Well. I have a lot of thoughts! And… spoilers, I guess? If you don’t know the play, then definitely spoilers; and if you’d rather not know about the staging, then those will be too.
Straight up: I loved it. I think it’s beautiful to watch, I think it captures the play’s ideas, and I thought the actors were generally fantastic.
(Keep in mind, I am no drama teacher, and neither am I a film critic! I’ll probably have missed the point of some elements…)
As a film:
- Most obviously, it’s filmed in black and white, which was awesome. It was, oddly, so very rich – saturated, I guess – I certainly didn’t feel like I was missing much without colour. It made the fades between scenes more interesting, and it made everything much more stark.
- Some of the segues were glorious. And the use of silhouettes was brilliant.
- The use of birds throughout was a very nice motif: they’re the first thing you see – and, I realised only after a scene with the witches, it’s three of them; and circling “through the fog and filthy air”, in fact. Then Duncan sees them flying overhead, then you see them at other points too. In particular, the witches turn into birds after their final scene with Macbeth – and when Macbeth thinks he’s having a go at Banquo’s ghost, everyone else sees him flapping at a bird. (And Lady Macbeth opens a window and shoos the bird out, which is GOLD.)
- The movie is basically without context. There’s no attempt to make Washington have a Scottish accent, and Brendan Gleeson as Duncan has his Irish accent on full display. And then there’s the PLACE, which I adored: it’s utterly unplaceable. The witches and Macbeth and Banquo could be walking across dirt, or it could be sand, or dust. No idea! Duncan’s camp could be three tents or dozens; no idea! And then when we get inside, Lady Macbeth is walking down a corridor and Duncan arrives to a courtyard – but there’s no sense of how large this place is. Actually that’s not quite true; the bits of building we see are unreal, and far too large. Even when inside, there’s a tight focus on people, and especially on faces, so we basically don’t know what their surroundings are like most of the time. The only time we see a full building is the castle of Fife – and it’s a solid tower plonked on a cliff, also looking unreal. It’s almost like a cinematic version of a theatre – all hints at buildings, not whole. It lends the film a claustrophobic feel.
- The clothing is also interesting. It’s definitely not modern, suits and so on; but neither is it full-on medieval, or even faux medieval. Macbeth looks like he’s wearing a gambeson, the padded coat under armour, the whole time; Lady Macbeth is wearing long dresses but they’re not of a time. Timeless, in fact.
- Opening with JUST the witches’ voices was really interesting… and then to see just one witch, I was intrigued. But THEN she stands above water and there’s two witches in the reflection, and THEN they come out of the water? Very cool, and a nice way to differentiate this version. And Kathryn Hunter, the actress, actually DID all those contortions??
- Banquo’s eyebrows are quite the statement.
- This Macbeth is never happy. Not even at the start.
- They showed a dagger when he’s hallucinating, but then it’s actually the door handle! Very clever.
- Duncan is awake when Macbeth murders him! Now that’s a choice – and somehow makes it worse, I think.
- I paid close attention to Lady Macbeth’s hair, since it’s so often used as a signal for a woman’s state of mind, and… I think it is here? But not so dramatically as in other films. When she’s in control, her hair is very neatly and tightly and elaborately up. It’s in a plait when in bed, but that just makes sense. And at the end, when she’s sleepwalking, it’s definitely more on the loose-and-wild side.
- They kept the porter scene, which… I guess you need to let Macduff into the castle; they made him a bit silly but definitely didn’t play it up (and I think it may have been cut down, but it’s been a while since I read/saw it).
- The murderers are the least murderous-looking murderers I’ve ever seen.
- What the heck is up with Ross?? He talks to an “old man”, who is played by the woman who plays the witches; he seems to be on everyone’s side. And then he’s the third murderer?? And he’s the one to find Fleance and consciously allows him to live? I’m very confused and intrigued. Because THEN you see Ross approaching Lady Macbeth at the top of the stairs – cut – and then Lady Macbeth is dead at the bottom of the stairs, so… ?? Ross is then the one to bring the crown – and Macbeth’s head – to Malcolm. And finally, the film ends with Ross going back to the old man, who has been hiding Fleance, and they ride off together … and when they get to a dip in the road, they don’t appear again – but a big flock of birds fly up and away… Ambiguous, to say the least.
