Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Elegy at the Donmar Warehouse

After seeing Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick, I moved on (after a swift meal) to the Donmar Warehouse, to see Zoe Wanamaker, Barbara Flynn, and Nina Sosanya in Nick Payne's new play, Elegy.

The play is a short one, and not what one could call cheerful.

It posits a near future where diseases such as Alzheimer's can be cured,by removal of the affected parts of the brain, with these being replaced by a form of electronic prosthesis, modelled upon the patient's brain and thus allowing them to retain their character and intelligence, but lacking their memories.

We first meet Wanamaker's Lorna as she is being discharged from hospital, having undergone the treatment and having, as a result, lost all memories of her marriage and 20 year relationship with her wife, Carrie (Barbara Flynn), who, having held Power of Attorney for her wife was the one who ultimately made the choice to try the treatment.

Subsequent scenes flash back, to Lorna and Carrie meeting with the doctor (Sosanya), and as they come to terms, together, with the increasing effects of Lorna's illness.

It's pretty  bleak, but all three actors are superb. It's a poignant portrait of love and loss, and while it lacks tension due to the choice to start with the outcome, it's moving, and it does raise some interesting questions about medical consent and indeed, about memory and identity.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Happy 250th Birthday, Bristol Old Vic!

Bristol Old Vic is one of the oldest theatres in England, and claims the distinction of being the oldest which has been in continuous operation as a theatre. When it first opened, it did so illegally, as it didn't have a Royal Warrant, so patrons had to enter, speakeasy style, through a false entrance in a neighbouring house.  It became more respectable over time.

The theatre.
It originally opened in 1766, so is, this year, celebrating its 250th Anniversary.
I don't go to this theatre as frequently as I do to Bath - for one thing, it is a little further away, and less easy to get to, but I have been a patron for years - I saw my first 'Hamlet' there, (Iain Glen, in 1991, with Jame Purefoy as Laertes). 

So when I saw that they would be holding a 250th Anniversary Gala, I decided to attend.

It took place on Sunday evening, 29th May (The original opening, in 1766, apparently took place on 30th May)

The theatre filling up (and the starry ceiling)
On arrival at the theatre we were met with a red carpet, and, once inside, were plied with champagne and canapes, before heading in to take our seats.

It was introduced by Tom Morris, the theatre's Artistic Director, and featured appearances from many actors with links to the theatre or the Old Vic Theatre school, including Kwame Kwei-Armah (who performed the speech which Garrick gave, at the original opening).

Others who appeared included Samantha Bond, Stephanie Cole,Melanie Marshall,  Pippa Haywood, Toby Jones, Patrick Malahide, Michael Morpurgo, Siân Phillips, Tim Pigott-Smith, Caroline Quentin, Tony Robinson and Timothy West, as well as students from the Theatre School (Erin Doherty) and children's theatre.

We heard readings of various actors memories of the theatre, including those of Peter O'Toole, and readings of letters both those of  an 18th C. Quaker opposed to the theatre, and of modern greats such as John Giulgud, calling for the theatre to be saved, as it risked closure and sale as a warehouse, during WW2.

Drama was provided by short performances - we saw 2 recent graduates of the Old Vic Theatre School performing an extract from an early play, in which Sarah Siddons appeared, others performed Mercutio and Tybalt's duel from Romeo and Juliet, and Siân Phillips gave (superbly) Juliet's speech  ("Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds"). 

Timothy West (who is currently in rehearsals for the theatre's production of 'King Lear') gave us Lear's 'Blow winds, and crack your cheeks' speech (with added sound effects from the theatre's recently restored 18th Century 'Thunder Run', which uses cannon balls in wooden runs in the roof to create the sound of thunder)

There was light relief from Tony Robinson and Pippa Haywood as stage managers, wandering to the stage to interrupt, critisise and mis-name Tom Morris.

