I found this book fascinating. The reader is taken on a journey into the life and mind of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, from the age of thirty in 1936.
Life under an oppressive regime means that Shostakovitch lives his life in fear of sudden death. For his family’s sake as well as his own, he is compelled to conform by writing the kind of music acceptable to the State. Restricted to composing traditional folk music and prevented from producing any innovative compositions, he questions how he can remain true to himself when the State decides what is appropriate or inappropriate. How far should he compromise his own beliefs?
Shostakovitch goes to the States during the McCarthy era and has to read proscribed speeches written by the Soviet government, which imply that he conforms with the communist ethos. He is not a communist at that time but later in his life, back in the Soviet Union, has little choice but to become one. in order to continue working and supporting his family. The only other option would be to stay in the States and speak out as others did, such as Stravinsky. Questions raised in the novel include: was he a coward? was he unfaithful to his creative self? how patriotic was he?
The novel gives us an insight into what it was like to ive in Russia at this time. For an imaginative artist it must have been like wearing a straightjacket. All kinds of questions about creativity and the place of Art in society are raised, but the real joy of this book is the glimpse into the complex problems facing this particular composer and how he justifies his choices and learns to live with them.
The answer is that he copes with the situation through irony. He may not compose and perform the music he wants to. He may not speak out and say what he believes. He may be obliged to put his name to a piece of paper that officially makes him a communist. But he knows his true feelings and hears his own music in his head. Even though what he says or signs is quite different, he remains true to himself. This distinction between his public and private persona is the irony that enables him to live with the situation.
I found this a compelling read and would recommend this novel to anyone interested in learning more about what it was like to live in the Soviet Union in this period and to any creative person, whether, musician, artist or writer. As a writer, it made me grateful for the freedoms I enjoy. A literary read of the highest order.
After all the hype, the production did not disappoint. Modern dress and setting encouraged us to believe that we were watching events in our own world. London, maybe not Denmark. The gauze that divided the set in two gave us glimpses of the wedding celebrations that followed hard after the death of Hamlet’s father – music, dancing, revelry, always with Gertrude and Claudius entwined in each other’s arms. Tantslizing, suggestive, a bit sleasy, easy to understand Hamlet’s distaste.
The first few scenes with the guards, showed us an intruder, who may or may not have been the ghost of Hamlet’s father, appearing on a screen, one of a series of multiple monitors serviced by surveillance cameras. This device worked well to introduce the ghost – quite creepy. No wonder the guards were terrified when they recognised the dead king. It’s either a ghost or a hoax. Once the ghost beckons Hamlet, he takes a more solid form. The device of the screens was used throughout the play to relay various scenes: the play wiithin in the play for example. After Hamlet’s death Fortinbras delivers his speech on a big screen as if on television, which was not only effective, but avoided the anti-climax of having Fortinbras appear on stage.
One of the things I liked best about this production was the way the actors made us listen to the words. The delivery of the lines was very natural, not over poetic, yet the rhythm of the lines was true to the beats in the text. The actors avoided over-projection but their diction was clear. There were no old-fashioned declamatory speeches. Hamlet’s admonitions to the players made sense therefore. You’re right, I thought, we don’t want inflated actor-speak and gestures. I have seen many productions of Hamlet and know the lines pretty well, but these lines appeared fresh, often giving new emphasis and meaning to the text. All the actors were working in the same style, at the same level, as a team.
Andrew Scott as Hamlet has been rightly praised for this role. We always knew what he was thinking, whether he was procrastinating, angry, agonizing or philosophising. It ocurred to me, not for the first time, how difficult it must be to make those well-known lines your own. Scott did succeed in doing that, but not, I suspect, by over-thinking the vocal techniques needed as an old-time actor would have done, but by letting the words flow naturally. I wouldn’t be surprised if his native Irish dialect helped him achieve that naturalism. It also helped us empathize with him.
Verdict: Don’t miss this one either (see previous blog). Seats are sold out, as they are for Angels in America, but try for returns or day seats.
What an experience to see both parts of Tony Kushner’s epic state of the nation play (USA) on the same day, Saturday, 10th June, at the Lyttleton Theatre, London. We saw Part One: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES at 1.0 p.m. and Part Two: PERESTROIKA at 7.0 p.m. Before you ask – yes – we did have a walk and a bite to eat in between performances. Was it worth the nearly eight hours sitting on our bums? It certainly was. Marianne Elliott’s production, featuring more than thirty characters with some incredible multi-casting was not just “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” as advertised, but encompassed all the emotions from the comedic to the heart-rending.
This is one of the seminal plays about the AIDS epidemic in the eighties, when lots of people died. Effective HIV treatment didn’t become available until 1996. It works by reducing the amount of HIV in the bloodstream to indetectable levels. This means that few people in the US and UK will be diagnosed with AIDS any more and we are now seeing the first generation to live to old age with the HIV virus. This play is not just about AIDS, although one character, Roy Cohn, dies of it, still protesting he’s not gay and has liver cancer, not AIDS, but another, Prior Walter, lives on, giving an optimistic ending.