- I’m always a fan of ‘Lady Macbeth as one of the witches’ and she puts something into Macbeth’s wine… and then he wakes up ‘tomorrow’ and there are the three witches, in the castle. So that’s another ambiguous touch.
- The testing of Malcolm is NOT included, which is an interesting choice. It does make the play longer, and it can be a bit confusing. I feel like there might have been a few other bits with Malcolm that were cut, early on; so Coen has chosen to focus just on Macbeth, and not bother with the comparison with the saintlier Malcolm.
This was just wonderful and I expect it will be embraced with joy by many English and drama teachers. And, hopefully, people who haven’t seen a Shakespeare production in years / ever.
I love Macbeth.
Yes, I know it’s almost a cliche. I also love Hamlet and loathe Romeo and Juliet.
I first studied the play in Year 10; we watched the Polanski/Finch/Annis version, which is why every Lady Macbeth will forever be compared to Francesca Annis for me, because she was breathtaking. Since then (lo these many years), I’ve seen it performed at least once by Bell Shakespeare – although their production list suggests I may have seen it twice, but 2007 is a long, long time ago. I saw it performed at least once at uni: it was done in the round, and the conceit was to have the characters all dressed as punks. And I mean stereotypical punks: spiked hair, rings, spiked leather jackets, the works. I was blown away by it at the time. I also feel like I must have seen it done another time at uni – it’s such an obvious play for that context. Anyway, there’s also been two film versions that got enough advertising that I saw them: the Australian – Melbourne, in fact – ganglands version which was amazing, and the Fassbender/Cotillard version that I was pretty disappointed by.
And now, of course, there’s a new version. With Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Which I am very excited by. So here’s the plan: to watch this version and then, over the next couple of months, watch the other versions as well. Just to see what happens.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in April 2022.
Glorious. Frustrating. Confusing. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking…
It’s hard to know how to talk about this book.
The first thing that needs to be said is that it’s unfinished. The author, John M Ford, died in 2006. He had been working on this novel, it seems, for many years – at least that’s what I get from the introduction, written by a friend of Ford’s, Neil Gaiman. And so… the book is incomplete. That is, there’s no conclusion; and I suspect there are bits that might have been edited for clarity if the author had, indeed finished.
And I nearly cried when I got to the end, because this book is just so amazing. Like, this could have been the start of one of The Great Series. I’ve read only one other Ford novel, and I think a few short stories; this makes me want to go back and read absolutely everything. Because if this is the standard, well – I’ve been missing out.
Aspects is set in an alternate world. It’s kind of Britain, I think, although it doesn’t seem to be an island. It’s kind of analogous to the nineteenth century – there are trains (the Ironways), for instance, and there’s a form of electricity but some people are suspicious. But chemistry doesn’t quite seem to work the way it does here. Religion is important, but it’s not a Christianity-analogue; there’s a goddess with several faces, and matching consorts. And there’s a Parliament, with Commons and Lords, but here’s the final difference to our world: the lords are lords of the land, of religion – and of sorcery, or Craft.
So it’s kind of steampunk, but it doesn’t really fit into what I know of that category, and it’s fantasy set in an industrial context. Honestly though it just defies categorisation. It’s a deeply political work – three of the main characters are in Parliament, and at least part of the narrative revolves around machinations there, like writing a new constitution. It’s a country struggling to figure itself out several decades after becoming a republic – and it seems that the previous monarchy had been imposed by a conquering race, although that’s one aspect (heh) that I never quite got my head around. Some of the characters have the ability to use magic, which is not without its difficulties, and it’s clear that was going to a significant thread if the book had continued. There’s a romance, with its own difficulties; and such a large array of characters, all with their quirks (and bringing diversity, too) that this should have – could have – provided many, many pages of just mesmerising story. And now I’m making myself sad all over again that I’ll never read them.
