Friday, January 18, 2019

‘The Tragedy of King Richard The Second’ by WIlliam Shakespeare

18 January 2019

On Tuesday we were at the Odeon in Milton Keynes to watch the NTLive screening of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tragedy of King Richard The Second’, live from the Almeida Theatre in London. We last saw ‘Richard II’ at the Barbican, with David Tennant in the title role (reviewed here in December 2013). Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production, starring Simon Russell Beale, is a much less conventional version of the play. Set in a windowless, door-less box, with just eight actors who can never escape from the stage, it has a deliberately claustrophic feel. There are no elaborate costumes and no props, other than a range of different kinds of gloves and buckets of blood, water and soil which lurk menacingly against the back wall until called into action. This plain setting allows you to concentrate on the acting, which is excellent. Simon Russell Beale, who we last saw as Prospero in Greg Doran’s RSC production of ‘The Tempest’ (reviewed here in November 2016), is a mesmerising performer and it was great to be able to see his performance in close-up on the big screen. The projector in our cinema seemed to be incorrectly adjusted, meaning we often couldn’t see the tops of the actors’ heads, but this only served to enhance the intense, claustrophic mood of the production. ‘Richard II’ is an odd play but I was particularly struck by the beauty of Shakespeare’s language. There are some lovely poetic speeches and it was poignant to be listening to Joseph Mydell’s John of Gaunt reciting ‘This Sceptred Isle’ while elsewhere MPs were voting on the EU Withdrawal Agreement. But I wasn’t totally convinced by the Almeida production: having such a small cast of actors playing multiple parts, without any differentiation of costume, proved quite confusing. Even knowing the play, I found it difficult to follow. There was some great acting and it was fascinating to see the stripped-down approach but I’m not sure it fully worked.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2019

'The Favourite' by Yorgos Lanthimos

9 January 2019

On Tuesday we were at the Odeon in Milton Keynes to see Yorgos Lanthimos’ film ‘The Favourite’, starring Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. It’s a dark, quirky, historical drama with some graphic violence, sex and bad language. I’m not sure I would describe it as a comedy, though there are some very funny moments. Yorgos Lanthimos creates a stylish but realistic vision of life within the royal palace in the early 18th century. His repeated use of a distorted wide-angle lens has a voyeuristic feel as we intrude on the domestic life of the Queen and her ladies in waiting. It’s great to see a film with three (fairly evenly shared) leading parts for women, with most of the men depicted as buffoons. Olivia Colman and Emma Stone both have incredibly expressive faces, often shown in extreme close-up so you can almost see the thoughts moving behind their eyes – while Rachel Weisz maintains an un-moving deadpan throughout most of the film. The screenplay, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, cleverly shifts the audience’s sympathies between the warring characters as the story progresses. It’s an odd film which will not be to everyone’s taste but Olivia Colman is superb and I enjoyed reading up afterwards about a period of British history that was previously a blind-spot for me.

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Friday, January 04, 2019

'Hard Times' by Charles Dickens

4 January 2019

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.” I was familiar with the words of Thomas Gradgrind which open ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens but was surprised how little of the rest of the novel I knew. ‘Hard Times’ focuses on the social and industrial conditions in Coketown – a northern mill town, clearly modeled on Manchester. There is a weighty helping of Dickens’ witty prose, sometimes bordering on whimsy, but the plot emerges only very gradually, with the importance of several key events only revealed much later in hindsight. ‘Hard Times’ has a surprisingly small cast of principal characters – though they are beautifully drawn. Dickens works hard to convey the local dialect in print, making some of the book quite difficult to read. But his social campaigning messages are clear and entertainingly delivered. If you haven’t read any Dickens I wouldn’t start with ‘Hard Times’ but it was interesting to discover this tale for the first time.

