Posted in Theatre

June 6: Romeo and Juliet

I was surprised to discover that there is a fringe festival in Catford. I went along to see BOXLIT theatre hoping for a vibrant experience, but the venue was less than welcoming, and let the company down, I feel. Twenty minutes before the show was due to start, the theatre doors were still locked. Eventually, with ten minutes to spare, I was let in, and when I say “I”, I mean exactly that. I suppose on a Wednesday afternoon in Catford a small audience is to be expected, but it must have been very disappointing for the cast to have an audience of three (including the director and a member of the front-of-house team).

BUT- they acted their socks off.

The two actors took on a major Shakespearean tragedy and made it their own.

The set was stark, minimalist, modern. It was black and white. White fluorescent tubing, white draperies, the two main characters costumed in white. Minor characters in black. The only colour crept in via the excellent use of film.

Chloe Levis was a wonderful Juliet, and also took on the role of Friar Laurence. Seb Christophers made a good job of Romeo and in his gender swap, played the Nurse. Between them, the two actors portrayed Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris et al, with the action including a very clever solo fight scene.

This one-hour show pared the play down to its essentials, but kept the language. Despite the necessary million or so costume changes, there was no feeling of interruption of disconnection, thanks to the very clever use of film, music and audio-visual effects. I give credit for the smoothness of the production to Andrew Livingstone, for some very tight direction.

The company are taking the production to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. I hope they get the publicity and audiences they deserve, and I am very glad that I got to see them.

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Posted in Theatre

May 9: Macbeth #3

I had a ticket for the camera rehearsal of what will be a live broadcast to cinemas from the National Theatre. Sadly, Rory Kinnear was not available for the performance I saw, but his understudy did a good job, and Anne-Marie Duff was a brilliant Lady Macbeth.

This production has had mixed reviews, but I really liked it. The post-apocalyptic setting worked well, and I liked the little touches – mismatched enamel mugs at the banquet, gaffer-taped armour, a glittery dress made of offcuts of fabric and plastic.

The set was excellent and the action made full use of the Olivier’s revolve stage.

The action started with a very realistic beheading, and ended with another one. In between there was the usual goriness, augmented by some very dark manifestations of the supernatural ( with their heads on backwards for some reason) and three spectacular witches. There was a low-level, threatening rumble of music, and excellent lighting effects. In addition, this was the most inclusive casting I have seen recently, with a good mix of genders, ethnicities and dis/ability on stage. I especially liked the idea of having a girl in the youngest role, Fleance.

I thoroughly recommend this production.

Posted in Opera

May 1: Macbeth #2

I couldn’t afford a ticket for Macbeth at the Royal Opera House. Actually, I can rarely afford tickets for live opera in anything other than “fringe” venues. Sometimes there are live broadcasts of operas I want to see, but they are always on only one specific night, and I wasn’t free for the Macbeth broadcast. Occasionally, there are “encore” broadcasts scheduled as matinees, usually a few weeks later. Unusually, I wasn’t free for the encore of Macbeth either. So I bought the DVD.

I don’t have, and don’t want, a giant TV in my living room, but I must admit it would have been good to see this opera large-size. The set was very dark, with strange apertures and cages appearing every so often. The costumes were excellent-apart from Lady Macbeth’s, which were very boring. Macbeth had his arm in a brace for some reason, but it looked good. The gold chain mail he changed into partway through was a bit overdone, but not as overdone as MacDuff’s red leather coat.

There were a lot of witches. A whole coven of them, all with thick black monobrows and red turbans. There was a lot of blood. There were a bunch of very detailed fully-trapped warhorses, and a lot of strangely devoid-of-detail Birnham Wood branches.

Verdi always gives a good stir with the music, but there weren’t any “songs”, and while the voices were good, there was no outstanding performance for me.

It was good, but suffered from being on a small screen.

Posted in books

April 26: Macbeth #1

I have been working my way through the Hogarth reimaginings of Shakespeare’s plays, with varying degrees of pleasure and satisfaction. The latest offering is from the pen of Jo Nesbø, better known for Scandi-noir and Harry Hole.

