March 30, 2016

 After Brussels, Holding the Right Thought With Hamlet’s World Tour and the Heroics of “MI-5” 


By Stuart Mitchner

Head of MI-5 Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) with his most trusted asset Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker) 

“Hold the right thought,” my father used to tell me. That dated variation of “Look on the bright side” didn’t count for much on the morning of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, we’re better off turning to Shakespeare. 

Along with the breaking news of ISIS terrorists striking at the heart of Europe, the New York Times ran a feature from the bright side about an acting troupe’s two-year journey to the heart of the world (“Shakespeare’s Globe Is Winding Up a ‘Hamlet’ World Tour”), wherein the players had to deal with visa problems, lost luggage, takeout food, an occasional riot, and a near miss with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. According to the Times, “In Mexico, spectators scurried up lamp posts and trees to get a view as the cast performed outside of a colonial cathedral. On Tuvalu, a tiny Pacific island, the show was presented alongside a road that doubled as the island’s runway and its main thoroughfare.” In January the Globetrotters were in Djibouti city in East Africa performing for over 300 refugees and migrants from Yemen at the Markazi refugee camp, and last month they played before refugees in Calais, France, where thousands of migrants, many of them from the Middle East, had gathered, hoping to find a way to cross the English Channel. Today, they’re scheduled to play the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv.

After clocking 180,000 miles, Hamlet will return to the Globe on April 23, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, ending a tour that began two years ago on the 450th anniversary of his birth. It’s poetry in motion for the poet who rhymed life and death, born April 23, died April 23.

Two Women

“This is real, this happened” is the message of the widely circulated photo of two women taken in the Brussels airport lobby after the March 22 bombings: the brunette in the foreground holding a phone, intently listening, her hand red with blood, flakes of fall-out from the blast in her neatly groomed hair, while the second woman, dazed with shock, is slumped across two seats behind her, one leg slung over an arm rest, her shoe half off, the other leg dangling, the bare foot caked with the broken litter of the blast that can be seen on the floor, her hair gone grey with soot, a jagged streak of blood on her face, her yellow Jet Airways jacket ripped open. Due to the fame of the photo, the world knows that the she is 40, a mother of two who lives in Mumbai, that she’s in stable condition, and that her companion in the moment is from Belgium and had been on her way to Haiti to join Doctors Without Borders.

No Happy Endings

Even as you tell yourself “this is not real, this didn’t really happen” while watching the BBC series MI-5 (Spooks in the U.K.), where agents in the Counter-Terrorism Department at Thames House routinely put their lives on the line to save their fellow citizens, you come to know the people who die saving others better than you do the victims of New York 9/11 or London 7/7 or Brussels 3/22 or the two women in the airport photograph. The depth of your involvement in the fictional horrors of MI-5, which ran for ten seasons between 2002 and 2011, is a tribute to the interplay between the central characters who are unable to lead any semblance of a normal life outside the closed clandestine world they inhabit.

The show’s producers set a grim standard in the second episode of the first season when a young female recruit, a junior case officer at Thames House, is tortured and murdered during an undercover operation with section chief Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfayden). In a scene as brutal as any you’re likely to sit through this side of Game of Thrones, the woman’s face is submerged in a deep fryer of boiling oil. The shockingly casual brutality of the act attracted hundreds of complaints and was defended by series creator David Wolstencroft as a way of sending the message that the world of MI-5 “isn’t the world where the cavalry always arrive, because in reality these people do risk their lives on our behalf and they do get into sticky situations with genuinely nasty people.”

Ruth and Harry

My reaction to early episodes of MI-5 was, “Do I really want to watch the BBC do Fox’s 24 all over again without Kiefer Sutherland’s charismatic superhero Jack Bauer?” What made me a believer was the Shakespearean complexity of Peter Firth’s Harry Pearce, the steadfast leader of Section D, and the warmth, humanity, and intelligence of Nicola Walker’s Senior Technical Analyst Ruth Evershed. If Sir Harry is worthy of mention in the same breath with his namesake, Shakespeare’s Henry V, Oxford-educated, multi-lingual Ruth conveys a quality of spirit worthy of Shakespeare’s Portia or any of his other genius-level heroines. While every MI-5 romance is doomed, the hopeless love between Ruth and Harry is one of the bittersweet joys of the series. That Ruth is a formidably resourceful, almost uncannily knowledgeable presence is clear from the outset, and by all rights she should have been allowed to do her invaluable work in the relative safety of Thames House. But no one in MI-5 is safe and there are no happy endings.