First performed on Broadway in 1993, ANGELS IN AMERICA has had quite a few productions since then. Extracts from some of these can be seen on Youtube. Many of them look a little tired now as far as presentation is concerned, but the acting always works well, due to the well-written dialogue and dilemmas. I loved the 2003 HBO Mini Series directed by by Mike Nicholls and, before seeing the current National Theatre production, couldn’t imagine it being presented better on stage than on film. Emma Thompson’s angry angel crashing through the roof of Prior’s bedroom is the dramatic entrance to end all dramatic entrances. I also liked the realism of the film’s settings and the acting was completely convincing. I came to the Lyttleton wondering how, even with all the resources of the National Theatre, Kushner’s play could possibly surpass the film version. To be honest, for me, it doesn’t. Beg, borrow or steal a copy and see the mini series, if you can.
I did find the presentation of the first half, MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, cleverly devised. Quite rightly, no attempt was made at realism – apart from the acting. The isolation of the characters was shown theatrically by a series of ever-moving often empty boxes or rooms, like a giant jigsaw. Prior’s bed is there as he becomes ill but Harper Pitt, who has lost her way in life, finds herself in one empty room or passage after another with no furniture or anything solid to hang on to. I didn’t find the overall concept of the second half, PERESTROIKA, so striking. For the most part beds or offices were rolled on stage on trucks, a practical but not original solution. The angel had nothing of the power of Thompson’s angel but the concept of making her fly as if she were a puppet, very much in the style of Warhorse (the same designers were responsible for the puppetry as in the latter production) was compelling to watch. I’d have liked the scene in Heaven to be more surreal.
The various plots of the disparate characters overlap as we are shown images of the period. Apocaliptic fears as the millennium approaches, political confrontations, concerns about personal and national identity, the responsibilities that we have for others, what our part should be in the shaping the world, corruption, denial, intolerance – the themes prevalent at the time all play their roles. The play is set in the eighties but many of the themes seem very relevant today.
Verdict: a production not to miss.
Jeannie Rompaey‘s review
A potent read as Jenni Diski died of cancer recently and this was a memoir. I found it fascinating because Diski had such a disparate life. The most interesting part for me was her “adoption” by writer, Doris Lessing. They seem to have had a very odd relationship. Certanly not warm or close. There’s a lot of resentment, even bitterness, between them. Lessing is cool, concerned with her writing and literary friends. Diski wants to be a writer too but finds it difficult to be grateful for what she’s given. Hence the title which can be read two ways. In Gratitude or Ingratitude.
Diski’s memoir made me return to Doris Lessing’s so-called memoir, 1974, Memoirs of a Survivor, in which Diski appears as fictional character, Emily. I couldn’t help thinking that Lessing is kinder in her depiction of Jenni that the latter was about her. They both write in a similar, stream of conscienceness style but Lessing is writing speculative fiction about a possible future with a touch of magic thrown in; whereas Diski is writing a diatribe about her life. Lessing’s writing is cool and remarkably controlled, Diski’s wild and savage.
I suggest that anyone interested in Diski’s and Lessing’s writings and personalities should read both these these books. Not easy reading but gripping.
Four plays, two of them by Edward Albee who died this year.
The Goat or Who is Sylvia? premiered in 2002 and is about a man who falls in love with a goat. It’s a play that “takes the idea of sexual transgression against sexual norms and pushes it further than most playwrights would dare.” (Stephen Bottoms). It crosses other boundaries too. As far as genre is concerned it is both an absurdist comedy of manners and a tragedy. In ancient Greek, the word tragedy means goat song and Albee seems to reference that meaning in this modern version of a tragic event. As a gay man living through the 20th century, Albee knew what it was like to be an outsider. In this play he challenges how far our so-called tolerant, liberal society has really come. Bestiality is one step too far for his protagonist’s family and friends. In this production at The Theatre Royal, Haymarket, Martin (Damien Lewis), the somewhat bemused protagonist, appears to have a perfect life as husband, father and friend, until the fateful day he falls in love with a goat, Sylvia. As his obsession is revealed, his happiness is doomed, his downfull inevitable. His wife, Stevie, played by the mesmerising Sophie Okonedo, hurt and furious, rants and raves, breaks ornaments and mirrors until the ruin of their marriage literally lies in pieces around them. At the end of the production when her revenge reaches its climax (no spoiler here for those who don’t know the play) the walls begin to close in on what remains of their lives. A telling stage metaphor. The two central characters dominate the play. Both actors are charismatic, making you share the anguish of their destroyed marriage. The other two cast members give well-judged performances too. Jason Hughes as Russ, the friend, starts off with bantering exchanges man to man, but gradually becomes horrified when he learns the identity of his friend’s mistress. Archie Madekwe, making his professional debut, is impressive as the bewildered son who sees his family breaking up. The play is on for only a short season, but see it if you can. It’s laugh aloud funny and tragic. It plays straight through in 90 minutes and makes an emotional impact that is lasting.
