This week, the 61st Eurovision Song Contest, more affectionately Eurovision, will be broadcast to a global audience (including for the first-time a live telecast in the United States) with 42 countries competing in a series of semi-finals before the final, live show on 14 May. Established in 1956 as part of the then-fledgling European Broadcast Union, the contest has continued to grow in popularity and some would argue in cultural significance (Eurovision is the object of numerous scholarly works on spectacle, European identity, the nation-state, globalization – you name it). The contest has been rife with controversy in many years, often of a political nature, so much so that voting rules for this year’s contest has changed to reduce the influence of national “alliances” in favor of juries. Even with these changes, there are still some looming events that hang over this year’s broadcast, whose theme – “Come Together” – emphasizes the need for community.
Certainly, the attacks in Paris and Brussels, especially the former’s primary location being a concert, brought a sense of global solidarity in their wake and reinforced the notion of cultural solidarity in the face of terrorism. This year’s French entry – Amir’s “J’ai Cherche” – speaks to this notion of solidarity, as Amir himself grew up in the infamous French suburb Sarcelles in a Tunisian-Moroccan Jewish family. His song is a combination of French and English, the two official languages of the contest, and the words of this love song speak to the healing power of togetherness. Amir’s story and song symbolize the unity that Eurovision represents in many ways, and France is one of the favorites to win this year, which would be its first win since 1977, perhaps bolstered by sentiment.
France’s stiffest competition comes from Russia, which has excelled at the contest in recent years, including a victory in 2008. In the past few years, however, the contest has become a method of critiquing Russian domestic and foreign policies, most notably in 2014 when the Tolmachevy Sisters were booed. The Russian entry for 2016, Sergey, is currently another favorite to win Eurovision, but attention is being drawn to Ukraine’s entry, Jamala’s “1944.” The song chronicles the deportation of the Crimean Tartars during the Second World War and draws further attention to Russia’s recent Crimean adventure. Despite some critiques from Russian and Crimean politicians about the song, Eurovision asserted that the song does not constitute political speech and is within competition rules. Predictions have Jamala as a top-ten finisher but reception of the song will likely reflect to the continued contention concerning politics in the contest and how Eurovision attempts to define pop songs in a distinctive, commercial way.
Lastly, the British referendum on 23 June that will allow Britons to vote on whether to leave the European Union and the political and economic anxieties that the potential “Brexit” has engendered may play out in the contest. The British have long had an uneasy relationship with Eurovision characterized by a hostility that Karen Fricker has noted harmonizes with the broader Euroskepticism that defines elements of populist British politics. The UK most recently won in 1997 with an entry by Katrina and the Waves, whose biggest commercial success came 12 years earlier with “Walking on Sunshine”. Since then, the British have has several last place finishes but nevertheless continue to compete as part of the “Big Five” nations who automatically reach the Eurovision final. The broadcast of Eurovision in the UK was long accompanied by the commentary of Terry Wogan, whose wry and ironic take characterized a humorous and often distained reading of Eurovision as reflecting the very different values of Europe from the UK. This year’s UK attempt, Joe and Jake (two former contestants on the television show the Voice, which has become a place to find Eurovision contestants throughout the continent), were selected through a BBC show that allowed viewers to participate in the nominating process. The duo is projected to finish in the middle of the pack but will larger fears about a British exit generate sympathy points to convince the Brits to stay? The 2003 nul vote against the British influenced by the UK’s support of the Iraq War suggests that Eurovision viewers do have a political approach to the allegedly apolitical contest.
Even as the UK decides on its future relationship with the EU, its cultural influence continues to resonate in the Eurovision, as several of this year’s acts model their musical style on successful British artists such as Adele, Sam Smith, and Amy Winehouse in their quest for the Eurovision prize. Indeed, the English language has become in essence the lingua franca of Eurovision (even France’s entry capitulated a bit with its English-language chorus). Eurovision cannot imagine a Europe without Britain, but will the UK take Eurovision seriously to consider its place in the “New” Europe? If the spirit of inclusion that has become part of the pageantry of the song competition cannot convince its members to remain a part of it (NB: a country does not have to part of the European Union to compete), what “Europe” does Eurovision then symbolize?
