Infinite Jest

In the near future (a decade and a half after the 1996 publication), the USA, Mexico and Canada have merged into O.N.A.N. (the Organization of North American Nations). The ‘concavity’, formerly part of New England, has been officially presented to Canada, but only so it can be used as a toxic waste dump. The Quebecois are particularly aggrieved at this arrangement, leading to renewed and increasingly violent separatist movements. The most feared of these are Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (The Wheelchair Assassins). As a weapon for their campaign, they seek the master copy of ‘Infinite Jest’, a film so captivating that anyone who watches it will cease to engage in any other activity until they expire…

If the ellipsis which ended the previous paragraph seems melodramatic or trite, then that was the intended effect: to demonstrate how the plot of the novel would serve for a bad sci-fi movie. This is possibly deliberate, as Infinite Jest is partly a satire on American media culture. The plot therefore appropriates the trappings of mass-cultural entertainment as a platform for its critique.

Wallace’s ‘predictions’ detract from belief in the novel, though. In his future, television (even live sporting events) has been killed by the cartridge industry, where everyone simply orders their desired programming (essentially a DVD mail order service). While Wallace should not be criticised for failing to spot the potential of the internet, in the age of Netflix, on demand and torrents the idea of physical data storage (often equipped with what now seems a tiny amount of memory), appears quaint rather than futuristic.

Infinite Jest is a literary novel so lauded that it has achieved mainstream cultural penetration, being strategically placed in a Spider-Man film, presumably as a marker of Peter Parker’s intellectual maturity and aesthetic discernment. It was an obvious inclusion on Time’s best novels since 1923, as well. It is simply one of those books people talk about.

When Bret Easton Ellis had the temerity to voice disapproval of David Foster Wallace (admittedly, with some reason), The Guardian neatly summarised the alternative perspective, dominant amongst the literati:

According to Zadie Smith Foster Wallace “was an actual genius”. Dave Eggers believes his writing is “world-changing”, and the Booker-longlisted novelist Ned Beauman wrote last week that today’s novelists must try “to work out how in a million years we might ever hope to absorb the magnificent advances and expansions Wallace offered to the form”.

Beauman offers the boldest statement of Wallace’s importance with his reference to ‘the magnificent advances and expansions Wallace offered to the form’ of the novel. Infinite Jest has four main formal features: encyclopaedic capacity, digressions, footnotes and non-linearity. None of these advances or expands the novel in any way.

Infinite Jest is full of detail. The novel is dominated by tennis (this has an autobiographical element as Wallace was a highly ranked player as a teenager) and drug addiction (again presumably drawing from his own experiences). The struggles, frustrations and anxieties of adolescent and adult life are metaphorically depicted through the tennis school. When not discussing tennis, Wallace describes the 12 step programme and the difficulties recovering addicts face. The tedium of much of the novel is due to this length and detail, as it can seem as ‘infinite’ as its title. While striking at first, the discussions of the lives of the residents at Enfield Tennis academy and Ennet House, with the endless delineations of training, tournaments and neuroses, addictions, bottoms, comings-in, commitments and relapses, ensure that the point becomes blunted and tedious. While some of the novel is amusing, most notably the telephone conversations between Hal and Orin Incandenza, such humour is lost amongst the details of tennis training regimes or the chemical composition of various recreational drugs. This density of factual material, far from being new, is really no different from the lengthy discussions of whales in Melville’s Moby Dick (1851).

There is clearly a parallel intended here, as such voluminousness mimics the addictions of the novel, whether the incessant binges of drug addicts or the robotically repeated training drills of aspiring tennis players who seek to move to a higher plateau of performance. Wallace’s point, that such a quest for a chemical or athletic high is obsessive and all-encompassing, is manifested in a facile manner through the repetition and length of his ‘narrative’. The novel suggests that addiction, whether the classic alcoholism or narcotism or a rigorous pursuit of athletic prowess, is ultimately self-destructive. Such a conclusion is so banal that one wonders if there is something more. This belief fuels a search for meaning, potentially obscuring the novel’s vacuity.

The notably digressive nature of the novel, where the focus is frequently shifted on to detailed accounts of particular events which have little importance to the main plot, can be seen as a key trope of Infinite Jest, one that securely establishes it as a 20th Century post-modern novel. Digression as an anti-narrative, anti-authoritative, literary device, though, has existed at least since Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (first printed 1478, see, for example, ‘The Squire’s Tale’) and, in the novel, since Laurence Sterne’s comic opus The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen (1759-1767).

Famously, Infinite Jest’s footnotes have footnotes. However, Alexander Pope’s editorial matter, added to The Dunciad (1728) by ‘Scriblerus’ is both wittier and a more sophisticated metaliterary commentary on the primary text. As for the non-linearity of the plot, its origins can be traced back to the in media res structure of Homer’s epics and its more tangled form is so enmeshed within the novel’s tradition that it would be difficult to identify its precise innovators.

The title of course, alludes to Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Rather than making intelligent use of this influence, the novel imports only a few basic similarities: the ghost of the father, the mother in a pseudo-incestuous relationship with the ‘uncle’, an anxious young protagonist (Hal/Hamlet presumably intended to be phonically similar) and, perhaps most notably, a graveyard scene digging up a skull. Rather than making for metaliterary commentary, these allusions merely expose the intellectual paucity of the successor text.

Infinite Jest may be understood as one metafictional joke. As Zachary Warner puts it, ‘This book really has no message beyond its representations of comedic anguish, only motifs and information; a nod to the confusion about patterns in life’. Considering Wallace’s advocacy of a ‘new sincerity’, reducing the novel to a metanarrative commentary on modern life suggests a level of hypocrisy in his approach. There is nothing more sincere than creating a straightforward narrative which seeks to affect readers through the experiences and emotions of its characters. Thus a novel which consistently disappoints narrative expectations cannot really be considered ‘sincere’, but is a clear example of ironic undermining of the form.

I began by calling attention to the flimsiness of the plot to expose Wallace’s method: he has taken b-movie material, rearranged it in a seemingly arbitrary sequence and then removed almost all of the conclusion. Wallace claimed that:

    “There is an ending as far as I’m concerned. Certain kinds of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book’s failed for you.”

When I read the novel, I saw some of these convergences, but had not the patience or the interest to find them all myself. Having read the theories of others on the internet, I am deeply unimpressed by the novel’s structure. Non-linearity can be a potent narrative device, if the author manipulates the reader’s response by choosing when to reveal crucial information. However, in Infinite Jest Wallace withholds information simply for its own sake, to create mystery and excite the reader’s curiosity. Wallace’s method could easily be replicated, but it does not confer any literary merit, which is not the same thing as impenetrability or obliqueness. Instead, it is authorial sycophancy. The novel flatters its readers that they are intelligent enough to understand its mysteries, so that its admirers might avoid asking if Wallace has anything novel or profound for his reader to discover. It is Mulholland Drive in prose form. It is the Emperor’s new clothes.

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Some Favourite Albums: Everything Must Go – Manic Street Preachers (1996)

This is an astonishing album. Astonishing not only because the music is excellent, whilst the lyrics are varied and exactly rendered, but because it was produced by the most trying of circumstances. It seems impossible to discuss Everything Must Go outside of the context of Richey Edwards’s disappearance. A year before the album was released, the band’s lyricist and icon went missing, never to be heard from again. He disappeared the night before he and frontman James Dean Bradfield were due to fly to the USA for a round of interviews promoting the group’s third album, The Holy Bible. The Holy Bible: a caustic, nihilistic, erudite, perverse, self-righteous and unceasingly powerful record. 27 years of intellectual horror at human political history condensed into less than an hour. In short: a seminal work of art that the band would have struggled to replicate, even if they had wished to do so.[1] Of course, in the wake of Edwards’s disappearance an even more radical departure was required.

