Jeannie Van Rompaey

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Play reviews April 2015

My visits to London theatre productions in April, 2015, included two very different musicals, both memorable because of outstanding performances by the protagonists: Imelda Staunton in the entertaining and moving Gypsy at the Savoy and Tamson Grieg in the quirky Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at The Playhouse. I also saw the Pina Bausch dance group at Sadlers Wells and have asked TJ to write a guest blog about that so don’t want to steal his thunder.

 

But it was the two straight plays I saw that reminded me – as if I needed reminding – that the aim of theatrical performances is not only to entertain us and move us emotionally to laugh or to cry, but also to engage our intellect. To make us think. The Hard Problem at the National and The Nether at the Duke of York’s have certainly made me think deeply about their themes.

 

Nicholas Hytner’s final production at the National Theatre as artistic director, The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard is directed with “a stylistic clarity that has long been his trademark.” (Michael Billington). It is staged at the Dorfman Theatre.

The set, designed by Bob Crowley, is topped by a floating image of what could be the pipes of an organ or the complex structure of a brain or computer. It lights up and flashes in blue and silver during the simple scene changes as, at stage level, a bed is exchanged for a sofa or chairs to denote a different location. The scene changes are accompanied by music, mainly by Bach, an organist and analytical composer with the blue brain flashing like a computer. As the play is concerned with how the brain works these readings of the significance of the image seem valid to me, but I’m sure that every member of the audience interpreted the visual metaphor in his/her own way.

As we have come to expect from Stoppard, the play is an intellectual one, bursting with ideas, words, words and more words. The very idea of writing a play about the nature of consciousness is mind-blowing for us lesser mortals but I must say the members of the National Theatre audience rose to the occasion and laughed at the psychological and philosophical in-jokes. I enjoyed the play and its premise but feel I would need to see it at least once more to catch more of the nuances. Even Stoppard’s interview with Hytner on you-tube, intriguing though it was, wasn’t very explicit as far as the dramatic potential of the play was concerned.

The play works because, like all good plays, the relationships between the characters hold our attention. I was captivated by the warmth and commitment of the protagonist, Hilary, (Olivia Vinall) as she progresses from psychology student to a well-respected but controversial psychologist at a well-regarded research institute. Hilary, unlike the other psychologists she works with, prays to God and believes in the intrinsic goodness of human beings. Her belief is embedded in a continued yearning for the child she gave up for adoption when she was fifteen. This feeling accentuates her vulnerability but reinforces her convictions.

Spike, her occasional lover, (Damien Malony) scorns her viewpoint. Their bed talk is an impassioned discourse between intellectuals, keen to expound their views. Like most of his colleagues, Spike believes that goodness is learned behaviour and disputes the concept of the objective reality of goodness.

The frailty of the characters, the neurosis of the head of the institute, (Jonathan Coy) and the desperation of the businessman (Anthony Calf) who needs to make the institute a financial success – surely a link here between evolutionary biology and the banking crisis – contrasts with the enthusiasm and optimism of Hilary’s brilliant protégée (Vera Chok).

I apologise for this somewhat simplistic description of a deep and complex play. To sum up (and probably make my interpretation even more simplistic than before) the central premise seems to suggest that things that are emotionally important are constantly devalued in human life. Tom Stoppard, while not necessarily using the term, God, as his character, Hilary, does, is definitely on her side of the argument – the side of the poet – rather than of the person who believes that everything can be proved. But it is clear that he loves the thrust, the to and fro, of intellectual argument, as do his characters.

The nature of consciousness is a hard problem to determine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring. The Hard Problem is above all a play that makes you think. Not a bad thing, I suggest.

 

The Royal Court production of The Nether by Jennifer Haley, directed by Jeremy Herrin, at The Duke of York’s Theatre, St. Martin’s Lane, looks at the idea of leading a parallel life in a digital universe. Haley looks to the near future when virtual reality could become an alternative to everyday life in the real world. It’s not too much of a leap from online games where participants can become warriors and commit violent acts to becoming an avatar (or a shade as they’re referred to in this play) in a virtual world on the Internet (the Nether). The play looks at the advantages and dangers of becoming immersed in this alternate reality.

To explore this theme Haley takes on the emotive subject of paedophilia. Sims (Stanley Townsend) spends ten hours a day as a shade in a virtual world he has created where he can practise his propensity for abusing children, without, he believes, hurting anyone. The child, Iris, is also a shade, in reality a middle-aged man, Doyle (David Beames) who relishes the role-playing and, presumably, the abuse. The official view of the controllers of the Nether, as represented by a woman, Morris, (Amanda Hale) is that by welcoming others to join his site as shades, Sims is manipulating them, encouraging them to behave like him, making him feel better about what he does. Later we learn that Morris too entered that alternative world as a male shade, originally to discover what was going on at first hand; but subsequently she too became ensnared by the charms of Iris and the unlimited licence that allowed intimacy with the child.

Sims believes that if he is banned from entering the alternative world he has created, once he no longer has an outlet for his desires, he could prove a danger to real children. Doyle’s life is shattered when he is told that he cannot enter that world or be Iris any more. Morris is torn by her craving for Iris and her conviction that this fantasy site is unhealthy and must be shut down. Who should be in charge of our morals? Ourselves or the controllers of the Nether?

None of the abuse in the play is graphic but the shade, Iris, is played by a twelve year old, or rather three girls at different performances. I was concerned about the effect on the child actors by the subject matter, but my daughter assures me that it is better for them to know about the existence of paedophiles.

The visuals are amazing. Downstage is the interrogation room in the real world where Sims and Doyle are grilled. Behind them looms the giant login screen with ever-moving faces and videos, designed by Luke Halls, which segues into the alternative reality, Es Devlin’s platform above the normal stage. Surrounded by a forest straight out of a fairy story with a tantalising image of a stately home, we see an elegant fireplace, a bed with white covers, and other stylish furniture matched by the formality of Christina Cunningham’s Victorian-style costumes. The impression is that of a safe, reassuring world, a far cry from the libidinous activities promised. The irony is clear, the hypocrisy patent.

The images stayed with me and so did the dilemma at the heart of the play. This was certainly an apposite theme for our time and for the future. Terrifying but thought provoking. Oh dear, I’ve been doing so much thinking lately my head is in danger of exploding!

 

Plea to directors and actors. The night I saw this play there was a discrepancy in the level of the volume of voices in the interrogation scenes. The powerful voice of Sims overwhelmed the quieter voice of Morris, whose lines were difficult to catch at times. Later, I realised we had seen the understudy playing Morris, Anna Martine. These scenes were played in profile across the table, but whereas Sims cheated his face to the front at times, Morris didn’t, which meant we only saw her face in profile, which told us little. I mention this because it seems a habit for directors to overdo scenes in profile. It happened in The Hard Problem too when I wasn’t sure if the character in one scene was the same as in a previous one. Why? Because he was in profile. Please directors, think of the members of the audience who want to see the expression on the faces of the actors.

 

 

 

Critique of my novel, OASIS

 

One of my readers sent me this critique of my novel, Oasis. I am so delighted with the interpretation that I decided to share it with readers of my blog on my website. How gratifying it is to know that someone really understands your work!

 

Critique of OASIS, A novel by Jeannie van Rompaey

Oasis is the first part of a trilogy, dealing with aspects of normality. What is normal? Imagine an Earth, destroyed by human profligacy and devastated by a plague, which results in genomes gone mad. The mutant humanoids are still us even with two heads or three legs or bracelets of snakes. But never normal to the Completes, those who escape the ravages of disease. The idea that co-existence is possible is pie in the sky.

