Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The 'Dark' Ages: some audio-visual resources

This is very much work in progress, intended for those studying this period.  And books remain the best resource! The most recent thorough survey of the period is Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome; but for an introduction it's advisable to read your way up to this kind of detail with an old-fashioned and readable textbook like Price and Howell, From Barbarism to Chivalry or Koenigsberger's volume on medieval Europe. But a proper bibliography should follow as a separate blog. Here are some audio-visual things, most of them online.

First off, there is an outstanding lecture course by Professor Paul Freedman, Yale Open Course History 210, available on iTunes and YouTube.
I'm also enjoying the podcast series by Joe Hogarty, Europe From its Origins

List of BBC In Our Time programmes listed under Dark Ages
On the art of the period, a good general introduction is SmartHistory, Medieval and Byzantine Art
The following are varied in quality and level of sophistication, but all reward our curiosity in some way.
The Fall of the Roman Empire
In Our Time: The Roman Empire's Decline and Fall
In Our Time: Rome and European Civilization - discussion of Rome's cultural heritage
Useful summary of different positions by Lancaster University
Oxford podcast interview with Bryan Ward-Perkins
Germanic Invasions.
History Tube series, The Barbarians: War Against the Roman Empire (2 episodes)
Series with lots of recreations, firmly committed to the violent invasion reading, with learned talking heads like Peter Heather. Episodes on Mongols, Huns, Goths, Vandals, Lombards, Saxons, Franks: Barbarians
Dark Ages Art
Civilisation, Episode 1, The Skin of Our Teeth
Waldemar Janunsczak, The Dark Ages: An Age of Light
Christianity from 4th century
In Our Time: The Nicene Creed, The Pelagian Controversy
Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity
5th - 11th centuries: The Anglo-Saxons
Outstanding series of 15-minute talks on Radio 3 Essay (downloadable as podcast): Anglo-Saxon Portraits
Francis Pryor, The Anglo-Saxon Invasion (and see his Britain AD generally and the companion book), Simon Schama History of Britain.
Michael Wood. Two older series:  In Search of the Dark Ages (starts before this period; companion book), In Search of Alfred the Great. More recent: In Search of Beowulf; King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons (very good, but pay per view!)
Anglo-Saxon English
Melvyn Bragg, episode 1 of History of English
In Our Time has episodes on Athelstan, Alfred, the Venerable Bede, The Lindisfarne Gospels
Anglo-Saxon art
Nina Ramirez, Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons
A History of Ireland, Part One
BBC 2-part docu, How the Celts Saved Britain
Book of Kells
BBC Learning Documentary
Neil Oliver, Vikings - excellent recent series, archaeology-based, no reconstructions!
Charming introduction on SmartHistory (a good site for exploring generally)
Two French-language programmes from the Arte channel:
Biopic, Charlemagne
Documentary, Au temps de Charlemagne
Byzantium and Byzantine Art
See (or rather hear) In Our Time, Byzantium
Superb TV  documentary series by Stephen Romer, Byzantium: The Lost Empire
SmartHistory discussion of Hagia Sophia
Series by Andrew Graham-Dixon,  Art of Eternity
Rise of Islam
PBS Docu, Islam: Empire of Faith
In Our Time, The Arab Conquests

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

2013-14 Selected TV

Looking back over the last few months, I note I have watched heroic amounts of TV. I am, in fact, addicted to television drama, which has many advantages over the live version: free (well, factor in the license and the LoveFilm sub, and it's still nearly free), often brilliantly acted, sometimes brilliantly written and you can watch it at a time of your choosing with pause facility and no one there to annoy you. Yes yes I know you don't get the chemistry, but then there's a special chemistry too between me and Jack Bauer two feet away on the laptop, soundtrack of pulsing music and CTU's myriad of gadgets pounding into my ears. As well as an accessible alternative to theatre, TV drama is just as absorbing and stimulating as many novels.

So, yes, all of 24 Season 7 and now halfway through 8 and realizing with joy that I have completely forgotten the disposable plotlines of all the others so can watch them again. Seem to remember the first was actually a taut thriller about protecting a presidential candidate with no nuclear bombs or imminent threats to a whole seaboard in sight. I love the intense talk of protocols and schematics, the data analyst as hero, the guilty feeling of being absorbed in right-wing apologetics (not so bad when a corporate nutcase steps forward as top baddy), the glorious predictability (it's not one plot but a series of them: as soon as baddie no.1 is dealt with, we learn there's someone EVEN BIGGER behind them, in a kind of reverse Russian doll sequence), the way an English actor (in 6, I think) has to breathe life into lines like 'I'm not going anywhere without you'.

But 24, and indeed most things in this dull sublunary sphere, wilt and fade before the majesty of Breaking Bad. Walter White, the teacher I should have been (never good enough at Chemistry, alas; and it's hard to break bad armed only with the skills of close reading of poetry and a smattering of Stanislavski). My thoughts on this are not yet beyond the visceral exclamatory stage. Gus Fring! Tuco! Hank! The season where every episode starts with shots of the pool (copied from, or by, House? I haven't checked the dates)! There are episodes (Grilled, Phoenix, Fly, Dead Freight, Ozymandias) that stand on their own as amazing dramas, taking you to emotional areas that linger in the mind long afterwards. There is a sense throughout that this is modern capitalism, scrabbling and killing for medical insurance money, right on the edge of civilisation; the parched desert becomes the image of the contemporary, atrophying soul. But for close  reading of this, best to go to the careful reviews on Den of Geek (oddly banned from our filter as a gaming site). From the desert to the snowscapes of Minnesota, and Fargo was a recent pleasure. There are no rules, as great villain Lorn Malvo patiently explained to Martin Freeman. Though didn't he turn from something extra-human into a normal mortal at the end? True Detective was brilliant at the start, turning into something more regulation buddy-cop thriller at the end, but as with BB and Fargo making a whole landscape - in this case the swamplands of Louisiana - the main character. J and I ended our long-term project of watching all eight seasons of House, enjoyable right to the end despite the diminishing circles solely because of the central character, brilliantly portrayed by Hugh Laurie, though Wilson provided a fine comic foil. And going back almost a year, time to mention the enjoyable, atmospheric oddity of Jane Campion's Top of the Lakes, the ultra-miserablisim of Southcliffe (comparable to David Greig's The Events as a response to inexplicable mass killing) and the historical portraits of life in The Village and The Mill.

For other British TV, much enjoyed watching The White Queen and having it explained to me by nJ who was studying The Wars of the Roses at the time. I gave up on the first In the Line of Duty (bolt-cutters are my limit) but watched the second series through, held by one genuine shock moment and the compelling Keeley Hawes, right up until the messy ending, where tying ends together just created a big knot. Serial killer series The Falls (our answer to The Killing and The Bridge) was, added to those, too many young women being tormented and killed for our televisual entertainment. My diet of Euro TV, aside from Scandinoir, has included Braquo - like Spiral, a French equivalent to The Shield only the subtitles make you feel clever - and (just started) Isabel from Spain.

So - good to get away from the grimness with some comedy, and have loved the Office-style psuedo-docu of Parks and Recreation and W1A (following 2012 - but why are British comedies so pathetically short compared to US ones, by the way?), the crazy fun of Brooklyn Nine Nine, the love and pain of Rev (the Easter episode incredibly moving). Coogan and Brydon's The Trip to Italy became steadily less interesting: I wanted to hear more about the food and less of their admittedly accomplished impressions.


Caught Northern Stage's production of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 at the Nuffield just over a month ago. Brief recollections: stunning set, dominated by the fuselage of a bomber, creating unusual angled spaces to work in. Throughout there was deft characterisation, some genuinely affecting moments (the death in the aircraft, the non-arrest of a rapist and murderer, medical scenes linger vividly). I loved the spots of music and choreographed movement and wanted more; though I wanted about half an hour less of the whole thing, which felt too long: Heller's work isn'tt carried forward by any plot imperative. Apparently Heller wouldn't let anyone else adapt his novel, but his own inflated adaptation (which was put on here) has not had many takers. But it's hard to imagine the text being done greater justice than in this production. The meaning of the expression 'Catch-22' came over clearly, the corruption of officers in collusion with  the black market and the use of black humour as a way of processing the unspeakable still carries a punch. Phillip Arditti compelling as Yosarian. Lots of the audience were complaining about the cold in the theatre. I rather liked it.

