Sunday, 9 December 2018

Tamburlaine at the RSC

On Saturday, I met up with a couple of friends to see the RSC's production of Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine. 

It's not a play I am familiar with,  I knew that it was reputed to be bloody, but that was it.
Poster in the RSC

It is the story of Tamburlaine the Great (Jude Owusu) (loosely based on real life Turco-Mongolian conqueror Amir Timur). In the play, he starts out as a small time Scythian Shepherd / bandit, who continues upon a path of conquest and destruction, which ends badly for most of those whom he encounters. 

He captures the beautiful Zenocrates (Rosy McEwen), daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, who is en route to marry the King of Arabia, and falls in love with her. His wooing takes the form of killing one of her travelling companions and conquering large parts of Persia, Africa and Turkey, as a selection of other, better established kings and emperors try, and fail, to withstand him.

He shows himself to be an immensely successful soldier and conqueror, bloody and merciless towards his defeated enemies. Which means  a lot of blood...      He keeps the (former) Emperor of Turkey, Bajazeth, prisoner in an iron cage, (resulting in said emperor eventually killing himself)


Later, we see Tamurlaine as emperor, continuing to conquer kingdoms, punish those who stand against him(at one point he orders the killing to a group of Vestal Virgins sent to plead on behalf of their besieged city,although in an uncharacteristic moment of compassion, he does spare the life of Zenocrates' father.!

There's a fascinating scene where Sigismond the (Christian) King of Hungary, signs a treaty with Orcanes, the (Muslim) King of Natolia, to agree to make peace in order that Orcanes can concentrate on defence against Tamburlaine.

Sigsimond bows to the advice of his generals, who convince him that vows made in the name of god but to a non-Christian should not be considered binding,  breaks the treaty and attacks Orcanes' forces, whereupon he is promptly, and justly, defeated, despite his superior forces. (Orcanes, like everyone else who tries to fight Tamburlaine, is of course defeated in due course.)

View of the stage at the start of the interview
During the interval, there was some intensive mopping of blood from the stage, and when we returned, many years have past, and Tambulaine is  emperor of Persia, and he and Zencrates have 3 adult sons, the younger two being bloodthirsty fighters ,after their father's heart and the eldest,  Calyphas, being more interested in poetry and girls, which results in his being killed by his father for not taking part in a battle..

In the second half , we see Tamburlaine conquer Babylon, and create a chariot drawn by a selection of the Kings he has defeated. (there's also a charming scene as he has the tongue of one of them cut out for talking back at  him)

He is, however, unable to control  life, and is cast into grief when Zenocrates falls ill and dies (in a demonstration of his total sanity and level-headedness, he reacts by razing to the ground the city where she died, and having her body embalmed  to carry around with him. As one does.) He also becomes, if possible,even more convinced of his own power, burning his copy of the Qu'ran and deciding, when he is not truck down for this sacrilege, that he is greater than god.

Tamurlaine is defeated, not by his many enemies, but by his failing body. He names his son as his successor, and demands that he be buried with Zenocrates. 

Over all, the play was interesting, if extremely bloody. I found the treatment of religion very interesting. Although Marlowe is a little confused (his Muslim characters reference 'Mahomet', as the 'friend of god, just as the Christian ones speak of christ the son of god, but also speak of various Roman gods,  but for a 16th C writer seems less prejudiced than I expected!  And no moral! 

I'm glad I saw it.

We saw the matinee on the last day of the run, so I can't recommend you go, but it was good!  

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Macbeth (Again)

The NT production of Macbeth which I saw back in May was touring and came to Bath, and  I's booked a ticket for it before I saw it the first time. I was in 2 minds as to whether or not to go, as I wasn't overly impressed with the production, but in the end, I did, and I was glad I had.

The production seems to have been tightened up considerably, and worked much better on the smaller stage in Bath than it had in the National Theatre, the smaller stage created a slightly claustrophobic feel, which worked well with the post-apocalyptic setting. 

The cast also differed from the London production - Michael Nardone as Macbeth, and Kirsty Besterman as Lady Macbeth., and at the performance I saw, Banquo was played by Reuben Johnson, the understudy.

