A Star is Born

dog-blog-mossup-150x160Over the weekend I’ve been to see the RSC’s production of Henry IV Pt I but I’m going to postpone a post until I can couple it with a review of Pt II as I really want to see how the main characters develop before passing judgement on their presentation.  I did think, however, that in an effort to brighten up what might otherwise be a very dull Monday morning, I should draw your attention (especially yours, Briar) to the undoubted star of this season’s RSC lineup, Mossup the Dog.

Mossup is, of course, playing the part of Crab in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The leading canine role in Shakespeare, it is one that the doggie stars of stage and screen only infrequently get a chance to perform on account of ignorant producers and directors not realising that it has the potential to draw in the audiences in exactly the same way as would a well-known actor agreeing to tread the boards in the role of Hamlet.

To be fair to the RSC, they have recognised the compliment that Mossup has paid them by agreeing to join the company, as can be seen by the fact that they have given him his own blog.  You can read about his triumph during the audition process in Exit Pursued by a Pug and his followup piece on the vexed question of To Pee or not to Pee – always a problem, because while every well seasoned canine performer knows that you absolutely shouldn’t, the audience do seem to love it when you do.

For real Mossup fans you can follow him on his dog cam  as he prepares for his role in his personalised dressing room. (You will need to follow the dog cam link on the web page for this.) And of course, WhatsOnStage have interviewed him about his experience of treading the RSC boards.

I wanted to take a photo of his dressing room (which of course is distinguished by a very large star and a bone), but someone had rudely parked a car in the way. Perhaps next time I’m there.  I shall as well, when I see the production next month, be attempting to get Mossup to paw mark my programme, but I would imagine that there will be hoards of his fans seeking exactly the same thing so I may just have to worship from afar.  (Large sigh!)

Well, it’s Monday and we all need something to smile about 🙂

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.

Hilary Mantel and the Respectable Face of Soap Opera

PT-AM705_BK_Cov_DV_20091009120647I spent a large part of last weekend in the company of Hilary Mantel as the RSC staged two events considering the phenomenon of the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell in the public perception as a result of her novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and their subsequent stage adaptations.

On Saturday morning Mantel and the playwright, Mike Poulton, spoke about the challenges inherent in taking two such wordy novels and transferring them to the not quite two hour traffic of our stage, but nevertheless into a tight five hour schedule.  Unusually, as these events are normally chaired by someone from the RSC Events Department, this was headed up by the Associate Director, Greg Doran, whose first prompt was to ask just why we had all become so fascinated by the Tudors in recent years.  Mantel was quite definite about this.  The Tudors, she said, are the respectable face of soap opera and just as we are fascinated by the doings of current royalty and those to whom we afford celebrity status so to we have a fascination with those in similar positions in the past.  We are penny plain, they are twopenny coloured.

I think what interested me most about the discussion that then ensued was the extent to which Mantel had been involved in the staging of her books.  It certainly wasn’t simply a case of handing over her work and letting Poulton do his.  She appeared to have been there at every juncture, helping the cast understand the individuals they had been asked to play, working out which scenes were to be included, which to be omitted and how the decisions thus made could be moulded into an acceptable whole.

I can imagine that in many instances having such a hands-on author must be a playwright’s worst nightmare, but this partnership seems to have worked very well. Perhaps this was in part because Mantel doesn’t seem to be the least bit precious about her books.  “They are not holy writ,” she said.  “In every instance there were several ways in which the scenes I created could have gone onto the page.  Putting them on the stage is simply exploring another set of possibilities.”

And, those possibilities were many and varied.  Mike Poulton spoke about having to find the play in the novel and pointed out that there were many scripts, each with a slightly different focus, that could have come out of the books and his job was to find one that worked on the stage but was also true to the original.  And to history – apparently, version five left out the Reformation!  Even now, when the productions have just two more days to run in Stratford, the work of adapting goes on.  A theatre having unexpectedly become available, the company is moving down to London. (Get your tickets now! The box office took over a million pounds on the first day it opened.) However, the Swan is a thrust stage, whereas the audience at the Aldwych will be separated from the action by a proscenium arch.  This means that much of the play has had to be re-staged and parts of the script tinkered with.  No play ever stays the same throughout its run, but in this instance it seems to be even more of a growing entity than usual.

