Thursday, September 29, 2016

‘Undermajordomo Minor’ by Patrick deWitt

29 September 2016

Patrick deWitt’s novel ‘The Sisters Brothers’ (reviewed here in October 2015) is a quirky Western that draws on a wide range of influences. I have just finished reading his latest book ‘Undermajordomo Minor’, a strange fairytale set in a medieval middle-European country which also seems to combine a rich variety of literary sources. This is a novel which feels allegorical with its many unnamed characters (The Baron and The Baroness, The Count and the The Countess etc) and relishes its folk tale clichés. It’s a very dark fairytale with plenty of sex and violence but with an old fashioned politeness of language. The Ruritanian setting reminded me of Wes Anderson’s film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, itself inspired by the short stories of Stefan Zweig. ‘Undermajordomo Minor’ is a distinctly odd but incredibly engaging and funny book. I found it hard to work out what it is really about but very much enjoyed reading it.

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Kitzbuhel

29 September 2016

We had a wonderful holiday in Kitzbuhel in the Austrian Tyrol last week – surely one of the most beautiful places in the world. We stayed in an amazing hotel on a hill overlooking the town. Our room was in a 400-year-old castle while the modern part of the hotel included a 46m swimming pool on the top floor with stunning panoramic views of the valley. We arrived in heavy rain but after the first day we hardly had any more showers and the week just got sunnier and sunnier. I can highly recommend visiting the Austrian ski resorts in the summer: the cable cars take you quickly up the mountains where there are extensive networks of well-marked paths. We did lots of walking with the most incredible views: you really feel part of a vast three-dimensional landscape. We walked on the Kitzbuheler Horn mountain and on the Hahnenkamm – site of the famous downhill ski race. We also walked along the valley to the pretty town of St Johann. Kitzbuhel itself is a fairytale town of brightly painted buildings and cobbled streets. It’s a beautiful place: you can see a selection of my photos at: http://culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Kitzbuhel2016

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Friday, September 16, 2016

‘Suku: Your Life is Your Poem’ by Nils Kercher

16 September 2016

Nils Kercher is a classically trained musician from Germany who has developed a keen interest in West African music. Having studied the kora with Djelimady Sissoko, Kercher has created an album of beautifully gentle music called ‘Suku: Your Life is Your Poem’. He blends traditional West African, instruments including kora, ngoni and balafon, with violin, viola and ‘cello, acoustic guitar and vocals. Many of the tracks have a repetitive, pulsing quality that suggests the minimalist contemporary classical music of Michael Nyman, Philip Glass or Steve Reich. But ‘Suku’ also reinforces the case made by Toumani Diabaté in his 2008 album, 'The Mandé Variations' (reviewed here in May 2008), for Malian griot music to be considered 'African classical music' – equivalent to Western or Indian classical music. And I was particularly reminded of the Malian singer Rokia Traoré’s wonderful 2003 album ‘Bowmboi’ which includes two amazing tracks with the Kronos string quartet. ‘Suku’ features musicians from Mali, Senegal, Martinique, Finland and Australia – but it is firmly focussed on West Africa and has a quiet, restrained beauty.

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Thursday, September 08, 2016

'The Essex Serpent' by Sarah Perry

8 September 2016

The new, and much admired, novel by Sarah Perry, ‘The Essex Serpent’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book narrated by Juanita McMahon) is set in London and Essex in the 1890s. Encompassing both the social problems of Victorian East London and the mysterious foggy world of the Essex marshes, the book naturally invites comparison with Dickens. Sarah Perry writes beautifully and her scene-setting descriptive overviews had much in common with ‘Bleak House’ (reviewed here in October 2007 when I noted Dickens’ “technique of 'floating' over the streets and buildings of the Inns of Court”). Perry’s prose is beautifully read by Juanita McMahon, becoming atmospherically poetic when read out loud. The setting of ‘The Essex Serpent’ also reminded me of 'Mr Mac and Me' by Esther Freud (reviewed here in May 2015) – another historic tale of an Eastern coastal community. ‘The Essex Serpent’ uses superstitious fears of the return of a terrifying winged serpent as the backdrop to a battle of ideas between science (represented by the amateur palaeontologist Cora Seaborne) and religion (represented by the rector of Aldwinter, William Ransome). These characters are joined by a pioneering surgeon, a social campaigner and a politician as the novel tackles a range of issues facing Victorian society. But I felt this novel of ideas seemed unsure what it’s real focus was. Like ‘Mr Mac and Me’ it was beautifully written but the pace was slow and I longed for more of a driving plot.

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Friday, September 02, 2016

'King Lear' by William Shakespeare

2 September 2016

On Thursday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see Greg Doran’s new RSC production of ‘King Lear’ starring Anthony Sher. I first saw ‘King Lear’ at the old RST in 1993 with Robert Stephens in the title role and I was interested to discover that, like Anthony Sher now, Robert Stephens had also recently played Falstaff in ‘Henry IV Parts 1 & 2’ for the RSC. Watching Anthony Sher I was struck by the similarities between Lear and Falstaff: if you extended the scene in ‘Henry IV Part 1’ where Falstaff pretends to be the King to imagine him actually ruling you might conclude that his reign would have ended in the disastrous way depicted in ‘King Lear’. Sher’s Lear looks like Charlton Heston as Moses, particularly in the storm scene on a spectacularly elevated heath. Anthony Sher is always a compelling actor and his journey from belligerent tyrant to whimsical madman is fascinating to watch. It was also great to see David Troughton back at the RSC as Gloucester – losing his eyes in an excruciatingly brutal scene set within a transparent box whose walls dripped with blood. This was a fairly bare production with little staging, leaving the focus on the actors themselves. And one of the main beneficiaries was rising RSC star Paapa Essiedu (who we last saw in ‘Hamlet’, reviewed here in April 2016) whose performance as Edmund very nearly stole the show.