Ford’s writing can be profound: “Play keeps us happy and agile, in mind and muscle; sleep and good meals keep us alive. We can misspend time – hurting people, ourselves included, making the world worse – but to ‘waste’ time – to get no motion at all, good or bad – to do that one would have to be not at alive at all” (p172 of the e-version). While I was sometimes a bit confused about what was going on, I was always captivated by the writing itself and somehow convinced – even though I don’t know Ford’s work that well – that everything would eventually make sense. And I was largely right.
I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for… maybe a decade? It was a gift, I’m pretty sure. I always intended to read it, but it just didn’t grab me. I maybe thought that it seemed a bit too… serious, perhaps. Although exactly why it would be serious with quite such a title, and a dinghy with a bright red sail on the cover, don’t ask me to explain. At any rate I thought I wasn’t going to love it, and I’d have to psych myself up to finally get through it. And I finally got to that point this week, as well as a desire to get through some of Mount ToBeRead.
And, of course, I loved it.
In 1997, the Australian author is an English teacher in England. After 6 years, he decides that it’s time to do something different, and to help figure out what that is he borrows the school’s Mirror dinghy – which has been sitting abandoned for some time – and sets out to sail for a few weeks, over to the border with Wales. Predictably, given it’s now a book (and quite a thick one – 348 pages), that’s not the end of it. In three stints, with a fair gap between the first two because of the weather, Mackinnon ends up at the Black Sea. Yes: he sails through England to Dover, across the Channel, and then via canals and rivers and many, many locks, he gets to the Black Sea. Yes, it’s incredible; it takes about a year of travel.
One of the things that really worked for me, here, is the prose. Mackinnon is an English and drama teacher and it absolutely shows because he’s got literary and musical references coming out of his pores. He sings hymns and musical numbers to while away the hours, he compares himself to Odysseus, and he decides to commit all of Keats to memory while sailing the dinghy. He describes the scenery he passes and his various adventures, mishaps, and joys with great humour and a great eye for detail.
Another thing that’s a great joy here is that Mackinnon balances the travel-as-place aspect with the travel-as-people part. There’s a lot of description of the natural and industrial landscape he moves through, and occasionally runs into (rapids, derelict ships, willows, etc). And it’s very evocative. At the same time, the people he meets are a huge part of the adventure. Mackinnon had the most outrageous luck the whole way along – something he himself acknowledges, and admits that he has to work to convince his friends back home that these things really happened. (Yes, I did stop to wonder whether this was all completely made up… and I guess that’s possible. But there’s no way to prove it, so I’m happy to take it on a little faith.) He meets people who feed him, give him a bed, give him directions, and – most importantly – help him to fix the boat when it’s in direst need. The journey would have been much, much shorter if serendipity hadn’t been on his side.
This was a delightful read; and selfishly I’m glad it happened when it did, because this would have been completely different with a mobile phone.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s due out in April 2022.
I adore the Arthurian mythos, and in particular that it can keep being reworked by different authors with different intentions and get completely different results that are still clearly linked. Most recently I read Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone, and it shook me to the core… and now Nicola Griffith gives me something completely and utterly other.
( Which begs the question, Can you read and enjoy this with no knowledge of the Arthur stories? Absolutely. And in fact it would mean that you wouldn’t have the same looming dread / fear / second-guessing that I did, trying to figure out who was meant to be who and would Griffith include that particular thing and oh noooo…. )
This was nothing short of amazing.
To begin at the end: I really enjoyed Griffith’s Author’s Note at the end, explaining both her choices and her inspirations. It wasn’t necessary, but it shows very nicely how Griffith sees herself fitting into the existing canon, and how her choices were influenced by archaeology and other sources. Also, her acerbic “crips, queers, women and other genders, and people of colour are an integral part of the history of Britain” – yes indeed.