I enjoyed it more than I expected to. 

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Hadestown



I booked Hadestown on the recommendation of a friend, and a I knew going in was that it a musical based on the story of Orpheus and Euridice.

The music is a mix  of American Folk, and Jazz,and there are some excellent singers in the cast.,and it is set in what seems to be a New Orleans bar


Patrick Page is particularly memorable, as Hades. He is presented as a suave, and powerful industrialist, all sharp suit and snake-skin shoes, and he has a glorious, incredibly deep voice, it reminded me of Leonard Cohen!  Euridice (Eva Noblezada) and Amber Gray (Persephone) are also very impressive.. Euridice as a hungry, grungey young woman, and Persephone an ageing, sozzled, trophy wife.

I do think that there is a slight weakness, in that Orpheus is supposed to be able to charm the birds from the trees, and the gods themselves, and while that is never going to be possible to achieve on stage,  unfortunately it falls rather shorter than expected.

Having said that, it's an interesting and  thoroughly enjoyable experience, and I want to get the soundtrack and listen again. 

It's on at the National Theatre until 26th January.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre


I enjoyed the previous plays I've seen at the Bridge Theatre, and I enjoyed the previous play by Martin McDonagh which I saw, so I thought that it would be worth seeing McDonagh's new play, A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter.

It was . . . . interesting.

It features Hans Christian Andersen (Jim Broadbent), Charles Darwin  Dickens, and his foul-mouthed wife and children, a pair of dead, time-travelling Belgians,  and a one-legged Congolese woman in a box.(Johnetta Eula'Mae Ackles) 

I think it's making points about Colonialism, (and sexism), and the lack of acknowledgement of it by the literary greats of the day,  but it seems to be rather  hit and miss - it's funny, and (intentionally) offensive, and the set is intricate and very Goth, but over all, I was left feeling that the play was a bit incoherent, and not quite as clever as it thinks it is.

So - an entertaining 90 minutes, but not a play I'd want to see a second time.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

I object - Ian Hislop's search for dissent

As I was planning a trip to London, I decided to go up slightly early and visit the exhibition at the British Museum, I Object - Ian Hislop's Search for Dissent. (I have every Intention of seeing their Ashurbanipal exhibit, but I'd booked this in advance, and did not have time for both in one day) 
The Great Court of the British Museum,  

 I always enjoy visiting the museum, especially the Great Court, which looked particularly lovely due to the blue sky and sunshine.

The exhibition itself (held in the reading room) is small, and it's a personal selection made by Hislop.  As such, it's perhaps not as structured as some exhibitions, but it is nevertheless interesting.


There are some very early exhibits. For instance, graffiti and frivolous paintings from ancient Egypt, 
Ancient Egyptian painting



There are some survivors of dissent, such as this  head of Christ, created in around 1130, which survived the Reformation and destruction of idols, as it was buried in the church, at some time during the 16th Century.

12th C. Head of Christ
There were, perhaps inevitably, lots of political cartoons, and commentary. This 'bank note' was created by the caricaturist, George Cruikshank, in 1819, after witnessing 2 people hanged for  forging bank notes. 


There were plenty of more modern items, too, from a 'pussy hat' ,  'war rugs' (woven in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s, incorporating patterns of soviet tanks and helicopters in the place of traditional motifs or images of mythical creatures),  to a pair of carved wooden gates, from Nigeria, carved by Yoruba people using traditional styles and images, but incorporating mockery of the British Colonial rulers of their country (something which was, apparently, not noticed by the rulers, as the gates were displayed at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition.

There was a copy of the notorious 1616 'Wicked' Bible, in which a crucial 'not' is missed out from the 7th commandment, meaning that God is cited as telling Moses 'Thou shalt commit adultery'


The error is generally put down to a typesetting error, but in his note to the exhibit, Hislop speculates that it was perhaps a deliberate act of sabotage by a disgruntled  typesetter or rival printer.


And finally, there is the hoax perpetuated against the museum itself, in 25, when the artist, Banksy, added his art (with accompanying label ) to a wall in the museum, where it went un-noticed for several days.