The other Edward Albee play, Who’s Afraid of Virginea Woolf also portrays the disintegration of a marriage. Made famous by the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor film that echoed the destructive forces at work in their off-stage marriage, it’s difficult to put aside those performances and come fresh to the play with a different cast. I wanted to see this production because, just as I would go to any play that featured the wonderful Sophie Okonedo so I would one with Imelda Staunton. How lucky was I to see them bothat their magnificent best in the course of two days. The current production at The Harold Pinter theatre is powerful, funny and moving. Tiny as she is, Staunton as Martha is a formidable force, snapping at her husband’s Achilles’ heels like a demented terrier. She struts around the stage, a sexual predator intent on seducing the new lecturer, Nick (Luke Treadaway) and in the final act when George (Conleth Hill) gets his revenge at last the mood changes and she becomes a broken woman, unable to cope. Hill plays the husband as a bumbling failure who has not achieved the heights in academia he (or she) planned and his wife refuses to let him forget that. A big man, clumsy in comparison with the spry Martha, he lumbers about as if ill at ease in his somewhat overweight body, it’s easy to feel sorry for him and be pleased when he has his moments of comeuppance. The young couple, whom Martha and George are determined to shift from their comfort zone, also add to the success of the production. I admired the stiff correctness of Treadaway Nick and his attempts to stand up for himself. As for Imogen Poots, she was delightful as the rather silly young wife out of depth in the company she finds herself. Her body language and facial expressions said it all. It was easy to imagine that in twenty or thirty years their marriage would deteriorate into one as unhappy and vicious as that of the older couple. A gruelling piece of theatre but the revival was well worth seeing because of the quality of the acting and the difference in interpretation of the roles.
Travesties by Tom Stoppard is a play of his that I hadn’t seen before. Some theatre-goers think that Stoppard is too clever by half and that his plays lack emotional content. He is certainly a wit and a wordsmith and this particular play is full of references to historical figures – as well as playing games with the plot and language of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It is aimed at, if not an intellectual audience, at least an reasonably informed one. Gathering from the response – lots of appreciative laughter throughout – the members of the audience at the Apollo Theatre were well equipped to cope with Stoppard’s clever script. The play is set in Zurich during the first world war and the story is filtered through the failing memory of Henry Carr, a member of the British consulate. He’s an unreliable narrator but this adds to the hilarity of the play. Tom Hollander as Henry Carr, brilliant as the little man caught up in events he doesn’t always understand, is well supported by Freddie Fox as Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist, who helped revolutionize poetry and art, Forbes Masson as political revolutionary, Lenin, and Peter McDonald as James Joyce, the modernist who revolutionized literature . In keeping with this inherent desire to free language and politics from restraints, is the the interweaving of scenes, quotes and misquotes from Oscar Wilde’s The importance of Being Earnest. A reminder of his doctrine of aestheticism – art for art’s sake – and his epigrammatic style that ridiculed Victorian intolerance. The conceit is that a production of Wilde’s play is to be put on in bourgeois Zurich and Henry is to play Algernon. In Henry’s muddled memory, real events are indistinguishable from reality and that is why fictional characters, Gwedolen and Cecily, exist alongside historical ones and why Travesties is an appropriate title. An enoyable evening in which not only Stoppard is given the opportunity to flex his knowledge but also the audience.
The Miser at the Garrick Theatre is advertised as Moliere’s classic comedy freely adapted by Sean Foley and Phil Porter. The plot is taken from the original. although Moliere himself stole the plot from Plautus, and the costumes and setting of the period appeared authentic. What was lacking was the French elegance of style one would expect. Instead the adaptation found its own form in a series of comic routines in the English style with lots of topical jokes thrown in. Before I get too snooty about this I should make it clear that Moliere’s main concern was to make the audience laugh but some of the references and jokes of a play written 350 years ago wouldn’t mean much to audiences today. As Sean Foley, adaptor and director, points out, the plot is archetypal and timeless and the characters stock, straight from la comedia del arte. The subjects that make people laugh don’t change: death, sex and money. The production is fast paced and fun. A romp. I laughed a lot, but the plot is so predictable I did find myself looking at my watch at times. I like to become involved in a play and this was like an elongated sketch with few surprises. I could, however, appreciate the performances. Two actors shone out, the ones with the best roles, Griff Rhys Jones as the miser, Harpagon, and Lee Mack, Maitre Jacques and a plethora of other roles, signalled by changes of hats and/or costumes. The history of these actors as standup comedians stood them in good stead for the audience rapport they both achieved. Rhys Jones’s long speech to the audience at the beginning of the second half was side-achingly funny, only matched by Lee Mack’s continual asides to the audience, keeping it up with the vagaries of the plot. They are undoubtedly masters of comedy and I could appreciate their work even if this genre of theatre is not really my bag. If a good laugh is what you like, see it. Don’t expect subtlety or depth of character. One of the jokes that was slipped in referred to Michael Billington’s review of the production in The Guardian: Lee Mack pulls a face and mocks, ‘Michael Billington 3 stars.’ Indeed.