Griffith has set her Arthur in the very early medieval period – the Romans are gone but the Normans aren’t there (it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise who the Redcrests were (Roman soldiers)). It’s the beginning of Arturus ruling a fairly small area; he is gathering Companions to help him fight off invaders and also to try and give some sort of peace, and lack of banditry, to his area. But the focus of the story is not on him: it’s on Per, Peretur, who has many names and none, who is on a quest to figure out who she is and where she fits. Because oh yes, this is Perceval / Parsifal as a woman, following in that grand tradition of “women have always fought” and having the same adventures as any of the men might. Griffith uses some of the medieval stories as a starting point – her love, and deep knowledge, of the genre is clear; and she tells a rich and compelling and human story that I just devoured.
One of the most intriguing things from an Arthurian perspective is where Griffith chooses to stop the story – which I’m not going to spoil. But it does make me hopeful of more in this world; she herself mentions the possibility in the Author’s Note, so now I guess I just have to sit here and wait. Because shut up and take my money already.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in July 2022.
Sometimes I forget how much I love food writing, and food history, and thinking about how food works in society. Then I read a book like this and I’m reminded all over again.
I’ve never particularly gone down the fermentation path. I did have a sourdough starter for a year or so – before lockdown, I swear! – but I found it too wasteful, throwing out the starter (I am considering going back to it, having read this…).
This book is:
— personal – Skinner mentions parts of her own journey, both in understanding food and more broadly, throughout.
— aiming to be broad in outlook and postcolonial in attitude: she carefully notes having tried to speak to / read from the people who actually make the ferments, and that it is “critically important, particularly as someone with relative privilege, not to overshadow others’ stories with my own words and perspectives”. I think food history is one way in which the colonial agenda can, indeed, still be present, so I appreciate this acknowledgement and the attempt.
— partly a history, looking at the role of fermentation in different cultures across time, and speculating about how such things might have been discovered. Also the range of fermentation experiments! I love any story that includes garum, that probably-incredibly-stinky fish sauce of the Romans.
— a bit science-y, but not that much. Humans are really only beginning to understand the interplay between the gut microbiome and our general health, so it was interesting to think a bit about how fermented foods might help there.
— partly a cookbook. Why yes, I have every intention of trying mushroom ketchup, thankyouverymuch (it came before tomato ketchup, because after all don’t forget how late tomatoes are on the European culinary scene).
— a bit philosophical, which wasn’t always my cup of tea (… or kombucha…). There’s discussion of the word ‘culture’ and how it can mean the microbes as as well as human interactions, which I didn’t fully get on board with – it seemed to stretch the ideas a bit far. And claims about mindfulness and community that did, actually, make me stop and think. The idea that ferments enable us to ‘live a more embodied life’; that the time taken to have a slow meal with friends ‘is a necessary act we give ourselves precious little time for’.
— not perfect. Some of the segues between sections are abrupt and don’t follow what I would consider logical or natural links. And there are some instances of poor editing – mentioning that the eruption of Mt Vesuvius happened in 79CE, for instance, twice on one page. But those are relatively minor issues. (I was more thrown by the idea that Samuel Pepys was “best known for burying his beloved wine and cheese stores to protect them from the 1666 Great Fire of London” rather than, say, for the incredibly detailed decade-long diary he kept.)
Overall, a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I have quite the list of recipes to try out.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in March 2022.
1. This has pretty much everything I love about a history book.Rediscovering, or repairing, or reframing, previously maligned historical figures.
1a. In particular, women. And here, Puhak does it to not one but TWO women, living at the same time, with lives that were interwoven and had an enormous impact on each other.
The late 500s in what is now France was a remarkable time: it was, as Puhak points out, a time of “dual female rule” – Brunhild and Fredegund, one a Visigoth princess and the other a former slave, were regents for their grandson and son respectively. Together they controlled nearly as much land as Charlemagne would a few centuries later. This dual female rule wouldn’t be repeated in Europe for another thousand years. And why don’t we know about it? Because, Puhak claims – with some pretty strong evidence – there was a concerted effort at damnatio memoriae; getting rid of all memory of the actions of these two queens from history. A lot like what happened to Hatshepsut in Egypt. Either expunge the actions of the women, or cast them in as completely evil or irrelevant light as you possibly can. Because how embarrassing to remember that women had been instrumental in leading and shaping your kingdom for decades!