It's an interesting way to spend some time.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Chained Library Tour, Wells Cathedral

Although Wells is my home town, and I am familiar with most of the Cathedral, I have never visited the library.


West front of Wells Cathedral
Wells Cathedral, West front

It's not generally open,  but they offer tours, for a very limited number of people, from time to time, and back in about January, I booked the tour taking place this weekend.

Wells is, and has always been a 'secular' cathedral, which (perhaps a little disappointingly) doesn't mean that it is a bastion of secularism, but that it was never part of a monastery, (so it never had its own Scriptorium). However, in 1420 its library was founded, and a dedicated library was built above the East cloister, being completed in the 1450s.   


Photo of Cloister of Wells Cathedral from the cloister garth
The East Cloister, with Library above
It is a little unusual in that the library is still housed in the same space. When it was first constructed, there were only a small number of books, and they would have been kept in locked chests, or on reading benches, like long lecterns. The Cathedral had around 150 books in 1530, when the monasteries were dissolved and Wells, like the other great cathedrals, lost most of its books and other treasures. (Thomas Cromwell was the Lay Dean of Wells at the time, so presumably knew what they had, making it harder for them to withhold anything!)
photo of librayr showing wooden shelves and old leather bound books
The Library, Wells Cathedral

Partly for this reason, the books the Library now holds are almost all printed books, not handwritten manuscripts or illuminated manuscripts.

Over time, the cathedral built up its library, and the current shelving and reading benches were installed between 1661 and 1685. The shelves incorporate metal rods to which the books can be chained. 


two shelves of books,the upper ones shelved spine in, and chained, the lower ones shelves spine out
Chained Books
It was explained to us that books were typically shelved spine in, even where they were not chained, but this is more important for chained books, as the chain is attached to the outer edge and not to the spine, which is a weaker point on the book. The chains were made from steel which was dipped in linseed oil to prevent rust, and each hand made chain has a swivel, which ensures that the chains don't get twisted as the books are taken on and off the shelves. 

Our guide also explained that the books were originally shelves based on when they were donated, and sometimes in accordance with specific requirements of bequests, which means that the older sections of the library are not arranged by subject matter or by any system such as the Dewey system, and in many cases , particularly with the chained books, these are still in the same places on the shelves as they have been for hundreds of years.

We were shown some of the library's oldest and more important books.

Frontispiece of Foxe's Book of Martyrs
A (chained) 1583 edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs (I had not appreciated that it was common, at the time, to have a copy of the book on display in parish churches,  as part of the Reformation's propaganda against Catholicism. In this edition, we were shown how, on some of the illustrations, the books had been vandalised to scribble out the face of the Pope!


Michael Drayton's 'Poly-Olbion', 1612
Then there was Michael Drayton's 1612 'Poly-Olbion', an epic poem describing the history and geography of Britain, with illustrations (this one showing the Isle of Lundy, in the bottom  left) 
One extraordinary book held is a copy a life of St John of Damascus, printed in 1512. It is remarkable because of the handwritten notes written in red ink in the margins. The book once belonged to Thomas Cranmer, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who was responsible for the creation of the Book of Common Prayer, the use of English in the liturgy of the Church of England, and who was of course later martyred under Queen Mary, and the handwritten notes have been authenticated as being in his handwriting! 


Thomas Cramner's handwritten notes

It's rather endearing to see that even 500 years ago, bored students were colouring in the 'O's and 'Q's in their text books..


Map of Iceland, Ortelius

There was a copy of Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum which was originally published in 1570  and seen as the first modern atlas. The Cathedral's copy is the English translation, printed in 1606. The picture shows the map of Iceland, complete with sea monsters  around it, and volcanoes on land.

Pliny's Natural History, 1472 

Something I didn't know was that when printed books first started to be produced, they would sometimes be made to look like the older, hand-scribed books, perhaps so they were still seen as equally valid.  One such is the library's copy of Pliny's Naturalis Historiae, printed in Venice in 1472, with the capital letter and decoration added in by hand to the printed text. The book also has it's own story. The book was lost  during the reformation, and then Dean Ralph Bathurst found   it, in a secondhand bookshop, in 1682, and bought it to return to the cathedral! 

