Thursday, 28 February 2019

Edward II - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

From an Assyrian King to an English one, and from history to drama.. 

After visiting the British Museum, I went to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, to see Kit Marlowe's  Edward II. 

It is  famous for being (probably) the earliest play in English featuring a homosexual relationship, and was first performed in 1592. It is, as you might guess from the title, a history play, about King Edward II, who reigned from 1307-1327, and (at least according to the play) was murdered by way of a red hot poker .

In this production, Edward is played by  Tom Stuart, and Gaveston by Beru Tessema.

Edward comes across as a man out of his depth, overshadowed by his late father, insecure, but  ill-advisedly stubborn, even pig-headed, when pushed..  

It is interesting that the focus of the other characters anger against Gaveston is focused less on the fact that he is the King's lover, and more upon Gaveston's  birth (he is not a member of the nobility, and the King's choices to grant him lands and titles offends them ) and the King's extravagance. Indeed, one of the nobles (Mortimer,I think) makes it explicitly clear that the King having favourites, or lovers, isn't in itself the problem.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage
There are very strong performances from Edward and Gaveston,  and I enjoyed the nobles, too.Well worth seeing. Even if you do get your toes trodden on by the occasional actor! 

Sunday, 24 February 2019

I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria - British Museum

 "King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (r. 669–c. 631 BC) was the most powerful man on earth. He described himself in inscriptions as ‘king of the world’, and his reign from the city of Nineveh (now in northern Iraq) marked the high point of the Assyrian empire, which stretched from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of western Iran."

Is the way the British Museum introduces it's exhibition about Ashurbanipal. I thought it looked interesting when I first saw it advertised, and although it has been running since November, didn't make it until last weekend, which was a week before it closes.Which may be why it was so busy, both the museum as a whole, and the exhibition. Indeed, outside there were queues down the street and round the corner! 

However, once in, I enjoyed the exhibition. Quite a lot of what is in the exhibition is from the museum's own collection although there are other items as well, and it's all been brought together and arranged more or less chronologically, based on the life and reign of King Ashurbanipal.   

Assyrian stone relief showing lion headed man
Guardian Spirit

We start with guardian spirits, Lion headed men, with eagles feet (which seems a little ungainly, but they're not my supernatural beings)

There are lots of big, stone reliefs, depicting scenes from Assyrian (Court) life, and from the life and reign of King Ashurbanipal. 

King Ashurbainpal catching a lion by the tail
This included a large frieze, depicting a royal lion hunt, including lions being released from cages, and the king grabbing one by the tail!  

Assyrian stone frieze showing battle scene
Battle Scene

Assyrian stone relief showing soldiers on Camels firing arrows

There are also lots of battle scenes, including one with some rather nice camels, and a less pleasant one with scenes of the Assyrians stacking, and cataloguing bows, quivers,and severed heads . . . 

Assyrian stone frieze showing scribes making lists of bows and severed heads

 There were also, as well as the various friezes, other artefacts - little sections of painted wall, the remains of pieces of furniture,   and ceramics.

fragment of painted plaster showing a horse or mule
Painted plaster
The exhibition had a small section relating to cultural cross overs between the Assyrians ad other societies such as the Greeks and Etruscans, and the Egyptians.  

There were, of course, also lots of writings.  King Ashurbanipal created a huge library, and as the Assyrians used clay tablets, when the library was destroyed by fire, these were baked, and  survived, where the papyrus and wax documents which were also common were destroyed.    
small clay tablet with cuniform writing
Letter and Envelope 
Ashurbanipal ruled  a huge empires, and his civil service (made up mainly  of eunuchs, as the previous system of hereditary posts resulted in  coup attempts as family loyalty and ambition , and the eunuchs would, by definition, not have children and therefore be more likely to stay loyal to the king), developed a postal system, so that messages could be moved quickly though the empire. 

They were sent in clay envelopes, and sealed with a stamp, the seals used to  stamp the 'envelope'  were issued only to the King's  magnates, and meant that the letter would be carried by relays of fast couriers to ensure they travelled quickly, and were accepted as authentic.

Finally,the museum had added some exhibits showing the timeline of cultural and archaeological history - starting with the Biblical depictions of the Assyrians, the Victorians  who excavated the sites, and  modern developments, including the destruction wreaked by ISIS / Daesh , and, more positively, the work and  training of Iraqi conservators trying to repair some of the damage, and preserve war-damaged sites. 

The exhibition as a whole was very interesting,I was glad I'd managed to catch it! It has now finished, but it is worth visiting the museum's Assyrian galleries to see many of the friezes and tablets once they are back in their usual place.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

The American Clock - The Old Vic

picture of front facade of the Old Vic Theatre

I admit, I was in a bit of a grumpy mood when I got to the Old Vic -  my primary reason for booking to see The American Clock was that Giles Terera was to star, so I was disappointed when, after I had booked tickets, I heard that he had had to withdraw. I assume that the role he would have taken was that of Arthur Robertson, now played by Clarke Peters, he narrates the show, and appears as a millionaire who was one of the few to have seen the crash approaching, and have sold his stocks and invested in gold, preserving his fortune while others lost everything.

