Thursday, January 31, 2019

'Don Quixote' by Miguel de Cervantes, adapted by James Fenton

31 January 2019

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was a contemporary of Shakespeare: they died within a few days of each other in 1616. So it was fascinating to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘Don Quixote’, adapted by James Fenton, at the Garrick Theatre in London last Saturday. When I read ‘The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha’ (reviewed here in January 2012) I realised what a debt more recent comic creations, particularly double-acts, owe to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. In this stage adaptation David Threlfall and the comedian Rufus Hound create a believably warm relationship between these two deluded simpletons. The show is great fun though, as with the novel, laughs at the expense of what is effectively mental illness feel a bit uncomfortable at times. The most ground-breaking aspect of Cervantes’ book, however, is the meta-fiction of Volume 2 where the characters start to encounter people who have read Volume 1. The stage version tried to incorporate this narrative complexity, with actors carrying copies of the book and Rufus Hound breaking the fourth wall to banter with the audience. But I felt it missed the impact the book has when you start to wonder who is writing the story – which really messes with your head! Nevertheless Angus Jackson’s production is incredibly enjoyable and made me fall in love with Cervantes’ characters all over again.

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Friday, January 25, 2019

'Our Lady of Kibeho' by Katori Hall

25 January 2019

In 1981 at a Catholic college in Kibeho in the mountains of Rwanda, three girls apparently experienced a visitation from the Virgin Mary. Katori Hall’s remarkable new play ‘Our Lady of Kibeho’, which we saw at the Royal Theatre in Northampton on Tuesday, uses this incident as a way to explore the conditions that led eventually to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Some people believe the Virgin Mary appeared to warn of the approaching tragedy but the play leaves us to make up our own minds about whether the events at Kibeho were a religious miracle, mass hallucination or something else. Katori Hall is more interested in showing the growing divisions between Hutu and Tutsi that would have catastrophic outcomes. The UK premiere of ‘Our Lady of Kibeho’ is a triumph for the Royal & Derngate and its Director James Dacre, receiving glowing reviews from several national newspapers, including a five star review from Michael Billington in The Guardian: It’s a beautiful production, full of charm and mystery, with an underlying ominousness. The excellent cast includes a Community Ensemble of local amateur actors and features stunning performances by Ery Nzaramba as the Headteacher and Gabrielle Brooks, Yasmin Mwanza and Pepter Lunkuse as the three girls. Orlando Gough’s music features some gorgeous a capella singing and Jonathan Fensom’s set manages to match the contradictory sunny but storm-laden feel of the play.

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'Middle England' by Jonathan Coe

25 January 2019

The EU referendum of June 2016 and the subsequent years of Brexit negotiations have felt like a seismic shock to many people in the UK – something that could not have been foreseen. In his new novel, ‘Middle England’ – which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Rory Kinnear – Jonathan Coe paints a picture of England and the English from 2010 to late 2018 which does a great job of showing how inevitable the referendum result was. This third book featuring the characters from Coe’s 2001 novel 'The Rotters' Club' and its sequel 'The Closed Circle' (2004) shows the growing resentment of large swathes of Middle England to immigration, political correctness, austerity and more, alongside the naive obliviousness of those in their own liberal bubble. By the time the story reaches 2016 it is very clear which way each of the main characters is going to vote. The Rotters Club trilogy has now followed the lives of a group of schoolfriends from Birmingham, their families and friends from the late 1970s to 2018. It sets their stories against real-world political events in a similar way to Frederic Raphael’s ‘The Glittering Prizes’ trilogy and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books. Where Jonathan Coe’s hilarious critique of Thatcher’s Britain ‘What a Carve Up’ and its sequel focussing on Cameron's Coalition Government, ‘Number 11’ (reviewed here in January 2016), formed a glorious farce, the Rotters Club novels all have a more melancholic feel. ‘Middle England’ is a very funny comic novel with many laugh-out-loud moments but it also has a pervasive air of sadness. Jonathan Coe was already one of my favourite contemporary authors but this time it felt like he was writing specially for me as ‘Middle England’ includes lengthy descriptions of the 2010 general election, a Baltic cruise and the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. It’s incredibly enjoyable and deeply though-provoking.


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.