Although the library primarily has printed books, we were also shown one of it's few manuscripts, the Hayles Psalter, commissioned under the will of Sir John Huddleston, for Hayles  Abbey in Gloucestershire. The frontispiece shows the Tudor rose of Henry VIII paired (in the left margin) with the Catherine of Aragon's symbol, the pomegranate, and lilies and carnations for the Virgin Mary. The Psalter is dated 1514, although it did not come to Wells until 1863.


Frontispiece of the Hayles Psalter, 1514
 The library also has on display some documents from its own history, such as minutes form the meeting of the Chapter in 1685, recording Dr Richard Busby's gift to 'Beautify the library' (a gift worth around £2M in today's values)


Chapter Minutes, 1685
I found the visit to the library fascinating, and afterwards spent a little time wandering around the cathedral. I tend to forget, between visits, how beautiful it is.


Scissor Arches and Nave
I am particularly fond of the ceilings, in the nave and the lady chapel, and how full of light the cathedral can be.

Lady Chapel Ceiling
As it is approaching Remembrance Sunday, and this year is the centenary of the armistice,the cathedral has installations remembering those  killed, in WWI in particular. The poppies flowing down the Chapter House stairs were, I thought , especially effective.

Chapter House Stairs
In all, a fascinating morning. And a reminder of how much there is to see on my own doorstep, so to speak!

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library


Before I went home after the Dresden Dolls gig, I went to the British Library to visit their new exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.

It was a little frustrating, as they have clearly underestimated the time people would need, and how many people can see the exhibition at any one time, so despite going on a Wednesday  morning when it was not fully booked, it was very overcrowded ,so visiting was rather like being in an (admittedly very educational)  queue.

However, despite that irritation, the exhibition is very impressive.

It has a broadly chronological approach, beginning with the Loveden Hill Urn, which dates from the 5th Century, which has a runic inscription being  one of the earliest pieces of evidence of the English language.

Also on display, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731AD), a 12th image of Woden, the Lindesfarne Gospels, The Codex Amiatinus, which is apparently the oldest surviving complete Latin bible, and which was made in Jarrow, in the early 700s. It was sent to the Pope, in 716, and this is the first time it has returned to England since then.

The Book of Durrow has been borrowed from Dublin, and the Echternach Gospels from Paris.

Although many of the books on display are religious in nature, not all are. There is a very early copy of Beowulf, the Vercelli Book, a 10th C collection of poems , the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and a number of land grants and wills, including some given by Offa, some by King Alfred, (and the library has also managed to borrow the Alfred Jewel from the Ashmolean Museum, to go with the manuscripts)

They had also borrowed some items from the Sutton Hoo burial, and the Winfarthing Pendent.
 
The Winfarthing Pendent

But the majority of what is on display, are manuscripts. And they are glorious. It says something about the quality of the exhibition that when you reach the end, and find that one of the final items on display is Domesday Book, it comes almost as an anticlimax! 

It is fascinating, and I would have loved to have had the chance to look around with more time and fewer people! 

The exhibition is on until February, so plenty of time to visit.





Saturday, 3 November 2018

Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro Gallery

I loved the Kusama exhibition we saw in Toronto, and happened to see that there was going to be a small Kusama exhibit in London, so I naturally booked tickets as soon as they were available - they were free, but had to be booked, and as a result, my friend A and I went, before going to the Dresden Dolls gig.

The exhibit is fairly small.

Image of infinite reflections of spotted paper lanterns
'My Heart is Dancing into the Universe' Infinity Mirror room
There is one infinity mirror room, full of spotted paper lanterns, which cycled through different colours as you walked through the room. 


Then there were three of Kusama's trademark pumpkins, one each in red, green and (my favourite), yellow.


There were also paintings of pumpkins, and of spots. 



Then outside there were three giant flowers, one of which made me think of what triffids might have been like if they were friendly instead of deadly...



And then finally, a wall of paintings.


I rather enjoyed playing with  the reflections of the art, on the big plate glass windows in the gallery.

