Thursday, August 27, 2015

'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen, adapted by Mark Hayward

27 August 2015

Having really enjoyed the Pantaloons' open air production of 'Much Ado About Nothing' earlier this summer (reviewed here in August 2015), we made our way to the beautiful grounds of Hatfield House on Wednesday to see the company's version of 'Pride and Prejudice', adapted by Mark Hayward. You know what you are getting with the Pantaloons formula – a very energetic performance, plenty breaking of the fourth wall, lots of audience participation (and a significant degree of consumption by the cast of the audience's picnics and alcohol!). This approach succeeds because it is often incredibly funny (particularly some of the ad libs between the performers) but also because it is very well acted. It is genuinely impressive when, amid the tomfoolery and pantomime we discover a delicate moment of real pathos. Telling the story of the five Bennet girls with only five actors requires a lot of versatility (and cross dressing!). It was great fun.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

'The Merchant of Venice' by WIlliam Shakespeare

21 August 2015

On Saturday we were at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse in Northampton to see a repeat screening of the recent live broadcast of Polly Findlay's RSC production of 'The Merchant of Venice' from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Set against a giant brass mirrored wall and floor, designed by Johannes Schutz, this sober production of a difficult play brought the acting to the fore. With a minimal set and restrained stagecraft our focus was solely on the actors – who were visible from multiple angles in the reflections from the mirrored surfaces. Patsy Ferran was fascinating as Portia – impatient, twitchy, amused, intrigued and determined – her mood switching on a sixpence. Her facial expressions appeared to reveal the workings of Portia's brain and the audience was completely on her side. The Israeli/Palestinian actor Makram J Khoury made Shylock both sympathetic and cruel – a very different performance from the usual RSC company of actors which really emphasised Shylock as the outsider. 'The Merchant of Venice' is a dark play but this production was thoughtful and clear, with some impressive acting.

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'A Midsummer Night's Dream' by William Shakespeare

21 August 2015

Last Thursday we were at the Library Theatre in Leighton Buzzard to see a screening of Julie Taymor's production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at the Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn, New York, in December 2014. This stunning production included amazing stagecraft, impressive choreography, original music, a massive cast – and the truly remarkable Kathryn Hunter as Puck. An enormous bedsheet covered the thrust stage before being wafted high into the air to form billowing clouds above the action, onto which a variety of magical flowers were projected. The rude mechanicals were a gang of 'New Yoik' working men, armed with power tools. When Bottom (played by Max Casella) gained the head of a donkey, his long snout ended in a very realistic animatronic mouth (complete with Bottom's pencil moustache). The British actor David Harewood played a sinister, muscular, Oberon. And the comic scenes were incredibly funny. An electrifying Shakespearean experience – jump at the chance to see it.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2015

'Think Like an Artist … and Lead a More Creative, Productive Life' by Will Gompertz

4 August 2015

I've also been reading 'Think Like an Artist … and Lead a More Creative, Productive Life' – a slim volume by the BBC's Arts Editor, Will Gompertz. The book suggests that 'We Are All Artists', in that being an artist means using and combining a handful of practices and processes which we are all capable of.  Gompertz illustrates each of these traits (curiosity, scepticism, bravery etc) using specific examples, mostly taken from the visual arts world. (The book contains pull-out colour reproductions of the paintings that are discussed.) A short conclusion then suggests that our modern, increasingly digital, world needs more creative people, all our working lives would benefit from a more creative approach and our education system should be more creative (teaching us how to think, not what to think). I found myself agreeing with much of his thesis, though I would have liked more of this final section looking at the implications for society. Many of the examples he uses to demonstrate the various traits of an artist, while fascinating and revealing, felt a little too anecdotal – might it not be possible to prove the reverse by choosing other examples? Nevertheless, my main reaction to reading the book was an overwhelming desire to try some of the techniques and do something creative – so that feels like a success to me.

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'A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry

4 August 2015

I've just finished reading Rohinton Mistry's epic novel set in India in the mid-1970s, 'A Fine Balance'. Written in 1995, the book shows us the horror of India's 'State of Internal Emergency' through the experiences of a group of ordinary people caught up in the madness. A prologue introduces us to the four main characters as they meet each other for the first time in 1975. The novel then fills in the back-story of each of these characters in turn, taking us to a variety of places and introducing a huge cast of families, friends and acquaintances. By focussing equally on four characters, Mistry refuses to make it clear which of them is the heart of his story. For the reader this creates a real sense of jeopardy as you realise there is no guarantee that any one of the four friends will necessarily survive to the end of the novel. The terrible journey that our protagonists take, being evicted from their homes, living on the streets, suffering police brutality, injury and disease, makes for a bleak tale. Their resolute cheerfulness and politeness in the face of such challenges makes them very likeable and sympathetic. Indeed, many of the beggars and slum-dwellers to whom they are generous and helpful, re-appear later to return the favour. This is a novel that loves chance-encounters, reuniting or overlapping its vast cast of characters, often after many years apart. 'A Fine Balance' has a Dickensian feel – both in its depiction of social conditions and in its distinct idiosyncratic characters – and is beautifully written. But ultimately it is a very grim story and I don't think it would be a spoiler to warn you not to expect a happy ending.