My other reading is varied. As I’m a novelist, short story writer, poet and playwright, I write and read a lot of fiction, but I do read non-fiction too. The latter widens my knowledge of the world. When I read fiction it is work! A learning process to help improve my own writing. I like to analyse how the author tells the story, how the characters develop and how the story is structured. My first criteria when choosing a book is the writing style. If it’s not well-written I have no desire to read it. I’m easily bored by light commercial fiction of whatever genre. I like a book with some meat in it, to make me work to get to grips with the theme and understand the subtleties of the subtext. Non-linear complex structures with different perspectives interest me. My main interest therfore is literary fiction. I hope that a little of the magic from the literary writers will rub off on to me.
Here is a selection of the books I have read so far this year from January to March 2017 and my thoughts about them.
Fascinating series of short stories based on first hand experience of visits to the Calais refugee camps. Can these stories help to bridge the gap betwwen the aspirations of refugees intent on building new lives and the fears of people who feel the necessity to close their borders?
In my opinion it is one of the things that fiction is designed to do, to make us look at both sides of an issue. Some of these stories are told from the point of view of the refugees, others from the perspective of the volunteeers or locals. Each story reads as an authentic portrayal of the situation, food for thought for those of us who didn’t go to visit “the jungle” before it was dismantled.
These stories will make readers more aware of what living in these kind of camps is like. Hopefully it will give food for thought about what can be done about the dilemma of how to help the increasing number of the world’s refugees.
Pat Barker is one of my favourite. authors. She’s a historian and writes in a realistic way about the early part of 20th century, particularly about the after effects of the First World War. The Regeneration Trilogy and other books with the same characters – Art Class and Toby’s War – follow the fortunes and misfortunes of a group of friends who studied together. I read these books first and was hooked.
Liza’s England tells the story of a woman born at the beginning of the century, now in her eighties and that of a young man, Stephen, who has the unenviable task of telling her that the house where she has lived for years is due to be demolished. She will be rehoused, but she doesn’t want to move. The point of view shifts between Liza and Stephen as she looks back on her life and Stephen thinks about his future. A bond of affection and respect grows between this resilient old woman and the ensitve, caring young man.
What interested me most was the development of this relationship but I was also drawn into the story by Liza’s complete acceptance of her role in iife. Daughter, wife, mother, carer. She doesn’t question these traditional female roles, just lives them. Despite her feckless husbnad, Liza does her best to bring up her children on very little money. After her husband has gone, she earns the necessary money to feed her children any way she can, often by hard labour, such as scavenging for coal. She takes in her ailing mother and looks after her even though her mother admits she’s never loved her. She’d only ever wanted boys. Her cantankerous mother had had a hard life too, having fifiteen children with only nine surviving. Their lives are shown without sentimentality. in a matter-of-fact way. For them it’s the norm.
I couldn’t help thinking what a contrast Liza’s attitude to life is to modern women’s expectations and aspirations. This novel, without preaching or complaining, reminds us how even the lives of the most underprivileged women in our society have changed. But I couldn’t help wondering if the feisty spirit of the Liza’s of this world has been lost in the change?
|I was gripped by this portrait of two families, the mixed race liberals and the conservative black family. I found the tensions in both families and the children’s independent beliefs and attitudes very real. This is a campus novel with a difference.
I do feel that Zadie Smith’s own feelings intrude a little. She was an author “in love” with one of her characters, Kiki. It is as if she is trying to impress on her readers that big, black and beautiful is the ideal. Smith has little time for Kiki’s white husband who is led by what is in pants into a misguided affair with a thin, white colleague, Claire, and is tempted by Monty’s daughter, who is beautiful in another way. Victoria is aware of her beauty and ruthless in her attempts fo seduce Howard. WE ask ourselves how can such a clever man be so stupid. Well, it happens.
The complex relationships in the novel are both amusing and tragic. Some – such as Carlene’s relationship with husband, Monty, are only hinted at – I love that subtle technique, allowing the reader to decide for herself what is wrong. This mixture of humour and sadness is what makes this novel so compelling.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
A family saga with a difference. Two families are linked by the breakup of the two marriages. We glimpse the effect of this on the children in childhood and adulthood. A complex structure has been chosen as the story shifts between past and present and from narrator to narrator, some more reliable than others. One of the joys of the book for me is this ever-changing structure so that we never know which part of their lives we are going to read about next or who would be featured in it. The tone of the book is cool. We are kept at a distance from the passions and traumas that occur. I found this an elegant techinique – unjudgemental – which left the reader to make up her own mind about events.
There were four children in one family and two in the other and because of the time shifts and place shifts I did have to look back to check who was who at times. I think this was because, apart from Franny who turns out to be the protagnonist, the other characters were not so finely drawn.
Another thing I enjoyed, probably because I’m a writer, it that book looked at who stories belong to. Franny’s husband “steals” Franny’s family history and when this is discovered it causes a francas. As writers we are always gathering ideas from other people’s lives and it really made me think about the morality of this.
A good read, intelligently and stylishly written about the effect of broken marriages on the families involved.
