Saturday, 27 January 2018

Mary Stuart (Almeida West End)

Another weekend, another couple of plays.

My friend A and I booked to Mary Stuart, which has transferred from the Almeida theatre to the west End - I went into it with very little prior knowledge; I mean, I have a basic knowledge of Tudor History, but I hadn't read anything about the play in advance.

The original play was written in 1800 by Friedrich Schiller, this version is an updated translation, produces by Robert Icke, (who was also responsible for 1984, and the Andrew Scott Hamlet .

he two leads, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams play the roles of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. At the start of the play a spin of a coin determines which of them will play Mary, and which Elizabeth.

The day we went, Juliet Stevenson played the Virgin Queen, and Lia Williams the Scottish one.The production is a modern dress one, and the moment that the coin falls, the remaining cast of courtiers bow deeply to Elizabeth, while Mary is stripped of her jacket and shoes and led away to prison.

The play revolves around the period leading up to Mary's execution, and imagines a (wholly fictitious) meeting between the two queens, and explores the similarities, and the differences, between the two - Mary's Catholicism and Elizabeth's Protestantism, Mary's marriages and Elizabeth's virginity, Mary's self-confidence due to having been born and raised to be a queen, and Elizabeth's history of being proclaimed as illegitimate. 

Both of them are imprisoned, in their own ways. Mary literally, and Elizabeth by the expectations of her role and by her advisers. Indeed, as the play moves on, it appears that Elizabeth is, in some ways, more trapped than Mary , political pressures pushing her towards authorising Mary's execution, while Mary herself grows calmer and embraces martyrdom.

At the end of the play, Mary appears, ready for her execution, in a simple shift, while Elizabeth (despite the play being otherwise in modern dress) is dressed in full Elizabethan style, with a red farthingale, white dress, white painted face, and a wig and ruff, leaving her almost immobile, and utterly isolated.

It would be interesting to see the play the other way round, with Juliet Stevenson in the title role. The play is coming to Bath in April,perhaps I shall have to go again, and see! 

The play is at the Duke of York's Theatre until 31st March.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Living with gods - British Museum

Having spent all of Saturday, pretty much, at the theatre, I stayed over night so, before heading home on Sunday morning I decided to visit the British Museum (because I do love the British Museum) and to visit their 'Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond' exhibition. 

One of the first (in every sense!) items in the exhibition is the 'Lion Man', which is around 40,000 years old - it's made from mammoth ivory and it apparently the earliest known example of figurative art, of a being not known in nature, so an early survival of the product of someone's imagination. It's rather lovely, and awe-inspiring that it has survived for so long.

The exhibition then looks at various themes - light, water, air, pilgrimage, birth, coming of age, and death. It's arranged thematically rather than either chronologically or by reference to a specific religious belief. 

However, I found the exhibition rather disappointing after the first exhibit - the ideas being explored seemed to be addressed in a minimal way - and so while I found some of the items individually interesting, the exhibition as a whole doesn't seem very coherent or satisfying. 

So, after I had been around the exhibition, I went to visit some of my favourite parts of the museum. 

I went up to visit the Lewis Chessmen, because I  am extremely fond of them. As you my know, they were made in around 1150-1200, from Walrus ivory.

This chap is a rook, in the form of a Beserker warrior, biting his shield. I learned that for a period in the middle ages monks were forbidden to play chess, although it wasn't entirely clear whether this was due to it being a game of battle strategy, and thus unfit for men of god, or because it could be played by men and women, and thus lead to flirting and the like!

I then took some time to admire the Sutton Hoo treasures, and some of the other Anglo Saxon artifacts.

I loved this beautiful crozier head, and these horses.(which originated in what is now Ukraine, in around 550AD.)

It's fascinating stuff. 

I also paid a visit to the Lycurgus Cup, a Roman survival form the 4th C. It is glass, made from dichroic glass - the glass has small amounts of gold and silver in it which makes it appear either red or green, depending on whether or not light is shining through it!

An enjoyable visit. I like visiting the museum in small sections, so I can focus on whichever part I visit.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Birthday Party

When I booked for Titus Andronicus, I thought I might want a bit of light relief afterwards, so booked a ticket for Harold Pinter's  The Birthday Party, on the basis that it is billed as a comedy, and that it has an interesting cast, including Zoe Wanamaker, Stephen Mangan, Toby Young and Pearl Mackie.

It's a very weird play. It starts off in a fairly straightforward way; we see Petey (Peter Wight) and Meg (Zoe Wanamaker), an older couple, running their home as a boarding house, run down and (as we learn) with only a single guest (Stanley - Toby Jones, of whom Meg is extremely fond). Petey works as a deck chair assistant, Meg (inefficiently) looks after the house, and Stanley has't worked for a while.

