Monday, 15 October 2018

The Meaning of Zong

On Thursday, I went to see a workshop performance of The Meaning of Zong, a new play by Giles Terera, based on the historic case,  Gregson v Gilbert (1783). For anyone unfamiliar with it, the case involved an insurance claim by the owners of the slaveship, Zong, after it's captain and crew murdered around 135 enslaved Africans by throwing them overboard. They claimed insurance on the basis that the slaves were cargo, and had been killed on the basis of 'Absolute necessity' in order to save the crew and the rest of the 'cargo'. The insurers refused to pay and were sued, and the court at first instance ruled in favour of the owners . The insurers appealed, and were successful.

The case was not (officially, at least) about slavery, but  Olaudah Equiano managed to get anti-slavery activist, Grenville Sharp involved and publicised what happened, to support the abolitionist cause. It's likely that they also influenced the legal case put by the insurers, which argued against the treatment of people as chattels.

It's not a straight historical play, there are modern references, elements of the story which are acted out and other's 'shown' as flash backs, and  elements where direct transcripts from the court case were used. 

The play is, I believe, to be fully staged next year, but this performance was a dramatic read through. And it was extraordinary - incredibly powerful and moving, and still, 230  years after the events depicted, profoundly shocking.

I wasn't able to stay for the post show discussion,but will definitely be planning to see the show when it is fully staged .

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Pinter at the Pinter

I have very mixed feelings about Pinter. I've seen some excellent productions, such as 'The Hot House' , and others which I enjoyed less, such as 'The Birthday Party', and 'The Caretaker', or where I enjoyed them because the talents of the actors made p for the text!

So when I saw that there was to be a season of 'Pinter at the Pinter', showing all of Pinter's short plays, I was ambivalent about whether or not to try to see any of them.

As I was going to London anyway for King Lear, I did decide to go to see 'Pinter One', mainly on the basis of the cast, which includes Paapa Essiedu, Antony Sher and Maggie Steed.

And afterwards, I still had mixed feelings about Pinter.

'Pinter One' started with Press Conference - a politician, the new Minister for Culture, (Jonjo O'Neill) taking questions about his new role...including comparing it to his old role, as head of the secret police. He cheerily confirms that he has the same aims, and chats about abducting children and raping women, and about, in his new role, stifling criticism or dissent.

It sets the tone for the rest of the evening, which includes One for the Road, in which Antony Sher is an apparently affable government functionary, interviewing a man his wife, and son. His chatty manner and apparent wish to be liked, initially masking his ruthlessness and near absolute power over them, as he interrogates them, revealing that they have been tortured. 

There was also a new sketch, discovered by Pinter's wife following his death, The Pres and an officer, in which we see a Trump-alike American President (Jon Culshaw)  give orders to nuke London, in the mistaken belief that it is the capital of France - which is too horribly plausible, right now, to be funny..

I didn't stay for the final play, Ashes to Ashes, as I had a train to catch, but over all, I enjoyed some of the performances, but less the actual plays. 

Friday, 12 October 2018

King Lear at the Duke of York's

Just under a year ago, my friend A and I saw Sir Ian McKellen's King Lear, in Chichester, which was incredible. And so when I saw that they were reprising it in London this year, I decided to see it again. (In fairness, I'd go to see McKellen in pretty much anything  he chose to do)

I was curious to see how the production would have been changed, to accommodate  the change from Chichester's small, circular stage, to the Duke of York's larger, more traditional lay out, and how the cast changes would affect the production.

It is still very good. Lear is by turns terrifying and pathetic, as he descends into madness, and this production brings out the black humour in the play.

Edmund's speech about the influence of astrology, for instance, and even Edgar and Gloucester's cliff-top scene both offer laughter as well as  drama (although I could have done without the Fool's fart jokes!) 

The play is, I believe, sold out, except for returns, but it was filmed and broadcast to cinemas, so you may have a chance to catch an 'encore' screening. I'd say if you can, do.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Dickens vs Tolstoy

I heard via a friend that there was an event in London, a debate between Simon Schama and John Mullan about the merits of Tolstoy and Dickens, respectively, with support from a stella cast. So I went.

image of a sculpture of a scroll commemorating supporters of womens suffrage

In walking to the venue from the tube station, I came across this rather nice piece of sculpture, celebrating those who fought for Women's suffrage, which was a pleasant surprise.

The event itself had been arranged by an organisation called Intelligence Squared , which apparently hosts regular debates and other events, and was held in the Emmanuel Centre, which is a church and conference centre, and has an impressive circular auditorium, where the event was held.   

John Mullan, Bonnie Greer OBE, Simon Schama
John Mullan (Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at UCL) advocated for Charles Dickens, and Simon Schama (Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University, NY), for Leo Tolstoy, with Bonnie Greer moderating, although it quickly became clear that this was a friendly debate, with both speakers, although championing their own writer, being  enthusiastic about the other as well.