Martin Creed, what's the point of it?

Years ago, I discovered Creed at Southampton Art Gallery: he filled one room with stuff from the museum warehouse, another with balloons (by the time I got there largely deflated) and there were scrunched up bits of paper. The photos in the catalogue made it all look beautiful. On day release from a nineteenth-century theme park I found it bracing.

His big show at the Hayward felt like a series of little challenges: What do you make of this then? Does this mean anything to you? Does this do anything to you? What's the point of it? An art of non-commital, perhaps. In the Martin Creed A-Z leaflet we learn 'what something might mean to someone is unknown' (Ambiguity), 'I don't believe in conceptual art. I don't know what it is' (Conceptual art: but then, is this just another concept?), 'I find it difficult to make judgements, to decide that one thing is more important than the other. So what I try and do is to choose without having to make decisions' (Decisions).

Is there any positive principle at work in  all this evasiveness? The artist does think that art is primarily and essentially a vehicle for the conveyance of feeling, which is reassuringly traditional. My overall sensation was initially of a kind of enervating cleverness, repetition (in which he finds 'comfort and reliability') and a love of surfaces and systems - but then I realised this felt need for order and pattern is something I could respond to. It's why I can't get enough of Glass, Reich, Nyman I suppose.  What else is at work in the functionless brick wall, the whole wall decorations, the pile of boxes and other readymades? A ghost of the classical order, space and simplicity which mediated modernity eschews? I liked, in a liquid ephemeral way, the car, the film of the two dogs, the series of colour prints. I felt sorry for the attendant having to bash away at the piano. There's always the feeling that there's a a club of clever people who 'get it' while you don't. But then I thought perhaps the key is to be less rather than more intellectual. Some of the comments by Creed are winningly and affectingly simple: 'everything that everyone does is always an expression. Whether you're answering a phone in a call centre or making a piece of sculpture which is going to be exhibited in an art gallery, it's creative. People express themselves in everything they do' (Expressionism). Amen. Maybe. Doesn't that extinguish something richer in the idea of 'creative'? Mould a piece of blu-tack and stick it on the wall. Just for the fun and the mystery of it. Go on. That's the spirit (Spiritual).

Fred & Alice

At the recent NISDA (National Independent Schools Drama Association) conference I was lucky to see Fred & Alice: Love in the Time of OCD, written and directed by John Sheehy for Ireland's Callback Theatre. It's an entertaining and touching two-hander about characters with certain obsessive traits, falling in love over a period of years and charting their way to and through independent living. Like Curious Incident, it appears to avoid portraying any particular clinical condition and uses theatrical means to celebrate uniqueness and the quirks of human imagination untrammelled by everyday mundanities: the miniature house and tennis rackets becoming electric guitars stick in the memory. But it was the central performances that most beguiled: Ciaran Bermingham's physical performance was so remarkable it was actually surprising to see him at the curtain call without the physical tics and eyes apparently pointing in different directions; Cora Fenton captured hyper-activity, affection and vulnerability through a tremendous vocal range. Terrific one-acter. I have to applaud Oran Mor in Glasgow, that offers lunchtime theatre in the form of a play, a pie and a pint, which must surely be the pinnacle of Western Civilisation thus far.

As You Like It (SATF)

Here's how to do it. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory's As You Like It is stylish, clear, beautifully paced, engaging throughout. The stage is a largely empty space with just a few pieces of furniture here and there and a striking backdrop whose abstract swirl hints at forests real and metaphorical. And from the opening moments it's clear that we're going to get an intelligent and unfussy account of this exploration of hatred, love, disguise and reconciliation, focussed on bringing out the characters and situations without any intruding directorial concept. If Orlando's defeat of Oliver at wrestling was slightly hard to credit (but then it always is), the resulting love / infatuation was instantly believable and charming, thanks to the acting talents of Jack Wharrier and the fabulous Dorothea Myer-Bennett. Clear and unfussy is all very well, but everything depends on the text feeling like a release of intellectual and emotional energy. Some relationshiops have to work impossible fast, and Celia (Daisy May) and Oliver (Matthew Thomas) managed the impossible. Vic Llewellyn made us believe we understood the Elizabethan wit and charmed us through the ghastly scene (one of the bits of Shakespeare I hate most) when he chases off the luckless William. Great attention to detail: Audrey lifting her skirts, the comic brushstrokes of Le Beau and Martext (Vincenzo Pellegrino); Paul Currier as Jacques finding humour in the melancholy humour (and reminiscent of Mycroft?). Anyway, love what Tobacco Factory are doing. They even produce a programme worth paying for, vanishingly rare these days.

Johannes Möller

I’m remembering a few months back to Johannes Möller, the brilliant guitarist (from Sweden, I think) who gave a recital in Eastleigh in January. It was another reminder of the array of astonishing guitarists out there all competing for a smallish natural audience. But if the classical guitar is going to expand beyond a niche status in the musical world, it will surely be through the creative and immediately appealing music being made by artists like Möller. Most of the programme was original work, some (Silk, From Her Source to the Sea) inspired by India and employing Indian ragas convincingly. The technical range was dazzling – it would be hard to think of a technical device not used at some point – but the listeners were won over not by mechanical skill but by the emotional and dramatic feel of the pieces. The 1981 preludes covered a wide range of moods (in 10 different keys), and the concluding ‘A star in the sky, a universe within …’ and ‘The Night Flame’ were affirming larger-scale works with a burning drama to them. A refreshing release from mdoernist idioms of anguished interiority and irony. It was good along the way to be introduced to the composer Giulio Regondi (1822-72). The whole recital came over with tremendous charm and the playing carried with it a passionate desire to communicate. Thanks due to SCGS for putting it on. Rememebring Piotr Anderszewski at Turner Sims recently, and the terrific recent Nuffield season, I'm increasingly bemused by those whos till feel they have to slog off to London to get live culture.

Henri Matisse, The Cut-Outs

We start with a painted still. Next to it is a cut paper version, where objects and angles can be altered, shuffled. Reshuffling in the mind, we consider the possible local dramas of form meeting form, colour against colour. We need to tap into these instincts to follow what happens in the narrative of this show.

Dancers survives the scenery of Massine's ballet to music by Shostakovich. 'That's the kind of dance I hope to see one day!' exclaimed Massine on seeing Matisse's rhythmic mural figures. The sense of the performative continues in the book Jazz, where circus and theatre figures are accompanied by elegant, strikingly large handwritten notes. There's a tension going on between the private world of the artist and the sense of public exhibition: the dream is transmuted into the dance. Volume dissolves into flattened plane, and the title irrestibly helps us feel improvisation and complex rhythms in these sequence of figures of pure colour. Organic forms follow in Oceania and the Vence studio, places where the room was transformed into a gallery of frondal, amoeboid creations. Thanks in part to a film of Matisse in his declining years cutting away, we feel in touch with the creative process, from the dreamy doodly conception through cutting, gluing, layering and arranging. The shapes create worlds around them, from the spiritual universe of the Vence chapel to the exotic parakeet, mermaid and snail. In later work compositions become larger. The vibrant, exotic, dynamic creations are an affirmation of life by an artist increasingly limited in movement.

Immediately pleasurable, and about the pleasures of sensation and a life force, the cut-outs escape through some gap between the categories of fine and decorative art. Childlike, yet based on a  lifetime's intuition for composition. Visually busy, but infinitely peaceful, requiring more time and silence than a Tate blockbuster can offer. Loved the children's art done on computer at the end. Coffee upstairs in the members' louunge, where one returns from dizzying tones to the familiar fashion world of London grey and black.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Third time to the Nuffield in a week, second viewing of this production in a week, second Jacobean tragedy in a day (what is ... happening ... to me?) - on Tuesday I went down the M3 yet again to see 'Tis Pity She's a Whore by John Ford, production by Cheek by Jowl (who are probably better known in the modern theatre world than Ford). C by J founder Declan Donnellan's The Actor and the Target is a bible for modern actors, and it is always instructive to see a production which follows such a carefully-thought-through attention to a text, with acting technique rather than directorial concept the centre of gravity.