The portrait of Tolstoy currently on view at London’s National Portrait Gallery as part of the ‘Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky‘ exhibition shows the writer sitting at his desk, pen in hand, head bowed. Only six years after Anna Karenina was first published as a complete novel, Tolstoy had already cast aside his career as a professional writer in favour of proselytizing his ethics-based brand of Christianity. Ge’s 1884 portrait is an act of religious devotion by one of the writer’s first acolytes. He portrays Tolstoy dressed in black, his brow furrowed with concentration as he writes his first major tract, What I Believe, his mind clearly above such earthly and egotistical matters as posing and writing novels for commercial gain. Despite his new ascetic habits, Tolstoy never did quite become an anchorite. Another half dozen portraits would be completed over the course of the following three decades, including several by Ilya Repin, who reverently depicted his friend at the plough, in prayer, writing in spartan conditions, and sitting in lofty contemplation, like an Old Testament prophet.
Ge’s canvas of 1884 provides a stark contrast to Kramskoy’s more famous portrait of 1873, painted when Tolstoy had just begun Anna Karenina. In that portrait, in which Count Tolstoy looks out at us imperiously in his peasant shirt, he is every bit the ‘great writer of the Russian land’, as Turgenev would later define him. As an aristocrat also prone to snobbery, Tolstoy had initially refused point blank to have his portrait painted for Pavel Tretyakov’s gallery (Tretyakov’s merchant class status explicitly denoted his involvement with money), but he gave in when the wily Kramskoy approached him personally at home in Yasnaya Polyana. And in the end Tolstoy was so stimulated by their ensuing conversations during the sittings that he created the character of the artist Mikhailov in Anna Karenina. This enabled him to introduce overt discussions in the novel about art, portraiture and the role of the artist, and, on a more subliminal level explore the depiction, or rather objectification, of women. The portrait which Mikhailov paints of Anna is one of three separate paintings of her mentioned in the course of the novel, in which Tolstoy in compelling prose creates vivid portraits of diverse women from different walks of life to illustrate his exposition of their predicament in late nineteenth-century educated society.
In many ways, the directors who adapt works of literature for the screen are like portrait painters, in that they seek to present a coherent vision of a work of fiction in the concentrated space of a few hours’ viewing.From the beginning, pioneer film-makers wasted no time making screen versions of Tolstoy’s famous novels: cinematography was still in its infancy when the first adaptation of Anna Karenina was shown in 1911, only a year after Tolstoy’s death. Despite his calls for people to go back to a simple life of tilling the soil, Tolstoy was fascinated by technology, and was himself immortalized on celluloid on the occasion of his eightieth birthday in 1908 (although he was so famous by that time that many Russians remained convinced they were seeing an actor playing the great sage of Yasnaya Polyana). All the same, he would probably have taken a dim view of the twenty odd screen adaptations of Anna Karenina, not to mention the half dozen versions of War and Peace, which have followed.
Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic film of War and Peace (1966-1967) notwithstanding, it is the television adaptations of Tolstoy’s novels which have been the most successful, their more leisurely approach allowing for more chiaroscuro. There are many who still retain a great affection for the twenty-part series of War and Peace made by the BBC in 1972, but no doubt many more who share the view that the triumphant 2016 six-part BBC adaptation should have been much longer. The problem with cinematic adaptations of Tolstoy’s complex and richly-layered novels is that they run the risk of caricature. Feature films of Anna Karenina in particular have inevitably concentrated on Anna and Vronsky’s romance, at the expense of all the accompanying chapters designed to make us question the nature of relationships between men and women, while characters like the artist Mikhailov rarely even make it on to the drawing board. There is much to admire in Joe Wright’s spirited 2012 film, starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law, for example, but the very ambition to embrace so much of the novel produces mixed results.
