Saturday, November 26, 2016

UCL and King's Classical Plays, 2016

February, as ever, saw the UCL Classics Play and the King's Greek Play. I actually haven't written about these for five years, partly because I haven't always got around to going, partly because I haven't found the time to write them up properly. This has ill-served some productions, such as UCL's splendid 2013 version of Trojan Women, which featured Lucy Chappell giving the best performance in the role of Andromache I've seen since Vanessa Redgrave in Michael Cacoyannis' movie version (Chappell is now, unsurprisingly, a professional actress, who appeared in The Theory of Everything). On the other hand, there were times in the past when I've been quite scathing, so perhaps some productions are glad of my silence.

But that is past - how about this year?

UCL bravely chose to break away from the usual fare of Euripides, Aristophanes and Aeschylus (it's been sixteen years since they last tackled Sophocles), and instead presented Menander's Dyskolos (The Misanthrope), about the only one of that playwright's texts in a good enough condition to stage. (Though there are lacunae, and rightly, this production made jokes about them.) The production had been hit by a number of problems, largely arising out of the prolonged closure of the Bloomsbury Theatre, which resulted in the production having to be restricted to just two performances.

But I can report that they did a pretty good job. A lot of this is down to a rather fine comic performance by Dominic Hauschild in the titular role of Knemon, the miserable misanthropic father. The production also innovated by casting women in a lot of the roles, such as the cook, and various other servants (i.e. slaves). It wasn't the best UCL production ever, but it was okay, and I'm prepared to take that for an innovative choice of text.

King's chose a less unusual play, Euripides' Alkestis. Edith Hall has some interesting things to say about the play, and how Admetus is rather unpleasant because of the speed with which he abandons his promise to dead wife not to marry again, as he is ignorant of the fact that his new wife is his old wife rescued from Death. In Admetus' defence, he is bullied into doing this by Heracles. Moreover, to a fifth century audience, this moment represents the restoration of normality, as a widower would be expected to remarry soon.

As for the production - well, my heart did sink a bit when I read two separate synopses in the programme book, one placing the play in ancient Pherae, and the other in 1957 London. But in the end, this blending of ancient and modern was not particularly intrusive, as the production was tied to Euripides' original text. In the end it just looked like a fairly standard modern dress production, with some nice ideas. For instance, Apollo was played by a woman, and in the version I saw, when Admetus' bride was brought back, it is in fact Apollo. Best of these was perhaps how the Chorus was handled. Instead of having them chant the lines, as would normally be the case, instead the Chorus danced, while Professor Michael Silk read the lines over the PA. It was an innovative approach. I'm not entirely sure it worked, and it did make the play seem very episodic as the stage went to black at the beginning and end of each choral scene. But King's deserves praise for trying. There was also some interesting use of music.

The performances ran the usual gamut from confident projection (Oliver de Montfalcon is pretty good as Admetus) to quiet monotone. And there was the usual problem with King's productions where the surtitles got out of sync with what was being said on stage, at one point quite badly.

I would say that while neither production massively impressed me this year, neither was really bad. And that's an okay result.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Hail Caesar! (USA/UK, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2016)

There's a truism about movies that attempt to recreate the past that is well-known to scholars of ancient reception - that no matter how hard they try to be 'accurate', these movies always give away the time in which they were actually made. The art deco Egypt of Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra is self-evidently a product of the 1930s, whilst Joseph L. Mankiewicz's movie of the same title can only date to the 1960s. So it is, if in a different manner, with Joel and Ethan Coen's attempt to recreate the Hollywood of 1951. It opens with what is supposedly footage from a 1951 Biblical/Roman epic, the eponymous Hail, Caesar!, subtitled in best Ben-Hur fashion, 'A Tale of the Christ'. But it just doesn't look quite right. These are not Mervyn LeRoy or William Wyler shots from the 1950s - they are Coen Brothers/Roger Deakin shots from 2016, and they just betray themselves, for all that they've got some things, such as the colour, exactly right.

Hail, Caesar! is an enjoyable movie - fun, and funny. It's very much a collection of episodes rather than a coherent story, but the best of the episodes are well worth it. Best of all is Channing Tatum's dance number - Tatum can't quite carry off the Gene Kelly thing of being a song-and-dance man whilst exuding heteronormative masculinity, but he does his best. There's also a great scene where Hail, Caesar!, the movie within the movie. is checked for any potential offensive content with four religious leaders who can't agree.

