The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

On The Barge

Another BBC Shakespeare review...



Tricky one, this. It's a big play. Long, epic, huge scale, huge emotions. It's one meaty Shakespeare sandwich.

Problem is, though, I think my response has been coloured by the BBC production. Which is simply horrible. I can't quite put my finger on why. Well, I can, actually. It's lifeless, stiff and stark. There's no fluidity to it, no sense that the actors have relaxed into their roles, or know quite what they are doing or saying and how it relates to anything else. Not unrehearsed exactly but not rehearsed enough. This, more than anything else, makes the play fall flat, because it is all about the sweeping emotional journeys experienced by Tony, Pat, and also Enobarbas and Octavius, and the performances don't build or grow, there's no continuity of character, they just plonk along from scene to scene, hitting the same note, plonk plonk plonk. It's piecemeal, boring and perfunctory.

This is, yes, largely due to the under-rehearsed nature of the piece, but also, well, hate to say it, but the actors are all a bit crap. Jane Lapotaire - no, never heard of her - brings no glamour or sensuality to the role of Pat; her emotional outbursts are awkward and misjudged. Possibly even worse is Colin Blakely - no, not heard of him either - as a working-class, scruffy, chubby, thuggish Tony. Where is the f*cking romance? These should be the greatest lovers of their age, they look like a couple from the Chipping Norton rotary club.

There’s also the lack of attention to detail. For example, there's a scene where Enormobus (oh, f*ck it, I'm going to spell it like that from now on) is chatting away to his enemy, Menas. For this scene to work, Enormobus has to be drunk and boastful and indiscreet, with Menas pretending to be drunk in order to win his confidence. You don't get any of this in the BBC production. Just a couple of chaps exchanging pleasantries in the clubhouse.

Another example. Cleo's died. Her lady in waiting, Charmian (spellchecker seems convinced she’s called Chairman, but it's not) has the line. 'Your crown's awry - I'll mend it'. Clearly this is her cue to adjust Cleo's crown. Does she? Does she bollocks. She just stands there.

Possibly most inexcusable of all is that the BBC production, gosh I am a moaner today, is that the play omits Act III Scenes VIII, IX and X. These are some lovely scenes, and includes Shakespeare's stage direction 'the noise of a sea-fight'. They are also pretty crucial for the understanding of Act III, as it has characters relating the events of the sea-battle at Actium between the massed forces of Caesar on one side and the massed forces of Tony and Pat on the other. But in the BBC production we cut from

TONY: We'll to our ship. Away, my Thetis!




TONY: Hark! The land bids me tread no more upon't

I don't know whether it was a production f*ck up or the director had his head set on ‘arse’, but it's REALLY annoying. Not because I am some sort of puritan, and anyone who says I am should be burned at the stake for heresy, but because I found it REALLY difficult to follow what was going as a result. One minute Tony's leaving for his boat, the next he's just come off his boat. There should have been explosions and noises 'of a sea-fight'. It should have been CUT TO: PLAIN OF ACTIUM, followed by CUT TO: ANOTHER PART OF THE PLAIN OF ACTIUM, followed by CUT TO: ANOTHER PART OF THE PLAIN OF ACTIUM. We should have had the line:

ENORMOBUS: I can behold no longer. Th' Antoniad, the Egyptian admiral, with all their sixty, fly and turn the rudder.

You need this line to know WHAT THE F*CK HAPPENED to the sixty Egyptian boats. It's like, oh, trying to make a movie of the story of the second World War and editing together Dunkirk and D-Day. One minute they're all running in one direction, the next they’re all running back the other way.

Instead - and whether it be f*ck up or not I don’t know - we are treated to a PICTURE OF SOME BOATS and a bit of Plutarch. Now I have nothing against Plutarch. You could put me and Plutarch in a room together and I'm sure we'd have lots to discuss. But this is a Shakespeare play. It's not f*cking Plutarch, Plutarch is not what it says on the tin, if I'd wanted Plutarch I'd've bought the BBC Plutarch boxed set. There is a difference.

Well, actually, no there isn't. Um. Because, well, can you spot the difference between this Dead Famous Speech:

ENORMOBUS: The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, burn'd on the water. The poop was beaten gold; purple the sails, and so perfumed that the winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver which to the tune of flutes kept stroke...

and this snatch of Plooty.

