Cedar Grove Publishing continues to produce intriguing books that focus on diversity, in both writers and subjects. After books like The Soul of Harmony, Fast Pitch and Pin Drop, Cedar Grove’s latest offering is Sycorax’s Daughters, a horror anthology written by African-American women.
Sycorax is the mother of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but she’s never seen in the play. Despite this erasure, Sycorax’s presence permeates the story: the powerful witch who was banished while pregnant; through whom Caliban claims the island belongs to him; whose memory is used by Prospero to keep Ariel in line. These male characters speak for her in The Tempest, but in this anthology, Sycorax is given a voice.
But this anthology is more than interpretations of the legacy of a silenced African woman – it’s deeply informed by a history of real life horrors. From the forward by Walidah Imarisha:
“for Black people and other people of color, the history of slavery, genocide, white supremacy, and colonialism is the only true horror story, and it is one we continue to live every day…”
Regina N Bradley’s story ‘Letty’ is the best written and most chilling of the stories that visibly stem from this influence, but Sycorax’s Daughters contains other poems and stories to give you the creeps. Cherene Sherrard’s ‘Scales’ is a more satisfying examination of a little mermaid myth than Disney could provide, and Nicole D. Sconiers’ ‘Kim’ has a robust energy that makes it a favourite. ‘Summer Skin’ by Zin E. Rocklyn is suitably flesh-crawling, and the unusal cadances of Kiini Ibura Salaam’s ‘The Malady of Need’ linger. Tenea D. Johnson’s ‘Foundling’ takes a science fiction approach and shows a less supernatural kind of horror.
As always, some stories work better than others for me, and every reader will have their own favourites. But every story is an insight, and it’s given me a new list of writers to look out for.
The series has come out as a celebration on the 400th anniversary of the Bard of Avon’s death. Each story is set in the worlds he created, borrowing characters and settings from different stories and exploring issues like identity, love, trust and fate.
The novellas have been universally brilliant.
I have just finished the final book of the series, On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes, and I’m delighted to report that it’s just as superb as the first two, and indeed the next two.
To quickly get us up to date, I reviewed 3 and 4 on Goodreads as follows:
The Unkindest Cut (#3) by Emma Newman
Another strong segment of the Monstrous Little Voices series, bringing in plot points and elements from the preceding two. Innocence and trust come to treachery, and prophesies prove tricksy as ever.
Even in the Cannon’s Mouth (#4) by Adrian Tchaikovsky
This fourth novella of five in the Monstrous Little Voices series ramps up the drama, taking a host of characters from comedy romances – Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, As You Like It and All’s Well That Ends Well – and swirling the darkness of Hecate and Macbeth into the mix. The wars touched on increasingly in the previous novellas come much closer to the surface, and events from the other stories have more weight here too.
Here we have shipwrecks, women disguised as men, powerful magicians, noble prisoners and untrustworthy companions. The language is beautifully wrought, the plot as complex as any by Shakespeare, but with a clear and satisfying resolution that leads towards the last book of the series. I can’t wait!
And lo! the last book came out, and I had to wait a little, though I didn’t like to, and here is my review of it.
On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes
I’ve not often been a fan of second person in fiction – the ‘you do this, you feel that’ format can feel a bit forced. But I have to say, Jonathan Barnes’s choice to use it here, putting you in the shoes and heart and mind of William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, is inspired.
We know relatively so much about Shakespeare you see, and if you love his work, you have a kind of relationship with him. So from the start, the reader is placed in a particular juxtaposition with how Anne (and how we) feel about Shakespeare, as well as how we feel about love, marriage, life and loss.
This final story introduces us to Anne and her husband William – the man who never left Stratford, who never went to the theatre, who never wrote all those plays we loved. It also introduces us to a multiverse – where our playwright Shakespeare exists in one reality, and the realities of where all the other Shakespeares that might have been also live.
Of course, all of this is learned through Anne’s eyes as she… as you… as we see our husband leave in the company of strange yet strangely familiar men, members of a mysterous Guild, to fight some war that is nebulous. Life is filled with foreboding portents, and our son Hamnet, who has not dreamed since the illness that nearly killed him, begins to have prophetic dreams.
Barnes’s use of ‘you’ is clear yet subtle. He dictates to us our feelings and our fears, but it is done with such delicacy, such care and such sorrow, that when the battle comes to our very door, I had tears in my eyes for Anne’s/Will’s/my/our great sacrifice.
The return to third person for the final chapter – the twelfth night – is completely in keeping with the plot and the denouement of the 11th night… so when a final reminder and reference to the recent past is made, I had another strong, emotional response.
On the Twelfth Night is a fine finale to a series of excellent novellas exploring humanity, love, and redemption. And these storeies all happen within the worlds made for us by William Shakespeare, the playwright commonly acknowledged as the man who helped us understand so much of the complexity of what it is to be human, which is the reason his plays have survived for 400 years beyond his death.