This is a movie very much of cameos. No-one apart from Josh Brolin as central fixer Eddie Mannix or George Clooney's idiot actor Baird Whitlock are on screen for very long. Scarlett Johannsen as out-of-control starlet DeeAnna Moran has a particularly small role considering how much she's in the movie's publicity - she only has two short scenes. The same is true of Ralph Fiennes as director Laurence Laurentz, finally finding his comedy persona, and Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Blink, and you will miss Frances McDormand as editor C.C. Calhoun, Dolph Lundgren as a Russian submarine commander, Christopher Lambert as a Scandinavian director, and a heavily made-up John Bluthal as real-life Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse.

Surprisingly for a Coen Brothers movie, there appears to be very little subtext here. This is not as weighty a movies as No Country For Old Men or Fargo, or even relatively frothy movies such as Raising Arizona or O Brother Where Art Thou? But it's still worth seeing. It also makes an interesting pair with this year's Trumbo, since where Trumbo lionizes the Communist-leaning screenwriters of the 1950s, Hail, Caesar! gives them a good kicking. 

The Egyptian (USA, Michael Curtiz, 1954)

I saw this much earlier in the year through the graces of the Petrie Museum Film Club, with an introduction by the estimable John J. Johnston. It's a movie that deals with antiquity, rather than specifically Classical antiquity, though there is a very brief excursion to Minoan Crete. (Or is it Mycenaean Greece? It's not quite clear.)

The Egyptian, based on a 1945 novel by Finnish author Mika Waltari, is something of an overlooked oddity. Director Michael Curtiz, most famous for Casablanca, evidently did not value The Egyptian highly, to the point of refusing to co-operate with a retrospective at the British Film Institute unless this movie was removed from the programme. A whole range of actors rejected roles in the movie. The lead role was at one point offered to Marlon Brando, who had by this point demonstrated that he could do antiquity through his performance in Joseph Mackiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), but he turned it down. Other people supposedly in the line for major roles were Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Dirk Bogarde, and more. In the event, the leads are played by the largely unknown Edward Purdom as Sinuhe, the eponymous Egyptian, with Michael Wilding as the Pharaoh Akhenaten, and Victor Mature, with plenty of experience in epics, as Horemheb, Sinuhe's friend and the man who will overthrow the Pharaoh. Peter Ustinov plays the slave Kaptah, faithful companion to Sinhue, and female support comes from Jean Simmons as love interest Merit, Gene Tierney as Akhenaton's sister Beketaten, and Bella Darvi as the courtesan Nefer.

Nobody, to be honest, is terribly good here. Ustinov looks unhappy. Tierney, essentially playing a version of the manipulative femme fatale that she had made her trademark, is out of place. Only Mature and Simmons looks like they are actually in roles that they can understand, and Simmons is not in the movie very much. Darvi, who got the role ahead of Marilyn Monroe because she was sleeping with the producer, is mostly there to titillate through near-translucent dresses. Purdom shows that he learnt his craft at the hands of Laurence Olivier by essentially doing an Olivier impersonation throughout. And there's a bizarre cameo by John Carradine as a grave robber. It's cruel, but not entirely unfair, to say that the best performance is actually given by a donkey halfway through the movie.

Part of the problem seems to be that the actors' performances don't really match other aspects of the movie. It's shot on an epic scale (including some scenes that look like they've been filmed in John Ford's beloved Monument Valley). But the performances seem on a much smaller scale, as if they are in a filmed play such as Caesar and Cleopatra.

If the movie is of interest, it is for two points. The first is the semi-tragic ending - Sinuhe dies having lost the love of his life in a religious massacre, in exile and separate from his son. The movie sets up this end right at the beginning, and to its credit, doesn't try to cheat the viewer.

The other interesting aspect is the way in which it demonstrates that almost all epics of the 1950s are essentially Biblical epics, even when they can't possibly be. So epics such as The Rope and Ben-Hur had the life of Christ at their core, or at least not far from the centre, Quo Vadis dealt with the early Christian Church, and movies such as The Ten Commandments and Solomon and Sheba explored the Old Testament. (Indeed, it might be argued that when ancient epics distanced themselves from the Bible and Christianity, with Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire, they were met with much less successful box office returns.)

It's now generally considered that there's nothing obviously Judaeo-Christian about the events of the reign of Akhenaten. However, in the nineteenth century, the religion of the Aten was seen as a monotheistic precursor of Christianity. The movie chooses to hammer through that connection. The worshippers of the Sun are presented as proto-Christians, dressed in white, desiring only peace, and willing to die for their beliefs. Akhenaten himself becomes, like Spartacus in Kubrick's movie six years later, a pseudo-Christ, and the idea that all these events merely foreshadow the life of Jesus is made explicit in the final caption. Towards the end of the movie Sinuhe delivers a defiant speech to Horemheb, now Pharaoh, one that is very similar to the speech delivered by Richard Burton's Marcellus Gallio to the emperor Caligula in The Robe.

