Sunday, 26 February 2012

The King's Speech

Yesterday was one of those glorious, clear, sunny days you sometimes get at this time of year, with a bright, cloudless blue sky, and brilliant sunshine (if not much warmth).

I walked into town, through the park, where there are hundreds of snowdrops, and a river of purple and white crocuses. I think Spring may really have arrived!
I spent the day catching up with housework, and cooking. I made some rice pudding (the rice came in bag with the labelling "Pudding rice : ideal for rice pudding" which seemed a little redundant, but which was correct, of course) It's a long time since I have made real rice pudding, and it was just as delicious as I remembered, even though an slight error of timing meant I ended up eating it at 4.30 in the afternoon!
In the evening, I headed into Bath again, to the Theatre Royal, to see 'The King's Speech', by David Seidler. I gather that he originally wrote it as a play, although it was not staged, and was then re-written as a film, so this is not 'the play of the film', exactly. I have not yet seen the film version, (other than a few clips), but I think this was perhaps a good thing, as it meant I wasn't comparing the two.

The play opens with 'Bertie', Duke of York (Charles Edwards) standing naked before a mirror - in the 'reflection' he stands in full dress uniform with medals, orders, and masses of gold braid - the scene giving an immediate impression of how vulnerable he is feeling. The next scene shows his painful efforts to deliver a speech with his father, King George V (Joss Ackland) an unsympathetic observer.
The play then follows the Duchess of York/Queen Elizabeth (Emma Fielding), and later the Duke as they make their first contact with Lionel Logue (Jonathan Hyde), and then switches between the King's work with Logue, Logue's (failed) auditions for serious acting roles, scenes between Logue and his wife, Myrtle (Charlotte Randall), who is homesick for Australia, and desperate to return, and scenes involving the Prime Minister, Baldwin (David Killick) Churchill (Ian McNeice), Archbishop Cosmo Lang (Michael Feast) and Edward VII (Daniel Betts) and Mrs Simpson (Lisa Baird).

'David' (Edward VII) is portrayed as both cruel and selfish - mocking his brother for his stammer, dancing and drinking champagne with Wallis Simpson within weeks of his father's death, and having dangerously close links to Hitler and his regime.

Charles Edwards does an excellent job of portraying the King, as a man with a strong sense of duty, crippled by his consciousness of his own failings, with little ability to interact with others except through the rigidity of court protocol, and ultimately very lonely. There is a moment where Logue speaks about how men behave with their friends. "I wouldn't know", responds the King.

His frustration at his inability to speak fluently is projected, not only through his outbursts when pushed by Logue, but also with physical tics. He also comes across as a keen thinker - incisive in determining the title to be given to his brother following the abdication, for instance, and as a man who, while determined to do what he sees as his duty, is not prepared to be pushed around.

Jonathan Hyde's Logue is also a well-drawn and believable character, his confidence in his ability to help the King contrasting with his repeated failure to succeed in his ambition to become an actor.
The other characters were less nuanced; Queen Elizabeth came across as rather cold and acidic, and Archbishop Lang as a power-hungry snob.

There were a few jarring moments in the play. For me,  Bertie telling Logue that King George V was euthanized by his doctor, didn’t feel right (We know that this is historically accurate, but it’s not clear that Bertie would have known at the time – it only became commonly known when the Doctor’s diary was made public in 1986 – and his apparent acceptance of it seems inconsistent with  the character of a man who viewed as treason, or very near, any speculation that he might one day be King)

 There were also one or two other minor points which struck me as slightly off: Shortly after the abdication, in a scene between the King and Churchill, Churchill sits down, uninvited. I don’t claim to be an expert on 1930’s Royal protocol, but I don’t think that anyone gets to sit down while the King stands, unless invited to do so. Especially this King, who points out the need for people to be five paces away when they speak to him.

I also found the constantly revolving giant frame/screen in the centre of the stage to be, at times distracting.

