The Clown and the Crook: Finding Trump in Shakespeare’s Othello

It’s hard not to see reflections of Donald Trump in art these days. Take the sudden climb up the bestseller lists for George Orwell and other dystopian authors, or the obvious comparisons between Trump and fellow dark lord Voldemort—even his White House screening of Finding Dory couldn’t pass without irony. For a man whose presidential campaign was as steeped in narcissism as it was devoid of morality, such ubiquity in popular culture must be a dream come true.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that I saw Trump again on the weekend, in a production of Othello by the Shakespeare arm of Bristol’s Tobacco Factory. He came of course in the form of the play’s antagonist, Iago, whose plot to destroy the eponymous Moor by tearing down his marriage to Desdemona makes him one of Shakespeare’s most malevolent villains.

The surface comparisons between Trump and Iago are easy to see: his blatant lies about Desdemona’s adultery, for example; or how he promises to return to Roderigo, a white Venetian, the wife he feels Othello, a black immigrant, has stolen from him. Like Game of Thrones‘ Littlefinger, he moves from character to character pretending to offer help, all the while manipulating them for his own ends instead. But what made this particular iteration so resonant was STF’s Mark Lockyer, whose portrayal of Iago, whether by design or coincidence, took those parallels to the current President to a much greater depth.

Mark Lockyer as Iago. Photo by Camilla Adams, via The Tobacco Factory.
Mark Lockyer as Iago. Photo by Camilla Adams, via The Tobacco Factory.

Lockyer’s character was full of charisma. Instead of his default portrayal as a two-faced conniver, Iago became something of an enigmatic anti-hero, drawing laughter and camaraderie from the audience as he divulged his schemes. Given his role in the play, the rapport he was able to create was downright sinister. His attacks on Othello’s marriage and mental state were received almost like the blows of a plucky, underdog gladiator—seated as we were in tiers surrounding the Tobacco Factory’s central stage, it was certainly difficult to suppress the feeling of being in a Roman arena, lapping up the bloody spectacle on the sands below.

Perhaps it would have been easier to see Iago for what he was, had his scenes not been lit invariably by a ring of hard white strip lights around the stage. Under their relentless glare, his intrigues were thrown into such a nauseating clarity that they seemed dreamlike, a little fuzzy at the edges, and that unreality gave Iago free rein to distort himself as necessary. To Roderigo he was the ever-helpful ally; to Othello and Cassio, he was crude but innocuous. On the rare occasion he let his guard slip and another character caught sight of his true self (as Desdemona does in Act Two), their criticisms are waved away—that’s just Honest Iago, they’re reminded, he’s only saying what we all wish we could.

Only to the audience is the full picture of Iago’s malice usually revealed, though on this occasion Lockyer does his very best to hide it even from them. He riffs on the dramatic irony of his character’s multiple false faces, using it to paint him with the broad, clownish strokes of many of Shakespeare’s other antagonists; in return for his seemingly humble self-awareness, Iago is allowed the confidence of those who should have all they need to condemn him. His soliloquies are punctuated with a set of all-too-familiar hand gestures—even the “Trump Pump” handshake makes an appearance—and Lockyer exaggerates his delivery until what Iago actually says gets lost beneath how he says it.

Only at the very end, as the stage lights illuminate the play’s bloody climax, does the audience realise that it too has been duped—that the buffoonery it thought was so genuine was just another layer of deception. In the tense quiet that hung about the final scene, it was hard to tell if the onlookers were more stunned by the full extent of Iago’s grand plan, or by his success in convincing them that he could never truly pull it off.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons.

It may well be that the resemblance I saw between Trump and Iago was nothing more than the influence of the times. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but compare the shock of Iago’s unmasking with that of Trump’s presidential election victory.

Like Iago, Trump’s changing faces had enabled him to pull off the impossible: he rose to prominence in a Republican party convinced that he was harmless; he won the support of millions convinced he was on his side; and, perhaps most importantly, he basked in the apathy of rivals convinced he was a candidate too ludicrous to oppose.