Nesbø sets Macbeth in an un-named “northern” town, which I first assumed to be in Scotland, and still read as Scottish despite the author’s saying in a TV interview that he sees it as being somewhere like Newcastle. The characters are recognisable in most cases, and where they are not obviously Shakespearean, then they are clearly Harry-Holeiverseish.

I didn’t find a single character sympathetic-and sadly, I feel a little let down by this bad-cop, bad-cop scenario. I didn’t think the trope of the addict cop was necessary here, either. I think that Nesbø is relying too heavily on his most famous creation, and what could have been a much better book suffers from it.

Having said that, I like the idea of transforming the Thane of Cawdor to the Chief of Police, and I was intrigued by the Lady Macbeth character.

It’s likely that anyone coming fresh to Nesbø without prior knowledge of his other crime novels would like this a lot.

Three stars, I think.

Posted in Theatre

February 1: Julius Caesar

A visit to the Bridge theatre is something I am coming to look forward to very much. This time, the stalls had been stripped out to form a pit for an immersive version of the play. (In my cowardly way, I booked a seat, but in the front row, and by good fortune at the right end of the theatre for all the action). And there was action!

The use of hydraulically raised and lowered stage blocks was clever. The crowd management was well done and incorporated into the action. The opening rally and rock concert was as “Trump” as it could be, with banners and red caps a-plenty (including on my own head), and maybe one of the best versions of Seven Nation Army I have heard.

Michelle Fairley, David Morrissey and Ben Wishaw were all brilliant. Wishaw’s Brutus was introspective and almost a philosopher, in contrast to Fairley’s Cassius, who was strong and soldierly. Morissey’s Mark Anthony was the star for me.

There was no interval to break up the momentum of the play, and I think this was a good decision, even if it did deprive me of madeleines.

An excellent production, and worth the price of a front row seat.

As a diversion, the combination of Shakespeare and Seven Nation Army reminded me of the character Dogberry from Much Ado…. (The connection is via a band called the Dogberries – tenuous, I know). A few weeks ago, I was wracking my brains for the name of the figure of speech similar to, but not quite, a malapropism. Dogberry uses it a lot, and on looking him up, I was able to recall that this figure of speech is called an eggcorn. Which interestingly, is an eggcorn of acorn. We have a family eggcorn – we accuse each other of “casting nasturtiums” (when we mean aspersions, if you couldn’t work it out).

Here endeth the lesson.

Posted in books

Week 52

Last entry for 2017. No cultural outings this week – a quiet Christmas, followed by a sick in-between week wherein I am fairly sure I poisoned myself and various family members.

I finished my Reading Challenge!

img_0478Some highlights from the list: Yellow Blue Tibia – probably the best pun in a title ever; King Dido -a historical crime novel I would recommend to anyone; The Night Sessions, excellent SciFiCri.

I won some audio books, all Maigret stories, and listened to some of them; I read a few graphic novels, and some children’s books, including The Dark Is Rising, which I wasn’t supposed to finish until the new year, but I couldn’t resist.

I finally got to grips with Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, and made a dent in the Dickens backlog. There were six cookbooks, and three books I bought because I didn’t think I would get to see the plays based on them, and then actually did get to see them all . There was a new Donna Leon, a new Dave Hutchinson, a new Christopher Fowler, a new Jo Nesbo and a new Ragnar Jonasson (do you detect that I like a crime story?)

Finally, there were two new Hogarth Shakespeares, based on Othello and King Lear.

It was a real challenge to read 100 books this year, as well as keep up my weekly culture outing. Next year’s challenges will be simpler, I think.

Posted in books, Opera, Theatre, video

Week 42

Opera

Glyndebourne: Hamlet

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Finally, I got to see  one of the Hamlets I should have seen back in week 27, as the wonderful BBC broadcast the Glyndebournd production. I have to say that I don’t quite get the thrill from modern opera music as I do from “classic” arias and choruses. I find it literally impossible to distinguish the music in one modern opera from another. Having said that, I do notice the voices, and what was interesting in this production was the two countertenors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Ophelia was a bit over-the-top in her madness, and I’m not sure it was necessary to put her in a scanty bikini. I liked Alan Clayton’s Hamlet very much. The set was grey. The costumes were grey. It worked. The splashes of blood were shocking against all that grey. I did like this production, even if there weren’t any standout songs.