2016 marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, and Abaddon Books is celebrating with the publication of five novellas set in the faerie worlds of Shakespeare, with characters both well-known and new.
The five interconnected stories are being published as e-books throughout the first quarter of the year, and will be released as a print volume.
I discovered this series because the first novella is by Foz Meadows, who announced the release of Coral Bones on social media, and I pounced.
So far, two of the novellas are out – and if this is how Monstrous Little Voices starts, the next three novellas are going to be fantastic.
Book 1: Coral Bones by Foz Meadows
Coral Bones leads the charge, telling the story of what happened to The Tempest‘s Miranda after marrying the first man she ever met and being taken to a foreign court.
Miranda is even more oppressed at court than she ever was on the island. Instead of being manipulated (and made to sleep and forget against her will) by her father, she is now neglected by Ferdinand and mocked by his court for her unworldliness. Fortunately, Ariel is still her friend.
Between flashbacks showing their relationship, and Miranda’s present escape towards Illyria in the company of Puck, Meadows explores concepts of identity: both those imposed by others’ expectations and the struggle to express one’s own often changing and even fluid sense of self.
Meadows’ command of language in this story is gorgeous. It has cadences of Shakespeare without ever feeling like pastiche or at all clumsy. There’s elegance and beauty, humour and heartbreak, throughout. The wider negotiations of faerie, and the eternal torrid clashes between Tatiana and Oberon inform the plot, but for once, Miranda gets to make her own choices.
It’s a splendid start to Monstrous Little Voices.
Book 2: The Course of True Love by Kate Heartfield
If Coral Bones is a strong start, The Course of True Love takes the energy and pulls the series into an excellent second act. Here, the aging witch Pomona stumbles across a fairy garden and its glamoured prisoner: Vertumnus, the mortal Indian boy Tatiana raised and fought with Oberon over in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now grown to venerable adulthood.
With her loyalties pulled in several directions – towards Duke Orsino, towards Hecate and Tatiana, even towards Sycorax and Caliban – Pomona’s actions see her and Vertumnus caught at the crux of an impending war between Duke Orsino, urged on by his wife Viola (Twelfth Night), and the fairy king, Oberon. Naturally, Tatiana has a hand in it.
Like Meadows, Heartfield explores notions of identity, as well as personal integrity. Of course, where fairies are involved, the resolution is likely to be both terribly complex and really very simple, and the reader is as suprised as the characters by the charming and clever denoument.
Both of these novellas are striking, beautifully written and wonderfully constructed, giving us views of a combined Shakespearean world where the courts of Tatiana and Oberon interact with human affairs. Miranda and Pomona – and even fairy folk like Puck and Vertumnus – seek self-understanding, purpose, and a place to belong where they can be their whole selves.
In short, these stories carry on the work of William Shakespeare – telling us ways of being human, with flair, elegance, and wit.
I can’t wait for 5 February, and the release of the third book in the series.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of those plays so dense with ideas that you can easily see a dozen of them and get a different experience each time. Should Hamlet be young? He’s still at university, after all. Ah, but the gravedigger says of Yorick, “this skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years”, and Hamlet remembers the jester from when he was a boy – so he must be almost thirty, at least?
That’s a prosaic question among many. Is Hamlet mad, feigning madness or something in between? Did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ever understand their role or deserve their fate? Was Claudius merely a greedy, self-indulgent opportunist or a cold-hearted, manipulative bastard who was out to rob Hamlets Senior and Junior of the kingship from the start? How implicated is Gertrude and does Ophelia have any agency at all, when her death is reduced to her brother and her boyfriend having a graveyard pissing contest over who loved her more, when nobody loved her enough to care about her opinions or fate when she was alive?
I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets, on stage and screen, adapted and in Shakespeare’s original texts (and there are a couple of different versions of those). I’ve seen them edited down, done with the whole shebang, performed in modern dress, in period dress, in mixed costuming, though not yet nude. (Give it time, though, give it time.)
All is by way of saying that I have a lot of Hamlets under my belt, and this production at the Barbican, directed with confidence and a grand vision by Lyndsey Turner, was one of the very best I’ve ever seen.
The production itself closed on 31 October and will in a week or two come to cinema screens as part of the National Theatre Live program. If you don’t want spoilers about the production or my musings on the text (which may still be spoilerific for some – after all, everyone sees it for the first time some time) you might want to bookmark this for later.