I can’t speak for those around me in the audience, but the Iago I saw in Bristol put me in mind of this piece by journalist Ron Rosenbaum. In comparing Donald Trump’s campaign trail image to that of Adolf Hitler in the 1920s, Rosenbaum says: “Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at others a sleeping serpent, at others a trustworthy statesman.”

It was those same tactics of bluff that allowed Lockyer’s Iago to keep the danger he posed hidden from the rest of Othello‘s characters, just as they allowed the true potency of Donald Trump’s campaign to go unnoticed beneath the mockery of his legitimacy as a candidate. In laughing at the jester the audience was played for a fool—all that remains to be seen is whether that laughter will stop now the clown paint has been removed.

January in Books: His Bloody Project; The Essex Serpent; Voyage of the Basilisk

Ah, January—the month of new beginnings and fresh book goals. As well as starting a new Booktrotting chapter in Oceania, this month’s reading has been mostly about making a dent in my stack of literary Christmas presents, starting with bloody murder in the Scottish highlands, and a double helping of sea-serpents…


His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

A surprise and an underdog it may have been, but there’s no denying His Bloody Project deserved its place on the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Billed by the blurb as a simple historical fiction about a murder and its following trial, what sets this novel apart is Burnet’s unique choice of form. Presenting the story as true from the outset, he tells it not via the usual prose but with a collection of “found” witness statements, court documents and the memoir of the accused—think The Blair Witch Project meets Law & Order: Scottish Victims Unit.

But whilst that certainly made for an interesting concept, I’m still not entirely sure it resulted in the best read. It just felt a little too choppy to get into: the section comprising murderer Roddy’s memoir was a classic piece of historical fiction, compelling as it mounted to its bloody climax and so vibrantly real in its portrayal of Victorian Highland life; but for all its strengths, that part felt too short, and the medical reports and trial coverage far too long. For now, I’m still in two minds about His Bloody Project, though perhaps in time I’ll appreciate it better.


The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

But if I’m still unsure about His Bloody Project, I couldn’t be any more certain by comparison about The Essex Serpent. In the wake of the death of her abusive husband, the intrepid Cora Seabourne leaves behind the pity and mourning of London and rents a house in the tiny Essex parish of Aldwinter. Indulging her love of palaeontology amongst the fossil-rich clay of the Blackwater estuary, Cora’s dream of emulating Mary Anning soars when she learns that Aldwinter is haunted by a primordial sea-serpent…

I don’t think it would be too much to say that I really and truly fell for The Essex Serpent. The promise of a foggy riverbank and accompanying Gothic beastie would probably have been enough on its own to make this a good novel, but what makes it great is how Perry lets it swell to a level of complexity far beyond the mere terror of the Serpent. More than anything The Essex Serpent is a story about human relationships, about the different forms of love binding Cora’s circle of mismatched friends together; it’s also the story of England facing great change, as society’s old certainties are tested by feminism, socialism, science and reason, and people’s fears of this new age take shape as a serpent in the mist.

With everything The Essex Serpent sets out to be, it’s no wonder it’s won Sarah Perry so much praise over the last year—and that’s without even mentioning the beauty of Perry’s writing itself, and the way her voice flourishes into passages so sublime I couldn’t help but read them twice. It is simply an astounding novel, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.


Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

And speaking of sea serpents, after finishing The Essex Serpent there really was no other way to follow it up than by setting off with Marie Brennan’s Isabella Camherst, dragon naturalist and the Indiana Jones of fantastic palaeontology—the spirit of Mary Anning would have it no other way.

Voyage of the Basilisk, the third instalment in Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series (of which part five is out this April), sees Isabella embark on a two-year voyage aboard the RSS Basilisk, searching for sea-serpents in the far-flung oceans of the world. It’s this use of location that is one of this series’ main strengths: although the content of each volume is more or less the same—dragons are sought, shenanigans ensue, discoveries are made—Brennan uses her knack for worldbuilding to set each novel in an environment that not only keeps the story feeling fresh, but is also completely tangible, with whole languages and cultures that seem fully at home in the worlds they inhabit. From frigid mountains to swamps and savannahs, and now to the seas of Yelang and Dajin, these books are an armchair explorer’s dream.

