Thursday, February 23, 2017

'The Massacre of Mankind' by Stephen Baxter

23 February 2017

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” 

So, famously, begins HG Wells’ novel ‘The War of the Worlds’. Given the worryingly apocalyptic potential for world events in the opening months of 2017, I thought I would cheer myself up by reading ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ – Stephen Baxter’s new authorised sequel to ‘The War of the Worlds’ (which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Nathalie Buscombe). There seems to be a particular vogue for authorised sequels at the moment, such as Anthony Horowitz’s excellent Sherlock Holmes novels ‘The House of Silk’ (reviewed here in January 2012) and ‘Moriarty’ (reviewed here in January 2015). Stephen Baxter does a great job of paying tribute to Wells’ original novel, while taking the story of mankind’s encounters with creatures from another world to the next level.

“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said … but still, they come”. And then they came back. Thirteen years after the Martian invaders of 1907 were wiped out by the Earth’s bacteria they have returned – and this time they are better prepared. But what I found most fascinating about ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ was not the aliens but the resulting alternative history of mankind. By imagining what lasting effects the 1907 battle with the Martians would have had on the world, Baxter has a lot of fun creating a parallel reality. With many similarities to Philip Roth’s portrait of a world in which Nazi Germany wins the Second World War with the support of the USA ('The Plot Against America' reviewed here in September 2006), ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ starts in 1920 with the British and German allies victorious in the European war that followed the Martian invasion. The Titanic has survived its collision with the iceberg because its bow was reinforced with Martian aluminium. And Charlie Chaplin has achieved worldwide fame through playing ‘The Little Soldier’ - a character modelled on the British artilleryman famous for fighting the Martians in 1907.

I also enjoyed the meta-fictional construct of this sequel, in which the first-person narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds’, Walter Jenkins, has become famous for his account of the original conflict but is now hated by some of his friends and family for how he inaccurately portrayed them in his narrative. This echoes the second part of ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes (reviewed here in January 2012) in which the knight and his squire frequently encounter people who have read the earlier volume and are familiar with their history. Stephen Baxter also manages to throw in a reference, after Martians arrive in America in 1922, to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey – the landing site of the Martian invasion in Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio version of ‘The War of the Worlds’.

‘The Massacre of Mankind’ is a meticulously crafted homage to HG Wells. It reads like it could have been written in the period it portrays and, although the plot feels a little slow at times, it is a very impressive and intriguing counter-history of the early decades of the twentieth century.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

'Saint Joan' by George Bernard Shaw

17 February 2017

I have still not visited the Donmar Warehouse in London but this week we were at Cineworld in Milton Keynes to see the NT Live broadcast from the Donmar of Josie Rourke’s production of ‘Saint Joan’ by George Bernard Shaw. As with the live screening of Rourke’s production of 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' by Christopher Hampton (reviewed here in January 2016) I was impressed by the intimate nature of the theatre, with its four rows of seats on three sides of the stage. It reminded me of The Other Place – the RSC’s (now defunct) third auditorium in Stratford-upon-Avon. As I wrote here in July 2014,  I always used to like The Other Place for the way it got you closer to the actors, stripping away the distraction of the big production values of the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage and allowing you fully to appreciate the brilliant acting. I felt the same about this performance of ‘Saint Joan’ at the Donmar Warehouse. Josie Rourke has given the play a modern corporate setting with each scene taking place around a constantly revolving boardroom table, allowing the audience a rotating perspective of each of the actors at very close quarters. Gemma Arterton’s Joan of Arc is the only character in period costume and each time she enters the stage she seems to drag the play back to the 15th century: three giant video screens showing Bloomberg stock index updates fade to display a religious triptych and the lighting dims. Gemma Arterton gives an amazing performance: her Joan is a cheerful pollyannaish religious fanatic, unfazed by setbacks and completely convinced she is carrying out the will of God. Shaw plays often feel extremely long and wordy but can also be incredibly funny – as I noted here in my review of 'Man and Superman' in May 2015. Josie Rourke has cut the text of ‘Saint Joan’ considerably and brought out an unexpected amount of humour in what is a failry bleak tale. The trial scene towards the end of the play was a brilliantly handled ensemble performance in which you could sympathise with all the opposing points of view simultaneously while ominously appreciating that Joan’s plight was not going to end well.

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Friday, February 10, 2017

'Designated Survivor' by David Guggenheim

10 February 2017

I hadn’t realised it was a real thing but Wikipedia tells us that “In the United States, a designated survivor (or designated successor) is an individual in the presidential line of succession, usually a member of the United States Cabinet, who is arranged to be at a physically distant, secure, and undisclosed location when the President and the country's other top leaders (e.g., Vice President and Cabinet members) are gathered at a single location, such as during State of the Union addresses and presidential inaugurations. This is intended to guarantee continuity of government in the event of a catastrophic occurrence that kills the President and many officials in the presidential line of succession, such as a mass shooting or bombing. If such an event occurred, killing both the President and Vice President, the surviving official highest in the line, possibly the designated survivor, would become the Acting President of the United States under the Presidential Succession Act.”   