THE PLOOTSTER: Her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes

Look, Shakey - you've clearly done your research, I'm not knocking that, but all you've done is add some extra bits to Plutarch which, quite frankly, don't contribute a great deal, and reversed a couple of his phrases to make it look like it's not just been copied out of Greekipedia.

Anyway that's me being grumpy out of the way. Now for some fun stuff.

Famous quotes: Oodles, but they're mainly only good in context. Here's a couple, though, to make you go 'ping!'

"The triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet's fool" (kind of like a tagline for the play, actually)


"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety"

Word/phrase coinage? "Beggar all description". "Salad days". Cold-hearted. Enthroned. Leaky. Petition. Scuffle. Submerge.

However, sadly, although the play does use the word 'Mandragora' Shakespeare didn't coin it.

Speaking of which, though, what sort of a bird was this Cleo? Did she really bathe in ass milk? And, if so, did she want it pasteurised, 'cos pasteurised is best?

Fortunately the play gives us a pretty good idea of this idealised vision of sexy womanhood...

CLEO: Give me some music - music, moody food of us that trade in love!

Likes her tunes.

CLEO: Let's to billiards!

Snooker player.

CLEO: Give me mine angle - we'll to th'river!

Keen fisherman.

CLEO: I drunk him to his bed!

Enjoys a glass or two.

CLEO: Then put my tires and mantles on him!

Kinky in the bedroom.

CLEO: Give me to drink mandragora... that I might sleep out this great gap of time.

Drug addict.

ENORMOBUS: I saw her once hop forty paces through the public street.

And quite possibly extremely mental.

You can see why Tony fell in love with her, as she rolled up on her barge (with a gold poop and purple sails). There she was, necking back the lagers, fishing rod in one hand, snooker cue in the other, nodding in time to the flute music (which was also being played to keep time for the oars of silver). With a firty, dirty look in her eye. A Bad Girl. A Ladette. The Charlotte Church of her day.

She definitely went on top. I think we can be certain of that. Though Julius Caesar claimed to have 'ploughed her'. But, of course, Cleo explains that doesn't count because it was back in her 'salad days'.

Her Caesar salad days. COME ON IT WAS INEVITABLE.

I'm not quite sure why she did the hopping forty paces thing. It's a Dead Famous Speech but its significance is lost on me. Makes her sound like a right nutter. Maybe she had broken a heel on the golden poop.

Speaking of Julius Caesar - don't go away thinking that Tony & Pat is in any way a sequel to that play, because it's not. Cleo isn't even mentioned in JC and, well, the continuities don't match up - all sorts of time-scale not-quite-fittyness - and because the Tony of A & C isn't really the Tony of JC and nor is Octavius. They are also played by different actors, which doesn't help. But the Tony of JC is an orator, an expert politician, whereas the Tony of A & C is a soldier having a mid-life crisis.

However, if you are the sort of person who likes to do unexciting things, you can pretty much go from the Rome series via Julius Caesar and Tony & Pat to I Claudius, without missing anything important. Except the bit where Octavius changes his name to Augustus and becomes Brian ‘DIVE!!!' Blessed. Not sure why he changes his name - it would have been quite neat for the eighth month to be 'Octave' rather than August. But potentially confusing, what with October being called October and everything...

That said, you could probably skip Tony & Pat and just watch Carry on Cleo instead. Jon Pertwee’s in it and I'm pretty sure at one point you can see Amanda Barrie's bum. Plus there's that hilarious bit where nostrils runs out screaming 'infamy, infamy' etc.

And then after I Claudius you should carry on with The Romans, of course. Then after that you're probably ready for something a little heavier so I'd switch to Gibbon's Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, I've heard it's a page-turner though the title is a total spoiler.

Anyway, funny bird, Pat. She married both her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, then had a liaison with Caesar, which begat a son, Caesarean, who you all probably know from his appearance in the seminal Asterix & Son. After Julius Caesar suffered a sudden stabbing pain in the back, she shacked up with Tony and had three of his kids. None of this is in this play, though, so I'll shut up.