The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. it’s setting in Paris in 1928 and 1934 and the protagonist, Lucia, the daughter of James Joyce, added to its appeal. As did the depiction of Samuel Beckett who she misguidedly falls in love with. The novel is based on a true story and must have involved a lot of research. Lucia’s dedication to dancing and Joyce’s over-protectiveness and selfishness lead to her breakdown. An impressive debut novel that made us feel close to Lucia and sympathetic toward her even when she’s at her most naive. Subtle, clever, ironic writing and story-telling.
Giving up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel
I admired the format and mood of this book because it didn’t follow the usual linear format of memoirs or autobiographies. I read it quite quickly because the style was fluid and easy to read.
Not always a fan of memoirs, I decided to read it because i like her novels, in particular Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. They were gripping novels, based on her unusual take on the character of Thomas Cromwell.
In this memoir Mantel flirts with the idea of family ghosts in a way that I found refreshing and illuminating.
Broken for You by Stephanie Kaller
I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy this book. I skipped through to the end. I found the characters and the plot unconvincing and the writing style was uneven and annoying.
Skilful production, inspired acting, imaginative set – but what the hell is it about?
My advice to anyone wanting to see this play is not to try to seek a definitive answer to that question. Pinter doesn’t work in absolutes. Don’t look for story. Let yourself be carried along by the language and the ever-changing balance of power between the characters. You may not discover exactly who they are, but your understanding of them will grow as insights about life, death, age and memory emerge. Most the big questions about the human condition are considered in this funny and moving play.
The arrival of a stranger in an established household is a favourite Pinteresque device. (e.g. The Birthday Party). Immediately doubt arises. Who are these men? Is Spooner (Ian McKellen) a stranger that Hirst (Patrick Stewart) has just met and invited home or did they know each other previously? An unreliable past is recollected and dismissed, mingling with the present as in a distorted mirror. Are the two men with whom Hirst appears to share his home, Foster (Damian Molony) and Briggs (Owen Teale) his keepers, his guards or his servants?
The language is economic, poetic, rich and intriguing, the blurred line between truth and fiction ever present. The rhythm and shape of the scenes lead us towards some recognition that the task of ascertaining what is true and what isn’t, what is real and what is fantasy is not easy to achieve. The mood of the piece fluctuates between the wildly humorous and the sinister so that we never feel completely safe with our interpretation.
Is this a play and production worth seeing? In my opinion it certainly is. There’s so much to appreciate and enjoy in this production, not the least being the chance to see the powerful performances of veteran actors, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. But the younger actors, Molony and Teale, are spine-chillingly watchable too. Set in the overpowering room of a huge house in Hampstead with a glimpse of the trees on the Heath towering above it, it’s a piece of theatre that has stayed with me: the images, the characters and the ideas it provokes.
It’s not too late to see it. The production is now on tour and there is also a performance of No Man’s Land for National Theatre Live in the cinema.
As I’ve been busy finishing my novel, Sunshine Skyway, I’m late writing reviews of the plays I saw in London in July. But here goes….
The Truth by French writer Florian Zeller in a version by Christopher Hampton, directed by Lyndsey Turner, at Wyndham’s Theatre.
Zeller says his intention in writing is to ‘try to instil doubt on the reality and truth of what we see before us.’ Those of you who have seen his previous plays, The Father and The Mother, will know that he offers different viewpoints to invite the audience to look for a way to interpret what is happening for themselves. In The Truth the last thing we expect to discover is the truth about the faithfulness or otherwise of the two couples involved. As we move from one perspective to another we become lost in a labyrinth of lies in which self-deception is as prevalent as deceiving a partner. The play reminded me of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. It has the same economy of language and a similar theme of the impossibility of verification. But Zeller has a voice of his own and explores the theme in his own way. The production is slick and fast moving from scene to scene and couple to couple.
A bonus for me is that it provides a chance for me to see one of my favourite actors on stage, the fascinating Frances O’Connor. Her elegant body language and expressive face as Alice are a joy to watch. But the success of this production depends on teamwork. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Alexander Hanson as Michel but Tanya Franks as Laurence and Robert Portal as Paul play their part too in making this a tightly knit production. Oh and did I say that it was funny? The piece is a blast of witty one-liners that, judging by the laughter generated, the audience can relate to.
I look forward to seeing the sister play to this one, The Lie, whenever it comes to London, as I’m sure it will.
Faith Healer by Brian Friel,, directed by Lyndsey Turner at the Donmar Warehouse.
Renowned Irish dramatist and short story writer, Brian Friel (1929-2015), writes about the search for love, faith, meaning and identity. Like Zeller, Friel believes that we live with ‘necessary uncertainty’ but, unlike Zeller, he persists in his quest for some sort of truth. Like Frank, the faith healer, Friel hopes that through scrutiny and self-reflection a miracle will happen and give him – and us – at least a glimpse of salvation.
Faith Healer is written within the tradition of Irish storytelling, compelling self-searching histories about human nature by narrators who are all too often unreliable. The play consists of monologues that address the audience directly but also have internal resonance.
In this production the curtain of rain that tops and tails each monologue sets the mood of the piece in an inventive way. I’m glad I’m not sitting near the stage or I would definitely get wet!
