Friday, 24 February 2012

David Rudkin: Penda's Fen, The Ash Tree and Artemis 81


David Rudkin
is a writer principally associated with the theatre, and particularly with the RSC. He has written a number of plays, for both stage and television, which conflate historical, mythological and psychological themes in complex, many-layered stories shot through with elements of the fantastic. The Stone Dance (1963) was his first work for TV, and anticipated some aspects of Penda’s Fen in its depiction of a young man, the son of an evangelical Welsh pastor, who is drawn to a stone circle near their new home in Cornwall, which he feels embodies his sexual difference. The power residing within the stones offers both an alternative to his father’s oppressive and puritanical religion and a warning of the ossifying psychological effect of his preaching through the local legend that they are the petrified forms of women who dared to dance on the Sabbath. The Sons of Light (written 1964-5 but only given its first performance in 1976) was an epic, modern mythical drama, again centring around a pastor and his sons who arrive at a remote Scottish island over which a hierarchical and deterministic religion holds sway, creating a climate of unquestioning acceptance. The bleak landscape, with its curtains of obscuring fog, forms the stage for a drama played out in a series of ritualistic encounters between characters with strange, antiquarian names suggestive of half-forgotten religions and beliefs (Dr Nebewohl, Miss Wemwood, Stephen Yescanab and Child Manatond) who take on the weight of archetypes, unconsciously engaged in the latest form of an eternal Manichean struggle between the forces of darkness and light. The barren landscape of the island covers an artificial underworld which blends big ‘white heat’ science with gothic horror in a manner drawing from German expressionist cinema. Here, Dr Nebewohl carries out Wellsian, Dr Moreau-style experiments in human debasement, both physical and psychological, creating a band of mutant Morlock slaves. The uncovering of the island’s secret programme leads to the deaths of the three ‘sons of light’ (the pastors ‘angels’), but the broken characters of the abused girl Child Manatond and the homosexual son of the Elder stonemason Stephen Yescanab emerge from the confrontation between darkness and light to tentatively offer an alternative to the horrors of psychological, political and scientific power and control which they have witnessed.

The Living Grave (1980) was a TV play retelling a case of hypnotic regression in which a Liverpudlian nurse from the twentieth century recalled the life of an eighteenth century maid, Kitty, a servant in the Dartmoor village of Manaton (the same village, with added d, from which Child Manatond’s name was taken). She was abused and ended up hanging herself rather than bearing the shame of her unborn and illegitimate child, and was buried beyond the village bounds by a fork in the road. The Saxon Shore (1986) blended history, myth and psychology ( both individual and national) once more in its tale of the members of a Germanic tribe, loyal to Rome, who are sent to an outpost of Empire. They live by Hadrian’s Wall, and at night unconsciously transform into werewolves, raiding the Celtic villages north of the border. Merlin Unchained (2008) resurrects the central mythic matter of Britain, telling the story of an aging and diminished Merlin who slowly regains his memory and power for one last task, which brings him into the modern world. Rudkin also adapted Mikhail Bulghakov’s phantasmagorical fable, The Master and Margharita, in which the devil and his assistants, including an urbane cat, walking upright on its hindlegs, pay a visit to Moscow and spread gleeful pandemonium in their wake.

