Tag Archives: Hamlet

Menace and Mayhem in FX’s Taboo

Share

Spoilers
No Spoiler Taboo review at
Tom Hardy and FX’s Taboo: Creepy Good

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

Reviewers are calling FX’s new show Taboo everything from a “jazzed-up” revenge tale to a “grimy revenge tale” that is “utterly ridiculous but totally absorbing,” from “a reanimated corpse of … drama tropes” to the “Tom Hardy Show,” which was a compliment to the actor. When I think of a revenge tale, I think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose protagonist is confronted by the ghost of his father in Act 1, a ghost who relates the tale of his murder by his own brother. In Hamlet, the eponymous protagonist dithers and dallies and overthinks every single move he wants to make to get revenge on his murderous uncle. Hamlet may be considered one of the most psychologically interesting characters, but most readers aren’t really attached to him until almost the end of the play, when he finally does something besides ruminating aloud about revenging himself against the uncle who murdered Hamlet’s father, married Hamlet’s mother, and usurped Prince Hamlet’s throne. If Hamlet is a classic revenge tale, Taboo is more menacing than any revenge tale I’ve ever read.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

Taboo‘s protagonist James Delaney (Tom Hardy) is much more interesting than Hamlet, too, if only because we don’t get long monologues betraying his thinking, let alone monologues revealing ceaseless brooding. Instead, viewers follow James around a seedy, dark London as he attempts to claim his inheritance (the island of Nootka off the northwest coast of the United Stated), protect his island from the powerful men of the East India Company who covet it, re-establish his father’s shipping company, and discover his father’s murderer. Viewers don’t even know if James is dead or alive, “half-dead or possessed by spirits” since he regularly has visions or memories triggered by his surroundings. Returned from Africa after ten years and plagued by these visions, Hardy’s Delaney is effectively fierce and foreboding in a show where everything is darkness, menace, and mayhem.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

When James arrived in England in episode 1, “Shovels and Keys,” the first thing he did was bury something, bury it as deep as his arm-to-his-shoulder in the mud. In the second episode (“Episode 2”), he unearths that bag, revealing a cache of unpolished diamonds. When he sends one of them to his sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin, formerly Robb Stark’s outspoken foreign wife in Game of Thrones) without a note of any kind, she seems to know he’s sent it to her, and she hurriedly hides it from her husband. At the funeral of their father, James told Zilpha that Africa was unable to kill his love for her, and later he surreptitiously observed a young boy about 10 years old, whom viewers quickly suspected was the siblings’ incestuous love child, sent away to be raised by strangers.

Oona Chaplin as Zilpha Delaney Geary, from FX’s Taboo

In episode 1, Zilpha asked James to keep their past a secret from her husband, Thorne Geary, who already hates James just for existing, apparently, since he didn’t recognize James when he arrived at the church for the funeral. Confronting Zilpha at a society musicale in “Episode 2,” James asked her to come away from her friends, with him, ostensibly so he could answer her “Did you really eat flesh?” inquiry. When he revealed his memory of her “straightening her skirts after…” (we know where this is going, given the show’s title) and not looking back at him, Zilpha acted startled and said, “I walked away?” letting us know that the two of them have some really intense history in common, but they don’t recall it the same way.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney and Oona Chaplin as his half-sister Zilpha (from FX’s Taboo)

Does Zilpha care as much about James as he does for her, or does she just really like diamonds? Is it love between them or merely forbidden sexual attraction? Zilpha seems intensely drawn to James, in what actor Oona Chaplin calls “an incest plot as the ultimate will-they, won’t-they, should-they love triangle of Taboo.” Both actors do a wonderful job making the relationship as forbidden, menacing, and exciting as possible.

Of course, Zilpha’s husband Geary hates his brother-in-law James, and that hatred increased at the Reading of the Will, where it was revealed that Zilpha inherited nothing. Geary was the one who had arranged the sale of Nootka Island to East India — a sale that was thwarted when the Island was left solely to James.

Stephen Graham as Atticus (L) and Tom Hardy as James Delaney (R ) from FX’s Taboo

Underworld figure Atticus (Stephen Graham, perhaps best known to US audiences as Boardwalk Empire‘s Al Capone, above L) told James in episode 2 that it was Geary who tried to hire Atticus a year earlier to kill Old Man Delaney. For some reason unknown to viewers, Atticus refused the job, perhaps because it appears that he and James had some prior relationship (of which Geary would have been unaware).

