After the Curtain Call

Theatre-Curtains460_276I’m just emerging from my long weekend of theatrical extravaganza and am still a little dizzy with it all.  I remember a colleague once saying that he could tell when I hadn’t been to the theatre for some time because it was so apparent that my batteries needed recharging.  Well, at the moment I think said batteries may have been charged to the point where sparks are coming out.  Certainly, I am buzzing with all the thoughts that the productions I’ve seen have given rise to.

Overall, the performance to which I keep returning is the one I saw last Thursday.  For me the best theatre is that which speaks to the audience about the society in which they are living now and with its emphasis on the question of assisted suicide Ghosts did precisely that.  However, it was also the most powerfully staged and performed and the chill with which it left me is still palpably running up and down my spine.

Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  Written at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s governmental power, it is about the consequences of greed at every level of society and while it is very funny it is also very concerning.  Jack McCracken has just taken over the family business when he is faced with the dilemma of what to do when his daughter is charged with a minor shoplifting offence.  Should he offer work to the private detective who has the power to drop the case or should he let her go to court?  As in so many of Ayckbourn’s plays, a relatively small decision has consequences that snowball until Jack finds himself enmeshed in a web of corruption that threatens the future of both family and business.

I can understand how, when this was first staged in 1987, it would have been cutting edge satire but we have seen so much more of what corruption can do since then and somehow for me this didn’t transfer to 2014 as well as I had expected.  I couldn’t fault the production or the acting but at best it left me squirming with embarrassment and at worst feeling thoroughly grubby.  Not Ayckbourn at his incisive best for me.

The Tempest was typical Globe Theatre and coming from me that isn’t always a complement.    I can’t come to terms with their need to play everything for laughs.  If you don’t know what I mean and you want to see them at their worst then try and get hold of a copy of their Richard II.  The funny bit in that ought to be the scene with the gardeners and even that should have you laughing through your tears.  What shouldn’t be the comic relief is Richard’s performance. Why you should want to make Richard a clown is beyond me.  I had a problem with their Twelfth Night as well, which admitedly is a comedy, but not surely at the expense of Olivia?  Anyway,  what I’m getting round to saying is that I don’t like being asked to laugh at Prospero.  If he isn’t scary then the play doesn’t work for me and much as I love Roger Allam he came over as far too avuncular.  In fact, he played him pretty much as if he was Fred Thursday.  And, what is more, although I’ve only just thought of it, Ferdinand became his Endeavour.  When the final curtain call is for Prospero, Miranda, Ariel and Ferdinand, and Caliban is banished to take his ovation with the smaller roles then you know the balance of the play is out, especially, as James Garnon acts the socks of everyone else on the stage.

Reading this back it sounds as though I had a pretty miserable weekend, but in fact, for me, almost any theatre is better than no theatre at all because you have to engage on a minute by minute basis and even if you’re disagreeing with the interpretation at least you are involved.  This coming weekend I’m going back to Stratford to see the other two plays in the Midsummer Madness series, so I’ll write about the ones I’ve already seen along with those.  I’m afraid I have to say, however, ‘don’t hold your breath’.

It was a good weekend, really!

Theatre Weekend

Book-Wise-16x20-600pxSorry, I seem to have been missing in action this past week. I managed to get myself into a situation where I had half a dozen deadlines to meet all at pretty much the same time and I had to turn my back on everything else just to make sure that I didn’t let anyone down.  And now, when it would be nice to settle down to some uninterrupted reading, I find myself in the middle of an unplanned theatre weekend, when I’m seeing five plays in as many days.

Tomorrow, I’m going over to Stratford to see two plays, one by Alice Birch and the other by Timberlake Wertenbaker, which are part of a programme of new work intended to be a present day response to The Roaring Girls season in the Swan Theatre. This season comprises three plays contemporary with Shakespeare’s work, which each features a strong woman in the main role, The Roaring Girl, Arden of Faversham and The White Devil.  Four playwrights have been asked to respond to the phrase, first coined by American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, well behaved women seldom make history.  I’m also going to be attending a series of conversations about what it means to be a Roaring Girl today and how difficult it is for women to stand up and be heard not just in the theatre, but in all walks of life.  This is the first of four such events between now and the beginning of September and I have to say I’m very much looking forward to each one of them.

Then, on Sunday, I’m going to a NTLive screening of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business.  I’m having a bit of a private Ayckbourne season just at present, having been to see Woman in Mind only last Saturday.  None of Ayckbourn’s plays are as frivolous as they might at first seem when you begin to dig beneath the surface, but Woman in Mind is the playwright at his bleakest and so I’m hoping for something on Sunday that will at least make me laugh at the same time as it makes me think.

Monday sees another live screening, this time of the Globe Theatre’s production of The Tempest with Roger Allam as Prospero.  Now, there’s a treat to look forward to.  Allam has come to more general notice in the past couple of years playing DI Thursday in the Morse spin-off Endeavour, however, I’ve been watching him on stage at Stratford since the early eighties and he was Javert in Les Mis when it first opened at the Barbican in 1985.  (I can’t believe it’s been that long since I saw that play!)  He’s an actor who has just continued to grow in stature with every performance he’s given and I’ve heard great things about his Prospero – mouthwatering!

But the weekend began early, last night, when I got to see yet a third screening (and how lucky we are to get the chance to see shows this way now) in this instance of the award winning West End production of Ibsen’s Ghosts.

