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Category: Recommendations (page 1 of 4)

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Goodbye Christopher Robin

Rachel Kneebone at the Foundling

Graeme Simsion

In The Name Of The Family

In The Name Of The Family Book Cover In The Name Of The Family
Sarah Dunant
Virago
2017

The second of Sarah Dunant's novels about the Borgias, and her fifth set in Renaissance Italy.   She is a superb writer.  She has a rare talent as a novelist/historian. Her books are rooted as much in historical fact as she is able, and her dazzling imagination brings the daily lives of these extraordinary people alive - you know what they taste, what they smell of, what they wear, how they clean themselves, what illnesses they suffer and what diseases they carry.  She marries this imaginative intimacy with the epic narrative of Italian and Western European history of the period.  It is gorgeous, intoxicating, gripping and ultimately very moving.  I was surprised to find how emotional I was at the end of reading it.  Her characters - these real historical rulers - had lived with me in my head.  Her research has been vast and must have been enormously hard work, but she never writes to show off her knowledge: a rare and valuable accomplishment.

(If you haven't read her previous books, then best start with her previous Borgias novel, Blood and Beauty - better still with her trilogy of novels centring on ordinary women in Renaissance Italy. )

 

Hamlet Round 2

I saw this first at the Almeida  (see review here)  and was above the side of the stage so missed seeing all of the action.  So I decided to go again to its West End transfer as it is at the Harold Pinter which is a relatively small West End theatre.

I am astounded that once again I sat for 3 hours and 40 minutes utterly captivated.  I love Shakespeare but I never sit through a performance without my mind wandering at some points.  But here, no.  I listened to every word.  Time stopped and it was only the beginnings of leg cramp that brought me round at the first interval.  Juliet Stevenson has been replaced as Gertrude by Derbhle Crotty (Irish, like Scott), whom I though was even better.  More warmer and maternal, yet still a queen.  I was bowled over by Jessica Brown Findlay as Ophelia, and every time she was on stage interacting with Andrew Scott’s Hamlet my stomach clenched with suppressed emotion.

I rarely lose myself in anything.  I can always stand back from myself and objectively analyse my emotions (I’ll tell my therapist).  This was one of the rare instances when I could not separate my feelings from what I was watching.  I cannot say why this production of this play moves me so much; brings me to tears that I cannot explain.  But it does and I am glad of it.

Sweet Bird Of Youth

And so to Chichester and back in a day for a matinee of Tennessee Williams’ 1959 play.  Before I go any  further I have to confess to not being a particular fan of Williams’ plays, though I understand their appeal. I didn’t know this play at all, was vaguely aware it was written when he was filling himself with high levels of alcohol and drugs, and that it is regarded as somewhat secondary to Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie.

Well I have to agree that the play has weaknesses but Jonatahn Kent’s production absolutely plays to its strengths and I found myself held by it  from start to finish.

I don’t think Chichester’s thrust stage is the easiest performing area for the play, but it is a brave decision to do it  in the main house because it is not a crowd-puller;  it is a thoughtful choice in Daniel Evans’ first season as Artistic Director.   Anthony Ward’s beautiful design is in keeps an intimacy at eye level but dominating above is a strange cloud/shroud-like construction.  Sitting at the side of the stage where I was, you are aware of its length,  However from the front it is foreshortened and dominates ominously and almost claustrophobically.  Ward uses tall shutters at the back in such a way that their colour, movement and Mark Henderson’s light, on and through them, avoids this design as cliche.

The structure of the play is problematic.  It begins with what are basically two two-hander scenes for the lead actors in which very little happens.  The energy then switches as the setting broadens its social scope. The second half has a lot more characters, none of whom are drawn with much depth and  most of whom have only short scenes of dialogue.  There is also a broader political element here which for me doesn’t quite mesh with the overall plot.

So it seems to me that the two lead actors have to be the glue to hold the piece, and Marcia Gay Harden and Brian J. Smith absolutely succeed.  I have to admit being a little weary of the tragic faded actress character which too easily can become caricature.   What I really admired about Gay Harden and Smith was that they don’t overplay The Princess  and Chance.  Instead they have created two people who feel reachable.  I believed in them both.  Despite the Princess’s regular reference to them both being monsters, their tragedy was in that they were both quite human.  Gay Harden’s Princess has accepted her fate – got out while the going is good – but despite her character’s alcohol intake and ability to forget what she wants to, her performance never falls into melodrama.  Smith has a dull but not dead look in his eyes, and he shows the boy that Chance started out as, as still being there within him.  Part of his tragedy is his inability to see it’s not just The Princess but also some of his home townspeople still care for this prodigal son.  In the second half, a simmering violent tension builds but does not explode directly around the drunken Chance as I expected. It is Boss Finley’s (very well played by Richard Cordery) televised racist rally, based in reality, that is a shocking climax, shown on lowered small video screens around the auditorium, so that the audience has the chance to get watch the speech at one remove, and then powerfully witness first-hand the following onstage beating.

The last scene is weak but again Gay Harden and Smith hold it.  The tragedy is as quiet as she shuts the door on her final exit.  Chance’s final moments are arresting and very moving in a beautiful stage picture.

Reflecting on the play in hindsight, its inconsistencies  and weaknesses in plot, structure and characterisation become more obvious.   This fine production sidelines them and  mines the depths of this flawed, fascinating play.