Stephen Dillane, as Frank Hardy, the faith healer, makes us hang on his every word, not afraid to pace his speeches slowly to give the audience time to take in what he’s saying. The repetition of the place names that starts the monologue is trance-like, magical. Frank’s aim as a faith healer is to make incomplete people whole and that’s what he’s trying to do to himself too. We understand that his power to heal usually fails – he always knows when nothing is going to happen – and that his disillusion with life springs from this fact; but we also appreciate that he is compelled to keep going for the few times when the miracle does work. His optimism is his salvation but it’s the factor that drags down the people nearest to him, as they trail round Scotland and the North of England and finally back home to Ireland and Ballybeg. Frank has the capacity to make people love him and stay loyal to him whatever he does, not just his disparate audiences but also his wife, Grace, and Teddy, his road manager.
In the second monologue, Gina McKee, as Grace, busies herself with domestic chores, folding laundry, relying on the mundane to help her forget her sorrow caused by the loss of her baby and the offhand way she is treated by Frank. This scene precedes the interval and I hear a young woman in the audience say to her friend. ‘Fantastic! You won’t see that standard of acting very often.’ I can’t help but agree.
I look forward to Ron Cook as Teddy to give us some light relief after the interval and I’m not disappointed. His chirpy delivery entertains us, but gradually the mood changes as he drinks more beer and we realize that he should have moved on years ago. He has sacrificed his life to take care of Grace and support Frank.
For the final monologue we return to Frank as he describes his return to Ballybeg. This need to return home is a typical Friel theme. Frank finds his home in more senses than one.
There is no interaction between the characters. Each actor stands alone on the stage, a theatrical device that highlights each character’s inner isolation. But these three people are irrevocably linked and the different versions of their itinerant lives grip the audience from beginning to end, offering a visceral, emotional experience.
The quality of the acting makes sure that the words and story remain long after the play ends. I doubt if I will see any better performances this year.
Sunset at the Villa Thalia by Alexi Kaye Campbell directed by Simon Godwin at the Dorfman at the National Theatre.
My friend, Holly, and I sit in the front row at the side in £15 seats and love being so close to the stage and actors. The thrust stage is transformed into a huge patio with a rocky promontory. A solid looking white villa stands upstage. The set is so realistic I can believe we are indeed on the island of Skiathos, Greece.
The first act takes place in 1967 and the second in 1976. It’s a play that demonstrates that the personal is political and that the decisions we make at any level can have a disastrous effect on others. It’s also about American interference and British collusion. Above all it refers to the way seemingly ordinary good-hearted people can be caught up in the greed and selfishness of a capitalist system at the expense of those less well off.
The audience is reminded in the programme of the political events in Greece during the time the play is set. In 1967, there is a military coup, apparently backed by the CIA to prevent a communist takeover, and the regime of the Colonels begins. A period of repressive rule follows, characterized by a series of right wing military juntas. Amid civil unrest and the threat of war with Turkey, in 1974, the juntas collapse. Following a referendum the monarchy is abolished and Greece is declared a democratic republic.
It’s against this background that the domestic events of the piece are played out. An English writer, Theo (Sam Crane) and his actress wife, Charlotte (Pippa Nixon) are on holiday at the rented villa. An American couple, Harvey (Ben Miles) and June (Elizabeth McGovern) visit them. Harvey, charismatic and dominant, persuades the English couple to make an offer to buy the villa, as he can see it is an ideal place for Theo to write. A remarkably low price is negotiated and accepted by the Greek owners, Stamatis and Maria, his daughter, who intend to emigrate to Australia. Maria is unsure about selling the house because she promised her grandmother that she would always keep it in the family. Theo and Charlotte are afraid that they are exploiting the owner and the daughter, but are tempted by the bargain price. The sale of the house and land is agreed. The transaction has been set up by Harvey, the American, and it seems he’s also been connected with the negotiations concerning the coup.
In the second act, in 1976, the English couple, now living in the villa, have two children. They decide to sell the villa at a huge profit and return to England. Harvey finds out that the Australian venture didn’t work out, that Stamatis died, Maria is destitute and her only relative here, her uncle, is dead too. She cannot return to Skiathos and she hasn’t kept her promise to her grandmother. Charlotte blames Harvey for interfering in their lives, but he reminds them that they must take some responsibility for what has happened. The inference is that it’s not only the Americans who are responsible for the problems in the world. The Brits must take their share of the blame. This summing up of the theme is far too simplistic, but the play does examine the love/hate relationship between the American and the British in a new and telling manner. A thought-provoking play set in an idyllic place that reveals the dark side of capitalism and of human nature.
The contrasting characters, Charlotte’s edginess, Theo’s gentleness, June’s rather sad silliness and Harvey’s dominance are a lethal mix waiting to explode. Harvey’s insistence that he’s a good man lies at the heart of this play. He has done things he regrets but he will stay with June even though he no longer loves her and, although he’s attracted to Charlotte he will make no attempt to seduce her. The American/British understanding – or lack of it – is at the heart of this play.
