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!

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!

Hamlet ~ MOOC

rolf-richardson-hamlet-statue-gower-memorial-stratford-upon-avon-warwickshire-england-united-kingdom-europeJust a quick post this morning to draw your attention to a new MOOC that is starting on the 13th of January.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Text, Performance and Culture is the first literature course to be offered by the UK MOOC platform, FutureLearn. It is being run by the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute which is part of the same University School to which I belong. Now, I can’t speak to the quality of the production values that will be involved, although if you take a look at the introductory video which you can find here then that seems to be encouraging.  However, what I can speak to is the quality of the scholarship that will have gone into the materials.  I work with these people week in and week out and I can assure you that they are amongst the leading Shakespeare scholars in the world; you won’t get better teaching anywhere. What is more, it appears from the clips that have been made available that actors from the RSC may also be involved.  The actress reading To be or not to be is Pippa Nixon, who is currently playing Ophelia and Jonathan Slinger, the current Hamlet, is also featured.

I haven’t yet sampled a FutureLearn MOOC so I don’t know how far they’ve got with developing areas such as assessment and discussion.  I do know that they themselves say they have some way to go and acknowledge that they are still learning.  You shouldn’t let that put you off, though.  This is a real opportunity to work with absolute experts.  What is more, those of us who have been struggling with the set texts for the Coursera Historical Fiction MOOC can take heart from the fact that not only is there just one text set for this module but also that it was definitely not chosen simply because the author was available to come in for a discussion.  I suppose it’s just about conceivable that someone nipped down the road, sat by the grave and asked Shakespeare whether or not Hamlet is ever really mad, but on balance I doubt it.

I’ve already signed up for this and if anyone else is thinking of doing so and would like to get together a small independent study group then I would be happy to host it.  Some of us have already done that with earlier MOOCs and it’s been a really good experience.  If you are interested then leave a note in the comments and I’ll get back to you.

A Passing Thought…….

globe-burningDSC04032smallI am going over to Stratford later to see the RSC in Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World My Masters and I’ve just realised that it is exactly four hundred years ago today since their predecessors’, the King’s Men, theatre, The Globe, burnt to the ground.  I’m in The Swan, which isn’t that big, so with luck I should be somewhere near a fire exit, but I will definitely be checking where the closest way out is as soon as I take my seat.

A Life of Galileo

20130107141456GalileoNewProdHubI said last time I posted that I would write about the RSC’s current production of Bertolt Brecht’s A Life of Galileo, performed in Mark Ravenhill’s new translation.  Unfortuately, life got away from me this week, and as a result it is now seven days since I saw it.  Nevertheless there are aspects of the production still clear enough in my mind for me to want to think about it afresh, so better late than never.

The first thing I should say is that this is a very fine production and if you have the chance to see it you should take it.  Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of Galileo himself is superb. Mind you, what else would you expect?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him put a foot wrong on the stage.  However, it is an ensemble piece and there isn’t a weak link in the company.  No, it isn’t the production that made me want to write about this play, but the way in which I found myself reacting to what I was watching and how that made me think about the nature of what Brecht was trying to achieve.

The first thing that struck me was how difficult it is these days to stage Brecht in a way that provokes a Brechtian response.  As audiences, perhaps particularly as Stratford audiences, who see so much theatre done in non-traditional ways, we are very hard to alienate.  Believe me, over the years I’ve been going to Stratford (more than half a century, now) I’ve seen directors try pretty much everything to put a new face on Shakespeare, so the techniques that worked for Brecht in the 1930s are really the norm now.  I have a caveat to this, but it belongs in another post so I won’t go there for the moment.  My immediate point is that I’m not certain it’s possible for us to experience any Brecht play as the playwright intended and I feel that as a loss.  

More particularly, however, I don’t feel that we can experience this play as Brecht intended for a different reason and that is the way our attitude to the Church has changed in the intervening years since it was written.  Seeing this at the end of a week in which a Pope prepared to retire and a Cardinal resigned after allegations of sexual impropriety were brought against him, how is the fact that the Church is accused of suppressing knowledge to ensure that its power base isn’t threatened supposed to shock me?  That isn’t to say that I didn’t want to get up on stage and thump the clerics responsible, I did.  (I am not someone you should ever go to the theatre with – I bring getting involved to a whole new level!) But that’s the way I feel about anyone who abuses power and thinks they have a right to suppress whatever threatens their status.  It had nothing to do with an institution I thought could not be challenged  being exposed as hypocrites and sadists.  I thought this was a really good play, but I don’t think I was seeing the play that Brecht wanted his audiences to see.

