Friday, February 26, 2016

'As You Like It' by William Shakespeare

26 February 2016

On Thursday I was at Cineworld in Milton Keynes to see the live broadcast of Polly Findlay's new production of 'As You Like It' at the National Theatre. This modern dress version of Shakespeare's reliable comedy is a lovely theatrical experience, dominated by a wonderful double act and a stunning coup de théâtre. Rosalie Craig as Rosalind and Patsy Ferran as Celia are both outstanding and form the warm, funny heart of the production. Ferra – who was Portia in Polly Findlay's RSC production of 'The Merchant of Venice' (reviewed here in August 2015) – is a great comic actor whose reactions tend to draw your attention away from whoever is speaking. And Craig's infectious smile forms the lasting impression of the evening, leaving the audience similarly grinning. The relationship between the two characters is natural and incredibly believable. The other star of the production is Lizzie Clachan's amazing set – and particularly its moment of transformation into the Forest of Arden which is worth the price of admission alone. I don't want to spoil the effect if you haven't seen it but this stunning use of the massive space in the Olivier Theatre will linger long in the memory. The other really innovative aspect of this production is the use of a choir, scattered amongst the trees of the forest throughout the play, who provide a variety of sound effects (birdsong, sheep etc) as well as performing some beautifully strange choral music composed for the production by Orlando Gough.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 25, 2016

'Poppy + George' by Diane Samuels

25 February 2016

Watford Palace Theatre has a strong commitment to new writing and it was good to be there last Saturday to see 'Poppy + George' – a new play by Diane Samuels. Set in a dressmaker's workshop in London in 1919, 'Poppy + George' explores changing gender roles in a world still coming to terms with the transformations caused by the Great War. Jennie Darnell's production had much to commend, including a wonderful set by Ruari Murchinson and great acting by all four cast members. And it was interesting to see the use of music hall songs and comic routines in Watford Palace Theatre, which was itself a music hall in the early twentieth century. But the play felt like it still needed some work to make it click. There was an inconsistency of tone that made it hard to know what level of realism was being aimed for. From the opening scene it was immediately obvious to the audience that the young man, George the chauffeur, was being played by a female actor. But it took the whole first half of the play before we were presented with the revelation that George was a woman pretending to be a man. Once the 'secret' was out the play became much more interesting, comparing two approaches to how women might assume roles previously reserved for men. The contrast between the comedy of the music hall female impersonator and the seriousness of the woman living as a man was also cleverly constructed. George's story reminded me of Jackie Kay's novel 'Trumpet' (reviewed here in September 2011) but Diane Samuels' play didn't feel quite as effective as it could have been.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 19, 2016

David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation

19 February 2016

On Thursday I was at the Royal Festival Hall to see two of my favourite contemporary British novelists, David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro, in conversation with each other. It was a fascinating event – a free-flowing discussion without a chair that was completely compelling. Both authors clearly knew each other's novels extremely well and they quizzed each other about technique, genre, plot and much more. Short film clips were used as a prompt to move the conversation on but I suspect they could have carried on their conversation all night without these. In my review here of David Mitchell's latest novel 'Slade House' (in November 2015) I noted the similarities to Kazuo Ishiguro's evocation of dreaming, 'The Unconsoled', so it was wonderful to hear the authors themselves discussing the links between their works. The two writers were a great double act – Kazuo Ishiguro's serious, taciturn delivery contrasting with David Mitchell's smiling enthusiasm. It was refreshing to see a literary event that was not about blatantly plugging their latest novels. And it was great to see a huge audience (of more than 1,000 people I think) for a fairly cerebral literary discussion.