King Penda regains his throne
Rudkin wrote two TV dramas which incorporated all of his abiding themes, and which were narratively dense, multi-faceted, poetically allusive and hugely ambitious – challenging viewing for the TV audiences of the 70s and early 80s. These were Penda’s Fen (1974), directed by Alan Clarke, and Artemis 81 (1981), directed by Alastair Reid. He also adapted MR James’ The Ash Tree (1976), which was the last of the Ghost Stories for Christmas directed for the BBC by Lawrence Gordon Clark. Penda’s Fen centred around the character of Stephen, another son of a religious man. in this case an Anglican vicar. He is a young man approaching the end of his schooldays in Worcestershire (where Rudkin himself had taught). He has deeply held conservative values, both in terms of a conventional Christian morality and a narrowly patriotic nationalism. Possessed of a precocious and rather precious intelligence, he is musically talented, revering Elgar (and in particular The Dream of Gerontius), and is well-read in the classics, which neatly line his shelves. His intellectual pride gives him an inbuilt sense of his own superiority and apartness from his fellow pupils. But as the story progresses, his certainties are undermined by a number of developments. He becomes increasingly aware of his own burgeoning sexuality, his attraction to men which marks him as different and ‘unworthy’ in his own terms. He discovers that he was adopted by the mother and father he has grown up with, and that his true parentage is mixed, and fails to accord with his view of what constitutes Englishness. Photographs of his mother and father depict them as ‘a Slavic looking man, a Latinish looking woman, possibly Breton or West Irish’, according to Rudkin’s script. He also uncovers the Pagan substrata of the local Worcestershire landscape, excavating, with the help of visionary prompts, the philological roots of the placename Pinvin (the village near which he lives), which he finds derives from Penda’s Fen, and thus learning of Penda, ‘the last Pagan king of England’. He discovers that his father, beneath his stable and stolid exterior, has a more controversial past, having espoused a radical and politically engaged form of Christianity, and written a revisionist theological exposition of it called The Buried Jesus, which resurrects a Christ who is a much more revolutionary figure, a challenge to the status quo.

Shadows of light - Watchful angels
Stephen also finds himself drawn to the local playwright Thomas Arne and his wife, whom he had previously dismissed as ‘unnatural’ for what he thought of as their unpatriotic radicalism and anti-establishment views. These upheavals in his life and worldview manifest themselves in visions of angels and demons (although he mostly only sees the demons), which battle for possession of his soul, and for that of the nation as a whole. This battle culminates in a confrontation on the high ridges of the Malvern Hills between the old Pagan king and the ‘father and mother of England’, a conservative Christian couple and Mary Whitehouse style campaigners whom Stephen had read about in a newspaper and held up as an ideal in a class debate. They now become the embodiments of a controlling force, who would destroy him rather than see him reject their prescriptive role for him as a ‘Child of Light’, an infantilised vessel for their own shrivelled and fearful ideals. They move towards him with tweedy and twinset menace and begin to burn an instamatic photograph, which will murder his newly found self-image as a creature who embraces contradiction, and he instinctively calls upon Penda for aid. The King appears and his imperiously pointing finger exterminates the couple in a flashing, magical conflagration. Stephen descends back into the world, full of a new and confident sense of self and of purpose, through which he can serve the country laid out below him by nurturing and cherishing the ‘sacred demon of ungovernableness’ (as Rudkin phrases it in his playscript).

Rudkin’s adaptation of MR James’ The Ash Tree draws out and makes explicit the hints of sexual revulsion and panic which some have found in his stories of ghosts and vengeful revenants. Richard Holmes in his 1974 essay MR James and Others, included in his collection Sidetracks, and Michael Chabon in his piece The Other James, which is in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, both highlight this aspect, designed to induce a shudder rather than a chill. The Ash Tree tells the story of two generations of the Fell family, as represented by Sir Matthew and his descendant Sir Richard, the squires of a country village who live in an old Elizabethan mansion. A deathly curse which Matthew incurs for presiding over the hanging of the supposed witch, Mistress Mothersole, is revisited on Richard, and seemingly originates in the ash tree which grows beyond the bedroom window, and across whose night-shadowed branches dark figures can be caught in the periphery of vision, scuttling swiftly back and forth. As an incidental and irrelevant (but hopefully interesting) aside, James places the hanging of Miss Mothersole in the year 1690, whereas we Exonians know that the last executions for witchcraft took place in the city of the Exeter, with the hanging of the three ‘Bideford Biddies’ in 1682.