This version of 'Tis Pity updates to modern dress, with Anabella a contemporary teenage girl and her bedroom the single setting for the action - not so very different from the bare Jacobean stage where time and space equally collapse into a single platform and the audience are similarly required to 'see' the different settings of the action. Second time around, I noticed the attention to detail in the room: red cd player, red lampshade, red book cover .. Exciting opening choreography, creating a sense of a girl both empowered and controlled by the surrounding male culture. It's easy to get this sort of thing wrong and start with clever staging, but this production had clearly started with deep thought about the language and characters and worked outwards from there.

Every detail of staging had a reason for being there, and though some speeches were given a modern twist (Hippolita's offer of herself in marriage to Vasques becomes a full-on seduction scene, Soranzo's already horrible beating becomes something unspeakable) it was never twisted out of credibility and the business brought out the nastiness that seeps from between the lines of Ford's writing. Easy, too, for frantically inventive staging to become a distraction from the core action and speech, but only once - Hippolita at the party  - did the interpretation take over from the text for me (it took the second viewing to figure out how all the things going on fitted together), suggesting a certain lack of interest in the niceties of remitting breach of betrothal in the seventeenth-century and a desire to give us something busy to look at instead.

Notes. Plenty of circular movement, inevitable when a bed is plonked in the middle of the stage, and devastating deployment of the bathroom offstage. Effective use of onstage singing, an object lesson in juxtaposition (eg something atrocious happening against soft music offstage). Speech hard to discern over the music at times, Friar and Cardinal looked out of place as the Catholic context of the original doesn't belong in the secular hedonistic world of this interpretation (how many students these day go around with a tutor Friar in tow?). There should be some kind of quota on how many tops can be ripped off enthusiastically in the space of two hours, as there was a diminishing return in the constant revelation of torsos. Will Alexander a terrifying Vasques, honey-voiced and brutal; Orlando James and Eve Ponsonby convincing throughout as the doomed brother and sister. Overall impression one of excitement at the spectacle, a creeping sense that, yes, these people are really psychopathically sick, and an overpowering atmosphere of corruption - all in the Jacobean spirit. Or part of it: this production of a not-frequently-performed play omitted entirely the comic subplot and made other cuts, most oddly to the ending - so we were listening to a symphony with sections of the orchestra missing. But what it set out to do it achieved wonderfully well: it yanked this piece out of its cosy heritage habitat and made the material visceral, shocking and affecting to a contemporary audience using the full resources of its company. Hit the target, one might say.

The Duchess of Malfi

A Jacobean day, starting with the very welcome BBC4 screening of John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, the inaugural production at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The theatre is a close replica of Blackfriars, built following drawings in Worcester College, Oxford. It certainly looks sumptuous, a beautiful wooden stage against an elegant three-doored screen with balcony, enclosed by decked seating. And the candles (£400 a day, hmmmm) were gorgeous, even on the telly. The period costumes gleamed and shimmered, as did the make-up. Still don't think I'd want to train it up there and pay London prices (up to £60) to sit on a hard wooden bench at a 70 degree angle to the stage with columns and candelabra in the way, though. Also not sure how well the voice would travel upwards with a balcony of (over-used) musicians tootling away above it, but would have to go to find out. The authentic has a certain allure but engineering has moved on a bit.

Watching it on TV had plenty of advantages: you could see the expressions close up, the sound quality was excellent and the thrilling bareness of the satge had even more impact on a screen, usually so crowded with detail. The production was preceded by a documentary by Steven Shapiro, full of enthusiasm, who offered some unilluminating interviews with star actors and presented the thesis that the author of The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi might have been someone of a not altogether sunny disposition. Two pages of an Arden / Mermaid introduction would give you more information. The TV introduction by Andrew Marr seemed to be vaguely inspired by the Proms and added nothing at all apart from plot spoilers and a stupefyingly condescending warning not to alter our TV sets when the stage goes dark. Thanks, W1A!

The verse was well delivered throughout: I haven't seen the Duchess for 12 years (Salisbury, 2002 to be precise - excellent show), but the strange similes and distinctive seventeenth-century treatment of the verse line brought it all back: compass, tennis balls, medlar trees, pyramids... what a unique consciousness is here. Throughout I kept realizing what Eliot got from the period, not that he made any secret of it. A world-weary Bosola, going through the motions of seeking preferment and sinking further into self-disgust. Ferdinand was really compelling: that moment when the strange repeated laughs signal he's flipping will stay with me. Gemma Arterton was excellent as the Duchess, upright alabaster among the ruins, far better than the reviews I'd seen had led me to expect (I wonder, by the by, if £60 seats have the effect of turning viewers and reviewers into bogus connoisseurs of how Jacobean drama ought to be interpreted, which is something we know very little about indeed). Shafts of comedy (the doctor) piercing but also drawing attention to the darkness. Only thing I didn't like was the music: it was beautiful and beautifully played, but a distraction from the action - the opening was ludicrously over-extended - and far too sweet to bring out the moods of the piece. But I'm delighted that the BBC are now doing this, sparing us the cost of an NT Live showing, and quiver with anticipation for more.

By the way, have just come across Peter Kirwan's impressive early modern drama in performance blog, Bardathon.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Rich Hall

Twice in a weekend to The Nuffield - after polishing off Tonight at 8.30, back for a dose of stand-up comic American Rich Hall. This was an impulse visit - I don't go to stand-up that much, and I note with shame that 'Comedy' has not even been a tag on this blog hitherto, testament to my sour and humorless attitude to life no doubt. But it was a fantastic evening: Hall has a wonderful deadpan delivery, his material has real bite and the observation was deliriously good. I realise that giving any of the jokes away would be a spoiler, so I suppose one has to write about stand-up in fairly general terms. Presumably most of it is prepared, but it has to sound fresh, so not so different from acting; but the fun Hall had with the front row and the musical responses to bits and pieces of material had a glorious improvisatory feel. (Earlier in the day I'd been musing on whether an actor in a highly orchestrated production like Curious Incident has any room for free manoeuvre whatsoever.) Superb stuff. Memos for my alter self to chortle at: Ready meals ... Unicorn vets ... Shoe Repairs / Key Cutting ...  Bouncers at Kenturkey (what sort of person ...) And thank goodness we got to the grizzly bear story in the end.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Latest NTLive experience was Curious Incident, whose in-the-round staging made it particularly amenable to camera coverage: we did indeed 'breathe the same air' as Christopher, which was the director's intention, the grid-like patterns and enclosed rectangular space simulataneously suggesting his consciousness was both sadly cut off (difficulty with processing emotional reactions and metaphor) and curiously infinite: his hilarious dialogue with the vicar showed how a completely literal interpretation of things can lead to its own exhilarating imaginative posibilities - "they'd have to fire dead bodies into space on rockets ..."

Coming to it from a 'what could we do here?' perspective, there was much to pick up. Simple furniture, expressive use of staging and the immensely powerful deployment of features like the train set and chalk drawing. Loved the physical side, with Frantic Assembly providing some moves that were effective because not over-used. Well-judged music, again economically employed. And of course, the acting was pitch-perfect throughout, Luke Treadaway, although clearly somewhat more than fifteen, making a deeply sympathetic Christopher (his and has been going round in my head all day). The play gave a convincing account of the world from Christopher's point of view and from outside as well. Effective doubling by a small company. All of this is theatre that any school should aim at. But the programmed light systems and the underground scene would take some replicating, I imagine.