However, despite these minor quibbles, I very much enjoyed the play. I felt that Charles Edwards in particular, really shone. The only other thing I am aware of having seen him in was Holy Flying Circus, but I shall certainly be looking out for him in future!

And I think I shall now borrow the DVD and watch the screen version, to see how that compares.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

In Which I Learn About Charles Dickens

We have 2 wonderful  independent bookshops in Bath, both of which organise regular events with authors.  A few weeks ago I went to Toppings' website and saw that they had an event with Simon Callow, speaking about his new book, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. I've never actually been a huge Dickens fan - I was put off by having to read 'Oliver Twist' (very, very slowly) at school. I've read 'A Christmas Carol' (In fact, I read it most years, in the run up to Christmas) and 'A Tale of Two Cities', and I enjoyed the recent BBC production of 'Bleak House'.

And then, I went to see Mr Callow's one man show 'Dr Marigold and Mr Chops'  last year (I blogged about it here) and that made me want to hear what he had to say about Dickens.

The event was held at a church near the bookshop - it was built in the late 18th Century (and has other literary connections - Jane Austen's parents were married there, and her father was buried there, although the marriage, at least, was in the earlier church). It took me a little longer than I'd expected, so the church was pretty full by the time I arrived, and I ended up sitting up in the side gallery, rather than in the body of the church. However, the acoustics were good, so I had no trouble hearing what was said, although I could only see by leaning forward and peering round a pillar!

Mr Callow started by telling us that he always looked for a local Dickens connection before a talk, but that when he Googled "Charles Dickens" and "Bath" the result he got was "Simon Callow"! He went on, however, to tell us that this showed that Google doesn't know everything, as Bath does have a Dickens connection - He took  the name "Pickwick" from a local Carriage Builder here!

He then went on to talk a little about how he became interested in Dickens, first from having been given a copy a of 'The Pickwick Papers' by his grandmother while he was in bed with Chicken Pox as a child, and then later appearing in 'A Christmas Carol' in Lincoln, in 1973, which included a memorable and inadvertent fall through a trapdoor, as Mr Fezziwig. (He commented that the Victorian costumes provided enough padding to prevent himself and Mrs Fezziwig from suffering and serious injury) and, later, as the cast was decimated by illness, a performance when he had to unexpectedly take on the role of Scrooge, despite not knowing the lines, and his role was taken by the boyfriend of one of the other cast members, who had called to see her!

Having spoken a little about his own experiences with Dickens (and yes, he did mention the Doctor Who episode) he then spoke about Dickens himself, and in particular, his involvement with the theatre, and the theatricality of his readings.

I knew that Dickens gave public readings, that these were very popular. I had not realised that he also enjoyed acting, and was considered to be a very good actor - apparently he persuaded Wilkie Collins, who was a friend of his, to write a play for him, in which he performed. The audience on the first night included Disraeli, Tennyson, half the Cabinet, most of the London critics... and then Queen Victoria came on the 2nd night!

Mr Callow also spoke about how well written Dickens works are, and about the challenges of performing them.

He then took a few questions - one of which was from a student teacher asking about encouraging children to enjoy Dickens. The response was to point out that the books were not written for children, and can be daunting, but he suggested both introducing the stories, in whatever format, before moving on to the books, and also suggested reading aloud, as they tend to be work better that way.

In response to a question asking whether he would recite a favourite passage from Dickens, he read the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes, from Oliver Twist, (and did it extremely well, needless to say!)

It was a fascinating peek into Dickens' life, and I was very glad that I went.

At the end of the evening, I was able to get my shiny new copy of the book signed, and to let Mr Callow know how much I had enjoyed 'Dr Marigold and Mr Chops'

All in all, a most successfully evening.  I see that Simon Callow is appearing in 'Being Shakespeare' at the Trafalgar Studios for the next 4 weeks, but sadly I don't think I shall be able to make it up to London to see it - not enough free time or spare money, which is a shame. I shall have to hope that he takes it on tour, later in the year.