Still, it's still worth seeing new productions even if they don't have the people in whom you want to see, so I went along with an open mind.

The Old Vic is having building works done which means that  instead of going in through the main foyer, you go in round to one side, an perhaps as a result of building works and bits of the theatre being knocked around, the building was both very cold and very draughty.    

So the play was struggling a bit against the unfavourable conditions! 

The play is loosely based on Arthur Miller's own experiences as a young man, it covers the period from 1929 to 1939, and follows one family - Moe, Rose and Lee Baum, who, in this production, are each triple cast. I learned,after the event,  that the casting (one white (Jewish) trio, one black and one south Asian) was intended to be an representation of immigrants in America, but  this wasn't obvious, at least to me. I'm not sure how successful it is if you need to be told what it means...

At the outset, the family is well off, with a centrally located  11 room apartment,  a chauffeur, diamonds and dancing for Rose, the assumption that he can attend whichever college he wishes for Lee, and plenty of money for all. As the play progresses, we watch as they gradually lose everything. Rose sends Lee to pawn her jewels, later we see their piano  repossessed, and the family hiding (in their much smaller, Brooklyn apartment) from bailiffs. Lee winds up eventually picking a college, like his friends, based  on which offer free tuition, and later, faking estrangement from his father to qualify for FDR's WPA. 

Although the play focused on the Baum family, it also has snapshots of other scenes - Iowa farmers, almost lynching the Judge who has authorised the repossession and sale of their bankrupt farms,  and scenes from the South. We see, in the background, a friend of Lee's - studying and qualifying as a dentist, but unable to find work, and ultimately we learn of his death, in passing, as Moe comments on the subway delay after a body is found.. 

That said, the play is interesting . It's stages in the round, and there is a live jazz band on stage, and despite the depressing (!) subject matter there's a lot of singing and dancing - a successful Wall Street businessman tap-dances his way out of his office after deciding  he doesn't  wish to be head of a company taking over smaller, independent ones,  for instance, and there is an excellent, understated number as applicants at the welfare office move from individual inertia, to a stamping  rebellious group, roused by a militant socialist.

I hadn't realised ahead of time,but the director, Rachel Chavkin, is the same person who recently directed Hadestown at the National theatre, and I can see some similarities in style .
However, It's a little patchy, and drags somewhat in the second half. The performance I saw was in previews so it may tighten up a little as the run continues, but I think perhaps the fault is Miller's text, not the production!

Interesting, - I think I'd give it 3/5 stars..

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Wise Children - Bristol Old Vic

Poster for 'Wise Children' showing 2 showgirls in pink, on a black background showing the lays title and director

I've enjoyed previous productions directed by Emma Rice, so I was  looking forward to Wise Children. Originally I was due to go last Friday, but the snow got in the way, so there was a week's delay before I saw it.

And it was a lot of fun!

It's based on a novel by Angela Carter, and is a retrospective narrative  - twin sisters, Nora and Dora Chance, looking back, at the age of 75, over their lives, and the lives of their  families... starting with a brief  background of their father's parents,(including a cameo from their grandmother as a pregnant, youthful Hamlet) their own conception and birth, followed immediately by the death of their mother, and their own adoption  by 'Grandma', the big-hearted landlady of their parents' theatrical digs..

There is then a swift, and often very funny, race through their lives, including some wonderful sequences of their time as a pair of showgirls, including their early sexual experiences.  

Nora and Dora were played by three different actors,(plus a set of puppets,) at different points in their lives.   

We also met their father, self-important actor-manager  Ranulph Hazzard, and his entomologist, actor, explorer twin brother, Peregrine, who agrees to legally claim paternity of the twins to avoid any scandal attaching to Ranulph, who goes  on to marry the Lady Atalanta, who has a set of twin daughters, (whose father, we later learn, is Peregrine, not Ranulph!) who grow up indulged and greedy.

It's melodramatic and fantastical, but it's a lot of fun, and  explores family and love, and the love of theatre, without taking itself too seriously. 

Well worth seeing if you get the chance. It is touring until April. (Details here)  

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other - National Theatre

Back in November, or thereabouts, I got an e-mail from the National Theatre to say that Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane would be appearing in a play, based upon Richardson's proto-novel, Pamela.   As the play was expected to be popular, and the Dorfman theatre is small, they held a ballot for the opportunity to buy tickets, and, as these are both actors I would be interested in seeing on stage, I entered, and was pleased to learn I'd been successful.