Another thought that popped into my head whilst watching regards Tony's situation in Act I; Tony's life is a balancing act between a life in one place, with a mistress, and a life in another place, with a wife he doesn't much care for. Now as you know I am the last person to make biographical inferences, but it struck me that Shakey may have been working from personal experience here. He had his work life in London, possibly with his Dark Lady, and he had his family life in Stratford Upon Avon with Anne 'Cottage' Hathaway. And for years he would have been dividing his time between a life based around the less salubrious parts of London - the pubs, the theatres and the brothels - and life with Anne. Or 'his second best bed' as he liked to call her. I mean, naturally he would have preferred London - Stratford Upon Avon is full of f*cking tourists.

I don't know, but maybe when Pat is saying her goodbyes to Tony, maybe that was informed by life experience. Pat's mix of insecurity, jealousy, paranoia, anger, and genuine heartfelt emotion alongside a more manipulative streak where she wants to get what she wants from him; she wants him to hurt leaving her, and deliberately makes sure he does. She wants him to miss her, and deliberately makes sure of it - he is to be constantly sent messengers detailing her mood swings. It is the classic 'other woman' scenario - and even if Shakespeare didn't have some skirt on the go in London it would be surprising if Anne didn't at least have some problem with her husband being away all the time. From a town like Stratford, that would be pretty unusual, and he would’ve been a local celebrity, and she would have her standing in the community and be worried about gossip. But I think, if anything, Pat is the woman in London... she, after all, represents the exotic, the holiday romance, the you-don't-get-this-sort-of-thing-at-home. That sort-of-thing being, er, a whirlwind succession of fishing, billiards and bondage. She is the mistress jealous of the wife - in this place, the Mrs being an unseen and unloved presence, a marriage of inconvenience.

So you get bits like this:

CHAIRMAN: Madam, methinks, if you did love him dearly, you do not hold the method to enforce the like from him

i.e. if you genuinely love someone, you shouldn't manipulate them into loving you back

to which Pat replies:

CLEO: What should I do I do not?

CHAIRMAN: In each thing give him way; cross him in nothing.

CLEO: Thou teachest like a fool - the way to lose him.

Cleo's stuck between two stools - a rock and a hard place - the devil and the deep blue sea – the frying pan and the fire. She feels she has to do something to keep him, but the danger is the more she prods and provokes him into missing her, the greater the chance that he will grow tired of her. It's the classic 'how many times a week should I phone my boyfriend' dilemma; too little and you'll be forgotten, too often and you'll be a stalker.

Not many more thoughts before I crack on with the synopsis. Tony & Pat is unusual because it has detailed stage directions, which sort of lends weight to the idea that the source text is more reliable than usual when it comes to the dialogue too.

As I've said, my main criticism of this play is Act III. It's one of the longest acts Shakespeare had written up to that point but still isn't long enough to get across the necessary information. Compared to, say, Henry VI Part 3, it's an incomprehensible muddle. I mean, I like the fact that there are loads of short scenes - there are even scenes which consist of little more than one character delivering half-a-dozen lines, but (particularly in the BBC production) you’re not given enough to make sense of the proceedings if you don't know what is going on.

I can sort of understand the choice Shakespeare was making here, though. Suppose you were going to write a love story about Hitler and Eva Braun. It would be a hard sell but just suppose. Now, clearly you would have to include the second world war somewhere in the story - I think most historians would agree that it had a significant impact on their lives - but if you want to focus on the love story, you don't want the story to be about the war. You'd keep the war off-stage as much as possible - a background presence - and you'd make more of their life before the war, and you'd make a great deal out of their last week in the bunker in Berlin. With Blondi the Nazi dog.

But that's what you'd do, and that's pretty much what Tony & Pat does too. You have their love established in Act I, the 'obstacle' being introduced in Act iI (political necessity), and the big war in Act III where everything turns pear-shaped. Which leaves you the whole of Act IV for Tony's last desperate measures and suicide... and the whole of Act V for Cleo's suicide in the bunker.

Not sure where I stand on Act V. It is incredibly drawn-out, but then again, I've moaned about Shakespeare's perfunctory endings so I can't really complain here. The whole thing is certainly ratcheted up a notch for the final act, it's intense, and there is a real sense of claustrophobia, of events closing in, of escape routes being closed off. And poetically it is pretty much the bee's bollocks.