Jefferson Hall as brother-in-law Geary (from FX’s Taboo)

If Geary (Jefferson Hall, above) wanted Old Man Delaney dead so that he could sell Nootka, then he certainly won’t hesitate to attempt to kill his resurrected brother-in-law James, especially after officially learning that his wife Zilpha inherited nothing. Geary’s shouts at James after the Will Reading were even louder than the shouts of Old Man Delaney’s creditors, though James paid all the creditors — to the shilling — after Zilpha and her angry husband left. Geary is almost as threatening as Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce, below) of East India Co, though Geary might be more ineffectual (unless he was the one who poisoned his father-in-law after failing to find an assassin in Atticus).

Jonathan Pryce as head of the East India Company, Sir Stuart Strange (from FX’s Taboo)

Sir Stuart, on the other hand, is openly menacing and looks like he has the power to carry out his threats. After angrily insisting that James accept East India’s offer to purchase Nootka Island, then getting livid when James refused to even open the envelope and see what the offer was, Sir Stuart decided that James must be killed. That seems a bit drastic and melodramatic, and perhaps historically inaccurate as well: though East India was, no doubt, an immensely powerful company, it’s being set up as nothing but The Big Bad Villain in Taboo, one of the show’s few weaknesses. Still, Jonathan Pryce (Game of Thrones’ High Sparrow) is a delight to watch, if only because he gets to be openly threatening and frustrated. When not ordering his underlings to either murder James or lose their jobs, Sir Stuart is raging about James’ buying a ship, and ranting about his being in league with Americans (with whom Britain is at war) when wondering aloud where James got the money to buy said ship.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

It was that ship that sent James tumbling into visions (or memories) in “Episode 2,” visions that have to do with slavery. James discovered manacles and chains on the ship he’d purchased. After finding the manacles, James stripped off his clothes, revealing a multiply tattooed (and hunkily buff) body, scraped a bird of sorts into the ship’s flooring, and mumbled or chanted in a foreign language. One reviewer noted that there was a “subtle, creepy [almost hidden] ghost behind Hardy in the scene,” but I missed it completely.

The manacles caused James to react so violently that I’m beginning to suspect that James himself was sold into slavery, perhaps by his own father after James begat the child on his sister. If James was sold into slavery, rather than being a slave trader himself, that could be the reason everyone in England was so sure that James died in Africa: because it was arranged that he disappear permanently. Such an arrangement could also explain Old Man Delaney’s guilt toward the end of his life, guilt that had something to do with his son James.

In any event, it’s James’ creepy visions that make some reviewers wonder if he’s dead, and make me wonder if he wasn’t sold into slavery by his own father, albeit for having an incestuous sexual relationship with his sister Zilpha, because, as menacing as James seems, I just don’t get the feeling that he’s the villain in this drama.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney and Franka Potente as Madame Helga (from FX’s Taboo)

It’s not just James’ visions that make me wonder about his character: he seems to know things that no one else does, or, at the very least, to be able to unearth other characters’ secrets without too much effort. A young mulatto girl named Winter warned James about Madame Helga (Franka Potente), whom James had ordered to vacate his father’s business offices, which she was using as a brothel. Winter claimed that Helga was discussing James’ death-by-murder with a “man with a silver tooth.” After finding no one on the ship that Winter claimed belonged to the man with the silver tooth, James set it on fire. Afterward, James confronted Helga.

When he asked her about the mulatto Winter, Helga denied knowing anyone like that, insisting that she’d be delighted to have a mulatto, since customers would pay more for her. Helga wanted James to have sex with her as the price for information about Winter, but James refused, offering, instead, his own theories about the mulatto girl: he said that Helga’s eyes were like Winter’s, coming to the conclusion that Helga was Winter’s mother.

Helga didn’t deny it, but that doesn’t mean that Winter actually exists: she may be a ghost, coming into James’ life because of his horrific past, and Helga may not have answered James’ accusations that she’s Winter’s mother because she doesn’t know anyone named Winter and because, furthermore, Helga’s frightened of James. After all, when he ordered her to vacate his father’s dockside offices, threatening her with bodily harm after she had attempted to threaten him, Helga suddenly said, “I remember you,” adding that she remembered what he did to some girls, and that didn’t sound good. Everyone’s so evil and menacing in Taboo that it’s difficult to discover who we’re supposed to root for.