Gibbet Tor - Dartmoor hanging
The origins of the curse which is put on Matthew Fell and his ancestors by Mistress Mothersole is clearly located in the squire’s attraction to the young woman whom he accuses of witchcraft, and who is hung on his repeated, self-assuring statement of witness (‘what I have seen, I have seen’). It is a desire which his puritan notions of sensual pleasure as ungodly and wicked forces him to deny and suppress. The scene in which Miss Mothersole (who in Rudkin’s script is given a first name, Ann) is ‘tested’ is explicitly sexualised, with Matthew as a lurking onlooker. Strung up in an outlying stable of the mansion in a cruciform pose, she is a martyr of the old beliefs, sacrificed to the rigid and controlling ideology of the new, dominant religion. Whilst she is subjected to the crude interrogations of the travelling witchfinders, she holds Sir Matthew’s gaze, not allowing him to escape her regard for one moment as he circles her poor, tormented body. When he condemns her, he does so in full knowledge of what he is saying, and makes his damning statement under her direct gaze. There is no doubt about his personal culpability, nor of her knowledge of it and its true origins. Rudkin identifies repressed sexuality as the generating force both for cruelty and violence and for the emergence of the future horror which will emerge and invade the Fell’s bedchamber. Whereas James’ story has the Fells’ Elizabethan mansion inherited by two generations of offspring, in Rudkin’s adaptation, Richard Fell, the inheritor, is only an indirect relation, making reference to an uncle whom he barely knew. The barrenness of the family is part of the curse, a denial of fertility and fecundity (it also extends to livestock) which blows the aridity of their puritan Christian views back at them. Richard has none of the misdirected fervour and repressed judgementalism of his uncle, however. He is to be married to a lively young woman, Lady Augusta (played by Lalla Ward), and they appear relaxed and happy in each other’s company. As he imposes his own tastes and renovations upon the old house, servants are seen carrying in erotic works of art, and Lady Augusta humourously chides him for having the steamy novel Tom Jones in his library. The spirit of his uncle, which glowers down at him from a stern portrait above the stairs, seems to have been exorcised.

Dark shadows of ancestry
However, the spirit of place, and of his uncle’s time, seems to infect him in her absence, and Rudkin conveys his increasing disconnection from his old self through sudden, barely perceptible shifts between past and present, between Matthew and Richard (both played in a similar tenor by Edward Petherbridge). Richard begins to utter phrases which Matthew had spoken, and the drop of the witches from the gallows is interrupted by a sudden cut to Richard’s time, in which his glass slips from his fingers and falls to the floor. Matthew seems mesmerised by the draw of the past, and by the influence of his ancestry, the call of his blood. Even the walls of the mansion, with their growths of climbing, red-leaved plants, seem to be splashed with the guilty blood of his inheritance. He instructs the servants that he shall move to the room in which Matthew died, and which has been locked ever since, the room beyond whose window the branches of the ash tree spread, occasionally creaking and scraping against the panes. It’s as if he is inviting his fate to enter and reveal itself, or as if his will is no longer entirely his own. Mistress Mothersole’s vengeful curse takes the form of horrific baby-headed spiders, Odilon Redon lithographs come to life, which emit mewling, sucking cries. Emerging from the ash tree, they claim the lives of both Matthew and Richard as they lie alone in their bed, supping on their sleeping bodies and leaving them to be discovered in the morning, blackened and bloated. When the tree is burned down and dug up after Richard’s death, a skeleton with a gaping maw is uncovered, looking as if it is some ancient ancestor of humanity, now more twisting root than bone. Its legs are parted in a dying act of unholy birth, its final cries echoed by its hellish spawn. All of this is Rudkin translating James. None of the horror of birth and sex is present in such explicit and disturbing form in the story. The spiders emerge from the tree, but they do not possess the scrunched faces of babies. The skeleton is uncovered, but no detail is given of its attitude, its expression or the positioning of its limbs.

