Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Alchemist and Doctor Faustus

I spent last Saturday in London, mostly at the Barbican. 

I'd booked to see 'Doctor Faustus', with my friend A (with whom I also saw the Jamie Lloyd Co. version back in April), and also to see 'The Alchemist' by myself - they are both RSC productions which have transferred from Stratford to London, and of the same actors appear in both.

They are, however, very different productions.

The Alchemist was written by Ben Jonson and was first performed, at the Globe Theatre, in 1610. This production was the first time I've seen it, and I avoided reading up on it in advance so came to it with an open mind.

This production was in period dress, (although the introductory music moves seamlessly from generic medieval twangly harpsichord to more familiar tunes - snatches of the 'Mission Impossible' and 'James Bond' themes being particularly notable!)

It made the most of every drop of comedy in the text. Dishonourable trio, Jeremy / Face (Ken Nwosu), Dol Common (Siobhán McSweeney) and Subtle (Mark Lockyer) take advantage of the fact that Jeremy the butler has been left in charge of his master's house, while his master flees the plague,  join forces to con their neighbours, with Subtle posing as a learned Doctor and Alchemist, and Face as his friend, the dashing Captain, and Dol as, well, whatever is necessary, from Queen Mab, to wealthy and learned lady.

 'Dol Common' (c) Helen Maybanks

It's fast and farcial, as the trio try to prevent their various victims from running into one another, while making as much profit as they can without, of course, actually delivering anything in return!

I'm not a bit fan of farce but I did enjoy the show, and liked the way that this production draws in the audience, making us complicit in their (mis-)deeds!

After the show I met up with A and we had a very good meal, before returning to the Barbican for (for me) the second play of the day.

Doctor Faustus is a very different production, both from The Alchemist and from the previous production of the same play  we saw earlier in the year.

At the start, the Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan walk on stage in silence, mirroring each others actions. They each strike a match. The one whose match burns out first plays Faustus, and the other plays Mephistophelis. 

It must be challenging, not to know until the last moment which role you will be playing that night! 

For the performance we saw, Oliver Ryan played Faustus, and Sandy Grierson, Mephistophilis.

It's still a very odd play.
Oliver Ryan as Faustus (left) and Sandy Grierson as Mephistophilis.
(c) Helen Maybanks
I preferred this version to the Kit Harrington / Jamie Lloyd one I saw, and thought both leads gave extraordinary performances. 

The production had some excellent, and at times (intentionally) disturbing characters and costumes: the seven deadly sins were a nightmare burlesque, gluttony in a fat suit, lust as a drag queen, envy in a gimp suit, and covetousness with prostheses allowing it to walk on all fours, for instance.

There were also scary clowns in bowler hats, and worryingly fascist soldiers with black uniforms, masks and red rubber gloves..

Things did not end well for Faustus.  But we knew that.

I'm glad to have seen it. I thought it was very interesting, and that the actors involved were excellent. But I'm not sure I would say I liked it, exactly.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

R.I.P. Coraline

Her first day with me
Just over two years ago, Coraline and her bigger brother Loki came to live with me, and on Monday Coraline left us.

Tiny Coraline, September 2014
I think she was the sweetest-tempered cat I've ever known - she snuggled with the vet when she had her stiches out after her spay, and the time I had to give both he and Loki showers after they got caked in mud, he yowled with rage and sulked for hours afterwards, she cheeped piteously while she was being washed, but curled up under my chin and purred as soon as I turned off the water and picked her up to towel her dry.

The sweetness didn't extend to non-humans - she was a mighty hunter  - mostly mice and shrews, but at least once she caught a rat, and another time a pigeon which she managed to get in through the cat flap. An she did also catch other things - paper aeroplanes, christmas baubles and so on..

She even tried to teach me to hunt, bringing me mildly concussed shrews which she would drop in front of me, with an imperious call, and then back off and watch critically as attempted to trap them in a pint glass and release them back to the garden. I suppose from her perspective, the training was working, as I was getting better at catching them!

She was adventurous - 

And so snuggling.

She was not above giving her brother Loki a slap when he went too far (which he often did, as he isn't very bright and can't take a hint) but they were snuggly too, and I think he is missing her. 

She was hit by a car, crossing the road. The driver didn't stop.

Rest in peace, Sweetie. 

Monday, 19 September 2016

Montacute House

Montacute House (East Front) 
It came a nice sunny day on Friday, so I decided on a day out to visit Montacute House, about 30 miles from here.

Montacute House (West Front)

It is a beautiful Elizabethan mansion, built between 1598 and 1601, and now owned by the National Trust.

View over garden

The original owner was a Sir Edward Phelips, who was a lawyer and courtier, and who was involved in the prosecution of Guy Fawkes and the other gunpowder plotters. After that, the familiy seems to have become less prominent or active.

