Blogging Bert

Hmm...

Menu Close

Category: Recommendations (page 1 of 6)

Translations

I hate to start a review by praising the set, as this gives the impression that design is better than the content. However the set for the National Theatre’s production of Translations is genuinely one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in a theatre.  The photo above doesn’t do it justice.  It’s an Irish landscape, a moor where the peat is being cut.  This surrounds a man-made space which is a hedge-school.  These were local and locally-run schools in Irish villages, common all over Ireland at this time – the play is set in the early 1830’s – to educate Catholic children and which would eventually be replaced by state-run schools in which English will be the official language.  The children were taught in houses or barns.   In this design it was a house and it took me a while to realise the design for it was to have no (i.e. imaginary) walls.  It was dominated by the most extraordinary visualisation of an Irish sky, beginning with the setting sun in the first half, and rainstorm in the second.  The effect was achieved with lighting and controlled haze (goodness knows how they achieved that but I presume using large fans) to create clouds. It was stunning.  I was with an Irish acquaintance from Dublin who said she felt she was looking at a real Irish sky. The house  was an intimate area for the actors, whilst the moor and sky drew the action onto an almost epic scale, and let you remember how much landscape shapes people’s lives.

Just like the trick of the house’s invisible walls, so the play text plays tricks with language. The father and son teachers in he school teach Latin and Greek as well as their native Gaelic.  When the other brother returns having been away for some years, he comes back with English soldiers who are making a map of Ireland and in so doing translating the place names into English.  The whole play is  in spoken English but when the soldiers turn up, the audience comes to realise that they don’t understand the (Gaelic-speaking) Irish and vice versa.  Only the teachers can speak both languages and so are left to translate. It’s a brilliant device used by Brian Friel in this play which many people consider his masterpiece. The landscape an language are inexorably tied together.

Irish history is complex and I am too ignorant of it to write much here, but whereas the play could be a simple attack on colonialism, it is in fact a beautiful, nuanced examination of the beauty and dangers of  differing and common languages.  In one scene, an English soldier and a Irish woman express their attraction to each other without having a common language.  It is a beautiful, romantic scene but one which is undercut with dangerous currents.  The play has a tragic conclusion, but the horrors are left unseen and  the impact is all the stronger.  We know the future for these people; we are watching it being made.  The final stage picture converts 19th century Ireland into a stark, silent, menacing image of barbed wire and guns, which I felt was unnecessary.  In today’s tumultuous world of immigration, broken and newly created borders, individualism, and closed and open communities, the play quietly spoke for itself.  It was therefore with some surprise that I saw it was written in 1979.

Pressure

We had tickets for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and it was cancelled so into Pressure instead, which I had been planning on seeing, for obvious reasons, anyway.  I knew it was going to be good because everyone I know who had seen it recommended it.  What I was unprepared for in this “weather thriller” was its emotional depth.

It usually takes me 10 minutes or so at the beginning of a play to forget that I am watching a group of people standing onstage speaking someone else’s written lines.  Yet from the moment David Haig walks on, his shoulders hunched and his head dropping slightly, despite knowing his face so well, for me he just was James Stagg. Before hearing about this play I had no idea whom Stagg was, let alone what he did. A quiet, gentle man with integrity and stubbornness coursing through his veins, Group Captain James Stagg was the chief meteorologist who was in the extraordinary position of having to advise General Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair) on the weather conditions for the D-Day landings. The play follows the four leading days when England was experiencing fine weather, that Irving P. Krick, an American forecaster was saying would continue, and that Stagg was predicting would suddenly culminate in a terribleand disastroues storm on the planned day of the landings. Krick relies on using past examples of similar weather conditions to predict the future, but has no experience of the British weather that Stagg’s life has been rooted in. Stagg calls himself a scientist and so refuses to say the storm will definitely come, but that he believes the storm will arrive. He fears if Eisenhower ignores his warning, the toll of lives lost would be intolerable.