Artemis 81 was written just after Rudkin had produced a translation of Euripedes’ 5th century BC classical tragedy Hippolytus in a modern performing version for the stage. This epic 3 hour TV film is filled with the afterimages from that experience. In Euripedes’ play, Hippolytus worships the goddess Artemis, the embodiment of chasteness, the hunt and the wilderness (perhaps better known in her Roman form as Diana), her symbol the crescent moon. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and passion, is angered by Hippolytus’ withholding of tribute to her, and punishes him by inflaming his mother-in-law Phaedra (the wife of his father Theseus) with desire for him. She struggles with her feelings, but they are revealed through the ill-considered actions of her nurse. Hippolytus reacts by issuing a torrent of misogynistic abuse, deriding women and their emotional weakness with bitter invective. His mother cannot bear the shame, and hangs herself, spitefully withholding any explanation and writing a letter which seems to direct the blame towards her son in law. Hippolytus himself is unable to protest his innocence, as he has sworn an oath to the nurse not to reveal the truth about his mother’s passion. Theseus, the king, returns from his travels and concludes that Hippolytus is to blame for Phaedra’s death, having possibly assaulted her, and he mortally wounds him. Artemis appears at the end, just as Aphrodite had at the beginning, to reveal the truth to Theseus. She vows vengeance on the next mortal who finds favour with Aphrodite.

Alien classicism - mythological landscape with twin suns
Artemis 81 opens with the play’s landscape of a sandbar dividing saltwater lake from ocean, but the twin setting suns and pink sky indicate that we are not on Earth. Asrael and Helith (played by Roland Curram and Sting, in his first acting role), angels of dark and light, approach a twisted tree from opposite directions. Their cloaks, held together by circled and pinned clasps, suggest that we’re still on some version of the Saxon shore. They converge over a rock formation with a strangely figurative aspect. It is brought to life against the wishes of the angel of light, who claims that the time is not yet right, and that his brother merely wishes to bring destruction and chaos into the world. Meanwhile, in a museum in Denmark (this was to have been a Danish co-production) a raffishly attired classical musician with a Romantic, Liszt-like sweep of long white hair (played by Dan O’Herlihy, a veteran of films such as Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, Orson Welles’ Macbeth, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life and the titular star of Luis Bunuel’s Robinson Crusoe) is admiring a small statue of a figure identified as Magog. Half human, half a fragment of volcanic regolith, it is the miniature twin of the terrible goddess we have seen emerging from its cracked geologic carapace on the alien world. He feels compelled to steal it, and on the ferry back home, breaks it up and smuggles the parts – limbs, head and torso – in the cars of random passengers. A woman on board, Gwen (Dinah Stabb), herself a would-be musician and composer, recognises the old man as von Drachenfels, a world famous organist. She raises the courage to approach him, and the two talk about music and art. He makes a profound impression on her, and he seems to like her, inviting her to visit him and bring along some of her music for him to look over.

Von Drachenfels - under the power of Magog
We follow the progress of various of the passengers into whose vehicles the dismembered parts of the statue have been distributed as they travel to the far corners of the British Isles – Northern Ireland, Birmingham, Devon and Wastwater in the Lake District. They are all overcome with an almost offhandedly nihilistic urge, and dispassionately kill themselves in various ways, as if mesmerically compelled to do so. Our main protagonist, the science fiction writer Gideon (Hywell Bennett), meets with Gwen, who clearly feels deeply for him. But he treats her with cool indifference, remaining at a safe distance from all human contact and closeness. She inveigles him into accompanying her to see von Drachenfels at his country home, where they find him in the adjoining church, its entrance bathed in demonic red light. Inside, he is attended by a man in a sharp, black suit, whom we recognise as Asrael, the dark angel from the opening scene. Gwen speaks with von Drachenfels in his organ ‘confessional’, behind a drawn red curtain. Having observed the nature of her relationship with Gideon, and questioned her about it, he tells her that he is in thrall to Artemis, ‘withdrawn, within beyond our reaching – a prisoner in his own nature’. He is critical of her playing and writing, discouraging her from pursuing any further artistic ambitions. Gideon, meanwhile, has been studying the stained glass, finding in it a representation of the hunched Magog figure with which we are familiar. Having shattered her hopes, her ‘thought of being another Gillian Weir’, von Drachenfels bids Gwen farewell with a parting ‘remember me’, echoing the fading cry of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, thus adding to the general gothic atmosphere. Gideon notes that the old man keeps Gwen’s rejected composition, slipping it into his bag. After they have left, von Drachenfels descends into the catacombs below his house, which are lit with a hellish red light, the magic fire music from Wagner’s Die Walkyrie booming out all around him. He emerges into a Frankensteinian chamber, a stone-walled lair filled with modern electronic equipment, at the centre of which his old love lies like Brunnhilde, in a semi-insensate state at the centre of medical monitors, waiting to be reawakened.

