February Updates: Shakespeare, historical fiction & the latest in MIBDUL

It’s not February yet but it will be soon enough, and in these times of uncertainty and stress I figured it wouldn’t be so bad to start listing (and celebrating) some of things I’m excited about for the near future.

First up, though — something from the very recent past. 

MIBDUL: latest process video from Inez Kristina

Done for our $10+ Patrons, I’m really loving this fully narrated process video from Inez, detailing how she goes about structuring a page in general, and page 10 of MIBDUL’s first issue in particular.

Of course it would be thrilling for me to see my words come to life as pictures at any stage, but seeing the page at such an early, raw stage has its own particular pleasures. For one thing, it’s good to see that, raw as the sketches are at this stage, Inez has a firm grip of both the geography of the spaces and the overall mood of the characters.

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This certainly goes a long way to put me at ease as the writer of MIBDUL — knowing that the script will be rendered in a way that is both faithful and impressive in its own right — but it’s also heartening to discover that Inez understands the vibe of MIBDUL in a very intimate way. Successful communication is the key to all collaboration, and I think we’re riding a good wave here.

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It’s also interesting to hear Inez speak about how her approach to the pages has changed of late; namely that instead of painstakingly rendering each page one by one, she’s decided to start sketching out several pages all at once, so as to get a better sense of how the storytelling should flow without getting bogged down by details and drained by the process too early.

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Funnily enough, it mirrors my own turn with the writing of late: for similar reasons — to speed up the process in a way that matches the flow of the story — I’ve decided to go ‘Marvel method’ on the latter half of scriptwriting process; partly because dialogue is the most challenging part of it all for me, and partly because I think seeing the page laid out by Inez will inspire me to write dialogue that is both succinct and relevant to the flow of the story.

Please consider following our Patreon journey — it would mean a lot to us. Really. 

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello: Gothic pastiche for an illustrious judge

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Like MIBDUL, my contribution to the bi-lingual historical fiction volume Awguri, Giovanni Bonello — to be launched at some point in February in honour of the same judge’s 80th birthday — is yet another collaboration with Merlin Publishers, who have been a pleasure to work with ever since they oversaw the publication of my debut novel, TWO.

To say that this was a fun commission would be a massive understatement. Basically, the judge being honoured by this volume — the poshest birthday present imaginable, am I right? — was also something of an historian, and the personages he wrote about were ‘assigned’ to each of us writers to spin a fictional yarn out of. And I will forever be grateful to Merlin’s head honcho Chris Gruppetta for giving me what is possibly the most sensational and salacious character of the lot: Caterina Vitale, a Renaissance-era “industrial prostitute”, torturer of slaves and — paradoxically — beloved patron of the Carmelite Order.

Of course, I went to town with this one. High on the then still-ongoing Penny Dreadful — and hammering out the short story to the haunting and dulcet tones of that show’s soundtrack by the inimitable Abel Korzeniowski — I liberally crafted something that is both a pastiche of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, all set against the backdrop of a Malta fresh from the Great Siege.

I’m looking forward to getting my mitts on this gorgeous-looking book — designed by Pierre Portelli with illustrations by Marisa Gatt — if only because I look forward to checking out how my fellow TOC-mates tackled the raw material of Bonello’s historical output.

The Bard at the Bar: Debating Shakespeare

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On February 8 at 19:00, I will be moderating a panel discussion on whether the works of William Shakespeare are relevant to the Maltese theatre scene — and Malta at large — and if so, how to make them feel more accessible and vital to the widest possible audiences.

The brainchild of actor, director and journalist Philip Leone-Ganado of WhatsTheirNames Theatre, the debate will, significantly, take place at The Pub in Archbishop Street, Valletta, aka the place where Oliver Reed keeled over and died after consuming an obscene amount of alcohol while on a break from filming Gladiator back in 1999.

More recently, the venue has accommodated the very first edition of ‘Shakespeare at the Pub’ — a production of the Two Gentlemen of Verona directed by Ganado himself last year — and another one is in the offing for 2017.

Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Pub, Valletta (WhatsTheirNames Theatre, March 2016). Photo by Jacob Sammut

Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Pub, Valletta (WhatsTheirNames Theatre, March 2016). Photo by Jacob Sammut

The lively, unpretentious and game production certainly felt to me like a step in the right direction as far as making Shakespeare more vibrant and relevant was concerned, so I think the Pub is as good a place as any to keep that inspired momentum going with a good discussion.