The album’s title is a direct confrontation of this reality. The cover has empty parentheses hanging below the title, tacitly acknowledging that something is missing. Yet to see the title solely as a comment on the group’s history and future direction is also to limit it. ‘Everything Must Go’ is a consumerist slogan, the antithesis of the band’s Socialism, which by adopting they acknowledge a kind of failure, accepting that the transformation of British society under (by then) 17 years of Conservative rule would not simply be reversed. This is the first of their albums to feature the band’s portraits on the front, but rather than showing the glam-punks of their previous incarnation, it features three young men in smart, anonymous shirts. They could be almost any band in the country at the height of Britpop. They are beginning to reconcile themselves to the political and cultural mainstream.

Everything Must Go

Yet ‘Everything Must Go’ is also hyperbole. The band radically altered their sound, their appearance and their subject matter on this album, but they retained the essentials. Songs with lyrical contributions from Edwards were developed rather than jettisoned and politics still permeates the album, most notably in ‘A Design For Life’. The liner notes credit ‘Inspiration’ to ‘Tower Colliery, Cyon [sic] Valley, South Wales’, a colliery that was bought by miners with their redundancy packages after it was closed by the Tories and then run successfully as a co-operative.[2] It is easy to see that, for this band, here was a potent symbol of change as defiance, of acceptance as a subtle reassertion of one’s core identity and beliefs. Before even listening to a note of the music, the album has already made a statement. Had it retained its working title (the rather bland ‘Sounds in the Grass’) it would not have had such an impact.

Most of the songs on the album can be placed into one of two broad categories. There are those with lyrics written by Edwards, and those by Nicky Wire about, or in response to, Edwards’s disappearance. It is the combination of, and contrast between, these two sets of songs that give the album its character and power. Edwards’s lyrics are nihilistic, damaged and cutting, while Wire’s, in their own way just as bleak, retain a spark of hope. The one line that holds the album’s sentiment in microcosm is in ‘Enola/Alone’ when Wire, through the mouth of Bradfield, declares ‘All I want to do is live / No matter how miserable it is’. Not the most ringing endorsement of existence, perhaps, but still a vibrant manifesto when compared to vanishing without notice.

Everything Must Go begins very differently, though. The sound of lapping waves and something high pitched and distorted, a backwards played tape recording, before some gentle plucking on a harp. Finally, 30 seconds in, the forceful strumming of an acoustic guitar arrives and Bradfield begins singing about Elvis impersonators in Blackpool. The lyrics are hard to parse. Wire, who completed Edwards’s draft, once suggested that the song is about a kind of cultural vagrancy, kids wearing American basketball tops and stuff.[3] Viewed another way, the setting of the song ‘20 ft high on Blackpool promenade’ and the description of a titular character as ‘overweight and out of date’, who resolves that ‘The future’s dead / Burn the memory’, could suggest a protagonist contemplating suicide.

The verse is built around a sequence of 10 chords, repeated once. The progression begins in G, but as it proceeds it lacks an obvious tonic and is unresolved, conveying this sense of dislocation. The second time around, the harp is reintroduced, plucking arpeggios that add a whimsical edge pushing against the narrative of the acoustic guitar. And then, as Bradfield bellows ‘All American trilogy’, bass, drums and an overdriven guitar, playing power chords, enter, as a key change places the song comfortably in A major. Seemingly, an uncomplicated rock song explodes, leaving behind the ambiguity. Yet at the climax of the song, just after Bradfield snarls that ‘It’s so fucking funny’, the guitars rest and the harp is heard swooping over feedback, leaving a moment of hazy uncertainty before the guitars crash back in.

Another chorus follow and a guitar solo follow, before the outro finally rests on a minor 7th chord and the waves are heard again, along with a distorted recording of Bradfield singing ‘Oh I wish I was in Dixie, away, away / In Dixieland I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie’, from Elvis’s ‘American Trilogy’. The singer has become the impersonator and the meaning of the song, along with the identification it seeks with American versus British culture, is further obscured.

The song is 3 ½ minutes long, but feels less. It is a strange way to begin an album and something of a false start. However, with the ringing arpeggios of ‘A Design for Life’, the album proper is underway.

A riposte to the patronising class tourism of Blur and their ilk, as exemplified by the hideous faux-rave of ‘Girls and Boys’, ‘A Design for Life’ is a song of self-affirmation. The oft misunderstood couplet ‘We don’t talk about love / We only want to get drunk’ is neither endorsement nor ‘ironic’ appropriation (Blur’s schtick). Nicky Wire was not attacking the uncomplicated hedonism represented by Oasis (a band the Manics would go on to support on a US tour and at Oasis’s gig at Knebworth), but emphasising that such behaviour is not the only marker of working class identity. Yet the song is also an elegy. ‘Libraries gave us power’ may celebrate the band’s place in the tradition of the intellectual working class, but it is immediately followed by ‘Then work came and made us free’, a recognition of the manual working class’s decline, along with much of the Welfare State’s support system. These have been replaced by the fetishisation of avarice, as the Capitalist system continues to reserve culture for those with the money and leisure time to consume it. It is a situation echoed by the bridge, exclaiming, ‘We are not allowed to spend / As we are told that this is the end’; consumer power is similarly reserved for the elite. The working class intellectuals and artists are silently ignored as a contradiction in terms within this paradigm. Hence the desire for ‘a bottle / Right here in my dirty face / To wear the scars / To show from where I came’, so that an appropriate signifier of class is possessed by the estranged intellectual. The chorus, a simple repetition of the title simultaneously attacks this social and cultural stratification, whilst presenting themselves as the alternative.

The video for this, the lead single, is one of the best of Manic Street Preachers’ career and emphasises this dichotomy. In a warehouse, the band play the song in their new shirts (though Wire’s ochre one, in sporting a red star, is vintage Manics fashion). Behind them a screen displays footage representing the class war (the last night of the Proms contrasted with drunken working class people jumping about on a beach) and slogans. These begin with some that are aesthetic: ‘USEFUL IS BEAUTIFUL’, and ‘UGLINESS CORRUPTS THE HEART AND MIND’. When the more explicitly political ones then appear, specifically the (mis)quotation from Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘HOPE LIES IN THE PROLES’, it ties the realisation of a better political future in with the development of valuable working class artistic culture. Even more challenging are those that follow, their scope and inspiration familiar to old fans, but more shocking to new listeners: ‘WHEN FREEDOM EXISTS THERE WILL BE NO STATE’ (Lenin) and ‘VIOLENCE FOR EQUALITY’. The band thus advance their own political agenda, a traditional working class Socialism as a ‘design for life’, but still feel compelled to ask ‘HEROES OR VILLAINS?’ In the class war, one must pick sides.

‘Design For Life’ and the following three tracks form the core of the album, which includes 3 singles, one of them the title track. These are short rock songs (the longest track on the album is 4 minutes 17 seconds long), based around full bodied, distorted guitars, melodic pop hooks, high production values and completed by a string section. It sounds Britpop and yet it is not. The song writing of Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore usually avoids the obvious chord progressions beloved of their contemporaries and they have not taken the punk ethos as far as avoiding musicianship.