Meg is planning a birthday party for Stanley, and has arranged for her neighbour, Lulu (Pearl MacKie) to buy him a gift on her behalf.

Things then get much stranger, as two men, Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawler) show up, allegedly looking for a room for a night or two, after which things start to get weirder. 

Goldberg and McCann are there for Stanley, but it isn't ever clear why, or where they are from. At first, it seems as though they might have been involved in crimes together, then perhaps that they are there in a more official capacity.. having seen 'The Hot House' a couple of years ago, I can't help but wonder whether that is where they were going to take him...

Stephen Mangan was unrecognisable, and very intimidating, and Tom Vaghan-Lawler manager to be somehow both vulnerable and scary. I would have liked to have seen more of Pearl Mackie's acting sills, but the role didn't offer much scope for her.

So, weird, but well presented weird!

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Titus Andronicus, Or, I won't be fancying meat pies for a while

I have never seen Titus Andronicus, and I know it is performed less often than many of Shakespeare's plays, so when I saw it was on as part of the RSC's 'Roman' season, I decided it was worth giving it a go.

I saw the production after it transferred to the Barbican, and deliberately didn't read up in advance, so although I was aware in advance that this is one of Shakespeare's bloodiest and most graphically violent works, I didn't know any details of the plot.

This is a modern dress production - as the audience comes into the auditorium, armed 'police' in stab-vests prowl along the front row of the stalls, looking menacingly at audience members, and occasionally asking them questions, so everyone can start out feeling a little uneasy..

Then, as the performance starts, there was a voice-over from a news-reader giving us a little background. The Emperor is dead, the succession is unclear, markets are volatile, and so on, before the play 'proper', as it were, begins.

Titus Andronicus (David Troughton) returns victorious and covered in glory, after defeating the Goths (and losing 21 of his 25 sons) in a war which has lasted for 10 years,  bringing with him as prisoners Tamora (Nia Gwynne), Queen of the Goths, her 3 sons and her lover, Aaron (Played in the performance I saw by understudy Joseph Adelakun)

Despite Tamora's pleas, Titus orders the sacrifice of her eldest son, to honour his fallen sons. This is, as things pan out, a bit of an error... 

Titus resists attempts to put him on the Imperial throne, and throws his support behind the previous Emperor's eldest son, Saturninus (Martin Hutson), in preference to his younger brother, Bassianus (Dharmesh Patel). Again, not, as things turn out, the best choice he ever makes, but it is, I presume, an indication of his integrity, that he does not seek to seize power as Emperor himself. 

Things continue to go.. less than optimally. In quick succession, Saturninus agrees to marry Titus's daughter Lavinia, then changes his mind and marries Tamora instead, Titus falls out with his sons (killing one of them) as they assist Lavinia to elope with Bassianus, to whom she was betrothed before Titus offered her to the emperor, oh, and Tamora vows revenge on Titus for the death of her son.

Having now been made Empress, she is of course in a good position to pursue her revenge. Aided by her dastardly lover, Aaron, she engineers an appalling attack by her sons, who murder Bassianus and rape and mutilate Lavinia (cutting off both her hands and cutting out her tongue, so she cannot speak or write to tell anyone who is responsible) and frame 2 of Lavinia's brothers for the attacks.  

Nor do things get any better. Murder, missing limbs,  betrayal, feigned madness, adultery, and finally, that scene, where Titus kills Tamora's remaining sons, and serves them to her, baked into a pie.. after which his killing of his own daughter seems almost an anticlimax!

(Check out Good Tickle Brain's 'Death Clock' to check out all the deaths in order) 

It is an interesting production, the violence is graphic and bloody, but (perhaps surprisingly, given the grim content, this production also has its humorous moments, even in some of the bloodier scenes. The arguments between Titus, his brother Marcus and son Lucius as to which of them should sacrifice a hand in a (doomed) effort to save the lives of Martius and Quintus, for instance, early scenes as Titus parades his sons / soldiers, and some lovely subtle visual byplay  in the horrific closing scene,  as Marcus (aware of Titus's culinary revenge) gently encourages his nephew Lucius to try the salad, rather than the pie which is on the menu...

Other parts were, to my mind, not quite so successful - Tamora and her sons, in the guise of 'Revenge' were rather overdoing the silly voices and deliberately bad acting, although the honours were fairly even, with Titus having to play a large part of the scene from inside a giant cardboard box! I did feel that he the actors were having to do their best with the rather odd directing decisions.  There was a certain amount of ad-libbing, with Titus asking members of the audience for paper and pen in order to write to the Emperor, and Lucius  giving Aaron's infant child to an audience member to hold at one point.