But no blood, no extermination here. Science conceives a series of self sufficient compounds and houses the mutants on earth. Don’t leave this safety, the air outside is toxic. They thank whatever gods there are that the mutants are almost always barren so that’s one problem solved. Duty done, they decamp into space to recreate a green world.

Little Mercury remembers nothing except his compound. He’s there at the beginning of the struggles for power, for the inevitable questioning of their position there. He is comfortable in his mutant world.

Then his life changes. His Complete father tracks him down and in secret erases his mutant characteristics but not his memories. He goes home to the green enclave of leisure and plenty, no longer Mercury but Michael. He makes friends, falls in love, and integrates into his father’s family.

Ms. van Rompaey has made sure that we feel empathy with Mercury/Michael as he tries to make moral sense of his predicament. He hacks into the programmes that monitor the compounds he left and sees the increasing ferment among his brothers and sisters. They desire.. They want.. And why not? He begins to dream of the possibility of real integration. At the end of the first book, we are left with the desire to see how, Michael, the idealist will fare. More than that, as mutants start to reach the Complete enclaves, the attitudes of all parties will present us with a mirror image of our own world.

The author has written a thoughtful multi layered novel. Accept that the occasional concept may stretch our imaginations and read it as a participant in a remarkable world.

A. Brown

 

 

Change of Year: 2014 to 2015

The end of an old year is a time to look back. The beginning of a new year is a chance, if not for resolutions, at least for a plan.

 

It’s always good to have a plan. Otherwise we drift through life and wonder why so little has been achieved. I’ve had various ambitions, dreams and desires, some of which have materialised, some not.

 

So much has happened in the world during 2014. The events, good and bad, have been reviewed and discussed extensively in the media.  No need for me to add my opinions. Enough to say that my personal views often come out in my fiction.

 

My looking back this year included taking a fresh look at stories, novels and plays that I wrote some time ago. I approached the task with some trepidation expecting to find this early work full of errors that would make me cringe with embarrassment. A bit of cringing did take place but I did find enough promise in the writing to decide to re-write some of it.

 

I’m not yet ready to begin the third part of the trilogy of OASIS – ideas are still gestating – so this might be the time to start re-structuring, re-writing and generally editing my past work. I’m still in the planning stage. Once I start writing I shall know which pieces are worth re-working. It may be that I will decide that my ideas and my style of writing have changed so much that the task is not worthwhile.

 

Plans are important but they are not definitive. When looking at past work, I decided a few pointers in the form of questions might help?

 

1) What is the theme of the piece? Does it embrace ideas that I’m still happy about today? Does it fit into a specific genre?

 

2) Does the structure fit the needs of the story?

 

3) Do different narrative viewpoints add depth and variety or do they confuse? Are there too many changes of perspective or not enough?

 

4) Do the characters grab my interest and that of potential readers? Do they influence what happens in a logical way? Do the characters develop and change?

 

5) How does the setting support the theme and plot?

 

6) Do all the scenes, descriptions earn their place in the narrative or are some of them superfluous?

7) Is the dialogue believable? Is there too much dialogue or not enough?

 

8) Are there sufficient variety of pace, tension and mood?

 

9) How effective are the beginnings and endings of chapters? Look at the general shape of the piece.

10) Who would be your target readers?

 

That’s enough for a start. I’m sure more questions will occur to me as I attempt a re-write.

 

I trust that these thoughts might be helpful to other writers who want to take a look at their previous work and decide if it is worth giving them a makeover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

London Theatre Visits, October, 2014

 

A spate of art exhibitions, museums and theatre visits in London. What a wonderful life I have, alternating between the relaxing sun of Gran Canaria and the vibrant bustle of London.

I’ve been intent on finishing the final chapters of EARTH UNLEASHED, the sequel to my dystopia, OASIS, so these reviews are a little late being written and shorter than usual. This is no reflection on the quality of the work seen. As usual my reviews are personal opinions – not critiques taken from newspapers.

 

Electra 08.10.2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELECTRA by Sophocles in a version by Frank McGuinness, at the Old Vic, directed by Ian Rickson.

 

Kristin Scott Thomas in the leading role gives a performance that makes you listen to every word and share her every emotion.

The seating at the Old Vic is still arranged in the round, particularly appropriate for Greek drama. It lends an intimacy to Electra’s plight, shut out from her family, left to mourn her father and rant about her mother’s culpability with the sympathetic support of the three-woman chorus.

This production follows the current trend for selecting Greek tragedies with a female protagonist. (See my previous blog about MEDEA with Helen McCrory at the National Theatre) and still to come is ANTIGONE with Juliette Binoche at The Barbican in March, 2015. Not only do these choices give a chance for female actors to play the roles they were surely destined to play (but didn’t in ancient Athens) but they it focus the audience’s attention on the female position in a predominantly male society. However strong they maybe, women’s power to instigate change is not an easy one and they do not always choose the same route as men would do because of their status.

One good thing about revisiting Greek tragedy is that the plays are short, written as they were as part of a contest with other dramatists. This means they play straight through without an interval for 90 minutes, which gives an unbroken impetus to theme and performances that adds to their impact. My advice: go to the loo first and take a bottle of water in with you and immerse yourself in the play.

My favourite moment in this production is when Electra meets her brother Orestes again whom she has not seen since he was a baby. She sniffs all over his body to ascertain that it is really is him: a visceral moment of recognition. Her joy seems to course her veins – and mine.

At the curtain call, Scott Thomas looks serious as she takes the first few bows then she suddenly bursts into the most glorious smile as if to say, ‘It’s alright, I’m happy now. I was just acting.’ Another theatrical moment.

 

My verdict: a production not to be missed.

Charles III 10.10.2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KING CHARLES III by Mike Bartlett, at Wyndham’s Theatre, directed by Rupert Goold    

 

I cannot imagine a better production of this new play. I loved the simplicity of the set, a central plinth backed by grey walls that could be Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace, the beautifully judged music from live musicians stationed in one of the boxes, sung by members of the onstage cast and the representation of royal personages by the actors. All these theatrical components contribute to a satisfying whole.

The members of the Royal family are immediately recognisable. Prince Harry’s first entrance raises a laugh with his sticking-up red hair and gangling walk and poor Camilla, another outsider, wanders about trying her best but failing to be some sort of comfort to Charles.

Before I give you the idea that this is a comedic farce I must assure you it isn’t. The issues it deals with are serious. It starts with the premise of “what if?” What if – after the Queen is dead and Charles becomes King he tries to alter the constitution by being more than just a rubber stamp for the acts the Government want to become law. Charles’s obstinate refusal to sign until they have reconsidered the contents of the proposal leads to a series of irreversible events, which give scheming Kate the opportunity she needs to make some changes herself – to her and Will’s advantage.

But yes, the play has some witty lines too, as we laugh and at times feel sorry for the restricted lives our royals are compelled to live. Harry has his moment of freedom when he has the treat of going Sainsbury’s with his Republican girlfriend, but he gives up both his visits to supermarkets and his girl when protocol calls.

The cast is impressive but Tim Pigott-Smith is outstanding as King Charles. His well-meaning but misjudged interference in governmental affairs we recognise as high-handed behaviour, but finally his bewildered acceptance of unexpected change has the ability to move us. We learn that, above all, it is his sons that are most important to him.