The best thing, though, is the Clown. I'm not keen on the Soothsayer bit in Act I - it's one of several bits of Act I which acts as 'still to come' trailers for the end of the play (see also: Pat feigning death at the thought of Tony being dead). But the introduction of a funny old man who has come to deliver the poisonous snake for Pat to kill herself with is a stroke of genius. It feels so wrong, yet works so well because the intrusion of a comic element frustrates the audience and heightens the darkness of the situation. I don't think Shakespeare did it better anywhere else. It is just excruciating black comedy, as Pat wants to get on and kill herself, but the Clown refuses to leave, instead giving her advice on how to look after her new 'pet'. It's like if you were writing a play about a terminally ill couple committing suicide, just at the end you'd have the doorbell ring and a couple of funny Jehovah's Witnesses turn up. It's astonishingly effective, because the audience, by this point, is in no mood to laugh - and the funnier the clown is, the more uncomfortable it is for the audience.

What happens:

Act I

Tony is shacked up with Pat in Alexandria, where life is one long orgy of billiards, drinking, fishing and sexual shenanigans. However, this is proving an embarrassment to the other two thirds of the triumvirate that is in charge of the Roman Empire - the youthful, pragmatic, responsible politician Octavius and doddery old windbag Lepidus. Not only that, but while Tony’s been ‘living in de nile’, Tony's wife, Fulvia, has led an un unsuccessful uprising against Octavius, and then died. So in theory Tony is now free to marry Cleo...

But it looks like Pompey, a disaffected Roman, has raised a pirate army against Rome. Tony agrees to go back to Rome to help out with the war effort, and says his farewells to Cleo. Cleo is distraught, but possibly not quite as distraught as she is pretending to be.

Now I come to think of it, Octavius is a pretty interesting character. Should have talked about him more.

Act II

Learning that Tony is now back in Rome with Octavius and Lepidus, Pompey has second thoughts about attack Rome with his pirate army.

In Rome, Octavius wants to make sure of Tony's loyalty so he suggests that Tony marry his sister (Octavius's sister), the imaginatively-named Octavia. This he does. Cleo is, as you might expect, none too pleased when a messenger arrives with the news. But she takes solace in the fact that Octavia is not as attractive as her.

In Rome, Tony's good friend and colleague, Enobarbus, is sceptical that Tony will stick with Octavia and not go back to Pat.

As a last-ditch attempt at peace, Octavius, Lepidus and Tony agree to meet Pompey on his galley. Pompey is a good host and everybody gets rat-arsed, except for sensible Octavius. Enobarbus gets pissed and lets slip to Pompey's right-hand-man, Menas, that he doesn't think the triumvirate will last - which is just the news that Pompey wants to hear. As the drinking turns to partying Pompey resolves to attack the forces of Rome. Menas suggests killing Octavius, Lepidus and Tony there and then - and Pompey says 'D'oh! If you'd done it without telling me first, then it would have been okay! But now you've told me that makes me an accessory so you can't do it!'

Actually now I come to think of it Enormobus is a pretty interesting character too. Should have talked more about him.

Anyway, so far, so comprehensible. Deep breaths, we're now into


Essentially this is the war at Actium. But nothing is that simple.

It's a few months or years later and the uprising against Rome has been defeated. Or something. Not made clear. But on his way back to Egypt, Tony learns that he has been denounced in the senate by Octavius. Tony informs his wife, Octavia, that she will have to choose between him and her brother. She decides to return to her brother. Octavius has also accused Lepidus of treachery, and he's been executed.

A few months or years later again, and Tony is back in Egypt with his 'Queen of the South'. Together they've been building an empire around the corner of the Med, and are handing out power to Pat's children by Julius Caesar and Tony. They are also spreading nasty rumours about Octavius keeping the wealth he acquired from Pompey and Lepidus. This annoys Octavius back in Rome and he is on the point of giving some of the loot to Tony when his sister arrives, seemingly wronged by Tony.

A few months or years later there is war in the air. On one side, Octavius and the Roman Empire. On the other, Tony and Pat and the Egyptian Empire. Egypt is stronger on land, Rome is stronger on sea. Despite the advice of Enormobus, Tony decides he will fight the Romans at sea - and Pat promises him a fleet of sixty ships to help him. They will outnumber the Romans, so it should be a doddle.

(This is where the BBC production really drops the ball, by the way.)

However, Pat's sixty ships fail to turn up for the battle or do turn up but f*ck off at the first sign of danger, leaving Tony's forces outnumbered and very quickly scuppered to buggery. Tony is forced back on shore, furious with Pat, but she gives him a kiss and he forgives her. It's too late for him to split with her now; they are both up shit creek in the same canoe and neither of them has a paddle.