The play succeeds well enough as a gripping portrayal of this dilemma, with Eisenhower’s deliberation and final decision ratcheting up the tension despite the fact the audience knows the ending. The pressure doesn’t end there, though, when a fact I was not aware of is revealed adding another layer.

The acting, text, direction and design are harmonious and create an evening of crackling drama. Haig didn’t write the play for himself, but it is hard to imagine anyone else playing Stagg.  I found tears running down my cheeks three times much to my surprise. The emotional pull of the characters is so intense. There is one moment, one of those rare moments when an actor – in this case Haig-  almost ceases to be an actor and takes performance onto a higher level. It’s a moment of no words and even as I write this, remembering it, I feel my stomach tighten.

The play is about three people, and again unexpectedly the third character is not really Krick, but Eisenhower’s driver and mechanic, without whom at one point Eisenhower says he could not have done what he did. Laura Rogers plays Kay Summersby so well – at this point she is also Eisenhower’s assistant. Their true relationship is unknown; the play hints at a love that could never be.  Summersby started as an ambulance driver which reminded me of Sarah Water’s meticulously researched Blitz-set novel, The Night Watch in which one of the characters is an ambulance driver. I’m also reading Simon Mawer’s Tightrope, a follow up to his novel The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Trapeze in the US), based on the experiences of the few women in WW2 who worked for the SOE and were dropped behind lines to work with the French Resistance. With the RAF Centenary also being celebrated, I was thinking of a BBC documentary about the women pilots who delivered all sorts of aircraft from the factories for the RAF wherever they were needed. What all these women had in common it seems to me was a sense of loss when the War was over;  that they were no longer needed and would have to return to the civilian life of a woman, which may or may not have involved marriage and children.  Haig’s writing and Rogers’ performance captured that, and in a quiet subverting of accepted gender roles, he portrays the men having their lives defined by their own children, and a woman who wants control of her own life, to be independent and choose her own path.

Pressure is simply a terrific night out at the theatre, one which holds the audience in the palm if its hand.

Go see, as they say.

Arrowood

Arrowood Book Cover Arrowood
Laura McHugh
Arrow
2017
Paperback

One of those books that if you get the wrong impression about what sort of narrative it has, from the blurb and internet reviews, you may end up not enjoying it. I thought it was going to be a psychological mystery in the vein of Barbara Vine, especially as it is dominated by a house. Whilst it may be a relative of Vine's, it's a distant one. I would call this almost a mood piece, but even that gives the wrong impression because McHugh still uses the tropes of  psychological thrillers to a very rewarding effect. To describe it makes it sound less original than it is - a young woman, Arden, who may or may not be a reliable narrator, returns to her family home, having lived a life haunted by the disappearance of her infant twin sisters when she herself was a young child.  Reliability or lack of it, always a good bet for a mystery, lies deeper in this book than most. Arden is writing a thesis on nostalgia and this book continually undermines notions of history and memory. Both the house and the Mississippi river dominate the book in unexpected ways.  There are hints of the supernatural too. McHugh also undermines cliches of the mystery, like a visit to a fortune teller, in immensely satisfying ways. Rarely have I found such satisfaction in the final chapters of a mystery as in this book; McHugh reveals layers which continue to mirror and enhance her themes, whilst staying firmly in an utterly believable narrative. It left me  moved and reflective, lingering on in me as my favourite books usually do.

Hereditary

If you haven’t seen the film then don’t read further unless you know you will never see the film….

Read more

Sky Marbles

I love and am proud to work for the Foundling Museum which I think is one of the most important museums in London.  It is a place of heartbreak, sadness and hope.  It is a beacon of how important the arts are for changing lives.

Even though I am used to being there amongst its paintings and objects telling their silent stories, occasionally I still get overwhelmed. This work done with the children of Thomas Coram Nursery, inspired by Tom Railton (the Museum’s 2014 Artist- In -Residence) brought tears to my eyes.  As you look at their Sky Marbles you hear their voices talking about why they have made toys for the foundling children, and what types and colours of weathers they have in the marble they have made.

