Hamlet at The Barbican: ‘A slaughterhouse – eight corpses all told’

Hamlet at the wedding feastIt’s a wet and dreary August bank holiday, and if this weren’t depressing enough, I’m having a fit of the miseries because I’ve been to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet. I bought tickets about a whole entire year ago and now it’s all over and I have nothing to do but sit here limply on the sofa and think about maybe going out to buy some crisps. There’s a big Hamlet-sized hole in my life and I’m not sure even salt and vinegar Hula Hoops can help me out with this one.

In fact, I’m not sure I have enough money left for Hula Hoops in any case, because when all’s told, this was an extremely expensive evening: Barbican Red Membership plus the cost of the tickets, train and taxi fares, food, interval wine, theatre programme…once all that’s totted up, there wasn’t much change out of three hundred and fifty quid. But I’d do it all again, because mixed reviews and mild rumpus over unauthorised filming notwithstanding, this was an absolutely cracking evening.

BC as Hamlet 2

Alright, so lots of critics don’t like it. The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote a very snippy review (although I have to agree with his comments about the clumsily-handled play scene); Wendy Bradley sounds off against The Barbican for its handling of ticket sales (she has a point here) and the schoolmarmish treatment of theatre-goers wielding mobile phones and cameras. Okay, so perhaps the proliferation of signs and warnings was a little over-enthusiastic, but all this policing of electronic gadgetry is being carried out in response to some truly oafish and ill-mannered behaviour from those who thought it was perfectly acceptable to distract both the actors and fellow audience-members so they could film the performance instead of actually just sitting there and enjoying it. The lovely Mr Cumberbatch himself made a plea for this to stop. So I didn’t really mind all the fuss about phones. (I was, however, peeved about how much they charged me for the programme, but never mind. I didn’t have to buy one, after all.)


Churlish whinging aside, I’m going to write about what I did like. I’ve included some photos, all of which have been pilfered from The Guardian’s website: follow this link to view the entire gallery. There are pics of the characters here, but you can only glean a rough idea of the fantastic set. The sumptuous palace of the first half is covered in black rubble for the second – a visual metaphor for the disorder that has fallen on Denmark which Billington thought heavy-handed, but it’s undeniably effective because not only does the rubble bring about a dramatic colour change, but the actors have to fight against it. Gertrude enters bare-footed, and I think Ophelia does too, so both women are scrabbling against a thorny surface. The rubble has to be negotiated: it has to be swept aside or clambered over, and this all makes for a telling reminder that the characters have lost control over their environment. The natural order of things has been disrupted and the characters have to struggle to stay upright. Poor mad Ophelia’s exit over this mess was, for me, the most moving part of the performance:

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 21.37.55

I enjoyed Siân Brooke as Ophelia, and Anastasia Hille’s sympathetic Gertrude, and I thought Ciarán Hinds exuded a wonderful air of menace as Claudius: he really did seem like a very dangerous man indeed. (I couldn’t always catch what Hinds was saying, however: my hearing is poor and I have to wear hearing aids, which may account for the difficulty, but I didn’t have the same problem with anyone else.)

Ciaran Hinds as Claudius

I liked very much Jim Norton’s Polonius, who made us laugh many times. This, I felt, was a shrewd move on the part of the director, because Polonius’ death when it came was felt as the truly sad turn of events that it is, and the chaos which ensues was all the more understandable. Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildenstern (Rudi Dharmalingam) were nicely under-played – another shrewd directorial move, because ever since the appearance of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this pair can easily upstage everyone else. As my companion pointed out, for an actor to land either one of these roles now must be a woo-hoo! moment, because even though these are only bit-parts, everyone is looking out for you – it’s like instant fame but without the hassle of having to memorise over 4000 lines. Under Lyndsey Turner’s direction, Voltemand (Morag Siller) was (or felt like) the larger role – in fact, I don’t think the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were even reported at the end, but I may be wrong there. I was facing a pile of corpses by that stage and felt heartily wrung out.

Hamlet and Gertrude

And what can we say about Benedict Cumberbatch? Well, look, I’m obviously not going to be able to give an impartial account here, but let me just say that he is mesmerising. As my companion said, when the soliloquies don’t feel like soliloquies, you know you’re in good hands. Astonishing stuff. I would go on, but then everyone might think that I massively fancy him or something.

Napkin versus serviette: class wars in Pret A Manger

There’s a Pret quite close to Baker Street tube station and I often pop in there when I go to London for one of my regular visits to Howarth’s. It’s a handy place to grab a cup of tea, and the tea’s not bad either – it’s hot and plentiful, and that’s what you want, really, isn’t it?