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'Much Ado About Nothing' by William Shakespeare

4 August 2015

We missed our annual visit to open air theatre in the grounds of Woburn Abbey last year – I think the dates clashed with something else. So it was a particular pleasure to be back at Woburn on Saturday to see the Pantaloons production of Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Tackling such a complex play using just four young actors felt ambitious but worked surprisingly well. The Pantaloons approach is very accessible, inventive and incredibly funny but they also manage to treat the more serious moments with respect. Amongst the slapstick, improvisation, audience involvement and silly hats there is some really good acting. Whether anyone who was not already familiar with 'Much Ado About Nothing' would have followed all the intricacies of the plot, I'm not sure. But it was a very enjoyable evening of open air theatre. We'll be back next year.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

WOMAD 2015

29 July 2015

I may have been tempting fate twelve months ago when I wrote here (in August 2014) that “2014 was the hottest WOMAD I can remember”. This year's WOMAD Festival, at Charlton Park in Wiltshire, was much more reminiscent of the infamous 2007 festival (reviewed here in August 2007), when weeks of rain led to a sea of mud across the festival site. Last weekend wasn't quite that bad – the ground had been very dry before the rain started on Friday, and Saturday's weather was really good – but continuous rain on Friday and Sunday made festival-going hard work. If you have never had the festival liquid mud experience I can assure you it is even worse than you are imagining! Nevertheless I saw some great music (and quite a lot of great dancing too this year). I will particularly cherish the memories of two performances from South Africa – veteran female singers the Mahotella Queens, now in their seventies but still creating glorious vocal harmonies and exuberant dance moves, and, at the other end of the age spectrum, the joyful young a capella trio The Soil who had a similarly engaging stage presence with a very different style of music. Another highlight was the final WOMAD appearance of the English folk big band, Bellowhead, who I first encountered at WOMAD in 2006. About to start their farewell tour, Bellowhead gave a typically rousing performance on the Open Air Stage on Friday evening which drew an enormous crowd, despite the pouring rain. As well as the musical performances at this year's festival I enjoyed a talk by Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision at The British Library, about '125 years of recorded music at The British Library'. I also attended the live simulcast on BBC Radio 3 and 6 Music on Sunday morning, hosted by Cerys Matthews, Mary Ann Kennedy and Lopa Kothari, which featured short performances by a host of the festival's stars. One of my favourite discoveries of the weekend was the French/Egyptian band Orange Blossom who draw on musical influences from around the world to create thoughtful, serious music, blending electronica and Arabic rhythms. I'm really enjoying listening to their new album, 'Under The Shade of Violets'. You can see a selection of my photos from WOMAD 2015 at: http://culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/WOMAD2015


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Monday, July 20, 2015

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

20 July 2015

What do the New York Philharmonic, Berliner Philharmoniker, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Northampton Symphony Orchestra have in common? They have all included players who were alumni of the Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra. On Sunday, at our end-of-season concert for the Friends of Northampton Symphony Orchestra, the current leader of Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra, 18-year-old Cleo Annandale, gave a beautiful performance of 'Mélodie' from Tchaikovsky's 'Souvenir d’un lieu cher', arranged by Alexander Glazunov for violin and orchestra. The rest of the concert had a operatic theme, including the Overture to Borodin's 'Prince Igor' (also arranged by Glazunov), the 'Grand March' from 'Tannhäuser' by Wagner and the 'Triumphal March' from Verdi's 'Aida'. The latter two pieces proved a showcase for the brass and percussion sections with our four trumpet players sounding particularly splendid. It was a lovely way to finish our 2014-15 season, which has seen the orchestra work with six different conductors. Sunday's concert was conducted by former NSO leader Trevor Dyson, who guided us to an impressive and very enjoyable performance.