 

My verdict: If you’re British you will appreciate it. Some Americans we met had a little difficulty following all the constitutional ins and outs of the connection between the monarchy and parliament. The play is described as “a future history play” and for me it didn’t fail to fascinate. It made me think, laugh and feel sad. A complete piece of theatre.

Speed the plow 11.10.2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SPEED THE PLOW by David Mamet at The Playhouse Theatre, directed by Lindsay Posner.

 

Warning: I am going to be very critical about this production and the play, itself.

 

Firstly, I see no reason for putting on David Mamet’s play, written in 1987, on stage again in 2014. Yes, I know Mamet’s a Pulitzer prize winner (for Glengarry Glen Ross) and he writes poetically rhythmic dialogue maybe better than any other living playwright, but his masculinist world can be seen – certainly in this play – as sexist.

In OLEANNA, a play about sexual harassment, he at least gives us a balanced argument from the male and female viewpoints, but in SPEED THE PLOW we are only given the male perspective. Karen is not important as a character except as the object of a bet. Can Bobby persuade her to sleep with him or not? He can, by agreeing to put on the script she supports. In the event, he can’t honour his promise without losing his job, so he reneges on it. In so doing he loses his respect of himself as a “good man.” For some reason we are supposed to care about that. It is Bobby’s angst about whether he is a good man or not that provides the meat of the play. In the midst of all this male discussion the girl is forgotten, you could say written out. She is called into the office the next day to answer one question. Would you have slept with Bobby if he hadn’t agreed to do the play? The answer is no. The girl exits and is not seen (or thought of again).

The cutthroat nature of the film industry Mamet describes is doubtless based on his own experience of the system and the casting couch may well still exist. My grouse is that the male dialogue that tops and tails the piece is the substance of the play – the bread – with the scene in the middle merely the salacious filling in the sandwich.

The play was probably chosen as a vehicle for Lindsay Lohan. She is the bait to get the audience to buy tickets to see it – the creamy filling in the male sandwich. It’s a short role so she should be able to learn the words (I hear she was still on the book at the first preview) and the role of scheming bimbo does not stretch her acting abilities. She copes reasonably well with the seduction scene, although she does not always pick up the necessary rhythm of Mamet’s lines.

I went to the play – not see Lohan – but because I admire Mamet’s use of language and because I’m an admirer of Richard Schiff’s acting. I was disappointed on both counts. Schiff’s performance as Bobby Gould is so low key as to be ineffective and his partner in those male dialogues, Nigel Lindsay as Charlie Fox, shouts his way through the duologues as if about to have an apocalyptic fit. The result is a vocal imbalance between the two actors, which doesn’t give them a hope of achieving the innate rhythm of the dialogue and often impedes the meaning. Interestingly enough, Schiff comes into his own with Lohan in the seduction scene where the melt of tension and relaxation works well.

I also find much to criticise about the direction. The positioning of the actors is not helpful to the actors or the audience. A lot of the dialogue in the office scene is in profile. We rarely see the actors’ faces, which means we lose a whole dimension of their performance. Apart from standing in profile, Lohan’s hair flops down in front of her face. Surely someone should have made sure the audience could see her face.

Verdict: Better give this one a miss.

Great Britain13.10.2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GREAT BRITAIN, a new play by Richard Bean, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, directed by Nicholas Hytner.

 

This National Theatre production about the conduct of tabloid newspapers was rehearsed in secretduring the phone hacking trials. Two versions were rehearsed, one to be put on if a certain person was found guilty and one if found innocent. It is the latter version we see here.

Following on last year’s success of One Man, Two Guvnors, now on tour, audiences have a chance to see three of Bean’s plays running at the same time in London: GREAT BRITAIN, PITCAIRN at the Globe Theatre and MADE IN DAGENHAM, set in 2014, 1814 and 1968 respectively. Richard Bean is a prolific writer whose plays, as Mark Lawson expresses so wittily, “explore his time, past times and the multiple ways of giving the audience a good time.”

GREAT BRITAINis a satirical romp, that sends up the doubtful values and practices of tabloid newspapers and the lengths they will go to get a good story, preferably a scandalous one. It’s a state-of-the-nation play that exposes the corruption of the press, the police and politics.

A huge cast is led by Lucy Punch as the brash Paige Britain, prepared to sell body and soul for the sake of a story and proud of it. She sets the crude in-yer-face tone for the entire cast.

The pace is fast and furious, the one-liners delivered with sharp precision. You can’t miss them because there is nothing subtle about them, but you have to be quick. Shocking, tasteless, hilarious jokes follow on, one after the other. These journalists clearly enjoy the vulgar gratification of their job. There’s no concern about the sensibilities of their victims or readers.

The newspaper office is supplemented by insets of other locations from bedrooms to a ship. There is also a plethora of ever-changing moving screens with press releases, headlines, photographs and videos. On they come, one screen, one photo, one video and then another. The police and politicians are mocked. Commissioner Suffy Kassam (Aaron Neil) brings the house down with his straight-faced delivery of, ‘A clue is something I have not got.’ Paige seduces the handsome Assistant Commissioner (Ben Mansfield). She asks him if he’s married. He says he isn’t so she unceremoniously jumps him and uses him to get secret information. She also has an affair with the Conservative Leader (Rupert Vansittart) and he promises to have a word with the Queen about closing down the BBC. It’s successful. And so on and so forth. All quick-fire, cold-blooded stuff – including, of course, phone hacking.

There is an integral human-interest story about missing twins and the press’s insatiable desire for a story true or not. No more clues. No more story. Go and see the play for yourself, but just remember who we are laughing at – the tabloid press, the police, the politicians or ourselves? Do we get the society we deserve? Note the climax and denouement. Do the culprits get the punishment they deserve? If not, what does that say about us?

On the distaff side, I understand that the script was cut by twenty minutes when the play moved from the National Theatre to the Haymarket, but why weren’t some of the weaker jokes cut – you know the ones that make you cringe. That awful “wankie in your hankie” line for example. Even the brash Paige seems a bit embarrassed to say that. And why does Paige say she’s just a little girl from Bristol without a sign of West country accent? Has it been left over from the original person who played the role? I have the feeling that cuts were made very quickly and not by the writer. Am I right?

Verdict: A timely satirical romp, which opens a window on the world of the tabloids and reveals its ruthlessness and sleaze. A very slick production like the tabloids it describes. Highly recommended – but don’t go if you’re tempted to heckle. You’ll be removed. And that would be a waste of your ticket.

Our Town 14.10.2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder at the Almeida Theatre, directed by David Cromer.

 

Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN opened on Broadway in 1938. Considered innovative at the time, it had no set, minimal props, half-lighting and a central character that narrated events by addressing the audience directly.

The present production ran off-Broadway from 2009 for 654 performances, the most in the history of the play.

At the Almeida it is played in re-arranged seating more or less in the round, with the house lights on, inviting members of the audience to feel they are inhabitants of the town. Cromer plays the Narrator or Stage-manager with an American accent while other players adopt their own local (British) dialects as if the town really is their town – not just Grover’s Corners, a small town in America. This gives the play an inclusive feel making us feel part of the lives described.

This must be the most un-dramatic, un-theatrical play I’ve ever seen. There’s no tension and little conflict. At the beginning of the first act, the Stage Manager describes the town and walks us through a typical day in the lives of the townspeople. He admits that nothing out of the ordinary ever happens here. People grow up, go to work, get married bring up their children and die. The only deviant character is the organist, the town drunkard, but, even though we see him staggering home after choir practice watched by his neighbours, he doesn’t do anything to disturb the peace. It’s not hard to imagine why he turns to drink.