But the wording on their napkins really annoys me, and so you can also appreciate its hypocritical humbuggery, here it is in full:

This napkin is 100% recyclable (Pret’s sustainability department is militant, we’re making headway). If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins (which you don’t need or want) please give them the evil eye. Waste not want not.

…and this is piously followed by the recyclable symbol.


But, you know, what’s all this? Give staff the evil eye? Would this be the same staff who are on their feet all sodding day, who are probably on minimum wage (£6.50 per hour in 2014), who no doubt have to deal with plenty of rudeness and bad behaviour from the Gen Pub already? Yup, that’s them. And no doubt it was a hugely overpaid consultant who penned those very words we see printed on every napkin, words which grant carte blanche to Pret’s customers to bully those behind the counter – barista staff who have to work for the best part of half an hour before they have earned enough money to buy one of the overpriced coffees they serve.

And you just know, don’t you, that some sanctimonious more-organic-than-thou twat is actually going to take up this offer. Brendan O’Neill, writing for The Guardian, was present when precisely such an event took place:

I actually once witnessed a woman following this advice. She gave a Pret worker a piece of her mind after he handed her two napkins instead of one, presumably by accident. “I only need one,” she said sternly, and loudly enough so that the 27 groggy-eyed people queuing for their morning coffee could hear her, too, the smug cow.

I can only say that I wish I’d been there too. I would have reminded her – loudly, of course – that good manners cost nothing. You can read all of O’Neill’s nicely tart piece here, but it’s probably best if you don’t look at the comments that follow. It’s a thread that’s just as depressing and dispiriting as these things usually are.

One thing O’Neill doesn’t mention is the shift from ‘serviette’ to ‘napkin’. To recap, the wording is: ‘If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins’; so, the staff hand out serviettes, but the customers take napkins. I thought I’d investigate by having a quick look at Debrett’s online, and sure enough, Debrett’s is firmly against ‘serviette’:

if you are anxious to pass muster in more class-aware environments you should remember the basics: loo or lavatory never toilet; sofa never settee; napkin never serviette; supper never tea; drawing room or sitting room, never lounge or front room.

(See more here – if you can bear it. There’s a point at which it stops being amusing, and that point comes when you start thinking about people being forced to use food banks while the kind of toffs who care about the sort of crap on this website are swilling champagne.)

But, revenons à nos moutons. Pret want to convince you of their love of all things organic and wholesome and healthy, and so you can join them in their fight to save the planet, they ask that you berate their staff for the terrible crime of handing out more napkins/serviettes/whatever than is absolutely necessary. And the insinuation in the shift from serviette to napkin is that it’s perfectly alright for you to do so, because the staff are of a lower social class than you. You are the Napkin. They are the Serviettes.

So there you have it. Pret A Manger: fighting to change the world for the better, in spite of their lower-class employees! And – as O’Neill points out – 33% owned by McDonald’s.

Don’t You ‘Actually’ Me! – What I Really Think about The Guardian’s ‘What I’m Really Thinking’ column

Let’s get this clear from the start: I wouldn’t dream of reading any newspaper other than The Guardian – except perhaps possibly maybe The Independent – but the What I’m Really Thinking column which appears in the Guardian Weekend magazine renders me puce with apoplectic rage every Saturday morning.

The idea of this column is that you send in your real thoughts about one of your roles in life, those vile horrible oh-god-what-an-evil-person-I-am thoughts: so, for example, I could write in as Woman Who Chose Not To Have Children and bitch on and on about the people who’ve referred to me in the past as ‘monstrous’ and ‘unnatural’ and then I could follow that up with comments about how secretly I pity them because they are obviously slaves to their biology, that sort of thing. You see? It’s really not nice. The column’s purpose – if it has one – is probably something drippy such as ‘dispel stereotypical notions surrounding the role in question’, but what it actually provides is usually some pretty nasty-minded voyeurism along with a replacement set of stereotypes designed to satisfy the self-important reader.

Guardian Weekend would have us believe that the column is written by a different person each week, but, mysteriously, the writing style is always the same. I’m prepared to believe that the substance of the column is provided by Guardian readers and that one member of the editorial team works it up every week, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. I haven’t spent years studying literary style for nothing.

However…I can’t resist reading the damn thing. I try not to. But the temptation to start my weekend by working myself up into a state of frothing bile is just too strong and one day not too long ago, when my fury had apparently attained its zenith, I was sufficiently enraged to tweet my objections and to voice my hearty disapproval in a public forum (rather than bending poor Dr B’s ear about it again). So I tweeted thus:

I didn’t really expect to hear anything in reply and, to be honest, my fury had been sated by simply putting that tweet out there. But reply they did:

Now, I wasn’t going to have some prissy pert little madam saying ‘actually’ to me. My rejoinder was as follows:

I see your ‘actually’ and raise you a ‘Pffffft’. Five Fs in my ‘pffffft’ were all I could manage with just 140 characters, otherwise I would have added more. Pfffffffffffffffffffffft.

