Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

2016 foursomes

December 30, 2016

What a year it’s been. Bring on the nuclear holocaust, that’s what I say. But for some of us, whether we like it or not, life goes on, and so here is the annual trawl through the handful of things that have made me grateful to be alive in 2016.

Top 4 theatre
The year began and ended with exciting plays at the Hampstead Theatre – Tom Stoppard’s typically complex but fun Hapgood in January, with Lisa Dillon as the titular spymistress; and Tony Kushner’s irresistibly sprawling The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures in November, with Luke Newberry particularly catching the eye. The Helen McCrory-led production of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre was more moving than I’d dared expect it to be. And the most fun I had all year was at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves, where Nicholas Le Prevost reduced me to helpless laughter (as he has in the past).

ayckbourn

Top 4 student theatre
I’m very lucky to live in Cambridge. The Marlowe Society’s production of Measure for Measure at the Arts Theatre in February was outstanding in many respects, not least the speaking of the text. I’ve sat through enough bad productions of Shakespeare to notice the difference when the actors really understand what they’re talking about. Alexandra Wetherell’s Isabella and Tom Beaven’s innately funny Lucio were two of many standout performances. At the ADC, a gripping production of David Hare’s Murmuring Judges in March has stayed in the memory, and Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art was very well done in October, as good a production as I can imagine of this ingenious, frustrating play. Outside Cambridge, the Eltham College production of Merrily We Roll Along that I wrote about here was super.

Top 4 albums
This year I have been mostly listening to popular music from the 1920s, but there’s none of that here. Still, I advise all readers to dig out some Roger Wolfe Kahn, zip up their cocktail slacks and get frigging. Quite a catholic selection this year. In April I bought the 17-disc box set of the studio recordings of Marcelle Meyer, a pianist of preternatural elegance and taste. I love her way with French repertoire especially, and not just the expected Ravel and Chabrier but also Rameau and Couperin. Try her Scarlatti. The original Broadway cast recording of A Chorus Line has afforded me considerable pleasure. It’s a joy to find there’s more to it than simply ‘One’, catchy though that is. Joni Mitchell’s Blue I already knew, but it wasn’t until this year that it got under my skin and became an obsession. The single album that’s been most in my ears, though, is Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park to Memphis. I’ve loved the Sprouts for years, but have only recently begun to explore their back catalogue in depth. They really are the most harmonically inventive pop group of their era, and every track on this album is a jewel, from old favourites like ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Cars and Girls’ to the less familiar. Give it a try.

Top 4 books
It’s been another busy reading year (more on that anon), but if I had to whittle it down to four… I read Harold Pinter’s Betrayal early in the year and it dazzled me, all the more for being quiet and reserved in tone, without the aggression of something like The Birthday Party, though there’s a great deal of surface and below-surface tension. It’s more straightforward, more ordinary than his other plays, the non-straightforward thing being the play’s reverse chronology, which is just the sort of thing I love. It never feels gimmicky. I listen to music backwards too. I’ve been making my way through Anthony Trollope for about ten years now, and The Last Chronicle of Barset tied up a lot of loose ends in the most satisfactory ways imaginable. Bishop Proudie’s revolt, a very long time coming, is the most exhilarating thing I’ve read in yonks. David Garnett’s short novel Lady into Fox was an unexpected delight, a whimsical story of metamorphosis, an unorthodox but touching story of trans-species love. And I can’t omit Angela Carter’s wildly fun and funny Wise Children, the deliciously gossipy theatrical memoir of 75-year-old Dora Chance, owner of the only castrato grandfather clock in London.

It was all right until Grandma fixed it. All she did was tap it and the weights dropped off. She always had that effect on gentlemen.