Finally, it is worth mentioning how the movie reflects the essential racism of Hollywood in the 1950s. All of the characters who get to speak are white. There are black people in this movie, but they are all, without exception, slaves or servants of some description.

None of this makes The Egyptian a particularly good movie, though it does make it an interesting one.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

New post on my OU Blog

All Associate Lecturers (and indeed students) at the Open University are provided with a blog for their use. Most don't use it, so do a lot. I occasionally use it for something particularly pedagogical, and so I just have, looking at what postgrads might think about when they approach theories and methods for their work.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Women's Classical Committee: Classics and Feminist Pedagogy - Practical Tips for Teaching

At the end of July I was privileged to go to the Women's Classical Committee's event 'Classics and Feminist Pedagogy - Practical Tips for Teaching'. This was aimed primarily at postgrads and early career researchers, but fortunately there was a space for me. Why did I go? Lots of reasons. For a start, I've long believed that one is never too old to learn new stuff, and how to do things better. If anything, as I've got older I've become more receptive to learning about pedagogy - the arrogant twenty-something me, deeply suspicious about anything that looked like theory, was far more resistant. (Though I have still had bad experiences with pedagogical texts and events that I have felt ended up teaching me nothing about how to be a good teacher.) And I have always supported feminist causes (like so many things in my life, I blame Doctor Who).* So when Liz Gloyn first mentioned the idea of the UK Women's Classical Committee to me, I was enthusiastic, and I am delighted that it has become an actual thing that does things (as Liz would say). All of this means that feminist pedagogy ticks many of my academic boxes. Feminist pedagogy must inherently be inclusive pedagogy, which means it can't just be for women (and a number of the issues that face young female scholars, such as insecurity of position, are also issues that I've faced throughout my career). Moreover, I have, through my association with Nine Worlds, become much more concerned of late about inclusivity.

What follows is not a coherent report on the event. Other people will no doubt write those soon, and in the meantime there are a couple of Storifys. What I want to do here is explore a few issues that particularly connected with me.

Liz opened proceedings with a session on 'What is Feminist Pedagogy and What does it mean for Classics and Ancient History?', drawing upon a lot of work that's previously been done in the US in the area of feminist pedagogy and its use in Classical Studies. I took a lot away from this, most of all the clear advantages of the 'Solidarity Model' of syllabus design, which fully engages with a number of different perspectives, rather than the 'Tourist Model' or the 'Explorer Model', both of which other in various ways the marginalized and powerless.

Like a lot of what I read or here about best practice, Liz's talk made me consider my own practice and consider the many ways in which my teaching falls down, including spending too much time delivering lectures, rather than trying to involve the students in a more collaborative approach. Partly this is due to my unwillingness to venture outside my own comfort zone, but partly it is due to lack of time. Rethinking how one does a module requires a bit of space to sit back and mull on how to go about doing this. Moreover, the demands of my current work patterns, where I have three separate employers, for all of whom I teach in quite different modes, mean that time for sitting back and thinking about approaches is a luxury I often don't have. But that, Liz argues, is alright - she suggests that doing things little bits at a time is fine. Nevertheless, I must do better.

Along the way, Liz talked about the difference between teacher-centred learning and student-centred learning, and her preference for subject-centred learning, a strategy that makes the learning experience a collaborative effort between students and teacher. It's a model I've been exposed to before through stuff that Liz has written, and one that very much appeals to me. But in one of the discussion conversations afterwards, Liz said to me, 'Oh, you don't tell the students that you're taking a subject-centred approach." The thing is, I have told students this, explicitly. Admittedly, I've only done it with Open University Students, but nevertheless, I'm not sure why it's a bad thing to do so - shouldn't one be upfront about taking such an approach if the aim is to empower students? I'm sure Liz will respond on this point, and I look forward to seeing that response.

The second paper I want to talk about was my Roehampton colleague Fiona McHardy talking about teaching sensitive subjects, on the back of some research she and another Roehampton colleague, Susan Deacy (present in the audience), have been conducting (perhaps best read about in this article from Cloelia). There was a lot of useful information in her presentation - fortunately Ellie Mackin took photographs of the most bibliographic slides and put them on Twitter (e.g. this one and this one).