I'm glad I got to go. The exhibition is on until 21st December.I think all of the tickets are gone but they have been releasing a few extra on specific days, if you're in London and want to try to go.

Friday, 2 November 2018

The Dresden Dolls

I'm generally more about theatre than gigs, but I'm a fan of Amanda Palmer's music, so when I heard that she was reuniting with Brian Viglione to play some Dresden Dolls gigs in London, for the first time in 12 years, I decided to try to get tickets. 

And, due to a less than optimal booking system I wound up with 2 separate tickets in different parts of the auditorium, but despite not sitting with my friend, I still had fun!

Amanda Palmer

Brian Viglione
The gig was at the Troxy, which is a beautiful Art Deco former cinema, built in the 1930s, and still has lots of original features, and reminded me of the Forum, in Bath, a little, but it also has deeply uncomfortable seating, with really narrow pitch between rows...


The Troxy

Still, lack of leg room aside, it was all good! Lots of familiar songs, including  a cover of Pirate Jenny, and a rendition of 'Coin Operated Boy' which was greeted with huge enthusiasm. There were also a couple of new songs, and an impassioned plea from Amanda to all her US fans.
Amanda and Brian, with their message to their American fans

I had a good time, and I'm glad I went. 

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Oxford. Hobbits and Dragons and Magic and Art and Stuff


The Bodleian Library in Oxford has been holding an exhibition of J.R.R.Tolkein's work, including original art, manuscripts, doodles, letters which he wrote for his children, as well as including copies of the many editions of his works,  fan letters from (mainly famous) fans of his, including Terry Pratchett, and personal items and information about Tolkein's childhood and youth.

Exhibition poster
It was very interesting, and I loved some of the smaller doodles and drawings, such as 'Owlamoo', a sketch done for his son, to help him cope with fears of a monster under his bed, and the paisley-style doodles which Tolkien drew on the newspapers around the crosswords!

The exhibition was, however, very overcrowded, despite having issued pre-booked timed tickets (I ended up queuing for about 45 minutes to get in, despite the timed ticket) Possibly earlier in the run it was less crowded. 
Bodleian Library
As well as visiting the exhibition, I wandered around some of the more decorative parts of Oxford, and visited the (extremely small) exhibit they had about Wilfred Owen, which included some family photos, and some of his original, handwritten draft poems, and notebooks from his student days, and from his time as a patient during the war. 


Bridge of Sighs, Oxford
There was also a small exhibition at the Bodleian 'Sappho to Suffrage: Women who Dared' (which is on until February) which included a fragment of one of Sappho's poems, some illuminated books showing learned women, a  book with a cover embroidered by Elizabeth I at the age of 11, for Katherine Parr, as well as more modern items such as pamflets and games produced by the women's suffrage movement to raise money. 



Finally, I spent part of the day visiting the Ashmolean Museum, including visiting their Spellbound exhibition, which is about witchcraft and magic in England, its got some interesting elements, including transcripts of  some 17th C witness statements relating to allegations of witchcraft, but I felt that it was a little underwhelming n general, with very little which was new or unexpected.

I did however enjoy some of the other exhibits in the museum, particularly some of the Islamic ceramics and carvings.




I also enjoyed the installation in the entry way, which was made of light and reflections and as such was in perpetual motion, and change.


It was a long, but enjoyable day.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Henry V - Antic Disposition at Wells Cathedral

I enjoyed Antic Disposition's Richard III last year, at Bristol Cathedral, and really enjoyed it,  so when I saw that they were bringing Henry V to Wells I naturally booked it straight away.

The production is touring, as part of a UK cathedrals tour, ending in Stratford upon Avon in November.

And it is extraordinary.

It was originally produced in 2015,  which was the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, and of course also marked the centenary of the first full year of WW1. This production of Henry V is set within the framing device of  being performed by wounded soldiers, some French, some English, convalescing  in a hospital 'Somewhere in France', in 1915. 