The Spoils by Jesse Eisenberg, directed by Scott Elliott at Trafalgar Studios
Best known as an actor with nearly 40 screen credits, including The Social Network for which he was nominated for an Academy award, this is the third stage play Jesse Eisenburg has written. As in the earlier plays, he has written the central role to be played by himself, and its easy to see why. Ben is an angst-ridden but charismatic young man, in the tradition of another Jewish actor/writer, Woody Allen. (Eisenburg is in Allen’s film, Café Society shown at the Cannes film festival 2016). Although it’s easy to make the connection between the two, Eisenberg’s style is fresh and individual. He plays a jerk, but he’s a captivating jerk and when he’s on stage it’s difficult to take your eyes off him. This is in spite of the fact that the other actors make the most of their roles undoubtedly because, thanks to the playwright, each character is fully drawn.
Kunal Nayyar (Raj in The Big Bang Theory) plays his long-suffering flatmate, Kalyan, and is a delight. He delivers the funny lines with confidence and is sincere and compassionate. Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) isTed, Ben’s nemesis, the slick boyfriend of Sarah (Katie Brayden) the bemused recipient of Ben’s fantasies while Annapurna Sriram plays Resma, Kalyan’s hard-nut girlfriend. It’s the characters that make the play, not the plot, so I won’t relay that. Suffice to say that this is a witty, sometimes shocking comedy, about aspects of contemporary life that gives food for thought. But its main objective is to entertain and it certainly does that.
Would I go and see another play by Jessie Eisenburg? I certainly would. Just watch me pushing to the front of the cue for a ticket.
Kinky Boots a new musical directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell at The Adelphi Theatre.
Some years ago I saw the Miramar motion picture, Kinky Boots, on which this show is based. I was interested in it as I used to live in Northampton. The shoe industry used to be big business there. Parents bought factory rejects for their fast-growing children from a plethora of little shops in the outlying districts of the town. I remember one called Lydingtons. Output was reduced when cheap stylish imports from Europe flooded the market. Many of the factories closed down and became offices or warehouses, but some companies survived and specialized in well-made quality shoes for the top end of the market. Tricker’s, founded in 1829, built a worldwide reputation in brogues and walking shoes and still functions today. Many of this firm’s shoes are sold abroad but there is an outlet in Jermyn Street, London. Other remaining companies also continue to produce shoes and boots from quality materials and boast a workforce with specialist skills handed down through the generations.
Kinky Boots, the musical, follows the story of an imaginary company, Price and Son, that falls into trouble when the father dies and the son takes over. At first the son, Charlie Price (Killian Donelly), considers selling the business but eventually tries to resuscitate it. When Lola, a flamboyant drag queen played with gusto by Matt Henry, comes up with idea of making kinky boots for drag shows, the solution to the failing fortunes of the firm appears to have been found..
The production has a fast moving first half with an imaginative set representing the factory made up of moving trucks to show the manufacture of shoes on the assembly line. There are some pertinent performances from members of the workforce that lift the mood. The highlight of the first act is the appearance of Matt Henry as Lola, well supported later on by his fellow drag artists, the Angels. Lola’s big personality dominates the production aided by Cindy Lauper’s punchy music and the choreography that accompanies it.
The plot of how to rebuild the fortunes of the factory drags on (excuse the pun) into the second half with Charlie resisting the obvious solution offered by Lola. The pace slows and the scenes that depict Charlie’s predictable love affairs become tedious. The mismatch of that sentimental song by Lola, “Hold me in your Heart” to the style of the rest of the show is a bit cringe-worthy. I find myself looking forward to the inevitable drag show of the finale. When it arrives, it lifts the mood, as I knew it would, but is over too soon.
I know this musical has been well received by audiences and critics alike and, believe it or not, I did enjoy parts of it too. What makes a musical is the music and Cindy Lauper’s score is tuneful, energetic and uplifting. No wonder members of the audience come out with smiles on their faces.
Maybe because I don’t see many musicals I have forgotten how conventional the plots can be and how one-dimensional the characters, I became bored in the second half. I certainly wouldn’t go to see it again. I didn’t find Charlie Price an engaging protagonist and couldn’t care less if he succeeded in saving the company or not! I think I should have been routing for him.
In retrospect, however, there are plenty of things to admire about this show. for example the set, the music, the choreography and Lola’s larger than life performance. Enough to put a smile on my face too. The song and dance acts with the drag queens are certainly a cut above the often tacky shows offered in Gran Canaria where I live. Ooh, I won’t be welcome in certain bars over here any more….
If I’d only able to see one of these productions which one would I have chosen? After reading the above reviews I think you know the answer to that. Faith Healer.
The BP Portrait Award takes place at the National Portrait Gallery every year and I have been attending these exhibitions since 2013. I always buy the neatly presented little books that accompany them to remind me of my favourites – not always the portraits that win!
I love studying portraits maybe because I am a writer first and a painter second and the human face and body language fascinate me. In the portraits that appeal to me the most the artist has captured not just the external appearance of the sitter, but also the interior thoughts or feelings. You could say the soul. The portrait on the cover of the booklet (see here) is not the winner of the award. The gallery is democratic in its choice of cover photograph. The one selected this year, “Francesca” by Daniele Vezzani (oil on canvas) is a good example of what I mean. I feel I know this girl and a version of her may well turn up as a character in one of my novels or short stories.