‘A Design for Life’ begins on C major 7th, at once assertive and melancholic. The verse studiously avoids any classic triad chords, but instead builds around arpeggiated, extended chords, the colour tones of which give the song its sound of luxuriant sadness. The chorus may be based around more standard triads and power chords, but Bradfield adds detail with his guitar fills. These play off against the chords of the string section to provide a second melody when he is not singing. It is an altogether more nuanced and melodic approach than the classic rhythm and lead division beloved of so many other bands.

‘Kevin Carter’ works very differently. The verse is mainly F suspended chords, played staccato, introduced with a predatory bass fill. The sound is much more abrasive than elsewhere on the album, more akin to the post punk of The Holy Bible. But in contrast to, say, Elastica, a contemporary band influenced by post punk, the guitar sound is relatively clean and the cutting chords leave space. The chorus is much fuller, but with off beat chord changes, using G as a passing chord, a forceful guitar riff, and ending, harshly, on the mediant, the 3rd, minor, chord of the scale (when the ear naturally expects this then to be resolved on the fourth or fifth chord, instead), it strikes the ear all the more powerfully having followed such a stark beginning.

The song is Edwards’s portrait of the South African photojournalist who won the Pulitzer prize for a photograph of an emaciated Sudanese girl prone on the ground, just in front of a vulture staring intently at her. Carter later committed suicide. The song thus continues on from ‘Elvis Impersonator’: the suggestion that Carter ‘Wasted’ his ‘life / In black and white’ relates the same feeling of worthlessness as the impersonator’s self-image as ‘overweight and out of date’. In these songs one is tempted to speculate about Edwards’s own state of mind prior to his disappearance, given his lyrical preoccupation with suicide (‘The Girl Who Wanted to be God’ is a quotation from Sylvia Plath, who also killed herself, though the lyric was added to by Wire) and self-harm (‘Removables’ and the animals in ‘Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky’). Such thoughts lead to no conclusion, but do increase the sense of anguish being expressed.

Bradfield had played an acoustic version of ‘Kevin Carter’ to Edwards before he disappeared, but Edwards was disappointed by the musical direction it indicated. Bradfield later admitted to feeling uneasy about including it on the album.

The song begins:

Hi Time magazine hi Pulitzer Prize
Tribal scars in Technicolor
Bang Bang Club AK 47 hour

The verse makes oblique references to Carter’s experience, here rapidly listing his publisher and journalism award, describing the photograph itself in abstract terms and then mentioning the association of likeminded photojournalists to which he belonged. The AK 47, the famous assault rifle, is a reminder of the sound from which the Bang Bang Club derived their name. The ‘Click click click click click’ towards the song’s end is therefore not only that of the camera, but the assault weapon. The violence of the weapon is linked to that of the photographer, who as a non-interfering bystander (Carter allegedly did nothing to aid the girl in the photo) is complicit in the violence. This idea is made explicit in the video, where the flash of the camera is omnipresent and the band is often seen through the zoom lens. But rather than a button, the camera has a trigger, and when it is pulled, midway through the song, each band member in turn is thrown back, as if shot.

The shutter effect is even more pronounced in the final verse: ‘The elephant is so ugly / He sleeps his head /Machetes his bed’ sounds highly abstract. Even if one knows that Carter associated the elephant with the horrors he had seen, the words are hard to comprehend (did Carter destroy his own bed in a mania?), but instead they become imagistic fragments akin to the efforts of the photographer shooting with a rapid shutter, who only captures part of the story.

Towards the end, the line ‘Kevin Carter kaffir lover forever’, takes up the slurs of racists against Carter for his anti-Apartheid views, ‘Forever’ in echoing the end of ‘lover’ sustains the slur, making it inescapable. The sensation of being trapped by politics not of his own making, yet for which he seems to bear responsibility, is emphasised by the ‘k’ alliteration, which prefigures the clicking and thus links them.  The final line, ‘Click himself under’ sustains this link into his eventual suicide, making it seem the logical response and natural consequence of his job and experience of violence.

‘Enola/Alone’ appears simpler structurally, with both verse and chorus each built on its own four chord sequence. However, the chord changes in the verse are all anacruces, which gives the song its momentum, and the 4th chord in the verse is a G minor, which provides disquieting dissonance, through the use of parallel harmony, in a D major piece. The chorus is straightforwardly in D, but it is enhanced by the counterpoint between voice and lead guitar.

The song is about the loss of loved ones, specifically the disappearance of Richey Edwards the year previously and the death, from cancer, of Philip Hall, the band’s manager, in 1993. Wire’s description of himself as ‘From my birth a rellik a killer’ is a word game that encapsulates the experience of survivor’s guilt, the conviction that one’s existence is somehow responsible for the tragic fate of another (and also links back to Kevin Carter’s position as a bystander to violence). However, the following line, ‘But all I want to do is live’, drives that despondency away. The misery remains, but is joined by a kind of defiance. Wire’s resolution is to ‘take a picture of you / To remember how good you looked’. The primary meaning of ‘take’ would be ‘capture’, suggesting the taking of a photograph, but with those who are dead or missing that is impossible, so ‘take’ can only mean carry, meaning the protagonist is bringing with him merely the emblem of something irrecoverable, as the next lines make clear: ‘Like memory it has disappeared / Naked and lonely within my fears’. Yet this is also a song that describes experiencing ‘some peace at last’. There is an ability to relish one’s pain, because it defines who you are, and reminds you of earlier joys. The contradiction between these two states, serenity and desolation, is the major theme of this song and one of the central concerns of the album.

The obsession with bearing memory in ‘Enola/Alone’ may seem the antithesis to ‘Everything Must Go’s year zero approach, but the reality is more complex. In the title track, the lines, ‘Shed some skin for the fear within / Is starting to hurt me with everything’ picks up from ‘Enola/Alone’ with a verbal echo. Consequently, the irrecoverability of the past is again discussed, as the band is ‘Freed from the memory / Escape from our history’, seemingly casting off the painful recollections borne so proudly in the previous lyric. Yet in the next verse, the resolution has changed to ‘Freed from the century / With nothing but memory, memory’, lines which explain that to be free of the past is not to be separated from it, but merely to acknowledge that it is irretrievable. It is in accepting this that salvation becomes possible. When Bradfield sings, at the climax of the song, ‘Freed us eventually / Just need to be happy, happy’, the last word is screamed and heavily accented. The present pain is voiced all too clearly, but there remains some hope as well.

The video (which adds the backwards playing tape from ‘Elvis Impersonator’ as an introduction) features the band playing amongst some bystanders. The symbolism is none too subtle, as a woman smashes a clock with a bass guitar and Bradfield kneels before a cherry blossom tree (in Japan, a symbol for the ephemeral nature of life), which rapidly sheds its blossoms.[4] The video is visually arresting. The use of creams and pinks in the band’s clothing links them to their surroundings and the imagery suggests a beauty somewhat faded and marked by loss.

‘Everything Must Go’ is in E major, but the song makes extensive use of A minor chords, a borrowed chord from the parallel key of E minor, in order to bring tension to the piece. The verse is structured around two chords: an inverted A minor (sometimes known as C6) and E major 7th. The verse is therefore a continual move from the tension of the parallel key to the release of the tonic chord. However, the release is only partial, because Bradfield adds a major 7th (here d#) to the E major triad, which is a more mournful sounding chord. In the pre-chorus section (‘Freed from …’), the song moves to a C# minor 7th chord. As the relative minor of the E major scale, this provides an obvious path towards harmonic resolution. However, this is complicated by the fact that the dominant 7th (b), gives the chord a plaintive edge. Moreover, rather than moving to the 5th, 4th or tonic (one of the major chords), this section finishes again on an A minor, raising the level of anxiety further, which places greater demands on the chorus for harmonic resolution.