David Guggenheim’s TV series ‘Designated Survivor’ (which I have just finished watching on Netflix) uses this premise to create a very exciting political thriller. When the Capitol building is destroyed by a terrorist attack during the State of the Union address, the President and the whole of Congress are killed. Designated Survivor Tom Kirkman, the lowly Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is suddenly being sworn in as the new President of the United States. Not only does he have to work out how to govern a country whose entire federal government has disappeared, President Kirkman also has to deal with the devastating aftermath of a massive terror attack on Washington. Keifer Sutherland plays Kirkman as an honest man thrust into the limelight and Maggie Q is the FBI agent who believes someone other than the Islamic terrorist group that claims responsibility might actually be behind the bombing. The first episode of ‘Designated Survivor’ is truly thrilling and the parallels between the fictional story and the White House in 2017 (such as when the President is asked to consider banning all immigration into the USA to guard against terrorists) are scarily close. ‘Designated Survivor’ is both a political drama that bears comparison with ‘Borgen’ (reviewed here in February 2013) and a thriller. I’m looking forward to the second series.

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Thursday, February 02, 2017

NMPAT Sinfonietta concert

2 February 2017

On Saturday I played with the NMPAT Sinfonietta in a charity concert at Christ Church in Northampton to raise funds for Stoke Mandeville Spinal Research. The orchestra, made up mostly by instrumental music teachers from Northamptonshire Music and Performing Arts Trust, was conducted by Trevor Dyson. The violinist Ben Roskams (who played Bruch's 'Scottish Fantasy' in a  Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert reviewed here in June 2015) joined us to give a stunning performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The second half of the concert featured Beethoven’s epic ‘Symphony No 3 (Eroica)’ which I hadn’t played for many years. Perhaps because the orchestra only came together for one rehearsal, on Saturday afternoon, it felt like the concert benefited from a very high level of concentration and I think we gave a really exciting performance.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

‘The Trespasser’ by Tana French

27 January 2017

Regular readers will know that I am enjoying working through the Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French. After reading ‘The Secret Place’ (reviewed here in December 2016) I have leapt to French’s latest book, ‘The Trespasser’ (which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Hilda Fay). This follows the same two detectives as in ‘The Secret Place’ – Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway – but tells its story through Conway’s eyes. I found the plot of ‘The Trespasser’ particularly intriguing as it starts with a simple premise – a woman found dead in her own home – and the detectives gradually piece together what happened to her through painstaking investigation and assimilation of evidence. A key focus of this novel is the process of forming and testing hypotheses as a way of unearthing the truth – and the danger of inventing an explanation and then looking for evidence to support it. There is also the usual focus in French’s novels on the relationship between the two partner detectives. This is a fascinatingly detailed police procedural which keeps you hooked until you finally understand exactly what happened to the dead woman.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

'La La Land' by Damien Chazelle

18 January 2017

Damien Chazelle’s much praised and garlanded film ‘La La Land’ has been pre-occupying me since we saw it last Saturday. This modern take on the old-fashioned Hollywood musical is beautifully done. It opens with a truly stunning set piece – an infectiously upbeat dance number that had me beaming with delight. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both charming and the film is a loving homage to classic Hollywood musicals, with great music by Justin Hurwitz. And yet … I’m not sure it completely works. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say our natural yearning for the two leads to fall in love is satisfied surprisingly quickly, with the minimum of jeopardy. There is then a lot of film left to go and what little jeopardy there is revolves around the difficulties of maintaining a relationship when faced with the challenges of careers and money. While this is refreshingly realistic and modern it feels too serious a topic for a musical. In trying to make a mature, self-aware film Damien Chazelle has lost some of the comedy of the musical-comedy. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not outstanding singers or dancers but they have clearly worked really hard on their performances and the film showcases their talents very effectively. Ryan Gosling learned to play the piano in three months for the film, see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04p6drs?ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=thetodayprogramme&ns_source=facebook. Emma Stone’s audition scenes are painfully believable and reminded me of Naomi Watts in David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ (another film that uses the Los Angeles skyline to great effect). Nevertheless Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone end up giving us neither screwball comedy nor virtuosic song and dance. And ‘La La Land’ relies almost exclusively on its two leads: after the first fifteen minutes there are are hardly any big ensemble numbers. Maybe my expectations had been unrealistically raised by the brilliant reviews but the film felt too long and, after its explosive opening, didn’t seem to know where it wanted to go. Each of the component parts was very high quality but somehow the whole felt less than the sum of those parts. If you’ve seen ‘La La Land’ I would welcome your thoughts on it – and if you haven’t I really hope you get a chance to watch the brilliant opening.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' by Max Landis

12 January 2017

In 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' Douglas Adams broke every one of my rules of detective fiction in a glorious subversion of the genre. I loved the two published Dirk Gently novels and the unfinished third novel (published posthumously in ‘The Salmon of Doubt’, reviewed here in October 2009). There have been three dramatisations of Dirk Gently, with Harry Enfield’s portrayal of the detective in Dirk Maggs’ two BBC Radio 4 serials (reviewed here in October 2007 and October 2008) the closest to the character in the novels. The BBC Four TV version starring Stephen Mangan strangely stripped out the supernatural elements of the stories. The result was gentle and quirky but had nothing like the impact of the original. In the new TV adaptation by Max Landis for BBC America, which I have just started watching on Netflix, Samuel Barnett is nothing like my mental image on Dirk Gently but it really doesn’t seem to matter. Landis has created a completely new plot which takes Gently to Seattle (though there are a couple of nods to his previous cases from the novels). This version of 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' has a very high death count: like Noah Hawley’s splendid ‘Fargo’ TV series many characters you assumed were going to be central to the plot are brutally assassinated before the end of the first episode. The slaughter is simultaneously sickeningly real and somehow hysterically funny – watch through your fingers. Elijah Wood is great as Dirk’s reluctant ‘Dirk Watson’, his eyes permanently wide with stunned bemusement but I think my favourite character is Richard Schiff’s laconic Missing Persons cop Zimmerfield. 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' is incredibly confusing, completely bonkers and entrancing: Douglas Adams would have loved it.

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