Happy new year! I kind of eschewed doing an end of year wrap up for 2018 because, well, I had other things on my mind and I really thought it was the last thing the universe needed.
However, I’m glad to be starting 2019 with yet another list of stuff I’m into.
Company (at the Gielgud)
Sondheim is weird. Like, there’s no two ways about it, Sondheim is weird. Things he has written musicals about include, a fictional Victorian serial killer, real 19th and 20th century murderers, pointillism, and fairytales. In some ways, Company is one of his oddest musicals because, to paraphrase his own description of it, it’s basically a musical about the sorts of people who go and see musicals. Which is to say, middle class people in their 30s who aren’t quite sure what they want from life, but have a nebulous feeling they’re doing it wrong. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of dated. The original story about a man in his thirties who isn’t married but has a broad and eclectic group of friends who are is still sort of relatable in some ways in that, in any given friendship group, there’s going to be one person who’s the last to get a partner. But culturally-speaking we’re a lot less concerned with being settled down by 28 than we were in 1970, so the show loses quite a lot of its emotional force because instead of thinking “I wonder why that nice man isn’t married yet” you’re thinking “I wonder why that nice man hangs out with these bizarrely out of touch people.”
Anyway, the shtick with the current Gielgud Theatre revival (which I think is running til March now, so if you’re in the UK, and like going to the theatre, and particularly like Sondheim, which I’m very aware is an acquired taste, you can still check it out) is that they’ve re-gendered the central character, and made a couple tweaks to the friends so that their relationships feel a bit less, well, mid-20th century (so a few of them are interracial, one of the couples have had their genders flipped, and another couple is same-sex now). And it works amazingly well. So well, allegedly, that one crew member who was unaware of the original genuinely didn’t understand how it made sense with a male central character.
To use a phrase I have no doubt I’ll get letters about out of context, I feel quite ambivalent about gender-flipping things. This isn’t to say that I never think it’s good, or interesting, or worthwhile, and I’m not one of those people who gets on their high horse because A Woman/Black/Gay Couldn’t Do That In The Historical/Cultural/Original Context. But sometimes gender-flips get done naively and in a way that just flat out doesn’t work. And, obviously, this depends a lot on what you’re flipping.
To get needlessly pseudy for a moment and work with purely Shakespearean examples, gender-flipping, say, Prospero (which has been done) is basically a totally neutral call because, unless you want to pull some kind problematic bullshit about how a woman would have a harder time surviving alone on an island, it’s not really a gendered role. I mean, yes, technically a woman would never have been Duke of Milan but the political reality of 17th century Italy is just not at all relevant to The Tempest. Conversely, if you wanted to gender-flip Taming of the Shrew, you’d need to do a lot more heavy lifting because it’s an explicitly (and unpleasantly) gendered story. And there are things you could do with it—weirdly you could argue that gender-flipping it might enable a modern audience to see it as the light-hearted comedy it was always intended to be, rather than the harrowing tale of domestic abuse it tends to read as these days. But you can’t re-gender the characters without utterly changing the way the narrative comes across.
From this perspective, Company is in a really weird position. On the one hand, the protagonist’s gender is a massive part of how the story works. On the other hand, our cultural expectations for men 30s (and, for that matter, women in their 30s) have shifted such an enormous amount since 1970 that gender-flipping the show is in some ways much less of a problem than updating it. Strangely, gender-flipping the character of Bobby actually goes a long way towards helping Company stay relevant, despite its somewhat outdated mores. Because while you would no longer look twice at a 35 year old man who was refusing to settle down and spending his evenings hooking up with hipsters and hot stewardesses, a 35 year old woman who tried to live the same way would, well, probably get looked at twice.
And, obviously, it’s not as simple as standards for 30-something women today aligning with standards for 30-something men 50 years ago. But the show also does a really good job of making the changes it needs to turn a story about the latter into a story about the former. It’s unexpectedly more tragic with a female central character because, ultimately, the original—for all that Bobby comes across as fairly sympathetic and has some really moving songs and is portrayed compassionately—is about an immature manchild who is scared of responsibility. The re-gendered version is more complicated than that because it’s set against, and I appreciate this is an unhelpful shorthand, the “having it all” narrative. Even in 2018 marriage for men is pretty much a flat bonus. There’s no implication that a 35 year old man who gets married is going to have to sacrifice anything except for things he should probably have given up on at least 6 years ago (see: stewardesses, hot). Whereas in 2018 (and I’m conscious I’m quite a long way outside my lane here) marriage for women has gone from “the only thing you’re expected to aspire to” to “one of several possible aspirations that are assumed to conflict with one another.” And, actually, one of the things that makes this version of that story interesting is that, because it started out as a story about a bloke in the 70s, there isn’t any particular implication that Bobbi has remained unmarried because she wants to focus on her career or because she has particularly strong objections to marriage as an institution. Instead, she’s restless, and nebulously discontent, and under increasing social pressure from her friends to resolve that restlessness and discontentment by doing something she knows may change her life in ways she doesn’t want and doesn’t seem to be offering her what she’s looking for.