Theatre

Young Vic: Wings

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This was brilliant. A short, no-interval play charting an older woman’s experience of and recovery from s stroke. The direction was inspired, and Juliet Stevenson was overwhelmingly good. How she managed to act while suspended on a wire for 90 minutes is beyond me. See this if you get a chance to.

Reading challenge

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One book this week, and not a brilliant one. I found the three-section three-narrators structure irritating, and the plot was clunky. I didn’t like the characters, and I was left dissatisfied, despite the no-loose-ends conclusion. Read it if you like lost-manuscript stories.

Posted in books, food

Week 39

A quiet week, punctuated only by essential “winter wellbeing admin”: flu jab; purchase of a rug to stop the living room feeling so chilly; renewal of magazine subscriptions.

I cancelled a subscription to a monthly cheese club on the grounds that I could buy all the “mystery” cheeses I’d received (the same suppliers, identical packs), from Waitrose for less money and a guarantee that I would actually want any that I bought. And I wouldn’t have to wait at home for the postman to bring me a weird-smelling parcel.

I had planned to see “Labour of Love” starring Martin Freeman, but the performance I was booked for was cancelled. Instead, I caught up with some reading.

2017 100 – book reading challenge update

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Four books this week: two crime books, a science fiction and the newest from the Hogarth reimagined Shakespeare series.

TheSeagull is Ann Cleeves’s newest VeraStanhope book. I have to admit to only having seen the TV incarnation of Vera, and I like that version of her very much. The book version is harder, rougher around the edges, less well dressed, more of a drinker. I found her less engaging than the TV character, but I still enjoyed the book. It seems odd to start with the last in a series, but I assumed (correctly) that this would be a story that had not yet been adapted. It was interesting to see that the literary Vera, even in book 8, was still a DI and still had her core team of Joe and Holly around her. This makes me hopeful that the other books will be different enough from the TV series to make them enjoyable reading. Next on my Vera list will be volume 1.

The second crime book is no 5.7 (!) in the RiversofLondon series. They are crime stories, and PeterGrant is a detective (and another of my favourites), but there is so much magical realism in these books that the crime could take second place. This is a novella set between two other books in the series, and is great fun.

NewBoy is an interesting retelling of Othello. I am enjoying this series, and have read each one as it has been published. This one is set in an elementary school in Washington DC, and is full of the petty jealousies of children and teachers that come to a head on one school day. It could have been longer and more nuanced. I give this three stars.

Finally, into outer space. I have really liked DaveHutchinson’sFracturedEurope series, and decided to give this a try even though I have not really been a “hard SF” fan for a long time. Spaceships and aliens generally leave me a bit cold nowadays, but I loved this. No spoilers here, apart from saying spaceships figure large!

These four books bring my total up to 78 so far this year. 22 to go before the end of the year. I think I’ll make it.

Posted in Ballet, books, Musical theatre, Opera, video

Week 28

The cough persists, but is slowly receding, and fortunately leaving me enough time between bouts to be able to enjoy stuff without annoying my neighbours too much.

Theatre

Union Theatre

Tim Rice/Stephen Oliver: Blondel

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It seems that I am gradually coming round to an enjoyment of musicals. (Not all of them, though!)

Blondel is a very early Tim Rice offering, and was good fun, if a bit panto-ish. There were some outstanding moments, great voices, and some excellent characterisations, including the best Prince John since Alan Rickman.

The Union is a theatre best experienced in winter, I think. The summer heat inside this little railway arch was oppressive, and the seats are packed in with very little legroom. I was seated near a portable air-conditioner, which was noisy and didn’t do much to cool the air. On the plus side, the cafe is good, with lots of outside space.

Opera

ROH/ Big Screen

Puccini:Turandot

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These “big screenings” are an event with their own style. Picnic suppers, live-tweeting and singing lessons in the intervals.

I wasn’t able to get to the local Big Screen this time, and so missed my traditional Wimpy takeaway picnic,  but because it was a live stream, I was able to join in via my iPad, with a home-delivery KFC picnic on the sofa. (Sadly, Wimpy have not joined the home delivery market yet.)