It was lovely to to be reminded of the novel's story. There were some deeply moving moments, like the mother's monologue near the end of Act One and the ending, and serious and comic played off each other beautifully throughout. In the novel, the digressions on maths conundrums like Conway's Soldiers and the Monty Hall problem were part of the fascination, but these couldn't really be staged; something like it was left until the problem explanations at the end, but we had to leave before we heard them. How many plots are there in literature? Twenty? Seven? Essentially there's just one, which is always to do with someone trying to overcome obstacles to achieve something - the story of human life - and this novel and play give us an elemental version of this tale. I have no idea how clinically accurate it is. Mark Haddon says he wasn't writing about autisim, but difference. Would seasoned police officers and transport workers really be so nonplussed by a character like Christopher, though? Surely they see all types over a week? Perhaps they're better prepared now than when Curious Incident appeared, and both book and play have something to do with that. No explanation on stage of the title; perhaps it is assumed that a modern audience knows its Holmes stories well enough not to need any.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Tonight at 8.30 (Trio 1)

Happy to catch the first Trio of Tonight at 8.30, having caught 2 and 3 on the opening day(authoritatively reviewed somewhere below). Instead of being a light frothy entrée as I'd imagined, this trio included the heaviest piece of the lot, The Astonished Heart, a shriekingly intense study of tragic obsession  (and an early version of the idea of the psychiatrist being the most messed up of the lot, a topos later to yield Cracker, Frasier and Hannibal Lecter). The core ideas came over clearly and the dénoument(s - one onstage, one off, Coward seems to have a thing with double endings) had real power. Before that, We were Dancing, on quickly evaporating affairs in an ennui-soaked world where substantial relationships are impossible; and to round off the Trio, Red Peppers, in which we see  the eponymous comic duo grinding through their act at a variety palace, then look behind the curtains at bickering among theatrefolk. Across the three pieces music, shifting rhythms, shafts of wit and through it all a palpable strain of misery. Tonight at 8.30 plays with genres, but the keynote is tragic.
Taking these pieces together, one catches Coward at the tailend of a classical tradition in which tragedy is reserved for the privileged and the working man is a clown; and while he is not Ibsen he does subvert this in interesting ways: the Red Peppers acquire a kind of grandeur in  their valiant attempt to 'keep it fresh, keep it fragrant' and the acidic portrait of decadence among the (precariously) privileged makes one think of Ivy Compton-Burnett or Henry Green's Party Going.  Again I was struck by correspondences to later writers: We Were Dancing gave a foretaste of Pinter's The Lover, the minute verbal analysis of emotional currents in An Astonished Heart has something in common with, say, Albee's A Delicate Balance; while Red Peppers could be an early sketch for Osborne's The Entertainer (both were astute critics of a world they were nostalgic for). Coming back to the show after a week, I could better appreciate the mixture of period and modern in the performance: imitating Coward's clipped diction and the postures captured in the programme photos would have drenched it in sepia; while observing Coward's rhythms with the contemporary voice certainly brought out the rawness and immediacy of the emotional situations. Staging was clear and unfussy, the acting wondrously versatile. Hugely enjoyed Tonight at 8.30, delighted it started at The Nuffield, and hope it has a really succesful tour. More good stuff to come at The Nuffield - looking forward to Rich Hall tomorrow, Cheek by Jowl (saw them a few days ago in Oxford) on Tuesday and Catch-22 in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, 18 May 2014


The news that the Milk Monitors troupe of improvising humourists were to perform at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton was greeted in the neighbouring town of Winchester with delight and curiosity; and the suggestion of a short drive to watch their performance on the Sunday evening met with general and excited agreement. The journey along the M3 was as serene as nature could make it; and was concluded with the happy discovery of Gower car park immediately opposite the omnibus stop and the main theatre entrance, Mr H having on all previous occasions driven straight past it in pursuit of a bay at the rear of the campus and as far away from the theatre as possible.

The entertainment was introduced by the eminent academic Dr Sam Patton of Rotterdam, who explained, to the consternation and enlightenment of her rustic audience, that Jane Austen penned as many as 789 lost novels, which are being discovered, chiefly by her, in the most remarkable of places, such as ironing boards and the tail of a dressage pony. One of these lost works, to a title proposed by a member of the audience, was A Lady's Chocolate Priorities (another lost title, Indifference, apparently being improper for public presentation) and the troupe of humourists consequently improvised an hour-length dramatic entertainment to this subject.

The plot, which concerned chocolate addiction, dentistry, and a lake with a golden swan which could only be viewed by members of the Maiden family aged eighteen and over, was unmistakably the work of Miss Austen of Steventon, marked as it was by a perspicacious observation of the follies and foibles of humankind, a tender belief in the triumph of virtue over the ravages of contraband cocoa products and an affecting portrayal of the yearning female heart. The public were much engaged by the good-humoured spectacle and roused from their rustic reveries by the play upon words concerning chocolate, the deft  division of the piece into scenes of plot and sub-plot and the amusing interaction of the performers, identified only as daguerrotypes on the programme, but including the accomplished Miss Cariad  Lloyd (Ms, as the programme has it, not being a title Miss Austen would have recognised), now appearing in a televisual comedy of her own devising. Miss CJ Lodge played upon the violoncello, and the evening afforded much pleasure to an audience not usually treated to such sophisticated metropolitan entertainments.

It is often asserted that Americans are rather more adept at improvising than the English who, as a general rule, are never happier than when being instructed exactly what to do, most especially in their artistic pursuits; yet while this may hold as a general truth, the Austentatious troupe provided a vigorous, and amusing, exception, and both of the Winchester visitors left their new-found car park feeling greatly satisfied with their evening's adventure.

Henry IV Part 1

Henry IV, Part 1 (not Shakespeare's title, or, possibly, even his intention) was conveniently screened at Winchester Everyman just days before older inmates were due to go under the examiner's lash on it. And as with RII, Doran delivered a beautifully clear and well-paced account. Attention drawn by Alex Hassall, who gave us a likeable warm-hearted Hal (though as a result the strategic coldness of  'But herein will I imitate the sun' was lost; and my all-time-favourite Shakespeare line 'I do, I will' didn't have the heart-stopping impact I expect, nay demand, dammit). Jasper Britton was a pinched and bitter Henry, a boxer who's played dirty but comes out of the corner fighting.

The big decisions were to make Hotspur a kind of Midlands psycho - I think there's more humour in the Glendower scene than we got here - and of course star name Anthony Sher as Falstaff. Now here was something different. It's been good to see two parts normally given to bass-baritones - Lear and Falstaff - played by different voices recently (Simon Russell Beale and Sher). Sher gave us a wheedling decayed knight, who loves playing to the tavern; his grin during the exchanges with Hal was lovely, and we got real affection from the various insults directed at Hal for not being fat. I liked the way he didn't hurry the speeches but felt for the balance of each sentence. He got a well-earned laugh just for the way he called out some names: 'Poooiins ..' As for staging, same set-up as for RII, only without any ex machina gallery. Good use of the enormous depth of this set-up. Watching these plays in a modern production makes one realize how they were written for smaller companies. Seeing, for example, the lovely Jennifer Kirby in her one scene - the domestic with Hotspur - and as a crowd member in the tavern and that's it is a bit odd, like a football player being brought off the bench for five minutes then called back in. In the whole of Richard II, Jane Lapotaire has one scene, and can read a book for the rest of the evening. What's that like? Nice work if you can get it, or frustrating? Shakespeare's company would have done much more role-sharing, and that idea is in various ways woven into the plays themselves.

Digressions. A production that relaxed into and relished the multifarious language of the play that has everything, including first tremors of the tragedy to come. Good attention paid to individuating the secondary characters, Worcester and Northumberland nicely distinct. The complex narrative of the conspiracy has never been clearer to me, and with one stroke of business the parallels between court and rebels were brilliantly brought out. Loved the bed gag, but must wait a decent time before stealing it.

Titus Andronicus

Lucy Bailey's production of Titus Andronicus has been revived and is currently on at The Globe. What a spectacular experience, a 16th-century play sending into shock an audience brought up on Saw and Tarantino. The staging effects initially seemed straightforward, nothing remotely scary: a semi-awning over the pit, braziers, weird sounds of hammering and sawing; yet over the evening these grew into something dark and strange. William Houston was electrifying as Titus, suffering from some kind of mental pain at the outset (the soundworld of Django Bates brings this out brilliantly), drawing us into his private hell scene by scene. Superbly judged use of comedy: the use of Aemilius / Bacchus was terrific. The big lesson I got was to juxtapose comedy and savagery, which I suppose is obvious and pure Tarantino come to think of it. Indira Varma chilling as Tamora, Obi Abili charismatic as Aaron. Flora Spencer-Longhurst well-nigh unwatchably affecting as the mutilated Lavinia.