Gideon before the Dreyer wall
Gideon receives a call from his old friend Jed, and travels north to see him, sitting in on one of his film studies lectures. He’s talking about the climactic tower scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which James Stewart’s Scottie embraces the woman who he’s recreated as the dead Madeleine. Jed talks of the circling camera as a moral eye, consecrating their embrace. As the background is magically transformed behind them, he suggest that this camera eye ‘tells us we do right to dream, and for our sanity must learn to fall’. Hitchcock’s work, and Vertigo in particular, becomes another of the thematic strata running through the Rudkin’s script. Gideon returns with Jed to his home, the walls of which are bedecked with posters and stills from late Hitchcock films; not just Vertigo, but also The Birds, Torn Curtain and Family Plot. There are also stills from Carl Dreyer films, including a large one of the vampiric old man in Vampyr (a film about which Rudkin has authored a bfi classics guide), who bears a striking resemblance to von Drachenfels. Jed confesses to Gideon that he feels disconnected from himself and from others. He hears ‘my true self telling me Jed’s dead’. He shares Gideon’s morbid fascination with the pattern of the suicides from the Danish ferry, and they drive out to visit the site by Wastwater lake where the lorry driver had killed himself, sitting calmly in the refrigerated container until he was so much frozen meat. A small blue flower grows on this bleak site, which Jed stops Gideon from plucking. When they part, Gideon leaves with a glib farewell line – ‘give my love to Hitchcock’ – to which Jed answers with a heartfelt ‘take mine’, accompanied by a firm kiss on the forehead. Gideon merely retreats into the protective cocoon of his huge, blocklike motorhome – an armoured carapace in which he can travel the country whilst remaining completely separate from it.

The dream tower - planning a retreat
We learn that Gideon is planning to convert an old medieval tower into his dream home, a mix of the modern and the gothic which we have already seen in von Drachenfels’ house. The camera cuts from this site to its contemporary equivalent, the tower block, where Gideon is saying goodbye to Gwen, having borrowed her car as a more discrete vehicle in which to return secretly to von Drachenfels’ home. She gives him a gift of a sonic whistle which she has made, which will protect him against the vicious dog which roams the grounds, and which is identified with Asrael, a familiar or transformed aspect (another of the Saxon Shore’s werewolves?). Gideon finds and retrieves Gwen’s score, but von Drachenfels discovers him creeping around the grounds outside the church. He draws him aside and into the shadows so that he can’t be seen by Asrael, and Gideon comes to realise that he is somehow in his power. He finds that the score is dotted with strange symbols, seemingly an encoded attempt at communication. Sleeping in Gwen’s car on the hard shoulder that night, he discovers a small, basalt-like lump of rock, which he fails to identify as the head of Magog.

