Sunday 17 June 2018

The Sudden Topicality of Shakespeare's BREXIT Cymbeline

Coin of Cynobelinus King of Britain
How about writing a play about a British leader manipulated into leaving a peaceful alliance with Europe and go it alone in barbarous isolation? Oh, hang on—Shakespeare did one. As the Brexit negotiations descend into pandemonium (my own in-the-wrong-party MP Heidi Allen is a leading Tory rebel), I hereby beg my theatre friends to stage Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, topical as never before, more than 400 years since it premiered.

Shakespeare based Cymbeline on the historical British King Cynobelinus, whose reign began in the first decade CE. The bard admired Cynobelinus’ coins as drawn in the 1607 edition of William Camden’s Britannia, before which the historical Roman province of Britannia had never before been understood as a physical, material reality. When James I/VIth came to the throne in 1603, he projected himself as the Roman Emperor Augustus, who, after a long period of civil war, brought Rome to peace, alliances, and unity.

Brexiteers Cloten (left) & his mum work on intuitive Remainer Cymbeline
Cymbeline, educated on the Continent, is a happy ally of Rome. His xenophobic new wife wants to secure Brexit, kill him and Assume Total Power with her yobbish son Cloten. In the prescient Act III scene 1, she goads Cymbeline into insulting Caius Lucius, the virtuous and polite Roman ambassador. Anglo-European war is declared.

Fortunately, Queen and Cloten meet premature ends. Cymbeline realises in the nick of time that Britain will be happier Remaining. He closes by inviting his Roman allies to a feast in London, 'Lud's-town':

Publish we this peace
To all our subjects. Set we forward: let
A Roman and a British ensign wave
Friendly together: so through Lud’s-town march:
And in the temple of great Jupiter
Our peace we’ll ratify; seal it with feasts.
Set on there! Never was a war did cease,
Ere bloody hands were wash’d, with such a peace.

Self as Caius Lucius, Steve Mastin as Cymbeline
At the annual conference of the Historical Association in Stratford on Avon  last month, I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote lecture on Shakespeare’s later Roman plays. Along with wonderful colleagues working with me to persuadeHistory teachers to introduce Ancient History to their schools/sixth-formcolleges, we performed parts of this play substituting EU flags and Union Jacks for the insignia of Augustus and Cynobelinus Rex. Cynical laughter abounded.

A recent Hollywood movie tries to topicalise Cymbeline by representing Rome and Britannia as two rival motorcycle gangs. Despite the usually superb Ed Harris as Cymbeline, it is dismally bad. But contemporary Britain has stumbled into providing this classic drama with a painful sudden relevance. I wish we could follow Shakespeare, put the 2016 referendum behind us in Act III, and move on to the joyous, cosmopolitan finale.

Saturday 9 June 2018

A Deadly Serious Blog about Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide

Two high-profile suicides in a week have left many of us rattled. I know nothing of fashion and hadn’t heard of Kate Spade. I was scarcely aware of Anthony Bourdain, despite enjoying cookery shows. But I’ve been shocked to find myself compulsively reading about their close relationships.

A suicide in the family (and I am not including deliberated euthanasia by the terminally ill) inflicts a lasting community wound. My maternal grandmother committed suicide when I was three and a half. I do not believe that my mother, who died a natural death in 2016, ever recovered.

I starkly remember the day the news arrived, my mother’s howls, and how much I missed her when she disappeared to Scotland for what seemed an eternity. But most of all I remember her saying, when I was older, how bitterly she regretted giving me her mother’s name, even though one motive had been to try to alleviate Edith Henderson’s depression.

The ancient Greeks had the concept of an inherited curse to help them understand how suicide and other violence runs in families. I am sure Antigone found it easier to put that noose round her neck because her mother Jocasta had done so before her.  Suicide seems a more feasible option where there are precedents close to home. My grandmother had previously lost several relations to suicide.

I have experienced three periods of acute depression myself. One was post-natal and the symptoms were not self-destructive. But I did consider suicide during two depressions as a young woman, before I'd identified my life’s project and when I still believed, partly because of my own tense relationship with my mother, that I was psychologically incapable of good-enough parenting.

Allowing myself to have a child required seven years of therapy, Aristotelian Ethics and a tolerant boyfriend. I feel desperately sorry for everyone who suffers from depression. It’s just that I feel even sorrier for those they leave behind.

Aristotle disapproved of suicide because we are all part of communities and the violent death of a member of any group, whether by suicide or murder, is in a sense an assault on the other members. He can’t have fully understood the torment that depression can inflict. The pain can be as bad as physical agony and the need to escape it just as urgent.

But I do think that the survivors of suicide by loved ones need far more support than in my experience they are offered. Otherwise the repercussions may be felt across the generations. In the UK there is an admirable organisation Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide. It is just as important that we spread this information as it is to help people in suicidal crisis. 

Monday 4 June 2018

The Cynical Spin-Doctoring behind the British Museum's Rodin Exhibition

I’m pleased by Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that he supports the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles in their rightful Athenian home. I vote Labour but I’m also a proud member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, and have blogged about this issue before.

I’ve been saddened by the gushing responses across press and media to the current Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece exhibition at the British Museum.  Few journalists have seen the cynical motives underlying the jamboree.

Suspicions that opinion-management was at work should have been aroused by the mounting pressure on museums worldwide to acknowledge the colonial rapine involved in amassing their collections. Even louder alarm bells should have been rung by the identity of the financial sponsor, Bank of America Merrill Lynch. BAML has its own desperate PR offensive at the moment—a bid to mend its ravaged reputation only weeks after having to hand over $42 million in settlement for defrauding customers between 2008 and 2013.

The two premises the Museum’s spin doctors ask its viewers to accept are contentious: (1) that without a visit to the British Museum’s amputated fragments of the art of the Parthenon and Acropolis Rodin might not have become the great sculptor he was (why couldn’t he have gone to Greece? He visited Italy to study Michelangelo); (2) that ‘sculpture’ always means freestanding individual works conceived, displayed and revered as autonomous works of art, like Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ or ‘The Thinker’. 

The category apparently excludes magnificent public monuments like the Parthenon and the other temples of the Acropolis, which combine serial images in different material media aesthetically celebrating an entire community’s aspirations, spirituality and political identity.
Cast from Rodin's Design for Gates of Hell at Stanford Uni

Alas poor Rodin—I am sure he would have been appalled at such blatant ideological abuse of his own work, especially given that many of his most famous statues, including ‘The Kiss’ and ‘The Thinker’, were originally designed as part of a public monument, ‘The Gates of Hell’, inspired by Dante’s Inferno. They were commissioned by the French State as the portal to a new museum of the decorative arts which was in the event never built.

"Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone"
My own favourite Rodin sculpture is his ‘Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone’, originally designed for the top of the left pilaster of ‘The Gates of Hell’. I like to think that that the shocking sense of deracination and lapsarian despair she induces in the viewer was Rodin’s response to the miserable isolation of the solitary Caryatid from the Athenian Erechtheion stranded in London’s British Museum.

She's two thousand miles away from her sisters in the Acropolis Museum, named the The Best Museum of the World in a 2010 British poll. 

Let’s look beyond the media hype so expertly engineered by the Rodin exhibition, and use it instead as an opportunity for a serious public conversation about allowing her and the rest of the Athenians’ Acropolis sculptures to be reunited at last and seen as part of the Gesamtkunstwerk for which Pheidias & Co. originally designed them.