Monday, October 31, 2011

This is not a Theatre Review: "Written on the Heart" RSC Swan Theatre. Stratford upon Avon Friday 28 October 2011

I let the actors down; I let myself down; I let you down.

I booked to see Written on the Heart, David Edgar's play about the writing of the King James Bible, back in January 2011 when I did my mammoth booking fest for the year. So I have been looking forward to this production for quite some time.

What was not to like? It's about one of the most important English language books ever, about the nature and construction of faith; and - though this was only revealed long after booking - would feature one of our really great stage actors, ideally suited to such roles, Oliver Ford Davies.

So I was more than a little disappointed when with about a minute to go before curtain up I had to acknowledge 'I don't feel well'.

I gamely struggled on but as I got hotter and hotter I felt less and less able to cope.

Twenty minutes in (max) I had to admit defeat, and ran from my seat past Neil and four others (I was awkwardly located on the far side of the theatre at the end of an inner row). I just made it out before...

I really was not well. If I overheat, this does not help. It took the best part of about 30-45 minutes to stop shaking let alone all the rest (it was touch and go about the RSC staff calling an ambulance for me).

Thanks to the front-of-house staff's care and attention I managed to recuperate and at the interval (of course the first 'half' was an hour and 20 mins long) Neil and I were reunited and we made a decision that I really needed to head back to the hotel.

What Neil saw he said was very good; and certainly I enjoyed reading the play script purchased from the shop earlier that evening. Luckily, I get a second chance at this come January when Helen Lisette and I go to Stratford for our now semi-established January break. Let's hope I am better then.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Theatre Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (on tour) - Nottingham Playhouse Preview Night Wednesday 26 October 2011

The Guardian gave it a 4 star review when reviewing this production at Liverpool earlier this month of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

This fast-talking new translation of Brecht's satire is certainly worth seeing, though whether you will keep pace with the dialogue is more debatable (The Observer review intimates this concern).

Last night was preview night in Nottingham (it is on until 12 November here) and the theatre was pretty full (albeit lots and lots of teenagers). Actually, it was a very attentive audience as far as I could tell, and the cast got a very rapturous reception at the end (deservedly so). Ian Bartholomew as Arturo Ui is especially fine.

It is not quite as well done as the version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle which toured to Nottingham in 2009. And inevitably the analogies between cauliflower sellers in the USA and the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany are as subtle as a brick through a window. Nevertheless, I'd still recommend audiences to see this production of Arturo Ui in the UK asap: it remains a powerful work, funny and terrifying all at once.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A day out in Cromford - Scarthin Books and more

We had a fab day out yesterday: we got the bus to Nottingham and then (making a detour via Page 45 --- more Buffy comics! a new volume of The Unwritten!) headed to the train station where I picked up the latest Doctor Who Magazine with its extensive tribute to the glorious and much missed Lis Sladen.

We get the train to Matlock, though we're getting off a little earlier at the lovely village of Cromford. It is a glorious bright and sunny autumn day. Perfect for a day out.

The train starts at Nottingham and stops at:
  • Beeston
  • Attenborough
  • Long Eaton
  • Derby
  • Duffield (or 'Duffield International' as the guard as we travelled out called it)
  • Belper (or 'The People's Democratic Republic of Belper' as the guard coming home called it)
  • Ambergate
  • Whatstandwell (surely a contender for the award of best name for a village EVER)
  • Cromford
Just to prove I'm not making Whatstandwell up as a place-name, here is the railway sign from the station.

The next two stops are Matlock Bath and Matlock - deep in the Derbyshire Dales. Another visit perhaps...

We stop at Cromford and exit at the newly refurbished station.

We walk down into the village and firstly head to Arkwright's Mill. The Arkwright family are central not only to Cromford but also to the wider history of the Industrial Revolution. The Arkwright Society is doing great work in putting the site and its buildings to good use, and they have a long-term strategic plan to maintain, develop and improve the site so that future visitors can see this important location in the history of industrialisation.

At Arkwright's Mill, we enjoy visiting a number of excellent craft shops, especially Arum Lillie. Really beautiful print designs, textiles, and pewterwear, amongst other goodies. We'll be visiting them again!

But the main reason we were heading to Cromford was for...