The very best adaptations of Tolstoy’s fiction, whether for small or large screen, are those where the director has transposed the work into a quite different setting and time period. This is the case with Aleksey Balabanov’s superlative 1996 film Prisoner of the Caucasus, in which Tolstoy’s 1870 short story of imperial Russian conquest is updated to the current-day war in Chechnya. It is the case with Bernard Rose’s film Ivans xtc (2000), which updates The Death of Ivan Ilych by recasting the central character (a searing performance by Danny Huston) as a Hollywood agent diagnosed with terminal cancer. And it is spectacularly the case with The Beautiful Lie, a six-part television adaption of Anna Karenina made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2015, directed by Glendyn Ivin and Peter Salmon. The brilliance of Alice Bell and Jonathan Gavin’s screenplay, which effortlessly transfers the complexities of marital dysfunction in aristocratic late imperial Russia to modern-day Melbourne, transforming Anna and Karenin into tennis celebrities, Vronsky into an indie record producer, Levin into a country vet, and his brother into an alcoholic, is matched by the sensitive acting of a peerless cast (including Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Celia Pacquola, Sophie Lowe, Daniel Henhsall and Alexander England), and enhanced by a moving score. A typically heartwrenching scene has the tongue-tied Levin communicating his love for Kitty not with chalk on a card table, but with magnetic letters on a fridge. There are many other such deft touches as well as uncomfortable moments of truth which make us think continually of the novel, for once not in irritation at the liberties taken with Tolstoy’s text, but in wonder at the ingenious and perceptive ways in which it has been re-imagined, reinforcing its relevance to all our lives.
I’m 15 years old and I have just thrown up in the lavatory at the movie theater. Shaking too hard to reach the paper towels, I need to hide out there for the entire intermission of the third installment of Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic 1967 film adaptation of War and Peace. In its uncut version, the film is almost 9 hours long, requiring four separate screenings of almost 3 hours each, shown on two consecutive weekends of two nights each.
This is the first war film I have ever seen depicting in vivid colour and graphic close-ups, the chaos and brutality of the battlefield. I had grown up on Hollywood’s war with The Great Escape and Von Ryan’s Express. Despite the passage of almost 50 years, Bondarchuk’s “Battle of Borodino” episode still holds every record it broke in war film production. According to The Guinness Book of World Records, 12,000 men and 800 horses were used, the total cast of extras reaching 15,000. The aerial swooping cameras, swerving and dipping drone-like over interminable killing fields, were a cinematic innovation in 1968. The only thing comparable in my young viewing experience (and in the references of the film critics) was the camera pan over the Georgia-sun-baked and blood-soaked plaza, overlaid with miles of wounded begging for water and tugging at Scarlett O’Hara’s apron as she sought for the doctor to attend her cousin’s childbirth. But Gone with the Wind, in best Hollywood style, spared its pre-World War II audience: the camera panned backwards and away from the too painful vision of the wounded men as recognizable individuals, the bloody rags were minimally gory and moans were muted. Bondarchuk’s aerial investigation dove in for close-ups of every death and bloody encounter, forcing the audience to see each combat story in graphic detail, as Homer’s Iliad demands of its audience with every spear-thrust through the eye. We must recognize the destruction of a human being in every death, one after another through the chaos of hundreds and thousands killing and being killed, relentlessly, endlessly, ceaselessly. In the entire sequence, there is barely any dialogue. The Bondarchuk “Battle of Borodino” installment in its uncut version lasted 84 minutes, the equivalent of a feature length film.
In its spectacular display of the Red Army and the Red Cavalry, the episode was interpreted as one enormous cannon salvo fired at the height of the Cold War to vaunt the USSR’s military prowess. “It was a disgrace,” Bondarchuk complained, that “our national masterpiece” existed on film only in the Hollywood version by King Vidor. Highly acclaimed at the time, the 1956 American-Italian production was a valiant Cinema Luxe attempt, but necessarily did a hatchet job on the story lines to compress them into movie-house format. The low production values of the 1972 20-episode BBC adaptation, with a strangely Dostoevskian Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, lacked the budget for spectacular visuals.