We also had music - a little of Handel's Messiah, a new setting of a poem written upon the death of a young Shakespearean actor in the 18th C, Melane Marshall performing one of he songs from the recent production of 'Jane Eyre', and an ensemble peice from the 2014 production of 'Swallows and Amazons', which featured beautiful wooden models of the two boats which were sent crowd-surfing through the auditorium.

Michael Morpurgo appeared, and read an extract from his semi-autobiographical picture book 'My Father is a Polar Bear', first explaining that his natural father, Tony Van Bridge, was an actor, who he never met as a child .

After which a horse arrived on stage, the amazing 'Joey' from 'War Horse', (apparently Tom Morris was the original Director) who trotted around the stage, snuffled at the front row of the stalls, and bucked and reared.

I've only seen the show as a live cinema broadcast, not in person, but the puppet-horse is stunning!

After the show ended there was live music in the foyer and gallery from local band 'The Zu Zu Men' and then, just as I was getting ready to leave, a door in the bar opened and out came a horse....
I have to say, seeing Joey up close like this is extraordinary - he's very obviously a puppet - you can see the puppeteers, the structure, the pulleys and rods which allow him to be manipulated.

But he's also, utterly convincingly, a horse. So it is strange and surreal to meet him in the theatre foyer. I found myself worrying that those standing immediately behind him risked getting kicked, and noting how quiet and tolerant of the noise and the people he was!

It was an extraordinary opportunity to 'meet' him. Unfortunately, as I didn't cough up £10 for a commemorative programme I don't have a list of the performers, so I can't name-check 'Albert' or the operators of Joey, but they were great!

Joey, in the foyer of the theatre

It was a highly enjoyable evening, and I am glad I went. And I hope that the theatre is still going strong in another 250 years!

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Romeo & Juliet

Last week was a very busy one for me. After my trip to London on Thursday for the  Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories screening, I was back again on Saturday, for 2 shows, booked months ago.

The first of these was Romeo and Juliet, a production by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company at the Garrick.

I booked it because Sir Derek Jacobi was appearing,and I will always show up to see him perform, given the chance. I was intrigued to learn he would be playing Mercutio, as of course, it's not a role with which one associates with a 77 year old man).

Mercution, Romeo and Benvolio
(Photo from Theatre website)
The Production is set in 1950s Italy, so the sets reference fascist  architecture, and the costumes are very much 'La Dolce Vita' : virtually monochrome and very stylish. Setting the play in this period, and this place, with undertones of Mafia corruption, and more that a little machismo, works well

Juliet is played by Lily James, (Downton Abbey's Lady Rose / War and Peace's Natasha Rostova), and Romeo by Richard Madden (Robb Stark in Game of Thrones) 

Juliet and Romeo
I was very impressed by James's performance as Juliet - she is entirely convincing as an emotional, intense teenager.

Madden I found a little disappointing, he didn't seem to project any passion, and unfortunately his diction was not always as clear as it could be, leading to some of the verse being lost. Friar Lawrence (Samuel Valentine) was a young man, a close friend of Romeo's, and his performance was excellent - his youth made the friendship, and Friar Lawrence's actions in assisting the young lovers entirely believable. 

Tybalt (Ansu Kabia) and Mercutio (Derek Jacobi)

Derek Jacobi's Mercutio is a high point in the show. He is wonderfully urbane, witty and more than a little camp, twirling his sword-stick and offering worldly advice and bon mots to his younger friends. His 'Queen Mab' speech was pitch-perfect, and his duel with Tybalt has an added poignancy, as he gives the impression, until the last moment, that he expects, as is his wont, to duel with words, not swords. 

In all, a good, but not great, production. I enjoyed it. (Although was somewhat irritated by the chap sitting behind me, and explaining the plot and characters in piercing whisper, to his children!)

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Richard III. A Bad Man

Last Saturday evening, the BBC broadcast the 3rd in the current series of The Hollow Crown, Richard III. 

It features Benedict Cumberbatch as the scheming, murderous monarch, Judi Dench as his mother, the Duchess of York, and Sophie Okonedo as Margaret of Anjou, widow of Henry VI. 