Meanwhile, if you have the opportunity to hear him talk about Dickens, take it. And if you down, read the book instead. I've just started it, and it's very interesting.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Life, and Stuff

It's been another long week.  And I think I'm coming down with a cold.
I've been spending some time recently at work taking part in interviewing candidates for a job, which is a little odd - I mean, interviewers are supposed to be real Grown Ups, aren't they? It's oddly disturbing to be taken seriously in the role. It's even worse than applying for a mortgage.

Other than the unexpected being an adult, the week has mostly involved feeling tired.

However, on a more positive note, it has stopped being *quite* so damn cold, and I have been able to line up some treats for the future.

I have booked tickets for the 'National Theatre Live'  production of 'She Stoops to Conquer' which is being broadcast on 29th March (may be different dates outside the UK), and have also booked tickets for Bath Theatre Royal to see live versions of 'The King's Speech' (at the end of this month) and, in April, 'Barefoot in the Park' (starring Maureen Lipman), all of which should be fun.

And much later in the year, I shall be going to the Globe Theatre, in London, to see 'Twelfth Night' featuring Mr Stephen Fry and Mr Mark Rylance - It should be interesting - it's what they describe as an 'Original Practices' production, which means that they aim to use practices (including an all-male cast) available in 1601, with the aim of having authentic music, clothing and so on, as well.

It's a few years since I've been to the Globe - last time was to see Othello, with Eammon Walker at The Moor, and  Tim McInnerny as Othello, in, I think, 2007. That was very good indeed, and I hope this will be, too.

So, lots to look forward to. I also had a lovely e-mail today to say I have been picked to be a 'giver' on World Book Night this year, so I shall have 24 copies of 'Good Omens' to distribute, hopefully to people who don't normally read. I'm planning to see whether any of my clients would like one.

And the Bath Literature Festival is starting soon. I have tickets for Clare Tomalin (on Dickens) Jim Al-Khalili (on the Golden Age of Arabic Science) and Sandi Toksvig, among others. I fear that they may be a certain amount of book-buying coming up in my immediate future... and practically guilt-free, as Independent Booksellers Mr. B's are the festival bookshop this year, so indulging myself will also benefit an indie bookshop!

And last but by no means least, my friend Cheryl and I are going to see Mitch Benn in April!

It's good. It means I have something to look forward to, at least once a fortnight (closer together in some cases) for the next couple of months, and having things to look forward to does help, on the greyest and most miserable of days.

What are you looking forward to?

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Sex with a Stranger

OK, I bet that got your attention!

I've been following Russell Tovey on twitter for a while (he plays George the Werewolf in 'Being Human, was Alonso in the Doctor Who / Titanic Christmas episode, and Henry Knight in 'Sherlock') and he has been tweeting about the play he is currently starring in, 'Sex with a Stranger', by Stefan Golaszewski.

It sounded interesting, so I booked myself a ticket, and set off to London early this morning. It was cold. Very cold. The journey took a little longer than expected, as my first train got delayed, so we went rather a long way round, but fortunately there are plenty of trains from Swindon (where I was changing), and I'd left myself lots of time. I enjoyed sitting in a nice, warm train as it travelled though wintry landscape, especially as it was a beautiful bright, sunny, clear day.

London was freezing cold - literally. There was ice on the fountains in Trafalgar Square, and snow still lying under some of the trees in St James' Park. The mounted sentries at Horseguards looked rather cold (although not as cold as the poor un-mounted chap. I suppose that the fact you are sitting on a horse, even if you have to keep completely still, must give you a little warmth.

There were a lot of people in Trafalgar Square, as part of Amnesty International's day day of solidarity with Syria - and massive numbers of police, although there seemed not to be any problems, so far as I could tell.

After fortifying myself with some good beer, and mediocre fish and chips in a pub just off Whitehall, I popped into the National Gallery for an hour or so. I like it there.