L-R Kit Kingsley, Zawe Ashton, Timothy West, Julia Sawalha, Tom Hiddleston

They were supported by dramatic readings from Timothy West, Zawe Ashton, Julia Sawalha, Tom Hiddleston, and (making his professional debut`), a young boy named Kit Kingsley, who gave a very effective Pip, to Timothy West's Magwitch, as they read the opening scene of Great Expectations. Kit did an excellent job as a terrified young Pip, and Timothy West as a terrifying Magwitch!

We also got to hear further scenes from Great Expectations (Julia Sawalha and Zawe Ashton as Miss Havisham and Estella), and from David Copperfield,and a reading from Tom Hiddleston from the opening chapter of Bleak House.(with much fog, and a note from Prof. Mullan that the line "As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill" contains the first dinosaur in English Literature.)

Then Simon Schama got his chance to champion Tolstoy. He talked about how much Tolstoy admired Dickens, and that he even saw Dickens perform A Christmas Carol once, but that he himself did not write to be performed, or read his own work publicly. He argued that Dickens wrote characters, but the Tolstoy wrote people, (he also admitted that 'Tolstoy's joke book is a bit thin')

He also spoke about how Tolstoy's own experiences of war influenced him, and we heard Tom Hiddleston read from Hadji Murat, which depicts the aftermath of war in Chechnya.

We then got to see Julia Sawalha and Zawe Ashton as the sisters Shcherbatsky (Anna Karenina),  Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton as Kitty and Levin, as Levin panics about childbirth..  with Hiddleston reading the text)

There was also a scene between Pierre (Hiddleston) and Natasha (Ashton), and another with Hiddleston as Vronsky, and Sawalha as Anna.

We were all polled on our way into the debate, at which time Dickens took 44% of the vote, with Tolstoy on 40% and the remaining 8% undecided. At the end, Tolstoy had taken the lead, scoring 53%. I suspect that this may well be attributable to Simon Schama's  tactical use of Tom Hiddleston, given the make up of the audience, but perhaps I am mistaken and there were just a lot of fans of classic Russian literature!  

The whole evening was recorded and apparently video will be available here soon.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

The Owls of Bath

I wrote earlier this month, about hunting for Minerva's Owls in Bath. The Art Trail ended on 10th September, but this weekend all of the owls were on display together, at the Bath Recreation ground, before being auctioned, for charity, in a couple of weeks time (except for the smaller owls (owlets) created with local schools, which will mostly be returning to  the schools involved)

There were originally 82 owls, with 2 extra ones added for the weekend.

Vincent Van Owl
Some of the owls were influenced by famous artists and artworks  (there was a Frida Owlo, as well as the Van Gogh / Starry Night owl), and one named 'Magritte, ceci n'est pas un owl',as well as Inkie Hoots , created by 'Inkie' , a famous local graffiti artist.

Some were inspired by local heroes, such as 'Patch', remembering the late Harry Patch, (the last surviving combat soldier of WW1, who was born just outside Bath, and died in Wells.) The owl was decorated by children from Combe Down primary school, which Harry Patch attended.

 There was also a HershOwl, recalling William and Caroline Hershel, musicians and astronomers, who lived in Bath in the late 18th C.

Bath's Roman heritage was also represented. I found Octavian, with his mosaic  plumage, particularly appealing,  although there were a few others which also had some mosaic elements, and of course Brian, the Monty Python inspired owl ('grafitti'd' with "Romani ite domum" (Romans go home) was there. 

There were a number of Space related owls. Cosmos made me smile, but there was also Seemore, who had telescopes in his eyes and constellations painted on his body, and Cosmic Allen, which had a starscape across his plumage. 

Nor was Seemore the only interactive owl - there was another, Bird of Play, which at first glance seemed a bit dull, being plain black, but who featured a teleidoscope in one eye..

As a booklover, J.K Owling appealed to me a lot, and there were others with literary inspiration - Glimfeather, as well as being named after Lewis's Narnian Owl, has quotes and illustrations from various children's books on his plumage,  and the Festivowl celebrates the Bath Kids Literature Festival.

It is impossible to pick just one favourite owl,. I still really like the Sea Owl, which I 'found' on my original hunt, as well as at the weekend gathering.

Another lovely one was Tyrell, apparently intended as a replicant owl inspired by  'Blade Runner'
While I didn't think it was the most attractive, I also very much enjoyed the wealth of detail on Isambird Kingdom Brunowl...

Actually, I tell a lie. I did have a favourite. Her name is Pippa, and she was much smaller, more feathery and more mobile than the rest!

(She is a Little Owl, and was there along with a Tawny Owl and an Eagle Owl, and their handlers, a little way from the bustle and noise of the main event.)