The play follows on from the 2 previous episodes (compressed from the 3 Henry VI plays) and it helps to have watched the earlier ones to build up an understanding of the background, the characters, and their relationships, but this is the big one, where Richard III comes into his wicked, murderous own.

It's a very good adaptation. Cumberbatch revels in the role, particularly his soliloquies, spoken directly to the camera, drawing us in to his plots.

Between times, he spends a lot of time brooding over a chess board, drumming his fingers, never satisfied or safe.

They play is, of course, pretty bleak, but there are nevertheless moments of humour - the scene in which the Mayor of London and others arrive to 'persuade' Richard to take the throne is very funny.

The final showdown, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, is as grim as it comes, with endless acres of blood and rain and mud. 

Richmond (Luke Treadaway) naturally turns up, looking impossibly clean-cut and noble, and, inevitably, defeats Richard.

This is, of course, entirely consistent with Shakespeare's play, if not with history (the victory is true, of course. The nobility, less so) 

It's well worth seeing.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Shakespeare as you have never seen him before (Contains lots of Death and Spaceships)

I had a very Shakespeare-heavy start to the week.

On Monday night I went to see a local, amateur production of 'Return to the Forbidden Planet'. For. those who have not seen it, this is Shakespeare's lost Rock and Roll masterpiece - very loosely based upon 'The Tempest', with words stolen from all of Shakespeare's other pays, and (live) music from Rock'n'Roll's heyday, and Dan Dare / Thunderbirds style.

it is tremendously entertaining! I saw a professional production (set and costume designs by Gerry Anderson of Thunderbirds fame) years ago, and loved it, and have wanted to see it again, ever since.

I enjoyed this production, although it would have benefited from  larger stage, and the performances were a little patchy, but all in all, it was good fun. (And I still want to see another professional performance!) 

Then on Tuesday, I went to Bristol Old Vic to see SpyMonkey's 'The Complete Deaths'.

They have decided (as one does) to combine, in a single performance, all 75* of the on-stage deaths in Shakespeare's plays.

(*If you include the black, ill-favoured fly from Titus Andronicus. 76 if you include Ophelia despite the fact she really dies off-stage)
(C) Chris Riddell / SpyMonkey
I heard of the show via Chris Riddell,who illustrated a number of the Deaths, for the programme, and who has also illustrated the complete deaths card gayme,  and as one of places that the show is touring to was Bristol (as part of 'MayFest,) I decided to go.

It was a lot of fun - the deaths were presented in a huge range of ways. I am not certain whether it is Cleopatra's burlesque striptease, or all the Macbeth deaths presented via the medium of interpretive dance (by performers wearing flesh-coloured latex kilts) which will stay with me the longest . . .

The Shakespearean deaths are interspersed with interactions between the cast - Toby Park as the earnest intellectual, determined to confront the complacent audience with their own ultimate deaths, Aitor Basauri, longing to be a serious, Shakespearean actor (and having conversations with Shakespeare's disembodied head from time to time) Stephan Kreiss, nursing an unrequited (and at times very vocal) love for his colleague Petra, and  Petra Massey herself, determined to include the death of Ophelia. . .

I am not sure how much fun this would be if you don't have at least a passing familiarity with Shakespeare's plays, but if you do, it's highly entertaining, witty and extremely enjoyable.

Oh, and I bought the cards. And can now play a beautifully illustrated game of death top trumps.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories

Because I am a lucky sod, on Thursday, I got to attend a  preview screening, at the BFI, of 'Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories', which are to be broadcast on Sky Arts, starting on 26th May.

The evening started with live music from Jarvis Cocker,  supported by a 7-piece orchestra, as he played the songs composed for each of the four stories

There was then a short conversation with Neil, Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth (who directed the series) and Jarvis Cocker. 

Neil explained that he had sent Jane and Iain a list of the the 40 or so short stories which were available and they had chosen four, not necessarily the four he would have expected..
Neil |Gaiman, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard

Then we got to watch the films. The series consists of 4 of Neil's short stories; Foreign Parts, Feeders and Eaters, Closing Time, and Looking For The Girl, and for the screening they were all shown as one smooth whole, although I think they are being shown as separate episodes when it airs on TV.