Moving some actors around on scaffolds brought out the political nature of the piece, though at the cost of slowing the thing down: watching extras trundle platforms along is not very exciting. The mob chants and sudden violence around it were properly alarming, though. Effects brutally er, effective, and the vengeful slaughter of the brothers made me think nervously, I trust they've had medical advice on this ... Plenty of press stories of people fainting. I'm sorry to say I didn't see anyone keel over, though I did see a few leave, including one young lady with a hand over her mouth, and the lady next to me (thanks for sharing the blanket, by the way) was moved to shout out on the lines of 'No! What? Why?' on several occasions. Aaron's murder of the midwife is probably the most horrible thing I've seen on a stage. Great stuff. Verse well spoken (for my dodgy ear, Aaron a little soft in one spot), the whole thing stagewise a tremendous lesson in how big things can be made out of simple ideas. Fantastically convincing delivery of this piece. Would have loved to join in the elaborate curtain call more, but had to run for train. Such are the travails of the provincial pedagogue. Managed Creed, Matisse and this all in one day, though. Still in therapy.

Tonight at 8.30

ETT (English Touring Theatre) is coming to have the same illustrious acronymic aura in my world as RSC, NT and ROH. Recently I have seen great productions of Translations and The Misanthrope put together by this production company. Now they have come up with the outrageously bold scheme of putting on all of Noel Coward's Tonight at 8.30, a series of one-act plays comparable to a set of piano preludes, each exploring a different key and atmosphere. We went on the press day / night, enjoying the Nuffield's fantastic 2-for-1 offer, and managed to see two of the three trios, so between 3.30 and 10.00 enjoyed six plays (and a good supper at The Crown Inn in between).

Noel Coward had been vaguely catalogued in my mind as a period writer, author of bittersweet witty drawing room dramas. No longer! There's clearly much more going on than that. Was he kicked aside by kitchen sink drama? No, Osborne is clearly anticipated in the distinctly dodgy Fumed Oak, in which a stifled husband lets go at his womenfolk in a bilious outpouring of grievance and resentment. Was Coward's flow of verbal elegance answered by the still waters of modern drama? No, listen to the silences in Still Life, first outing of the material that became Brief Encounter. Full of evocative space and shadow. Family Album, in which a Victorian grieving family are gloriously deconstructed, still feels fresh in its experiment and sudden launches into song; while the dreamworld of Shadow Play had a bleak raking over of an ashen relationship that made me think of Pinter's Betrayal. Speaking of Brief Encounter, it was odd to hear all the plays in largely modern accents: I suppose it would all have been in Celia Johnson cut-glass speech patterns at the time; but reviving that would simply seem affected today. The limits of so-called authenticity.

Coming back to it... not that Coward needs to be validated by later work. He has his own universe, one of quiet desperation under a genteel exterior, a feeling for dis-connect that can be tragic or comic (the magnificent Hands Across the Ocean), and a capacity for the exalting power of wit that puts him in the tradition of Goldsmith, Wilde and Shaw. What happened to brilliant wit, by the way? Stoppard carries the torch, I suppose, but it's the Americans who are the real champions of the one-liner: see any Sorkin-scripted episode of The West Wing.

Wonderful actors, supported in bringing out the jazz-like rhythms and emotional score by director Blanche McIntyre. The players sparked and sparkled throughout the dazzling day. It's all about ensemble, so wrong to pick out names, but I must grant myself the pleasure of typing out the name of Kirsty Besterman, who moved across roles with immensely charming aplomb, and in Hands Across corpsed and got out of it. Rupert Young took a succession of second-tier parts with great charisma. And simply seeing actors change roles with each piece was a pleasure that theatre-going doesn't normally provide. Ominous that all plays had to be cancelled yesterday owing to an actor's illness, which is the flipside of such an enterprise. Hope it's nothing serious: longing to see Trio 1 next weekend!

RSC Richard II

First in the RSC production of the tetralogy. Here are some notes, more memos to self than any kind of review:
  • Totally loved the floor! Because (a) the thrust / traverse approach just seems to be perfect for staging this kind of work, which craves a public forum space, and (b) the digital design was beautifully effective, creating wonderful transitions and establishing atmosphere without taking over. Really want to learn how to do this!
  • RII and other plays of the period (MND, R&J) are particularly challenging as they have a relish for verse form that a modern audience doesn't share (sorry, everyone, you're all ignorant pigs), and the verse has a regularity that the modern actor bred into naturalistic bend, compression and stretch needs to accommodate. Here the actors found their way into it convincingly (pedant Hebron noted only one missed antithesis), Tennant especially good, and took us on an enthralling psychological journey. One huge homoerotic pause was worked in really well.
  • Close harmony singing and small ensemble playing the perfect music here and in 1H4
  • Lesson: if something's dotty, don't conceal the dottiness. York begging for his son to be executed and the gauntlet-throwing scenes were given their proper comic value (perhaps they are meant to be comic relief?); conversely, thank goodness no funny business was added to the gardener scene which is pure renaissance allegory. In general the comic strain was played well (it was Mark Rylance at the Globe who made this aspect of the play clear to me).
  • Another lesson. One challenge of plays like this is what are the non-speaking characters meant to be doing during the endless speeches (eg York listening to Duchess of Gloucester)? Here the handling of gesture / pose / movement / expression seemed just the right foil for the voice.
  • Execution of the caterpillars oddly tame (perhaps I'm contrasting it to the shudder-inducing treatment of this scene in The Hollow Crown), but then it is pretty clearly meant to happen offstage.
  • Absolutely lovely to see Jane Lapotaire on stage, and her remarks in the interval interview about working in theatre being nurturing and supportive were so moving and so right. At school - or anywhere - a play should never be an opportunity for a teacher-director to boss young people around. So say I, bossily.
  • And touching to see Michael Pennington just after seeing him in younger years in a re-watching of John Barton's awesome Playing Shakespeare
  • Thank you director Greg Doran for telling the story without overlaying it with unnecessary directorial interpretation and for focussing on the emotional narrative.
  • I would very happily listen to Oliver Ford Davies read the phone directory.

King Lear (NT)

Live screening of theatre - the poor man's option (that's me, £50 + travel + food, come orfit!) or is it in some ways actually better than being in the building? Yes, you miss all the chemistry of being under the same roof while the actors are doing it then and there for you. But then if you're at the back of the dress circle wishing you'd brought your binoculars and praying that someone two rows down would stop texting then maybe you're missing out too. Especially when so much of the action is in the eyes ... SRB's staring face in the division scene suggesting he's already a few biscuits short of a full picnic hamper, or Anne Maxwell Martin's orgasmic crumple in the unwatchable bit, to name but two ocular pleasurings.

For me, a production of hits and misses. I liked the approach of showing Lear as bloody impossible and clearly dangerous from the off, the rapid barkthrough of the first big scene, the deep permeating coldness of Edgar and Cornwall. Some sense was made of the loopy Edgar plot and the blank of Albany's character was filled in convincingly. The Stalinesque sculpture of Lear was a good touch and the general sense of a bleak tyranny setting (thanks, Edward Bond by the way) held together. Above all the mad scenes were the clearest I have ever heard, and showed SRB's naturalist clarity at its best. I've never listened so hard to the 'who would scape whipping' scene with Gloucester. The recognition of Kent at the end was oddly more moving than the death of Cordelia. There were some nice Mendes touches ('Tis a good block', 'She cannot deny it').

Misses: I wasn't wowed by the Fool, and the notorious addition to the script to explain his sudden disappearance didn't add much (in any case, there's not much mystery to explain: Cordelia and the Fool were probably played by the same boy, making 'And my poor fool is hang'd' one of the most extraordinary lines in the canon, taking us inside and outside the play world in the same moment; one day I'm going to see a production which gets this, or I'll just have to do it myself). Having rows of non-speaking soldiers is just a rather obvious way of trying to fill in the Olivier stage (what are they actually for in a closed council scene, anyway?). Similarly the storm scene looked like they needed to give the rotating drum an MOT, since - on screen anyway - it served no real theatrical purpose. Stuff like waterboarding is just a theatrical cliché these days. The end was a bit of a mess: Shakespeare gets Edmund and the ugly sisters offstage for a reason, lads! We need that space clear for the ending! Cordelia looked none too convincing with a gun, which anyway worked against her image as the spiritual opposite of her sisters.