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Friday, December 21, 2018

'Lethal White' by Robert Galbraith

21 December 2018

I’ve just finished reading ‘Lethal White’, the fourth Cormoran Strike detective novel by J K Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith) – as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Robert Glenister. As with the previous Cormoran Strike novels, it has a gripping, complex plot and a great cast of well-drawn characters but suffers from some clunky writing and a host of annoying inaccuracies in its deliberately real-world setting. Once again Strike sees some football matches on television that it would have been impossible for him to watch. ‘Lethal White’ is set in 2012 against the backdrop of the London Olympics and Paralympics and involves a cast of Government Ministers and civil servants. From personal experience I can say that, while many of the details of the Houses of Parliament are clearly meticulously researched, the descriptions of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are completely fictional. In terms of the plot this doesn’t really matter but it continues to puzzle me why you would go to the bother of setting your novel at a very specific time in a very specific place – and referencing so many tiny details to make it seem realistic – but constantly get some of these details wrong. Having said all that, I did enjoy the ride and the satisfying resolution of a complicated jigsaw puzzle plot.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens, adapted by David Edgar

12 December 2018

The Ghost of Christmas Future in ‘A Christmas Carol’ always makes me think of ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ by John Irving (reviewed here in May 2010) and Owen Meany’s bony finger pointing ominously at Scrooge’s grave. So I was a little disappointed that David Edgar’s adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’ for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which we saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon on Tuesday – although otherwise extremely faithful to Charles Dickens – omits that moment at the graveside. Rachel Kavanaugh’s production focuses on the social justice messages of the novel, creating an entertaining show with a serious purpose. Aden Gillett’s Scrooge is appropriately believable in this context and much less of a caricature than he is often portrayed. There is some great stagecraft in the realisation of the ghosts and the journeys on which they take Scrooge, making use of the amazing technical capabilities of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage, together with a mixture of digital projection and more traditional stage magic. This isn’t a musical but there are a few songs and some wonderful ensemble dance numbers with very impressive choreography by Georgina Lamb.

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Andy Kershaw

12 December 2018

On Sunday evening we were at The Stables in Wavendon to see the remarkable broadcaster and journalist Andy Kershaw. Long time readers may remember my enthusiasm for Andy Kershaw’s much missed Radio 3 show (see my review of his appearance on Desert Island Discs in March 2007). Largely absent from the airwaves these days, he is touring to promote his autobiography, ‘No Off Switch’. As he nears his 60th birthday, Andy Kershaw’s encyclopaedic memory, natural eloquence and strong Rochdale accent remain undimmed. He is a consummate story-teller and his encounters around the world with some of the greatest musicians of the past half century make for some wonderful stories. Using a series of personal photographs on his laptop as prompts, he started to take us through his life. Restlessly wandering around the stage with a focussed determination he explained how happen stance had taken him from student concert promoter to being Billy Bragg’s tour manager, to the Whistle Test on BBC television, to presenting the TV coverage of Live Aid, to becoming a Radio 1 DJ and latterly a BBC foreign correspondent visiting some of the most troubled parts of the world. Very like Danny Baker (reviewed here in May 2018) Andy Kershaw has an obsessive need to cram in as much as possible, taking more than three hours on stage to only get as far as 1987. He promised to return to complete his story and I really look forward to that. In the meantime many of his best radio documentaries are available via his website at https://www.andykershaw.co.uk/ (try his 2005 visit to Turkmenistan – an incredible piece of journalism).

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Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

12 December 2018

Regular readers will remember my disappointment twelve months ago when that traditional harbinger of the festive season, the Northampton Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas Cracker concert, was cancelled because of snow. Thankfully last Sunday normality was restored and we gathered at the Spinney Theatre in Northampton, in front of a large, enthusiastic audience of all ages, for an afternoon of Christmas music. To mark the NSO’s 125th anniversary season, this year’s Christmas concert had a Victorian theme, featuring Humperdinck’s ‘Overture to Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Selections from Oliver!’ by Lionel Bart and ‘Dances from The Nutcracker’ by Tchaikovsky – the last narrated by our excellent compere, Alan Bell, and featuring beautiful solos from Alexander Thomas on harp and William Thallon on celeste. Alan also performed the role of narrator (and almost all the characters) in Bryan Kelly’s ‘Scrooge’, with words taken directly from Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, ably assisted by our conductor John Gibbons who made a very sinister ghost of Jacob Marley. Given its ubiquity in NSO Christmas Cracker concerts, it seems hard to believe that the Northampton Symphony Orchestra hasn’t been playing Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’ every year since 1893, but as it wasn’t written until 1946 that seems unlikely. After last year’s cancellation it was wonderful to see the return of the orchestra’s silly hats, mulled wine and mince pies. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

