Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Review: Iqbal Khan's Macbeth

I feel as if I should preface this review/blog with a disclaimer: I am neither a Shakespearean expert (at least no more than anyone with an undergraduate degree in English Literature is) nor a ‘purist’. Shakespeares’s Globe’s Wonder season, Emma Rice’s first as the theatre’s artisitc director, has been the topic of much conversation, both positive and negative, about the way in which it has adapted and presented Shakespeare’s work. Being as this review (and to an extent, this reviewer) is primarly concerned with the performance’s Gothic aspects, I won’t be passing judgment on the adaptation in that respect. Disclaimer number two: the play is still running (until October) and, all things aside, as I enjoyed it I wouldn’t like to spoil it. Also, despite having my notebook open in my lap the whole time, I completely forgot to take any notes for the majority of the performance. 

Though my eyes are want to see the Gothic wherever they look, I think it fair to say that Iqbal Khan’s Macbeth is a Gothic creation. The music that opens Khan’s Macbeth sets the tone of the adaptation, peformed beautifully and sung in what sounded, based on what I claimed at the time was a logical guess but honestly was from extensive Outlander viewing, like Gaelic before morphing into the Witches’ opening speech.

We’ve talked a lot about witches this term- largely thanks to the release of Robert Egger’s film The Witch earlier this year, which the Guardian called ‘a 90-minute exercise in anxiety’. As this blog has mentioned before, discussion at this year’s Gothic Reading Group sessions returned frequently to the same question: ‘What is there for us still to be afraid of?’ Texts like Egger’s The Witch tap into an anxiety a world away from the sensory overload horror that hits the cinemas every October and create a fear that’s less ‘jumped so hard in the cinema I spilled this obscenely large coke all over my jeans’ and more ‘lying awake at night flinching at every creak, trying not to cry.’ (Not that I didn’t jump, but as has been previously established, I’m a real easy scare).

The Witches three have taken many forms over the years. How does one make a witch visibly a witch, after all, without making them little more than a cheap Halloween costume? How do you style her, move her and stage her in a way that unsettles a modern audience?

There are an ambiguous number of witches in Khan’s Macbeth. And by that I mean there are four. But those four are also three. The four female actors (whom we identify as witches by their costuming) function as something of a chorus, donning black veils for moments of prophecy. They rise from a pile of bodies and, as Macbeth and Banquo approach them for the first time, they come together to form the triptych from a series of grotesque and disjointed limbs that shift to represent each ‘sister’.

From a Gothic perspective, this version of Macbeth’s witches works wonderfully; uncanny and unsettling, they are at once human and inhuman. The actresses are not the witches, but appear as a part of them; a physical extension that draws on the audience’s (both contemporary and modern) anxieties about femininity. Humour aside, it did draw my mind once again to Outlander, where Claire’s modern attitudes and medicinal knowledge cast her frequently as a witch. But that’s a blog post for another time.

The witch-women physcially move the play forward, crowning Macbeth and conjouring on stage the ghost of Banquo. I found myself particualrly impressed with the staging of this set piece, which was genuinely one of the most effective I’ve seen. Khan manages, through very simple means I will not spoil, to create something chilling, nightmarish and even monstrous. My only criticism is that I would have relished more. But there is another ghost in Khan’s Macbeth. And he is very cute.

A small boy appears throughout the play; he has no lines but is evidently the child of the Macbeths. Khan’s is not the first adapation to explore Lady Macbeth’s lines in Act I, Scene VII, ‘I have given suck, and know/ How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me’, but some reviewers have questioned the decision to include their child. However, so far as I noticed, the boy seeimingly exists only to Lady Macbeth, a blind man and later Macbeth. Perhaps it is the Gothicist in me, but I read the child as the ghost of the child the play implies the Macbeth’s to have lost. The child’s silence and Lady Macbeth’s doting obsession with him added texture to her character and performance, highlighting the anxieties and anguish that form her motivations.

Overall, Khan’s Macbeth sat well with me even if the witches did steal the show, with Banquo in a close second. During our perfomance, he stole a lemonade from a school boy in the groundlings, wandered off stage with it, then came out for his next scene and handed the kid an empty cup. Khan’s is a diverse and predominently well chosen cast. (Nadia Albina’s Porter, though perhaps not for all, had me in hysterics.)