And then, I thought, hold on, aren't there things wrong with the play? Would any script editor accept King Lear in its present state? Except as a folk story, on another plane from the warp and woof of real human psychology, the opening scenes make no sense. Lear and Gloucester are in some kind of competition for The Most Stupid Old Man in Britain award, a trait inherited by their beloved: Cordelia's ostentatious sincerity is tiresome, and Edgar bolting off to the heath without even speaking to dad is incredible (as is the jumping off the cliff bit - why not just say who he is? 'Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it' - and how's that going?). And - a question mark which becomes bolder in a production like this with warplanes whizzing around - who's actually in charge of the English army? Cornwall's dead, Albany's in a dither, this lot wouldn't even manage to charter a taxi to the Dover ferry terminal let alone meet an invading an army (and why no re-appearance of France, Mr Shakespeare? Ah, I think I get it. The actor's busy playing Albany!) And Sam Johnson was surely right to find it  flawed. It's not the trite reason that it's too tragic, it's that any aesthetic of checks and balances is offended by the fact that Cordelia's death has no payoff whatsoever: the closing speeches do not add up to any kind of hard-won wisdom and bear no relation to what we have seen (you might think that 'speak what we feel, not what we ought to say' is exactly the wrong moral to draw: that's how all the trouble started, for gawd's sake!). Platitudes anyway (a problem with slavering schoolmaster bardolatry is that people who read nothing but Shakespeare don't realize how many of the ideas are renaissance commonplaces). Anyway, the play is absurdly over-produced and companies should be doing more Massinger, Middleton and Co. and giving Mr Lear a rest for a bit. The blog has spoken!

Henry IV Part One, study links

For those sweating to death and larding the lean earth for a Henry IV(1) exam, here's a gathering of links. Though I'm sure it's all in hand ...

The whole darned thing (Globe production) is available on, and the good news is our ancient foundation subscribes, so you can watch it anywhere on the network:

Radio production with the brilliant Leo McKern as Falstaff:

Andrew Moore's commentary is really good:

Schmoop. Lively breezy commentary:

Useful stuff on Shakespeare online

For the analysis of a passage, this RSC publication is a really good guide to the fundamentals:

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Stephen Winkley

I was terribly sorry to learn of the recent and untimely death of my old teacher Stephen Winkley. He had the bad luck to teach me in every one of my five years at Cranleigh School, and was over that time a formative influence (a compliment only to the extent that one approves of the resulting form). He taught me ancient history, led a trip to Rhodes, introduced me to Beowulf, Samuel Beckett (he directed Peter Longshaw and John Tolputt among others in a stunning staff production of Godot which opened doors), Jacobean tragedy (I was Bosola in his production of A Duchess of Malfi), and discreetly helped me prepare for Oxbridge, among many other things, some duties, most kindnesses. During a rough patch he supported me when others were naturally losing faith, but that support was based on some steely advice: he always told it like it was. Running the Sixth Form Centre he made us all feel clever and inculcated a kind of university atmosphere in which it was actually cool to compare Pinter and Orton and talk about Georgian poetry. His range of interests was inspirational. The simplest comments stay longest: 'I would defy anyone to read the last books of The Iliad and not be moved' - and so we did, and were. Beyond anything, over five years I learned from Dr Winkley (as I must think of him) a style of conversation which amounted to a civic education in itself: laconic, ironic, allusive, mischievous, hilarious and, under it all, deeply humane. One sermon he gave, citing All's Well, 'Simply the thing I am shall make me live' was, the rumour went, an attempt to reach out to a desperately troubled boy. Only later have I come to recognise that behind all the breezy off-handedness in his manner was a tremendous work ethic and a passionate, stubborn commitment to get the job - whatever the job - done properly. Beyond school we lost touch bar the odd meeting: I dropped in to see him in his College study in Winchester with no warning and he found time to chat; and I remember a fleeting crossing of paths at the Bodleian when I was finishing my thesis. 'It's on medieval romance,' I ventured. 'Oh, I am sorry,' was the inimitable response.
The years rolled past, and his majestic career took him to Uppingham. I seem to have made a habit of missing the good doctor: he left Winchester the year before I arrived; and while I made an extremely undistinguished start to teaching at Rossall School, he came out of retirement to bring that school to new life - an apt measurement of our differing abilities to adapt to a unique environment. Recently I've been looking through the headmaster's blog newsletter that he produced at Rossall, and it was a sheer delight to recognise that voice and mind at full pitch. Bold opinions, kind comments, an amazing feel for detail. How typical too that he was able to pick up on social media so quickly and effectively, while others look on such things of this century with suspicious eyes. He wrote a reference for my present job, and in a note telling me he had done so wrote 'I hope you prosper' - the last written comment I had from him. Such prosperity as I have enjoyed I owe in large part to Stephen Winkley and a fantastic generation of teachers at Cranleigh in the early eighties (among them Jonathan Leigh, Peter Longshaw, John Tolputt, Nicholas Menon). Heartfelt condolences to the family. Warm memories that will last a lifetime. Truly a teacher in the ancient tradition, who passed on not only knowledge but a manner of thinking, and through thinking, living and feeling more deeply. Salve atque vale, magister.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Act of Killing

In 1965 the left-wing government of Indonesia was destroyed by a military coup. With the enthusiastic support of Western powers (especially the USA, UK and Australia) the army set about killing the grass-roots support of socialism: party members, intellectuals, the disaffected unlanded, unionists and their sympathizers - really anyone not clearly on board with the new project -  were all branded 'communists' and exterminated by death squads. To help them in their task, the army enlisted the support of small-time gangsters, accustomed to selling black market tickets for Hollywood films: these men became effective mass murderers, interrogating, torturing and executing 'communists' in a mass slaughter greeted by the Western press with headlines such as 'A Gleam of Light in Asia'. About 2.5 million Indonesians were killed by fellow Indonesians. Those responsible for this atrocity shared power with the dictator Suharto and are still ruling the country today. The paramilitary gangsters are feted as heroes and founding fathers of the new order. Weirdly, they insist that the etymology of 'gangster' is 'free men', and they are certainly free of the reach of justice today.

Joshua Oppenheimer started making a film with survivors of the mass killings, but this soon attracted the attentions of the police and army. He then had the idea of approaching some of the original gangsters and working with them. Anwar Congo, a man who killed some 1,000 people with his own hands, and his fellow veterans, join the director in recreating the murders of 1965, acting out scenes of interrogation in the styles of the American crime movies they love There are gangster scenes, and a bizarre musical sequence to the music of 'Born Free'. To begin with, Anwar is full of swagger, cheerfully explaining how he throttled his victims and pausing to dance the cha-cha-cha. He clearly loves the attention of his fan base and the idea of being a film star, and enjoys a kind of mythical status among the paramilitary organisations who continue to help the country's rulers govern by terror. In a bizarre TV show the young woman presenter almost swoons with the excitement of having these celebrity assassins on her show.
Towards the end of the film (which apparently took eight years to make) Anwar starts to view his actions in another light. After recreating a massacre in the jungle, which leaves  children in the 'cast' weeping and traumatised, he starts to feel some compassion for the young people whose lives he destroyed. When he himself re-enacts the part of an interrogated prisoner, he wonders 'did they feel what I did?'. 'Far, far worse,' is the obvious answer, 'as they knew they were going to die'. The final scene, in which he visits the balcony over the original paramilitary 'office' again, is indescribably powerful. Anwar, perhaps only spasmodically, does seem to be experiencing some degree of remorse. Yet with a narcissistic, apparently psychopathic individual so immersed in fictions and lies there is always the suspicion that what we see is an extended exercise in manipulative role-playing; Anwar and his cronies may be altogether beyond our normative narrative of crime and punishment. As in Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, others seem untouched by regrets; yet they come over as shells of human beings, inarticulate thugs entirely corrupted by their brush with power. One pretends he didn't know. One, only 10 at the time, joins in with idol-worshipping keenness and gradually seems to perceive something of the reality of what happened.