David Troughton gave a very strong, nuanced performance, but I think Hannah Morrish (Lavinia) was also excellent, particularly as she, of course, could have no speaking lines after the first couple of scenes. And Joseph Adelaken as Aaron was also very good - the character is pretty unsubtle, rejoicing in his own wickedness, and utterly unrepentant, but  the performance was excellent, and particularly impressive as Joseph is the understudy and, presumably, stepped in at fairly short notice.

I'm glad to have seen the play, but I am not sure that I shall be rushing it see it again. I like my murderous Romans a little more subtle. This is one of Shakespeare's earlier plays, and it's not exactly subtle. And somehow, despite having missed lunch before the performance, I lost my appetite a little. No pies for me!

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Heisenberg : The Uncertainty Principle

As I was going to be in London for the Harry Potter exhibition, I booked a ticket to see Heisenberg :The Uncertainty Principle by Simon Stephens.

I had not read any reviews before going, so went in with a completely open mind. 

It's a curious little play, just 90 minutes long, and with just 2 characters, whose relationship we watch, as it develops.

It starts when Georgie, (Anne-Marie Duff) a woman in her 40s, kisses total stranger Alex (Kenneth Cranham), a man of 75, as he sits on a bench at Kings Cross station, and things develop from then.

It is a love story of a sort - the idea is that neither Georgie nor Alex is looking for love, and that despite Georgie's undeniably manipulative actions, she falls for Alex despite herself, and he fall for her despite her (many, many) faults.

We are, I think, supposed to find it heartwarming and, as the billboard says, life affirming. 

I didn't. I mostly found it a bit irritating. I also felt that there was more than a whiff of male wish fulfilment going on.

So, for me, it was interesting in places but ultimately uninspiring. I found the set (lots of moving walls to change the shape and size of the piece of stage being used, and lots of use of lighting), well done, but not enough on its own to rescue the play!

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Harry Potter : A History of Magic

I was intrigued when I saw that the British Library was going to be having an exhibition about Harry Potter, and the History of Magic, so I booked a ticket, and on Saturday morning, set off to visit. I didn't feel terribly enthusiastic immediately (getting up early, cold weather, and train with broken heating, were to blame for that), but once I arrived, I started to feel more enthusiastic!

The Library has made an effort to welcome visitors, with the Hogwarts Houses represented in the foyer. (Sadly, no photographs were permitted in the exhibition itself)

I did however enjoy the decor which has appeared above the area immediately outside the exhibition entrance - so many flying keys, although unless you bring your own broomstick, they are too high to reach!

The exhibition combines items from  Harry Potter, including Rowling's original synopsis for her publisher, part of a very early draft (in which Dudley Dursley was 'Didsbury Dursley), and handwritten notes and drawings by JK Rowling, as well as artwork (mainly, I think, from the new illustrated editions) there are portraits of Dumbledore, Snape and McGonegall, as well as illustrations of Diagon Alley, and various beasts and plants.

Then there are items associated with the history of magic,mythology and folklore, exploring some of the ideas which influenced Rowling.

It is arranged by way of different Hogwarts departments; after a general introduction (including 'flying' books suspended from the ceiling), we start with Potions - the room was lit by lights set in upside-down cauldrons, and exhibits included a portrait of Severus Snape, a genuine cauldron, and documents such as illuminated manuscripts showing apothecaries and medieval lessons on making potions, and  Bald's Leechbook, a 10th C medical text (open to a cure for snakebite). The information card mentioned that research recently discovered that one of the cures in Bald's Leechbook has recently been found to be remarkably effective against MRSA! 

 There were also some apothecaries jars, a unicorn head (it explained that the Unicorn was often used as a sign for apothecaries shops, as a reference to their ability to source and supply rare ingredients.

Bezoar Stone in case (Image British Library)
And a bona-fide Bezoar stone (together with a manuscript explaining where to find them, and how much more those from a 'proper' bezoar goat is, than those found in cows or horses.

The next room was devoted to Alchemy, with pride of place being given to The Ripley Scroll, a 6 metre long scroll explaining how to make the Philosopher's Stone. Other exhibits include Nicholas Flamel's tombstone (on loan from the  Musée de Cluny).

