyed with Achilles, who has huffed off to his tent to hang out with Petroclus and is refusing to set a heroic example to the rest of the Greek army. Troilus and Cressida hook up, but the next day, a prisoner exchange means that Cressida is sent to the Greeks to be with her father, and she makes the best of it by getting with Diamene. Troilus is devastated. A bunch of people are killed offstage including Petroclus. Achilles kills Hector in grief.  The play ends. Hamlet it is not.

What the RSC did with it though, was pretty clever. Set in some dystopian steampunk universe, with high-octane acting, shirtless men and one of the best percussionists in the world providing the soundtrack, they did a pretty good job of entertaining me, which is ultimately really what these plays were written for.

He actually only got round to putting a shirt on for curtain call.

The RSC went all out on diversity, going with a gender balanced cast, making the relationship between Achilles and Petroclus explicit and getting a deaf actor to play Cassandra.

Charlotte Arrowsmith was pretty good at Cassandra – she signed most of her lines and had another actor vocalise the important bits. It has to be said that I didn’t in fact notice that she was Deaf until I saw the interval interviews, so well done on a great performance.

Charlotte Arrowsmith as Cassandra

The RSC to make the relationship between Achilles and Petroclus explicitly sexual and it really, really worked. They didn’t just shoehorn in some queers because it’s fashionable, it was written that way. Whatever Shakespeare’s original intentions were with that dialogue, he made a deliberate editorial choice to make it ambiguous enough in 1604 that you could interpret it as super gay and thank God I live in 2018 where that vision can be realised.

This is fine.

My laurel crown has to go to Oliver Ford Davies, however, who stole every scene he appeared in as Pandarus. Given that Troilus and Cressida are both boring characters, Pandarus’ creepiness and voyeurism was really funny and a highlight of the play, as well as delivering what was one of the funniest lines:

“PANDARUS
Amen. Whereupon I will show you a chamber with a
bed; which bed, because it shall not speak of your
pretty encounters, PRESS IT TO DEATH: away!”

The only thing I was disappointed by was the fact that we were only one of four attendees at this live broadcast. I have to blame this on Vue making it almost impossible to find and book the showing. It took me several goes, and having to shift from my phone to a desktop computer, to be able to buy a ticket. I hope they fix this, because I really appreciated being able to nip up to my local cinema to see a show being aired a hundred miles away, and I don’t want this cultural gift to be taken away from me because of poor ticket sales.

A good night out. Looking forward to the next one.

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Antisemitism on the Left and the Whitewashed Documentary

June 30, 2017

The Whitewashed documentary on the Chakrabarti Report and antisemitism in the Labour Party was released yesterday. It interviews various people who submitted written testimony to the Chakrabarti inquiry and feel like they were completely ignored. I did not look up the backgrounds of the people who contributed to this documentary, deliberately, because it does not […]

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On Croatia, Eurovision, and homophobia.

May 16, 2017

Originally published to Facebook.   I posted several times last night about Croatia’s Eurovision entry (which was ROBBED), and on each post someone different (LGBT and not) made sure to post that in 2005 Jacques Houdek gave an interview in which he made some unpleasant comments about gay people and same sex marriage and was […]

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Applying “least harm” to every meal.

December 21, 2016

I believe in a clear hierarchy of sentience with us at the top followed by mammals, general vertebrates, invertebrates, plants and then bacteria, and I do my best to keep the suffering I cause for the sake of my own survival as low on that hierarchy as possible, as self-awareness and feelings of pain and […]

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Israel is not permanently right-wing.

March 22, 2015

Despite polling predictions that Israeli voters were abandoning him, Binyamin Netanyahu won by far the biggest share of seats in the Knesset last Wednesday. There has since been much despair in my social feeds and the international press that Israel is right-wing and only sliding further in that direction. In my opinion, for all this […]

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Reverend Sarah McCulloch at your service

September 18, 2014

And so, on the 26th July, I was ordained an interfaith minister: It was a ceremony that was powerful, meaningful, and occasionally naff, but I’m never going to forget a second. I remember when I was 5, thinking that I’d quite like to be a minister – 20 years later, I’ve got Reverend in front of […]

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“Polarised is important because… of Homophobia.”

August 21, 2014

Originally published on EQView on behalf of the Polarised Project, a documentary on LGBT mental health. While the general acceptance of LGBT people has happened faster than I can hardly believe when I think about it, we still live in a society where homophobia happens and every queer has to dwell, even for a second, […]

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Seriously, stop comparing Jews to the Nazis. Please.

July 20, 2014

Imagine that your parents and the majority of everyone they knew had all been systematically been massacred by a particular sect when you were a kid. Imagine you grew up in a family that was utterly traumatised by this massacre and was determined to avoid anything similar ever happening again. Imagine that growing up with […]

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I’m Being Ordained and You Are Invited.

July 16, 2014

After two years of training and 25 years of preparation, I am being ordained as a minister on the 26th July and you are invited to attend. :)   Ordination FAQ Related Posts:Reverend Sarah McCulloch at your serviceBecoming an Interfaith Minister

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