However, there is, of course, a fact that we have to take into account here.  Brecht actually re-wrote this play.  The first script was completed in early 1939 and was the playwright’s reaction to the rise of the Nazis, having himself fled Germany six years earlier.  In this version Galileo’s recantation is a means of covering his continuing research.  He is the glimmer of hope that while persecution holds sway over much of the world in some small corner discoveries are still being made that will eventually bring about great good.  Only the discoveries that Brecht saw being made by the scientist who had fled the Third Reich did not, to his mind, bring about great good.  Already uneasy about some of the activities he had seen in America, after the dropping of the Atomic Bombs in August 1945 Brecht re-wrote the ending of the play to reflect those concerns and it is this version that has made its way to the Stratford stage.  So, perhaps Ironically, rather than seeing the Church as the real complicated villains I found myself asking if the villain of the piece wasn’t actually Galileo himself.  It wasn’t that he recanted.  I’m absolutely sure that faced with the prospect of torture I would have done the same.  I am no hero.  No, it was more to do with his attitude that you pursue science step by step to its logical end, regardless of what the consequences might be, and that anyone who challenges you is wrong.  Galileo could be seen as building a new power base every bit as tyrannical as the one he had rebelled against.

The ethical waters that I’m getting myself into here are deep and very very murky and it is a bright sunny morning, so I’m not going there.  But, I shall go on thinking about this over the next days and weeks.  It will worry away at the corners of my mind.  And ultimately that is what good theatre should always be about.  It should make the audience think and question the world in which they live.  This was very good theatre indeed.

Reading Like Galileo

thelampOver on Novel Readings Rohan has just published a very interesting piece about Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. During the course of her discussion she suggests that the way in which we approach a text may well influence our appreciation of it, pointing out that if you consider certain passages as if they were poetry rather than prose you may end up assessing their quality rather differently.  Her fascinating post took my mind back to a seminar I attended last Saturday at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre about the links between the creative and the scientific minds.

As you probably know Shakespeare and Galileo were born in the same year.  If my maths is right then Galileo was the elder by about two months.  Clearly, both had minds capable of highly original thought, minds that could boldly go where no one had been before.  However, one of the questions that was being posed was whether or not those minds worked in similar ways and as a means of testing this an actor and an astronomer had been asked to undergo tests in an MRI scanner so that images showing the areas of their brains activated at any particular moment could be recorded.

While in the scanner they were each asked to read aloud a previously unseen passage from the new translation of Brecht’s Galileo prepared by Mark Ravenhill for this season’s RSC production of the play. Images of their brain activity were taken as they were doing this.  The results were remarkable in their differences.  While both subjects showed animation in the areas of the brain related to understanding, the actor’s brain in addition was calling on a number of areas not stimulated at all in the case of the astronomer.  The scientist strove to make sense of the words in front of him, the actor both to make sense and to communicate that sense to anyone listening to him.  There was also activity in those area associated with movement as if the player was already beginning to think in terms of where on the stage he might present the speech and how he might use gesture and physical repositioning to forge a bond of shared meaning with the audience.

This won’t surprise anyone who has ever read aloud to an audience, nor for that matter anyone who has ever been part of such an audience, especially if the reading has been uninspired.  It is one thing to understand a text for yourself, but another entirely to communicate not only the meaning but also the emotion behind the words to other people.  Any teacher reading to a class at the end of the day is very quickly made aware of their failings should they manage the first but fall short in respect of the second.  (And believe me, I speak from long years of experience.)

Neither should we be surprised at the links with those areas of the brain associated with physical activity.  I was always aware as a drama student that learning my lines was intimately associated with plotting my moves.  Once I knew where on the stage I stood the lines seemed to come automatically.  It makes sense, then, that someone who makes his living as an actor should begin immediately to consider not just what a speech means but how best it might be presented both in terms of delivering the language and in explicating its meaning through movement and gesture.