And they are very good indeed - the films capture the dark , unsettling nature of the stories, both in content and in the style in which they are shot, and the music perfectly complements them. 

I was a little wary, a adaptations of books and stories so often fall short, and fail to do justice to their source material, but these don't.

All of the tales were set in London, but a darker, more mysterious and inexplicable London than the one you normally see.

It left me wondering, as I walked back from the Southbank, what exactly might be going on, just out of sight, and what it is that you half-see, from the corner of your eye, at such times...

Friday, 20 May 2016

More Shakespeare : The Hollow Crown, Henry VI pt 2 (and 3)

We are well into the Wars of the Roses now - battles are two-a-penny, Warwick the Kingmaker is busy manipulating things, and foolish, vacillating Clarence is changing sides every five minutes.

And of course, Richard of York's younger son, Richard, is  limping around, dressed entirely in black and soliloquising about his dastardly ambitions, and looking sideways under his eyebrows.
Richard of York  (Benedict Cumberbatch)

People are getting stabbed and decapitated all over the place, Margaret of Anjou is demonstrating that she is a far better general, and on the whole, better suited than her husband to be a medieval monarch.
Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo)

It is all extremely well done, and very graphic, in the representation of the sheer, vicsious bloodiness of the Wars of the Roses.

We left the action just after the new King, Edward IV, upsets pretty much everyone by marrying a dowerless, English  widow rather than  making the political marriage arranged for him, and after Margaret and Henry's son is killed.

With this cheerful starting point, we shall be heading into Richard III, the final part of this 'series' of 'The Hollow Crown', next week.


Saturday, 14 May 2016

Bees! Bees! Bees!

I have bees! 

You may remember a post last year when I was doing my beginners course, and got to get a little hands-on experience through the kindness of one of the beekeepers running the course. 

After that, I decided to take the plunge and to get some bees of my own.  Which involved quite a lot of waiting, as I needed to find somewhere I could site a hive, (my garden isn't really big enough, and is too close to the neighbours) and to wait until Spring for a nucleus (nuc) of bees.

Unopened travel box on top of the hive
I overcame my shyness to approach a lady living further down my road, having spotted that she has a large, semi-wild garden, behind her house, to ask whether she might consider letting me put a hive in her garden. Happily, she was very enthusiastic about the idea, so I was able to go ahead and order a (flat pack) hive and to start building it, and to order a queen-bee and all her attendants.

And then I had to wait. and wait. and wait some more.

Until Wednesday, when I got confirmation that my bees were ready for collection. And then of course, it was time to panic and to wonder what on earth I had been thinking, to get myself into this.

And this morning, I drove to just outside Gloucester to collect my bees. And then drove home very carefully home. (I found that knowing there are several thousand bees sharing the car with you, restrained only by  a polystyrene box held closed with a few bits of packing tape, concentrates the mind!) 

Letting the bees out of the travel box
I was nervous about putting the bees into their hive - I haven't done this before, nor have I watched someone else do it, and while one can read up in advance, it's not necessarily practical to stop halfway though to check the instructions! 

Step one was to put the travel box on the hive site, and open the door, so the bees can come out, and can start to find their way around. 

I was gratified to find that the bees did not immediately attack me (they had, after all, just spent an hour and half shut up in a box being joggled around). And still more gratified to find that they had clearly been reading the same textbook as me, as they promptly started doing all the correct things - flying in smaller and then larger circles above the hive, standing near the entrance and fanning pheremones around, and the like.

So, I left them for an hour or so, before going back in order to move the frames of brood, eggs and stores from the travel box into my shiny new hive, and to give them a feed of sugar syrup.

Just after installing the bees in the hive

This was the scary part, as it involved opening up the travel box, which naturally meant lots more bees flying around my head.

But they considerately rerained from stinging me or trying to sting me, and I managed to move all the frames across without dropping anything vital.