I have a Flickr set, here, of all of the owls, and  the the Minerva's Owls website, which is at  has full detail of all the artists and owls. 

Monday, 24 September 2018

The Height of the Storm

I booked to see The Height of the Storm because how often do you get to see Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce on stage, still less get to see them together.?

The play is interesting, and moving, initially, we see a daughter, returning home and trying to help her father, coming to terms with the loss of his wife, her mother . . . or do we?  

André and Madeleine have been a couple for 5 years, and have two adult daughters, but what is the loss they are dealing with? The sands are shifting underfoot, and the play explores the issues of grief, and loss, and dementia without ever naming any of them. 

It is very, very well done.(And one gets to hear Eileen Atkins say 'Fuck' , which carries it's  own joy!)

It's strange, but thought provoking, and despite dealing with loss and grief has its entertaining moments!

The play is in Bath before it opens in the West End. It's well worth seeing if you have the chance (and it's short  -about 90 minutes with no interval) 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Macbeth again

I saw the RSC's production of Macbeth with friends,  in March this year, and , before seeing it, had also booked a second ticket, to see it later in the run (we saw it very early on - I think still in previews.

Other than the company, I enjoyed it more the second time around, partly as my seat was in the central section of the stalls, so I could actually see the whole of the performance, including those parts behind a glass screen at the back of the stage, which were invisible from our seats the first time round! 

The production seems to have settled down, some of the rough edges which were there the first time have gone, and the cast seemed more confident. I think they had made one or two changes, particularly at the end, when MacBeth and MacDuff fight. (MacDuff, Edward Bennett, remains excellent. His grief, on learning of his family's murders, and his change from civil servant to avenging warrior remains a high point of the production).

I still feel that the projected quotes  / explanations were unnecessary and somewhat distracting.

I did enjoy the performances, and did feel it was better this tie round than the first time!

The production is over, now, at the RSC, but is at the Barbican in London from 15th October until  18th January. And I'd say that it is interesting enough to be worth seeing.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Art Matters - Chris Riddell and Neil Gaiman

Regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of both Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, so I was excited to see that they had a joint event in London, celebrating the launch of their new book, 'Art Matters', and naturally could not resist the opportunity, even though it was (most inconsiderately in my view) on a Wednesday evening, so I was for some time on tenterhooks wondering whether I would be able to wrestle my work schedule in order to be able to go, but happily I could, and so Wednesday afternoon found me on train to London, and then in a very long, very hot (but polite and friendly) queue, with a good friend.

And after some queuing,and collecting our pre-signed copies of the new book, we found ourselves in the auditorium. It's a former cinema, and still has some lovely panels on the ceiling.

Chris Riddell was on stage as we came in, sharpening his pencils and drawing sketches. (As Neil commented" There was a moment of panic, about 20 minutes ago, up in the Green Room  when we looked around and went, ' where's Chris?' . We thought we'd lost you" )

Then Neil read the 'Art Matters' speech from the book (after pointing out that it was a slightly new version, as it is the elements of the original speech which Chris liked and chose to illustrate), At the tart, this was accompainied by a running commentary from Neil's son Ash, before his mother took him backstage again. Which was a shame, his enthusiastic 'Dadda!' was lovely to hear!  After which Neil ad Chris  both answered questions put by host Lauren Laverne.

Neil spoke briefly about his current involvement as a show runner for the 'Good Omens' TV show ("Stuff like budget meetings, I was not put on this earth for fucking budget meetings") and about writing the sequel to 'Neverwhere'  100 pages in, but taking time due to the demands of being a show runner)

Towards the end of the evening, Antonia Byatt, Director of English Pen spoke a little about the organisation and it's aims, and read from a recent letter from writer Ahmet Altan ,  who who has been imprisoned in Turkey for expressing unpopular views.

There was also an auction in support of EnglishPen, of one of the original artworks for the book, (which auctioneer Lauren Laverne pointed out, included DNA samples from Neil and Chris from where they had handled it, so the winner would be able to clone their own Neil or Chris!)
Neil holding the artwork to be auctioned

(and photographer Tom Bowles took the most perfect picture of it, which you can see  here)

There was then some time for a few questions from the audience, for which Chris drew replies, as well as giving verbals replies. 

I had to leave just before the end, in order to catch my train home, but the entire evening was videoed and is up on YouTube for all to enjoy. And of course the book is available to buy all over the place. If you don't already have a copy, I urge you to get one. 

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Hunting for Minerva's Owls

This summer, Bath has been hosting an arts trail of Owls, to follow on from the previous pigs, and lions.

This year, they were owls, (for Minerva, given Bath's Roman history)
  There were, apparently, 82 of them altogether, but I only had time to find a selection, about 20 of them (and as I did most of my looking on Saturday, which was supposed to be the last but one day, it seemed they have already removed some of them, which I can't help but feel is cheating!)