 

 

 

Life Of Galileo

Joe Wright’s production of Brecht’s Life of Galileo could so easily have been a disastrous overload of director-led ideas.  Instead Wright (as always) has kept the text as a foundation for his interpretation and held his ever -inventive stream of audio and visual delights in tight check.  It really works.

I have not read or seen the play before and was aware that the script has a lot of scientific explanation and, especially towards the end, is slightly hectoring in conveying its arguments. Nevertheless the performances from its very talented, committed ensemble of actors brought it alive and held my attention throughout.  It’s easy to sit back and enjoy actors playing lots of different parts, but as part of  their craft it’s damn hard work. They did an amazing job. And in so doing I realised what a fascinating play this is.

Brecht’s following of the idea of alienation – keeping the audience’s engagement as distant as possible so that it is intellectual rather than emotional – can lay traps for a director.  It seems easy to throw in lots of theatrical estranging devices but the result can be irrelevant novelty.  It’s  tempting to swamp a weak script with stage business to keep the audience’s attention, but the fact that the production’s inventiveness supported the text upheld the strength and indeed importance of the text.  The overhead mini planetarium was not constantly used, so when the projections on it did flow they were effective, especially at the very end of the play.  The Chemical Brothers’  music was both loud and quiet, creating energy and a poignancy which I didn’t expect.  Wright uses puppets, lighting, masks and his wheel-shaped stage (some audience members lie on cushions in the middle of the performing area and look particularly alienated in their discomfort) and it all gels beautifully.

The play is not a simple biography or history lesson, and it is passionate in its ideas and arguments of scientific responsibility, reason’s relationship with faith, the use of science in power and the dangers of oppression.  The relationship of science, superstition and religion was very different in Galileo’s time than today.  The Church had a complex relationship with science which arguably we have lost now.  But as I watched a scene in which the Pope, wearing only white underpants is gradually dressed into full officiating attire, I remembered Pope Francis’ “gift” of his encyclical on the protection of the environment to Trump the day before – so nothing relevant there…

Who’s Afraid?

Saturday night at Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.  For anyone who does not know the play or the film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, it’s basically watching a married couple through nearly three early hours of the morning, fuelled by a lot of alcohol, playing out their marriage as a set of ball-breaking games of verbal boxing, all witnessed by a newly married couple Nick and Honey. The “games” include Humiliate The Hosts, Hump The Hostess and Get The Guests.  The power play continually shifts and if the blood was visible their living room (the play’s setting) would be drenched.

The play can be taken literally or metaphorically: the couple are called George and Martha and they live in New Carthage.  George is a Professor of History and Martha’s “Daddy” (one of two major unseen characters) is the university’s president.  Nick is a biologist and Honey throws up a lot.

The battles rage four-ways.  It’s a deliberately exhausting play to watch and it’s brilliance lies in the fact that you do keep watching.  The cast in James McDonald’s production excel. Imelda Staunton’s acting range never ceases to astonish me.  She howls toward the end and I felt it physically in my stomach. Conleth Hill’s physicality, as Susannah Clapp points out in her Observer newspaper review,  blurs the line between shambling with exhaustion and prowling like a predator.  Luke Treadaway and (a scarily funny) Imogen Poots match them perfectly as foils and equals in the combat.  There is such sustained intensity that I almost fear for the actors’ well-being if they don’t go on to decompress with care at the end of the performance.

It holds in common with the other classic 20th century American plays (Miller, O’Neill and Williams) two things: liquor and illusion.  And in the light of our “post-truth” (now in the dictionary) era, it made me realise that “post-truth” is nothing new.  A raging war between truth and illusion has always been at the heart of the American Dream.  Social media has simply produced a different shining light on them.  And a President survives and succeeds by letting illusion win out.  His American Dream has been achieved.

Is there a breaking point in the play for George or Martha, or both?  Interestingly I am still not sure.  The end of the play implies that illusion is finally shattered.  But if it has been, are they staring at the sun or into an abyss?  It was if I had barely breathed throughout the play, and as the lights finally lowered I was still not ready to take in air.

 

Victoria Wood

I’m watching Our Friend Victoria on TV.  I still can’t quite believe she’s dead. For me, truly one of the funniest people (alongside Laurel and Hardy,  Les Dawson and Jacques).

 

 

Forms In Space….

which has made me think of Pigs In Space but never mind.

 

Just back from seeing this installation in Tate Britain by Cerith Wyn Evans. 2km of neon lighting.  Getting  the thing up must have been a bit of a headache.  Even while I was there some of the neon failed.  It looks a right mess but as you walk under it, it simplifies out and repeated patterns catch the eye.  Rather calming after a while.

There’s an Evening Standard interview with him if you want to know more.

Hamlet

No school this week and as I’ve never seen Hamlet before (the shame) I thought I’d try for a day ticket for the sold out run at the Almeida with Andrew Scott (Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock).  I rang the Box Office on Monday morning to see if there was a queue and yes people had been queueing some days since 4.30am. But in for a penny in for a pound,

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The Loney

The Loney Book Cover The Loney
Andrew Michael Hurley
John Murray
April 2016

This book is so difficult to write about that I am handing it over to other people.  Both Julie Myerson and Sarah Perry say in their Guardian reviews everything I want to.

Sarah Perry review

Julie Myerson review