“the awful truth – and it is awful, in both senses of the word – is that the response most great drama asks of us is neither “yes please” nor “no thanks” but “you too?”
- David Edgar.
This week I went to see Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. It is probably my favourite Shakespeare play and one I’m surprised hasn’t been given the big screen treatment more often, or more recently. The play is brimming with potential for cinematic landscapes and bloody action, has one of the most compelling husband and wife relationships in dramatic fiction and is the paciest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, being less burdened with distracting sub-plots than many others (I understand that his subplots echo and support their play’s wider themes, but most of the time my heart sinks when we go to a Portia scene in The Merchant of Venice).
This production took great advantage of the opportunities the play presents and I would thoroughly recommend it. This particular interpretation pushes the title role forward to a slightly more dominant position, reducing the influence Lady Macbeth has over him. This is a shame in one sense because it side-lines the brilliant Marion Cotillard, but it is a logical decision justified by the specific theme they are exploring; Macbeth’s masculine rage and paranoia seemingly caused by post-traumatic-stress-disorder.
Placing greater weight on Macbeth’s individual plight also furthers his position as a classic antihero. The tension that normally exists between husband and wife (a power-play of gender politics and notions of masculinity) becomes something of a more traditional (though nonetheless fascinating) study of an individual’s anti-heroism; that is of a selfish man indulging in a dark attraction to an immoral desire, in Macbeth’s case the thirst for power.
Despite its period setting, the film seemed to be a very modern take on the tragedy and highlighted two very current 21st century issues. There is a very strong suggestion that Macbeth is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a blinding fundamentalism. The latter ultimately proves to be his downfall; the pivotal moment when Macduff reveals that he was “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb comes as Macbeth has him pinned at knifepoint. Macbeth is in a position of utter dominance and is one simple blow away from victory, yet this revelation triggers his fundamental and blinding faith in the witches prophecy. Fundamentally believing he is doomed by their prophecy (despite the opposite being evidently true) he retracts his blade, giving Macduff the opportunity to make the decisive blow.
Watching this film and considering Macbeth as an antihero I was reminded of TV producer, script editor and former head of the BBC Writer’s Academy John Yorke’s words in his brilliant book on storytelling Into the Woods. In his opening chapter Yorke states that, “our favourite characters are the ones who, at some silent level, embody what we all want for ourselves: the good, the bad and the ugly too.”
One of the key reasons for the endurance of Macbeth is that watching somebody sate their ruthless thirst for power is incredibly rewarding, allowing us a guilty snapshot of what might happen if we were ever to approach life in a similar manner. For the same reason antihero stories are moral tales, invariably showing us what would happen if we did give in to our dark urges, helping us understand why we shouldn’t. As Yorke later writes “the assimilation of darkness...is crucial to growth”.
Highlighting the dark side of the human psyche is something playwright Simon Stephens is also fond of. In a 2010 Scotsman interview about his play Punk Rock he said that “what Pornography, Punk Rock and T5 share is the seductive nature of transgression. It's the fear one has when holding a baby of deliberately dropping them, when on the edge of train track of jumping in front of it just to see what it's like. These possibilities are constantly there for everybody".
Anybody under any doubt about the allure of the dark side of our psyche need only look at the popularity of the Grand Theft Auto computer games, pornography or metal, hip-hop and punk music. All are forms of media that elicit pleasure in us by allowing us a safe method of indulging our darker urges. Opponents of brave, dark and edgy storytelling are dismissed by Yorke when he writes that “politically correct drama feels as anaemic and unmoving as agitprop...Censorship removes psychological truth and replaces it with denial, with wish-fulfilment – propaganda...Pretending that the world isn't cruel, as Bruno Bettelheim argues in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, may be far more damaging for children than showing that it is”.
By indulging in the darkness of Macbeth’s character and placing him as the central antihero in an exploration of PTSD and fundamentalism Kurzel has fit this production perfectly into the current 21st century fascination with antihero in popular storytelling. Antiheros have always been a staple of drama (theatre and cinema history is littered with them) but the past 15 years has seen them receive an increased prominence, particularly since that most democratic storytelling medium – television – has started to get in on the act.