Turandot is spectacularly problematic. One of the best arias ever in NessunDorma, but as bad in its treatment of women as you could find pretty much anywhere.

i live in hope that one day I will see a performance of this opera that does not use yellow-face. It must surely be possible to find Asian singers; or if not, to change the setting so it is not so obviously Chinese.

Ballet

ROH/BBC4

Wayne McGregor: Woolf Works

IMG_0515I confess to not being a ballet lover. I like some dance, but generally speaking, big ballets leave me fairly cold.  Having said that, occasionally one will catch me out. This week the BBC broadcast a live-ish production of WoolfWorks from the Royal Opera House, and I was captivated. The music was modern, costumes were beautiful, design was excellent and the dancers were wonderful. i particularly liked the middle Orlando section,  and this has spurred me to download a copy of the book to add to my to-read list.

Theatre/Cinema

Donmar/Picturehouse

Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

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Okay, so not live, but this film of JuliusCaesar from the Donmar was one of the highlights of my cultural year so far. Outstanding performances by Harriet Walter as Brutus and Martina Laird as Cassius; some inspired design/props elements (particularly the red rubber gloves); and a bit of hard rock music, too. The use of a prison setting, and its incorporation into the play was clever, and the all-female, multi-ethnic casting was well-justified. I loved this, and recommend it to anyone, Shakespeare lover or not.

Books

SUMMER readingchallenge

I decided to just read these one a week in the order they come, so, first up for this week was StAubyn.

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There is a lot of hype about this author, and the book is certainly readable. It is also mercifully short, because the subject matter is shocking. I couldn’t understand why so much praise had been heaped on it, until I did a bit of research and discovered that it was autobiographical. That put a very different complexion on the story, and pushed me into buying the other four books in the series. Winner of the 1992 Betty Trask Award.

The rest of the Patrick Melrose series kept me occupied while I suffered with the lingering cough that stopped me sleeping this week.  I found this whole series bleak and populated with really unlikeable people. Thankfully, there is redemption at the very end of the last book.

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Posted in books, video

Week 27

This week was designated as “HamletWeek“. Three possible performances – two of which I actually had tickets for. Then fate intervened, of course.

IMG_0260First up was ChangelingTheatre and their outdoor offering. Great reviews, but, on the day I had booked, coinciding with the beginnings of a head cold, and, worse than that, FLYINGANTDAY. Sitting with a headache in a field of flying ants is probably one of my worst nightmares. I stayed home and re-read Ian McEwen’s “Nutshell”.

Next up was the new opera at Glyndebourne. Obviously too far away, but being broadcast live to cinemas. Irritatingly, I had already booked broadcast night to see another version of Hamlet, so couldn’t take advantage of the air-conditioning and cheap comfy seats in my local Picturehouse. I hope there will be an “Encore” screening at some point in the future.

The Hamlet I was most looking forward to was the AndrewScott portrayal at the Harold Pinter theatre. Sadly, my head cold had developed by then into a full-on coughing and spluttering chest-based spectacular. I sadly returned my ticket.

I ended up on my sofa on Friday evening watching the most over-the-top filmed version anyone IMG_0262could possibly imagine. There are many reviews of this in the world, so I’m not going to add to them, except to say that I am certain that casting Derek Jacobi as Claudius must have been a Kenneth Branagh joke. (Actually, this Claudius was one of the best I have ever seen, and made the film much better than it might have been.) I could have done without Robin Williams, but Charlton Heston was wonderful.

Books

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First up, the afore-mentioned Nutshell.

Other reading this week included two with “strange” female protagonists. Both are unreliable as narrators for various reasons which don’t become clear until the ends of their stories. Both well worth a read.

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Finally, I have set myself a challenge for the rest of the summer, which, for me, ends on August Bank Holiday. Here are my six SUMMER books, chosen by author surname initial.

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The aim is to read all these between now and August Bank Holiday (which marks the end of summer for me).

S: Never Mind (Edward St Aubyn)
U: Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Dubravka Ugrešić)
M: Sashenka (Simon Sebag Montefiore)
M: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Anthony Marra)
E: The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
R: Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins (James Runcie)