Crikey, this is a brilliant rabbit-warren of a bookshop. And even better it has its own hide-away cafe with the most incredible food served. We had a couple of ploughman's lunches - Neil had Stilton cheese (a MASSIVE honk!) and I had mushroom pate (four very good-sized portions of the delicious stuff). It's vegetarian/organic and proper lovely.

The store (according to its website and reported in the Guardian's recent listing of Scarthin as one of the top UK independent booksellers) holds approximately 5000+ antiquarian texts, 50,000+ second-hand works (many piled high against the walls and stairwells I can report!) and 40,000+ NEW books. It is a trove of non-specialist gems, but I'd particularly recommend their children's book room which is delightful.

Inevitably, we came home laden with new goodies and we're already making headway through these. We eat books for breakfast! For knowledge! For pleasure and for all the other human emotions that books can stir and communicate to us.

We can't help it. We just love books.

And here are the two of us - me all wrapped up (in the scarf/shawl I knitted last year, and Neil in a t-shirt he got from San Francisco which we thought apt for book-shopping.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Doctor Who finale 2011 (the 'proper' one?) - "The Wedding of River Song"

Belatedly completed I know - but Blogger kept eating the post (or Firefox turned my text into Alien Form Shakespeare).

Anyway I was glad to find that SOMEONE liked the end of Doctor Who season 6 / Fnarg plus 1 / season 32 (Thanks On The Box). And even MediumRob was fine with it having been intermittently disappointed by the 2011 two half series.

And guess what? I liked it too.

In fact - as I noted everywhere - I applauded at the end. It just felt spontaneously right to do.

Some of the things I liked
  • The eyepatches explanation. Made perfect sense suddenly. Why didn't I get that earlier?
  • Madame Kovarian getting a good dose of Amy Pond: proving that River is very much her mother's daughter.
  • Rory 'dying' for Amy - and her return to save him. Just lovely.
  • The 'wedding' and the name of the Doctor. Oh playful Mr Moffat.
  • The phone call to rally the troops - the reveal that the call the Doctor makes is a too-late invitation to the Brig for a final adventure hit me in the throat and had me reeling. A lovely and perfect farewell to a much-loved character and actor.
  • The final line - such an obvious 'ultimate question' and yet so satisfying!
Things I was less keen on
  • Two seasons: 6 or 7 episodes scarcely ever feels enough. 13 sometimes felt like a short-change: this split just feels limited.
  • No Mark Sheppard! oh sadness! (I nearly typed that as Badger: highlighting my love of Serenity/Firefly) For some reason I was really looking expecting another appearance from Canton Delaware Everett III...
  • I'm still not sure I quite get why Madame Kovarian worked with The Silence (or what they achieved/didn't achieve)
  • Teselecta ex machina - really should have seen that coming (as lovely as it was to see inside and watch the Stetson wave)
Still: It was just such a blast - and whilst lacking the glorious 'how-could-we-have-doubted?' oomph of The Big Bang/The Pandorica Opens, it was nevertheless a darn fine finale. I think part of the reason why it lacked that previous punch is tied to my floored reaction to the episode 'The God Complex' a couple of weeks earlier.

I'd got to the end of that episode - Amy and Rory's departure after an emotionally wrecking farewell to the innocent faith of Amelia Pond - and promptly felt like my stomach had been pulled out. I'd known that my friend would be watching it after first broadcast and worried frantically how she's take it. Once she watched it she immediately ended up texting me and we exchanged messages about how in bits we both were. The departure was both perfectly handled - companion departures don't NEED to be the crux of every finale - and utterly heart-breaking in its casualness, its ordinariness of them needing to go - of the Doctor needing them to go. He (had to) destroy that innocent faith - all too misplaced - of young Amelia Pond, and after that he couldn't keep the couple with him.

Which made the scene in the garden at chez Pond/Williams all the more lovely as mum and dad got some good news from their daughter to unravel the wibbly-wobbly-ness of Rover's timeline and relationship to the Doctor.

And I also loved the Confidential episode - full-length of course - with its timeline of River beautifully edited to make it clear to those who hadn't kept up.