I’ve already outlined my first objection – that the column isn’t the product of anonymous contributions as is claimed – and my second objection, that the column is poorly-researched, I’ll explain by way of elaborating on my comment on the ‘Exam Invigilator’ – you can read the original column here. This, as I mentioned in my retaliatory tweet, is outdated nonsense. The writer’s comment that ‘[t]his is the sharp end of the educational treadmill: three years of study distilled into a few hours of pure pressure’ refers to the kind of university finals that just don’t exist anymore – not outside of Oxford, Cambridge and possibly Durham anyway. Nowadays, most undergraduate programmes are assessed by means of appropriately weighted coursework submitted over a three-year period. And the invigilator’s final comment too is a piece of pure poppycock: he or she writes ‘[s]o am I a fan of exams as a method of assessment? Yes, sure. Without them, I wouldn’t have a job’. A moment’s thought is surely enough for most people to work out that no one can make a living as an exam invigilator. Exams take place once or twice a year and the pay for invigilators is minimal. I know this because I work in university administration and it’s part of my job to organise exam invigilators. They’re often PhD students looking to make few bob on the side – about sixteen quid, usually. I’d like to know how our Guardian Exam Invigilator survives for a whole year on just sixteen quid. My conclusion? This column is poorly-researched bollocks.

But I haven’t finished yet. My third and – for now – final objection harks back to the question of stereotypes I mentioned earlier. The Guardian Weekend team seem to be on a mission to persuade readers not to judge people by the job they do. Nothing wrong with that – a person is not their job, after all. People do the work they do for all sorts of reasons. But if you could believe what you read in this magazine, you’d be led into thinking that every person in a job obviously considered menial by the Guardian Weekend editorial team is actually a university student just filling in time and earning a bit of pocket money. The shelf-stacker tells us that ‘[w]hen I hear you shout, “Oi you, over here” in my direction, I smile and put down the crate of bottles I’m unpacking. I’m thinking, at least I’m studying for a science degree and I’ll soon be out of here’, and the call centre worker joins in with ‘[t]he thing is, the job’s not bad, your stories make for good anecdotes, oh, and I’m going back to university next week’. Well, I have news for the editorial team. Some people do these jobs all the time – yes, all the time. Why are their voices not represented? You see, the column is headed with a definite, not an indefinite article: the shelf-stacker, the call centre worker, the supermarket delivery driver, the effect of which is to induce us to believe that the words which follow are representative of every single member of the profession in question and not just a single spotty student whiling away the summer months in Asda.

Clearly the Guardian wants us to replace the notion that people do certain jobs because they do not have a university degree with another equally damaging assumption that everyone is really a budding Stephen Hawking in the making. Surely someone, somewhere amongst the editorial team must have some idea how patronising this is. But I’m guessing that person isn’t the Little Miss Pert-Arsed Prissy Pants who ‘actually’-ed me.

By way of afterword, and plonking myself firmly in Hypocrite’s Corner, it’s only fair to point out how much I enjoyed the outpouring of venom from Guardian readers that greeted the GP’s Receptionist when it was her turn to contribute a column. The Letters page the following week was full of it. I was enormously cheered by this because I have in the past been reduced to sobbing down the phone when trying to reason with a cow-bag receptionist who ‘[found] it hard to care about a bladder infection’ and it was only when I threatened to go to A&E that the doctor intervened and made her give me an appointment. Yeah! Suck on that!

My Top Five Favourite Comic Books, an Also-Ran: Stephen Collins’ ‘The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil’



Warning: spoilers!

Before I begin, allow me to say how much I love Stephen Collins’ work. Every week I cut out his comic strip from the Saturday Guardian magazine and glue it into my notebook. Many’s the happy hour I’ve passed in the library re-reading old comic strips instead of making notes on yet another article about Spark’s manipulation of narrative time in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and here I am now, writing a blog post about Collins’ first graphic novel instead of sifting through aborted PhD chapter drafts to weed out the useable bits. May I also point out as a preliminary observation that as a title, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil takes some beating, it really does. For me, this title encapsulates Collins’ work in a very neat way: a superficially childish locution which hides a deeper profundity…and is very amusing at the same time.