I’ve now written over a thousand words about this show so I’d probably wrap it out. But basically everything about it is awesome: the casting is excellent, the staging is amazing, Patti LuPone is in it and I’d say she’s fabulous but she’s Patti Fucking LuPone, of course she’s fabulous. I think there are two ways to tell that you’ve really enjoyed a show. The first is if you come out and immediately want to see the show again, which is the feeling I got from Hamilton and Les Miserables. The second is if you come out and never want to see another production because you cannot imagine it living up. And that’s what I got from this version of Company.
The Musical Drinkingware Game
One of the items of merchandising you can purchase from the current production of Company is a mug that says “I’ll drink to that.” I really wish I’d bought one, but I didn’t, and anyway I kind of have too many mugs already.
It did, however, mean that we got to spend the entire interval playing the Quotes From Musicals You Could Put On Drinking Vessels And Sell As Merchandising For That Musical game (or the QFMYCPODVASAMFTM game for short).
Here are some of our favourites:
- A mug with ‘Drink with me to days gone by” from Les Miserables
- A pint glass or tankard with “Would you like a drop of ale” from Sweeney Todd
- A set of six shot glasses, saying severally “I’m”, “Not”, “Throwing”, “Away”, “My”, and “Shot” from Hamilton. (And, incidentally, I’d be amazed if this didn’t exist already)
- “No more notes, no more ghost, here’s a health, here’s toast” from Phantom of the Opera, on any kind of drinking vessel or, indeed, a notebook.
Do feel free to play in the comments.
Dragon Quest XI
The thing about Dragon Quest games is that they’re always exactly the same. This is what I love about them, and DQXI is, by definition, no exception. I think what I find really engaging about them is that they’re designed along different principles to games that are big in the west: they’re the gaming equivalent of a book you read before bedtime. Every session is designed to be pretty, gentle, engaging, and satisfying in about twenty minutes. You’ll fight a few adorable monsters, you’ll get a bit of story, you’ll wander through the gorgeous countryside, you’ll giggle at the puns, you’ll chat a bit with your charming companions. And then you’ll stop, quietly looking forward to picking the game up again, but feel no particular pressure to carry on right there and then.
The problem with being a grown up is that fitting gaming into your life is actually quite difficult. Wading through 100 hours of densely plotted, strategically complex, lore-heavy drama is all well and good, and I’ll always love that stuff, but, honestly, by the time I’d finished The Witcher III (and, for that matter, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey) I’d forgotten what had happened at the beginning. And, actually, I’ll probably spend about 100 hours playing DQXI as well but the difference is that big AAA games expect you to put a 100 hours into them in exchange for the narrative or mechanical experience you get, whereas Dragon Quest expects to get 100 hours out of it in low investment twenty minute bursts.
DQXI has successfully managed to modernise itself in small quality-of-life type ways (there’s hardly any loading screens, you get a horse to gallop around on, the map notes points of interest for you) while remaining completely true to the core values and general style of the Dragon Quest series. Being the smoothest, and glossiest, and shiniest it’s a really good starting point for the series if you’re happy to engage with it on its own terms, instead of looking for something it’s never been trying to be.
It’s made me very happy. Also it’s got one of the most explicitly and positively queer companions I’ve seen in a JPRG so far—and by explicit, I mean, nobody ever talks about it, but he’s terribly, terribly fabulous, has a harem of beautiful boys who follow him around adoringly, and, despite all of his special moves, involving dancing and blowing kisses, he’s an interesting mixture of hyper-feminine and quite macho. He was raised to be a knight, so he approaches the world with a set of very traditional knightly virtues, he just chooses to express them in an outrageously flamboyant way. And, obviously, the conflation of male queerness and femininity is problematic, but it’s one of the few times I’ve seen a game inviting you to admire and be charming by this sort of character’s approach to the world, rather than laughing at it.
PS: if you’re interested in DQ or this DQ in particular, there’s a great Kotaku video about it from a self-confessedly raging DQ fanboy. But I find his understanding of the core values of the series, and this enthusiasm for them, really endearing.
The Hbomberguy Donkey Kong Stream Thing
This was honestly just the nicest way to start 2019.
Probably the best way for me to explain the background to this for those who don’t know is to link you to his original video but basically the story was like this: Mermaids is a UK charity that works with children and young people with gender dysphoria, they got a small grant from the UK National Lottery, and this made a minor celebrity really, really angry because apparently we shouldn’t be using the funds from the spurious legalised gambling that is run by a state approved but ultimately for profit company to help children. Said minor celebrity got on Mumsnet, and orchestrated a series of letters of concerns to someone at the lottery regulator and got the whole grant put under review. In response to this, Hbomberguy (who is a left-wing, Youtube essayist whose videos I’ve been following for a while) organised a nonstop livestream of Donkey Kong 64 with the aim of raising about £3000 for Mermaids.
It wound up raising $340,000.