The Act of Killing is one of the most astonishing documentaries I have ever seen, using novel and brilliantly effective techniques  to take us through a dark period of history and examine the ways in which individuals and a country examine it. By the ingenious means of showing it at a human rights event in Djakarta, Oppenheimer was able to sidestep Indonesia's censors and have it shown in public places. The West's own compliance with the regimes's brutality (the CIA officers who helpfully provided logistical and intelligence support are living in comfortable retirement) should stop us from watching it with any complacency. Paul Preston's recent research makes it clear something similar happened in Franco's Spain. Though it seems unbearably precious to talk about theatre in such a context, the recreations did seem to touch on some root of the place of 'acting' in human culture - as an instrument for engaging with and exploring in a ritualistic way areas of fundamental importance to society and the individual. Something the ancient Greeks knew but which in the days of theatre as expensive entertainment is usually forgotten.  Many of the Indonesian participants in the film are listed as anonymous for fear of violent reprisals by the paramilitary terrorist who enforce the government's will today.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Ayckbourn, Relatively Speaking

Relatively Speaking (1965) was Ayckbourn's first big hit in the West End, played by big names (Richard Briers, Michael Hordern, Celia Johnson) and earning a congratulation from Noel Coward. Radio 4 Extra broadcast a production yesterday in celebration of the playwright's 75th birthday. It's evocative of its time - the speech habits somehow conjured up the seventies programmes of my youth - and perhaps a valuable period piece in its insight into the shifting value systems of the swinging sixties. Yet for all its patina of age it comes over freshly today, thanks to the brilliant writing and deft characterisation. Ayckbourn had said he set out consciously to write a well-made play, and Relatively Speaking has the precise farcical clockwork of Wilde, and behind him Sheridan and Goldsmith. It's a delight to find oneself caught up in the elaborate machinery of this tight four-hander. The humour comes from a ludicrous series of mistaken identities, delivered quickly enough to be convincing and yielding wonderful sustained passages of dialogue which can be taken two ways. The bite comes from the hints of dark duplicity at the core of things, and the end leaves us doubting whether any enduring relationship is possible in the world the play creates. Beneath the gentility lies something deadly: Pinter's image for his plays, 'the weasel in the cocktail cabinet', applies equally to Ayckbourn. A brilliant theatrical moment in the 'father's' plan for a business trip, then topped by the lining of a pair of slippers. Only the innocent young man at the centre of it all comes over as an improbably naïve drip in the harder cooler 21st century. A joy to listen to after Sunday lunch while more intrepid souls are pounding the London Marathon, and a reminder in the days of experiment and shock drama of the enduring richness of craftsmanship and a good ear for the follies of man, ay and woman too.

Sarah Morgan Memorial Concert

I'm sorry to be missing the memorial concert for Sarah Morgan at Winchester Guildhall today. Sarah  founded the Winchester Community Choir some years ago (my wife is a founder member) and brought the joy of singing a wide repertoire of music to those without formal musical training. From the list of choirs taking part in this all-afternoon event, she clearly had a transformational effect on others in the area, and enriched the lives of many. The remarkable line-up is ample testimony to the respect with which she was held in the musical community. I'm sure it will be a wonderful event. What better memorial could anyone have?

El chico de la última fila / Dans la Maison

A couple of weeks ago Drama on 3 broadcast The Boy at the Back, an English translation of a play by Spanish writer Juan Mayorga, a name hitherto unknown to me. It was an intriguing story of a disillusioned literature teacher encouraging a promising student with his creative writing. All very worthy, except that the writing comes out of the boy's project of insinuating himself into the house and family of a schoolfriend, snooping around in a voyeuristic way, spying on the parents' conversations and pursuing the mother. The play at the same time brings us into the house of the teacher and his wife, who runs a struggling art gallery for trendy work which  the lit teacher scoffs at.

The play is extremely clever: it examines the sources and effects of literature, upsetting the liberal humanist piety that reading and writing are good for us; it exploits the fourth wall convention of theatre, whereby we are all voyeurs of another life (this element is less strong in radio, of course); the relation of teacher and student is a witty variation on the Pygmalion myth; and throughout there are satiric observations of education, modern art, middle class life, sport obsession and business. The cleverness is anchored in a simple narrative, coming from the boy Claude's visits to the house, and charged with a sinister atmosphere as it becomes clear that this is not going to end well.

The play has been adapted into a film by Ozon, Dans la Maison, centred on a great central performance by Fabrice Luchini as the teacher, Germain. The play seems to move across to France quite comfortably - indeed, the running references to Flaubert and Un Coeur Simple made it seem naturally gallic. This time around, the teacher did seem almost incredibly foolish in his 'encouragement' of the pupil, and as ever with school dramas I wondered where all the time for these one-to-one sessions with the budding Flaubert was coming from. Claude is not sure how to end his story, and it is a doubt apparently shared by Mayorga / Ozon, as the piece tries out a number of conclusions before going for a particularly dark dénoument which once again tested credibility. Listening to the play I enjoyed not knowing how much of the boy's narrative was real, how much a fantasy - there seems to be an analogue in the imaginary numbers discussed in the maths sessions -  but in the film things were played more literally (though the device of having Germain pop up in the middle of scenes was amusing and effective). And although Claude stands out from his abysmal teenage peers for having a smidgeon of intelligence, it was hard to see that his factual observations mixed with the odd caustic remark really added up to the great gift that his teacher sees in him. Indeed what seems to be admired is a total absence of empathy or compassion, quite the opposite of Flaubert's imaginative operations. Odd that we are told so little of the boy's home background, which prompts these longings to belong to a normal family. But in all a nice piece covering many topics neatly, and an enjoyably acidic alternative to more sentimental treatments of creativity and the mentor-pupil relationship.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

John Berkavitch, Shame

Spoken-word performance events - poetry slams, hip-hop recitations - are big at the moment, at any rate in the uncloistered urban scene. There's a great scene in Bad Education where the wannabe trendy head takes some pupils to a basement rap contest and excitedly joins in to general agony. Well, that's me in a few months, I'm sure. I'm a neophyte in such matters, but the name of Kate Tempest is known to me, and the text of Brand New Ancients and the YouTube trailer for me have left me hungry for more. John Berkavitch until two days ago was another name off my radar. I went to his Shame performance at Winchester on the strength of a twitter 'Don't miss'  recommendation, written by someone who then didn't turn up himself. Perhaps that is the way of things these days.

Shame began - after a brief warm-up act - with an invitation to audience members to speak in public about their most shameful experiences. After the awkward silence thus created, Berkavitch launched into his piece, a series of interlocking autobiographical episodes of cowardice, selfishness, and humiliation. Three breakdancers accompanied him in various physical theatre configurations and provided short interludes of dance moves. A backing track provided musical atmosphere without being intrusive, and there was a programme of lighting and projections provided by a simple set of projectors around the performance area. With no technician in sight, the performance must have been synchronised exactly with this scheme (which makes one wonder what would have happened if an audience member had indeed volunteered a lengthy confessional speech, or the repartee had gone on longer than expected).

I found my attention engaged throughout: variations in the types of story and age perspectives involved provided variety under the overall thematic heading. There was a great deal more humour than the publicity material would lead one to expect, which made me reflect on how much comedy is indeed based on addressing our fears of disgrace. Visually I thought the physical side worked very well, conjuring up scenarios without overdoing things: I liked the coffee machine (though couldn't see the point of these café interludes) and the bike, in particular. The miming of things like tight suits and a young boy's anger was subtle and delightful. There must have been a great deal of technical preparation involved, yet the piece felt fresh and spontaneous. There seemed to be a mismatch between the realistic, often mundane, text and the heightened language of the visuals; I'd expected something more trance-like or hypnotically rhythmic in line with my unformed ideas about what hip-hop poetry might be. A small audience made me embarrassed about Winchester's provincial indifference to experimental work, but then again there was a kind of club feeling between us which helped with the intimate feel of the work. And while I enjoyed - if that is the word - the stories, I didn't feel the show did anything with the idea of shame or really explored how it informs and shapes us, besides recycling examples of it. No one took up the renewed invitation at the end to share embarrassing scenes from their life with the others, but I left feeling that spoken word events, with exciting stage movement and  lighting and projection designs like this, are something we should be looking into imitating at school level. Theatre has a valuable role as a forum in which we can confront and work through matters that are important and difficult on a personal level. Reverence for the canon, after all, soon becomes an easy excuse for not thinking or creating anything new, a way of hiding from oneself under the excuse of culture.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Winchester Death Masks

In the Early Life of Thomas Hardy (1928), there is a note dated 1888 about a builder and plasterer named Thomas Haviland Voss. Amongst his other labours, 'Voss used to take casts of heads of executed convicts ... Dan Pouncey held the heads while it was being done. Voss oiled the faces, and took them in halves, afterwards making casts from the masks. There was a groove where the rope went.' (This might refer to the rope of the gallows; or to the cord put under the plastercast to help extract it from the face.) The casts of executed murderers were valuable material to phrenologists, who studied the formation of the head in the belief that the shape of the skull gives valuable information on the character of its owner (a ceramic head for phrenological study is in the classroom opposite mine, and a daily object of envy).