CGI and other technological breakthroughs have advanced possibilities for the small screen, facilitating some of the stunning effects of the current BBC production, but its cinematographers remain deeply indebted to the Bondarchuk version, from Prince Andrei’s whirling gnarled oak tree to the aerial camera work on the battlefields. In the 1960s, making great masterpieces “relevant” was the industry mandate; currently, making them accessible to contemporary audiences is the BBC gold standard. Andrew Davies, once described as the “serial sexer-up” of costume drama, is true to form here in taking screen time to render explicit what was only a brief rumour of incest, or going full frontal in an effort to shock and recruit his audience. So in terms of sex and death, this most recent adaptation delivers. But does it get Tolstoy right?
Bondarchuk demanded of his film collective that, “first and foremost, we must enter into Tolstoy’s world,” “we must become Tolstoy’s comrades.” At the same time, the demands of Soviet Realism meant that Bondarchuk had to make Prince Andrei “our contemporary”– the New Soviet Hero. Although the filmmaker had more freedom during the Thaw and under Brezhnev than he might have done five years before, he still necessarily suppressed most of Tolstoy’s philosophical reflections on war and peasant uprisings. As a result, his scenario skimmed over Nikolai Rostov’s rescue of the mourning Princess Maria from rebellious peasants — a risky narrative in a culture that preferred to celebrate Tolstoy as the father of the Revolution.
The new BBC production arguably achieves something very strong by allowing Nikolai and Maria’s story to unfold completely. Usually submarined in film and television adaptations because his story “does not advance the action,” Nikolai Rostov has nonetheless been proposed by leading critics to be the real hero of War and Peace.
Readers of the work will appreciate what Davies has done to stage Tolstoy’s imagined version of his parents’ romance. These episodes have at last received a sustained cinematographic treatment in a beautifully filmed series of understated scenes played with simplicity and power. There is no one like Tolstoy for revealing the inner monologue of a man and a woman in a romantic encounter. The author tells us Nikolai and Maria are drawn to each other precisely because their every word and action instinctively displays restraint and sensitivity. Translating this kind of understatement to the screen is a challenge for the director and the players. And to Davies’ credit, Tolstoy’s theme of fate and individual freedom manifests here as well: never has Nikolai asserted his autonomy more forcefully than in resisting his mother’s pressure to marry an heiress, yet nowhere else in his narrative does apparently random chance effect such a momentous change in a character’s trajectory.
Davies has given us much to appreciate in his fidelity to Tolstoy’s portrayal of Nikolai Rostov, and the delicacy of his scenes with Princess Maria reminds us that, just as the visual spectacle of war could barely comprehend the meaning of each individual soldier’s death, so a dramatic scenario can only depict the surfaces of the characters’ inner world. Beyond the ballrooms and battlefield spectacles with their iconic scenes of Andrei’s ‘brave death’, it is the inner world of Nikolai Rostov that tells us most about the soldier’s experience of war. We must turn to Tolstoy’s writing for that. Fortunately, there should be plenty of time to read this great literary masterpiece through before the next adaptation makes it to the big screen.
Featured image: Still from Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 film of War and Peace.
Season Six of Game of Thrones is about to air. One of the great pleasures of watching the show is the way in which George R. R. Martin, the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and the show-producers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, build their imagined world from the real and imagined structures of medieval history and literature. I don’t know whether they have ever read the Poetic Edda, but it’s clear that the series’ conception of the North borrows many themes and motifs from Norse myth.
At the end of Season 4, Bran and his companions had finally located the Three-Eyed Raven, a frightening figure sitting in a dark cave far north of the Wall. His body is twined about with the roots of a tree; through his connection to this tangle he can see all that transpires through the sacred weirwoods of the North. The Raven is one-eyed; this, along with his connection with ravens and crows, and the tree system into which he is incorporated, link him suggestively with Odin.