What next?
Moffat - get a handle on show-running. RTD had many faults but keeping all the balls of other people's writing for the series in check was a strong point. The inconsistencies of tone and portrayals between writers are just a bit too glaring sometimes. Whip them troops into line. And whilst I appreciate you getting the show into the autumn period, I'm not best keen on the 6-7 episodes a season set-up. But I'm being greedy I know...

Smith - if you haven't already, get your exit strategy planned. I love your portrayal of the Doctor dearly: far more than my Tennant-love thought possible (but which I hoped would be won over by my inner-geekness and long-term love for Doctor Who the series). Nevertheless, there's an anniversary coming up and you need to know how to get out of being sucked into 'what comes next'. Doctor Who will be forever - in some form, some way - but it needs regeneration. In the meantime, keep giving this show the energy it deserves. You've made the part your own and it is a brilliant and dazzling thing to behold. Keep making it yours.

Here's to 2012 and to 2013. And beyond.

Oh to be in New Zealand... now the Rugby World Cup final looms

After Scotland were sadly knocked out early, England shamed everyone with numpty behaviour (wouldn't wanna be Tindall going home to see the in-laws right now), and Wales were harshly beaten by France (by heck, Sarkozy must have been thinking 'I've better things to do than globe-trot to watch odd-shaped balls being chucked about: I've a European economy to save!'), one could have been forgiven for thinking there was nothing to remain excited about in the Rugby World Cup.

Neil's family in NZ may beg to disagree.

Given that the alternative result to the semi-final (an Australia win) may just have pushed the country into howling a national outcry, it was a delight to see New Zealand get to the Rugby World Cup final on home soil.

It'd be nice to see the All Blacks win...

This Bitter Earth - Max Richter and Dinah Washington

Oh my goodness.... Just close your eyes and listen...

Ransom Riggs: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

If you have seen the cover of this book you will probably have been tempted to pick it up.

If not: what the hell is wrong with you?

Anyway: we picked up Ransom Rigg's debut novel Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children in San Francisco and I have to say I've been itching to read it since then. Today I finally settled down to it and devoured the whole thing in the afternoon. I'm almost certainly going to read it again as there is much to be gained from a re-read (I kept skipping back to re-read sections even as I read it - not because I was confused but because I loved the way that things had been conveyed - the choice of phrasing, the imagery created...)

Amongst its many pleasures are those granted by the inclusion of several photographs to 'illustrate' the narrative. They are wonderful finds and add an extra whoosh of disconcerted meaning to the tale and its characters. To say I was left wanting more, MUCH more, would be an understatement.

I don't want to say too much about the plot - there's a grandson and a grandfather and some very peculiar children and beyond that would spoil the thrill of its development. However, what I can say is that it is resolutely and almost certainly NOT the sort of story you think it is going to be and it subtly shifts gears on several occasions, making you think 'how did I not see that?'

It is magical, mysterious, heartening, thrilling and adventurous. I'd recommend it to young adults, but with its use of history I'd also anticipate some (much) older readers to fall for its many charms.

Should a play "work for you"? Preview 15 October 2011 Marat/Sade @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Marat/Sade - or to give its full title "The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade" - is currently being revived by the RSC at Stratford.

This was always going to be a dangerous proposition, for despite Peter Weiss's German play being an intentionally provocative work, the RSC's 1964 production has passed into legendary status. Originally translated by Geoffrey Skelton, but brought to verse life by poet Adrian Mitchell, the original RSC version had been directed by Peter Brooks, and had starred Ian Richardson (as the Herald - though in the US production he took over the role of Marat), Clive Revill (as Marat) Patrick McGee (as De Sade) and Glenda Jackson (as Charlotte Corday). It was an incendiary play, and an incendiary production - still strongly recalled by all who saw it --- as the comments surrounding the current production indicate.

So bringing it back to life in the 21st century was always going to be a risky strategy as a way of demonstrating the RSC still had the power to be radical: firstly, because it is doing radical things elsewhere (both with new plays and the direction of some of its Shakespeare productions); and secondly because - guess what? It's a REVIVAL and what is ever going to be radical about revisiting the past?

Quite a lot it seems, and that the production may not quite work is only part of such radicalism.