The actors play for naturalism and sometimes the dialogue is so soft that, if their backs are to us, it is difficult to catch every word. This certainly doesn’t apply to David Cromer as the Stage Manager who leads us through the description of the events with sincere clarity. It is obvious that Cromer loves this play and has made it his favoured project for the last few years. In spite of its simple tale of everyday life, there are one or two flashes of direction that have a telling effect. The use of tables with chairs on top to represent the facing windows of the young neighbours who share homework and start a relationship that leads to their marriage is one of them. Another occurs during the second act during the young couple’s wedding ceremony. A member of the congregation turns to a member of the audience, makes a comment and receives a cordial reply, accepting readily that she is part of this town.

In the final act we see the graveyard represented by chairs with the dead sitting on them, commenting on their lives and deaths. The most surprising moment is when the young bride, now dead, wants to return to her previous life. The other dead townsfolk say it is possible to do that, but not advisable. The girl ignores their advice. The curtain opens at the rear of the acting area to reveal the cottage where she once lived, traditionally staged. (What a surprise after all this minimalism). She can see and hear what is going on, but her family cannot hear her and she cannot affect change. She returns to her grave (chair) content to spend the rest of her death there. A little coup de theatre.

Verdict:A gentle play that grows on you once you get used to the low-key style and accept that nothing much is going to happen. It gives a view of small town life that many of us will recognise. A sincere production, faithful to the original, with a few extra touches from Cromer that add to its atmosphere, including his own performance. I think Thornton Wilder would approve this version from the comfort of his grave.

 

It will be interesting to see if this production goes into the West End from the Almeida, as so many of its predecessors did. Such as Chimerica, Ghosts and Charles III.

 

 

In addition to the above plays I saw two musicals, the new production of Bonhill and Schönberg’s MISS SAIGON at the Prince Edward Theatre and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s EVITA at the Dominion.

Twenty-five years after its première MISS SAIGON is still an exciting show. The Vietnamese settings are both realistic and spectacular. The love scenes between Kim (Eva Noblezada) and Chris (Alistair Brammer) are moving, especially the scene on the wooden steps leading up to her simple house when they first declare their love for each other and – of course – the tragic ending. Chris’s wife, Ellen, (Tamsin Carroll) has a voice that rings round the theatre and manages to make us sympathise with her as well as Kim. John (Hugh Maynard) proves himself a good friend to Chris and has a powerful voice. But it is Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer who steals the show. He holds the audience in the palm of his hand, engaging us with his cunning schemes to survive, his indomitable resilience and his power to bounce back. The American Dream number, when he holds the stage almost single-handed, gives new meaning to the term, showstopper. An incredible performance from Briones, helped by the fact that the actor is Asian, not a white man pretending to be one.

Evita 09.10.2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the best things about EVITA is that all the songs are memorable. I’ve been humming them ever since. I enjoy this current production but not quite as much as the more Brechtian one I saw some years ago. It does capture the ambience of Buenos Aires and the period. The two sets of stairs work well to get rid of redundant lovers and the balcony scene with the famous ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,’ does not disappoint. My favourite image is the colonels jockeying for position like a game of musical chairs as a sack is put on the head of one and then the next and then another and they join the long line of other headless, doomed losers of the regime, “the disappeared” trudging along like zombies, upstage. Madalena Alberto looks very like Evita, has a strong voice and gives the role emotional power. Marti Pellow does not fully portray the irony of Che as a commentator on Evita’s life. He seems to wander about the stage and his voice is lyrical without the abrupt cut of thrust needed to express his alternate view of what is happening politically.

If I had to recommend a one of these musicals and one of these plays to see on a flying visit to London which would I choose?

The musical, MISS SAIGON. The play, KING CHARLES III.

 

 

EXHIBITIONS visited during the same week:

Anselm Kiefer October 2014

 

 

                  

    Ming October 2014

 

Turner-later works October 2014

    

How to become a drama adjudicator

How to become a drama adjudicator?

 

Ask yourself if you have the necessary qualifications and experience in theatre to present an informed opinion on productions of plays in all genres.

 

Qualifications may include attendance at drama school or the possession of a degree or other qualification in theatre studies.

 

It is important to have seen lots of plays, both professional and amateur.

 

Experience of being a member of an amateur dramatic society is helpful in understanding the particular problems of putting on amateur productions.

 

Experience of being on stage, backstage and directing a play is an advantage, whether as an amateur or a professional.

 

One of your skills must be public speaking.

 

Attend as many drama festivals as possible and listen to adjudicators.

 

You do not have to belong to an organisation such as the Guild of Drama Adjudicators – GODA – but it can be an advantage in getting work and in learning the skills of adjudication. Scotland, Wales and Ireland have similar organisations but as a member of GODA, I so will confine my comments to the one I know most about.

 

GODA runs a weekend course most years to give a taste of what being an adjudicator entails to would be adjudicators. Senior GODA adjudicators give talks on adjudication. You see a play and are offered a chance to flex your adjudication muscles in an unthreatening atmosphere within a group of your peers.

 

If you feel comfortable with this weekend you can apply to attend a Selection Weekend, during which there will be more talks, a personal interview and a visit to a theatre to see a play for you to adjudicate. The panel, made up of members of the Guild and a festival organiser, will then decide if you are likely to make the grade as an adjudicator. If you are successful, you will subsequently be invited to be an associate member of GODA.

 

Associate members are given an experienced member as a mentor and he/she will act as an adviser during your first adjudications.

 

Go with your mentor to the festivals he/she is adjudicating and introduce yourself to the organisers. Continue to attend as many festivals as possible, also the GODA AGM and the Festivals Conference, where you can introduce yourself to other adjudicators and festival organisers. Networking!

 

When you have done at least six adjudications, you can ask to be appraised in the hope of becoming a full member of the Guild. An experienced adjudicator will come to one night of a subsequent adjudication, write a report on you and submit it to the Council. If you are successful you will be invited to become a full member of the Guild of Drama Adjudicators.

 

Please note that the Guild of Adjudicators do not give jobs to member adjudicators. Most work is by referral or because a festival organiser has seen your work. GODA does provide a directory of members, updated every year. The directory is distributed to drama festivals and any interested parties.

 

Associate and full members of GODA are not allowed to advertise, but as most British and European festivals employ GODA members because they trust them, it is definitely an advantage to be a member.

 

For more information about the Guild of Drama Adjudicators, you can send for the Directory from the Honorary Secretary, Mrs. Joan Crossley, 25 the Drive, Bengeo, Hertford, Herts SG14 3DE and/or go the website on www.godauk.org

 

 

 

 

What is a drama adjudicator?

What is a drama adjudicator?

 

When I tell my friends that I’m a drama adjudicator, they nod politely and say “How interesting,” or “How old are the children you’re examining?”

 

That’s when I realise that most people have little idea what being an adjudicator entails.

 

Here are some things I am not.

 

I am not an examiner.

 

I am not employed by schools or examination boards to assess children’s work.

 

I am not a member of a panel of adjudicators who express individual opinions on performances, but who have to come to a consensus to decide who wins, as in X-factor or Britain’s Got Talent.

 

Here is what I am, who employs me and what my role as adjudicator involves.

 

I work for organisers of competitive drama festivals who arrange a programme of plays put on by amateur drama societies. All festivals are autonomous to a certain extent, even when part of a national competition, so vary in procedures. In some cases, youth groups are in a separate section, but not always. Most festivals run for about a week with three one-act plays a night, or, in the case of a full-length play festival, one play a night.

