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Notes From My Life

10th July

Talked to Dad on the phone. He said how pleased he was to hear I was writing a play.  Who’d have thought my elderly engineer father would be pleased I’d left teaching to write a play.

Listened to the hatmaker and designer Philip Treacy on Desert Island Discs. When he was 6 in a small Irish school he had asked his teacher if he could sew, which only the girls did. The teacher not only said yes but taught all the boys sewing, and the girls the boys’ work.  His Dad took him shopping to buy a doll when he was 9.  He heard a neighbour say to his father, didn’t he think it a bit odd a young boy was dressing a doll, to which his father replied: whatever makes him happy.  His father died just a few years later.

11th July

World Cup Semi-final.  As I write this England 1 – Croatia 0.  Journey into work appalling and nearly couldn’t get off the tube at Leicester Square.  As curtain came down at end of Act 1 I saw on monitor [camera in auditorium focused on the stage]  someone crashing into it.  I looked down from my perch to see one of the ASM’s lying on his back looking up at me.  Apparently he had dashed on to do the scene change so quickly he had tangled himself up in the curtain.  The show report read that he hadn’t hurt anything except his ego.

12th July

Kate from yoga saying her next door neighbour had died at the age of 95 from a heart attack. Long story but in the process she learned that if you don’t have the actual DNR paperwork with you, it has to go ahead – dreadful in this case as it probably achieved nothing but breaking her neighbour’s ribs. Her daughter had come over but had left the DNR paperwork at home not realising she had to have it in hand. Also if you die at home the police have to be called to rule out foul play, and the undertakers have to come to the house as hospital morgues are only for patients who die in hospital.  Not jolly facts but useful to know to help dealing with grim situations.

14 July

Went for my “annual” MOT at the doctors. First had an interface to deal with confirming my age, address and other things. Once I had negotiated that, I was given a form to fill in by hand all the same information plus answer a few questions on how much alcohol I drink.    Then I saw the doctor who squinted at their computer screen form about 4inches away and typed laboriously with two fingers (or so it seemed).  Then I got put on a machine which automatically weighed me and recorded my height.  Put my arm in an opening where it took my blood pressure.  The future is here.

16 July

Guess who saw the play last night.  Singularly unimpressed and failed to notice the majority of my hard work.  (I have been renamed “God” by the DSM as I control light, dark, wind, fire, snow and air conditioning).   Barely noticed my “flicker to black”.  More interested in the good amount of legroom the seat had, and the interval’s cup of tea and ice-cream in  the “lovely” theatre bar.  Conclusion was something along the lines of “two and a half hours I won’t get back but glad I saw it”.   Nice to feel appreciated.

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.

Quote

Every student needs someone who says, simply, “You mean something. You count.”

Tony Kushner

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It’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.

Bill Watterson

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.

Quote

We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.

Oliver Sacks

Notes From My Life

Should be writing a review of Translations but too hot.  So here are some more diary entries:

29 May

I’ve suddenly hit inertia at home. I’ve done nothing for two days (three if you include today). I seem to go through periods of time when I have so much to do I end up writing lists, to times like this when  I have nothing to do. I made a completely failed attempt to start writing a play. That lasted all of ten minutes or less (the attempt, not the play). And yet I can write till the cows come home in this book. This writing is just my unfiltered thinking, and also I have an hour or so to write – or alternatively watch the play, which I do occasionally. Maybe I need a special place to write creatively.

2 June

(Finally that £5.50 Swiss-made Caran d’Ache ballpoint pen, I bought especially for use with this notebook, that has blotched its way through these pages and which I have battled on with because it was £5.50 Swiss-made Caran d’Ache, has finally run out of ink. )

Listened to In Our Time on Henrik Ibsen this morning. I learned that Ibsen continually changed tack, maybe to challenge himself, maybe because  people’s minds and behaviour are all complex. They talked about how complex his women are. And I didn’t realise he’s the most performed playwright after Shakespeare.  He was happily maried, and in his daily habits very conservative. He lived many years out of Norway. A Doll’s House was seen as shocking but no banned – it became a serious talking point. Even today the thought of a mother leaving her children, let alone leaving them in the hands of a man (her husband) she didn’t think capable of looking after them, has a feeling of taboo about it. Unlike Hedda, Nora doesn’t kill herself.

4 June

I’m going to be spending the performance watching a woman in very bright patterned trousers. She’s spent a long time chatting up a male FOH who brought her something.  She’s probably in her seventies. She’s moved herself, coat and bag into the seats opposite me and has made herself at home. She’s been stretched across the Dress Circle ledge but has been gazing back around the auditorium. Then a mobile went off, some way behind her, so she spent some time looking around at them – glaring I should imagine. Now she seems to have settled into watching the  play, possibly the reason that most of the audience are here. She’s just taken her top off to reveal a spaghetti strap vest. I’m now wondering if she’s a man. Very thin, short dyed blonde hair. Came in wearing one of those oversize “golfing” hats and large 1970’s sunglasses. I now can’t decide if they are a man or a woman. Whichever, they now seem gripped by Michael’s and Andrew’s acting onstage. Now they are fumbling in a bag. Food? The scream sound effect made them jump to attention. They are starting to fidget and  look around again:  I’m wrong about the top. It has thin but not spaghetti straps and seems to have a low cut at the side. Middle seems to be ruched horizontally. Large dark watch on right wrist. Definitely a woman as I can now see the front has a very low cut. Polka dot pattern. She’s swaying to the interval’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. I like her.

19 June

Heard The Film Programme.  There was an interview with  Michael Smith, the first autistic director to make a feature film. He said something like, ” I don’t just want to think outside the box, but smash the box and remake it in my image.”

Again

I’m jobless from 16th July 2018.

Quote

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?

Jean Jacques Rousseau