I didn't manage to spot the Queen Bee as I moved the frames over, and decided that I would not push my luck and risk annoying the bees by lifting the frames out of the hive to try to find her - I shall have another look in a day or two.

Hive in situ
I admit that I am feeling quite chuffed with myself, having managed to get this far, and I hope that the bees will stay content and productive, and that I shall be able to keep them going over the winter, and to harvest at least a little honey later this year!

I was very lucky that today was a beautiful warm, sunny day - it could not have been better for playing with bees.  In fact, when I went back to set up some drinking water for them, I could see that they were already bringing back pollen. So I guess that they have accepted their new home.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Hollow Crown - Henry VI

So, 4 years after the BBC's first 'Hollow Crown' series, comprising Richard II, Henry IV Pts 1 and 2, and Henry V, they have finally completed, and are showing, the second series, which will, over three 2 hour films, cover Henry VI parts 1-3, and Richard III.

I've been looking forward to this, as the first set were so good, and of course there are lots of good actors involved (Judi Dench, for example, Sophie Okonedo, and of course Benedict Cumberbatch as the dastardly Richard III, but Ben and Judi haven't shown up yet...) 

 Tom Sturridge  and Sophie Okonedo
 (c) Robert Viglasky/BBC/Carnival Film & Television Ltd
I have seen the plays before - the Globe Theatre did all 3 parts of Henry VI in 2013, and I saw them on tour (ad blogged about it here), and they are not, in my view, Shakespeare's best work, but so far I am enjoying what  Dominic Cooke is doing with them. The three plays are compressed into 2, 2 hour episodes, so a good deal is cut,and there are some changes -  but what is left works well.

In this first episode, we have already had the rise and fall of Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan), the nobilty of England picking roses to declare which side of the coming they will be on, and Richard of York (not that one. his father) putting himself forward as the rightful King (which of course, arguably he was, what with that Bolingbroke having usurped the crown rather than waiting for his older cousin to do so. . .)

Sophie Okonedo is superb as Queen Margaret, I'm looking forward to seeing more of her, and Tom Sturridge, is wonderfully ineffectual as King Henry VI.

There's also some particular local interest for me - some of the filming took place in Wells, and spotting parts of Wells Cathedral, standing in for Henry's palace, adds to the fun!

I can't wait for the next  episode! This is why I love the BBC!

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Catching up with friends, and other bank holiday weekend activities

This weekend I had the pleasure of catching up with friends - J, her husband J and their nearly-new child (13 months old) came down for the weekend.

It been just over 6 months since I last saw them, so it was wonderful to catch up.

We had a quiet, low key time - catching up, playing with the sproglet, cooking, eating, and a short walk (more of an amble, really) in the village, including some mild foraging for ransoms (wild garlic).

We didn't actually see a wood full of bluebells, but there were lots in the hedge bottoms, and this seemed like a good opportunity to share the picture I took on Tuesday, instead!

There was also a certain amount of cooking, some parts of it more successful than others .. I tried out a recipe for an upside-down aubergine and courgette savoury cake, which tasted great but collapsed on coming out of the tin, so was less impressive visually than the recipe promised!

I also tried, for the first time, to make baklava, as it's nice, and hard to get hold of the good stuff here. 

I went for the Turkish style (made with sugar syrup rather than honey) and it turned out pretty well, I think. Lots and lots of pistachios, not too much sugar, and a smidgeon of lemon juice - so it tasted good without being cloyingly sweet.

Next tie I make it I think I shall cook it for a slightly shorter time, and perhaps not reduce the sugar syrup so much, as it was slightly dry round the edges, but on the whole, it worked. And I still have 2 packs of filo pastry, so it won't be hard to try again..

My friends had to go home on Sunday, so I had Monday free, which I used for a little house work, a lot of snoozing (Small Person wakes very early, and I'm not as good as he is at napping during the day to make up!) 

Then, as it was wet and unappealing outside, I went to the cinema and saw Captain America:Civil War . Which was good fun. Which was good fun.