Each owl was sponsored by a different local business, and decorated by a different artist or school. Some, like Speculo  and Spokes (above) were beautiful. (Speculo was sponsored by a glass shop, and has separate, glass feathers on it's wings and back)

Others, like Brian, were amusing! (although I think they missed a trick by putting him in Queen Square, and not by the Roman Baths )

Forrest Stump
Some had smaller owls upon them.

The Owl and the Pussycat
After this weekend, I gather they are all collected and cleaned up, before being auctioned for charity.

They are really rather nice !
I have a Flickr album here with all of the ones I found.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Killer Joe - Trafalgar Studios

I had a busy time, when I went to London  - decided that if I was travelling up to see 'Othello' I should find in a couple of other plays as well. So s well as 'Exit the King', and a second visit to 'The Lieutenant of Innishmore' , I also went to see 'Killer Joe', at Trafalgar Studios. 

I chose not to read any reviews ahead of time, so all I knew going in was that it it features Orlando Bloom in the title role, as a cop with a sideline as a contract killer.

The plot features the Smith family, poor 'trailer trash',  living in Texas. Son Chris (Adam Gillen) returns home desperate for money, as he urgently needs money to pay off a drug gang, after his  mother stole his cocaine and sold it for her own benefit. 

He suggests to his father, Ansel (Steffan Rhodri) that they hire Contract killer Joe Cooper (Orlando Bloom)  to kill his mother, who has life insurance of which Chris's sister, Dottie (Sophie Cookson) is the beneficiary. They could, he suggests, use the money to pay Joe, and split the balance 4 ways between themselves, Dottie, and Ansel's wife, Sharla (Neve McIntosh)

The problem is, Joe expects payment in advance, and the family have no money, so he negotiates instead to take Dottie, as payment on account...

Things do not end well for anyone.

There are excellent performances all round - Sophie Cookson is particularly impressive,  vulnerable and child-like, save when she is  unexpectedly alert and aware of her family's plans. 

Bloom is also very good, never letting you forget that this is a man willing to kill for money,and, despite the romantic veneer, to coerce a vulnerable woman into sex. Definitely not someone who you would want to get on the wrong side of!

 I was seated right round to one side, at the front, so was very close to the action, including getting an unexpected eye full of the various incidents of full nudity! 

Very interesting play, if somewhat disturbing  lots of sex, violence and just enough humour to relieve the grimness.

the run ended on 18th August.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Enter the King at the National Theatre

I've enjoyed previous adaptations by Patrick Marber, so I thought that Enter the King was likely to be worth seeing, and I didn't think I'd seen it before. (Once it began, I started to think it sounded familiar, and realised I did see it, at the Ustinov, a couple of years ago).

Pre-performance set

This production features Rhys Ifans as the King, with Adrian Scarborough as the Doctor and Indira Varma and Amy Morgan as his Queens.

For those unfamiliar with the play, the King is, after over 400 years of rule, dying, a fact he is reluctant to accept, and as his life ends, that of the his Kingdom does too. 

It's a dark, but often funny, look at the process of ageing and attempting to come to terms with it. 

While I enjoyed the play, I did feel that it could have done with a tightening up a bit , there were points, particularly in the second half of the play, when the King's musings became a little tedious rather than thought provoking, but it is worth seeing.

It runs until 6th October

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Othello at the Globe

I was excited to see that Mark Rylance was going to be performing at the Globe Theatre, in Othello.  I really enjoy his work as an actor  loved him in Farinelli and the King . So, months ago when the season booking opened, I booked myself a ticket, and on Friday, travelled to London to see it.

It was another blazing hot day and I was a little worried about whether my seat would be in the sun, as despite a hat and lots of sunscreen, I don't think I would have been able to manage 2 and a half hours in full sun.

Happily, my seat (or rather, my segment of backless wooden bench, this being the Globe) turned out to be in a section which was in the shade, although only just so, when I arrived the next bit of bench along was still in sunlight, and as I discovered when I sat down, the patina of god-knows-what which has built up on the wooden bench over the past 21 years had melted, or whatever happens to gunky wood, so I stuck to it when I sat down!

However, that was a small price to pay for the chance to see the production, which was very good.

Andre Holland  was excellent in the title role: he came across as very dignified, and his American accent is an asset, at it reinforces the sense of his distance from the Venetians.

Mark Rylance, as Iago, was, as might be expected, equally good, in an evil kind of way, and comes across as a small, jealous man, rather than one with a towering ambition.  Sheila Atim, as Emilia, was outstandingly good, a powerful, strong woman, uncowed by her husband or Othello himself. 

The play is on until 13th Septmber and well worth seeing if you can get a ticket.