Lead on, Macduff – Connecting characters

Something wicked

Many years ago, I struck upon the idea of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a solo performance, where each of the secondary characters were not real people but rather manifestations of the Thane’s own psyche. The entire story, as I envisioned it, was one long inner monologue by a very confused man, struggling to rationalize his beliefs with his desires.

King Duncan represented the old way of doing things; slow, methodical, political.

Macduff represented the idealized warrior; righteous, proud, skilled, noble.

Lady Macbeth represented unbridled ambition; envious, avaricious, clawing, unfettered.

Banquo represented compromise; willing, hopeful, forward-looking.

The Witches represented chaos; confusing, enigmatic, truthful.

Beyond conversation with addled classmates and my bemused English teacher, however, this concept never really became more than a memory that I recount today. (Shakespeare himself had been dead for a few years and could not be reached for comment.)

But the idea has stuck with me ever since, and I have come to see its merits as a tool or approach to characters in many works I have written in the intervening years.

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?

Macbeth, V, iii, 40

So often, when reading stories written by others—I struggle to do this with my own work, to which I am too close—I find characters that seem to float into and out of the story. They enter, perform a function in the story, and then exit, leaving almost no impression. They are simply mechanisms to move the story forward.

Now, I am not talking about the nameless, faceless characters that populate the background of pretty much every story; the extras or day-laborers of the film industry. Even if they have an action or offer the odd line, I see those characters very much on par with props.

I’m talking about the somewhat larger characters who may be central to a scene, interacting regularly and with purpose with one or more of the main characters to raise a dramatic question, but seeming to be otherwise disconnected from the rest of the story.

I ask myself (and sometimes the storyteller):

If you eliminated this character from your story and gave his or her actions/functions to another character, would your story suffer?

If the answer is no, then the character should probably be eliminated.

But sometimes the answer is yes; exactly why, however, is not always clear.

This is where I go back to my Macbeth concept.

Much as the antagonist of any story is a reflection of the protagonist, I believe there are opportunities to solidify these more nebulous characters by asking what they represent to the protagonist.

Are they alter-egos to some aspect of the protagonist’s personality, needs or wants? And if not, can they be?

I am a firm believer that we invite into our lives people who serve a purpose, who help us rationalize our places in the universe, who either soften the blow of being stuck in a mire we hate or inspire us to become more than we are. We may never be conscious of what their purposes are, but we are somehow drawn to these people and they to us.

Understand your associates and you will understand yourself.

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Our lives are a web of connections, but are we the spider or the fly?

As gods of the stories we create, we have introduced specific characters into those stories for a reason, and I suspect it goes well beyond functional plot points. Rather, I feel it speaks to the nature of the protagonist or one of the other central characters.

At the very least, it is an avenue to explore when you find a character that just seems to float through your story, a character that could easily be eliminated, but for some reason, you want to keep.

Your starting point may be in figuring out what they represent to the protagonist. In the process, you may just develop a deeper understanding of your central character(s).

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Miss Sloane misses mark – review

sloane-poster

I am a sucker for politics and intrigue, shows like The West Wing and House of Cards (British & American versions) forming a regular staple of my creative diet. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I lined up to see Miss Sloane (trailer), an inside look at the cut-throat world of DC lobbyists, whom many consider the parasitic infection that Washington just cannot (and will not) shake.

Sadly, Jonathan Perera (writer of Miss Sloane) is no Aaron Sorkin or Beau Willimon. In his defence, however, it is likely that neither were Sorkin and Willimon on their first produced screenplays.

The movie follows the string-pulling machinations of Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), an ice-water-in-her-veins win-at-all-costs lobbyist who works for one of the most powerful firms in Washington. This woman has no scruples and is willing to get behind anything that earns a paycheque and raises her status inside the Beltway. Anything, it seems, except for the gun lobby.

And when she is presented with an opportunity to make guns more appealing to women in the hopes of killing gun control legislation coming to the floor, she instead jumps ship to a boutique firm (read “poor”), run by Rudolpho Schmidt (Mark Strong), and takes up the opposing cause.

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More could have been made of Strong’s moral angst over hiring nuclear weapon Chastain

Once the ball starts rolling down hill, it steamrolls over everyone in its path, and the story becomes a ballet between Sloane’s new firm and her old one, led by a very angry George Dupont (Sam Waterston) and his lead hitman Pat Conners (Michael Stuhlbarg). Until recently, Conners was Sloane’s partner in larceny. The rest of the movie is simply watching puppeteers pull strings.

Thus, this movie is a character study of people without character; a morality play completely lacking in morals.

As such, it is incredibly dark and even with its climax and moment of supposed triumph, you leave the theatre positively suicidal at the prospect that this story even starts to approximate reality.