Since 2000 TV Drama (particularly – but not exclusively – the American variety) has matured and morphed into a powerful art form, bringing the aesthetics of the cinema and intellectual depth of the theatre into living rooms around the world. Television is now the medium of choice for some of the world’s very best writers, directors, actors and other key creatives. While celebrating The Wire in 2006 the New York Times wrote that “if Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch “The Wire,” unless, that is, he was already writing for it”. That this quote was written without any hint of irony or hyperbole is testament to the quality of post-millennial TV drama.
A significant number of the most successful shows of this period have been dark studies of dastardly antiheros (The Sopranos, The Wire, Dexter, Breaking Bad and House of Cards being five highlights but there are many others). Writer of Difficult Men (a study of antiheroic protagonists in US TV Drama) Brett Martin suggests that one of the reasons for this is the nature of the medium; “When you have the time to tell a 13-hour, 26-hour, 39-hour story, when you don't have to end artificially, that lends itself to serious work…I think there's something innate in television--the open-endedness--that makes it suited to evolve as long as the show can sustain, and that necessitates a dark view of life", but also indicates that the industry was in a kind of perfect storm with the industry experiencing "a confluence of business, technological, and artistic currents".
If Kurzel's reading of Macbeth is a comment on the modern issues of PTSD and fundamentalism then I believe two of the most successful recent antihero dramas – Breaking Bad and House of Cards – are equally commentaries on their own modern issues.
In witnessing the transformation of Walter White from Mr. Chips to Scarface (which was creator Vince Gilligan’s initial intention for the show) we are watching the classic capitalist rags-to-riches tale subverted to reflect the drugs trade. As Walter, in the form of alter-ego Heisenberg, abandons more and more of his morals and scruples and throws himself ever deeper into his work we see an example of how the capitalist system we live in rewards amoral, unflinching dedication to selling a product. If you are able to completely discard compassion, sympathy and morals, then there is no limit to the money you can make in this world.
As the harsh realities of living a selfish and greedy life hit home, the audience’s sympathy for Walter is pushed further and further, until it reaches breaking point. It is interesting to listen to when audience members turned on him and started to root for his downfall; for me it was as late as the final season. The episode Ozymandias in that season is one of the show’s most impressive and hard-hitting, complete with gut-wrenching revelations and utterly horrible consequences. TV critic Maureen Ryan wrote that one of the goals of the episode was to “rub our noses in the true nature of the guy we've been following for five seasons… It was ugly to witness Walt terrifying his family, easily accessing the tyrant of that phone call and kidnapping his own daughter. But we have to look at it. All of it.”
As Walter’s world starts to unravel and he spirals towards his inevitable self-created demise we are shown via the dramatic device of an antihero how submitting ourselves resolutely to the capitalist system will lead us to a sticky end. Throughout the show this antihero allowed us to gleefully indulge in our own dark impulses and here we are learning why these impulses should not be acted on. TV critic Todd VanDerWerff identifies this; “Breaking Bad became more brazenly about what it means to care only about yourself, to leave behind ideas of connection and community in favor of material ends. It was the embodiment of the old idea of “I’ve got mine, so fuck you,” taken to its logical extreme”
So for Breaking Bad using the narrative device of an antihero allows it to attack the modern capitalist individualistic mindset that developed throughout the 20th century and became prominent in the 1980s and 1990s. This context is essential to the story that unfolds, as VanDerWerff describes; "Breaking Bad first aired in 2008, on the cusp of the Great Recession...It is steeped in a world where some people were getting lots and lots and lots, and other people were continually getting stiffed. And in those circumstances, is it any wonder that somebody might reach out and take what he felt was rightfully his?"
If Kurzel’s Macbeth uses the antihero device to explore the ideas of PTSD and fundamentalism, and Breaking Bad uses it to explore the idea of individualism in a capitalist system, then I believe House of Cards uses it to explore public distrust in government figures.
In House of Cards Machiavellian congressmen Frank Underwood plots a dastardly rise through the echelons of US government with the ultimate goal of eventually becoming President of the United States. Along the way he displays cunning, guile and ruthless pragmatism (the latter being a trait he is very proud of) and weaves his way round any number of opponents in government, business and the press. His methods become increasingly extreme and immoral until he is toeing the line between antihero and straight out-and-out villain.