Sky Marbles – The Foundling Museum

Tom Railton – Cluds

Waiting For The Last Bus

Waiting For The Last Bus Book Cover Waiting For The Last Bus
Richard Holloway
Canongate
2018
Hardback

I picked up this book (partly because of its beautiful cover I admit) because I read Holloway's Doubts and Loves some year's back.  I found him a writer of profound compassion, with an ever-questioning mind and much wisdom.  He has journeyed from Christian fundamentalism, through the Church as Establishment, to the age of 84 as " a doubting priest" who writes and broadcasts.  I've been dealing with deaths of family and friends and knew I needed this book.  He writes from a Christian perspective but he is steeped in knowledge of many religions as well as science and his beloved literature.  Again and again he turns to quoting poets to describe the human condition.  To put it simply this short book is about us "denying" death because we have lost the rituals surrounding it that religion gave us.  But more than that it is a book about how to live at peace with ourselves, and how we can do that at the very end of our lives.  in so doing we help ourselves and those around us. He believes that we are resurrected through remembrance in the hearts and minds of those who know and love us, and writes much about the various ways we can create remembrance.  It is not a sad book, it does not depress  the spirit; it gives out hope and love. When Holloway himself dies, the world will lose an extraordinary mind.  But he will live on in the grace and wisdom of his beautiful writings.

The Word Is Murder

The Word Is Murder Book Cover The Word Is Murder
Anthony Horowitz
Arrow
2018
Paperback

Although this is a novel, it is a rather dazzling refraction of fact into fiction. Horowitz with his ingenious mind is playing with the idea of how a writer turns their life experiences and influences via inspiration (for want of a better word) into a narrative - a novel.  It is a very entertaining crime novel, with the twist in its concept that the storyteller is Horowitz himself.  Written like a memoir the narrative references his life ("fact") as "Horowitz" meets an ex-detective, now consultant to the police, who is investigating a murder and asks "Horowitz" to write about him and the case ("fiction").  The case itself without this extra dimension is clever enough, but although I guessed the murderer fairly early on, "guessed" is the operative word as I had no idea of the unravellings that followed.  And the ex-policeman Hawthorne is a  classic creation, it has to be said.  This could easily be a book too clever for its own good but for the fact that Horowitz is a master writer.  Superficially it is huge fun but you can also take it as an investigation of the writer's mind.

I listened to the wonderful Rory Kinnear (whom I've just seen as Macbeth on stage) reading it, and he does so adding even more entertainment value.

Caroline, Or Change

I should have written about this before now as I saw it some weeks back.  But then again I was so overwhelmed by it when I saw it, I don’t think I could have focused my written thoughts on it.  Tony Kushner’s Caroline Or Change is somewhere between a musical and an opera.  It is composed-through and that in itself is an astonishing

Read more

Advert

Waterstones bestsellers

My three personal picks:

The Word Is Murder – Horowitz

The Sparsholt Affair – Hollinghurst

Why We Sleep – Walker

HaHaHopscotch

At present I am doing at least 63 jobs to keep the wolves from the door.  One of these is helping out a Garden Historian friend who has a business called HaHaHopscotch, which helps bring the past alive for children through the re-creation of past childhood games.  Last weekend we participated in the St George’s Festival in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens organised by the Vauxhall Trust.

Children were gathered together and had various races and games: (wooden) egg and spoon, three – legged race, tug of war, sack race, wheelbarrow race, hoop and stick , battlecock and shuttledore and others.  The children were all great – enthusiastic and well behaved and came in a variety of ages and heights.  Although discipline is a bit harder when you don’t know their names, children do seem to get along really well when they don’t know each other, and older ones are very kind and caring with younger ones.  As can be seen from the photo, this Mum who grew up in Burundi was a whizz with a hoop and stick.   A fine time was had by all.

Details can be found here:  HAHAHOPSCOTCH