However, it must be said that whilst the locations of Voyage of the Basilisk were as good as ever, the pacing of the book itself was a little off compared to its predecessors. It’s hardly surprising, given the task of condensing two years at sea into just 365 pages, but with so many time cuts it all felt too episodic to really flow as one narrative—nevertheless, with the scenery rolling ever by, and to the sound of Isabella’s whip-cracking wit, this still proved to be a highly enjoyable slice of escapism.

New Year’s Reading List

New year, new books: now there’s a resolution I can get behind. In my opinion, there’s no finer way to kick-start the year than by getting your teeth into a new book, whether that means taking a chance on an author you’ve never heard of or knocking a few of those Christmas gifts and holiday sale bargains off the to-be-read shelf.

With all the new beginnings in the air, I also like to spend some time on the approach to spring tackling some of those books I feel I should have read already, the Steinbeck and the Nabokov and the D. H. Lawrence—those books I buy from charity shops because they look all literary, but somehow never get round to reading at the time. Last year it was the time for To the Lighthouse and Fahrenheit 451, but I think with the way things are looking for the foreseeable future, it might be a good idea to make my reading list a little more dystopian this year…


The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Last year it took me pretty much forever to get round to reading the 2015 Man Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, so this year I’m determined not to be so sluggish with Paul Beatty’s 2016 winner The Sellout. Yes, that does mean giving it quite the bump to the top of my 80-strong to-read list—but given its satirical look at race relations in the US, and with many Americans currently re-evaluating whether racism is really as bad as everyone says (yeah, it really is), there doesn’t seem to be any more fitting time than the present to make myself acquainted with The Sellout.


img_3230His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

Another to-be-read from last year’s Man Booker shortlist, with all the praise Graeme Macrae Burnet’s fictional murder case study has garnered I could hardly say no to giving it a spin—not to mention my love of all things Scottish wouldn’t let me pass it up if I tried.


img_32351984, George Orwell

1984 is one of those books mentioned above that caught my eye in a second-hand shop, but once brought home was consigned to wait patiently at the tail end of my to-be-reads. But, as with The Sellout, the zeitgeist is pointing me towards Orwell’s Big Brother classic; after all, we probably haven’t got much time before 1984 stops being fiction and becomes enshrined as legitimate prophecy.


img_3234The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

One of the many books to arrive mysteriously in my stocking on Christmas morning, I fell in love with The Essex Serpent‘s thistly cover and dreamlike prologue so quickly I actually started reading it the minute I unwrapped it. Now two weeks and 150 pages in, this already looks like a pretty solid nominee for my book of the year.


img_3237Stone of Farewell, Tad Williams

I read the first volume of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, The Dragonbone Chair, back at the end of last summer, and after taking a few detours through Middle-Earth and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I feel it’s about time I got back to Williams’ sword-and-sorcery epics. I’m hoping the series does something to pick up in Stone of Farewell: The Dragonbone Chair was plenty enjoyable but got a bit stale towards the end, and it’ll be a shame if Stone does nothing more than pick up where Chair fizzled out.

2016 in Books: Challenges; Booktrotting; New Discoveries

img_2966

If there’s any single word to describe my 2016 reading list, it has to be “challenge”. Starting off the year with Leo Tolstoy’s infamous War and Peace I felt like I had laid down the gauntlet to myself, to really push the borders of my literary comfort zone; and naturally, with an act like Tolstoy’s to follow, I could hardly resist picking for my “Big Reads” of 2016 some of the most fiendish and formidable giants of literature – namely, Moby DickDon QuixoteAnna Karenina and Ulysses.

img_2967I must admit, part of the attraction of taking on this reading list was in the chance to smugly say I’ve read the books no one else would touch. But it was also about testing my resolve when it came to daunting tasks easily put aside – after all, if I can work through even the most constipated parts of Moby Dick, everything else should be gravy. Surprisingly, given my tendency to inhale literature, my only experience with books of this size has come from either epic fantasy or Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, so to have taken on these five and come out smiling is a big achievement. And, like with most challenges, now it’s over it’s hard to see why it looked so scary in the first place.