Finally then, the E major chord arrives. However, almost immediately the A minor returns. The use of the parallel key is rare at the beginning of a measure and here, it is used as the basis for the guitar riff and string section, thereby sustaining the uncertainty. It is only when the E returns with ‘Go’ that the feeling of escape from the past is realised. This achieved by moving first to D major, also a dissonant chord, but thereby utilising the mixolydian mode, which, as it is anchored on the dominant 5th, is the basis of much rock guitar soloing and thus moves the song into reassuringly conventional territory.

After this four song core, ‘Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky’ closes the first half beautifully. A comment on the anguish of animals kept in zoos, the song can also be seen as a metaphor Edwards’s own mental suffering. The comparison is achieved largely through a subtle anthropomorphisation, rendered by the continuous use of the second person to address the animals. The opening line, ‘You have your very own number’ evokes the tattooing of death camp inmates’ wrists. The lyric suggests a similarity of the attitude towards animals and those somehow considered ‘sub-human’, whether Jewish, mentally ill (Edwards had had a recent spell of treatment at the Priory) or disabled.[5]

The meaning of the titular image is not obvious, but to me it has always suggested a visual hallucination caused by confinement. It is seemingly beautiful, but also indicative of fundamental damage.

The starkest imagery comes in the second verse:

They drag sticks along your walls
Harvest your ovaries dead mothers crawl
Here comes warden, Christ, temple, elders
Environment not yours you see through it all

The initial ‘they’, presumably, are children and other visitors who try to goad the animals into life, but the syntax of the verse conflates these visitors with the scientists who violate the animals’ bodies for reproductive purposes (an image which elicits the medical experimentation in the death camps). Once again, the bystander is also a predator. The line ‘Here comes warden, Christ, temple, elders’ appears to be a condensed reference to Matthew 21:23, where Jesus preaches in the Temple courts, only for the elders and priests to demand his authority for doing so. Here, then, Edwards is demanding to know from where the authority to imprison animals derives. He is fully aware that a Christian justification is to be found in God’s granting of ‘dominion’ over the world to man in Genesis 1:26. The lines thus attack the hypocrisy of a Religion that speaks of peace, but enables such cruelty.

The final line’s reference to an alien environment links to the ‘sensaround’ (sic) of the chorus. The sensurround was the installation used in cinemas of the 1970s to mimic the action on screen, in other words, a simulated environment.[6] The animals’ desire to escape and the fact ‘you see through it all’ is a depiction of animals as conscious beings rather than senseless brutes, thereby inverting hegemonic narratives which characterise the oppressed as immune to their sufferings due to a lack of sensitivity.

The song effects the simplest of key changes, from C to G, but almost unnoticeably. The verse is in C, but the key chord never makes an appearance. Instead the gentle picking of an acoustic guitar begins with a D minor with an added 9th. The ninth in question is an e, which, being the major third of C, indicates the major tonality of the piece, but as we never hear a C Major in the song, this tone is an indication of absence, something missing. The D minor add9 is alternated with a G chord that indicates the destination of the song, tonically. The chorus completes the change. It begins with a D added 11, thus holding with same root note at the verse, but bringing in the one note (f# – the 11th note of the scale) that is the difference between the two keys, C and G. This note also provides a colour tone to the piece, which retains the sense of loss. What follows is a C suspended 2nd, hinting at the harmonic resolution commonly found in both C and G major pieces, only to deny it again. The chorus then ends on a B♭6. The B♭ is from G minor, but the 6, being a g, gives the chord some connection with the key, when the chord as a whole is dissonant. Even at the end of the song, Bradfield refuses to provide closure. The outro of the song repeats the verse, but rather than ending on G major, as would be natural and easy, given this is the chord underlying the final vocals, Bradfield brings the third down to a second, suspending the chord for the song’s conclusion.

The standout track of the second half is ‘Removables’. The song commences with a fuzzy acoustic guitar, playing power chords. The debt to Nirvana is obvious, but it provides a different timbre to the rest of the album and thus a welcome contrast. It also means this is the song with the most continuity from The Holy Bible, perhaps naturally given that this was a song they had been working on since before the completion of that album.[7] Lyrically, it seems to follow on from ‘Die in the Summertime’, a Bible track which begins ‘Scratch my leg with a rusty nail / sadly it heals’. ‘Removables’, with its chorus lamenting ‘all removables, passing always’ seems then to be another examination of self-harm.

From the opening line ‘Conscience binds you in chains’, Edwards preoccupation with the limitations of his own individual awareness is made clear. Between that line and the second bridge’s ‘Aimless rut of my own perception’, a self-flagellating statement of obsession, are two minutes of self-recrimination. The line ‘Misery mourns to be devoured’ recognises the futility of despondency, as it is unable to forestall death. The alliteration, though, suggests such negative reactions as ritualistic, almost inevitable: self-destruction feeds on itself. Even more disturbed are the lines just prior to the first chorus: ‘Killed God blood soiled unclean again / Killed God blood soiled skin dead again’. This fragmentary presentation defies logical understanding, but instead suggests the guilt of an obsessive compulsive character, simultaneously fixated and disgusted by organic processes of death and healing.

The chorus of the song deftly shifts the key from A major to C major, but with A minor foregrounded, so as to pull the ear towards the relative minor of C, instead. The change consequently sounds like the freezing out of life. The lead guitar which comes in begins with a series of A minor arpeggios. Bradfield shifts the root of the arpeggio, from A in the first bar, to C by the beginning of the second. This offers the possibility of moving easily into the safety of the relative major, but instead of the guitar holding on g, the dominant of C, it moves up one tone to a, the root of the minor chord. The shifting roots give the guitar its gloomy feel, and when the C major does turn up after 8 bars, the prominence of A minor in the section is too clearly established for it to offer any real positivity.

‘Australia’ begins with a declaration: ‘I don’t know if I’m tired / And I don’t know if I’m ill, / My cheeks are turning yellow / I think I’ll take another pill’. The ‘pill’ then emerges as a neat solution, given that it rhymes with ‘ill’. However, as depression and hyperchondria have merged into one, the proposed remedy is too neat, and instead provides further fuel for anxiety. The anxiety is voiced in the verse, which is based around an uncomfortable change from C# minor, the relative minor of E, to C major. Although C is a borrowed chord from the parallel minor, the movement down just a semi-tone is somewhat disconcerting. The continual switching between the two creates tonal uncertainty. What links the two chords is the e tone, the shared 3rd, and the tonic of the song, so the ear strains for it to be brought out. This is partially fulfilled by the end of the verse which moves to the other major chords in the key, B and A, but, in moving downwards through the scale, it still has an element of anti-climax, particularly the first time, when the song then segues immediately into another tense verse.

The chorus offers a release that incarnates the song’s theme of escaping to the other side of the world by bringing the desired E chord in. Yet Bradfield maintains the tension by staying on the same chord for 4 bars, while he sings about wanting to ‘fly and run ’till it hurts’, maintaining the lead part around the top of the E Major scale. When the song finally moves through A to B Major (giving us the joy of ascent by reversing the descent at the end of the verse), it brings a blessed feeling of relief, especially as the resolution is not completed until the last syllable of ‘Australia’, and is accompanied by descending arpeggios on the lead guitar part, which then anchors the song in the dominant chord.