Do remember that I'm commenting here on a Preview performance (only the second). A few technical and performance hiccups were clearly still present, but no-one and nothing seemed to come to lasting harm. Note as well that the play is only on for approximately 3 weeks (opening 14 October and closing 5 November: I predict a spectacular finale suitable to the date when it closes).

Unsurprisingly, several people left the production at the interval which is timed approximately 2/3 of the way through the show --- the couple next to Neil grumpily stayed for the second part and she at least was clearly negatively comparing the show to the version she had previously seen [I didn't catch if it was the notorious first RSC version, it may have been the Daniel Craig one...]. If I had a pound for every time she muttered darkly "It's just not working for me" I'd have made at least a tenner, with which I'd have given her a subscription to a decent newspaper since she seemed to think the Daily Mail was a suitable read....

Anyway, in contrast, the woman sat beside me seemed to positively revel in this desperately uncomfortable play. She chuckled heartily many times, for although this is a play (and production) that throws harsh lighting on uncomfortable realities, it is not without absurd humour.

To say the play comes across as uneven need not necessarily be a criticism: rather there is nevertheless an inchoate quality to the performance as a whole that makes the production perhaps even more chaotic and unfathomable for its largely middle-class audience than they would anticipate. The RSC letter to advance ticket purchasers certainly tipped them off about the foreseeable combined violence, nudity and "religious imagery", but I don't know to what extent they were all ready for the distinctly non-revolutionary France 'setting' for the play.

What works best are some of these relocation updates and the directorial flourishes associated with these. Connections to the recent riots, the uprisings in the Arab Spring (and other Middle East associations) abound everywhere. Technology, particularly mobile phones, are used incredibly well and in a way that goes beyond mere invocations of Abu Ghraib but into thoughts of control and distractedness from humanity. The blurring between post-Revolutionary France and contemporary events feels even more heightened in this age of increasingly fast mass communication, certainly more than even the 1960s could have anticipated. When the crowd/the inmates cry out for their revolution there is a crackle of recognition that makes the text of the play as relevant as it would have been in the 1960s.

What work less well are some of the moments of vocalisation (sometimes the singing and the music, the spoken text and the noise become over-layered in a way that just makes them unintelligible - but it is never clear whether that may be the point). The production is also not helped by some of the racially iffy consequences of colour-blind casting: sometimes you really do have to think about what certain characters are doing, saying and gesturing to others in the light of each performers race. Additionally, one can't help but feel that the production doesn't quite break down enough the barriers between audience (within the play) and the theatre audience - for all the popcorn, thrown clothing and minor entries into the seated areas. The use of the thrust stage and balconies to place actors amidst the audience is already well-used by the RSC and so its use here perhaps needed to be even more radical and confrontational in order to challenge the audience out of their comfort zone of passive observers.

Nevertheless, there are some stand-out performances which for me made the production work and will make it memorable as an experience.

Jasper Britton as de Sade was incredible. At times he looks astonishingly like his father (actor Tony Britton) and I'm not sure if that makes the performance more or less disturbing. Certainly, his moments of transformation - he gets a number of costume changes - are carried off with breathtaking confidence. His de Sade is both manipulative and disconcertingly weak: perhaps in just the right measure. His playing against the control of Coulmier (Christopher Ettridge), the Governor of the Asylum is particularly well handled.

Similarly, Lisa Hammond makes for a discomforting Herald: her sexuality is heightened, not ignored, and her disability acknowledged and provocatively played upon. I hope she gets further opportunities with the RSC, and hopefully ones that allow her talents to be appreciated. She conveyed wit and malice with incredible power.

Arsher Ali also made for an excellent Marat, initially uncertain in his performance (as befitting his inmate status) but growing in frustration and self-awareness as the play progresses; his need to proclaim, his need to speak and be hear, sound like the buried sensibilities of reasoned analysis amidst a time of revolution. He is the most broken by the insistent reminders from Coulmier that it's now 1808 and things are different... (when really audience, actors, inmates and the play-within-play audience all know it is nothing of the sort).

Both Nicholas Day and Andrew Melville are under-used in this production, and both suffer enormously for their contributions to the play: but they nevertheless contribute to the unsettling feeling of incoherence that surrounds the performance. More disappointingly Corday (as played by Imogen Doel) never seems to take on the full weight of importance one feels she should have within the play. She comes across as a puppet to other's plans (both as Charlotte and the narcoleptic inmate playing her), which may be just right but somehow seems less pertinent than it could be.