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Edinburgh Festivals 2016

2 September 2016

We had a great week in Edinburgh where we saw a total of 26 shows in the Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. A week at the Edinburgh Festivals always serves as a cultural top-up for the year. There is so much to do that you don’t really have the opportunity to reflect on it until you get home – but then what you’ve seen acts a spur to further investigation and cultural exploration.

Since I got back from Edinburgh I’ve been reading some of the witty, dark short stories of Saki – the pen name of the author Hector Hugh Munro who died in the trenches in the First World War and was the subject of the excellent new play ‘Life According to Saki’ by Katherine Rundell which we saw performed by Atticist at C venue. I’ve been re-listening to one of my favourite albums – Michelle Shocked’s 1989 rock & roll/Big Band masterpiece ‘Captain Swing’ – which it was a genuine thrill to discover she was performing in its entirety at the New Town Theatre.

I’m looking forward to reading Meg Rosoff’s first novel for adults ‘Jonathan Unleashed’, which we saw her discussing at the Book Festival. I’ve set a reminder for the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 15 September of the stunning concert by the Russian National Orchestra that we saw at the Usher Hall – featuring Kirill Karabits conducting Scriabin’s triumphant ‘Symphony No 2’. And I’ve been inspired to start practising Shostakovich’s ‘Symphony No 5’, which I am due to perform with Northampton Symphony Orchestra in November, after seeing an amazing performance of the piece by the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop.

Other highlights from our Edinburgh week included brilliantly bizarre stand-up from Simon Munnery, a fascinating lecture from Melvyn Bragg on the Peasants’ Revolt and a return visit to the surreal world of Kenny Young and The Eggplants (‘Eggplantis’).

Two of the best shows we saw this year shared a similar format – plays featuring solo performers using a mixture of poetry, spoken word, storytelling, songs and physical theatre. Tom Gill’s ‘Growing Pains’ and Lotte Rice’s ‘Exactly Like You’ (both at Underbelly) were both bravura performances by young rising stars.

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Friday, August 19, 2016

'Guilt Trip' by Katherine Jakeways, Felicity Montagu and Olivia Nixon

19 August 2016

‘Guilt Trip’ is a great example of the kind of gentle, funny, clever and moving comedy drama that BBC Radio 4 does so well. This four-part series, which finished this week, stars Felicity Montagu and her real-life daughter Olivia Nixon as mother and daughter Ros and Laura who are walking the Thames path, from the source of the river to Tower Bridge, to raise money for charity in memory of Laura’s father (Ros’s ex-husband) who has recently passed away. Thrown together for two weeks of strenuous physical exercise, the pair make a great odd-couple and their episodic encounters with a range of characters along the river path are reminiscent of the meandering stories of ‘Three Men in a Boat’. ‘Guilt Trip’ is written by Katherine Jakeways (who also appears as Laura’s stepmother, Ruth) with Felicity Montagu and Olivia Nixon. All four episodes are still available to listen to for the next seven days at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07mhzqx/episodes/player

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Friday, August 12, 2016

'Stranger Things' by The Duffer Brothers

12 August 2016

I’m a recent convert to Netflix, joining the online streaming service just in time to watch the gripping new sci-fi/horror serial ‘Stranger Things’. This eight-part drama, written and directed by the Duffer Brothers and starring Winona Ryder, is a homage to 1980s films such as ‘E.T.’, ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Stand By Me’. It is set in 1983 in a small town in Indiana and starts with the disappearance of a local boy near a mysterious government research establishment. Flickering lights herald the arrival of a monster from an alternative dimension, a child with telekinetic powers and masses of armed suits in transit vans. The focus on a gang of kids on bikes trying to outwit the authorities recalls some of those children’s films, but ‘Stranger Things’ is quite an adult drama. It builds to a truly thrilling climax and, unlike so many modern TV series, actually draws the story to a conclusion – merely hinting at the possibility of a second series, which would be most welcome.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

'Scorched' by Lisle Turner

11 August 2016

‘Scorched’, written by Lisle Turner, produced by Open Sky and playing at Zoo Southside as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is a play with one actor which deals with themes of ageing, reminiscence and play. We encounter an elderly man watching TV in his living room. As he remembers key incidents from his life he acts them out, using the domestic furniture to represent vehicles and buildings in the same way children often do – emphasising the idea of a ‘second childhood’ in older age. It’s a very impressive physical performance which demonstrates some incredibly inventive stagecraft, including projection, puppetry and animation. I loved the moment when Jack is sitting in his armchair thinking about his time in the army fighting Rommel in the Sahara and remembering having a tattoo on his arm – at which point a projected image appears on his bare upper arm, looking convincingly like a tattoo until it starts to move as an animated cartoon. I also enjoyed the beautiful sculpture created in front of our eyes from sand, sugar and shortbread. But I felt the need for a little more narrative thread to hold the audience’s attention for an hour. And it was a shame that what was clearly a very creative sound design, mixing the soundtrack of the TV programmes Jack is watching with sound effects and voices from his past, was often obscured by the noisy dance show going on in the venue upstairs. Nevertheless ‘Scorched’ is a high quality show which presents an interesting take on ageing and is available, in abridged version, for performance in care homes with associated workshops for residents.

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