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Switzerland

On my way up to Harrogate by train, so a rare mid-week posting.

The reviews came out yesterday. A steady 2 star set of ratings. It’s disappointing.

I’m in the privileged position of having seen the end stage of the creative process of this production just before it went into previews.  I saw the director, the actors, the designers and stage management all working. I talked to them – and still do. What no one knows is what a great team have made this production.  Within the hierarchy, I’m pretty low, but from day one I was treated and spoken to as an equal.

(Right at this moment I am caught between taking the lid off my tea to let it cool down as it’s too hot to drink, and leaving the lid on so I don’t throw tea around the carriage. Too late…)

It means I look forward to going into work. I’m in a team of people who smile, chat, respect each other, work as a team – and above all work very hard.

That’s a thing people do know, but don’t always think about.  And this is something people should think about when they are writing reviews.  This play is a two-hander lasting 95 minutes with no interval.  The two actors are barely off stage the whole time.  They are locked into a 90 minute conversation with each other.  Think how much that means they have to learn and remember.

It’s more than a memory feat.  It’s an intense play. One character is relentlessly cynical and negative. They are locked into a dance and the level of trust the two actors have in each other is (has to be) extraordinary. If one forgets a line, the other has to react. If a prop malfunctions, they have to deal with it. They are both exposed.  It is acting at a dangerous and exciting level – but it must be utterly exhausting. Two days of each week they perform two shows.

I don’t mind people not liking the play itself. (Having said that I know what a bad show is and this is not a badly written play by ANY stretch of the imagination). But please give the cast some credit, some acknowledgement for their work and achievement. They are superb actors giving superb performances.  Two stars? One for the play and one for the production?  Well if you insist, but at least acknowledge the work before you, in your review or opinion.  I am not anti-critics.  I think well informed, reflective, historically and politically aware critics are important.  I just don’t like something being pulled down because someone doesn’t like it very much,

The West End is a business. People make money from it. People lose money in it.  And most people working in it really care about what they are doing; they do what they do to high standards. Please remember that, especially when you aren’t enjoying something very much.

 

The Accordionist

The Accordionist Book Cover The Accordionist
Three Evangelists
Fred Vargas
Vintage
2018
P/B

I'm not going to write too much about this book because as regular readers know I am a huge fan of Fred Vargas. She writes hugely enjoyable, eccentric but layered in history (her other profession is as an archaeologist) mysteries in two series: the Inspector Adamsberg stories and The Three Evangelists. The two series also interlink characters.  This is the third and final - for obvious reasons - of the Three Evangelists novels. Don't start with it if you have not read any before. Go to the first one whose English title is The Three Evangelists. I love them.  I suspect some people won't. Her style is certainly individual, and the world she immerses the reader in is both recognisable and totally her own. Life would be greyer without her novels.

Love and Fame

Love and Fame Book Cover Love and Fame
Susie Boyt
Little Brown
2017
P/B

I have to  say the title of this novel  and its cover do it an injustice, for its real focus is grief, which is not to say this is a depressing book. The reason I picked it is because it is about an actor, a profession I am fascinated with. It doesn't have to be said but Susie Boyt is daughter of Lucien Freud and granddaughter of Sigmund Freud. (Somewhere in the story two characters talk about psychoanalysis.) Its other appeal for me was its being about the beginning of a marriage, something not written about enough. I didn't love this book as a whole but I am so glad I read it. I wasn't too caught up in its middle class setting or the general plot, but what really engaged me was Boyt's writing about grief from a wife's and a daughter's perspective. I found it at times deeply moving and was left realising that the complexities of grief are almost unbounded. It left me feeling a tiny bit prepared for the un-preparable, and that it had given me insight into this complex topic. That said, this is a novel and not a manual and the interesting, well drawn characters and slightly unpredictable plot kept me turning the pages. If this review sounds a little luke-warm that is not what I intend.

Wise Children

Wise Children Book Cover Wise Children
Angela Carter
Vintage Classics
1991
P/B

I first read this many moons ago and it swept me away from page one. With a stage version in sight I decided to re-read it. I am not a great one for revisiting the past as I find my passions cool over time. However  this book caught me in its spell once more, fresh as a daisy. Charting the lives of twins Dora and Nora, by default of their professions as "hoofers", the book charts the history of show-business, from actor-managers, through end-of-the-pier, vaudeville, revue and a major trip to Hollywood.  The plot is a family epic. Carter weaves Shakespeare constantly through the book, both literally and by reference. The plot which involves twins, foundlings, confusion, coincidence, mayhem, melancholy, sex and death certainly feels Shakespearean in spirit. Despite its intricacies Carter always guides the reader through with her magnificent storytelling. It is very, very funny, unsentimental and has a huge life-force to it which makes me never want it to end.  The Vintage Classics edition is worth buying for Ali Smith's introduction. For me, a classic

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It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realise just how much you love them.

 

Mantegna and Bellini

This exhibition is at the National Gallery in London.  I had a four hour gap between rehearsals yesterday and so I went to see it.  I really enjoy going to gallery exhibitions but I feel saturated by so-called once in a lifetime blockbusters, trekking round with people getting in my way and generally just ending up getting angry – possibly not the right response for viewing great art.