Top 4 new films
The cinema used to be a second home to me. Well, not really, but I used to go to it more often than at present. I thought Spotlight, a good old-fashioned procedural drama about Boston journalists trying to uncover a sex abuse story, was fully deserving of its Best Picture Oscar, smart and tense. Alice Munro’s short story collection Runaway impressed me early in the year, and Pedro Almodóvar’s adaptation of its three interlinked stories, Julieta, was just wonderful, romantic and mysterious and beguiling, with Rossy de Palma’s standoffish housekeeper stealing the show. How wise Almodóvar and Munro are about the dynamics of human relationships. Ira Sachs’ Little Men was a poignant offering, about how the relationship between two boys in early adolescence is threatened by a dispute between their families. Like last year’s Carol, it felt to me more than anything else like a love story, a film about falling in love, and about growing up. Fourth and lastly, I’m not a horror aficionado, but I was thrilled by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy. It looks sensational, shot in a palette of greens and greys, and works an eerie kind of magic. Two twin boys live in a remote house with their mother, who is recovering from facial surgery. Her behaviour to them since her surgery feels changed, and they begin to doubt her authenticity. What it lacks in subtle commentary on power relationships it makes up for in creepiness. I was a bit freaked out.

Top 4 old films
Or, the ones I watched on TV. Not an old film, but Sean McAllister’s documentary A Syrian Love Story is a very great piece of work, more eloquent on the subject of displacement than a thousand news reports. It follows a Syrian family of two parents and three boys over the course of several years and several different homes, as the changing political situation forces them to leave Syria and alter their expectations of life. Thomas Vinterberg’s revenge drama (of sorts) Festen was electric, epic in scope, Shakespearean even (I don’t think it was just the setting that made me think of Hamlet), making the self-imposed limitations of Dogme 95 seem a virtue more often than not. My film of the year, without a doubt, was Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, made when the director was still a teenager. Based on a true story with (mindblowingly) the protagonists playing themselves, it’s about a father who keeps his two daughters confined to their house, and the efforts of members of the village to liberate the girls. Enigmatic, humane, endlessly fascinating. Last of all, Manhattan. I could easily get into Woody Allen if all his films were this warm and funny and beautiful. I loved every frame. A proper, grown-up romantic comedy that makes you smile.

Top 4 New York
Watching Manhattan was a prelude to going to New York in October. I suppose I’d always assumed that going to America was something done by other people, people I had no desire to emulate, but when my brother said he intended to go I suddenly realised it was the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world. It didn’t disappoint. The National September 11 Memorial made me emotional in a way I hadn’t expected; the views from the Empire State Building were spectacular; seeing the Tom Harrell Quartet at the Village Vanguard made me think I ought to start going to jazz clubs in the UK; and, on our final day, Brooklyn’s beautiful Green-Wood Cemetery, where I paid visits to people like Gottschalk and Bernstein. I hope to return one day.

new-york

Have a happy New Year, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Edinburgh 2016

August 17, 2016

Another flying visit, another bunch of shows demolished. My findings:

The first show I saw was also probably my favourite, Mr Swallow – Houdini at the Pleasance Courtyard. Two years ago I loved Mr Swallow’s Dracula! so much that I went three times, twice in Edinburgh and once in London, but his Houdini tribute ups the ante. Not merely songs and hilarity and clowning and magic (and breathtaking magic at that; nice to see the return of the satsuma/sashu) but a genuine sense of danger and a mix of exhilaration and bewilderment at the climax. For logistical reasons I can’t see it going on tour, but a London run must surely follow that anyone down south would be foolish to miss. I marvelled at the all-round song-and-dance-and-physical-stuff excellence of Nick Mohammed and his stooges David Elms and Kieran Hodgson. The Guardian review is spot on.

Houdini

Another highlight, entirely predictably, was Kieran Hodgson’s solo show Maestro, Hodgson hotfooting it across town to the Voodoo Rooms every night. On further acquaintance it might even turn out be an improvement on last year’s unimprovable-upon Lance. It’s about Hodgson’s love of Mahler, his attempts to write a symphony, his unsuccessful love affairs. So much for me personally (as a freak of a child who not only listened to Classic FM aged ten but even appeared on it) to relate to. At some point midway through the show it became apparent to me that I was Kieran Hodgson’s ideal man; by the end I was devastated. It’s got a great deal of heart and an uncanny Christoph Waltz impersonation.