I was initially planning on carrying on this “Big Reads” mantra through 2017, perhaps with Les Misérables or even Finnegans Wake, but as much as I’ve enjoyed the challenge this year, I’m feeling pretty pooped now I’ve come to the end. In 4,051 pages, I’ve fought Napoleon, hunted the White Whale, jousted my way across Spain, scandalised Russian high society, and embarked upon the mother of all Dublin pub crawls – I think I ought to take a breather before jumping into the French Revolution or going another round with James Joyce.


img_2970Of course, I can’t talk about literary challenges without mentioning the start of my Booktrotting World Tour earlier this year. I’m definitely starting to feel the full scope of this project now – after five months of reading and writing, I’m still only just wrapping up the first leg in Latin America – but as we continue globally down the slope of ignorance and isolationism, this personal literary journey of mine feels even more important than it did in the summer.

img_2403So far, the hardest part of Booktrotting has not been reading and writing about the books themselves, but in finding them to begin with. I always said when I started that I didn’t want to settle for the “obvious” reads – no Murakami or García Márquez – but the problem with delving into obscurity is that it can make finding affordable, in-print translations a total nightmare.

Still, in a way that’s largely the point of all this: I want to be pushed into reading the books and authors you won’t stumble across on a Tesco bestsellers shelf, and if possible help others find them too. And in hindsight, I’m glad I made that decision, as it’s led to some incredible discoveries so far – not least of which my Colombian read, Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, which has to rival War and Peace for my book of the year.


img_2963Speaking of discoveries, I’ve also been taking more chances on contemporary books this year rather than just sticking to the classics I knew to be good. Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark was easily one of my books of the summer, and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen was the perfect wintry counterpart. And though not entirely new to me, the Finnish sci-fi writer Emmi Itäranta really hooked me with her sophomore novel The City of Woven Streets, and will definitely be someone I look out for in the future.

img_2959I didn’t read as many non-fiction books as I’d planned to this year (although I did read plenty of non-fiction in the sense of taking a genuine interest in the news and politics for once). Of the small number I did get round to reading, I particularly enjoyed Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain – archaeology and prehistory has somehow never managed to excite me before, but Oliver gets so enthused bringing it all to life it’s impossible not to get swept up with him.

img_2940But where my non-fiction target didn’t work out, I did end up reading a lot more graphic novels than expected, thanks to the happy combination of a sick day and a Sky 1 Supergirl marathon reviving my childhood love of comic books. At the moment, I’m just getting into the Kamala Khan Ms Marvel series and loving every page of it – but more on that here. I’d really love to explore what graphic novels can do outside of the superhero remit in the future, so if you have any recommendations on that front please do hit me up.

December in Books: The Outrun; Anna Karenina; No Normal

The Outrun, Amy Liptrot

img_2931-2At the age of thirty, Amy Liptrot finds herself washed up back home on Orkney. Standing unstable on the island, she spends her mornings swimming in the sea, her days tracking Orkney’s wildlife, and her nights searching the starry skies, as she tries to come to terms with the addiction that has swallowed the last decade of her life.

It’s hard to write about memoirs without resorting to stock phrases like “brave” or “unflinching”, but if any book truly deserves to be described in these terms it’s The Outrun. Being an account of a life dominated by alcohol addiction and mental illness, it’s naturally fraught with episodes that are hard enough to read, let alone write and send out into the wider world; yet Liptrot tackles each one with a characteristic steadiness, marking things out as they need to be like one describing a flood from the safety of higher ground. Her tone is confessional without asking for pity, detached without ever being cold – for a debut memoir, the balance to which Liptrot’s writing holds throughout is remarkable.