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'The Honours' by Tim Clare

20 July 2015

I've just finished reading 'The Honours' – the debut novel by the poet Tim Clare (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Julie Teal). It's a peculiar book. Set between the wars, it tells the story of thirteen-year-old Delphine Venner. Delphine's father has suffered a breakdown and is taken, with his family, to recuperate at Alderberen Hall in Norfolk – home to a progressive 'Society' which uses a variety of new practices to improve the mind and body. Soon Delphine – the only child in this stately home commune – begins to suspect something more sinister is going on. Eavesdropping on the adults, discovering secret passages and befriending the grumpy gamekeeper, Mr Garforth, she sets out to discover the truth. But as the story develops it becomes clear that there is not going to be a rational solution to the puzzle Delphine is attempting to resolve. The conventional country-house narrative gives way to a fantasy story with the arrival of vicious creatures from another dimension. 'The Honours' is an ambitious undertaking, echoing the looming storm of the Second World War with the threat of a supernatural invasion of Britain, whilst also exploring themes of mental illness, immortality, time travel and more. I'm not sure it completely works: the action scenes are so meticulously described that they seem to go on forever, and there are far too many loose ends untied at the close. 'The Honours' could also have benefited from a little humour as light relief occasionally. Nevertheless, it is beautifully written: you can feel the poet's touch in phrases such as “the distant treeline hung like an unresolved chord”, “his slicked-back hair, receding at the temples, gave the impression he was moving at speed”, and “his posture shivered with the concentrated tension of a mousetrap.” This playfulness with metaphors, together with the country-house setting and a touch of the supernatural, reminded me of the novels of Ned Beauman (such as 'The Teleportation Accident', reviewed here in July 2013) but without Beauman's comic touch. Still, it will be interesting to see what Tim Clare writes next.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Chamber music concert at Hartwell House

17 July 2015

Mozart's 'Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments' is thought by some to be one of the greatest pieces of music every written. It's an unusual format and a unique combination of instruments, featuring four horns (though Mozart only ever wrote orchestral music scored for two horns) and requiring two basset horns (a close relation to the clarinet). I played the Serenade at a Music in the Brickhills concert in 2011 (reviewed here in May 2011) and it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to play it again in the delightful setting of Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire last Sunday. Hartwell House is a National Trust property that is also a luxury hotel. The stately home surroundings gave us a feel of the sort of salon environment that Mozart's chamber music was originally written for. It was great to be part of a very impressive group of musicians assembled by Paul Harris for this lovely concert.

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Dominic Holland

17 July 2015

Dominic Holland first came to prominence as a comedian in the 1990s and I fondly remember his award-winning BBC Radio 4 series 'The Small World of Dominic Holland' (2000). He seemed to disappear from the stand-up comedy circuit soon afterwards to concentrate on writing. I really enjoyed his novel, 'The Ripple Effect' (published in 2003), – a comic tale of fans fighting to save a local football club – and he now has a string of popular novels to his name. Like many good comedians who seem to have disappeared from public view he now writes material for other performers, including Rob Brydon. So, I was interested to see that Dominic Holland was to headline the regular 'Rolling in the Aisles' comedy night at Kettering Arts Centre last Saturday. Kettering Arts Centre (where we saw Jeremy Hardy a couple of years ago, reviewed here in October 2013) uses St Andrews Church in Kettering. It feels odd watching a comedy night in a church but it has the distinct benefit of requiring the comedians to refrain from swearing (and seeing some struggle with this is amusing in itself!). Since taking the booking to play Kettering Arts Centre, Dominic Holland has had some significant news. A couple of weeks ago his son, Tom Holland, was announced as the new Spiderman, signing a six movie deal with Marvel which will start filming next year. Dominic Holland is clearly still somewhat shell-shocked by this news and started his act on Saturday by saying “I am Spiderman's Dad: this means I literally don't have to be here!”. Fortunately for us, he stayed and gave a great performance. His gentle, observational humour, slick ad libs and warm personality were likeable and extremely funny. If this was the last stand-up gig Dominic Holland feels the need to do, I'm glad we were there.

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Friday, July 10, 2015

Iceland cruise

10 July 2015

We had a lovely two-week holiday on the P&O cruise ship Oriana, visiting Ireland, Iceland the Faroe Islands and Orkney. Our weather was much cooler than back home but we enjoyed some beautiful sunshine in Killybegs (Donegal), Reykjavik and Thorshavn in the Faroe Islands. We did a lot of hiking, exploring the countryside in each of our ports of call. Reykjavik is a lovely small city, surrounded by water and mountains. We also visited two towns at the end of long fjords in the North West (Isafjordur) and North East (Akureyri) of Iceland. Both were very reminiscent of the Norwegian fjords but somewhat bleaker, with few trees. Thorshavn, capital of the Faroe Islands, has a very pretty old town with a collection of colourful old houses with turf on the roofs crammed into a maze of narrow winding alleys on a spit of land between its two harbours. Our visits to Kirkwall (Orkney) and Dublin were hampered by heavy rain but we enjoyed the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall and the National Gallery in Dublin.

You can see a selection of my holiday photos at: http://www.culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Iceland2015

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