Inevitably, the question of the third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, came up.  When she was asked about this again in the Sunday morning session, where she led a discussion on the real Thomas Cromwell, Mantel was clear that we couldn’t expect it anytime in the very near future.  2015 was definitely ruled out.  But, that too is intended for the stage as well as the page.  In fact, given that she and Poulton were apparently working on the script for Bring Up The Bodies before the book was even published, it is likely that he will see it before anyone else.

The Sunday session, Cromwell’s Court was much more academic in nature and I’m not going to attempt to document all the discussions that took place.  Mantel gave the keynote speech and addressed the reasons why the reading public knew so little about Cromwell.  He’s not there in romantic fiction because in general such novels are not interested in politics and it was politics that interested Cromwell above everything else.  In terms of documentation he exists only in relation to the policies that he pushed through.  His private life is almost completely absent from the official record and it is the private lives of individuals that have tended to attract writers.  He has, in recent years, found his way into crime fiction, where politics can often be at the root of any motivation.  But even there he hasn’t been central.  “History deals the cards but the trivial makes the cut.”  For Mantel, however, it is the politics that is of real interest.  It is why she brought this man out of his relative fictional obscurity and subjected him to the light of public scrutiny, examining his policies and the manner in which he negotiated his way through the treacherous rapids of the Tudor Court.

I learnt a tremendous amount over the weekend about both Cromwell and Mantel’s relationship to him.  I was left wondering, however, about the nature of the third novel, The Mirror and the Light.  I’d assumed that it would take us through the years between the death of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s own execution in 1540 but something Mantel said made me question whether it will be as simple as that or whether we might find ourselves covering old ground but seeing it from a different point of view.  In one sense I rather hope that is the case.  I don’t think I have the stomach to watch a man I have come to admire being brought down by those who despised him simply because of his lowly beginnings.  One of the things that most angered me, although it didn’t surprise me, was the statement made by one of the other speakers on Sunday that Cromwell’s rise would have been seen by many as against God’s natural order and his death therefore as a just act restoring that order. Mantel, thank goodness, has turned any such ideas completely on their head and brought into public prominence a politician I certainly wouldn’t mind having in government today.

 

Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies ~ The Play

PT-AM705_BK_Cov_DV_20091009120647Over the past two weekends I’ve had the good fortune to see the RSC’s adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Good fortune because tickets have been as rare as hen’s teeth and on the day that booking opened it was more difficult to get a seat for either of these productions than it was for David Tennant’s Richard II: something, I suspect, that took the Company by surprise given that they had been scheduled for The Swan, the smaller of their two theatres.

In general, I don’t approve of transferring a novel onto the stage.  There are several reasons for this.  Primarily, I object because there are a great many excellent playwrights out there who are desperately trying to get their own original work staged and every money-making adaptation that comes along takes yet another theatre out of commission as far as their new scripts are concerned.  Theatres, especially national, subsidised theatres, should be trying to encourage new writers, not make things more difficult for them.

But, I also object because, quite simply, a book is a book and a play is a play and they are two very different literary forms. I would be preaching to the converted, I’m sure, if I were to say that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the book is better.  This is a commonplace observation where transferring a novel onto the screen is concerned. However, for me there are even more problems inherent in trying to transfer a book from the page to the stage.

In moving to either medium you are inevitably going to have go through a process of thinning out the work’s texture but the filleting process is more extreme on stage where you don’t have the screen’s options of expressing setting and tone through sweeping shots of background locations or of allowing the audience an intimate insight into a character’s emotions or reaction to an event via the camera close-up. And this is before we come to the plot.  My first encounter with Pride and Prejudice was on stage and I was horrified when I later came to read the novel to discover that no one had told Jane Austen that there were only three Bennett daughters.  Where had these interlopers, Mary and Kitty, come from?  But of course, on the page it costs you no more to have five daughters than it does to have three.  In the theatre, financial considerations are rather different.