But as well as a stark self-portrait of addiction, The Outrun is also a great window on life amongst the far-flung shores of the British Isles. Liptrot’s nature writing (compared favourably by many to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk) is often as good as, if not better than, her memoir writing – of particular note is her time spent tracking corncrakes at night for the RSPB, which includes a striking image of the nightlights of Kirkwall and sunrise over the north Orkney coast. She also writes in the details of lambing season, elements of local history and geography, the quirks of ultra-rural life – at any one time, The Outrun can be not only a memoir, but also a guide book, a farming manual and a storm survival guide, whilst maintaining at all times its own cohesive identity.

If you’re looking for any book to start 2017 on the right foot, make it this one.


Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

anna-kareninaYou might think that after reading War and Peace back in January, I’d have already had enough of Leo Tolstoy for one year. But as his infamous opus immediately became one of my favourite novels (if not top of the list), when I started looking around for a meaty classic to get my teeth into over Christmas, I couldn’t really look anywhere other than Anna Karenina.

I must admit, I didn’t come away from Anna Karenina quite as enamoured as with its famous shelf-sibling. But that’s not to say it’s not a good book – far from it. Just like with War and Peace, Tolstoy uses the great length of this novel to really immerse you in his world, perhaps more fully than any fantasy author, not stopping simply at bringing his characters to life but drawing out every their every facet in turn until by the end you know them as well as if you had written them yourself. It’s just a shame Tolstoy is mostly remembered now for being “the Big Book Guy”, rather than for his talent in building truly human relationships between reader and character.


No Normal (Ms Marvel, Vol. I), G. Willow Wilson

img_2940When it comes to mainstream female superheroes, it’s pretty damn hard to find one outside of the big-busted/ blonde/ hot pants Venn diagram. Which is why I was ecstatic when I heard Marvel Comics had finally bet against the norm, rebooting the historically white blonde Ms Marvel character as Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani-American from Jersey City.

That alone would have been good enough for me – so much the better that the comic itself is brilliant too. The script is arguably Kamala’s biggest co-star, as snappy as any Gilmore Girls episode and deftly calling out the kinds of casual racism still floating around our modern world unnoticed: “Your headscarf is so pretty. But, I mean…nobody pressured you to start wearing it, right?” I also love how Kamala trying to get a handle on her new shapeshifting powers draws such a parallel with the way young LGBT teenagers often try to understand themselves at first – especially in one scene in issue three, when shortly after discovering her powers Kamala searches the Internet for anyone else who’s experienced the same transformation as her (“‘Super-powers.’ ‘Shape-shifting powers.’ ‘Woke up as a polymorph.’… I can’t be the first person this has happened to.”).

Although it can sometimes be a little heavy-handed with its messages, No Normal and the Kamala Khan series is an excellent example of a comic book doing what it’s best at – bringing a fringe character out into the spotlight. Marvel has done the “misunderstood teen loner” thing so many times before with Spider-man and the X-Men and so on, but with the new Ms Marvel they’ve dragged that angle up to date, taking a swipe at the post-9/11 ignorance and showing that life as a Muslim and life as a “normal” American teenager are in no way mutually exclusive.

The Unwanted Christmas Guest

December’s got off to a weird start this year. It’s usually my favourite month of the year – not just because it starts with my birthday and ends with Christmas, but also because of that feeling of carefree finality that comes with the end of the year. Because it’s a time to recharge, take stock, and, however briefly and shamelessly, be merry for merriment’s sake.

But for some reason, I’m just not feeling that this time. Traditionally for me, December starts with a sudden lurch into festivity. The tinsel comes down from the loft and is draped over every surface, the kitchen gets snowed under with stollen and biscotti, every cup of tea is festooned with cinnamon sticks. Love Actually and a festive Scotch is a staple of the first night of the month. But whilst none of that has been forgotten this year, I’m feeling a bit like it’s all being done on autopilot, like I’m feeling Christmassy because I should rather than because I actually am.

Part of me isn’t really that surprised, given the year we’ve had. I mean, personally 2016 has been a terrific year, full of momentum and huge forward gains, but externally all that just looks like a silver lining to an increasingly bleak bigger picture. The foul aftermath of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the resurgence of the far right across the world: coming into December has really brought home that New Year’s Eve is not the big reset button we like to pretend it is, and the thought of all that continuing on the other side of the calendar does rather push Christmas spirit down the list of priorities.

