Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Henry V - Antic Disposition at Wells Cathedral

I enjoyed Antic Disposition's Richard III last year, at Bristol Cathedral, and really enjoyed it,  so when I saw that they were bringing Henry V to Wells I naturally booked it straight away.

The production is touring, as part of a UK cathedrals tour, ending in Stratford upon Avon in November.

And it is extraordinary.

It was originally produced in 2015,  which was the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, and of course also marked the centenary of the first full year of WW1. This production of Henry V is set within the framing device of  being performed by wounded soldiers, some French, some English, convalescing  in a hospital 'Somewhere in France', in 1915. 

It opens with a stream of wounded coming into the hospital, including a young English soldier, his eyes bandaged following a gas attack, being led by a French soldier, to whom, in gratitude, he gives his only book, a pocket version of Henry V (which is, understandably, initially seen as an insult, before it is made clear that it is a gesture of thanks..)  "J'ai une idee" a nurse says..
'Stage' and programme (at the interval)

Then we see these soldiers, and nurses, start to perform the play, with the limited props they have , the French and English crowns made from recycled tin cans, and the soldiers wearing their own (and each other's) uniforms, the famous tennis balls being rolls of bandages, and the only set dressing made from wooden supply crates,  and  (modern) French and English flags to mark each camp.
When the Shakespeare starts, it is as you might expect from  a group of actors assembled by chance and their wounds rather than by any experience, a little hit and miss, we see the Bishops struggling with their lines, over acting and needing to check the text, and being heckled by their comrades, but  then as the play moves on they segue smoothly into a smoother and more confident performance.

The WWI setting works really well,  as do the songs (seven poems by A.E. Housman,set to music plus the 'Chant du départ  by  Marie-Joseph Chénier) and the preparations for battle,  the  siege, and the battle itself, are particularly poignant, presented as they are by characters who are themselves soldiers in the midst of a war, and who know first hand the horrors and cost involved.


Henry delivers his 'Once more into the Breach' speech in a rather rugby-scrum like mob, lifted to the shoulders of his men, and we see the Armies prepare to go into battle as though going 'over the top',complete with whistles and officers hand-guns.

There are moments when WWI breaks through . As Bardolph (James Murfitt) waits execution, we see him break character as Bardolph as his character of a WW1 shell-shocked man breaks through, and the others follow suit to care for him.

The play works in this setting extraordinarily well, and it's deeply moving. The tour is almost over, but if you happen to be in Stratford on Avon, Salisbury, Oxford or Hereford in the next few days, and can catch it, I strongly recommend it.

I'm not sure how long it will be up for, but there was a local new piece about it here

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Troilus and Cressida at the RSC

Troilus and Cressida is not a play I've seen before, and I deliberately went in not having read anything about it, either the play generally, or this production, at the RSC, other than that I knew that percussionist Evelyn Glennie has  composed and arranged the music for the production.

For those who, like me, are unfamiliar with the plot, Troilus and Cressida is set during the Trojan Wars, with the love story of Troilus and Cressida (nicked from Chaucer ) tacked on. So we meet (on the Greek side) Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles, and Ajax, and (on the Trojan side) Priam, Hector, Helen, Cassandra, Aeneas  and Paris. No horse, though. Troilus and Cressida are both in Troy, but, inevitably, find themselves separated and unhappy.

The RSC's flyer

The production has a post-apocalyptic, 'Mad Max' style - the 'tents'  of the Greeks are repurposed shipping containers (Achilles' has his name on it, in Greek, which is a nice geeky touch). Achilles' myrmidons wear black fatigues and gas masks with horned helmets, plus there are a couple of sightings of a motorcycle with a horse's skull. .