But this exhibition knocked me for six.  It’s extraordinary.  I couldn’t pull myself away from the paintings which is very unusual for me.  It’s focus is the relationship between these two artists who were related by marriage, and which is pretty much unique.  They didn’t paint together, they had different styles,  they had very different backgrounds and ways to success, but they painted responses to each other’s work. So this exhibition, superbly curated, hangs together paintings which have all sorts of links. That in itself is a reason to go, but the paintings themselves by both artists are breathtaking.  I rarely respond to  paintings on an emotional level, but these paintings are not only some of the most stunning technical feats, but carry a life in their composition, subject matter and faces which left me spellbound.  For me this is one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen.  On a Friday afternoon it was busy but not annoyingly so (I get annoyed in art galleries – I really need my own private views.)  If for no other reason, if you can, just go to look at the faces of the people in the paintings.  No exaggeration to call this a once in a lifetime exhibition.

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Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Carrie Fisher  (and with lots of variations from other people.)

Measure For Measure

The lady sitting next to me asked me if it was over at the interval.  It was a fair enough question. Her English was good but she was Russian (and not Italian as I had asked her – that went down well….).  Josie Rourke’s blast of a production of Measure For Measure at the Donmar certainly seemed to have everyone in a place of disquiet by the end of the first half.  We’d seen the whole play in a condensed version.  I have to say I was quite pleased about  this as I have only ever seen it twice before: once with Josette Simon, and once with Romola Garai.  Both are actors I really admire but the play just never left and impression on me. At the end of the first half of this production I had physically jolted in my seat and my mouth was open.

I had heard the director talking about her production some time ago and had remembered her talking about Isabella’s problematic silence and a cry, but nothing prepared me for the roar that came out of Hayley Atwell into the face of Nicholas Burns’ Duke.

The play had been in traditional-looking costume up until this point.  I found Hayley Atwell one of those actors whom it was hard not to look at or listen to.  She had such presence. I think because this was a condensed version of the play, cut to the bone the power and darkness of its plot and emotions really came across.  It is like an anti-romantic comedy.  By the end, a man is punished with a marriage (I gather characters have been cut altogether) and Isabella, who wants no marriage with any one, is forced into a loveless one.  And her silence at the end felt painful.  It seemed to be “justified” by her powerful reunion with  Claudio (Sule Rimi) her brother.  Rimi was another actor I found it hard not to watch, so together with Atwell the reunion was intense. But then came the roar as Isabella ran at the Duke. It was one of the most shocking moments I have experienced in theatre and I am left wondering if the women watching in the audience were more relieved than surprised at this woman’s cry against the agony of her situation.

Then something else happens.  The cast change into modern costume and off we go again.  Only this time Atwell plays Angelo (Isabella’s tormentor) and Jack Lowden who has played Angelo now takes on Isabella’s role.  Instead of sexual repression within the context of law and religion, Lowden plays an ex-addict in a clinic.  This time “Isabella” is faced with the death of Claudio or being forced back into the life of a self-destructing addict.  There’s a lot of humour with the use of mobile phones but generally the modern setting is played with fairly lightly so as not to overwhelm the exploration of ideas here amongst the characters.   Second time around the woman wields power but she is the tyrant.  The male tyrant is now the captive.

I watched Atwell thinking is she playing a male part as a woman character or as the female actor she is. But these were pointless questions.  Atwell was a woman, playing the role as if written for a woman. Actor and role were hand in glove.  What was interesting was my response to the woman as “baddie” was to laugh more (along with many in the audience).  There is a pleasure in it (see Killing Eve).  And Lowden (who for me lacked Angelo’s insidious sexual charisma a bit in the first half) became a weak man and so for me unsympathetic. Yet at the end the horror of what Angelo has done (although his punishment as marriage to male Mariana (Ben Allen) was less effective, and the silenced Lowden forced into a kiss by the Duke was as unsettling as the end of the first half.

At the end I asked the Russian woman if she had enjoyed it.  She said she had (and she had laughed quite a lot). she said she had only read he play and she had missed some of the language play in the second half because of the gender swapping (I forgot to say there as some very funny moments in the second half for this reason).  But she said she didn’t like feminist things and wasn’t sure about the homosexual relationship.  I said to her that this wasn’t really a feminist production;  it put a woman in a conventionally male position but what it was also showing was that the abuse of power is one of the blackest of human behaviours. The final “gay” relationship was totally non-consensual. She looked thoughtful and then agreed with me.

Having said that though I have to say that, Isabella/Atwell’s scream is still a sound more likely to be buried inside a woman than a man, and for that reason it is just as important men see this production as women.

I’ve mentioned the main actors who were outstanding but I also have to not Jackie Clune’s hilarious Pompey (with Russian accent in the second half which fortunately amused my seated Russian neighbour), Rachel Denning comically and believably confident as Mistress Overdone, and Helena Wilson whose small parts as Mariana/Justice show her as an actor to watch (especially after her part in the Donmar’s previous The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).

I’m still thinking about this play and production as a friend said, those evenings are  the best.

 

(Apologies for errors in the above – I’m short of time and had to whack it out rather than not write it at all)

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In a rich man’s house there is no place to spit but his face.

Diogenes of Sinope

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Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Seneca