 

As the only adjudicator, I sit at a table in the audience, watch the plays, make notes, and, immediately after the last play has finished each evening, I go on stage and talk to the audience about the performances I have just seen. In this way, the adjudicator’s job is different to that of the newspaper critic who has time to reflect before writing his or her article. I have little time to organise my thoughts, which is why I usually remain at the table during the intervals and continue working, thinking and checking my notes.

I aim to give constructive criticism that will encourage and help the teams, praising aspects of the production that have worked well and suggesting ideas for the group to try out in areas where they have not been so successful.

 

After the final play on the last night of the festival, come the awards. It’s a kind of mini Oscar ceremony. Tension rises as the awards for best set, best costumes, best actor, best actress, best supporting role, best director, adjudicator’s award, runner-up and overall winner of the festival are announced. The awards vary from festival to festival, often depending on who has presented the cup. I like to give nominations in each section, saying what I enjoyed about a particular design or performance, before announcing who has won.

 

A lot of work has to be done by the adjudicator before the festival begins, including reading the plays, doing any necessary research about the dramatist, the period or subject matter. I prepare my opening comments and make headings so that no topic is forgotten while I am making notes during the performance.

 

My sections usually include:

The Play

Performance history

Details about the dramatist

The genre and style of the play: farce, comedy, drama, realism, surrealism, documentary, devised piece from improvisation etc.

The challenges the piece presents for director, cast, designer and technicians.

 

The latter section is important to refer back to when summarising the performance.

Did the production fulfil the challenges presented?

 

Setting and Props

Is the setting appropriate for the period, genre and style of the play?

Is the furniture placed in a way that is theatrically viable?

If not how could the positioning be improved?

Are the props in keeping with the play and practical to use?

 

Lighting and Special Effects

The most important aspect of lighting is that the actors can be seen, especially their faces.

If it is a realistic play where is the source of light? From a window or from lamps?

If a more stylised, imaginative lighting plot is called for, how effective is it?

If the lighting plot is very complex and some errors made in the execution how could it be simplified?

If back projection, slides or other effects are needed what do they contribute to the play?

 

Sound

If music is used to introduce the play or during it, how appropriate is it to period, mood etc.

Are the sounds effects appropriate and on cue?

 

Costumes, make-up, masks, wigs

Are the costumes appropriate for the period and the role? Do the actors look at ease in them? Look at colour: earthy colours for rural scenes, bright colours for comedy etc.

Not all plays call for elaborate make-up, masks or wigs, but, if they do, they should be commented on.

 

Direction

Has the director a clear, overall concept of how the play should be performed?

Consider style, mood, tone, clarity of plot.

Note the use of pace, pause, grouping, build to dramatic or comedic climaxes, key moments, motivation, exits, entrances and teamwork. Is the acting style consistent throughout?

Audience response. If a farce, did it make us laugh? If a drama, did it move us emotionally?

 

Acting

I list the characters in the order given in the programme and make a note about what is expected from each character e.g. warmth, sternness, vulnerability, or flirtatiousness etc.

Interpretation of character, vocal projection, diction, body language, imagination are aspects to consider

 

Talking about individual performances in public is a sensitive area. I try to say something positive about each person as well as giving helpful tips about how to improve their acting skills. I call this an appraisal sandwich. Say something positive, suggest how the performance could be improved and finish with another positive.

 

Summary

I use the challenges mentioned in the opening comments as a checklist to summarize the overall success of the production. I like to begin with something positive, then suggest where some aspects could be improved, then end on a high, thanking the team and giving the name of the group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

London Theatre Visits, July 2014

LondonTheatre visits, July 1914

 

The last time I had a feast of theatre it mainly consisted of a diet of comedies. This time drama and tragedy dominated. Meaty stuff. These reviews consist of my personal opinions on the productions seen at one particular performance. As I am drama trained (Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama) and have an MA in English Literature (University of Leicester) and have been a drama adjudicator (Member of the Guild of Drama Adjudicators) for many years, my views are backed up by experience. If you have seen these productions, I’d be delighted to hear your views on them in the Comment section following the blog.

Richard III

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard The Third at Trafalgar Studios, directed by Jamie Lloyd, offers a far from traditional production of Shakespeare’s play. Taking the “winter of discontent” line from Richard’s first speech, the play has been brought forward to the end of the seventies when Britain is in decline. Setting the play in an office suggests that the conflicts to come are based on the soul-destroying intricacies of bureaucracy and the wrangling of office politics. An imaginative idea and I realise we are not meant to take the office scenario too literally. We are meant to think metaphorically, as the office scenario has to act as prison, court and battlefield; but the imposition of this image does cause problems for the logistics of the piece.

 

The rigidity of rows of desks (corridors of power?) constricts fluid movement and subtle insights. Shakespeare’s audacious scene in which Richard woos Anne over the coffin of her dead husband does not stand a chance of being convincing in this confined space. Most of the play’s key exchanges are in profile because of the positioning of the desks or pushed into a tiny corner, a device unhelpful to the depiction of character. And how, I wonder, looking ahead, how could those famous lines, ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,’ be rendered? I soon find out. Richard (Martin Freeman of The Hobbit and Sherlock fame) clearly feels so stupid having to say these lines in an office setting that he puts on a silly, squeaky voice and make a joke of them. Fancy being reduced to that! So – in my opinion – but not in everyone’s – the concept of the production was misconceived, forcing the actors into awkward positioning that impeded the storytelling. I think director, Jamie Lloyd, expects too much of the members of the audience, who have to hang on to plot, theme and character, surrounded by the clutter of an updated image imposed on the play.

 

As for Martin Freeman’s much awaited performance as Richard the Third, it did have things to recommend it. If you are following the charisma and expertise of previous actors in the role – Anthony Sher’s terrifying spider, Ian McKellen’s chilling Machiavellian general – you have to do something different. Freeman plays the role with a calculated cunning and the precise thought processes of a ruthless office manager, cutting up the script into short sharp pieces with his abrupt vocal delivery. He does not try to win over his followers with charm but still expects absolute loyalty from them, winning them over with promises he has no intention of keeping. His response when his followers disagree with him is like the Red Queen’s in Alice in Wonderland – “Off with his head.” No second chances with this cold fish. I find his performance consistent with the overall concept of the production and I liked the little touches of sly black humour, but it is not a performance to set the world on fire!

 

I must come clean and admit that this play is not a favourite of mine. It has a wonderfully evil central character it’s true, but the play is loosely constructed and the women’s roles are very unrewarding. They are victims of Richard’s regime and their lines mostly involve weeping and wailing. In this production the female actors played against this tendency, thank goodness, and managed to extract some perceptive insights into their miserable lives.

 

Crucible

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crucible by Arthur Miller, performed at The Old Vic, directed by Yaël Farber. Miller’s play about the Salem witch hunts in the 17th century and its ensuing trials was written as parallel to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s purging of suspected communists in the 1950s. As Sharon Monteith points out in the programme, the play “has lost none of its allegorical potency.”

 

The Crucible explores civil rights, in particular the persecution, detention and trial of demonised groups when evidence against them is unclear. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001 in New York, George W. Bush used similar language to that used in interrogations of potential witches in Salem, saying that “people are either with us or against us” and in Salem when Danforth warns “We burn a hot fire here, it melts down all concealment,” it is not difficult to make the leap and equate that statement with the Muslims held without trial in Guantánamo Bay. It is no coincidence that the play has proved popular in countries where tyranny is either on its way or has just past. The Crucible makes us aware of how easily injustice can spin out of control whether for religious or political reasons and warns about the dangers of self-righteous, fundamentalist beliefs, which take little note of individual opinions.