My tickets were booked for 2nd February, which turned out not be  be ideal, as we had 11 inches of snow on the 1st,  and my car had a flat, so getting there meant a  snowy walk, a long wait at the bus stop and a slow, snowy bus journey, just to get to the station. 

Sadly, I didn't really feel that the production was worth it.

For those not familiar with it, the original novel (published in 1740) tells the story , via a collection of letters, of the eponymous Pamela, a 16 year old maidservant, whose master, Mr B, makes advances towards her which she rejects. He attempts to bribe her , before moving on to intercepting her letters to her parents, and ultimately abducting and imprisoning her, and threatening to rape her, then finally marries her, despite the differences in their social statuses.

In the play, the action is moved to a modern double garage, containing a car (an Audi, I believe) a workbench, and various other bits and pieces. It's rather claustrophobic.

The play has no plot or progression, it is a set of scenes, interrupted by one or other of the characters turning the lights on or off. The scenes involved lots of talking, powers plays, as the main characters take it in turns to dominate or be dominated,  and there is a lot of dressing up - Cate Blanchett in a mans suit, or in a maid's outfit, Stephen Dillane in a suit, or maid's outfit and wig, or a negligee, but at the end of the day, it's all rather dull. I think it sets out to be shocking and provoking, but fails , and it left me feeling I'd been watching two amazing actors wasting their time, and mine. 

According to the reviews I read (after seeing the play ), at least one person fainted at the press preview. Having now see the play, I have a theory that they didn't faint. They were just trying to fake their own death in order to escape!.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Tragedy of King Richard II - Almeida Theatre

The first theatre visit of 2019 was to see Simon Russell Beale as King Richard II, at the Almeida. 

I was intrigued when I saw that he was going to be playing the role, as of course the actual, historical monarch was one of our younger and, on the whole,  less successful kings (other than with the peasant's revolt), and  was only 33 when he was deposed, and died, and he is generally played by a younger actor. At  almost 60, Russell Beale isn't the obvious choice. 

Programme for Richard II showing Simon Russell Beale wearing a yellow paper crown, against a black background

It's unusual casting, and its an unusual production - the set is a single, apparently metal-lined box or cell - it's not clear whether this is Richard's cell, and the play is all in his mind, or whether it is symbolic of the  ways in which power can trap someone, or something else altogether.

The production is in modern dress, with no costumes other than the gloves which everyone but the king wears, and no props bar a crown, and a number of buckets, labelled, and containing, blood, water and soil. It's also a very small cast, of 8, so everyone except Simon Russell Beale (Richard) and Leo Bill (Bolingbroke) plays multiple roles.

I enjoyed it, Simon Russell Beale is an excellent actor, but I was less convinced by the staging - I felt it was less easy to follow than it could (perhaps should) have been - and I have the advantage of being pretty familiar  with the play. I think in paring it down, they have pared a little too much.

However, I was glad to have seen it , and enjoyed some excellent acting. It was interesting.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019


I always feel as though the end of January ought to mean the beginning of spring, and always tend to be a bit disappointed when, generally, it isn't.

This was no exception, and we ended the month with a surprising amount of snow. It started falling late afternoon on Thursday 31st and carried on snowing without stopping for almost 24 hours.

I spent some time in the back garden, watching Loki playing, and hunting snowflakes, which was cold but fun. 

Things got less fun, although no less cold, the following morning, when I spent a long time digging out my driveway, and had a cold and windy walk to check whether the main road was passable, before discovering that I had a flat tyre so couldn't go anywhere. ..   

(I do know how to change a tyre,  but due to the physical issues I have with my back, neck and shoulder, I can't,  now, do it  without causing myself significant pain, and I am not at all sure that I would be able to do it safely, and the middle of a snowstorm didn't seem to be the time to find out)

This meant that I wasn't able to get into work, so I did what I could from home, and in between,  watched the snow continuing to fall. By the time it finally stopped, we had had 11", which is unusual. It was also very cold - around -4 C during the day, and -7 overnight, and (presumably because of this) the snow was very soft and powdery.

panorama of snow covered garden

By Saturday the main road was clear so despite being car-less I was able to get to London to meet a friend, via a walk, a long bus trip and a train. 

snow covered field with bare trees in the background,  at sunrise
Sunrise over snow

Parade Gardens, Bath
I had about an hour to kill in Bath, which was looking rather nice, although there was a lot of compacted ice on the pavements.

Sunday involved a lot more digging, as the snow on the road had compacted into thick ice, assisting my neighbour change my tyre.

But there was also time to play with Loki in the snow. He was undeterred by the fact that it came up beyond his armpits, and he chose to go out even when he wasn't just following me. 
Black and white cat sitting in the snow

It was all very pretty, but I must be getting old, as when I woke up on Monday morning to find that it had rained all night, and that nearly all the sow was gone, I was relieved rather than disappointed!