Today, I looked in on a couple of my favourites: Rousseau's 'Surprised!' and Stubbs' 'Whistlejacket', for instance,  and checked that the Van Gogh 'Sunflowers' doesn't say 'for Amy' on it, then wandered (via 'The Ambassadors'  and a completely unexpected (to me) Da Vinci cartoon ) into the Sainsbury Wing, where they keep the medieval paintings. It's amazing to see paintings which are over 500 years old but still so bright and clear.

 Richard II's diptych, painted in around 1395, is stunning, for instance.

I then headed over to Trafalgar Studios for the play itself.

It's short, and has just three cast members.

Adam    Russell Tovey
Grace    Jaime Winstone
Ruth      Naomi Sheldon

We start with Adam and Ruth, making their way back to Ruth's flat, via night buses and cabs and a kebab, making awkward conversation to fill that all-to-long gap between picking one another up in a night club, and getting back to Grace's home so they can have sex. There are a lot of awkward silences, and both actors are very convincing. It's funny, but in a slightly unsettling, too close for comfort kind of way. Ruth originally comes across as brash and confident, but as time passes exposes her own insecurity.

As the play continues, there are flashbacks to Adam preparing to go out, from which we learn that he has a partner, Ruth, and see the build up to his night out, including Ruth's half-formed suspicions, and Adam's angry response to them. There is a scene where we see Grace compliment Adam on his shirt, and then jump back, to see Ruth, alone on stage and in total silence, carefully ironing it for him, ready for his evening out. 

The play doesn't resolve these issues - we don't see any of the aftermath of Adam and Grace's one night stand.

I was very impressed by all three actors. The studio is tiny, seating fewer than 100 people (in 3 rows) so it's very intimate, and there was very little in the way props (and no physical scenery at all - just light and sound) which must make it harder to capture and keep an audience's suspension of disbelief.

I'm glad I went. (and for what it's worth, Tovey takes his shirt off - twice - allowing one to admire more than just his acting skills...!)
(There are some amazing pictures taken by photographer Elliott Franks, of the cast, here)

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Ice and snow

Winter has arrived properly, now - we have had several nights with temps of -5 or -6 (Celsius, but this is Southern England, it counts as really cold) and thick frosts.

This morning I walked into town to go to the library - it's National Libraries Day, although the Library didn't appear to have any special events on.

The decorative pond in the park had icy teeth around its perimeter, and an isolated few icicles above where the fountain plays.

The pond was full of ice-bubbles.

I hadn't planned it, but as I went past the butchers it occurred to me that in this kind of weather, one should be eating hearty, warming stews, so I popped in for some steak, which is now in the slow but glorious process of being transformed into Boeuf Bourguinon.
Walking home, it occurred to me that when it is this cold, almost every bird one sees is a robin..   I must have seen 6 or 7 of them altogether.
Admittedly, I did also see some swans, regal and monochrome on the stream.
And shortly after I returned home, it started to snow. It seems to be settling, and I am determined to stay safe and snug inside. Fortunately I did grocery shopping yesterday, so I have food, and beer, and toilet roll, and cat food, so we should be fine even if the snow is still here tomorrow.
And of course, having been to the library, I also have a good supply of as-yet-unread books.
it could be worse. . .

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Life, and Stuff like that

Last week was a very long, stressful one.

The weekend mainly involved my heaving a huge sigh of relief that I'd got as far as Friday without total disaster. I was looking forward to a nice, long, lazy lie-in, so of course I woke at 5.30 and couldn't get back to sleep! On the plus side, this did mean getting a lot done - housework, mainly, but also a little baking, writing a few letters, and a trip to the Post Office (as you can tell, it was a fascinating weekend!)

So, nothing very exciting or unusual, but it allowed me to decompress and unwind a little, ready to face the new week.

It's been very cold (for UK values of cold!) - there was even a little snow, on Monday, but it didn't settle, so we didn't have to contend with people trying (and often failing) to drive in unfamiliar. Still bloody cold, however.

Meanwhile, I'm de-stressing by re-reading old, comforting favourites - Elizabeth Goudge, for instance. So it goes.