And of course another part of me is concerned that all this is actually much more internal than an anxious reaction to the state of the world. In the past, this kind of lethargy and disinterest has usually been the herald of a period of depression, so naturally I can’t help worrying if this isn’t just a common funk but a warning I should take note of.

Still, these days I am nothing if not positive; and the fact that I am actually able to hear the warning now is proof that I am far more able than I was twelve months ago to deal with whatever comes next. And in a way, there’s actually some relief to be had from seeing the Big D again. However great my progress has been over the last year, I’ve always accepted that someday I would inevitably have to face down another “episode”. That’s unfortunately just the nature of mental illness – you can move to a dry country, but you’re still going to have to dodge the rain from time to time. But now that time is here, I can focus on how to deal with it rather than keep looking over my shoulder for it to come.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I’ve read things right and the Big D is planning on a Christmas visit, that’s OK. It’s not the end of the world anymore. Because as much as I’d rather it stay the fuck away, I know better now than to ignore it. The lows are just an inevitable part of life, and just as depression isn’t simply an illness that makes you sad all the time, overcoming it doesn’t mean you have to always be happy. The trick for me has always been in practicing control rather than abstinence; in learning how to go down without going under, and being able to watch the sun set knowing it will rise again.

The Next Step

Adventures can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re quick journeys to somewhere new; sometimes, they can take us back to places we’ve already been or thought we’d left behind, and often by the most circuitous routes. And sometimes, like they did yesterday, they can begin in the bleary predawn murk, with a return to Bristol Parkway and a timetable for the University of the West of England open day.In many ways, visiting UWE yesterday was something both familiar and strange: familiar, because it’s hardly my first time on a university campus; and yet strange because, although it’s been a long time coming, I’m still struggling a little to believe I’ve actually come this far.

It’s now coming up for three years since I decided to cut short my time at Plymouth University, leaving at the end of my first year under a barrage of mental health problems I was in no way close to understanding. It was one of those decisions that was incredibly difficult to make, and yet at the same time made easy by the simple logic that I was too ill at the time to do anything else. But although I had no idea then of the scale of the battle I was about to enter, I did promise myself that when I was well enough I would one day return and finish my degree.

The plan was to make good on that promise this September gone. After going back to college to pick up an A level in English Literature and Language, it just seemed the natural way to go – from college straight back into uni, normal service resumed. And so this time last year, I did the rounds at open days, I worked away at the perfect application, I even had a calendar made to count down to my triumphant return to back-on-trackness.

But when the January application deadline came, I let it go by without me: not only did I not submit my application, but I didn’t even finish it. When my friends, family and college tutors asked me why, I told them simply and vaguely that, after thinking about it, I just wasn’t sure university was for me after all.

So how did I come to be at UWE yesterday? Well, I’m sorry if any of those friends, family and tutors are reading this, because the truth is I lied to you all.

In my defence, I wasn’t lying through any malicious intent, it was simply easier than admitting the truth – that despite spending two years working towards this goal, I still hadn’t recovered enough to take such a massive step. Although this was after I had started seeking help with my depression, mental health problems aren’t something that can be sorted out in just a few months. I knew then, even if I didn’t know how to explain it to others, that if I went back to university before I was ready, it would only end up undoing all the progress I’d made so far.

But one year on, more or less, I finally feel confident and honest in saying that I am ready to do this. In light of all the progress I’ve made since last summer, returning to university not only feels like a real possibility, it feels like the next step forward in my path to recovery. That’s not to say it’s not still a really bloody scary idea, but nor does that mean it can’t be done. The thing with having depression and anxiety disorder is that literally everything looks like a really bloody scary idea until you do it, and having been forced twice before to put university aside for my mental health, I’m not going to let it happen again. I can do this, and I bloody will do this, and if Depression has anything to say to the contrary, well…tumblr_mdjxtxhzru1r9wybv