Basically, it felt like the entire internet (and, with my humility hat on I should point out that what I really mean is the subset of the internet that happens to agree with me on social issues) turned out for this, including Chelsea Manning, Mara Wilson and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
And, obviously, it’s complicated because when this kind of thing goes high profile it can just entrench culture war narratives and lead to greater polarisation on both sides. But, you know what, it’s a nice thing. A charity that I happen to think does good and important work in an area that I support got a lot of money and publicity as a consequence of somebody who I would interpret as mean spirited trying to mess with it.
So. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a positive. And, actually, it was really nice watching it happening.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I’m terrified that I’ve reached the stage in my life that the majority of my TV watching is me re-visiting shows that I remember from twenty-plus years ago. But, hey, Buffy’s on Amazon Prime now, and so I’m watching it.
It’s really weird feeling. It’s about one half joyful nostalgia and things actually being as good as or better than I remember them being, especially the episodes that I remember kind of sucking, which are actually usually perfectly serviceable. And one half excruciating awareness that things have changed quite a lot.
Perhaps I just have a distorted perspective on this, but what really impressed me was how not-dated a lot of it seems. The show seems to have made a deliberate strategic choice to try and evoke a fairly non-specific sense of teenagerness, which means that—looking back on it—it doesn’t look like a show set in a high school in the 1990s. It just looks like a show set in a high school. The way the characters talk is unique to them (and was famously so at the time—I seem to recall you could buy guides to Buffyspeak), the way they dress was mocked 20 years ago for being nothing like any sensible teenager would dress but now looks, well, still nothing like any sensible teenager would dress but not in a dated way. Even the music in the Bronze isn’t iconic 90s music. It’s random Indie bands that give the show its own bespoke soundtrack. As long as the characters aren’t talking about, or using, computers you could genuinely forget that it wasn’t set in 2018. Or maybe I’m just one of those old men who assumes that stuff from his youth is still bang up-to-date and down with the kids.
I think where it’s aged less well, ironically, are the areas where it was progressive or mould-breaking in its time. Not to put too fine a point on it, the notion of a high action show with a female protagonist who gets to fight monsters and kiss boys is no longer radical. For all the reasons, I hesitate to give a cisgendered white man credit for altering the way women are portrayed in popular culture but I think it’s quite hard to deny that Buffy’s effect on that particular subgenre of television was similar to The Matrix’s effect on action movies. You could see its fingerprints in everything that came out for about five years afterwards, and for a long time “conventionally hot kick ass heroine” was kind of the gold standard for a certain kind of pop culture, hence Alias, Dark Angel, Charmed, Veronica Mars, etc. And gradually that evolved, especially post-Twilight, into shows that put a lot more emphasis on the kissing and less on the punching (True Blood, Vampire Diaries and so on). And then, of course, you got the shows where people appeared to have watched Buffy and said, “you know, I like this chosen one fights monsters thing, but wouldn’t be a cool twist if the protagonist were straight white men”, hence Supernatural and Grimm. Point is, the ideas that were laid out in Buffy have been thoroughly explored since from a variety of different perspectives and this has rendered strangely archaic in retrospect.
I think also, just social attitudes have moved on quite a bit. So, for example, Xander’s persistent unwillingness to accept that Buffy just isn’t into him for about two seasons, and his deeply toxic hostility towards Angel that we’re just kind of supposed to accept as normal behaviour for a guy who likes a girl, reads as way more problematic than I remember it doing it in the late 90s. On top of which it’s a bit weird that this show as such a reputation for and was so explicitly designed to centralise (terrible phrase alert) strong female characters arguably does a better job with its beta male everyman than it does with basically any of the women in it. And, don’t get me wrong, I love Buffy (the character), especially in the early seasons when she still had interests other than making speeches, but I think it is noticeable that the show still comes from a time when the only character traits women were allowed to have on TV boiled down to “accepts or rejects stereotypically feminine behaviour.”
The impression I get looking back is that there were just so many more tools to use in the late 1990s for rounding out the character of Xander than were for rounding out the character of Buffy. It is, I think, noticeable that Xander is the only character who gets a whole episode (The Zeppo) highlighting his perspective on and his feelings about his role in the Scooby gang and how that interacts with his self-perception and self-identity. Cordelia comes close in The Wish but she actually gets killed about halfway into the episode and, at the end, the whole thing is erased from her memory so she gets zero character development from it. Buffy is obviously at the centre of all the major story arcs but they almost always focus around her role as the Slayer and when they don’t they’re contrasted against her role as the Slayer (like The Body, where she has to deal with the fact her powers won’t let her save her mother). Basically, Buffy is always a superposition of two archetypes (teenage girl and vampire slayer—the clue is very much in the name of the show here) but Xander gets to be an actual person, with hangs ups and neuroses and feelings and motivations that are consistently explored.
Also he gets with, like, everybody. Apart from Buffy, he dates, kisses or has sex with pretty much every single recurring female character who isn’t over thirty, under fifteen or a lesbian. What’s with that?
I just really enjoyed this.
As ever, tell me what you’re liking in the comments. Or, y’know, don’t.