Monday, June 14, 2010

Hilary Mantel's Anne

I wonder if I would have been as gripped by Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which I just finished reading, if I wasn’t woman, more importantly, a married woman. After all, if I am truly honest, it wasn’t Mantel’s rags-to-riches account of Thomas Cromwell’s life that kept me going through the 650 pages without a stop. No, it was Mantel’s deliciously monstrous image of the husband-stealing Anne Boleyn that had me obsessively turning over the pages.

For those who spent 2009 on Planet Pluto, Wolf Hall was last year’s Man Booker prize winner. It is a semi-fictionalised account of the life of Thomas Cromwell, an English commoner who rose to become Henry VIII’s closed confidante as he conspired to replace his ageing, dumpy wife, Catherine of Aragon, with the bootylicious Anne Boleyn. As a fall-out of this tricky wife-swapping, England broke ties with Catholic Rome, reformed the Anglican Church and accredited Protestantism in England.

Mantel remained faithful to the chronology of the actions and events. However, she let loose her imagination when giving personalities to the different characters. And boy! Is her Anne Boleyn evil? She is cold and calculating about sex, deadly in exacting revenge, grasping about wealth (read: palaces, jewellery, and titles, especially if they belonged to Catherine of Aragon) and a master at scheming. In short, she is your Grade A Mistress-From-Hell. Even King Henry VIII is a tinsy-bit scared of her. It is almost as if Mantel wants you to be standing there cheering when Boleyn meets the guillotine (for which, by the way, we will have to wait for the sequel. This novel ends with Anne’s second miscarriage and the general souring-up of Henry and Anne’s sex life.)

Strangely, Mantel even takes away credit from Boleyn where it is due. Most accounts of Boleyn – especially, if they arise from the feminist cauldron – tend to present her as a refined woman, genuinely concerned about the corrupt Catholic clergy, knowledgeable in international diplomacy, and generous towards her sister Mary. (Apparently, Anne granted her sister a life-long pension despite the fact that she was a former mistress of Henry VIII.) However, Mantel reduces Anne’s erudition to her merely passing some of William Tyndale’s writings to Henry VIII, and her experience in international diplomacy to a dinner and dance with the French King. Mantel’s Anne was a belittling bitch to her sister and she gives credit of Mary's pension to Thomas Cromwell's interjection.

To insult to injury, Mantel introduces Jane Seymour – for whom Henry VIII so spectacularly dumped Anne – as a rather simple, sweet soul with a generous heart. So good eventually won over evil, and all was well in the world again.

Why would Mantel do that? I believe she did it in order to provide maximum pleasure to her married, female readership. Can there be a purer, sweeter pleasure than in encountering the perfectly hateful “other woman” and then see her receive her comeuppance in form of beheading? After all, if Sid ever dumped me for another woman, I wouldn't be able to imagine her as anything but purely evil, and nothing short of her severed head would satisfy me. In fact, make that two ;-)


You can buy Wolf Hall on Amazon here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Kabuki: Strange but Delightful

On Tuesday, Sid and I felt like experiencing something strange and somewhat outlandish. Naturally, that meant we had to go for a “Japanese”. After all, no matter what aspect of culture you examine – food (fish sperms?), books (Murakami?), films (Tampopo?), clothes (oh, all those hobbling women in Kiminos?), and of course, sex (where do I begin?) – Japan wins all contests in strangeness. 

However, Sid and I stuck to the safe end of Japanese cultural strangeness and went to Sadler’s Well for a Kabuki performance – a traditional Japanese opera of sorts, with men-in-drag, outrageous make-up, elaborate costumes, lots of heavily stylised singing and dancing. The show, entitled Yoshitsune and The Cherry Trees, was outrageous, exaggerated, colourful, exhilarating and a lot of fun.

The play, set in the 12th century, had little to do with Yoshitsune and none at all with Cherry Trees. General Yoshitsune leaves his favourite drum with his mistress Shizuka, and leaves her in the care of his favourite retainer Tadanobu, before huffing-off to fight his brother Yoritmoto. The plan is for Shizuka and Tadanobu to meet him across the Mt Yoshino. Only, Tadanobu is really a fox and is accompanying Shizuka because the drum she is carrying is made from the hide of his parents, who speak to him through its beats. Bizarre? You bet! But oh so, beautifully rendered.

I guess, Kabuki’s delights can be enjoyed only if you place yourself before the 19th century: a time before television or films when people took themselves to theatre to experience the larger-than-life. And they got it in the form of the elaborate costumes, stylised dance and fighting sequences, and melodrama.

So if a yen for something strange and larger-than-life overcomes you between now and June 15, I would recommend a trip out to Sadler’s Well. 

Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees is playing at Sadler’s Well till June 15. If it helps, it stars  Ebizo Ichikawa XI, who apparently is the Brad Pitt of Kabuki theatre.

More on strange Japanese films.