We also don’t know if Winter’s warning James about Helga’s attempt to murder him or about one of Helga’s clients’ discussing the murder plot in her whorehouse. And if it weren’t enough that Sir Stuart, Helga, brother-in-law Geary, and the person who hired the man with the silver tooth all want James Delaney dead and out of their lives, “Episode 2” threw in another person who might want him killed.

Jessie Buckley as Lorna Bow, widow of Old Man Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

An Irish actress showed up and, after practicing her lines sotto voce, declared to everyone present at the reading of the will, that she’d married Old Man Delaney and, as his widow, is thus a claimant of James’ inheritance. Attorney Thoyt (Nicholas Woodsen) verified that Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley) was actually married to the elder Delaney, but it’s not necessarily true that she has some claim to the inheritance. It seems that she would have to actually file a suit to get some of it. In any event, it increases the number of people who seem to want James dead, or who might have hired the man with the silver tooth to kill him.

At the conclusion of E2, the man in the silver tooth ambushed James and stabbed him, leaving him in an alley to die, though not before James tore open the murderer’s throat with his teeth, reminding us of Zilpha’s question, “Did you really eat flesh?” Of course, I doubt that James is going to die, despite the big knife sticking out of his gut, if only because his character is the major protagonist of the show. Instead, we’re given a hint that James’ is not as omnipotent as he seems, nor as omniscient, since, despite being warned of the hired murderer, he wasn’t prepared for the deadly encounter.

Menace and mayhem abound in FX’s Taboo, and Tom Hardy is absolutely riveting as James Delaney. Despite the fact that sometimes it’s difficult, if not outright impossible to understand what some of the actors are saying (Stephen Graham as Atticus was especially tough to understand, though David Hayman as the Delaney family servant Brace was also hard), and despite all the characters that are continually being introduced and which seem peripheral to the main storyline (King George’s annoyance about the colors in a map and his rant about East India Co come to mind), Taboo is staggeringly well done and intensely fascinating.

A limited mini-series of 8 episodes, Taboo airs on FX on Tuesdays at 10pm ET. Watch the premiere free with FX’s Premiere Pass, or every episode free with FX and DirecTV.

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Actors, Historical Drama, Movies/Television, Official Trailers, Recap, Review, Taboo, Television, Violence

What if Shakespeare Had a Sister Who’d Written His Plays?

Share

250px-Shakespeare

“Excuse me?” I said. “Could you say that again?”

The seventeen-year-old high-school-senior son of my best friend sighed.

Loudly.

“What would have happened if Hamlet had killed his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father told Hamlet that Claudius had killed Hamlet’s father and married his mother?” said Andrew.

“Your English teacher gave you that as an essay exam?”

“Right, and I just don’t understand how I’m supposed to answer that question,” he said.

“You see why I told him to call you?” said my best friend Rebecca, on the extension. “You’re the Shakespeare expert, not me.”

“That’s your essay-exam question?” I said.

“Right,” said her son. “And it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“Did you read the play?”

“We read it, discussed it, and saw the movie.”

“Then you know Hamlet doesn’t kill his Uncle Claudius in Act 1, Scene 1.”

“Of course, I know that,” said Andrew. “He doesn’t kill him till the end of the play.”

“Then your answer is, ‘If Hamlet had killed his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father told Hamlet that Claudius had killed Hamlet’s father, we’d have no play’.”

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet ©

On the extension, my friend started laughing. She said she was going to leave the remainder of the conversation to us and hung up.

Her son was not laughing.

He was sincerely distressed.

“I can’t write, ‘there’d be no play’,” he said. “I’ll get an F.”

“You can write whatever you want,” I said, “because it’s such a stupid question that even people who’ve never read the play can answer it any way they want to and still get an A. Because there will be no wrong answers.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

Hamlet is interesting because we want to know why Hamlet doesn’t kill his Uncle after the ghost of his father tells him that his Uncle Claudius murdered him and married Hamlet’s mother to become King himself,” I told my friend’s son. “We want to know why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he acts guilty seeing a re-enactment of the actual murder in a play written by Hamlet to ‘catch the conscience of the King’. Why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he catches his Uncle alone at his prayers. Why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he finds a letter on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instructing the King of England to kill Hamlet for Claudius so that Hamlet, who is the heir-apparent, cannot ever become King of Denmark. Why, in fact, Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius until the very last act of the play and then only after Claudius accidentally kills Hamlet’s mother when she drinks the poison intended for Hamlet, and Laertes, who’s challenged Hamlet to a sword-fight, tells Hamlet that he’s been poisoned with the tip of Laertes’ sword by Claudius’ order.”