The established stand-ups didn’t let me down. Lucy Porter’s Consequences was cosy (this is a compliment) but incisive. I think her great virtue, as with Mae Martin (see below), is her innate likeability. When she’s not making you laugh, she’s making you smile. Paul Foot’s ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Piglet was a different beast. I’d never seen him live before. His manic aggression and posturing are a delight to watch if you’re not in the front row. The people on the receiving end of his scattergun attacks might have felt differently. I laughed most at the teacher’s absurd address to children informing them of the dismissal of a member of staff: ‘We always suspected Mr Trundle was gay, but what really took the biscuit was when he stole the minibus.’

Paul Foot

Mae Martin’s Work in Progress show is as enjoyable as last year’s Us. She starts with 15 minutes or so of material before answering questions submitted by the audience at the start and improvising a song. You just love her. Not stand-up exactly, but I also saw a great show by Dr Phil Hammond, Life and Death (But Mainly Death), a funny and moving story of his family history, ending with a stirring entreaty to love one another and embrace life. Hard not to leave without a smile on your face.

Of the up-and-comers, I enjoyed Naomi Petersen’s I am Telling You I’m Not Going. Ostensibly about her agoraphobia, it’s really a trawl through childhood memories and traumas. Favourite bit: ‘Jennifer’s teasing was water off a duck’s back – if the water was tears that I’d cried on to a duck.’ The Pizza Express aficionado will find a lot to identify with. Sam & Tom’s Peter Fleming and Wilbur Bilb: Over the Airwaves I loved very much, family loyalty or no family loyalty. Fleming’s twisted take on 1960s children’s TV had me helpless at times. The furore surrounding the ‘mechanical synagogue’ was one of many golden moments. I’ve never been less ashamed to be his brother. And the joke I contributed got a laugh, so I was happy. Sam’s semi-improvised anarchy provided an excellent contrast to Tom’s discipline and tightness. I was proud to be shot in the head by him.

If I had to name a favourite Sondheim musical I’d probably be torn between Merrily We Roll Along and Company. This festival I saw productions of both, each excellent in its way. Eltham College’s Merrily We Roll Along was slick right from the off, the overture underscoring a montage of images and newspaper headlines moving forward in time up to the starting point of the musical, which occurs in reverse chronology. Condensed into a single act of under two hours, I didn’t miss the couple of songs that were jettisoned, but I did regret the absence of the reprise of ‘Not a Day Goes By’, which should be a gutting moment. Most reviews and online comments have (rightly) drawn attention to Ruari Paterson-Achenbach’s Charley, but the central quintet were all remarkable, and I was blown away by Sophie Holmes as Gussie, who wouldn’t have been out of place in a professional production. The band was impeccable. The Lincoln Company’s Company was on a smaller scale, a ninety-minute abbreviation with an unmiked cast of ten, an electric piano and a few black boxes in the cavernous Saint Stephen’s Stockbridge. When (female) Bobbi asked ‘Are you ever sorry you got married?’ and the play moved straight on, my heart sank. How can you have a production of Company without ‘Sorry-Grateful’? But it worked, multiple gender switches and all, because it’s such a malleable show and because the talented performers were so committed to it. The nature of the building’s acoustic meant their diction had to be excellent, and it was. Alice Saxton’s ‘Getting Married Today’ justifies the price of admission alone. It runs for the rest of the month and deserves an audience: do go, and sit near the front.

Merrily We Roll Along

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, on the other hand, is a play that defies truncation, given the mathematical precision of its perfection. Could the Pembroke Players’ 90-minute abridged version possibly satisfy? Not wholly – I missed Septimus consoling Thomasina over the loss of so much Ancient Greek drama – but there were a number of things to love. Not the performance space, perhaps, which was sweltering and had the players competing against ceiling fans to be heard; but the performances, especially those of Daisy Jones, the embodiment of Thomasina, sweet with a hint of archness, Colin Rothwell as Bernard, and Xanthe Burdett as Hannah (doubling well as Noakes). If Os Leanse’s turned-up-to-11 Chater felt a bit overdone (he was excellent as Valentine in the modern scenes), it was at any rate audible, a virtue not shared by everyone on stage. I also missed Gus; but with limited resources and playing time this must count as a success. I saw the first performance; I suspect its fluency will grow.