2. I learned many new things.
A lot about the Merovingians, of course – which I had no knowledge of, except for the name, and (as Puhak ruthfully notes) as the name of a character in a Matrix film. But I also learned that the Latinised version of ‘Clovis’ – whose name I did know – who was the first Merovingian king – is LOUIS and there you get the beginning of, what, 17 kings with the same name.
3. Utterly readable.
Puhak says that this is “not an academic history; it is a work of narrative nonfiction based on primary sources”. And I think this is a really intriguing way of putting it. I guess the ‘not academic’ aspect is strictly accurate, although I do think Puhak is underselling herself. There aren’t footnotes – but there are extensive references at the back, and my goodness her bibliography is incredible and IF I HAD THE TIME (and access to them) I could glut myself on following them all up. I love the use of the primary sources here; she uses the various histories from the time, and later, judiciously – weighing up their perspectives and their intentions and figuring out what makes sense. And it ends up being absorbing and riveting.
4. What a story.
Honestly, you could present this as fiction and people would believe you. Marriages brokered, broken, and occasionally seen through; so many murders and possible-murders; kingdoms divided and reunited; treason, scheming, bargaining… Puhak argues that Cersei from Game of Thrones is inspired by these two women, in some sense, and I’m not quite convinced of that but it tells you something about their lives.
What a fantastic book.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in June 2022.
This was… incredible, and devastating, and gloriously written. And I’m not sure I have the words to properly explain how and why.
Firstly: if you’re looking for an entirely straightforward, narrative-driven story, this is not for you. If you’re interested in character and world development and fabulous prose (and a narrative that still has me thinking), then you’re looking at the right book.
The first few chapters are all about setting up the world. It’s the mid 20th century, I think; and it’s Delhi; and things are both recognisable and completely unfamiliar. Joey is a Reality Controller at a Flowco; she has a smartatt on her wrist that monitors her health and suggests cat videos when she’s stressed, and she regularly has to wear a mask when she’s out and about. Confused? I was, a bit, when I started; but I was also intrigued and rapidly sucked in (and it took me a couple of seconds to understand ‘smartatt’ as ‘smart tattoo’ and then I was very impressed with Basu. Also terrified). The key thing to get your head around is the Flow, which takes the current ideas of infotainment and reality tv and influencers and life-casting and making it more massive, more pervasive, more curated and… generally just More. This is the big thing that’s both familiar and not.
As an Anglo Aussie, I’m the first to admit I don’t know all the ins and outs of current or past Indian political history, nor the concerns people might have for future directions. That’s a big part of the background here: Joey’s parents were involved in protests and suffer the consequences; things are unsettled and maybe tyrannical in Delhi and perhaps across the city. There are ongoing protests and various groups being oppressed. On the one hand, I am quite sure I missed a fair bit of political nuance that someone living in Delhi would just pick up almost without thinking (like a reference to politicians and onions for me). And that’s just fine: there are always different experiences for different readers. Because even without that political knowledge, I could understand enough about the tensions to know that this is a world I wouldn’t want to live in, with its fear of cameras everywhere and no trust of the government. And just to show how bitter things are: “her parents didn’t know whether to blame the pogrom or the pandemic, because they’d known the end times were coming but hadn’t known they’d be multiple choice” (p6).
The story follows Joey and colleagues and delves into the world of a Flowstar as well as tapping on parts of the broader world. Most people are out for what they can get for themselves and their families; some people are trying to buck the system; there is a massive gap between the haves and havenots. Much of the book is about following the characters and experiencing their lives… in much the same way that they themselves are producing a Flow for people to experience. Which makes me reflect in some horror on the explicitly voyeuristic nature of fiction and may send me into a tailspin if I get too worried about the privacy of fictional characters.