In one way, it is fascinating to watch completely manipulative characters toss around human lives and feelings as though pieces in a game of Risk or Stratego. I think it strikes at our voyeur nature, tying in with the modern fascination in so-called reality television and amounting to little more than emotion porn. This movie could easily have been titled 50 Shades of Sloane.

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The strings may be invisible, but the puppet dances

At the same time, with no shred of humanity in these characters, it is difficult if not impossible to invest in the main combatants. At best, we mourn the cannon fodder that litters the field of combat. It is like watching a movie about the invasion of Normandy and really only being able to appreciate the kid who is killed as he steps off the landing craft.

And this is precisely where Perera’s developing skills let him down and his contrast with the current political masters is at its most notable.

Despite the sheer malevolence of Francis and Claire Underwood in House of Cards, there is a vulnerability that helps us understand their razor-clad shells. Go further back to the true master of political intrigue—William Shakespeare—and you see the frailties of the otherwise horrific Macbeth and his Lady. Or perhaps my favourite: Iago from Othello.

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Underwood, Macbeth and Iago: Human frailty lies behind the face of a monster

Despite the play’s title, Iago is the true hero of Othello. It is his story that unfolds as he manipulates all those around him, working their weaknesses and frailties against them, truly uncaring of the destructive impact his actions are likely to have on even his own future. And yet, for all the venom and disturbing glee with which Shakespeare imbues his malevolent beast, the Bard is also sure to insert short references to why Iago is so morally misshapen.

To his credit, Perera refused to go in the opposite direction and give us some long-winded sob story of a slight or wound from Sloane’s past to explain her motivations, and in fact, makes it a point, several times, to complain about just such an approach.

But in the absence of any contextualization for the character, even the climax itself comes across as academic exposition rather than revelation. At best, the climax has audacity rather than soul.

There is no moment to cheer the outcome of the story because the outcome is as soul-less as the morass that preceded it.

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That which cannot be controlled must be destroyed

As though sensing this, the final scenes of the movie felt like a bit of a negation of what came before, attempting to soften the edge of Sloane and the story itself. I really wish the movie had ended with the climax.

Given these character challenges, the stellar cast performed well despite being largely wasted.

Chastain does ice well, her face and mannerisms giving away little. Mark Strong was mostly missing in action, through no fault of the actor. His character simply had little to offer. And Stuhlbarg is quickly making a name for himself as malevolent toady, and for that very reason, really needs to find another role to utilize other aspects of his obvious talent.

Miss Sloane was a great idea that suffered in the execution, and I am perhaps being a bit unfair to put the onus on Perera. Director John Madden—best known for Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—would have had some influence on how this story played out, and given the pre-diabetic sweetness of his other movies, this story was a surprising choice.

As an academic exercise, I would love to see what Sorkin or Willimon would do with this concept. Each would create very different movies, I think.

In the meantime, I will be interested in seeing where Perera goes next.

See also:

Chastain enlivens political thriller ‘Miss Sloane’ (Lindsay Bahr, Metronews)

Jessica Chastain dominates as a Washington power player (Nigel Smith, The Guardian)

Richard Crouse (video, CTV News)

Macbeth is the new Game of Thrones?

Who shall achieve the throne?

Who shall achieve the throne?

I hate writer Erin Whitney for little fault of her own aside from the gaping wound that she has rent into my soul with the opening lines of her Huffington Post piece announcing the release of the latest trailer for Macbeth, as performed by Michael Fassbender.

“Imagine Game of Thrones with Michael Fassbender speaking Shakespearean. Then you’ve got Macbeth.”

Her approach is entirely justified for a generation(s) that did not grow up on the works of William Shakespeare​ but instead find themselves immersed in the worlds of George RR Martin and the like.

But it is in pointing out this sad fact—sad to me, at least—that Ms. Whitney has earned my enmity. With all due respect to Mr. Martin, it is his works that should be defined in Shakespearean terms, even if only from a chronological perspective (taste is personal).

[I would also argue that a better parallel is made with either the British or American versions of House of Cards, but that is beside the point.]

Frank & Claire Underwood are Lord and Lady Macbeth

Frank & Claire Underwood are Lord and Lady Macbeth

Please do not take my condemnation and enmity personally, Ms. Whitney. It is not entirely your fault that you tripped this social and literary landmine.

If, however, I might make one recommendation: Get thee to a Shakespearean festival!

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Some North American Shakespearean festivals (not a comprehensive list):

Stratford Festival (Stratford, ON)

Bard on the Beach (Vancouver, BC)

Shakespeare by the Sea (Halifax, NS)

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot (New York, NY)

Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, DC)

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (Chicago, IL)

Shakespeare for all time (more comprehensive list with links)