As Rome's forces march about Actium in a threateningly butch manner, Octavius offers Pat a deal - she can keep her empire if she has Tony killed. This plot thread doesn't really go anywhere so you can forget about it now. Octavius sends a soldier, Thidias, to drive a wedge between Tony and Pat. This proves more effective, as Tony flies into a jealous rage when he sees Thidias with Cleo. Despite being outnumbered and them having no chance of winning he orders his remaining soldiers to attack.

They are massacred. Appalled by Tony's lack of judgement, and unreliability, Enormobus decides to leave him and go and join the other side.

Meanwhile Tony, knowing that all is lost, challenges Octavius to a duel, mano et mano. Octavius just laughs. Ha ha ha!

Act IV

Phew. Things get less complicated now - and bear in mind the above synopsis of Act III was really simplified - in the play it's about an hour of people running around shouting and falling over.

Tony hears about Enormobus' betrayal, but, being a nice guy, forgives him and sends Enormobus all his money and belongings (Enormobus's not Tony's). Enormobus is so touched by the gesture that he regrets abandoning Tony at his hour of most need and, full of remorse, kills himself.

There's another battle in Actium, but Tony and Cleo's forces are now surrendering or fleeing. Tony turns on Cleo, blaming her for their defeat. Cleo is hurt, and runs off to her family tomb, and sends a messenger to Tony to tell him she was so upset she killed herself.

The messenger arrives at Tony's tent, where Tony is still fuming. But upon hearing that Cleo's last words were begging his forgiveness, Tony is filled with remorse (lots of people are filled with remorse in this play) and decides to do himself in.

However Grande Dame Fortune has been pissing on Tony from a great height - as he remarks, several times, at length - and he can't even kill himself without cocking it up. First he orders his servant Eros to kill him but Eros decides he would rather commit suicide instead. So then Tony stabs himself but misses and merely ends up mortally wounded rather than actually dead.

And then of course another messenger runs in and explains that Cleo is not in fact dead, but was merely 'teaching Tony a lesson'. At this point Tony looks down at the entrails and bits of fish supper that are leaking out of his guts and realises he has been a silly billy. He orders his servants to take him to Cleo's tomb... and there, he dies in her arms. Cleo is filled with remorse.

Act V

Octavius isn't all bad, though - he's not a villain - and he doesn't want to see Cleo punished or killed. He sends an officer, Proculeius, to her with a deal - abdicate in favour of your son Caesarean, and you will be allowed to live in peace.

However, and this is a bit I don't quite understand, is that Octavius has another officer, Dolabella, who seems to be labouring under the opposite impression. Now either he is mistaken or trying to get Cleo to kill herself, because he goes to see Cleo in her tomb and tells her not to believe Proculeius' offer, and that Caesar really plans for her to be stripped and paraded in the streets of Rome.

That's what I don't understand. In one scene Caesar is saying one thing, but Dolabella says another. Does Caesar really plan for Cleo to be stripped and paraded, or is that Dolabella's invention, or has he got the wrong end of this stick. Some clarity would be appreciated.

That said, it's not particularly important because this act is basically all about Cleo sitting in her mausoleum with her two servants, Chairman and Iras. This is a beautiful scene - Cleo is half out of her mind with grief, and is lamenting Tony, and filled with remorse, remorse, of course, of course - it's operatic, and I mean that in a good way. She thinks back to happier times, but they seem now like an impossible dream.

She resolves to kill herself, and sends for a poisonous snake. A Clown brings it in - not literally a Clown, more of a yokel like that bloke off of the Time Team - and Cleo puts on her best frock. Eventually she manages to get the Clown to sod off.

Cleo is about to get the snake to bite her when one of her servants, Iras, falls to the ground having died of grief. It has been a stressful time. This gives Cleo the final push and she gets the asp to bite her on the boob. The poison has an hallucinogenic effect and Cleo thinks she can hear Tony calling to her, before she slumps back on the slab, dead.

Chairman then takes the snake and gets it to bite her on the booby too - what can I say, this climax has it all, action, excitement and the ladies of the cast getting their tits out! Wahey!

But then who should then walk in but Octavius, only to discover Tony dead beneath a pile of topless women.

Next up: I have absolutely no f*cking clue what it's about - it's Cymbeline!

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