 

In this production of The Crucible the themes mentioned above are movingly portrayed. Seen in the round with the audience seated around the players, makes us feel as if we are part of the community of Salem. Apart from simple wooden chairs and tables moved to represent different locations there was no set either given or needed. The ornate designs normally seen in front of the galleries and boxes around the theatre are discreetly covered with neutral coloured drapes to represent the plain stone buildings of the town. The play is dressed traditionally in appropriate costumes for period, the colours muted and earthy, for the rural period setting. Each character has his or her own agenda as erstwhile friends or lovers are betrayed in the name of religion and justice. The “children” – young girls, nearly women – stage histrionics in court to accuse fellow townspeople and are believed because surely children are pure and have no agenda of their own. And because the persecutors are set on believing them. As the chain of events unfold, members of the community turn on each other and the horror increases, leading to the emotional climax.

 

Performing the play in the round does make us feel involved in the drama but there are times when characters masked the view of key scenes. I’m sure the girls’ hysteria and fainting is impressive but we only caught a glimpse of it. Just a little adjustment and all would have been well. Maybe someone needs to check the sightlines as these errors may have slipped in during the performances. Another adverse criticism of this otherwise excellent production is the tendency for actors to shout. Richard Armitage as John Proctor understood the role very well and portrayed the ambiguity of his feelings but spoilt his performance by shouting out his anger. A more internalised frustration and anguish would have been more effective. Christopher Godwin, as Judge Hathorne, plays the part on the same level throughout. His speeches are   evenly paced and loud, boring to listen to, not terrifying as his intransigence should be.

 

In spite of the above comments, compared with other productions of this play I’ve seen, and this is the most satisfying. For the first time I can differentiate between the male clerics as each one makes his position, character and opinions apparent. In a cast of well-thought-out characterisations, all working together as a team, sharing similar emotions, all the acting is of a high level, contributing to the meaning of the play. For me, two performances stand out. Anna Madeley, playing Elizabeth Proctor, shows all the pent up emotion of a betrayed wife. Her coldness is palpable as she turns her back on her husband refusing to come to terms with what has happened. It seems that her mind wants to forgive him but her body refuses. Towards the end she shows her loyalty and her strength giving Proctor the freedom to choose his own fate her own opinion understated but quite clear. A controlled, beautifully paced piece of acting. The other actor I want to mention is Adrian Schiller as Reverend John Hale. He makes the journey from fervent witch hunter to disillusioned penitent. In his interview of John Proctor, he is a fierce interrogator, but he tries to be fair. His suspicions that everything is not as it seems lead to his final understanding that the court has been duped and that many people have been hanged in error. He is devastated. He and the court have been too quick to judge in their eagerness to stamp out witchcraft. Hale’s depiction of this change in perspective demonstrates Miller’s even-handedness. Even zealots can change their views and repent.

 

The sense of a once close-knit community being gradually destroyed by zealots is, rightly, emotionally draining. A long play – three and half hours – but it grips from beginning to end.

 

Medea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Medea by Euripides in a new version by Ben Power, directed by Carrie Cracknell on stage at The Olivier, National Theatre. First produced in 431BC, the plot revolves around Medea’s calculated revenge against her unfaithful husband, Jason, and culminates in the killing of her/their two young sons. The Athenian audience, shocked by this twist in the tale (traditionally the boys were thought to have been killed by the Corinthians after Medea’s escape) awarded the play only third place in the Dionisan festival; but the fascination with Medea has continued to modern times with many productions and adaptations.

 

The latest version, with Helen McCrory in the title role, is definitely one not to miss, as it builds in intensity through its one hour forty minutes playing time, without an interval.

 

The staging and costumes are contemporary. The set is a sparsely furnished huge room with a curved staircase leading to a gallery that serves as the upstairs area of Jason and Medea’s house and scenes at the palace. The stairs and gallery are also used effectively by the Chorus of Corinthian women who comment and advise Medea but, as is the tradition in Greek tragedy, cannot affect the action. But by far the most spectacular aspect of the staging is revealed when the full length, full width curtains upstage are pulled open to show the forest outside. On the level of metaphor this can be interpreted as the wild, barbarian side of Medea’s nature and also acts as a representation of the unfriendly outside world into which Medea is to be cast. On a practical level, the woods are where the children play and eventually killed.

 

The modern costumes have the men dressed in suits (but why do Creon and Aegeus have tan shoes?) The members of the chorus are dressed in three quarter, Laura Ashley-type dresses, suggesting weak, ineffectual women. In the first scene, Medea appears in battle fatigues or khaki joggers and T-shirt as if she had been working out, showing off her arm muscles giving an impression of strength. When she changes to attempt to seduce her husband, she is seen in a white all-in-one trouser suit in flowing Greek style, which makes her more feminine without losing the image of strength. Because, like ancient Greek audiences we know what happens, wearing white makes me imagine it covered in blood. I am not disappointed.

 

Many telling images in this production: Clauce donning the deadly golden robe and clutching her father, Creon, as they are both poisoned: Jason crawling away off stage after being confronted by his sons’ deaths: Medea hauling the body bags containing her dead children (huge rubbish sacks?) on to her back as she walks slowly through the forest carrying the burden of her murdered sons with her.

 

In a strong cast, Helen McCrory as Medea stands out. In one way it’s a wonderful role to play, but it cannot be one that evokes the sympathy of the audience. Or can it? We may consider Medea either innately evil or crazy or psychological disturbed but there is a frightening logic to her actions that cannot fail to fascinate. Here is a passionate woman so in love that she killed her brother in order to leave home with her lover, Jason, helped him win the golden fleece, bore him two children and yet still feels an outsider in a foreign land. When he selfishly chooses to marry someone else in order to improve his social position, Medea naturally feels rejected. She kills the children she loves because it is their deaths that will hurt Jason the most. I doubt there would be many women in the audience who believe they would go that far to take revenge on their husbands; but most women would find something to relate to in her resolve to make her husband suffer for the way he has treated her. I certainly viewed her, if not with admiration, with a certain awe for the strength of her resolve. This is not a crime committed in a moment of passion, but the revenge is based on passion. It is calculated step by step throughout the play in scene after scene as she plots her strategy. The gentle urging of the women to reconsider has no effect. Medea remains focussed on what she has determined to do. It’s this focus, this clear plan that makes the play so compelling. With the role of Medea in the hands of McCory, an actress who knows how to use the whole range of her voice and bodily movements to maximum effect, this focus on what has to done is terrifying to watch.

 

Greek theatre is meant to be a purging experience and judging by the emotional response of the audience, including the huge lump in my throat that would not go away, this production achieves its aim. The stage images and power of the central performance remain with me, determined not to fade.

Skylight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skylight by David Hare at Wyndham’s Theatre directed by Stephen Daldry, first is another piece of theatre about passion and the pain of separation. We discover that Tom (Bill Nighy) and Kyra (Carrie Mulligan) have been lovers and that she lived in the same house as his wife and son. When Tom’s wife finds out about their affair, -the discovery possibly deliberately contrived by Tom – Kyra walks out of his life, causing distress to his son as well as to her lover. After his wife dies of cancer, Tom seeks Kyra out again and finds her living in a very basic flat with few creature comforts and teaching in a school in a deprived neighbourhood. The chemistry is still there between them but Kyra has moved on, choosing a lifestyle very different from his. The difference between his affluent life as a successful restaurateur and her desire to live simply and devote her life to the under privileged in society is the crux of the difference in perspective that divides them.

