Machine guns and invisible bullets

Shakespeare
August 27, 2004

Michael Bogdanov's 1992 production of Macbeth was deliberately anachronistic and resolutely militaristic: men with machine guns and swords, pyrotechnics and a massive rotating piece of machinery - sometimes a throne, sometimes a helicopter. But it was the boldness of his interpretation, not its bellicosity, that gripped me.

A full list of Bogdanov's Shakespeare productions is given at the back of this book, but little reference is made to them in these essays, which is frustrating given the book's subtitle. The Director's Cut suggests a detailed assessment of how Bogdanov prepares a play text for performance, but it is not about cutting at all. Rather, he advocates strict adherence to the text, at least until its true meaning has been ascertained - useful advice for the aspiring director, but disappointing for readers seeking staging tips.

Instead, Bogdanov offers a selection of pacey, pithy and readable essays.

He favours elliptical sentences, references to popular culture ( Big Brother ) and current affairs (the Iraq War), and is endearingly given to list-making. He also employs a gently irreverent humour. When a Capulet servant cannot name Juliet, Bogdanov muses: "Who is he - outside catering?"

As Peter Stead of Glamorgan University says in his preface, the true subtitle of Bogdanov's book should be "The Bastards on the Rialto", a reference to the closed gentleman's club of The Merchant of Venice . In these essays, Bogdanov hunts down the villains of each play and mercilessly dissects their words and acts. He winkles out the "realpolitikers", the men of action, as opposed to those alive only in their own heads.

One of his explicit preoccupations is with the discrepancy between thought and action: mad or not (Bogdanov eschews psychological interpretations in favour of political intrigue every time), Hamlet realises too late that action is required, while Claudius acts the Machiavelli throughout; similarly, Edmund seduces all in his path, while Lear, indecisive, divides his kingdom and loses his mind.

Bogdanov's reading of the overly cerebral, usurped Prospero is radical: The Tempest (or "Termpest", as the execrable typography of the chapter head would have it) is perhaps not to be taken literally, but viewed as a "wish-fulfilment dream of political revenge". After all, how likely is it that all those who wronged Prospero would end up shipwrecked on his island?

At the opposite pole, they don't come more "realpolitikal" than Malcolm. Macbeth may be the murderer, but Lady Macbeth has to goad him and, like Hamlet, he finally assumes responsibility for his own actions, so Bogdanov, rather than labelling him irredeemably evil, heralds him as the "ultimate existentialist".

But who gains from the whole bloody affair? The arch-manipulator Malcolm executes an incredible volte-face when he "tests" Macduff. Indeed, The Macbeth Conspiracy , an adaptation at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, used exactly this premise to create a drama of fiendish duplicity.

The supernatural gets short shrift here. Macbeth, not the witches, controls his own destiny. This concept of manmade tragedy is another of Bogdanov's themes. Verona, Venice and Padua are, respectively, hotbeds of licentiousness, racism and greed - and, crucially, remain so, whatever is implied at the end of each play. Romeo and Juliet may have been "star-crossed", but fate was assisted by Juliet's implacable father, her nurse and the irresponsible Friar Laurence. Yes, Shylock seems cruel, but "if you drive a dog into the corner, don't be surprised if it bites you".

His closing speeches plead for tolerance, while the already carping couples indicate the true rottenness at this society's core. Similarly, in a culture where Bianca is bartered to the highest bidder, is Katherina's shrewishness surprising?

Bogdanov makes constant reference to Stephen Greenblatt's "invisible bullets" - bitterly insightful lines that subtly undermine the surface meaning of the text. Sometimes they manifest themselves as eloquent silences (Hermione); at other times the impact is all too audible. I have seen the Shrew tamed and her lines delivered with heavy irony, but Bogdanov reveals that it is the sheer length of Katherina's closing speech that undermines its unpalatably subservient sentiments. Genius.

Bogdanov is not infallible. I favour Orwell's bleak view of King Lear over Bogdanov's claim that the play is a plea for equality. But this is the one play he has not yet directed. And this book is only volume one, so penetrating analyses of Othello and Measure for Measure , among other plays, may follow.

Anna Thomson is on the staff of The Times Higher .

Shakespeare: The Director's Cut

Author - Michael Bogdanov
Publisher - Capercaillie
www.capercailliebooks.co.uk
Pages - 159
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 0 9545206 0 2

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