Tudor Chap

In the Great Hall, I met this gentleman. I assume he was a NT volunteer, and not simply a visitor with a taste for historical re-enactment!

Dining Room with 15thC Tapestry

None of the furniture in the house is original to the property, as the original owners sold off the contents when they could no longer afford the house,  but much of it is is of the right periods - the tapestry in the dining room is a 15th C French one, for instance, created during the 1470s in Tournai.


My favourite room was, naturally, the Library. It was originally the 'Great Chamber', where the most important guests would be entertained or impressed, and where any passing royalty would have slept. 

Stained Galss - Library

It has impressive (and expensive) 16th C stained glass, including Queen Elizabeth I's coat of arms (although if he hoped to impress her that way he missed the boat, as she died soon after the house was completed, and never visited)

There's also some 18th C graffiti, on the windows, although I'm not sure whether poems in Latin to the writer's mother really counts...

The Long Gallery
The house has the longest surviving Tudor Long Gallery in England, 173 feet (53 metres) long. It's currently used to house portraits loaned by the National Gallery, of various Elizabethan and Jacobean dignitaries. They are all in the style of Holbein,but none of them are actually by him....

There was also, separately, a small exhibition of samplers, dating from the mid 1600s to the late 1800s.

I rather liked this mid-1600s mermaid and peacock, although I would have liked a little more information - for instance, for many of the samplers they listed the name of the girl who made it, (even when this wasn't shown on the sampler itself) but didn't give any further information, for instance about her age or status. I'm sure in some cases they may have known!

Outside, there are formal lawns and yew hedges, and the obligatory fountain!

If the place looks familiar, it is probably because it was used extensively as a location for the filming of 'Wolf Hall', standing in for Greenwich Palace, and also appearing in the jousting and archery scenes.

It's a beautiful house (and is in a very pretty village) and was interesting to visit.

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Libertine

I had some trouble getting to see 'The Libertine' .

I'd booked a ticket, then had to rearrange due to a work commitment, they sent me a ticket for the wrong night.. and then I was busy recovering from anaphylactic shock and completely forgot to go on the night I did have a ticket for! 

Fortunately for me, however, the play is in Bath for nearly 3 weeks, so there was time for me get to see it.

Remember I mentioned that 'The Rover' might have been based on either Henry or John Wilmot (or both of them)?

The Libertine is all about John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester poet, courtier, soldier, critic, libertine and amoral man about town.

Wilmot was the son of Henry Wilmot, who was created Earl of Rochester by Charles II in gratitude for his support during the English Civil War and the Interregnum. He inherited his father's title at the age of 11, and joined Charles' court at the age of 17. He wooed his wife by abducting her (for which he spent 3 weeks in the Tower of London, being released only after grovelling to the King) and served  (apparently with great courage) in the 2nd Dutch War, while still in his teens.

However, this play deals with his later life. 

It opens (after orange sellers come through the auditorium as the audience take their sets) with Wilmot (Dominic Cooper) addressing the audience, telling us not to like him, that he is generally at his worst when he appears in a sympathetic light, and goes on to comment that he is permanently 'up for it' with women, and generally also with men...

Given Dominic Cooper's looks, this was not entirely off-putting...

(Photo from  Bath Theatre Royal - (C) Alastair Muir)

His Lordship came over as rude, crude, selfish, but cleverer than several sack-fulls of monkeys, and tragic in his self-destructive habits. 

We watched as he wenched and drank his way across 17th C London, and met his match in actress Elizabeth Barry (Ophelia Lovibond), determined to succeed as a serious actress and not , despite his support, to do so dependent on Rochester. I believe this may be Ophelia Lovibond's stage debut - if so, it's an excellent one. She, and Nina Toussaint White ( who plays Rochester's favourite prostitute) both give excellent performances each in their own way standing up to Rochester, and each showing sings of understanding him only too well!

(Jasper Britton as Charles II
Photo from  Bath Theatre Royal - (C) Alastair Muir)
Jasper Britton's Charles II was acerbic and knowing, prepared to turn a blind eye to Rochester's shenanigans only so far (Rochester's attempt to stage a satirical play, including live sex on stage, jokes about the Queen's sex life and a folk dance with dildos are scuppered by the King, who was hoping for a work of literature which would endure and cement his position as patron of the arts...

(the live sex portion isn't shown on stage. The folk dancing with dildos is. In case you were wondering)

It's a very entertaining romp, with a strong cast. Not, however, for those of a Puritan or prudish temperament!

The run at Bath has finished but the play is on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for 10 weeks.  Well worth seeing!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Rover

I wasn't sure what to expect when I booked to see the RSC production of Aphra Behn's 'The Rover'. I was vaguely aware that Behn was a Restoration playwright, but I didn't know much more than that, nor did I know the play.