And it should certainly make for a satisfying debate, given that apart from Ganado himself, the panel will be composed by James Corby (Head of Department of English at the University of Malta and hence offering some academic weight to the proceedings), Polly March (director of the upcoming MADC Shakespeare summer production — the ritualised and established intake of Shakespeare for the island) and Sean Buhagiar, head of the newly-established Teatru Malta and someone deeply concerned with nudging the local theatrical scene out of its usual comfort zones.

So do come along to hear us talk. And feel free to shout your questions and comments over a pint, or ten. Just don’t crank it up to Oliver Reed levels, please.

‘Do you really want to be normal?’ | Penny Dreadful

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is asked a tough question in the final moments of the first season of Showtime's Penny Dreadful

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is asked a tough question in the final moments of the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful

Spoilers for the first season of Penny Dreadful ahead

“Do you really want to be normal?”

That question, delivered by a seemingly benign Welsh priest (though given the particular show’s propensity for sneaky evil presences, one shouldn’t be too sure) concludes the final episode of the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, fading to black before the show’s erstwhile protagonist, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) can respond.

It’s an apt question to ask – even an apt question to end a season on – considering we’re dealing with a show about characters who are either grotesque, extraordinary or a mix of both. But it’s also pertinent to the show’s structure itself. Like the critically lauded but structurally uneven True Detective before it (also a moody slow-burner entrenched in the history of horror fiction, albeit the two shows picking two separate – Transatlantic, even – branches of the tradition), Penny Dreadful had eight episodes in its first season.

Apart from being somewhat atypical in the current trend of ongoing ‘prestige’ television dramas, whose seasons generally take in at least 10 and up to 13 or 14 episodes, Penny Dreadful – perhaps contrary to its title and the associated cultural pedigree that that implies – opted to unspool its story in slow drops, instead of at a frenetic pace, with a twist and/or “shocking” character revelation at every corner.

In addition to this, the show also kept its cards to its chest – and still has quite a few, it must be said, even after the season one finale – so that while it was hoped that the viewers would remain intrigued by the mystery, it was never quite certain which parts of the story had the most urgent implications for our characters. And to make things even harder for itself, the show dedicated two whole episodes – precious time, for such a considerably brief season – to flashbacks.

This begs the question: is Penny Dreadful just slow, or have we been ‘spoiled’ by a certain degree of acceleration in the way TV series tend to be delivered?

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Indeed, Penny Dreadful has nothing like the immediate (and sustained) hook of Breaking Bad, which works because it’s striking, simple and also workable over the long term: Walter White’s cancer is a looming portent of doom, while his gradual transformation into a drug baron can be enjoyed episode-to-episode (or perhaps more accurately, it can be charted from season to season) because it’s precisely that: a transformation, a journey, an element of the story that yields new developments by its very nature; and in this case, it’s a particularly seductive element as it promises to transform our protagonist from hero to villain. Penny Dreadful Neither can Penny Dreadful boast of the huge cast of characters and intersecting story-lines one finds in Game of Thrones which, unlike Penny Dreadful, can satisfy a large and varied swathe of viewers with each episode, as George RR Martin’s vast, medieval-fantasy world can flicker from one sub-plot to another in the blink of an eye, with each sub-plot practically catering to its own mini-genre (political thriller, domestic drama, picaresque journey, fantasy actioner… even horror of the ‘torture porn’ variety).

Penny Dreadful – perhaps by dint of its title alone – can’t even claim to be ‘above’ genre television, necessarily. It can’t afford to luxuriate in the longueurs of a Mad Men without consequence, because its premise, and the cultural milieu it pastiches, demands a certain amount of genre-familiar action: an expectation corroborated by the memory of the literary characters it has adopted (who are, at the very least, a century old, which increases the expectation we have of them substantially).

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Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney)

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney)

Am I suggesting that Penny Dreadful is faultless, or that any faults it may have should be forgiven because we appear to have been ‘spoilt’ by accelerated storytelling (even in long-haul drama) in this day and age? No.