This, of course, is all well and good if you are the actor.  The implication is clearly that your brain is working at a far higher level of complexity than that of the astronomer.  And, the actor involved, who was at the seminar, while not gloating about the results was not complaining either.  However, the astronomer was not present.  He is coming to the follow-up session next Saturday.  It will be very interesting to hear his views on the  results. I wonder, for example, if he will consider it a fair test, the text chosen having come from a dramatic source?

Every now and then the RSC pop in fascinating discussions like this and I know how lucky I am to live close enough to be able to attend regularly.  I have a ticket for next week’s seminar and then I’m going to see the play, which has taken excellent reviews, in the afternoon.  I will report back.

Blind Spots

imagesAccording to my eye specialist we all have a blind spot.  Certainly, this is true where I’m concerned.  Every time I have to have a field test the same small patch in my left eye comes up completely black.  I can’t see a thing there at all.  It’s got to the point now that when someone new carries out the test I tell them where the blind spot is going to be before we start.  It’s a good way of checking the accuracy of the equipment.

What’s really interesting about this is that on an every day basis I am completely unaware that I can’t see through that part of my eye.  I suppose the rest of vision compensates for it and the brain fills in the bit that’s missing.  The same is true, I think, where our literary blind spots are concerned.  Until someone or something points them out to us, we are blissfully ignorant of their existence.

And all this is a way of leading up to a humiliating abasement of myself in the face of my own literary blind spot. Why didn’t someone point out to me that Pushkin’s Boris Godunov was a play and not the novel that I thought it was?  You were all simply being too polite to rub my nose in my own ignorance, weren’t you?   Yes, I thought so.  Well, you can all stop pretending you didn’t realise how stupid I was being because I discovered that for myself this morning when I decided that I ought to read the original and trolled over to Amazon to see if I could get a copy.  No problem at all. Lots and lots of translations of Pushkin’s play are available.  Which one would I like?  I bow my head in shame.

Of course, this probably goes someway to explain why I thought Adrian Mitchell had done a reasonable job of transposing one narrative form into another and really rather enjoyed the current RSC production of his version of the history.  He wasn’t creating a different form at all.  Now I’m simply left wondering if the original Pushkin had the same faults that I did think were apparent in what I saw yesterday.  Overall, I suspect not.

The major element of the current production that left me thinking that this was a transposition from prose to drama was the amount of back story that it was necessary to fill in.  Interestingly, given the location, Mitchell uses the same technique Shakespeare so often employed.  A couple of characters come on at the beginning and tell each other all the history that they already know just so that the audience can know it as well.  Think the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra.  I would imagine that Pushkin wouldn’t have felt the need to do this because his audience would already be aware of Godunov’s backstory.  It would have been a bit like Shakespeare starting his play Henry VIII with the information that the King had had six wives.  Given that many of them would have lived through the consequences, the Globe audience probably didn’t need that rubbing in, thank you.

Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed the production, although I think I will get hold of a copy of the original just to see whether Pushkin does fill in the background of how Godunov came to the throne.  The only other disappointment was the number of empty seats.  It used to be rare that you could get a ticket for the RSC if you didn’t book very early on, but this winter that hasn’t been the case.  I suspect the current financial situation is beginning to bite.

But, back to blind spots.  The problem is, of course, that with this sort of blind spot you don’t know you’ve got it until you haven’t got it any longer.  Convoluted, I know, but true.  There is, however, another type of literary blind spot altogether: the literary blind spot that prevents you from understanding why everyone in the universe except you thinks that a particular book is a work of genius.  While the rest of the world raves about a particular novel, play or collection of poems, you are left at best wondering what all the fuss is about and at worst convinced that the collective critical faculties of the reading community have taken a day off work.  Most of you know what falls into my blind spot.  Try as I might, I simply cannot find the merit of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  I know this marks me out as some sort of literary barbarian, but that’s how it is, I’m afraid.  I also have to admit to feeling the same way about pretty much everything Thomas Hardy ever wrote.  If you want to remove me from your list of blogs you follow right this minute, I will understand.

But, what about you?  What about your blind spots?  I’m willing to wager that if you’re honest you’ve all got at least one, but are you willing to admit to them?

Come on, I’ve opened myself up to humiliating abasement this afternoon.  Are you brave enough to join me?