 

The staging of this sparsely furnished flat is cleverly designed, so that we get an idea of its cramped interior layout and the poor district in which it is set. A forbidding block of flats dominates the skyline and we see the windows lit up when the inhabitants come home from work and the darkness when they go to bed, establishing the routine of their lives. Costumes are contemporary. Kyra’s trousers and top are stylish but neither ostentatious nor cheap. She is far from being a slob and the concept of her being own person, confident in her own skin, is helped by the choice of costumes. Tom’s suit and that gorgeous long, tailored black overcoat demonstrate his status and sex appeal. Both Tom and Kyra, in spite of their assumed confidence are not happy and are more vulnerable than we realise at first. .

 

The acting throughout is impeccable. Mathew Beard as Tom’s eighteen-year-old son, Edward, gives a likeable, accomplished performance to top and tail the play. Although he is used by David Hare to give us context to his father’s affair, he is a well-drawn character in his own right, showing that the break-up of a relationship can affect others as well as the couple involved. He misses Kyra and has fallen out with his discontented father.

 

The central roles are played in a way that makes us believe we are viewing a slice of real life. Cary Mulligan, in her West End debut, portrays Kyra as a woman with a clear sense of belief in herself and her choice of life-style, but she is not happy and still in love with Tom. Bill Nighy, as Tom, captivates, not just Kyra but also the audience with his wit and buoyant self-assurance, but underneath a vulnerable inner self is gradually revealed. He’s a lonely man who has been sitting at home licking his wounds after the loss of his wife and has been undergoing a tetchy relationship with his son. The chemistry between Kyra and Tom is plain in their body language and repartee as they carefully avoid touching each other and cook spaghetti, negotiating the inevitable awkwardness of meeting again, yet accustomed to each other’s physicality. We are not surprised when the first act ends with Tom dismissing the chauffeur waiting in the car outside and Kyra flies into his arms. While we have an interval drink we can imagine what they are doing and it’s not eating spaghetti.

 

The second act is more serious. Their physical passion slaked, they are more at ease with each other and we get to the meat of the play. As always, David Hare considers the personal as political and puts their relationship into its social context. The image of Kyra eating spaghetti on the floor in the middle of the night – she has to get up early to go work the next morning – and Tom climbing over her to sit in the chair behind her, cradling her shoulders between his legs demonstrates this ease, but, as they talk, their differences in outlook become apparent. The great difference between them is not just in their life-styles, but also their ideologies and a gap is exposed that it seems cannot be breached. As Tom says, ‘Even I know that one fuck does not mean we are having a relationship.’ Their attitudes to life appear incompatible.

 

When I first saw this play in 1995 at the Cottesloe, The National Theatre, with Michael Gambon and Leah Williams in the leading roles, I felt the argument well balanced between the two characters, but I tended to veer towards Kyra’s point of view. This time, maybe because I have moved on myself, I am far more critical of Kyra’s intransigent stance. The time the play was written, after the excesses of the eighties’ pursuit of money may have made Kyra’s decision more palatable. But now her determination to live frugally and continue with a teaching job she does not enjoy seems to me to be based on self-punishment for her love affair. She is flagellating herself because of her guilt, determined to spend her life helping others to the detriment of her own happiness. When Tom asks her what she wants out of life in the future, her answer is she intends to continue in exactly the same way. For a man who loves her and can offer her a more comfortable – and possibly more rewarding life, her adamant belief that she must deprive herself of happiness must be difficult for him to accept. At one point he jokingly suggests he move in with her, but we know this austere life-style would not suit him.

 

The change in my perspective of the central discourse is personal, not an adverse criticism of the writing or the performances, both of which I enjoyed as much this time as in the earlier production. Skylight is a production and performances not to be missed.

 

Handbagged

 

 

 

 

 

 

I revisited Handbagged by Moira Buffini, directed by Indhu Rubasingham  at the Vaudeville Theatre, as my friend, Holly, wanted to see it.  It was well worth worth seeing again, especially for the one-liners. and provoked an interesting discussion in the interval about Thatcherism and Royalism. See a previous blog for a full review.

 

 

Art Exhibitions, London, July 2014

Art exhibitions, London, July 2014

 

Matisse cutout

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Tate Modern, Henri Matisse, The Cut-Outs, amazing for the Fauve colours and sheer size.

 Malevich

Also at Tate Modern, a trip though the career of Kazimir Malevich, the avant-garde Russian artist, from the expressive self- portait, 1908, to the iconic Black Square, 1915, to the development of Suprematism and Abstraction, 1915 to 1920 and a return to a kind of refiguration by 1928. Well worth seeing this large collection of his work, borrowed from varied sources, as it shows how his work relates to its historic and political heritage.

 

 BP portrait

 

The BP Portait Award 2014 at the Royal Academy was as inspiring this year as in 2013. I particularly appreciate the way the RA produce a booklet of the artists and their pictures which give pleasure in retrospect – well worth the tenner it cost. (£9.99 minus discount for members) I’m sure everyone has their favourite portraits. Mine are: the painting that gained second prize, Jean Woods by Richard Twowse, Carolina by Robert O’Brien, Profile of Emma by Antony Williams, Gina and Cristiano by Isabella Watling and My Parents by Gary Sollars. They are not all beautiful but they made me think. Do check it out if you can.

 

 Woolf

An Exhibition about Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group at the National Portrait Gallery was fascinating because it gave us a glimpse of the coterie of upper class intellectuals, painters, writers and readers who seemed, not only from a different period but also from a different world. I admit I am a Virginia Woolf aficionado and consider her a perceptive and innovative stylist whose influence on subsequent novelists has been significant. Apart from the photographs and paintings, how intriguing it was to see examples of her actual handwriting. Again the books chosen to accompany this exhibition make excellent complementary reading. Both are by Frances Spalding, The Bloomsbury Group and Virginia Woolf, Art. Life and Vision. I wish to point out that I do not get commission for recommending any of these books! Or exhibitions.

A thought-provoking quotation from Virginia Woolf. “Words are an impure medium, better by far to have been born into the silent world of paint.” Do you agree?

 

 

Please read the following blog for reviews of the theatre performances seen.

Trilogy

Blog Six

 

Writing a Trilogy

 

Nowadays many novels are written in threes. Whether genre or literary fiction, the trilogy seems to be the trend. Apparently trilogies sell well. That’s provided the first book is popular. Think of the YA sci-fi, Hunger Games, now made into three films, or the more literary dystopias by Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and Maddadam. Or Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy about the effects of World War One. In the latter case, Barker pursues her characters through several more novels, including Life Class and Toby’s Room. All five are stand-alone novels in their own right. If you haven’t yet read Ms Barker’s novels rush out and buy them. You’re in for a treat. The quality of her writing matches the depth of her understanding of the trauma suffered by victims of war and makes for compelling reading.

 

Oh and I must mention Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, even though she doesn’t need the publicity. The first two books, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, have already been reinterpreted as a play and a television series, proving that literary novels can also be popular. We never seem to weary of reading about the Tudors. Her angle is to engage us in the persona of Thomas Cromwell as we view his world from his perspective.

 

After this preamble, it is about time I come clean. I am writing a trilogy. The first book, OASIS, is published on Amazon and no I haven’t waited until sales hit the roof before embarking on the second book, EARTH UNLEASHED.

 

I decide to write a trilogy because I am still interested in the characters and the worlds they live in and I want to know what happens next. I hope readers will feel the same.