The play was written in 1681, but set a little earlier, during the Interregnum, and features a group of Cavaliers in exile, in (unspecified) foreign parts. I would guess that tin the original they were in Spain or Italy, but here there is a very definite South American feel.

Joseph Millson is Willmore, the titular Rover - larger than life, like a slightly more nuanced Lord Flashheart - outrageously confident and swaggeringly sexy. 

He, and friends Colonel Belvile (Patrick Robinson), Frederick (Patrick Knowles) and their inept but wealthy friend, Blunt (Leander Deeny) visit town at carnival time, when the world is turned upside down.

Between meetings with various prostitutes and carnival goers, they meet up with the three sisters of Don Pedro (Gyuri Sarossy), who, in defiance of convention and their brother, dress up as assorted gypsies and young men and go out to have fun and meet attractive men, during carnival.

Florinda (Frances McNamee) is keen to escape her father's plan to marry her off to an elderly and wealthy widower, and her brother's plan to marry her off to his young and eligable friend Don Antonio (Jamie Wilkes), as she has already fallen in love with Colonel Belvile. Hellena (Faye Castelow) wishes to avoid becoming a nun, or at the very least, to have some fun before she is immured in a nunnery. And Valeria (Emma Noakes) is just along for the hell of it (unless I missed something!) 

Inevitably, they encountered the Rover and his friends.....

And there are lots of issues with mistaken identity, duels, rivalry in love (or at least lust) and a spot of cross-dressing.

It's a joyous, very physical production, with refreshingly strong and independent female characters. Hellena is more than a match for Willmore, both intellectually and sexually. 

It's also a very intimate performance. There are ad libs to the audience (Willmore entered swinging on a rope from the gallery , and commented 'that went better in rehearsal', and there was at least one member of the audience drawn into dancing on the stage.

I can't remember when I last went to a show which was so much fun!

(Interestingly, the character of the Rover may well have been based in part upon John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (of whom more later) who may have been a lover of Behn's, and / or his father, Henry Wilmot, who helped Charles I to escape.

The play is at Stratford until February and is well worth seeing, if you get the chance. I'm tempted to go again, myself! 

Friday, 9 September 2016

In which I relax a bit

Happily I now have some time off work, and while I've not booked a formal holiday, I had arranged to visit my parents (all planned before their emergency visit to me to hold my hand when I came out of hospital) 

It's been very pleasant.

The weather has been changeable, but when you are mostly just relaxing and hanging out that isn't a major issue.

My mum and I went shopping and found a couple of pairs of shoes and some shirts,  at the local outlet 'village', which was good. (I don't enjoy shopping, so getting my mum to come with me, and finding stuff which is both suitable and reduced, is a big plus for me!) 

Then we met up with my aunt and uncle, and my 2nd cousin who is visiting them while she gets over a fall, and spent an evening with them, with a meal out at a local thai restaurant. Which was very nice.

We then had a full day when the weather was supposed to be good, so we went out for the day to visit Hartland Abbey, which is about an hour's drive from my parent's house,on the coast.

The original abbey has (apart from a few walls and doorways in the basement) mostly gone, but there is a rather nice house, some walled gardens, and a pleasant walk through the woods to the coast.

The place was originally an Abbey, founded in 1157. It was reportedly the last Abbey in England to be dissolved by Henry VIII, and on dissolution he gave the Abbey to one William Abbot, his sergeant of the wine cellar at Hampton Court. The house has never been sold, since, it has always passed down within the same family (several times through marriage in the female line, hence the current occupants are  called Stucley, not Abbot!)

Hartland Abbey
Much of the house is relatively modern, but rather nice for all that! 

We started by walking from the house down to the sea (about 1 mile). The walk was a pleasant one, gently down hill and mostly through woods.

At the end, there is a cottage (Blackpool Mill Cottage) which looks oddly familiar....

It was used as Barton Cottage in the BBCs adaptation of 'Sense and Sensibility', and more recently featured in 'The Night Manager'.  There was however however no sign of Jonathan Pine / Tom Hiddleston or of Mr Willoughby!

Just beyond the cottage is a tiny cliff and steps down to a small, pebbly beach.

We enjoyed sitting in the sunshine looking out over the sea while we ate our picnic lunch, and did go down onto the beach on order to look at the sea properly (I never feel I have been to the sea properly unless I am close enough to be able to paddle should I feel the urge to do so!) 

We then walked back up to go round the house. They don't allow photos inside, but it is quite nice, and obviously still lived in (In the library, there are lots of lovely leather bound books and comfortable-looking chairs, and there is also a large TV and a practical looking drinks tray!).

Down in the basement there are several small exhibitions - one about the 17th C Stukeley who was an antiquarian and who studied the stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury (and sought to prevent their destruction) and others about various martial Stucleys and Stukeleys, and a very small one devoted to the various times when the house, grounds or estate have been used as locations for film and television.