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Friday, December 07, 2018

'Antony & Cleopatra' by William Shakespeare

7 December 2018

It is almost exactly a year since I first saw Shakespeare’s ‘Antony & Cleopatra’, in the Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Josette Simon (reviewed here in December 2017). The new National Theatre production, which we saw on Thursday via the NT Live screening at the Odeon in Milton Keynes, is a very different version of the play. Regular readers will know that Simon Godwin is one of my favourite theatre directors (see my review of his ‘Twelfth Night’ here in April 2017) and I really liked his take on ‘Antony & Cleopatra’. He uses the vast stage of the Olivier Theatre to great effect, particularly the huge revolve. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is stunning, giving the play a beautiful contemporary backdrop and Evie Gurney’s costumes are equally impressive. ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ reunites Simon Godwin with Ralph Fiennes who was such a compelling presence on stage in Godwin’s production of ‘Man and Superman’ (reviewed here in May 2015). Ralph Fiennes is an incredibly physical actor, giving Mark Antony a middle-aged gait and making him a restless, capricious character. Sophie Okonedo is a brilliant Cleopatra – in turns playful, passionate, angry and distraught. ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ is a long play but it kept my attention and the tableau created by set, lighting, costumes and actors will live long in my memory.

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‘Being Mortal: Medicine & What Matters in the End’ by Atul Gawande

7 December 2018

I am very grateful to Nick Ewbank for lending me his copy of Atul Gawande’s remarkable book ‘Being Mortal: Medicine & What Matters in the End’. I was fascinated by Atul Gawande’s Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4 in 2014 (which you can still listen to at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04bsgvm) and his appearance on ‘Desert Island Discs’ (in December 2015, available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06r0vsn) so I was keen to read his book. ‘Being Mortal’ suggests that we make the mistake of treating dying as an illness to be cured, making the end of life a medical problem and seeing death as failure. Gawande argues that death is a natural (and inevitable) occurrence and we should focus more on managing the dying process to maintain quality of life rather than simply prioritising keeping someone alive for as long as possible. Though this doesn’t sound like a cheery subject ‘Being Mortal’ is an uplifting read, featuring the stories of many of Dr Gawande’s patients together with some of the pioneers in the fields of hospice, assisted living and innovative approaches to nursing homes. The book also movingly tells the story of Atul Gawande’s father as he and his family have to address the impossibly difficult challenges caused by his declining health. At the end of the book Atul Gawande concludes: “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.” Everyone should read this book.

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Monday, December 03, 2018

Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

3 December 2018

When I played Gustav Mahler’s ‘Symphony No 1’ with Northampton Symphony Orchestra in 2016, I wrote here (in March 2016) that, for horn players, tackling a Mahler symphony is the equivalent of running a marathon, requiring extensive training to build your stamina. I said then “it was a brilliant experience but one I would be happy not to repeat for a while!” Well, just over two and a half years later, I was thrilled to get the chance to do it again, this time with Milton Keynes Sinfonia at a concert at the Chrysalis Theatre in Milton Keynes last Saturday. This concert was a musical trip to Vienna, opening with Franz Lehar’s overture to ‘The Merry Widow’, followed by Mahler’s orchestral song cycle ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’ (Songs of a Wayfarer’, sung by the impressive young British baritone, Andrew Hamilton. It was fascinating to hear the songs, the melodies of two of which Mahler also uses in the first and third movements of his First Symphony. The concert was dominated by that Symphony – a dramatic, grandiose, programmatic, playful and powerful epic. Given the stamina and concentration required to perform it, it’s amazing to realise that it is actually one of Mahler’s shortest symphonies. It was great fun to be part of a strong team of nine horn players, wonderfully led by Kate Knight: at one of the rehearsals we outnumbered the first violins! In the concert, when we reached the climax at the end of the first movement, with all nine of us playing together, I thought to myself “this is going to be brilliant!”. It was really enjoyable to be able to play the symphony without the stress of worrying about the first horn solos – which Kate played beautifully. Our conductor, David Knight, coaxed a thrilling performance from the large orchestra and Jenny Brown’s double bass solo at the beginning of the slow movement was exquisite. But it is the finale that will live long in my memory with the horn chorus soaring triumphantly over the orchestra: it was so exciting to be a part of it.

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