Ripley Scroll (image from British Library)
The next room was Herbology which of course included displays such as Culpeper's Herbal, John Evelyn's manuscript record (complete with pressed plants) of plants collected in Padua in 1645, and a copy of Elizabeth Blackwell's beautiful, hand-coloured 'A Curious Herbal'

It also includes a genuine Mandrake root (borrowed from the Wellcome collection, and dating to the 16th or 17th C) which did look  disturbingly like an old man, and a 14thC Arabic Herbal, from Baghdad, (again dealing with the Mandrake). These were complemented by original Harry Potter art relating to mandrake roots, and also to garden gnomes.

Next came Charms, which was in a room decorated with broomsticks and witches hats, and includes manuscripts dealing with the Pendle Witches and other historical witches, and also included an 'invisibility cloak' (hanging from a hook in a glass case, and apparently made of 'unknown substances' and loaned by a 'private lender'! 

There was also a long, panoramic illustration of Diagon Alley, and one of JK Rowling's own original illustrations (showing the entry to the Alley), and a golden snitch projected flying around the walls.

Manuscripts on display included a 4thC papyrus from Thebes, and the 13thC  Liber medicinalis, showing the first recorded use of the word 'Abaracadabra' (to cure malaria, in case you were wondering) 

Image (c) British Library

There were also some Ethiopian manuscripts, and a hand-written copy of the 'Tales of Beedle the Bard' (one of a very limited edition, created by Rowling for charity) 

The next room was Astronomy, which featured a lovely starry ceiling, and a beautiful 1693 Coronelli celestial globe, and exhibits including the Dunhuang Star Atlas, from 700BC, a Chinese star chart which is apparently  the oldest complete map of the skies, and a rather lovely 11th or 12thC astronomical text which included little sketches (and, I believe, poems) about different constellations

Image (c) British Library
There were also a couple of pages from the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, relating to observations of the moon.

We then moved on to the Divination room, which was decorated with teacups and saucers having from the ceiling, and lots of red drapery and a wall displaying crystal balls, and a portrait of Sybill Trelawney. 

This section included one of the oldest items in the exhibition (and indeed in the Library) a Chinese 'oracle bone' - the specific one on display is known to be over 3,000 years old, as it references a Lunar eclipse which took place on Dec 27, in 1192 BC.

There are also more modern artefacts - Victorian and early 20thC guides to reading tea-leaves, a 700 year old guide to Palmistry, and an interactive, digital tarot reading!.

Moving on to Defence Against the Dark Arts, you will find a Sphinx, several pages of a very early draft of HP#1, featuring a Muggle minister named Fudge, sustaining a visit from Hagrid to warm him against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and references to Fudge's colleague, Vernone Dursley,and his son, Didsbury...

There was also a lovely 16th C illustration of a Basilisk (a three tailed dragon, in this iteration). I think the portrait of Remus Lupin was in this section, too. And the Kappas (Art of JK Rowling's version, and some older, netsuke versions)

In the Care of Magical Creatures  room were a row of large, frosted 'windows' along one side, behind which could be seen the silhouettes of various creatures could be seen moving past - I spotted a unicorn, a toad, a winged horse, and a few others.

There were sketches of Hagrid, manuscripts showing different breeds of unicorn, a number of dragons, and of course the Phoenix - including the original Jim Kay art used on the exhibition posters, and others from the Library's collection

Phoenix - 3thC Bestiary. Image (C) British Library

The Library also displayed their copy of John Aubedon's The Birds of America (which is huge, over 3' tall) open to the page showing the Snowy Owl. There was also a copy of Maria Sybilla Merian's book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium - she was a naturalist who led an exhibition to Surinam in 1699 and discovered bird-eating spiders (but her findings were dismissed as fantasy until corroborated by male naturalists, over 100 years later)

The final part of the exhibition is titled Past, Present, Future - one wall is taken up with a display of the books, in many different languages and editions, and this section also includes Rowling's copy of the screenplay for 'Fantastic Beasts, showing her annotations, a highly detailed model of the stage set for the Harry Potter play.

Throughout the exhibition there were things from JK Rowling's own archive - sketches, notes, lists and so on - a first, handwritten note of the Sorting Hat's song, for example, notes of other possible methods for students to be sorted, and detailed tabulated plot planning.
Sketch of Hogwarts, (C) JK Rowling

I thought the exhibition was very well done, and has a nice mixture of items and lots to interest and engage both adults and children, and the design was a lot of fun. I was very slightly disappointed that, while several rooms were lined with images of bookshelves, the titles suggested that these were simply scans or photos of some of the British Libraries own, muggle collection, and not of the Hogwarts library, but one can't have everything.

The exhibition runs at the British Library until 28th February - pre-booking is recommended, and I think availability is mostly limited to week-days, now. It's apparently then going to New York in October 2018.