It's an interesting play, or maybe 2 plays, a rather insipid love story (with the original creepy uncle, Pandarus, who is desperate to get his niece, Cressida, together with Troilus, to the extent of getting them into bed together)   and the politics and war of the 'history' element of the play.
Stage and set

The Trojan War has been going on for 7 years, at the time of the play, and any high ideals anyone may have had seem long gone. Achilles, (Andy Apollo) looking far too much like Chris Hemsworth's Thor for it to be coincidental, is more interested in lounging around in his tent with his young and handsome lover, Patroclus (James Cooney) (and who shall blame him) than in fights to the death, Ajax (Theo Ogundipe) is equally strong and beautiful, but not terribly bright, and is jealous of Achilles' reputation, and open to exploitation by the more politically savvy of his comrades! Ulysses (Adjoa Andoh) is particularly astute, and seems like a consummate politician.

On the Trojan side,  Cassandra (Charlotte Arrowsmith) was portrayed as deaf and mute, giving her prophecies via sign language interpreted by her sisters, unheard as well as unbelieved.

I enjoyed the production, although I enjoyed lots of elements of it more than the play as a whole, if that makes sense. I particularly liked the music and sound of the production.

(Plus, I got to hang out with a good friend and have a rather nice meal in the RSC's rooftop restaurant, so that was a bonus!)

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Eric Idle at Mr B's, and Brian Blessed

I like Mr B's, and I like Monty Python, so when I saw that Eric Idle would be appearing in Bath, as one of the events organised by Mr B's, and to promote his new book, I decided to go. Plus, it was on my birthday, so it seemed like a good idea!

The event was at the  Assembly Rooms in Bath, which is a nice venue. Lots of chandeliers. 

Eric Idle seated in front of Poster for Mr B's Bookshop

Eric Idle was introduced and interviewed by Sir James Dyson, who, as well as making fancy vacuum cleaners, is apparently a long term friend of his, and a neighbour in La Haut Var, Provence . (Cue a hint of the Four Yorkshiremen, as they compared experiences of living in properties without adequate windows, or electricity, when they each first moved there)

Eric spoke about writing a memoir (his top tip for writing a memoir - do it when you are still young enough to remember what happened)

He then talked briefly about his childhood, and the advantages of a boarding school education "after all, nothing can be worse, plus they put us in the army so I could strip a Bren gun in minutes by the time I was 14"  

He then talked about going from Wolverhampton  to Cambridge University, and how he met John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie, among  others.

Two men shaking hands  in front of a poster for Eric Idle's book ( Eric Idle and Sir James  Dyson)
Eric Idle and James Dyson
He  then went on to talk about being part of Monty Python, his friendship with George Harrison (who mortgaged his house to fund 'Life of Brian',)

The evening then concluded with a few songs, from Eric and John Du Prez, They started with one (suitable for a eulogy, with lots of swearing) from the un-produced musical 'Death, the musical' then we got the Galaxy Song (Eric explained that he had had arguments with Professor Brian Cox over it, as Brian objects to the fact that the science isn't correct, and Eric points out that it was when he wrote the song!). This resulted in the scene which was shown before the O2 live reunion shows, in which Brian Cox was pushed into the Cam by Professor Stephen Hawking...

And then, of course, there was 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' (Snippet video below - I didn't record it all as I was too busy enjoying it!

The Eric Idle event was on Monday, and then on Thursday, there was another event  - this time, Brian Blessed, who is touring, simply talking about his life and interests.

He came on stage to the sound of the Flash Gordon theme tune, bellowing 'Gordon's Alive!' 

Before going on  to describe how this catchphrase is something *everyone* asks him for, from the captain of a Russian sub, in Arctic waters near the North Pole, to Masai tribesmen on Kilimanjaro, David Cameron in the Cabinet rooms and  even her Majesty the Queen.

He then talked about his childhood (much admiration for his coal-hewer father, who was also a cricketer for Yorkshire, and fond of Shakespeare) and about his time at Bristol Old Vic theatre school, and as an actor, and about his mountaineering and exploring, and his training with NASA and the Russian  Space program, and his passion for science and space. 

It was very entertaining, and I had a good time, and got the impression that he was thoroughly enjoying himself!

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.