I have seen Ghosts before on stage.  Indeed, I was lucky enough to see it with Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Mrs Alving.  However, either that was a very different translation or I simply wasn’t old enough at the time to take in the magnitude of  the issues that Ibsen is exploring.  Ghosts was a wonderful play to see just before the Roaring Girls day tomorrow because if ever there was a woman who suddenly found it in her to roar against the constraints that society has bound her by it is Helene Alving.  I was much more stuck this time round by the feminist issues in the play and the way in which both women are fighting for their right to shape their own lives in a society that still sees them as property and where the male perspective rules with a rod of iron.  I have a suspicion that when I saw it before it was at the time when AIDs was first making an appearance, and if that is the case you can understand why a production, as I remember that doing, would lay its emphasis on the issue of sexually transmitted diseases and focus on Oswald’s inherited syphilis.  Last night, I was much more aware of two other points.  The first was the way in which a man’s good name and reputation had to be put before even common sense let alone a woman’s point of view.  Pastor Manders was so self-serving!  It was a good job we were in the cinema; had we been in the theatre I would have found it very hard not to climb on stage and strangle him. Secondly, and topically, on the day when the question of assisted suicide again went through the courts here in the UK, was the issue of euthanasia.  In the script it is left open as to whether or not Mrs Irving actually decides to use the morphine that Oswald has begged her to administer should he have a final, debilitating, syphilitic attack.  In practice, on the stage every actress is going to have to make her mind up how the play will end.  In this production the brilliant Lesley Manville eventually finds the courage to give her son the drugs that will end his suffering.  It was a stark reminder of the terrible dilemma that the families of the terminally ill can face.

So, a wonderful start to what I hope will be a magnificent weekend of theatre and associated events.  And, the reason I won’t be around much until it’s over.  See you on the other side.

Weekly Fragments ~ December 1st

woman-reading-by-the-harbour-james-tissotI feel a celebration is in order simply because I’ve actually managed to reach this weekend in one piece.  I can vaguely remember looking forward to this Saturday and Sunday from the distance of a fortnight ago and not being entirely certain that I was going to make it.  But, here I am and all is well, if you don’t count the fact that I am now so far behind with my course on historical fiction that the course itself will be historical by the time I catch up and that I have two days in which to read On Chesil Beach for a reading group meeting early next week. This will be a third reading for me and having just looked over the first dozen or so pages I am very interested in how much my reaction to the text is altered by having discussed it with other groups in the past.  This is very much a book where every word is laden with meaning once you know where the author is going.  More than most it is a novel(lla) where re-capturing that first response is completely impossible.  I am going to have to temper my remarks when it comes to the meeting because the other members of the group haven’t read it before and consequently will have had a very different experience.

Part of what has made these last few days so hectic has been a rash of visiting speakers.  Some were excellent including the lecturer who started out by declaring that ‘common sense is wrong’!  That’s my sort of academic. However, the one whose topic appealed to me most turned out not only to be a poor speaker but to have set off to tell the world about his research before he’d actually done any, or at least not enough to have anything to say about it.  As always that was so embarrassing, especially when it came to question time, because it was difficult to ask anything that didn’t make his inadequacies even more apparent than they already were.  The thing with visiting speakers is that you don’t just have to put aside the time to listen to them, but also the time to entertain them and to see that they get back on their train safely – and it’s all good reading time.  You can see I’m not feeling very hospitable at the moment. I do try not to let it show.

But, I have got some reading done.  I finished Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk and loved every word of it.  We had a first rate group discussion and then the following day, quite by chance, I got into conversation with someone who had lived in Cairo for over forty years and said that the Cairenes who remember the city in the days with which the latter part of his trilogy deals say how accurate he was in his depiction of both the people and the atmosphere.  I really want to read the other two parts of his tale, but they are so substantial and there is so much else I want to read in the very near future that I’m afraid it’s going to be some time before I get round to them.

Another substantial read is the latest in Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series, Just One Evil Act.  Coming in at well over six hundred pages I’m beginning to think that this is too long and that it would really have benefitted from a good edit.  I normally gobble my way through George’s work, but I can feel my self getting edgy and wanting to push the narrative on.  I will finish it, if only to find out if the goodie really is going to turn out to be a baddie, albeit a misguided one, but I suspect I shall start skim reading before too long.

And last weekend was taken up with the theatre in one form or another. On Saturday I went over to Stratford to see the RSC’s Antony and Cleoptra, which has been slightly tinkered around with and re-set in the time of Napoleon with Rome transposed to France and Egypt to Haiti.  It sounds as though it shouldn’t work and indeed the critics were scathing, so I wasn’t expecting much.  However, I thought it was excellent.  The transposition really emphasises the contrast between the two cultures and the verse was beautifully spoken.  I came out having had a very much better afternoon than I’d anticipated – always a bonus.  I think it’s still running so if you’d been thinking about going but have been put off by the reviews you might want to think again.

Then on Sunday I went to see the NTLive streaming of Nick Dear’s version of Frankenstein and found that I was having precisely the opposite experience.  While I could see that Dominic Cumberbatch’s performance was a tour de force, the continued iteration of the evil of mankind was just too much.  There are some good people around and occasionally it would be nice to see that fact celebrated.

Looking forward, as well as the McEwan I have to read Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh for a different group and I’ve just picked up the new Sara Paretsky, Critical Mass.  Paretsky is my favourite of the American crime writers.  I love how she has not been frightened to let V I Warshawski age along with the series and thereby have to face the annoying frailties and limitations that come with getting older.  She is my role model and I can’t wait to get through all my prescribed reading in order to spend some quality time with her.

And then, of course, there is the little matter of the first book from Heywood Hill, which ought to be dropping through my letter box towards the end of the coming week.  The question is, will I have the courage to open the package and see what it is!