It opens with a stream of wounded coming into the hospital, including a young English soldier, his eyes bandaged following a gas attack, being led by a French soldier, to whom, in gratitude, he gives his only book, a pocket version of Henry V (which is, understandably, initially seen as an insult, before it is made clear that it is a gesture of thanks..)  "J'ai une idee" a nurse says..
'Stage' and programme (at the interval)

Then we see these soldiers, and nurses, start to perform the play, with the limited props they have , the French and English crowns made from recycled tin cans, and the soldiers wearing their own (and each other's) uniforms, the famous tennis balls being rolls of bandages, and the only set dressing made from wooden supply crates,  and  (modern) French and English flags to mark each camp.
.
When the Shakespeare starts, it is as you might expect from  a group of actors assembled by chance and their wounds rather than by any experience, a little hit and miss, we see the Bishops struggling with their lines, over acting and needing to check the text, and being heckled by their comrades, but  then as the play moves on they segue smoothly into a smoother and more confident performance.

The WWI setting works really well,  as do the songs (seven poems by A.E. Housman,set to music plus the 'Chant du départ  by  Marie-Joseph Chénier) and the preparations for battle,  the  siege, and the battle itself, are particularly poignant, presented as they are by characters who are themselves soldiers in the midst of a war, and who know first hand the horrors and cost involved.

,

Henry delivers his 'Once more into the Breach' speech in a rather rugby-scrum like mob, lifted to the shoulders of his men, and we see the Armies prepare to go into battle as though going 'over the top',complete with whistles and officers hand-guns.

There are moments when WWI breaks through . As Bardolph (James Murfitt) waits execution, we see him break character as Bardolph as his character of a WW1 shell-shocked man breaks through, and the others follow suit to care for him.

The play works in this setting extraordinarily well, and it's deeply moving. The tour is almost over, but if you happen to be in Stratford on Avon, Salisbury, Oxford or Hereford in the next few days, and can catch it, I strongly recommend it.

I'm not sure how long it will be up for, but there was a local new piece about it here

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Troilus and Cressida at the RSC

Troilus and Cressida is not a play I've seen before, and I deliberately went in not having read anything about it, either the play generally, or this production, at the RSC, other than that I knew that percussionist Evelyn Glennie has  composed and arranged the music for the production.

For those who, like me, are unfamiliar with the plot, Troilus and Cressida is set during the Trojan Wars, with the love story of Troilus and Cressida (nicked from Chaucer ) tacked on. So we meet (on the Greek side) Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles, and Ajax, and (on the Trojan side) Priam, Hector, Helen, Cassandra, Aeneas  and Paris. No horse, though. Troilus and Cressida are both in Troy, but, inevitably, find themselves separated and unhappy.


The RSC's flyer


The production has a post-apocalyptic, 'Mad Max' style - the 'tents'  of the Greeks are repurposed shipping containers (Achilles' has his name on it, in Greek, which is a nice geeky touch). Achilles' myrmidons wear black fatigues and gas masks with horned helmets, plus there are a couple of sightings of a motorcycle with a horse's skull. .

It's an interesting play, or maybe 2 plays, a rather insipid love story (with the original creepy uncle, Pandarus, who is desperate to get his niece, Cressida, together with Troilus, to the extent of getting them into bed together)   and the politics and war of the 'history' element of the play.
Stage and set

The Trojan War has been going on for 7 years, at the time of the play, and any high ideals anyone may have had seem long gone. Achilles, (Andy Apollo) looking far too much like Chris Hemsworth's Thor for it to be coincidental, is more interested in lounging around in his tent with his young and handsome lover, Patroclus (James Cooney) (and who shall blame him) than in fights to the death, Ajax (Theo Ogundipe) is equally strong and beautiful, but not terribly bright, and is jealous of Achilles' reputation, and open to exploitation by the more politically savvy of his comrades! Ulysses (Adjoa Andoh) is particularly astute, and seems like a consummate politician.

On the Trojan side,  Cassandra (Charlotte Arrowsmith) was portrayed as deaf and mute, giving her prophecies via sign language interpreted by her sisters, unheard as well as unbelieved.

I enjoyed the production, although I enjoyed lots of elements of it more than the play as a whole, if that makes sense. I particularly liked the music and sound of the production.

(Plus, I got to hang out with a good friend and have a rather nice meal in the RSC's rooftop restaurant, so that was a bonus!)