'Purity' by Jonathan Franzen

19 February 2016

Jonathan Franzen’s wonderful 2001 novel ‘The Corrections’ cleverly made the reader sympathise simultaneously with people who held completely opposing points of view – turning apparently unlikeable characters into sympathetic people. Franzen's new novel 'Purity' seems to reverse this approach: the more we get to know each of the main characters, exploring their backstories in lengthy flashbacks, the less likeable they seem to become. 'Purity' (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Dylan Baker, Jenna Lamia and Robert Petkoff) is another mammoth novel addressing 'state of the nation' issues while focussing on the minutae of family life – with much in common with 'The Corrections' and Franzen's 2010 novel 'Freedom' (reviewed here in April 2012). In 'Purity' he tackles the Internet and the world of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden et al. Large parts of the book portray events in East Germany prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The prose is beautifully written but the subject matter is often quite grim and each section of the book – exploring events through the eyes of each of the principal characters in turn – is incredibly long, making it difficult to remember characters and events from the earlier chapters when you finally return to them near the end of the book. The main protagonist, a young woman called Purity, is nicknamed Pip – suggesting parallels with 'Great Expectations', particularly when we learn that Pip may well be about to come into a fortune – but the potential links to Dickens feel disappointingly under-explored. Jonathan Franzen is a fascinating and impressive novelist but I would not recommend new readers to start with 'Purity'.


Hampton Court Palace

19 February 2016

Last Sunday we made our first visit to Hampton Court Palace – Henry VIII's royal palace on the banks of the Thames in Surrey. Hampton Court is one of those iconic historic buildings that feels immediately familiar. We worked our way through the historic maze and explored the parts of the palace that showcase the influence of Henry VIII and William III. It's a huge site that you could easily spend all day discovering. One of our highlights was the newly opened Cumberland Art Gallery – a small suite of rooms in the centre of the palace that now houses a selection of paintings from the Royal Collection. These include works by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Gainsborough and a whole room of Canalettos.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 12, 2016

'The Herbal Bed' by Peter Whelan

12 February 2016

I discovered this week that Shakespeare's last direct descendant is buried in Abington Church in Northampton. Elizabeth, Shakespeare's granddaughter, ended her life as Lady Barnard, wife of the MP for Huntingdon. This added a local angle to the Northampton Royal & Derngate production of Peter Whelan's play 'The Herbal Bed' which we saw at the Royal Theatre in Northampton last Saturday. Elizabeth appears as a young girl in the drama, playing in the garden of her parents, Susanna and Dr John Hall, in Stratford-upon-Avon. This is the first revival of Whelan's play since the original Royal Shakespeare Company production in 1996. It deals with the actual allegations that Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna, had an affair with a married neighbour. She was acquitted by an ecclesiastical court in Worcester in 1613 but 'The Herbal Bed' looks at what might have led to the allegations and how it might have affected all those involved. It's a cleverly constructed play: there is a great scene where four characters have agreed to support each other by embroidering the truth but each have been given a slightly different version of the story they are intending to stick to. William Shakespeare himself is peripheral to the play and does not appear as a character but is, nonetheless, a powerful off-stage presence. Whelan resists the temptation to throw in Shakespearean references or mimic the bard: this is more a social history of the period. James Dacre's production was impressive and the cast were all strong, though the show was stolen by Jonathan Fensom's beautiful set which inventively recreated both the garden at Hall Croft and Worcester Cathedral very effectively on the stage.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 05, 2016

'Areas of High Traffic' by Damien O'Kane

5 February 2016

I've been enjoying 'Areas of High Traffic' – the new album from Irish folk singer, banjo player and guitarist Damien O'Kane. This is a collection of mostly traditional Irish songs in contemporary arrangements which sound more like gentle rock music than folk. This approach to reworking traditional folk songs has a lot in common with O'Kane's English contemporary, Jim Moray (reviewed here in August 2008 and July 2011), though based more around a band of musicians than the electronica often used by Moray. Damien O'Kane, who comes from Coleraine, has a gentle singing voice and has created some beautiful arrangements – delicate easy listening with a hint of melancholy. And if you listen carefully you can pick out the distinctive voice of Damien O'Kane's wife Kate Rusby (reviewed here in June 2006) on backing vocals.

Labels: ,