So, how do these productions match up to the novels?  Well, they have one very great plus point and that is the casting of Ben Miles as Cromwell.  He has captured the tone of narrative voice that is such an integral part of Mantel’s novels to perfection as well as adroitly adopting time after time the position of an observer, watching and mentally noting what is happening and storing up that information for future reference.  His diligence helps to signal to the audience that they too should be marking out a particular action or turn of phrase, ready to spot the moment later when the consequences of that act or word come home to roost.  And that is needed because inevitably much of the texture of the books has had to be filleted out to fit what becomes a mere five and a half hours of stage time and the audience has to be on their toes to keep up with what is going on.  The friend with whom I saw the plays was adamant that if you didn’t know the books then you would have a hard time following what was happening, although I suspect that is something we’ll never be able to put to the test because listening in on conversations pretty much everyone there was well acquainted with the novels.  Nevertheless, however well you know the text, you can’t afford to let your attention slip for a moment.

One element that I did think worked better on the stage than on the page was the conflict between Cromwell and Thomas More.  I have to admit that when I read Wolf Hall for the first time I didn’t realise that it was building up to the death of More as its climax.  In the theatre this is much more obvious because you can see the animosity between the two characters growing before your eyes.  But, and you knew it was coming, didn’t you, that death takes place off stage and so climax becomes anticlimax and I was left asking brilliant though the novel is, could a stage version ever really be theatre.  For me theatre needs an onstage moment when everything is brought to a point of high tension and here that doesn’t happen.  It simply fritters to a close.

Well, maybe that’s not so bad at the end of Wolf Hall, after all we do know that we have Bring Up The Bodies to come and surely that has to have that moment of climax, that moment at which you simply cannot look.  We are, as it were, there at the very instant when Anne Boleyn loses her head.  Well, yes, or rather, no, or possibly, maybe. I won’t say any more incase anyone is going to see it, but don’t hold your breath.

So, an adaptation that has real integrity as far as the content, characterisation and tone are concerned, but for me also an adaptation that highlights the difference between narrative for the page and narrative for the stage.  However, lest you should think that I had two really miserable afternoons at the theatre, I should say that that wasn’t the case, partly because of some excellent supporting acting. Nathaniel Parker can turn Henry’s mood on a half line.  There were times when the sudden explosion of danger in the air simply took your breath away. And Paul Jesson gives Cardinal Wolsey a quality of almost benign otherworldliness that makes it clear why Cromwell is so devoted to him.  The fact that his character wanders on and off stage during Bring Up The Bodies also helps to keep Cromwell’s motivation at the forefront of the audience’s mind.

The productions have almost run their course now and as far as I know there are as yet no plans to bring them into London.  I believe the problem is one of theatre availability.  However, if they do move into the capital then don’t let my caveats put you off going.  These plays may not be true theatre but they are still definitely worth seeing.

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!

Richard II ~ RSC

RSC_newSo, I’ve just come in from seeing David Tennant as Richard II at the RSC and I have to say that I’m not sure.  There has been so much expectation about this production, so much hype in the build up and, to be fair, a lot of really good reviews as well.  But, I’m not sure.  There are some lovely moments.  Michael Pennington manages to make John of Gaunt’s paean to England sound as if it’s being spoken for the first time and Oliver Ford Davis plays York as if it is the part he has been waiting for all his life. But it shouldn’t be the two Duke who light up the stage and draw all eyes whenever they appear, that should be Richard’s role and if it were not for the fact that it was David Tennant playing the part I’m not sure it would be.  His is a consistent view of the king, but for me it isn’t a complete view and when it comes to the end of the play I don’t feel that Richard has made any real journey of self discovery.  Without such a journey it simply becomes the story of the disposition of a ruler and Shakespeare’s play is so very much more than that.

Mind you, Tennant isn’t helped by some very poor staging in Richard’s last scene.  Large chunks of the audience can’t see what’s happening, which rather defeats the point of the changes that the director, Greg Doran, has made in respect of what occurs in the goal.  You change Shakespeare at your peril and what Doran has done here (and I’m being circumspect because I know that many of you will be seeing this at the cinema in the next couple of weeks) shifts the whole focus of the play away from Richard and onto the nature of the politics of leadership.  I can see how bringing the differing types of kingship manifest by Richard and Bolingbroke in to focus might be tempting but only if you are seeing the play as a forerunner of the ‘Henry IV’ plays and ‘Henry V’ and Doran was insistent when this production was first announce that he wasn’t going to do that.

So, all in all, I’m left saying I’m not sure, which is a very real disappointment.  Has anyone else seen this yet?  And if so, what did you think?