“So, I was right,” said Andrew, “it is a stupid question.”

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet ©

It’s more than a stupid question for a literature class.

It’s the typical inane “What-If School of Life” question.

What if the dog hadn’t stopped to take a nap while he was racing the hare? What if Julius Caesar hadn’t been killed by the Senators? What if Cleopatra hadn’t deserted Marc Antony and he’d won the last of the Roman Civil Wars? What if the British had won the Revolutionary War? What if the South had won our own Civil War? What if Kennedy had not been assassinated? What if Helen Keller had not caught the disease that made her deaf, dumb, and blind?

All of these questions are totally pointless. Because, as we know, these things did happen, and it is more important to understand why they did happen than to discuss some alternative history or fantasy story that did not occur.

Still, it amazes me the number of people who constantly do this. Not just literature teachers who don’t know anything about analyzing literature, or students who haven’t read the assigned literature but want to talk a lot so they’ll get a good grade. Not just historians or supposed history buffs, either.

Reporters and talk-show hosts do it: What if country singer Dolly Parton hadn’t grown up poor? What if serial killer Ted Bundy hadn’t escaped twice and had been caught sooner? What if FEMA had sent money and trailers to the victims of Hurricane Katrina sooner? What if SuperStorm Sandy had missed New Jersey completely?

Sports announcers do it: What if the receiver had caught the quarterback’s pass? What if the quarterback’s pass hadn’t been intercepted? What if the basketball player had made that last-minute 3-point-basket and won the game? What if the game hadn’t gone into overtime? What if professional cyclist Lance Armstrong’s teammates had never revealed that he illegally doped while winning all those Tour de France races?

In fact, virtually everyone who has nothing important to say about what did, indeed, happen, does it. Sometimes, I think they do it just to hear themselves talk. The problem is, they’re not saying anything interesting.

Mainly because, whether in literature or history or another event in life, those things did happen. So why do they want to discuss fantasy topics when the actual events are so much more pertinent?

I honestly do not know.

My friend Rebecca and I were once teaching Literature for a Saturday Classics Program at a well known and respected University where adult students who had dropped out of college when they were younger did intensive coursework all day long every Saturday for two-three years to finish their college degrees. The literature component was designed so that professors from different fields taught the same work each week from their own perspectives and backgrounds. An anthropology professor discussed the work during the first class of the day, a sociology professor during the next class, a psychology professor during the third class, Rebecca and I during the fourth and fifth classes – as the literature professors.

We thought it was an intriguing approach, though Rebecca and I combined our 2 two-hour sessions into 1 four-hour afternoon session since we were both literature professors and wanted the students to lead the discussions themselves. It’s the only way we had ever thought of to ensure that students would actually read the work: make the students themselves lead the discussion for the entire period at least once during the quarter, and grade the rest of the class on their participation in the discussion every single time.

No essays. Just discussion. On the assigned topic. We did it with our college students at our respective universities, who were only 18-22-years-old. We could certainly do the same thing with adult students who, being more mature and having more life experience, would, theoretically, bring even more insight into the literature.

We thought the entire approach to the Classics Program was unique, and it worked well.

Until we got to King Lear.

Geoffrey Rush as Lear, 2016 ©

The first question the student Discussion Leaders asked when they got to our literary analysis component of the program that week was this one: “What if King Lear hadn’t divided his kingdom in Act 1 Scene 1 and told his three daughters that he’d give the largest part of the kingdom to the daughter who said she loved him the most?”

Rebecca, with wide eyes, glanced over at me just a moment before I interrupted the Leaders.

“And what if Shakespeare had a sister who’d actually written the plays?” I said.

The students stared at me, obviously confused.

“That’s an example of how irrelevant your question is because King Lear does divide his kingdom,” I said. “Go on to your next question.”

The Leaders huddled together, whispering, shuffling their papers, flipping through the pages of the play. The rest of the class moved restlessly.

“Go on to your next question,” I said. “Any question. From any part of the play. You don’t have to start with the beginning.”

After several more minutes of whispering and hesitation, one of the Discussion Leaders finally spoke up.

“What if King Lear’s daughter Cordelia hadn’t died?”

“She does die,” I said. “Go on to a legitimate question.”

“What if Cordelia had said she loved her father the way he wanted her to?” said the other leader.

“She doesn’t,” I said. “What are you guys doing? You’ve already been discussing King Lear all day. Talk about anything that hasn’t been answered to your satisfaction so far.”