Come the conclusion of season one, a couple of things about the show still rankle me slightly, namely:

1) The season’s primary plot engine: Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa’s quest to retrieve Mina Murray (Olivia Llewellyn). It just feels a little thin. Though there’s enough simmering interpersonal drama between Malcolm and Vanessa to spare (as we learn about half-way through the season), and though of course the supporting characters also do their part in filling up the episodes leading to the climax, the sweep of it just doesn’t feel epic enough to justify an entire season. (I wonder if a plot reshuffle would have worked better… if, say, Mina is actually retrieved earlier on – even as early as the third or fourth episode – but it turned out that she is still gripped by whatever evil she appears to be possessed by. The rest of the season would then progress much in the same way, but it would also be free of what is essentially a threadbare ‘final destination’. As it stands, it feels as though the story will only get going come season; and

2) The fact that Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney) appears to have been thrown into the fray to elicit sexual tension and titillation and little else. His character arc will doubtlessly pick up come season two (we weren’t offered a glimpse of his infamous portrait after all), but it was sloppy of the writers not to leave any breadcrumbs for us at all. Come the final episode, he’s a cipher – and not a tantalizing one, at that.

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But you’ll be hard-pressed to deny that Penny Dreadful is a sumptuous, atmospheric and impeccably photographed show, despite all its faults. This isn’t just cosmetic praise: its production value works towards creating its atmosphere of gloomy dread and, ultimately, menace. And I think this is far more worthwhile a dramatic pursuit than endeavoring to create a ‘monster-of-the-week’ type show, which this easily could have become, and which even I suspected it may have been (and I probably wouldn’t have minded one bit if that were the case, I must admit).

Like Hannibal – a show I love and admire even more than Penny Dreadful – it shoots everything in a gloomy chiaroscuro, reinforcing the sense that, if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for these characters, they’re going to have to work through plenty of gloom to get to it. But more than just being a trick of cinematography and production design, this prolonged sense of foreboding helps the story.

Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton)

Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton)

Because it’s a story about how evil is incredibly hard to beat. Though we were promised Dracula, and though some kind of vampire mythos is most certainly at play here, the suggestion is that the old Count (or some version of him), is being helped, or is subservient to, an ancient Egyptian deity who appears to be channeling powers we’d normally associate with Satan (at least in pop culture lore).

Eva Green’s Vanessa is of course the fulcrum of all this: because this demonic presence appears to have taken a liking to her, she’s also made to serve as bait for Mina – or, at least, as a tracking device. In a show as restrained as this – restrained, at least, within its genre – Vanessa’s moments of demonic possession were the key set pieces… and it’s commendable that the ‘wow’ factor of the show depended not on shocking key character deaths (Red Viper, anyone?) but rather, on an actress’ talents, necessarily OTT as those particular moments were. Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) The adage ‘force of nature’ is one of those hateful phrases that are tossed around too easily, but Green certainly gives the show her all: she can switch from beautiful to horrific, from formidable to crushed, in the blink of an eye.

Her effective martyrdom, powerfully rendered by Green, points to one thing above all: there is no talisman or magic charm, no arcane incantation that will drive this malevolent presence out for good (though our boy Ethan (Josh Hartnett) surprised everyone with his spot of impromptu exorcism, which saved Vanessa’s life in the season’s penultimate episode).

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The chosen tone of John Logan’s show – which has thankfully been confirmed for a second season – makes perfect sense for the kind of property (the word is crucial here) that it is.

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)

Save for Vanessa, we know a lot of these characters from their source material (that includes Malcolm Murray, who is H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain in all but name), and the show can’t play too closely to that. Instead of exploiting its Gothic and supernatural pedigree for effects-laden gimmicks and sensationalist shocks, it’s playing the long game, and keeping us guessing.

Or would you rather it were a “normal” show, after all?

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Questions:

1) Do you think that the eight-episode arc is proving to be a real challenge for TV writers?

2) Genre historians! Would you say that Penny Dreadful follows an old-school model of storytelling? Did the original penny dreadfuls have a similar structure? Haven’t had a chance to research this myself, so I’m really curious about this.

Monstering

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his Creature (Rory Kinnear) in Showtime's Penny Dreadful (2014)

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his Creature (Rory Kinnear) in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014)

“By revealing that difference is arbitrary and potentially free-floating, mutable rather than essential, the monster threatens to destroy not just individual members of a society, but the very cultural apparatus through which individuality is constituted and allowed. Because it is a body across which difference has been repeatedly written, the monster (like Frankenstein’s creature, that combination of odd somatic pieces stitched together from a community of cadavers) seeks out its author to demand its raison d’être – and to bear witness to the fact that it could have been constructed Otherwise” – Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

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