In fact, Frank Underwood’s actions become so extreme that - a few episodes into season 3 - I'm finding it harder and harder to suspend my disbelief. Disbelief in just how evil he is, in the fact that he has found an equally evil wife and in how blind or powerless his political colleagues are in the face of his dirty tactics. I’ve started to view it as a bleak satire of public opinion, a deliberately exaggerated manifestation of our paranoia and distrust in government officials, played almost completely straight (Kevin Spacey’s fourth-wall breaking moments aside). We think so little of politicians today that even the most dangerously criminal behaviour is believable to us, despite its over the top ridiculousness. In discussing whether Underwood should be considered an antihero or a villain NPR writer Eric Deggans points out that “like Shakespeare's Richard III, House of Cards entices us with its lead character's bad deeds, then refuses to tell us how we should feel once we've seen them…But the scariest revelation of all is that we're so excited by this antihero turned villain in the first place.”
Frank Underwood is a compelling antihero for the same reason that conspiracy theories hook people; it creates a strangely soothing image of a more organised world than the one we live in. The idea of an evil schemer at the head of government is preferably to the infinitely more terrifying truth; that we are rarely in control of the world around us and our politicians are slaves to chaos and circumstance.
However, rather than sedating us and leaving us desensitised to political misdeeds I believe it gives us a more realistic and truthful perspective on the inner-workings of our governments. By seeing our paranoia played out and followed through to extreme ends we experience catharsis and are cleansed of the excess worry. We return to the real world with our perspective and expectations realigned, still wary of what politicians are capable of, but some of the unhelpful hyperbole removed. In the introduction to Malcolm Heath's translation of Aristotle’s Poetics he describes catharsis as a process that “gets rid of an emotional excess and thus leaves the emotion in a more balanced state, mitigating the tendency to feel it inappropriately…From an Aristotelian point of view any process that restores one to a natural or healthy state is pleasurable".
I have found considering the reasons for the prevalence of antihero tales in modern storytelling to be something of a rabbit hole; the longer I think about it the more reasons I can think of. We live in a drastically unequal world that doesn't follow any notion of "fair"; there is no meritocracy. Most of us are aware of this but have no idea what we can do about it. The only thing that seems within our grasp is the ability to live our own lives with dignity and grace. Antihero stories showing people straying from this moral path and (usually) coming to a sticky end seem like a safe "best of both worlds" solution. We get the satisfaction of allowing antiheros to indulge our dark imaginations AND the moral high-ground of returning to our everyday lives where we can still be appalled by them. The experience is something like waking up from a thrilling but appalling dream where crimes were committed in the dead of night, but our minds are cleansed and our moral compasses realigned by the time we awake. As the playwright David Edgar says, “the awful truth – and it is awful, in both senses of the word – is that the response most great drama asks of us is neither “yes please” nor “no thanks” but “you too?”
(A brief roundup of the media I'm currently consuming).
I'm working away this week on Gaslight at the Royal & Derngate theatre. I last worked with director Lucy Bailey, designer William Dudley and actress Tara Fitzgerald on the RSC's 2013 production of The Winter's Tale and I am looking forward to working with everyone again.
...I’M LISTENING TO:
This album is a funny one. I bought it last week and have given it four listens and I do like it, but can't help but find it a little flat and disappointing, lacking the strength of the Amaryllis and The Sound of Madness albums. There are a few very catchy radio-rock tracks here; opening duo Asking For It and Cut the Cord being the highlights, but overall I think their sound has been a little watered down by playing with production-heavy electronic sounds. Some of this album sounds like it could have been made by Imagine Dragons, which I don't entirely dislike because I like Imagine Dragons, but I'd prefer to hear the soulful arena-rock bombast I came to expect from Shinedown. Songs like State of My Head are very catchy on record, but I can't imagine how these will work live without sapping the energy from the set. Oh and Black Cadillac is another fun track, but when it opened I seriously thought I was listening to a Robbie Williams song!
As with last week, another book about writing. This time it's the 2013 book from the former head of the BBC Writers Academy John Yorke. It's a brilliantly thorough study of storytelling and a great cross-examination of all of the "writing guru" texts that have preceded it. He doesn't pull any punches in tearing apart the overly-prescriptive, vague or no longer relevant advice found in many other books and cherry picks all of their gems of wisdom to put together a great resource, His closing chapters that go beyond the "how" of storytelling and into the "why" are particularly illuminating.