The album is closed powerfully by ‘No Surface All Feeling’. This extended plea for reconciliation, predating Edwards’s disappearance, takes on new meaning in its aftermath, becoming Wire’s ‘tribute’ to his best friend and collaborator.[8] The song contrasts truth, which is made synonymous with ‘surface’, and the indulgence of anger during an argument, which are afterwards recognised as ‘lies’. The first chorus is introduced with the question ‘What’s the point in always looking back / When all you see is more and more junk?’ This literal trashing of the past is not a renunciation of the memories that have earlier informed the record, but merely an appeal to move on from its mistakes, rather than obsessively repeating them by rehashing old arguments. With the second chorus beginning ‘Feel the guilt of a sinner’, Wire assumes responsibility for his failings as a friend.

A high pitched single note major scale guitar riff introduces the song. On the original demo someone says ‘Hello, my name is Billy Coogan’, clearly a nod to Billy Corgan, frontman and songwriter of the Smashing Pumpkins, whose riff opening the song ‘Today’ is the model for ‘No Surface’. The arpeggiated riff rises to a series of declining peaks, with each highest note lower than the previous, lending the song a wistful pathos in this descent. Then the riff re-ascends to just a semi-tone below its previous highest note, but only to repeat the descent even more quickly and thus entrench the feeling of a come down. The verse is subdued, and initially sparse as each chord is held for a bar, before proceeding to playing roots and 5ths, sometimes as double stops, as the guitar duplicates the function of a bass, building momentum.

A frenzied drum roll and the lead guitar riff returns, with a melancholic chord progression which takes us from the tonic E chord, through F# minor and then, after the vocals, to A Minor, which is another use of parallel harmony. Over the chorus of this monstrous rock song, Bradfield’s legato vocals are poignant and resigned, combining with the sharpness of the guitar riff to provide a powerful counterpoint. With the chorus finishing on A minor, the song remains anguished. The situation is temporarily alleviated by the return of the verse, which reintroduces the key chord. However, the verse itself ends on an A suspended second, which resolves the disturbance created by the c, the minor third of A minor, but without providing the major third of c# needed for A Major, the dominant chord in E that the ear gravitates towards, as Bradfield and Moore give us one final, sonic sense of absence and loss. Eventually the song holds on to the key chord at the end of the final chorus, but then there is a fuzzy outro riff, the chord again and stuttering guitars, before a wash of feedback ends this extraordinary document.

The album is not perfect, though, as the second half contains weak tracks, as well. ‘The Girl Who Wanted to Be God’ is style over substance. The guitars, strings and annoying organ line fail to disguise that the attempted anthemic chorus is too rooted on G chords to have any interesting direction, and that the melody line is plodding. The lyrics are an Edwards production taken from a quotation by Sylvia Plath about herself, but otherwise opaque: they do not recommend the song either. ‘Interiors’ starts out sounding like ‘Kevin Carter’s baby brother (even beginning with the same staccato suspended chord, shifted to the offbeat), but resolves in a chorus consisting of just two power chords without any rhythmic variation and a pedestrian vocal asking ‘Are we too tired to try and understand?’ Amongst an album of songs dealing with loss, suicide, self-harm and class politics, a lyric about an impressionist painter becomes extraneous and inconsequential, as does that of ‘Further Away’. A love song from a band who had previously sworn never to write one[9] (though admittedly they also reserved the right to contradict themselves), is a disappointment, particularly as the chorus chugs through a variation on the dreaded I-V-VI-IV progression, without any lead guitar work to provide interest.

The sequencing of the album is problematic as well. Most of the singles are crowded into a short space. Poor ‘Enola/Alone’ is often overlooked, squeezed between them. A more even distribution of the singles would mean the second half did not suffer so much by comparison to the first. ‘Elvis Impersonator’ would be intriguing as a middle of the album track, while ‘Everything Must Go’ could have been the most gloriously defiant statement of intent as the album opener.

These weaker tracks are also a missed opportunity, given that the period was one of the band’s strongest for b-sides. Either of ‘Sepia’ or ‘Dead Trees and Traffic Islands’, two similarly sounding, acoustic driven songs about paralysis, one of which is clearly about Edwards’s disappearance, the other of which seems so implicitly, despite originating as an idea for a script about a serial killer, would merit inclusion.[10] So too would ‘Black Garden’, with its prominent bassline and dirty, scratchy, guitars. The darkest song of the period (surprisingly it is written by Wire, who instructs the listener to ‘remember the feeling of a frozen embryo’, a frightening image of vulnerability and alienation, which recalls the opening of the Cure song ‘Cold’, ‘Scarred, your back was turned / Curled like an embryo’), it also links with ‘Elvis Impersonator’ by beginning with a cover of another part of Elvis’s ‘American Trilogy’.

‘No-One Knows What it’s Like to Be Me’, a histrionic rocker, could also have been fun, though the most amusing inclusion would have been the aggressively leftist ‘First Republic’. This song hopes the Royal family will guillotine themselves, envisages playing ‘in burnt out palace ruins’ and suggests those who are pro-monarchy ‘fuck our dear princess’. To have been singing that on a multi-platinum album would have been their most subversive act yet.

Manic Street Preachers are unusual amongst pop songwriters in that not only are their lyrics written without reference to music, but the music itself is written directly in response to the words. Bradfield has explained that his part of the process usually requires that he understands the words and relates to them in some way, first (one reason it took the band 14 years to create another album from Edwards’s remaining lyrics was that Bradfield did not connect with them for a long time). The music then seems to be a consciously interpretive exercise. For example, when writing ‘Faster’ on The Holy Bible, Bradfield sought to replicate the ‘cold voice’ he detected in the lyrics. The success of this album is due to an aural translation of internal conflict; an ambivalence between anger and sorrow, defiance and regret, self-hatred, guilt, desperation and, ultimately, a kind of elation. Everything Must Go is a masterclass in the use of dissonance, as Edwards’s depression and detachment, along with Wire’s grief and escapism, are sonically realised. It is at once triumphant and elegiac, macabre and glorious.

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Somehow, despite the best efforts of SPECTRE, the Soviets, various drug lords, his former best friend, a media magnate and North Korea, James Bond has survived fifty years of espionage in film. Skyfall has celebrated this golden anniversary with generally excellent reviews, some even dubbing it ‘the best Bond ever’. However, such a dictum is indefensible. Be warned: spoilers lie ahead.

Initially, Skyfall is fairly standard Bond fare: an implausible car chase in an exotic city, a fist fight with enemy agents, seduction of the villain’s girl and a showdown at a secret base. There is nothing remotely original here, but it is all fairly entertaining. However, in the second half, the film weakens considerably. It becomes structurally sloppy, as Skyfall contains far too many climaxes. The first is the capture of Silva, the main villain, but he escapes and attacks M in Westminster. Bond intervenes, but does not finish the job there, instead holing up in Scotland in the eponymous family home. During Silva’s assault on Skyfall, Bond rigs an explosion. Finally the film looks like it will end, but no, Silva survives and has to be shot by Bond in a remote chapel. This series of false endings is an attempt to continually raise the tension, but its effect is actually the opposite. It is bathetic because the intent is so obvious. Anything approaching realistic story telling is sacrificed in favour of an attempted adrenalin overdose.