Not that there’s much to laugh at in TGBTWE. It’s actually a very sad story, beautifully drawn and multi-layered: I’m not at all sure that I’ve yet plumbed its depths and fathomed all its meanings. The story takes place on the island of Here, which is neat, tidy and soulless. The people who live on Here are also neat, tidy and soulless: they spend much of their time transfixed by the screens of their phones. Everything is homogenised as far as possible and everything is in its place. The daily routine continues unchanged day after day. The weather forecast is the same every day. People go to work every day, but they don’t really know what they’re doing or what their job is. However, this seems to be the way they like it.

Beyond the sea, however, lies There, a place of disorder and chaos. And There breaks into Here through Dave, our enormously likeable hero. Dave is not quite the same as the other inhabitants of Here because although he loves his quiet, orderly life, he doesn’t sit in front of the telly every evening as the others do: he sits in his front room and draws what he can see in the street. But Dave the artist becomes a conduit for evil when There invades Here in the form of an enormous beard which grows out of Dave’s face in the space of a few frames and resists all attempts to be shorn. 


The moment a break in the routine pattern of repetition is established is the moment a narrative is formed. The remainder of Collins’ book relates the phenomenal and inexorable growth of the beard and how finally the beard – and Dave – are dealt with, all to the backdrop of The Bangles’ Eternal Flame, which Dave listens to over and over. The scary story of what happened to the fisherman’s son who sought to know What Was Over There functions as a standard literary device to provide a pre-echo and perhaps an indication of Dave’s fate, but on the other hand, perhaps the same fate did not befall Dave, because his drawings keep coming. Collins collapses the narrative levels here between author/narrator/characters: Dave’s drawings are identical to the author’s own and Professor Black’s final book is not intended for publication, but it’s clear that TGBTWE is that book. Dave’s departure leaves its traces. The world of Here is changed forever, and I’m left wondering whether There is so terrible after all. Perhaps the beard came to Here to encourage its inhabitants to embrace change and to face their fear of difference.


Collins is a satirist, after all, and like my very own Muriel Spark, he uses humour and satire as an effective means of attack. The Daily Mail is vilified in this graphic novel and elsewhere in Collins’ work as a rag for the mindless, a pernicious publication for those who want someone else to do the thinking for them. Its fictional counterpart The Here Mail’s hatred for and suspicion of all things that come from over There will be recognisable to all as characteristic of our very own hate-filled red top. Collins is also an eager parodist of consumer culture: his Exit Ian strip shows a dead man shopping for memorabilia of his own life in a heavenly gift shop before he is allowed to move on, complete with souvenir baseball cap. (You can visit Collins’ website here. Look down the left-hand side for separate links to the Guardian strips.) Once Dave has been removed, his house is turned into a museum and visitors’ centre, and the merchandise for sale invokes an unbearable melancholy while at the same time we can raise a wry smile at the familiarity of the scene. 

Worthy of note is Collins’ use of the gutter, or the space between the frames. What may be lurking in the blank space which separates the images ties in with the thematic concern of TGBTWE, and Collins exploits this idea in the placing of captions and the fragmentation of the images. The gutter is also essential to the timing of comic book narratives, and in the image below we can see Collins using the gutter as a kind of film strip, both in external appearance and in its relation to narrative pace: each successive frame reveals the extent to which Dave’s beard has grown since the previous frame, so the reader is left in no doubt that the beard grows in a matter of seconds. 


TGBTWE has much in common with utopian narratives: a seemingly perfect world is actually a hideous nightmarish dystopia, because the humanity has been wrenched out of it. In Huxley’s Brave New World the people are controlled by sex and the happy-feel-good drug soma; in Orwell’s 1984 people are controlled by terror and lies. In TGBTWE the people have become like the robots in the last of the Wright/Pegg/Frost Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End. As is usually the case in utopian fiction, there is no room for art or artistic expression. Dave, the man who liked to spend his evenings with his pencils and his sketchpad, is the artist for whom there is no place in Here, the man who asked what it was that his company actually did (and didn’t get an answer), the man who suspects that the reason for the apparently meaningless routine is fear. The invasion of Here takes the form of a beard in a world of clean-shaven men and Dave always had that small, tough hair that would not be plucked, razored or waxed. 

Why isn’t this wonderful book in my Top Five? I wish it could be, I really do, but I thought I was pushing it by lumping Tintin and Asterix together at #2. If I’d put this together with Gemma Bovery as I wanted to, then I would have been giving myself carte blanche to include as many books as I liked in the Top Five, and that’s cheating. So I’m afraid TGBTWE has to remain outside the Top Five as an also-ran, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t beg, borrow or steal your own copy right away. You could even buy one. Make sure you have a box of tissues nearby when you read it, however, because it’ll make you a bit weepy. Happy reading!