The other great interdepartmental romance involves MI-5 warriors in the field Hermione Norris’s Ros and Rupert Penry-Jones’s Adam, who share a Romeo-and-Juliet moment at Ros’s funeral, when as the other mourners are leaving the church, Adam bends over the coffin and brings her to life again with a kiss. One of the numerous reflections of the spies as spooks idea is the way that death is used as a cover for removing an agent in trouble from the grid, as when Ros, after her miraculous recovery, is sent to Moscow as a “range finder,” Zoe (Keeley Hawes) is exiled to Chile, and Ruth “dies” in order to save Harry (because Nicola Walker temporarily left the series to have a baby in “real life”). Exiled to Cyprus, Ruth enjoys a taste of outside-world happiness until the forces of evil descend once more and she returns to the grid in Season Eight (in what may have been an in-joke at the BBC. Walker later plays the ghost of a dead detective in last year’s six-part series River, and does so with charming gusto).

Probably the most truly darkly Shakespearean character in MI-5 is Richard Armitage’s Lucas North, who performs heroics beyond the call after returning from seven years of torture in Moscow, only to have his dark past come back to bedevil him. His romance with CIA agent Sarah Caulfield (Genevieve O’Reilly) is worth mentioning mainly because one of the more amusing sidelights of MI-5 is when U.K. actors attempt American accents. The Dublin-born O’Reilly is all over the map, north to south, east to west, giving an inadvertent Saturday Night Live quality to her intimate moments with North.

London and Londoners

Another of the great unguilty pleasures of MI-5 is the extent to which the show uses London locales. In more recent series like Luther and River, the city of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes appears to have been taken over by an East End high-rise film noir replica of L.A. Only in MI-5 could you have a CIA agent quoting Wordsworth’s “Westminster Bridge” to Harry Pearce as the two old rivals sit on a bench overlooking the actual scene (“Earth has not anything to show more fair”). Among the extravaganzas of evil orchestrated all over London, a crazed environmentalist threatens to open the floodgates of the Thames and drown everyone between the East End and Westminster; terrorists plant a bomb in the rafters of Paddington Station; and a reluctant suicide bomber prepares to blow himself up in the middle of Trafalgar Square. Again and again, the plots take scenic and atmospheric advantage of London in a way that might impress the master of landmark-scene-settings, Alfred Hitchcock, who in the course of his Anglo-American career made memorable use of the British Museum in Blackmail, the Royal Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Covent Garden in Frenzy, not to mention Sabotage, in which he adapted The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad’s novel of anarchist bomb plots in London.

Back to the Globe

It’s surprising that, given numerous scenes set in Southwark and Lambeth, Shakespeare’s Globe was not among the London locales exploited by the producers of MI-5. Imagine a terrorist planting a bomb backstage timed to go off as Hamlet begins his most famous soliloquy. “To be or not to be” — boom! But then Shakespeare has a way of encompassing and transcending adversity, life and death. Which reminds me of another piece of uplifting online information I discovered in the aftermath of Brussels. An article in the Guardian titled “The Jig Is Up — Shakespeare’s Globe Sends Them Out Dancing” is accompanied by a video in which the company of Richard II is shown capering joyously about led by Mark Rylance as Richard less than a minute after his coffined body has been wheeled off the stage. While the players whirl and spin, dance and clap, the audience claps along and the Globe is in its cozy glory, true to the terms of Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” where “If worthy their prominent part in the play,” Hamlet and Lear don’t “break up their lines to weep,” for “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay/Gaiety transfiguring all that dread/All men have aimed at, found and lost.”

Of course even assuming MI-5 defuses a terrorist bomb in time, Hamlet will end, as always, with the stage strewn with dead bodies. But not at the Globe. For an encore, they’ll be up and dancing, Polonius arm in arm with Laertes, the Ghost with Gertrude, Hamlet with Ophelia, just as I like to imagine the spooks of MI-5 coming back to life for a Globe-style curtain call, Adam and Ros, Tom and Helen, Zoe and Danny, Lucas and Jo, and of course Ruth and Harry, everyone clapping and kicking high, a ghost dance for the ages.

All 10 seasons of MI-5 are available on DVD from the Princeton Public Library.