If you want to see the play for yourself, Macbeth can be found at The Globe until October 1st-

Lauren 'Bee Afraid' Nixon is a PhD researcher at the university of Sheffield, whose research focuses on masculinity in the Gothic. She's also the new keeper of the blog and needs a fresh supply of blogs to keep her satisfied or she'll be the Macdeath of us all. Please send all proposals or blogs to 


and spare us a fate worse than Banquo.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Vampire Rabbit

Gargoyles are familiar fixtures on British buildings, glaring down from churches and cathedrals around the country. While gargoyles and grotesque figures have existed on religious buildings for centuries, they became more common within Gothic architecture. Some of them take the form of animals, and one of the earliest recorded animal gargoyles was a classical Greek lion in Athens, found on the Acropolis, that dates to the 4th century. But not many cities can boast a Vampire Rabbit among their watchful figures.

The Vampire Rabbit can be found above the weirdly ornate rear entrance to Cathedral Buildings in Newcastle upon Tyne. The front of the block is on Dean Street, once voted the best street in the UK, while the back faces the rear of St Nicholas’ Cathedral. The building was finished in 1901, designed by architects Oliver, Leeson and Wood. The six storey building is now a mixed-used property, owned and managed by Minel Venues. Inspired by the Sparrowes House in Ipswich, Cathedral Buildings is a strange, rococo confection that stands out among the original buildings and multi storey car park on Dean Street.
But why a Vampire Rabbit?
Truth is, no one knows. Art historian Gail-Nina Andersen proposed several theories during a talk about the Rabbit in April, though none of them can be declared as definitive, and most of them rely on hearsay. One theory posits that he’s actually a hare, and a nod to the work of engraver Thomas Bewick, whose workshop was very close by. Bewick’s work features a range of hares and rabbits, but the connection seems a little far-fetched given the rabbit’s less than naturalistic representation. As far as anyone can tell, the Vampire Rabbit has always been on the building, though he had shorter ears in the past, and he was white at once stage. His current black coat and red fangs and claws are the result of a newer paint job. The longer replacement ears he now has are closer to a hare, so it would seem he was originally intended to be a rabbit.
There are no precedents for vampire rabbits or hares in vampire lore, and while he was referred to as the Demon Rabbit at one point, it’s still not a typical association. Rabbits and hares are usually associated with fertility, madness, purity or, weirdly, cunning and intelligence. You only need to look at Brer Rabbit to see the latter in effect. Renaissance art usually relates rabbits either to purity, and places them with the Virgin Mary, or it associates them with fecundity, and you’re more likely to see them with Venus.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving. Wellcome V0021351
The fact he’s on the back of the building is a key point. The front entrance isn’t actually as grand as the back, and the front certainly doesn’t feature any fantastical creatures. I wondered if the Vampire Rabbit was somehow linked with witchcraft, due to the old belief that witches could transform into hares. He’s opposite the east window of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, so maybe someone associated with the building had a problem with Christianity. Given the cathedral grounds he watches over were once used for burials (it’s now a car park), maybe he’s there to keep the inhabitants in line. There are dark tales of vampirism in the area, and when the unfortunate burials were relocated to make way for the car park, some of the corpses were allegedly discovered buried facing down. This is supposedly a means of keeping vampires in the grave as they’ll just dig themselves further into the earth, instead of out. Is the rabbit a reference to that?

If we want to string out the tenuous links even further, you often find dead rabbits in Dutch vanitas paintings. Their intention was to remind the viewer that death comes to us all. Such ‘cheerful’ work often included memento mori, such as skulls, but rabbits, as prey animals, were common symbols. Given the Vampire Rabbit’s position opposite what was once a graveyard, maybe he’s there to remind us that, like those he watched over, we’re not immortal either?
How famous is he?
I’m not really sure when he became ‘famous’ as such, but he’s definitely become an object of fond associations for locals. In 1998, the Vampire Rabbit even made an appearance in Tinseltoon, a children’s fairytale set in Newcastle. In it, the historic statues of the city come to life one Christmas Eve, including our infamous bunny. Here, he’s not so much a vampire as a vegetarian, trying to munch on some grass in the churchyard. It certainly brings to mind characters such as Count Duckula, or Bunnicula.
I first came across him while on a ghost walk around the Castle Garth area in around 2008, where he featured prominently within the history of the locale. The Vampire Rabbit was the cover image on a tourism brochure, and he also appears on posters to advertise the area. He was also spectacularly lit up during the Glow festival in 2006. For a novelty gargoyle, he’s proved to be quite the tourist attraction.