Derek Jacobi, as Lear and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Cordelia ©

Everyone in the class suddenly became obsessed with their copies of the play, turning pages, apparently taking notes, silent. Silent. Silent. Rebecca and I looked at each other. We both instantly and intuitively knew what was wrong.

“How many of you have not read King Lear ?” I said, and, to our dismay and horror, every hand in the class eventually went up.

“What have you been discussing for the last six hours today?” said Rebecca.

“In Don’s [the anthropologist’s] class, we spent the first hour going around the room telling how our week went…”

“Just today?”

“No, we do that every week.”

“And the second hour of Don’s class?”

“We talk about how our classes are going.”

“What about in Lowell’s [the sociology professor’s] class?” said Rebecca.

“We talk about current events.”

“But this is the Classics Program,” I said. “You’re supposed to be discussing the assigned literature from different perspectives.”

Silence.

“What do you discuss in Allen’s [the psychology professor’s] class?” said Rebecca.

“How we feel about school,” said one of the students. “As adults.”

“And how we felt about college when we were younger and why we never completed our degrees…”

You get the picture.

Pete Postlethwaite as Lear ©

I told them to start reading King Lear. I didn’t raise my voice, but my displeasure was clear. While they read, Rebecca and I redid the syllabus for our part of the Classics Program, for the remainder of the quarter. They would be discussing King Lear next week. The week following that, we would divide the class period in half, with two hours about one work, and two hours about the other, so that they would remain on schedule with the other teachers and the assigned literature in the program. When we passed out the revised syllabus, the students looked glum.

As soon as we dismissed class that day, all the students went straight to Don, Lowell, and Allen: To complain that we were “forcing” them to read King Lear.

Don, who had originally designed the program, called me and Rebecca in, protesting our approach. We politely but firmly protested his “What-If” approach as unprofessional, un-academic, and unacceptable. Don insisted that we let the students discuss whatever they wanted to discuss.

We offered our immediate resignations.

Don, Lowell, and Allen were all horrified. They wanted us to let the students discuss anything they wanted — except the literature, apparently, but they didn’t want us to resign. Rebecca and I insisted that they could teach the literature themselves since they were going to permit the students to discuss everything but the literature in question. That was when we learned that none of the other three professors had read the literature. Any of it. All quarter long.

And that, plain and simple, was the reason they constantly asked the students “What-If” questions that didn’t have anything to do with what had occurred in the literature, or asked them about things that had to do with their personal lives or with world events every week.

Don Warrington as Lear ©

Though the students had protested when Rebecca and I changed the syllabus, they discovered that they liked King Lear after they read it. They wanted to discuss the play itself and the characters’ motivations. Same thing happened when we got to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The rest of the quarter, the students began insisting that Don, Lowell, and Allen discuss the literature from the anthropological, sociological, and psychological perspectives — as the Classics Program had been designed. Don, Lowell, and Allen were very unhappy.

The students, however, thrived. They became excited about the works they were reading. They understood why the Classics had interested people for so many centuries. They liked literature, many of them for the first time in their lives. Quite a few of them even switched their majors. To Literature.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet ©

And what happened to Rebecca’s son Andrew with his essay-exam question about Hamlet ?

He wrote an essay on his interpretation of why Hamlet did not kill his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father informed Hamlet of Claudius’ murder in order to become King.

Andrew’s teacher was so impressed that she read his essay aloud to the rest of the class, gave him an A+/100%, and re-assigned it to the rest of the class, asking them to come up with their own interpretations — supported by the play, of course — about why Hamlet did not kill his Uncle upon learning the truth of his father’s murder.

Andrew was happy and proud. The teacher never gave that kind of assignment again. The students were annoyed at first: they had to write a second essay, and some of them, no doubt, had not read the play – only watched the film. But Andrew reported that the same thing happened in his class that had occurred in the Classics Program: the students began to like the literature, to discuss it heatedly and in an informed manner, and to continue their discussions during lunch and after school.

Now that’s the kind of intellectual discussions that I find fascinating.

No matter the topic.

Not the What-If-This-Had-Never-Happened kind of discussion.

Why talk about those things when the “why did this, in fact, happen, and what were the consequences of its happening?” talks are more intriguing?

As the narrator says in the film version of Jane Austen’s classic Mansfield Park, “It could have all turned out differently, I suppose, but it didn’t.”

images

updated August 2017

Share

4 Comments

Filed under Actors, Art, Authors, Books, Classics, Film Videos, Memoir, Movies/Films, Music Videos, Music/Song, Reading