Tuesday 24 April 2018

Cheat read: Macbeth by Shakespeare

Tragedy/Supernatural: Written between 1599 and 1606, probably in London

Michael Fassbender in Macbeth
Michael Fassbender in Macbeth
Splinter the Silence by Val McDermid.
The Splendid Years
The Story of My Teeth
Girls will be Girls
After Birth

Hilary a white

The rundown: Macbeth, a Scottish general, is surveying the battlefield following victory over foreign armies when he encounters three witches who prophesise that he will become Thane Of Cawdor and eventually King. Initially bemused, Macbeth starts to be eaten away by the witches’ visions after the Thane of Cawdor is hanged for treason and the King bestows the title on him.

His conflict is brought to the boil when King Duncan pays a visit to Macbeth’s castle and his conniving other half Lady Macbeth eggs him on fiercely. He murders Duncan and frames it on his guards who he also kills that night. Duncan’s sons flee as Macbeth assumes the throne. With power secured, he turns to pal Banquo, who also met the witches that day. According to them, Banquo’s lineage could be a threat so Macbeth kills him too.

Need  to know Yesterday marked 400 years since the birth of Shakespeare, less a man than a cultural institution of the English language. Macbeth – referred to only as “The Scottish Play” by superstitious elements of the theatre industry — is the Bard at his darkest and most atmospheric.  Its themes — corruption v ambition, good v evil, character flaw v fate — have never gone away and lent Shakespeare’s shortest and arguably best play to constant re-adaptation on stage and screen ever since, from feudal Japan (Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 epic Throne of Blood) to gangland sagas in Mumbai, Melbourne and Chicago and even a Madagascan fishing village.

The End Duncan’s son Malcolm raises an army in England to head north and dethrone Macbeth. In the meantime, Macbeth revisits the witches who warn him of Macduff, a nobleman who opposed Macbeth’s ascent to power. After learning Macduff has fled to join Malcolm, Macbeth has his family murdered.

Lady Macbeth has succumbed to hysteria levels of guilt and finally commits suicide. Malcolm’s army arrives and Macduff kills Macbeth on the battlefield. However as Shakespeare hints in the play, it’s a tale doomed to repeat itself.

The verdict Back-stabbing (in its most literal sense), clanging swords and treacherous power-plays are not the invention of George RR Martin (as if it needed saying). In fact, it is hard to imagine Game of Thrones having such a foothold in modern culture without the trail blazed for it by Macbeth. Besides the obvious cut-throat intrigue, its heavy, supernatural undertow adds a delicious mystique to the saga. Nature is at once both placid and grotesque, phantom daggers are seen and ghosts sit down at the dinner table. Or maybe it’s all just Macbeth’s psychological demons pulling the strings?

Did you know? There was a real Macbeth who ruled Scotland happily for 17 years. As for the witches, they were a dramatic curtsy to new king James I at Macbeth’s opening night in 1606. James was obsessed with witches, having ordered a huge witch hunt in Scotland and written a treatise on witchcraft called Daemonologie. Historians believe his fixation is based on a near-fatal trip to Denmark in 1589 which he was convinced was cursed. 

Book reviews

Fiction: The Story of My Teeth

Valeria Luiselli, Granta,  €11.12

The Story of My Teeth

This delightfully quirky little book has just won the LA Times best book award in the Fiction category, an accolade it richly deserves. Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez “although people call me Highway” is an auctioneer living in Ecatepec, a poor and overpopulated suburb of Mexico city, and he’s intent on replacing his ugly teeth. He manages to do so, with those of Marilyn Monroe, which he’s bought at an auction in Florida (told you it was quirky).

He later sells off his own teeth one by one, in  what he calls a  “hyperbolic auction”, passing off each tooth as belonging to some great philosophical or literary figure in history, such as Plato, St Augustine, Petrarch, Jorge Luis Borges, even Virginia Woolf.  Soon after this auction, Highway is left completely toothless when he’s drugged and has his teeth (or Marilyn’s) extracted by his estranged son Siddhartha. This marks the beginning of Highway's decline.

The story behind this book is as enchanting and original as that within its covers. It is the result of a collaboration between Valeria Luiselli and the workers in Jumex, a juice factory on the outskirts of Mexico city, which uses its profits to house Mexico’s most prestigious contemporary art collection. Many cameos pop up, figures from ancient Greece up to the present day, and the lines between the real and the imaginary are, at times, hardly discernible. 

An afterword from the author, explaining how the book came into being, and a kind of linear map of the novel from the translator (it’s a true collaboration, in every sense), enhances the story, although I thought the afterword would have made a better introduction. Fans of Borges and Marquez will be enthralled. It is magical realism brought to an entirely different, accessible, space.