The action packed story fails because it features so many implausibilities. M is giving evidence to an enquiry in Westminster (which, containing a civil servant and a minister, can neither be a parliamentary select committee nor an independent judicial one, but simply an excuse for Judi Dench to deliver poorly scripted lines about the necessity of espionage’s dark arts in the age of international terrorism), yet we are supposed to believe security is so lax that Silva and just a couple of goons can easily shoot their way in (please Mr Mendes, visit Portcullis House sometime and you will see several police officers armed with automatic weapons). When Bond rescues M, he then takes her to a remote part of Scotland where he has no support. Aside from the fact that waiting it out on the defensive is not Bond’s style, it is simply a stupid plan, when he could have found a genuine safe house for her. Bond instructs Q to construct a trail that only Silva could follow, but if Silva is so brilliant, why not just let him find them without any help? Q creates a trail leading Silva down a particular road, but this confers no advantage. Q cannot even let Bond know when Silva is arriving, much less inform him that he is bringing a helicopter with him.

Even this could be overlooked were it not for the infuriatingly self-referential nature of the film. Aside from the reuse of the DB Aston Martin from Goldfinger (complete with ejector seat and guns hidden behind the headlights) and joking reference to an exploding pen (GoldenEye), Skyfall deliberately reuses plot points from previous films: Bond is thought dead (You Only Live Twice), is cleared for active duty despite not being ready (The World is not Enough), breaks into M’s house (Casino Royale), uses a palm reading gun (License to Kill), faces off against a former MI6 agent (GoldenEye again), has an underwater fight (Thunderball) and ends the film with a woman he cares about dead in his arms (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). There is even an explosion at MI6 headquarters, a set piece from The World is not Enough. It is a wonder Bond wasn’t sent into space again or given another invisible car. The references to the previous films are probably an intentional celebration, given the anniversary, but seem to admit that the writers can think of nothing new to do with the franchise.

Daniel Craig’s Bond is remote. Rather than the suave embodiment of British daring, he verges on the psychopathic. Where this is most evident is his ‘relationship’ with Sévérine. After she is brutally murdered by Silva, right in front of 007, Bond’s only reaction is to make one of his few jokes of the film and then start shooting the bad guys.[1] Aside from the question of why Bond did not undertake this course of action a few minutes earlier and save her life, his response demonstrates a callousness that is brutal, even by Bond’s standards. True, Bond does not generally form emotional ties with the women he seduces and he is a ruthless, state-sponsored assassin, whose chauvinism, however unpleasant it is, is one of his defining traits. Yet this does not make him merely a weapon. When a (comparatively) innocent woman who has sought his protection has been murdered for seeking his aid, one would expect guilt and anger at the very least. To present him using her death solely as a feed for a one-liner is poor writing that does disservice to the character.

And what is the point of all this? A rather disappointing reset to status quo. Moneypenny is reintroduced to the series, but in a nonsensical and patronising manner. At first she appears a capable field agent, (she may shoot Bond, but only under orders), yet rather than following in the tradition of accomplished female agents who work alongside Bond, her reward is a job as M’s secretary. Granted, this role probably requires security clearance, but I doubt it challenges someone who can drive a jeep through the streets of Turkey against oncoming traffic in pursuit of an international terrorist. With Judy Dench’s M assassinated, in order to be replaced by Ralph Fiennes, this is, amazingly, the most sexist film of the series.

This may seem a strange place to write about Bond, given that I usually reserve my commentary for productions which are more consciously high art. However, few of us can exist solely consuming such worthy culture; we all need something less serious, occasionally. Yet we should still be demanding standards in such cultural sugar. Well written plots, character and dialogue should be mandatory for popular success as well. Bond, for whatever reason, is embedded within our culture. That most are willing to accept something so formulaic is worrying.



[1] Generally, Bond’s trademark wit is missing from the film, aside from some brief homoeroticism and a desperately poor joke about getting into some ‘deep water’.

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Richard III at Shakespeare’s Globe

Mark Rylance staggers on to stage, laughing to himself. He stammers slightly, as if a little drunk. Irreverent and callous, this is Richard the comic villain: a man who plays the fool in public, which is why none suspect him, but amuses the audience with his wonderful timing. A particular success of this interpretation is the scene, here opening the second half, where he feigns disinterest in taking the crown, preferring religious contemplation, despite the ‘public’ clamour for his reign. Dressed in a monk’s habit, his disingenuous protestations are outrageous, especially when he relents, claiming ‘I have not a heart of stone’. Rylance is adept at playing off the audience, who are evidently enthralled by him throughout.

At 2 ½ hours, the play is heavily cut, but judiciously so. The only notable excisions are Queen Margaret and some of the ghosts who visit Richard and Richmond before the Battle of Bosworth. Henry VI’s wraith is one who does not appear. Given that this production is not being staged in conjunction with the Henry VI plays, the alterations have the advantage of removing references to events, the full significance of which cannot be appreciated outside the context of the plays as a series. The result is a dynamic production of Richard III, where the King’s rise to power is swift and pitiless.

The ensemble is strong, as nearly all the cast speak the verse with clarity and appropriate feeling. Liam Brennan gives us an upright Clarence. As he recounts his prophetic dream prior to his murder, he is transfixed, his words full of dread. His murderers, played by John Paul Connolly and Jethro Skinner, are a darkly comic double act, whose dialogue on judgment and conscience provides an impious counterpoint to Clarence’s reverential tone.

The one weak performance is Johnny Flynn’s Lady Anne, whose voice quivers incessantly. Whether Flynn does this to communicate the character’s grief, or simply to attempt a more feminine modulation, is unclear. Flynn’s wailing Anne has nothing witty about her and although Rylance’s comic timing is superb, he cannot carry off the dialogue fully without an appropriate foil. Consequently, the word play in the scene where Richard woos Lady Anne is less a verbal duel than dull attrition. What should be one of the best sequences of the play is underwhelming. A clear contrast may be drawn with Samuel Barnett’s Queen Elizabeth. Barnett does not indulge in parodic femininity or melodrama vocals, but presents a strong-willed matriarch. His dialogue with Richard is sharp and defiant, bringing the conflict and the wit of their exchanges to the fore.

The middle of the play is less engaging. This is not solely the fault of the company, as there is a weakness in the structure of the play. Act I contains a trilogy of great scenes (Richard’s opening soliloquy, his wooing of Anne and the murder of Clarence), but there is nothing comparable in the next two Acts. There are no further murders until Lord Hastings’s towards the end of Act III and Richard, upon whose performance the whole play depends, has far less stage time before he becomes King. No other character has sufficient charisma to compensate for his absence.

The play is set in period (meaning Elizabethan rather than Plantagenet), with an all male cast. Several of the aristocrats, including Richard, wear a garter, which communicates membership of the Order of the Garter and bears its motto. This visual emblem of courtly values ties in neatly with the play, as Richard explicitly swears by his ‘garter’, only to be rebuked by Queen Elizabeth for having ‘dishonoured’ it. The motto, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (shame on him who evil thinks), is both a commentary on the consequences of Richard’s actions and an ironic indictment of those courtiers who trust that he has honest intentions.