First up is the astonishing set, which reveals itself in stages and then becomes a canvas for the set and lighting design to splash the fate of Denmark upon it. The first thing we see, actually, is Hamlet sitting on the floor in front of a dropped flat. He’s listening to Nature Boy on a record player, going through possessions in old tea chests and experience a small, private moment of loss. In that small moment we meet a grieving son. Soon after, that curtain rises and we are greeted with the vast hall of a royal mansion: two storeys high with a massive staircase, ballustrades, great doors and almost cavernous. You wonder how on earth that space can be filled.
It’s a sudden shift from the individual to the wider world, and of course the royal hall is more than just the palace of Elsinore – that space is Denmark, bounded in a nutshell and the director and her cast have no trouble filling it at all. In face, after the banquet scene, the back of it opens up so that it become still larger yet! And never once is there a sense that the actors are swimming in emptiness (unless, of course, that is the point of the scene). Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet makes particularly good use of this ‘little Denmark’ – his energy in racing from point to point is beautifully contrasted each time he stops and becomes a still centre for thought and introspection.
At key points, the lighting paints decay on the walls – the something rotten in the state of Denmark clearly something emanating from the palace.
And that something, it is eventually proven, is Claudius himself. I’ve enjoyed Ciaran Hinds’ work immensely in the past – he combines fantastic gravitas (he was Julius Caesar in the Rome series) with very human flaws. I’ve seen so many versions of Claudius where he is a bit on the soft side, an apparently affable man who let ambition overtake his duty and now he can’t believe his luck that he got a kingdom and a deliciously saucy wife to boot. When the truth is uncovered at last, this kind of Claudius makes desperate plans to protect himself.
Hinds’ Claudius is a planmaker, all right, but he’s no weaker younger brother who took an oppportunity and ran with it. This Claudius’s true colours are pretty much black to the bone – genuinely dangerous, genuinely threatening and, as a result, a brilliantly dark and, for me, refreshing take on a character I thought was familiar. At the end of the first half of the play, the palace explodes with black confetti, as though Claudius’s determination to ensure Hamlet is killed is the bursting of a particularly nasty foulness – and it infects the whole set. The second half is a scorched Elsinore, a blackened battlefield of a Denmark, ruined long before Fortinbras arrives. This is a Denmark deeply infected by corruption from the top, and when Hamlet returns, apparently relieved of his almost feverish madness, it’s only to find everyone else fretful with rage and their own kind of fevered wildness.
Sian Brooke’s Ophelia is also a treat. The character never has much agency and is pushed around or ignored by pretty much everyone, even after she dies. This Ophelia is nervy, sweet but socially awkward, looking at the world through the filter of her camera. Strangely, although she seems to keep an arm’s length away from people with that intervening camera, it also means that she sees more than others do, too. Her mad scene is played to convey that extremely well, and it is only then that Claudius really pays attention to her – when she says something that indicates she knows what he’s done. Soon after this, when Gertrude realises what Ophelia has buried in her delirium-fed funeral for her murdered father, Ophelia’s distress and her imminent fate hit chillingly hard.
Then, of course, there’s Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Given the hype surrounding his casting and the speed with which tickets sold out for the run, a year in advance, it was always going to be a challenge for him to live up to the expectations.
Fortunately, he not only lived up to them, but exceeded them. His Hamlet is complex and moving, from that first moment we see him as a grieving son to his last breath of a man finally embracing the ‘felicity’ of escaping what is to him an malevolent world. In between, he is melancholy, funny, sly, furious, bemused, child-like, unreasonable, wounded, heartbroken and enraged. He uses every inch of the stage when it’s right to use it, and commands stillness when stillness best tells Hamlet’s tale. He has an incredible physicality and grace – whether clambering all over the banquet table for a soliloquy or waltzing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he accuses them of playing him like a pipe. With Lyndsey Turner’s direction, Cumberbatch wrings every conflict and every contradiction out of the role, and delivers a superbly textured, engaging, comedic and deeply tragic prince.
For all I sing his praises, the fact is he is supported by a truly excellent cast. Along with those already mentioned, there’s Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildenstern (Rudi Dharmalingam) who really do feel like they’ve known him from childhood; Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) who personifies being the opposite in every way of Hamlet as a son; and a Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) who seems happy to turn a blind eye as long as she still has a nice frock. Karl Johnson even does a marvellous job at being an opposite of himself as both the Ghost and the Gravedigger – as grim and disturbing in the former as he is wickedly funny in the latter.
I am so familiar with this play, but so much of this production felt fresh, its approach highlighting aspects of character and text in new ways.Benedict Cumberbatch is part of an ensemble of excellence, from the whole cast and the director to every backdrop, every soundscape, every costume and every line. Lyndsey Turner and her team should be rightly proud of themselves for bringing their grand vision to life in ways still so emotionally direct and personal.
This may not be the definitive Hamlet – with a play this layered, I don’t know that there will ever be such a thing – but it is a consummate Hamlet and well worth the seeing. Which I’m going to do again, in the National Theatre Live screening next week.