Last but not least, a play by the children of the Dolphin School Theatre Company, Tales from the Tent by Judy Seall, the final performance of which I caught on Saturday morning. It’s a piece that grew out of the school’s involvement with the Refugee Relief charity. Two Russians (played touchingly by bilingual brother and sister Andrei and Ulyana Roberts) pass through a refugee camp, whose other residents pass the time by retelling familiar stories. One girl is the Librarian, who looks after all the books. She has one member of staff: ‘I’m the Assistant Librarian, and I … help.’ One boy plays the violin throughout. The highlight for me was the story of the Hare and the Tortoise, the boy playing the Tortoise (Jamie Thorogood, I think) quite remarkable in his comic instinct. I don’t think you can coach such things: this was an innate funniness, as (for instance) in his deadpan lament when the Hare upsets tea all over his tank top. Some great physical theatre (lights waving in the air), and at its heart a message of tolerance. Very hard not to be inspired by the talent for acting and music and dance on display. Looking at the pictures here brings back how magical it was.

Tales from the Tent

I also had my first deep-fried Mars bar.

Shakespeare, pastries and holy water

April 23, 2016

There’s John Falstaff, a comical fellow
And that envious Moor called Othello
But the star of the folio
Is surely Malvolio
In cross-gartered stockings of yellow

The above is my humble contribution to mark the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s shuffling off of his brief candle.

Relatedly, this is what I recall of the dream I had last Sunday night:

I met J at an unspecified event. She was sitting in some communal room, like the Green Room at Gonville and Caius but a bit swisher. She had a bowl of water and was aspersing people. I said ‘Asperges me hyssopo’ and she chucked a bit of water at me.

Then we had a good-natured chat about Shakespeare in which I surprised myself at my knowledge of the plays. I certainly mentioned Florizel and Perdita, and we discussed Twelfth Night, which I said was my favourite. I suppose knowledge grows by accretion without one realising it.

I took a pastry at her prompting, which appeared to be a loosely coiled croissant, then walked with her as I ate. It uncoiled into a kind of baguette, much more substantial than it had seemed, the end dragging on the ground, the other still in my mouth. I was glad to see her looking so well.

Shakespeare

The 1938 Club: Three Guineas / Virginia Woolf

April 11, 2016

The 1938 Club

I’m very glad to be taking part in the 1938 Club, curated by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. 1938 was a fascinating year for literature and also for the world in general. I’m a bit of an amateur historian, and I know that it’s the year before the Second World War started, so there’s that.

By 1938 war was very much on both the cards and the mind of Virginia Woolf, whose Three Guineas was published that year. In it she responds to three letters she has received: the first from a barrister who asks for her opinion on the best means to prevent war and for a donation to support his society; the second from the treasurer of a women’s college, asking for a donation towards its rebuilding fund; the third soliciting money for a society promoting the entry of women into the professions. These matters, superficially disparate, are in fact bound up together, and Woolf explores the common ground they share.

Three Guineas

Three Guineas is now thought of as a companion piece to Woolf’s brilliant extended essay A Room of One’s Own, which I read a couple of years ago. I was sitting engrossed in the book while waiting for a performance of Ibsen’s Ghosts to begin, and feeling more self-consciously studenty than ever before (though I hadn’t been a student for some years), when the respectable middle-aged lady beside me asked what I was reading. I showed her the cover, and I must have looked terribly earnest because she offered an encouraging ‘Nearly there.’ For a moment I was an honorary woman.

And yet Three Guineas feels like a poor relation, not nearly as widely read as its predecessor. Why? Morag Shiach, in her introduction to the Oxford edition I read, suggests it has something to do with the ‘radicalism’ of Woolf’s conclusion, which equates the oppression of women in Britain with the fascism she is being invited to combat in the first letter. She gives her correspondent the donation he asks for, but declines to join his society.

[Since] we are different, our help must be different … [The] answer to your question must be that we can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods. We can best help you to prevent war not by joining your society but by remaining outside your society but in cooperation with its aim.