However, there are weaknesses in the design. The severed head of Hastings looks as if it was taken from a department store manikin, not a traitor’s shoulders. When the ghosts appear to haunt Richard and encourage Richmond, they are each covered in a sheet, with a hole for their heads knotted at the top. They have the appearance of sacks of potatoes, anthropomorphised for a children’s television show. Curiously, during the final battle, the ghosts reappear, one at a time, visualising Richard’s paranoia. This time, there is no ghostly costume and they are far more unsettling as a result. The climactic confrontation between Richard and Richmond itself is well choreographed as a furious slugfest of single combat, but this is spoiled by the decision to have Richard hand over his sword, having been terrified by these ghosts. A suicidal Richard is too abrupt a change from the man desperate for a horse a matter of minutes earlier.

However, whilst the Comedy of Richard III is very entertaining, it is also a cheat. The humour is pushed too far, so that Richard is solely a caricature. The audience is still laughing during Richard’s soliloquy on the eve of battle, where he confronts what he is and cannot find pity from anyone, even himself. Rylance speaks in a sombre tone, but this variety in delivery has come too late to have any significant impact. Ultimately, then, Richard’s downfall lacks any tragedy and Shakespeare’s play, although engrossing in this production, is reduced to a genre piece like those written by his less talented contemporaries.

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The Hollow Crown

The Hollow Crown

So it comes to this. The BBC’s four-part series of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays (the closest thing England has to a national epic) is a lavish, but hollow production. Perhaps we should simply be grateful that to mark London 2012, and the accompanying cultural Olympiad, nearly 9 hours of television time has been devoted to such a high art endeavour. Any exposure to these immortal lines can only be edifying. Yet when the high production values and stellar cast (sadly more impressive on paper than on screen) are considered, it is hard not to be disappointed.

Despite the series’s length, significant cuts have been made to the texts. This is largely necessary, in order to fit the script to the medium and excise the tedious or superfluous parts that are present in almost all plays of the era. However, the mark of a good adaptation is one where a person familiar with the play does not notice what has been left out, a test which only Richard II passes in this series. Richard II is the longest of the four episodes, an odd decision given that it is a far more static play than the others, and so would suffer less from having speeches or whole scenes removed than its denser sequels. Overall the pacing of the series is poor. Even when the actors are on top of their material, it is often delivered so quickly as to be difficult to catch what they are saying, or take any relish in the language. A little breathing space would have given the words greater power.

Richard II is the least unsatisfying of the four. Ben Whishaw’s Richard is puerile and effeminate; a weak and temperamental ruler, his inadequacies are clear to his political rivals. Yet this means the character has little majesty or sympathetic quality, so his fall is without the requisite pathos. Elsewhere the acting is solid, but nowhere outstanding. The episode lacks dramatic tension. It is a play in which everything happens: exile, return, invasion, usurpation and assassination, and yet no armies clash at any point, but power changes hands through betrayal and resignation. Thus, the drama depends on the actors creating a constant sense of danger about what might happen next, otherwise Richard’s submission lacks coherency. While the actors delivered the lines competently, they were also staid and, consequently, the sense of tragedy was lost.

The viewer experience was spoiled by the incessant use of extreme closeups on Whishaw. Not only were opportunities for cinematic sweeps of magnificent courts and armies missed, but attention was forced onto Whishaw’s perspiration instead of Shakespeare’s poetry. The episode also featured the first of a series of ahistorical, visual missteps by the production team, when a Welsh army appeared looking like extras from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. The direction’s use of religious imagery (Whishaw adopting a Christ like pose and dying, penetrated by arrows in a manner recalling St. Sebastian, the subject of a portrait earlier in the episode) was heavy-handed and detracted from the sacrificial imagery in the play instead of enhancing it. A major alteration was made to Shakespeare’s play by having Richard’s erstwhile confidant Aumerle murder the King, rather than the minor character Exton, as in Shakespeare’s original. While one should not be precious about a text, this alteration radically affected the character of Aumerle and introduced an additional betrayal to the plot. Doing such violence to the text must be justified as part of an overall artistic vision, but here it was done without any supporting structure and so rather appeared whimsical, and therefore gratuitous.

‘Welsh’ soldiers in Richard II

The script for Part 1 of Henry IV is badly carved. The episode begins not with Act I scene 1, but scene 2: at the tavern, rather than the court. Hal’s first interaction with Falstaff is then intercut with his father receiving the news from battle. The process of switching between these two scenes does a disservice both to the play and the audience. Shakespeare often bases his work around lengthy scenes in which conflict builds. To switch so rapidly between different locales is a cheap technique common to films and soap operas and assumes the audience does not have the requisite attention span for the more gradual and demanding approach.

Henry’s opening monologue, in which he asserts his determination to reimpose his authority and bring peace to the land, a speech laden with ironies that sets up the whole play, is removed. We also lose the lines explaining that Henry’s enmity towards Mortimer is because Richard had named Mortimer his heir. Without these lines, a key motivation for the rebellion is missed. Gone too are many of the best comic lines, while the encounter between Hotspur and Hal, including Hotspur’s death speech and Hal’s eulogy, is heavily cut. We do not hear Hal declare ‘Nor can one England brook a double reign, / Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.’ To focus on these two lines may seem churlish, but they are crucial in explaining why the single combat is a microcosm for the fate of England and the ultimate test for Hal to reclaim his Princely inheritance. Cutting these lines is indicative of an approach which elides nuance and character in favour of squeezing one of Shakespeare’s most complex and compelling plays into less than 2 hours. The decision to have Hal defeat Hotspur by means of a sneaky stab with a dagger is artistically sloppy, as it presents Hal as treacherous and underhand, an interpretation which has not been developed in the preceding two hours. It also falsely conflates martial inadequacy with moral duplicity. Somehow, though, the director still finds time for the tedious scene where Mortimer’s wife sings to him in Welsh.

Taking the script as it is, the play depends on the performance of its four principal men. Jeremy Irons is convincing as the monarch losing his grip. He presents an austere figure, eloquent and precise in his use of Shakespeare’s verse. The best moment in the episode, possibly the whole series, is between Tom Hiddleston’s Hal and his father, who has summoned him to court. Irons excels here in mixing the moralising chastisement with the sadness of a disappointed father.

Joe Armstrong is somewhat overblown as Hotspur. Although he has the rashness required, this can be taken too far. The character must be temperamental, but he should also demonstrate bravery and nobility. Armstrong is simply foolhardy. ‘Die all, die merrily’, which should be his signature line, is accompanied by a cartoonish fist shaking that drains the seriousness from the character. Additionally, the decision to cast the Percy family with Durham accents, presumably as a way of emphasising that this is ‘Hotspur of the North’, is distracting. In the first place, it suggests that regional differences, as opposed to personal favouritism and family loyalty, is the cause of the rebellion. It also has the side effect of injecting an element of class conflict between the rivals that is thoroughly inappropriate.

Hiddleston, though, is a natural Hal: aristocratic, elegant and possessed of a beautiful voice. Yet his soliloquy is smothered by the musical score, while the comic scenes with Falstaff are a complete miss. The play is one that has the potential to be genuinely funny for a modern audience, provided the lines are delivered with appropriate timing. Here, though, the interchanges are so rapid so as to be without weight. In the tavern scenes Richard Eyre rather stuffs the shots with extras laughing raucously and chanting Falstaff’s name in a bid to make their laughter infectious. It treats the actual humour as a series of in jokes and patronises the audience by denying us the opportunity to respond the comic language itself.