Just as ravens, with their ‘dark wings’ bring ‘dark words’ throughout Westeros, so Odin gathers knowledge through his two ravens:
“Hugin and Munin fly every day
over the vast-stretching world;
I fear for Hugin that he will not come back,
yet I tremble more for Munin.” Grimnir’s Sayings, v. 20
Like the Three-Eyed Raven, Odin becomes one with the great world-tree Yggdrasill, on which he hangs himself as a sacrifice:
“I know that I hung on a windswept tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows where its roots run.” Sayings of the High One, v. 138
Thus Odin wins knowledge of the past, the present and of the future too. Although he and the other gods will perish at ragnarök (the end of the world), he also knows that his dead son Baldr will return in the new world. ‘All evil will be healed; Baldr will come’, says the Seeress’s Prophecy (v. 59). Does Odin also know of the return of the treacherously slain Jon Snow? I think so.
In Norse myth, wolves are dangerous beasts. So too are the direwolves of the world of Game of Thrones, except with the Stark children to whom they were given as pups; the direwolves become loyal pets. Nevertheless, when, as Theon notes, ‘there’s not been a direwolf sighted south of the Wall in two hundred years’, their appearance is a portent of the many disasters to come.
In the Poetic Edda, two cosmic wolves pursue the sun and moon through the sky, the offspring of the enormous wolf Fenrir who lies chained up until ragnarök. The gods challenged him to see if he could break the slender-looking bonds they brought to him. Smelling deception, Fenrir demanded that someone should place his hand as a pledge in the wolf’s great jaws. The gods hesitated – until Tyr stepped up. As the magic fetter tightened around the wolf’s mighty paws, the gods laughed in triumph. All except Tyr, whose hand was snapped off. Loki, Fenrir’s father, later taunts Tyr with his lack of even-handedness:
“Be silent, Tyr, you could never
deal straight between two people;
your right hand, I must point out,
is the one which Fenrir tore from you.” Loki’s Quarrel, v. 38
It’s easier to function as a one-handed god than a one-handed warrior though, as Jaime Lannister knows to his cost.
At ragnarök, the pursuing wolves will finally catch up with the heavenly bodies; the sun and moon will vanish from the sky:
“In the east sat the old woman in Iron-wood
and gave birth there to Fenrir’s offspring;
one of them in trollish shape
shall be snatcher of the moon.” Seeress’s Prophecy, v. 39
So too, the world in which Game of Thrones is set is heading for apocalypse. The White Walkers are on the march: ‘Cold winds are rising and the dead rise with them’, the Commander of the Night’s Watch reports to the Small Council in King’s Landing. The White Walkers with their powers of regenerating the dead are strongly allied to the forces of winter; their icy touch shatters metal and their faces are rimed with hoar-frost. Norse frost-giants are equally chilly beings: ‘the icicles tinkled when he came in: the old man’s cheek-forest [beard] was frozen’, we’re told in Hymir’s Poem (v. 10).
At the final battle, Loki, in alliance with frost-giants and Surtr the fire-giant, will advance upon Asgard, the home of the gods, and the world will sink beneath into the sea. There are still two seasons – or maybe more – of Game of Thrones to come, so it’s unlikely that ragnarök, the expected showdown between the dragons and the White Walkers, the forces of fire and ice, will occur this year. But the Seeress’s Prophecy gives us a foretaste of what it might be like. And in the meantime there’s all the intriguing ways in which the Poetic Edda’s distinctive world is reimagined in the show. From the Valhalla-like hall of the Iron-Born’s Drowned God, to the warging (shape-shifting) of the Stark children, from Valyrian steel swords to the Free Folk’s spear-wives and shield-maidens, the legendary North is always present.