The most interesting part of this was the discussion of trigger warnings. My own view on trigger warnings is that while they are often presented as censorious attempts to shut down debate, I've never seen them as barring study of anything, merely ensuring that students are properly prepared for material that is problematic and potentially upsetting. If anything, this helps them engage with the material more effectively. I've read too much commentary on trigger warnings that starts from a position that students who are concerned about these issues don't really have a valid viewpoint, and they should, essentially, 'man up' and get over anything potentially traumatic. To me, that lacks respects for students, dismissing those who are actually prepared to talk about the texts, only outside the parameters that the academic has set. There's no attempt here to empathise with students whose experiences and backgrounds may differ greatly from that of the teacher. In their worst manifestations, such attacks on warnings adopt the rhetoric of the bully - life is harsh, so you have to put up with my being harsh. Sorry, but that isn't an excuse. Nor does 'never mind the creepiness of Ovid, feel the beauty of the poetry' pass muster. That doesn't mean you can't feel the beauty of the poetry; but you have to acknowledge the other stuff.

However, what I have now been persuaded of is that the rhetoric around trigger warnings has become so overheated that using the term is counter-productive. To turn to Liz Gloyn again, she has argued for the use of 'content notes' (in the blog post she talks about 'content warnings' but I think she would now prefer 'content notes'). Essentially, this seems to have exactly the same effect as I would want a trigger warning to have, without the other stuff. I shall be trying to adopt that strategy.

The final thing that particularly made me think about my practice was my Open University colleague Helen King's talk. But the issues that raised with me are of such a kind that whilst I felt comfortable discussing them in the event, and afterwards with individuals, I don't feel comfortable discussing them in a public forum such as this. Ask me in a conference bar some time... I will say that I was sufficiently stimulated, and there were so many thoughts rushing around my head, that I found it harder to concentrate on the rest of the day, for which I apologise to the speakers concerned.

Overall though, this was a great and productive event, and I hope for more such.

* I once wrote a fanzine article about the influence of Doctor Who in forming my feminism. I'll not bore you with it now, but I might dig it out at some point in the future.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Roehampton Classical Student Research: A Celebration. Event Report.

Mike Edwards, not me, introducing the event.
CUCD Bulletin has just published a report I wrote up of a student research event at Roehampton, which we've published as a possible example of best practice. Of course, I have immediately thought of the thing I should have added but didn't, which is that if anyone has examples of similar practice, they should let us know!

Anyway, the report is here.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Urgent call for paper on Star Wars and Classics

Classicists (and possibly SF people around Canterbury): I am putting together a proposal for a Star Wars and Classical Antiquity panel for the Classical Association in April (, and have just had a speaker drop out. Would anyone like to be part of this? If so, please send me ( a 200-word abstract by close of play tomorrow (30 August), as the deadline for submitting panels is 31 August. Please note speakers must register for the conference, and I have no funding to support attendance.

ETA: Solved now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My Mancunicon Schedule

It's the British National Science Fiction Convention coming up this weekend, and I'll be doing some stuff at it. (Note that Mancunicon memberships are now closed, so if you're not a member you won't be able to attend any of this.)

This lecture focuses on how Victorian cultural critic John Ruskin uses the making and wearing of textiles to discuss political economy and to inspire change. It pays particular attention to craft and making, and the way we make and define ourselves through the clothing we wear.

A lecture sponsored by the BSFA.

[I shall be introducing and chairing this - the last time I'll do this for a BSFA Lecture]

1980s Trailblazing Comics

Sunday 11:30 - 12:30, Room 6 (Hilton Deansgate)
The panel discuss lesser known comics and creators from the 1980s that paved the way for the big names that came later.
Glyn Morgan (M), Tony Keen, Eric Steele, Karen Brenchley

[I will be trying to talk about comics other than Watchmen and Dark Knight.]

Science Fiction Criticism - Mini-Masterclass 1

Sunday 19:00 - 20:00, Room 10 (Hilton Deansgate)
Every Summer the Science Fiction Foundation holds a Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism with world-renowned critics, academics and authors. This session provides a taster. Participants are required to sign up in advance (at Ops)  and should read the short story assigned for the session. There is a limit of ten participants.
Kari Sperring will lead a discussion of Liz Williams, "The Banquet of the Lords of Light"

Science Fiction Criticism - Mini-Masterclass 2

Monday 11:30 - 12:30, Room 10 (Hilton Deansgate)
Every Summer the Science Fiction Foundation holds a Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism with world-renowned critics, academics and authors. This session provides a taster. Participants are required to sign up in advance (at Ops) and should read the short story assigned for the session. There is a limit of ten participants.
Andrew M Butler will lead a discussion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "If I were a man".

[I'm facilitating both of these. Participants are limited to ten each, and will need to sign up in Ops.]