Shiach:

From the very moment of its publication readers responded to the text as an aberration, and expressed disappointment that Woolf had apparently moved away from the ambiguity and fluidity which they so valued in her prose. Woolf was impatient of such criticisms, writing to Vita Sackville-West, ‘how sick I get of all this talk about “lovely prose” and charm when all I wanted was to state a very intricate case as plainly … as I could.’

It’s hard, though, to write about Woolf without observing the elegance of her writing and her thought, which seems as much in evidence here as in her other works. I don’t like to cherry-pick sentences here and there because shorn of context they don’t have the same effect, but I seem to be doing it anyway. Take her opening gambit:

But one does not like to leave so remarkable a letter as yours – a letter perhaps unique in the history of human correspondence, since when before has an educated man asked a woman how in her opinion war can be prevented? – unanswered.

A thing I really admire about Woolf’s tone, here and throughout, is its calmness, its detachment – its ‘disinterest’, to use a word that recurs in the book. You don’t have to do much reading between the lines to see how passionately Woolf feels about the cause of equality, but she invariably refers to women in the third person, remaining above the fray, gently anticipating and preempting the objections of her correspondents. If I were a polemicist, this is the approach I would adopt. Other books I have read recently – Julia Serano’s Excluded, for instance, and Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw – advise that the best way to effect change is to shun anger. Bornstein:

I think anger and activism mix about as well as drinking and driving. When I’m angry, I don’t have the judgment to select a correct target to hit out against. I do believe that anger is healthy, that it can lead to a recognition of the need for action, but activism itself is best accomplished by level heads who can help steer others’ anger toward correct targets.

Anger alienates your allies and gives your opponents ammunition to discredit you, and so nothing changes. Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim also comes to mind:

Speak softly, and carry a big stick.

Well, I don’t really approve of the stick, and in any case Woolf doesn’t have one, only a pen, but she understands the virtue of quietness, and treats her subject with a sort of moderate amusement, though she has a lot to get angry about. Cambridge, for example, supposedly a place of enlightened thought, where in 1921 undergraduates bashed down the gates of Newnham College following a vote about allowing female students to receive degrees (bringing back memories for me of this brilliant book). Or the shutting out of women from certain professions, notably the forces and the clergy.

They’ve caught up now, of course. A short fifty-six years after the publication of this book, the Church of England began ordaining women, one of whom was one of my childhood priests. I don’t recall what I felt at the time, aged ten or eleven. I suspect a certain bewilderment that her gender should be such a big deal, though clearly it was. The current vicar’s a Forward in Faith wingnut. It’s a good thing I moved.

Last month I rewatched a favourite film of mine, Anthony Asquith’s adaptation of Pygmalion starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. It came out in 1938, a few months after Three Guineas. Here’s Liza Doolittle:

You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.

Books of the Men-are-from-Mars type are so keen to fit people into boxes (I imagine; I’ve not read it) that they fail to notice that our similarities to people unlike ourselves are as striking as our differences from them. What Liza says applies to gender as well: the great difference between different genders may be not innate, but to do with social attitudes. This feels germane to Woolf’s arguments.

If this post has been rather sprawling, it’s probably the result of my not feeling I have anything of value to say about the book itself. What I’ve written above represents the meanderings of my mind after having read it. Apologies for the preponderance of quotations. Montaigne:

I quote others only in order the better to express myself.

At base, I suspect Three Guineas represents a meditation on how to live, something none of us has figured out. I recognised my own concerns in this paragraph, where Woolf addresses her first correspondent:

Let us concentrate upon the practical suggestions which you bring forward for our consideration. There are three of them. The first is to sign a letter to the newspapers; the second is to join a certain society; the third is to subscribe to its funds. Nothing on the face of it could sound simpler. To scribble a name on a sheet of paper is easy; to attend a meeting where pacific opinions are more or less rhetorically reiterated to people who already believe in them is also easy; and to write a cheque in support of those vaguely acceptable opinions, though not so easy, is a cheap way of quieting what may conveniently be called one’s conscience.

Not enough, though, is it? I want to change the world, I want to do something, I just don’t know what or how. Perhaps if I keep thinking about it, perhaps if I keep reading Virginia Woolf, something will occur to me.