- Anne Cunningham

Fiction: After Birth

Elisa Albert, Vintage, €11.99

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After Birth

One year on since the birth of her baby and newish Jewish mother Ari is absolutely barking.  She and her husband have bought an old fixer-upper in upstate New York, but not trendy upstate, far from it. She’s now trapped in a “slaughtered corpse” of a town, in need of a decent coffee shop and a few interesting residents. Her husband commutes to work daily and she deals with the nappies and the nipples and the mess and the suspected racoon in the attic.  She admits she’s deeply depressed, but — to paraphrase Wilde — you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh. This book is riotously, manically funny.

- Anne Cunningham

Crime: Splinter The Silence

Val McDermid, Little Brown, €9.25

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Splinter the Silence by Val McDermid.

Val McDermid has been dubbed the queen of psychological thrillers. The title is well earned, too. She’s been producing novels of breakneck speed since the late 1980s. Splinter The Silence is her latest offering. One thing can be guaranteed: you won’t be able to stop reading. This is the ultimate page turner — even if the story is occasionally ridiculous.

Splinter The Silence follows Carol Jordan after her retirement as a detective. After receiving a charge of driving under the influence, Tony Hill, long-time friend and past lover, swoops in to help pull her life together. What follows is a cracking probe into a serial killer who hates women and sets their deaths up to look like suicides.

The novel is, for the most part, a lot of fun. It’s gripping, exciting, and just melodramatic enough for it to be childishly fun. It’s easy to empathise with Jordan’s character; she’s full of spirit and strength. Unfortunately, she’s overshadowed by an overload of supporting characters who contribute little to the story beyond plot development.

It’s also unfortunate that there is little psychological depth in the serial killer that Jordan and her team are trying to track down. His chapters are full of rhetoric — it feels more like McDermid is trying to make a point rather than offering any real insight here.

Despite this, you’re probably not reading a McDermid novel for its social critiques and developed characters. Splinter The Silence is all about the fun of the hunt. Even if it doesn’t break new ground, it’s still an entertaining and occasionally incisive read.

- Patrick Kelleher

History: The Splendid Years

Marie Nic Shuibhlaigh with Edward Kenny. Edited by David Kenny; New Island Books; €15.95

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The Splendid Years

This is an insider’s account of the formation of Ireland’s national theatre and of the momentous events that were the 1916 Rising, told by Maire Nic Shuibhlaigh (Walker), a veteran of both events.

She was one of the pioneers of the theatre and was in uniform at Boland’s Mill as a member of Cumann na mBan during that historic Easter week.

There is some record straightening on just what role WB Yeats played in the birth of the national theatre, as well as a poignant account of the impact on Nic Shuibhlaigh of the execution of her close friend, Eamonn Ceannt. There is also an apt insight into how nationalism expressed itself through politics and the arts at that time, and how these dovetailed and complemented one another.

This is an account of major historical events but is also rich in entertaining vignettes that allow the reader access to the larger social and cultural world that was Ireland just after the turn of the last century.

For instance, the account of a trip to perform in Loughrea, Co Galway, as part of the local priest’s fundraising campaign to build a cathedral for the town shows at once the power and patronage of the Catholic Church at that time.

“Our appearance had been announced from the altar for a week before we arrived, and as an extra precaution a special fleet of bell ringers...was engaged to work the surrounding area.”

The Splendid Years, first published in 1955, was withdrawn by Edward Kenny because he was unhappy about elements of that publication. Fast forward more than half a century and his son, David Kenny, has restored this richly dense account of the tumultuous events that surrounded the birth of the national theatre and the nation itself.

- Barbara Clinton

Gender: Girls Will Be Girls

Emer O’Toole, Orion Books, €10.99

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Girls will be Girls

I am always wary of books promoted as ‘laugh out loud humour’. However here’s an exception. Girls Will Be Girls is now out in paperback, and if you missed it first time round, it will be well worth it for Emer O’Toole’s funny, wise and thoughtful examination of gender stereotypes and how they are still deeply rooted in contemporary society.

As a young woman, I read The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. I often wish I hadn’t. It was an older woman’s fight against her American middle-class marriage. Mira, solved her crisis by divorcing, getting into Harvard and earning a doctorate in English. Easy. 

Emer O’Toole is from the west of Ireland, her mother did all the work at home, the men sat back. Such was O’Toole’s awakening of the gender divide.

Her book is largely autobiographical, from school drama queen to a doctorate in theatre studies and embracing her gender identity along the way.  The furore provoked by her appearance on television with underarm hair is just one of many illustrative  anecdotes.

Having only raised sons, I can say that boys are also codified by what they wear, say, whether they are sporty or uncoordinated.

Gender confusion adds to the quagmire of negotiating this competitive world. O’Toole’s book is an Irish perspective on Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman. While O’Toole writes from a personal and academic viewpoint, her theatre experience lends wit to her thesis.

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