Bede’s pupils enjoy Charleston House Literary Festival

June 27, 2017

In recent weeks, Bede’s English students have been taking in the delights of the Charleston Literary Festival once more, dropping in this time to consider questions of originality and influence in art and literature.

As always, first timers were quickly swept up in the heady atmosphere that is unique to Charleston.  Maybe it is the bohemian heritage, maybe it is the fact that the place is crammed with writers, thinkers and broadcasters.  Whatever it is, it is infectious.  And jolly good for the brain too.

Lower Sixth student Olivia Muston said ‘Our first event pitted University College London Professor John Mullan against writer Maggie Gee in a debate entitled, “Is originality over-rated?”

In a discussion which moved from 18th century novelists to avant-garde poets, and from Turner to Van Gogh, the speakers and audience wrestled with the notion that all art may, in some sense, be deeply derivative.  The discussion drew in students, and language itself briefly became the central focus.  In the Q and A, Bede’s Freya Palmer got agreement from Professor Mullan when she asked if the word ‘originality’ was used too often, usually inappropriately.

Was originality even that important, we were asked, compared to universality — the quality which allows an artwork to live outside its own time and to transcend its culture?

If we considered Austen, asked Mullan, would we have to conclude that she is not groundbreaking, but only working within the confines of establishes genres?

For an hour, opinion swerved one way, then another.  This was everything we wanted in a debate.

Ahead of the final vote, Maggie Gee’s view – that art must strive to be new if it is to attract our attention at all – seemed to win favour with students.  Though Mullan edged the final vote, the subject prompted lots of discussion over coffee and cake.’

Lower Sixth student Jack Robinson-Hopkins also visited ‘The House of Names’ and ‘Hamlet: Globe to Globe’.  Jack reported ‘With our appetites whetted by the very title of this first event, we were keen to see how our speakers picked up the themes of inspiration, influence and originality’.

Colm Tóibín, the renowned Irish writer gave a talk about his new book House of Names, inspired, in part, by Aeschylus’ Oresteia. After explaining the inspiration behind the work, he read us dark and gruesome but nevertheless compelling passages, as well as explaining how his own life – growing up amidst the ‘troubles’ of sectarian Ireland – influenced the novel.

Following on from the earlier debate about the value of originality, the question of re-interpretation resurfaced. Is it right to meddle with classic texts?  Why take the play and reimagine, changing the perspective, reaching for a more contemporary relevance?

Toibin explained to us his artistic intention:  to bring out the violence of the play, usually left offstage, as well as dwelling on the unspoken grief of ‘silenced’ female characters. In this retelling, Toibin rejects the idea of divine intervention.

He explained, as a Catholic, that this convention of Classical drama did not suit the conceit of his novel. Thus, after the initial pages, no gods are mentioned.  Clytemnestra, the benevolent, vengeful protagonist, instead rejects their will and no longer demands their support. Why would she? They allowed her husband King Orestes to sacrifice his daughter- an act which she was herself powerless to prevent.

The title comes from the idea that names haunt the characters, such as Clytemnestra struggling to remember her son’s name, and what ‘name’ meant to the people of the time.

A few days later, Bede’s students were again grappling with question of adaptation and human tragedy in a fascinating event called ‘Hamlet: Globe to Globe’, featuring the incredibly talented Dominic Dromgoole.

After ten years at Shakespeare’s Globe, few people are as experienced and knowledgeable about Hamlet, and Shakespeare’s full works, as this director.

In this event, he regaled a rapt audience with the story of taking the Globe’s production across the world-to each and every country on the planet. Always addressing the audience, Dromgoole evoked several vivid scenes and life-changing experiences.

We heard of his woes in Mexico city, playing in UN refugee camps in Syria, playing to Barack Obama, even a performance in Elsinore itself.

There were insights into staging, into theatrical practices then and now, and, of course, the great play itself. Students noted how it was extraordinarily impressive how he could quote several full lines from numerous points in the play, entirely from memory.

Like the playwright himself, Dromgoole had made the world his stage. For us all, he breathed new life into Shakespeare’s words and helped us see Hamlet afresh: not only for all life, as Jonson suggested, but for every place too.’