William Palmer
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Winchester Prison apparently gave 28 death masks to the local museum. Where their provenance was before that remains a mystery, though the donation may have been an act of civic munificence on the part of Dr Henry Giles Lyford, prison surgeon and subscriber to the Winchester Museum Fund.

Whatever their origin, a selection of these masks are now on display in the City Space area of the Winchester Discovery Centre. Not all are of murderers. The first is of one 'Eustache', former slave in St Domingo who, in the slave uprising there (1791-1803) apparently saved some 400 white people from being killed. A life of loyal service to new masters followed, ending with a period in Paris in which Eustache was observed giving regularly and generously to the poor. What would psychologists call this behaviour pattern today? Extreme empathy? Phrenologists of the time labelled it 'Benevolence' and observed that the middle forehead, where our generous instincts allegedly have their physical manifestation, was appropriately large. Next to Eustache are a series of individuals seemingly untroubled by empathy,
Add caption

including William Palmer, 'Prince of Poisoners', who made a career of killing to cover his debts. His victims included his wife, brother, mother-in-law and four of his own children. The Inscription reads 'The first cast of William Palmer. Taken by William Bally phrenologist of Manchester the 14th June 1856 Stafford'. Next to Palmer is the murderer Courvoisier and next to him James Blomfield Rush, responsible for a notorious nineteenth-century outrage, the 'Murder at Stanfield Hall'. An excerpt is given of the exhuastive documentation and analysis of his head, which must have accompanied other details of his execution. Far from his worldly triumphs, the half-mask of Napoleon Bonaparte lies in a case nearby. The exhibition is completed by two anonymous casts: one looks like an execution victim: I saw, or imagined perhaps, a groove round the neck and the expression is set in a grimace. The other is small and ungrooved; perhaps something about its shape excited the curiosity of  surgeon who had a cast taken. Or perhaps the life had been remarkable in some way that we will never know.

Phrenology is now as dead as its models, but it is impossible not to look for the mind's construction in the face, and even without the accompanying information one might surmise that William Palmer was not of a kindly avuncular persuasion. Drs Lyford and Bally and their colleagues must have gone over these items painstakingly with compasses, noting down measurements with the same solemnity as a psychologist would write up data today. The results would then be tabulated and compared. Though what practical proposals could ensue from the knowledge gained? Perhaps some kind of eugenics system was hatching in advanced minds, whereby those endowed with ominously unbenevolent heads could be quietly terminated or isolated in some way. At the practical end of things, I imagine being Mr Pouncy holding the head of a Dorchester deceased convict and feeling Mr Voss's plaster or wax fall around my hands. What did a cast cost, though, and who paid for it? Was it simply a regular part of hospital procedure (casts of hands, too, were made, we are told). Did the bereaved (or in Palmer's case, any surviving family members) have any entitlement to object to their wretched kinsfolk being given a death beyond death?  And was it Voss or Pouncy, I wonder, who closed the victim's eyes?

Portraits in Winchester

Robbie Wraith, 'Tina Wraith'
There is an exhibition of portraits going on in Winchester at the moment, shared by various Jewry Street spaces. The Gallery in Winchester Discovery Centre has a selection of portraits by members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Rather than commissioned works, these are paintings from the artists' private collections, under the heading 'Family; Familiar'. Portraiture is a good example of 'The more you know, the less you know'. Direct and up-close images allow you to scan a face far more than you ever can in real life; and the more you observe, the more you want to know about the sitter. What is their story? Where is this room? What did they do the day before, and what thoughts went through their mind during the process of being portrayed? Around a still moment in a life, we weave a narrative. It's a journey pthat recently inspred a National Portrait Gallery publication, Imagined Lives. In this exhibition, the text accompanying the pieces helped to piece out the human story behind it, sometimes rather touchingly.

There is plenty to admire in a formal sense - a mixture of media, from popular oil to egg tempera (Anthony williams's fascinatingly lucid and detailed 'Portrait of Caroline' (2011), to an Anthony Connolly pencil sketch and a charcoal sketch by Robbie Wraith of his wife Tina, which I found arrestingly delicate and engaging - my breath-catching moment of the show. I liked the mysterious play of angles, surfaces and reflections in Michael Taylor's 'Woman Cradling Glass Vessel' (2010), and the optical tricks in the same artist's 'Couple', in which his wife's hair is parted to reveal a painting he made of them at the age of 17 entitled 'Flying'. Carpets lift, impossible apertures emerge, but all somehow contribute to the emtoional pull of the whole work. Paul Brason's 'Eighteen' confronts us with a young man of presumably that age, a Vermeer-like cast of light from the window falling across the door behind and bringing out the folds in his black shirt. There's an air of vulnerability mixed with confidence that made me think of Titian's 'Ranuccio Farnese', which is the highest praise of which I'm capable. Brason's small portrait of Roy Strong had an immediate, affectionate feel. I was fascinated by the story behind Toby Wiggins's 'Self-Portrait after George' (2013). The artist has for years been intrigued by the self-portrait by George Spencer Watson (1869-1934), and eventually made his own self-portrait modelled on it, painted in the same room and house as the original. But all the pieces are impressive, and make a fine riposte to anyone still claiming the art of painting is dead, or in recession.
Downstairs in City Space, an exhibition '9 out of 10 Believe' presents a series of figures, portrayed by three different artists: Mark Michael (satirist), Evelina Dee-Shepherd (realist) and Ben Mousley (expressionist). I found it hard to get into this: there was too much text for my taste, either as part of the images themselves, or accompanying the individuals; and the knowledge that what we were told veered from biographical fact to complete fabrication was irritating rather than compelling. The general air of attempted cleverness clouded any sense of the personal. Well, most of the work is sold so others clearly 'got it' better than I did.

Also in City Space is 'Winchester Death Masks', but this merits a separate post.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Kim Lim

Outing to Roche Court today, the New Art Centre sculpture park which is always beautifully atmospheric, whatever the weather (in today's case, grey and rainy). Craig Martin's colourful teapot looked strikingly cheerful in the drizzle, Gormley figures surprised you from behind a hedge, and Richard Long's path of flint and David Nash's burnt wood pieces looked satisfyingly at one with the Wiltshire landscape. In the gallery is the work of Kim Lim (1936-1997), a new name to me. I found the pieces instantly engaging: most of the work on show is sculpture in different types of stone (marble, Portland and granite) dressed and incised with simple flowing lines, creating a harmony of mutually respondent curves and receding planes. The exhibition was evocative of deep time, mass answered by space, the beautiful surface of stone given a rhythm by fissures and simple shapes. The work carries suggestions of Eastern philosophy, though apparently this artist was inspired at least as much by Cycladic sculpture, and Indian and South East Asian art as well as ancient Chinese vases: the common quality is a deep response to simple form, primal matter and simple but exquisitely judged decoration. Lim was Chinese-born but studied in St Martin's, settled in Britain and was married to William Turnbull. Her work could be placed in a minimalist context, suggesting through taut economical means elemental qualities of air and sea; it has the strange quality of the best minimal art and music of being cool and mathematical yet at the same time emotionally affecting. Equally the work could be set alongside Moore and Hepworth and an engagement through material with the flow of air, sea and earth. Above all it invites a meditative relationship, taking us to an experience of shapes and sensations in which contextual matters drift away. Nice to have the company and expert commentary of Kimvi Nguyen, who was especially taken by the 'Twelve Grey Colour Chart Paintings' (2013) by David Batchelor in the Artist's House. There is always exciting work to discover at Roche Court, and the idyllic setting between Stockbridge and Salisbury creates a viewing experience beguilingly different from that offered by the busy and trendy London galleries.