Also at the National Portrait Gallery I saw David Hockey’s 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life.
These portraits of Hockney’s friends and family, some famous, some not, have been painted over the past three years in the artist’s inimitable style. All his sitters – whether the flamboyant Barry Humphries or the less confident-looking Pauline Ling – occupy the same chair in the same location. The sitting time for each person was three days. Only the colour of the wall and floor and the angle of the chair vary but not much.
It’s colour that hits you first as you walk into the gallery, clear, bright, singing colour. There is little subtlety here and at first you feel that you will walk round the gallery in five minutes, because a brash, linear flatness makes all the portraits look alike. For me, this impression never completely fades. But, on closer inspection, the stance of each sitter is distinctive: the position of legs, feet, hands, reveals confidence or timidity, pride or modesty, and a hint to the sexual proclivity of each person. All these portraits are posed and I get the feeling that the sitters are showing us the persona they wish the artist to portray. A very different objective from most of the portraits in the BP Awards mentioned above. David Hockney seems to accept each person’s view of him or her self and doesn’t attempt to delve any deeper into the psyche of each. He paints what he sees. Many of the faces are almost bland, expressionless, as if not at ease with the process.
This exhibition got me thinking about the persona presented to the world and the difference between that and the inner self and how artists and writers portray that aspect of human nature.
At Tate Modern I saw two exhibitions, both by women; the American painter, Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) and the Palestinian/Lebanese sculptor, Mona Hatoum (1952 -)
Georgia O’Keefe is widely recognised as a foundational figure within modernism in the United States. I’d read quite a bit about her previously, but was rather disappointed when I viewed her modernist work.
I’m not normally a lover of paintings of flowers but, oddly enough, these were the pictures I appreciated the most. Apart from her perfect technique, I admired the arrangement on the canvas, which gave them an abstract feel. Oriental Poppies (1927) and Jimson Weed/White Flower (1932) – see here – were my favourites. I bought copies of both as magnets that now adorn my fridge.
Mona Hatoum did not disappoint. Her installations and sculptures knocked me sideways. She is a political artist who has found new visual forms to express the “conflicts and contradictions” of the world in general but particularly in the war torn Middle East. She focuses on making the personal political, demonstrating the resilience of the people who live through these troubled times.
Most of Hatoum’s sculptures and installations are huge and I do mean huge. Some take up a complete room. One installation that has stayed with me is set in a huge sandpit in a circle. A rotating motor-driven arm sweeps slowly over the surface, creating and erasing circular lines in the sand. I couldn’t help thinking as I stood there mesmerised how we are all too often passive watchers of construction and destruction in this frightening world in which we live. As a writer, it made me even more aware than before of the power of imagery.
I note that this exhibition closed on August 21st but if you can see her work somewhere else, please don’t miss the opportunity to share the experience and imagination of this innovative artist.
I also went to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy to see some of the cutting edge work being done by artists. I was lucky enough to go with Bobby Patmore, an up and coming, talented artist, who knows much more than I do about the techniques used. I’ve asked him to be a guest blogger and give you his impressions of The Summer Exhibition 2016. So – Watch this space.
(The narrator is Mercury now 20 years old)
She’s leaning against the obelisk in her blue dress, tracing a circle in the loose sand with a pointed toe. A dancer: that was my first impression of her. I feel my heart race at the sight of her, but not, perhaps, with the same urgency it used to.
She kisses me lightly on the cheek and launches into an explanation of her current problem. She and her family have new neighbours.
‘Mutants,’ she says. ‘Ever so many of them, all packed into one house. They’re really ugly. One man has two heads. Can you believe that? And another one three legs. They sit outside on the doorstep all day long and munch food. It’s disgusting. Thing is they’re always there. Every time we leave the house there they are, staring at us. You’d think we were the mutants the way they gawp. Why can’t they stay inside like everyone else? No one else sits on their doorsteps.’
I take her hand in mine. ‘You’ve got to realise, Lizzy, that on Earth they were shut up in compounds for years because the air outside was polluted. Being outdoors is a treat for them.’
‘I don’t know anything about that. I just know that half the time I’m afraid to go out.’
‘Have they done anything to make you afraid of them – threatened you or anything?’
She sniffs. ‘Not exactly. One of them smiled at me – well, not a smile – a leer. Definitely a leer. I ran back indoors and slammed the door. I was totally wrecked. Couldn’t go out again for days.’
‘Perhaps he was just trying to be friendly.’
‘Well, I don’t want to be friends with him. We had good neighbours before. People like us. But the government got rid of them.’
‘Do you know why?’
‘The usual excuse. Said they were making no effort to find work and couldn’t expect to live off the state for ever.’
I ask where they’ve gone but Lizzy doesn’t know the answer to that and doesn’t seem interested. It strikes me as odd, her lack of interest in the plight of her previous neighbours. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that the same thing could happen to her family. She is so obsessed with the “horrible mutants” next door, she can’t think of anything else.