The writing is an absolute treat. It’s dense, in the descriptive and absorbing sense; it’s deeply evocative; and still entirely readable. I enjoyed every minute of the reading even while I was completely horrified by the experiences of the characters.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2022.
I really, really wanted to love this book.
(That, children, is called ‘foreshadowing’. You can almost see the BUT looming behind those words.)
A book that’s basically the postcolonialist version of Persian history we’ve all been waiting for! A view on Persian history that’s not just repeating the Greek and Roman commentaries that were absolutely written with a very particular perspective! YES PLEASE. And even more when Llewellyn-Jones makes the acerbic comment in the introduction about how the concept of European superiority can be dated back to Herodotus etc and the way they presented the terrifying East. So yes, let’s have a version of Persian history that is largely based on Persian sources, or uses the Greek sources very carefully – to find the Persian reality behind the Greek propaganda.
And it starts so well. There’s a discussion about Persia vs Iran as a name – and I’m not sure whether his explanation of the political nuances there are accurate, so I defer to others on that, but it seemed to make sense within what I do know. There’s a discussion about the archaeological activities that give historians what they know from Persepolis etc, and a candid admission about the lack of sources. The Persian history proper starts with a discussion of the movement of different peoples into the area we know today as Iran, and some speculation about how they interacted etc. Then it moves into discussing the development of the Persian empire as empire, and interaction with the Medes. All of this section was intriguing and the use of inscriptions was well done. I did start to get a bit uncomfortable about the lack of reference to other sources – like other historians; I understand that getting the balance of what can seem to be most approachable, and what can seem too scholarly, may revolve around footnotes etc but… there’s just no way the author didn’t use other references.
I also started to get a bit uncomfortable when the author claimed that Cyrus’ mother “delighted in singing Median nursery rhymes to him” (p60 of the e-version), because that seems… weirdly specific? And then I got to the description of him as “lean and good-looking in that way that Persian men are uniquely handsome” (p63 of the e-version) and I had to stop and blink and decide whether to laugh or cry. What happened to treating the Persians as real people and not exoticising them, which I thought was part of the postcolonial agenda? I also have a problem with the statement that “A society that requires such codes of respectful behaviour” (obeisance before the monarch, etc) “is very likely to have autocratic political organisation, characterised by the coercive power of a king” (pp194-5). It just seems too blanket a statement.
And then! We have Darius’ half-sister and wife described as “a Lady Macbeth-like villainess, hellbent on power and ruthless in her bloody ambition” (p288) and I really started to wonder whether it was now a different author, or if he had been to sexy the book up. Next we have “years of adoration and unnaturally demonstrative mother love meant that [Darius] was self-centred, cruel, vindictive, and brutal” (p292); and that mothers experience “that particular twang of jealousy… when their sons give their hearts to other women” (p294). In case we worried that it was about misogyny, we then have a eunuch described as “a veritable creature of the court” (uh, eunuchs who are made eunuchs to BE at court are literally that??) who was “born to corruption, whose ambitions were for the very highest office of state” (p333) and I just can’t even. The author then has the temerity to accuse the Greeks of employing the “topos of the wicked eunuch” and I need to ask some questions about self-awareness.
So. I am ambivalent about this book. It’s a super necessary idea, and the use of Persian inscriptions and the way some of the Greek sources are handled is a really good example of how to read through sources to get more than they think they’re saying. On the other hand, some of the descriptions are clearly ridiculous (robes of “chiffon-like linen, gauzy cotton, and shimmering silk” (p293) – not to mention that nursery rhyme – really need some evidence!). And the bits quoted above are enough to make me despair. Did I learn something about the Persian empire and the kings who ruled, and the way it all worked? Absolutely. Is this the last word in Persian imperial history? I sure hope not.
Would not recommend to someone who is completely new to the history of this area and time, or to someone who is naive in reading historical books. For those looking to deepen their knowledge, it’s useful – with the caveats above.