Falstaff requires what the great Orson Welles termed a ‘king actor’: he must be regal and charismatic. His humour should not be that of a sleazy stand up, but a provocative subversion of the ruling classes’ dominant values. In his exchanges with Hal he gets the better because his wit is so engrossing that he is ‘all the world’. Instead we get a pathetic, little man from Simon Russell Beale. In part 2, this is exemplified when Hal overhears Falstaff disparaging him to Doll Tearsheet. Falstaff’s defence, that he did so only to expose false friends, is delivered not as an ingenious excuse, but as a desperate plea, the sort expected from a schoolboy caught passing notes in class. I do not understand why Hal would wish to spend time in this Falstaff’s company nor do I believe that he is a rival to Henry IV in Hal’s affections. Beale’s delivery is shifty and shrill. He has not the audacity that Roger Allam, for example, brought to the part in his performance at the Globe last year, to support the character’s outrageous humour. He is silly.

In this production, much of the subtext is lost. When Hal pretends to be his father, examining Falstaff’s Hal, Hiddleston does a passable impression of Irons. This performance is a parody, mocking the King for Falstaff’s amusement. The scene, though, is also Hal’s rehearsal for his dismissal of Falstaff upon ascension to the throne. If the impersonation is done without mockery, then we have both the humour of impersonation combined with the edge that comes with prefiguring his assumption of his role as King. Hal would then be the ruthless warrior in waiting and not simply a shallow prince.

Part 2 of Henry IV is the lesser play, being largely a retread of the first part, but lacking as much interaction between Falstaff and Hal. Thus Beale has a greater duty to carry the humour of the piece, but, without the necessary gravitas, lines such as ‘I can get no cure for this consumption of the purse’ go for nothing. An unexpected highlight is Billy Matthews as Falstaff’s page, who delivers his lines with real wit and an understanding of the language normally beyond child actors. Jeremy Irons remains the best thing about the episode, and his scene with Hiddleston, where Hal has just tried on his crown, its strongest part. Irons’s voice is weary with age and worry, but still modulating beautifully to articulate the verse. Hiddleston’s prince at this point takes on a more sober and reflexive tone, a performance which convincingly sways his father and wins his trust. The two crouch upon the steps, the father advising the son to ‘busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels’. They form an impressive tableau, the older man passing the responsibilities of state to the younger along with his advice, and trusting no-one else. Visually, both episodes are usually impressive, the odd costume that appears more Tudor than Plantagenet, aside.

However, the climax of the play, where Hal tells his erstwhile friend ‘I know thee not, old man’ is underwhelming. The key line is delivered with appropriate coolness by Hiddleston, but as Beale’s Falstaff is so feeble, the dismissal is a minor event in the King’s life. The defining moment of pathos and betrayal never arrives.

Henry V is perhaps the most popular of these plays, but familiarity with ‘Cry God for Harry, England and St. George’ can give a tinted view of it as patriotic froth, when it is in fact a complex study on the nature of charisma and power. Whilst the previous episodes cut some of the best lines, the script for Henry V distorts the play owing to its choice of excisions. First to go is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech on the details of Salic law in relation to Henry’s claim to the French throne. Although the character is written as a tedious pedant, the monologue is crucial in establishing Henry’s hypocrisy. Attention should be drawn to the nature of the situation, that Henry is claiming the French throne through the maternal line, a lineage which would place his cousin instead of him on the English throne.

Also removed is the scene where Henry tricks three traitors into condemning themselves from their own mouths. This trick demonstrates Harry’s cruelty, which derives from the same impulse as his practical jokes in Henry IV. Whilst those episodes are without serious consequences, his treatment of the traitors is tyrannical. To lose this scene (which is not even a lengthy one) gives us a far less complex figure than the one Shakespeare wrote. Again the choice of what to cut is perplexing. Princess Katherine’s painfully unfunny English lesson from her nurse is retained, while the sequence where Henry woos that same princess to conclude the play is interminable and should have been cut in half, at least. The scene where Bardolph, Nim and Pistol agree to go to France (necessary only to inform us what has become of Falstaff) would also have been a better place to trim. At least the omission of the comic subplot involving an Irishman, Welshman and Scotsman is something that few will lament.

Visually, there are a number of mistakes. Readying himself for the invasion of France, we see Henry practising with a longbow. Yet to use a ranged weapon was considered unchivalrous: no member of the nobility would use a bow except for hunting or sport. When Henry, at the siege of Harfleur, asks the ‘noblest English’ to ‘be copy now to men of grosser blood’ he is shown addressing the common soldiers instead, who should be actually encouraged as the ‘good yeomen’ a few lines later. Historically, the battle of Agincourt was won because the superior French numbers were squeezed into a narrow space, where they could not move or fight properly. In the BBC’s version the battle is a melee in an open field and the English victory has no explanation.

Curiously, in this version Falstaff’s former page survives the campaign. In the text, it his death (ambushed behind the English lines) which triggers Henry’s order to execute all prisoners. This alteration is made so that the boy can be revealed, in the final shot, to grow into John Hurt’s Chorus. This casts the Chorus as a real human figure, an old soldier who can act as true witness to the events, ignoring what Shakespeare has given us: a theatrical construct who is suspect because he acts as Henry’s chief propagandist. The cumulative effect of these changes is to make Henry a more sympathetic figure than he deserves and plays into the hands of critics who might dismiss the play as jingoistic.

Henry V is redeemed a little by some fine acting. John Hurt speaks the Chorus’s lines with relish, the musicality of the verse brought to the fore. Perhaps he is a little too steady, failing to take the opportunity the speeches present for soaring rhetoric. He functions more like a modern Hollywood voiceover (as we do not see his face until the very end), admittedly one with superior vocabulary. A minor point is that the Chorus’s first speech (on the inadequacy of theatrical representation) makes no sense accompanying a televisual depiction of such verisimilitude. However, the lines are too famous to be removed, and a scene in an actual theatre (as in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version) would be extraneous in a television series that has remained medieval throughout.

Anton Lessor is captivating as Exeter. The character is Henry’s enforcer, so would normally be played by a more imposing figure. Lessor, though, is Exeter the unflinching statesman, who speaks with authority borne of a steely character and long experience. When he gives Henry’s message to the French King, his crisp annunciation, threatening English invasion, is all the more terrifying for the serenity of the speaker.

The scene where Henry goes amongst his troops, disguised, is excellent. Hiddleston is casual, almost gossipy with the common soldiers, while Gwilym Lee’s Michael Williams is edgy, quickly becoming quarrelsome. It is from the difference in their dispositions that a real sense of anxiety about the battle develops and the disjunction between the vantage points of nobility and commoner is made plain.

The star of the show is disappointing, though. Henry V is the great play of rhetoric and the King himself must dominate the screen through the power of his words. Hiddleston, while clear and fluent, is too measured and relaxed. He is not helped by the directorial decision to have both of his most famous speeches spoken to a small group of men around him, rather than the army at large. Amongst such surroundings, ‘Once more unto the breach dear friends’ has no chance to build momentum towards its final cry and Hiddleston’s moments of exhortation become slightly random points in a meandering discourse. The ‘St. Crispian’ speech similarly becomes a private meditation for his inner circle. Stupidly, the lines of the speech are altered to include the names of on screen characters instead of absent ones. The new version does not scan. Hiddleston sounds collected and sincere, but this does not compensate for the loss of what should be the greatest rallying cry in the English language.

The episode is capped by text on screen informing us that Henry V died of dysentery in 1422 at the age of 35. Placing this information at the end dishonestly suggests that what has preceded has been historically accurate, instead of a literary interpretation which has distorted freely for artistic reasons. We look to Shakespeare not for history, but for truth about the human condition. This episode has given us neither.

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