Forever demanding new performers to interpret them for new audiences under new circumstances, and continuing to elicit a rich worldwide profusion of editions, translations, commentaries, adaptations and spin-offs, Shakespeare’s works have never behaved like unchanging monuments about which nothing new remains to be said. The histories of important theatre companies need almost continuous rewriting. Both Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, carried out some significant architectural self-reinvention between 2001 and 2015 and a fair few changes of artistic policy too. Current critics and artists move from bylines to obituaries in a sort of permanent melancholy background knell. (I remember adding ‘d.2000’ to the entry about Sir John Gielgud when the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare was just going to press; Alan Howard’s ‘d.2015’ just missed the deadline for the second.) Yet neither Stanley Wells nor I could have anticipated the extent of changes in the culture at large and to Shakespeare’s place within it within the last fifteen years.
While the last two decades have seen a boom in biographies of Shakespeare, there have been no major archival discoveries about his life, though if the Cobbe portrait (brought to fresh public attention in 2009) is genuinely a likeness of Shakespeare we may be able to make some new inferences about his interactions with the aristocracy (more of which were convincingly teased out of his poem ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ by James Bednarz in 2012). Recent theatre archaeology, meanwhile, notably at the site of the Theatre in Shoreditch (the main playing place of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men until they dismantled it and recycled its timbers to build the Globe in 1599), has tended to confirm earlier hypotheses rather than to overturn them. More attention is devoted to new Shakespearean theatres rather than old. These have included not just the remodelled Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford (2010) and the indoor, neo-Jacobean Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London (2014) but more novel structures elsewhere in the world. The remarkable Teatr Szekspirowski in Gdansk, Poland (2014), for example, a distant dream in 2001, can convert from being an indoor, seated, proscenium-arch venue to being an outdoor yard-based one (its shape based on that of the Fortune in London) thanks to its magnificent self-opening roof.
The worldwide attention given to the opening of Gdansk’s new Shakespearean playhouse, itself designed to serve a well-established and growing international Shakespeare festival, is one minor symptom of a much larger change in Shakespeare’s status. In 2015, to think about Shakespeare primarily as the cultural property of the British, or even to regard him solely as the supreme literary figure of Anglophone culture, seems parochial as never before. Although Shakespeare continues to benefit from the dominance of English as a world language, more people now speak English as a second or third language than as a first, and globally at least as many performances of Shakespeare are given in translation as are offered in his native tongue. (German-language productions in Germany, for instance, alone outnumber English-language productions in Britain and Ireland.) Geopolitically, this has produced a definite shift in the balance of power in Shakespearean performance and scholarship. The years since 2001, for instance, have seen the formal establishment of the European Shakespeare Research Association (2007), the foundation of the Asian Shakespeare Association (2014), and the inauguration of the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive (2010), a Singapore-based digital resource which provides online access to video recordings of a whole new wave of Shakespearean performances from Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and mainland China. (In 2015, tellingly, even the loyally Stratford-focused RSC is embarking on a project to foster a new, more actor-friendly translation of the plays into Mandarin.) These developments became visible even to those British theatregoers who never venture beyond London in 2012, when the Cultural Olympiad that accompanied the London Olympics chose a World Shakespeare Festival as its central feature, and Shakespeare’s Globe contributed by hosting visiting productions from all over the world – memorably advertised as ‘36 plays in 36 languages.’
If Anglophone live performance has had its centrality to the world’s engagement with Shakespeare challenged over the last two decades, then so has live performance itself. Film and television have continued to adapt and appropriate Shakespeare (in Britain, in Hollywood, and ever more visibly in India and the Far East too), while theatre audiences at mainstream performances by large companies are more and more likely to find themselves in the company of television cameras, as more productions are digitally streamed in real time to screens around the world in a curious 2-D hybrid between live theatre and the cinema. The physical book, and even the library, meanwhile, have been equally decentred. Nowadays ‘digital Shakespeare’ is more likely BuzzFeed quizzes, satirical memes, movie trailers, and live-performance tweets than specialist-content subscription sites in libraries.
Older scholars, then, have been fortunate to recruit those that, among their many other qualifications for the job, are significantly younger than us. It isn’t exactly that we feel ourselves to be closer to the Shakespeare of Richard Burbage and the First Folio than to that of Tom Hiddleston and YouTube, but it has been a definite advantage to have as colleagues brilliant commentators on 21st-century Shakespeare.