No matter what the reason for his being there is, I’m very glad to live in a city that features vampiric bunnies as ornamental decor!

Say 'hello' to the new specter of your nightmares
Laura Sedgwick is currently studying for a PhD in Film Studies on the topic of ‘Haunted Spaces in Contemporary Horror Cinema: Set Design and the Gothic’. She is Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of New Zealand and Pacific Studies, and Assistant Organiser for the annual conferences of the New Zealand Studies Association. Her research interests include cemetery architecture, Gothic Studies, horror cinema, Surrealism, art history, and moai culture. She used to do ghost hunts in her spare time but has yet to get a decent photo of Casper!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Fascinating Faces: Considering the Death Mask

A traditional method of capturing the physical trace of the human body was through the invention of the death mask. The mask would be created by pouring wax or plaster onto the face of the deceased individual. This process was the only way in which to capture the physical features of an individual before the photographic process was invented.

The most famous example of the death mask is that of Tutankhamun, made from solid gold and inlaid with precious stones. The process of creating the death mask gained momentum in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries where individuals of high status or royalty had masks made which were used as effigies as their bodies lay in state. The earliest known European example is the death mask of Edward III. Interestingly, only British examples have survived from this time period as all casts taken of French royalty within this period were destroyed during the French Revolution.

This technique continued to be used throughout the subsequent centuries, becoming more widespread and increasingly less exclusive to the aristocracy. It was used to capture the physical features of unknown victims of crime, murder or suicide. One of the most compelling examples was created in the 19th Century and known as L’Inconnue de la Seine. This death mask was taken from the body of an unknown female who was found in the River Seine in Paris, a possible victim of suicide. A pathologist at the morgue took a cast from the victim as he was enchanted by her face.

Such was the interest in this story, that the cast was reproduced and the general public bought copies of the original and displayed them in their homes. It became an object d’art and a source of inspiration for both tomes of literature and within the Visual Arts. Boddaert (1993) discusses the writer and philosopher Albert Camus and his reaction to the viewing of L’Inconnue de la Seine. He compared the expression on her face to that of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

The L’Inconnue de la Seine became endlessly intriguing and fascinating to artists and the public alike. There is little doubt that the comparison to Da Vinci’s masterpiece only helped to propell the myth surrounding the victim and into the bourgeois society of the day. The mysterious and enigmatic quality of the cast served as a source of inspiration for subsquent decades to follow. In 1958 it became the face model for the first aid CPR doll, and is claimed to be the most kissed face in the world.

Figure 1
L'Inconnue de la Seine

The death mask acts as a way of capturing the in-between stages of life. It records the physical features of the human form but taken after death. In this sense, the death mask acts as a link between the two stages of existence, life and death. They have the ability to transcend these states in order to become something more than just a record of the physical features of an individual. They are an absent presence, captured in a specific moment in time. They are tangible through the physical cast and can provide information to the viewer with regards to their expression or the action of their body at time of death. But ironically, the death mask remains inaccessible to the living. We can only make assumptions based on the casts we see, we cannot unlock them completely. They give the viewer a tantalising glimpse into the past life of the individual which only serves to create more questions. Who were they? What did they feel?

Figure 2
The (alleged) Death Mask of Shakespeare

In ancient civilisations, the death mask would be put on display in the home of the family as a reminder of the individual’s life. The capturing of the physical body through the casting process could be argued as acting as a kind of memory which helps to fix the physical trace for eternity. The loss of the individual only succeeds in making the viewer sense the human condition more readily. The fact that these casts are made after death only makes them more poignant, and endlessly fascinating.

Jennifer Richards is a Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. She currently holds a Masters Degree in Contemporary Arts. Her research areas explore a range of visual responses to the themes of transformation, masquerade, temporality and performance. She has recently presented papers at Kingston University’s Reflected Shadows Conference; exhibited work at the University of Sheffield’s Reimagining the Gothic Showcase and is currently working on her paper for the Temporal Discombobulations conference at the University of Surrey in August.