Elsewhere, there are disconcerting and erratic performances from within the ensemble: Maya Barcot as Rossignol, Golda Rosheuvel as Cucurucu, and Amanda Wilkin as Kokol sing magnificently but can come across too often as performers playing inmates playing performers --- and I'm not sure that level of meta-playing is quite what the play wants to alert us to. Similarly, Lanre Malaolu as Duperret (the ever masturbating sex maniac) works best when in his moments of 'lucidity' and articulation - which is probably the intended counterpoint of his ever-more pathetic inability to exert physical self-control.

Despite my misgivings and uncertainties about the production 'working' - and the more I think about last night's play, the less certain I am what it would mean for the play to 'work' - everyone is clearly giving everything they have to this work and I can only imagine the exhaustion and psychological weirdness that must surround their performing in this hysterical play (since it is hysterical in so many senses). I can't help but applaud the effort of the RSC to challenge boundaries - but I'm not sure that reviving this play, with all its actorly baggage, was necessarily the best way to do it. The (sub)text references to contemporary events are well-intentioned, but I'm unclear about the extent to which audiences will be stirred to think differently as they may have done in the 1960s to the contemporary relevances invoked then. It's therefore an honourable take on a problematic work --- it will be interesting to see how others react.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Fades ..::.. Sky Blinding

Oh my life, I really do LOVE BBC3's series The Fades. Not only does it have a high geek quotient (references to Susan Cooper, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman to just name three of my favourite name-checks), but it is also wonderfully filmed and performed.

Great visuals too as hinted at in this rather well put together piece.

Singularly rubbish at blogging - a review of my blogging life so far

Once upon a time, there was a blogger who blogged so often that she was able to conjure an annual number of posts that averaged at approximately 2-3 per DAY.

Let's look at the stats (they're in the sidebar but they make for salutory reading):

2004 - 47 posts. Heck I didn't start till the Autumn...

2005 - 762 posts. Phew - seriously addicted. January, March and August were the lowest productive months at 49, 41 and 40 posts respectively --- but December ended the year on a WHOPPING 90 blogposts.

2006 - 824 posts. The high water mark of regular blogging. It was ALL downhill from there. However, it's useful to note the two lowest months were April (26) and December (37) with the peak of activity in the summer (122 and 100 respectively). April was when we made our first NZ trip; December marked the the kind of average number of monthly posts I'd hit in 2007. The decline started there.

2007 - 478 posts. It's not exactly half, but it is close enough to look like a massive drop. On the other hand, it was a year where we hit bereavement AND job changes.

2008 - 245 posts. Eek, that trend of 'halving' is getting worse. Again, summer was the high point (though a shadow of its former self) with May, June and July hitting 53, 54 and 66 respectively. The average was around 30ish. We ended on 12 in December. Pathetic.

2009 - 173 posts. We're not getting much beyond 20 posts per month, and by the end its single digits. At this point, we can't even really blame 'other forms of social media are available'. Worse than pathetic.

2010 - 141 posts. Meh.

And so we come to where we are now. We hit 33 in January (thanks to some strategic planning) and 31 in May (thanks to some plays I think. But by and large this has been an equally disappointing year on the blogging front.

At this point it is possible to be honest and acknowledge The Facebook. With smartphone in hand and much greater ease accessing Facebook on it than anything else, I've been able to tap into that to do quick links and comments sat on the sofa at the end of anything good on TV or even just in response to a friend's remark.

On one level, that's great and it has proven super-useful at times.

But I do regret that I've neglected reading and especially writing blogs as much as I have enjoyed in the past (and in many ways still do). Partly, this comes out of the more limited time I have available and my desperate need to not spend hours on computers at home after a day at the office. The Facebook is 'easy' in that respect. Partly it is also rubbish idleness - a trait I frequently stumble into despite appearances to the contrary.

But I do miss it. I miss keeping up with people and writing expansive reviews.

I haven't even covered the latest Doctor Who finale - and I seriously disavow any sense that this was out of 'meh'-ness as it made me applaud each time I watched it. And I also haven't commented here on The Fades (frankly my new favourite programme).

Will try better?