 

How is writing a trilogy different from writing a one-off novel?   Towards the end of the first book, I deliberately leave certain parts of the story open-ended. Don’t worry, there is a satisfying conclusion, with many of the ends tied up, but, as in real life, there is room for further developments.

 

My return to writing about the familiar characters I created for Book One, OASIS, is like a reunion with old friends. The genre is sci-fi and the characters in this post-apocalyptic world are either mutant humanoids, living in compounds on Earth, or complete human beings, living on satellites in the sky. The first book is written from multiple viewpoints, with the mutants as first person narrators. They tell their stories in the present tense because they know little about the past and have no expectations about the future. The use of the present tense keeps the characters’ impressions fresh and allows instant responses to events. I intend to keep the same format in this second book to give continuity and make readers feel “at home”. I find it useful to re-read sections of the first book to remind myself of the “voice” of each narrator. Because the format is prescribed and the characters known, I find it easy to start writing Book Two, EARTH UNLEASHED.

 

I’m not a detailed planner. I have lots of ideas buzzing around in my head but very few notes on paper or screen. I prefer to start with a blank page. I believe I have written in an earlier blog that I find a blank page challenging but stimulating. I begin the first chapter with a journal entry from my protagonist, Michael Court, once a mutant, now a complete on the satellite Oasis. As I write he comes to life and the words began to flow.

 

When Hilary Mantel started to write her second book of her aforementioned trilogy, she said the same thing happened to her – the words ‘just came out.’ I am in good company then with the two times Mann Booker winner!

 

I continue with no definite written plan until the ideas crowd out my head and I’m forced to stop, make notes and do bits of research to support the ideas. This happens after the first four chapters have been written, two with Michael as narrator, two with Heracles, my incompetent and consequently dangerous villain, chronicling events. I invent two new characters, one in chapter three and one in chapter four; but haven’t yet decided if they will have their turn as narrators or not. If it seems right and energizing to have a new perspective on what happens, yes; if not, no. They would have to earn their place in the book as chroniclers. Already they have earned their place in the novel by being instrumental in advancing the plot.

 

I make a few notes – just a couple of pages of storylines all character-led. I then write summaries of the four chapters I have already written. Sounds like writing backwards? I find it a useful exercise to check I’m on the right tack. After that, I sketch out who is to narrate the following three or four chapters and make a few notes on the section of the storyline each would tell. All this is speculative. I can change anything as I write. Flexibility is essential for me to carry on being creative and produce the best story I can.

 

What next? I go back to the beginning and re-write those first four chapters. Shock, horror! That’s a procedure that creative tutors, including myself, do not advise. But hey, whatever works for me I will do. At this point I don’t seem able to progress until I have fixed those initial chapters. With several strong chapters as a foundation, I can continue.

 

Once happy with the early re-writes and adjustments, I update the initial four chapter summaries. I can now use them as a springboard to develop further themes and storylines.

Because I know the characters and the approach I’m using, the story is evolving pretty easily. Long may this spell of creativity last. Well, I must stop talking about writing and write Chapter Five, Swords into Ploughshares, narrated by one-eyed Odysseus, museum curator and prospective grandfather.

 

You can find Book One of OASIS on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing a Trilogy

 

Nowadays many novels are written in threes. Whether genre or literary fiction, the trilogy seems to be the trend. Apparently trilogies sell well. That’s provided the first book is popular. Think of the YA sci-fi, Hunger Games, now made into three films, or the more literary dystopias by Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and Maddadam. Or Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy about the effects of World War Two. In the latter case, Barker pursues her characters through several more novels, including Life Class and Toby’s Room. All five are stand-alone novels in their own right. If you haven’t yet read Ms Barker’s novels rush out and buy them. You’re in for a treat. The quality of her writing matches the depth of her understanding of the trauma suffered by victims of war and makes for compelling reading.

 

Oh and I must mention Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, even though she doesn’t need the publicity. The first two books, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, have already been reinterpreted as a play and a television series, proving that literary novels can also be popular. We never seem to weary of reading about the Tudors. Her angle is to engage us in the persona of Thomas Cromwell as we view his world from his perspective.

 

After this preamble, it is about time I come clean. I am writing a trilogy. The first book, OASIS, is published on Amazon and no I haven’t waited until sales hit the roof before embarking on the second book, EARTH UNLEASHED.

 

I decide to write a trilogy because I am still interested in the characters and the worlds they live in and I want to know what happens next. I hope readers will feel the same.

 

How is writing a trilogy different from writing a one-off novel?   Towards the end of the first book, I deliberately leave certain parts of the story open-ended. Don’t worry, there is a satisfying conclusion, with many of the ends tied up, but, as in real life, there is room for further developments.

 

My return to writing about the familiar characters I created for Book One, OASIS, is like a reunion with old friends. The genre is sci-fi and the characters in this post-apocalyptic world are either mutant humanoids, living in compounds on Earth, or complete human beings, living on satellites in the sky. The first book is written from multiple viewpoints, with the mutants as first person narrators. They tell their stories in the present tense because they know little about the past and have no expectations about the future. The use of the present tense keeps the characters’ impressions fresh and allows instant responses to events. I intend to keep the same format in this second book to give continuity and make readers feel “at home”. I find it useful to re-read sections of the first book to remind myself of the “voice” of each narrator. Because the format is prescribed and the characters known, I find it easy to start writing Book Two, EARTH UNLEASHED.

 

I’m not a detailed planner. I have lots of ideas buzzing around in my head but very few notes on paper or screen. I prefer to start with a blank page. I believe I have written in an earlier blog that I find a blank page challenging but stimulating. I begin the first chapter with a journal entry from my protagonist, Michael Court, once a mutant, now a complete on the satellite Oasis. As I write he comes to life and the words began to flow.

 

When Hilary Mantel started to write her second book of her aforementioned trilogy, she said the same thing happened to her – the words ‘just came out.’ I am in good company then with the two times Mann Booker winner!

 

I continue with no definite written plan until the ideas crowd out my head and I’m forced to stop, make notes and do bits of research to support the ideas. This happens after the first four chapters have been written, two with Michael as narrator, two with Heracles, my incompetent and consequently dangerous villain, chronicling events. I invent two new characters, one in chapter three and one in chapter four; but haven’t yet decided if they will have their turn as narrators or not. If it seems right and energizing to have a new perspective on what happens, yes; if not, no. They would have to earn their place in the book as chroniclers. Already they have earned their place in the novel by being instrumental in advancing the plot.

 

I make a few notes – just a couple of pages of storylines all character-led. I then write summaries of the four chapters I have already written. Sounds like writing backwards? I find it a useful exercise to check I’m on the right tack. After that, I sketch out who is to narrate the following three or four chapters and make a few notes on the section of the storyline each would tell. All this is speculative. I can change anything as I write. Flexibility is essential for me to carry on being creative and produce the best story I can.

 

What next? I go back to the beginning and re-write those first four chapters. Shock, horror! That’s a procedure that creative tutors, including myself, do not advise. But hey, whatever works for me I will do. At this point I don’t seem able to progress until I have fixed those initial chapters. With several strong chapters as a foundation, I can continue.

 

Once happy with the early re-writes and adjustments, I update the initial four chapter summaries. I can now use them as a springboard to develop further themes and storylines.

Because I know the characters and the approach I’m using, the story is evolving pretty easily. Long may this spell of creativity last. Well, I must stop talking about writing and write Chapter Five, Swords into Ploughshares, narrated by one-eyed Odysseus, museum curator and prospective grandfather.

 

You can find Book One of OASIS on Amazon.