The Hitchcock blonde - Ingrid Pitt
Now fully engaged in his role as scholarly detective, Gideon travels to Oxford, entering an old library and quizzing a precocious young classical student (played by a fresh-faced Daniel Day-Lewis) about Artemis. He describes her aspects as being a seemingly contradictory blend of ‘virginity, castration and pregnancy’, represented in a picture he shows Gideon as ‘a tower headed mother’. Her symbol is the moon as ‘she hatches each new creature into being’, and she later develops into figures such as Mary, Morgan le Fay and Magog. Gideon is distracted from this enthusiastic scholar’s discourse, a learned exposition which the young man clearly relishes giving, by a woman who leaves him a note claiming that she can help him before retreating to the stacks in the stalls above. He follows her and discovers a classic Hitchcock blonde, a small but enjoyable turn from Ingrid Pitt, who defiantly smokes in this sacred space in order to maintain her femme fatale cool. Far from helping Gideon, she attempts to steal Gwen’s score, but is knocked down by a car outside the library, staining the covers with her blood. Gideon then travels to Devon, to a Dartmoor farmhouse, where he visits the wife of the film-maker Tristram Guise, one of the Danish ferry victims. She shows him various Tarot cards, re-interpreting them to remove their accumulated horror movie aura of gothic dread. Death as change, the Hanged Man as balance, The World as flux, the Moon as distance and female power, and the Tower as potential disaster and destruction. Outside, in the garden, a patch of the blue flowers Gideon and Jed had discovered by Wastwater is emerging from the earth as the snow melts. Back in his home, he discovers the secret to von Drachenfels’s code – the notations on the score are scientific symbols which have their alphabetical equivalents on his golf ball typewriter – and uncovers the story of his theft of Magog and smuggling of the broken up parts, and the link with the subsequent suicides. Gideon retreats to the Welsh coast at Ceg Uffern (Devil’s Mouth) in his motorhome, parking near the cliffs by the remains of an old cottage, which looks like a ruined medieval church, before which a red phone box is placed. He phones Gwen at work to excitedly tell her of his discoveries, filled with enthusiasm and more animated than we have thus far seen him. He sees these interconnected events as raw material for a new book (‘what a narrative scheme’). Gwen doesn’t share his excitement, which only now manifests itself remotely over a long distance. She is upset that he has left the gift which she gave him, the whistle, in the car, abandoning her talismanic protection and offering further symbolic and thoughtless rejection. Through the window behind her, the monumental tower of the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool rises, and at its base we see the dark figure of Asrael watching her.

Gwen - under the gaze of Asrael
Gideon sits in his motorhome, Arnold Bax’s symphonic tone poem Tintagel blasting out of his boombox as a soundtrack to the seascape framed in the window behind him. Using a large laminated map of Britain laid out before him, he triangulates the geographical points of the story he has pieced togother – the locations of the suicides and points of de- and embarkation – and connects them with ruled lines in various colours, intersecting and joining across the country. They form a pentagram, a perfect five sided star, an indication that some occult force has been asserting itself and remotely guiding events. Tracing its focal point, Gideon is startled to discover that it is his tower, his dream retreat, a fortress from which to hold the world at a distance. Meanwhile, in intercut scenes, edited with increasing speed to suggest a progression towards some sort of climax, we see the relatives of the suicide victims converging on the tower, to which Gwen has also travelled. They approach from all four points of the compass, herding and hemming her in, forcing her to become part of the pattern. Gideon, realising that she is in possession of the missing head of Magog and is thus in danger, rushes out to the phone box to try and warn her. Behind him, his motorhome, his mobile carapace and armour against the chaotic flux of the world, is destroyed in a violent explosion. He wakes up sprawled brokenly across the rocks of the cliff-face, bruised and bloody. An air sea rescue helicopter hovers above him, and a figure descends on a rope to lift him to safety. It is the angel of light, Helith, his head eclipsing the sun as he gets nearer so that his face is haloed with solar radiance. Gideon is taken up into the heavenly helicopter and flown away, Helith smiling and saying ‘Welcome, Gideon, aboard’, and telling him ‘you’re going to be out of action quite some while’.

Next – Artemis concluded and a look at Rudkin’s themes, influences and preoccupations.


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