As well as 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'The Night Manager' they have had visits from 'Top Gear' (dropping caravan over the cliffs) and filming for 'The Shell Seekers', and early version of 'Treasure Island' and  others.

We finished our visit with another short walk to the walled gardens -  a mixture of flower and kitchen gardens.

I think that the flower gardens were perhaps past their best , but still very nice - lots of fuchsias, and lots of bees and butterflies - I counted 4 different varieties of bumble bee on one plant!

We finished up by driving a little further down the coast to Hartland Quay.There is no longer a quay there, but there are some rather nice views! (and a pub, which we didn't go into!) 

It was all very pleasant, and I was particularly pleased that I was able to walk to the sea and back, and to and around the gardens, without feeling completely shattered, so I am obviously very nearly back to normal, now!

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Entertainer

The last in Kenneth Branagh's season of plays at the Garrick is John Osborne's 'The Entertainer' , and I went to see it at the weekend.

I booked it some time ago, as originally, John Hurt was due to appear, but sadly he had to withdraw for health reasons, which was a disappointment.

However, the cast still included Branagh (Archie Rice) Greta Scacchi (Phoebe Rice) Gawn Granger (Billy Rice) and Sophie McShera (Jean Rice) 

It's not a play I am familiar with, so I went in with a completely open mind.

And left a little disappointed - the play (for those unfamiliar with it) it set during the Suez crisis, with Britain's place in the world declining, and features Branagh as Archie Rice, fading and failing music hall entertainer and womaniser - I felt Branagh was more convincing as the music hall artiste than in conveying the despair and failure of Rice in his private life, and felt that Sophie McShera as his daughter Jean, visiting following her split from her fiance after attending a protest in Trafalgar square, made a somewhat unconvincing rebel.

Gawn Granger as Rice's father was very strong, as was Greta Scacchi as Rice's long-suffering wife, but over all I felt it it was weaker than some of the other productions in the season, and didn't quite achieve the sort of quiet desperation which a  lot of the script seem to require.

I wanted to enjoy it a lot more than I actually enjoyed it!

(The play is at the Garrick until 12th November)

Saturday, 3 September 2016

In Which I Do Not Die

I had been planning to do a post about the bees, and to talk about how I heard my new queen 'piping' before I installed her, but then I had a bit of trouble at the weekend..

I went down to my hive on Sunday afternoon for a routine inspection and as I was finishing I got stung.

This is not normally a major issue. Obviously no-one likes to get stung, but, equally obviously, it is an occupational hazard of keeping bees and it happens.

I've been stung three times before, and each time,the reaction was perfectly normal - a bit of swelling around where I was stung, itchiness  where it was swollen, and all better after a few days.

Sunday's experience was rather different and very scary. 

Almost immediately after I was stung I started to feel a bit odd, and things went downhill rapidly from there, as it turned out that I was having a full-on anaphylactic reaction. 

I was lucky in that it didn't significantly affect my throat and mouth so I was able to breathe, but even without that it was pretty unpleasant - full body rash, (which itched and burned as well as being bright scarlet and very unflattering!) faintness, very low blood pressure (all my fingers turned a deep and un-beautiful shade of blue, and I couldn't sit or stand up without passing out ), constant shaking (apparently that goes with the 'shock' part...

I don't recommend it. It really isn't any fun at all.

Fortunately, although it was pretty quick (rash started coming up within about 5 minutes of being stung) I was able to phone an ambulance (and also to call my neighbours, who came round and waited with me for the ambulance, and then locked up an fed the cats for me while I had a ride to the hospital and a 5 hour visit to AandE.

I was allowed to go home after being pumped full of steroids, hooked up for several hours  to  machine which goes *ping*, and (a little later) being given a splendid, NHS issue cup of tea.

And my lovely parents dropped everything and came down, so they were able to drive me home and stay over for a couple of days offering tea and sympathy.

I know have an epipen in case of further incidents, but I think I will be getting rid of the bees - I know some beekeepers do continue even after developing allergies, but for me, a big part of the attraction was to have a calm, relaxing hobby, to counteract all the stress at work. 
And somehow, knowing that a minor sting might result in collapse, hospitals or death isn't very relaxing.

Which is very, very disappointing.

I have to say, though, that having a smart phone and being allowed to use it in the hospital did help a lot. Once I started to feel better it was good to be able to text my parents and give them reassuring updates (they live a 2 hour drive from me so although I called them from the ambulance it took a while or them to get there. And I suspect, with hindsight, that my attempt to break the news gently so as not to cause panic may not have been as sucessful as I intended!)

And as I started to feel better, being able to post on facebook and have friends offering (virtual) hugs and real company and sympathy made it a much less lonely experience!

LAst, but definately not least, thank god for the NHS!