Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2014: A Personal View

So I've finally got around to finishing the shortlist for the 2014 ManBooker Prize, and offer below my own thoughts on the list.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
Easily the shortest and smallest book on the list, this is an almost pocket-sized punch of an idea between two covers. The 'big reveal' is about halfway through (though can be guessed earlier), so to discuss it rather gives away a point on which the plot hinges, but let's just say: it's a game-changer. At the centre of this one is an issue that gets quite divisive, and your opinion quite possible depends on which polarised end of that (unspecified by me) debate your sympathy falls on. But the novel's well-written, full of heart, with an engaging, female protagonist-narrator, a smattering of science and comes in at just the right length.

J – Howard Jacobson
The residents of Jacobson's novel live in a fuzzy, blurry sort of world, in the aftermath (two generations ago) of some cataclysmic social event that may or may not have happened, and of which no one speaks except in the vaguest of terms, always couched with caveats. Apologies are a way of life, a golden rule in this society that either has offended someone deeply, or hasn't at all but might. At first, that vagueness was attractive, it allowed the unnamed event to stand for any awkward past circumstance – increasingly, for any genocide or cultural exploitation. But, after a while, it grated on me. Other reviewers complain that there weren't enough details for them, and I get that, but I also get that the lack of detail is deliberate and kind of important; there's a quest for understanding here, and a deep-seated paranoia that makes more sense in a context of a society that doesn't really understand or trust itself. Overall, this one's kind of bleak, without much to redeem or relieve that.

The Lives Of Others – Neel Mukherjee
This all felt a bit familiar. Like 2013's shortlisted The Lowland, this is about a family in late 1960s Calcutta that is torn apart by a son who runs away to join the Communist/Maoist Naxalite rebellion. There are other similarities, but those would be spoilers. The big difference is that The Lives of Others takes as its theme the conflict between classes and castes in India, rather than the fallout of abandoning a family as The Lowland does. To that end, Mukherjee gives us an elongated slice of life in an upper-middle-class Indian family in decline, something with the generational scope of an epic but the intimate personal portraits of a life in miniature. Unfortunately, this feels like it's twice as long as The Lowland, and really needn't be. By the middle third, it had started to get interesting, but by the final third I found myself sympathising with the dying grandfather and grateful that he (and I) wouldn't be around much longer to share his family's decline. There are quite a few characters to keep track of, often the same ones at different ages too, and by the end I didn't feel like the emotional involvement I had with any of them justified the length of time it took to reach the story's conclusion.

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris
Inevitably this one has some overlap with J, but here the Holocaust is specifically invoked by name. Invoked over and over again, in a story that's as much about what can cause offence to the Jewish community (and who counts as Jewish in the first place) as it is about a New York dentist with problems adjusting to modern society. But it's a book that takes it all with a lightness of touch that sits at odds with the dark comedy (this dentist is pretty fatalistic) and the existential void at the heart of the narrator's life. That's not to say the Holocaust is made light of (in fact, the mere suggestion of doing so is greeting with horror), but rather that the tone never gets maudlin. There's an exploration of doubt and alienation from (but wanting to join in with) the modern world that takes the odd angle of an obscure lost tribe of Biblical times, in a way that feels at once believable and yet slightly improbable. The narrator is perhaps of that sort that appeals to middle-aged men looking for their sense of purpose, but he is at least plausible, likeable in his own way, and well-refined; his flaws make him, and they get in his way but they are deeply human. So, in the end, maybe it's a white, middle-aged man's book about not really 'getting' modern society (in, of course, New York City), and maybe there are plenty of books already like that, but this one is darkly funny and has a deeply-flawed human at its centre.

How To Be Both – Ali Smith
Bit of a double-hander, this one, being divided into two distinct but complementary narratives. There's the story of an Italian fresco-painter from the 1400s somehow transported into an unfamiliar modern-day 'purgatorium', and there's the story of George, a modern teenage girl suffering a recent bereavement. Some versions of the published book start with the fresco-painter, Franchesco del Cossa, and some start with George – which Smith claims means there are two ways to read the novel, and you're stuck with whichever you read first. The book can, sort of, be both, but you only get one first time. Mine started with del Cossa (who, thanks to historical ambiguity, gets to be both male and female, in a way that George's name only hints at), which seems to make more sense, but then I suppose it would, to me. The two stories work independently, but it felt like reading George second shed light on the occasional moments of overlap in del Cossa's story, in a way that wouldn't have happened the other way around. Besides, I suspected that del Cossa's bit would feel like an attempt at presenting one of George's school projects if I'd read her part first. Some reviews have suggested that both parts could be standalone novels, and I think that might be true, although I'd be far more interested in del Cossa's novel – with all its historical fill-in-the-blanks biography and fluid style following the tradition of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies (2009 and 2012 winners) – than George's, which comes across as rather more of a contemporary teen girl coming-of-age story.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
With a plot focused on a Japanese POW camp on the notorious Death Railway in Burma, this one was never going to be cheerful. Occasionally, it has a nod at the idea of something uplifting, but always manages to temper that with the far more realistic notion that freedom might not always be freedom. Or rather, the thread running through this whole book is that freedom might not be all it's cracked up to be, and that, arguably, the survivors never truly escape the camp – those few years act as a magnet for the rest of their lives and especially when, in old age, they look back on their lives. Flanagan's quite even-handed with the Japanese and Korean guards, allowing them more humanity and depth than might be expected – how easy it would have been to make them unthinking brutes and borderline psychopaths – and giving them endings that reflect a nuanced portrayal of the losers as well as the victors (hint: nobody really comes out of Burma well). But it's not all gloom and incarceration; there's a few people trapped in loveless marriages too. The mosaic of a plot darts around here there and everywhere, but that generally works and gives an impression of the older man reflecting on a life lived in the shadow of that railway, despite everything that's happened before and after. It's a novel with some depth, and some depths of human suffering, but it's not exactly enjoyable.

So, which would I have given the prize to? The rules simply state that the prize goes to 'the best novel in the opinion of the judges', ie. me. Initially I'd say it's perhaps a four-way race between We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, How to be Both and The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I guess that's because J and The Lives of Others, though they have their undoubted merits, weren't so much fun to read (or rather, their redeeming features weren't enough to lift them above the slog of reading them). J had compelling ideas, if clouded and disguised, and The Lives of Others was an immersive saga, if somehow lacking something intangible, but I had to make myself keep going with both, and that does not a good novel-reading experience make.
Compare the length of The Lives of Others with the short punchiness of How to be Both and We are all..., and for that matter the fogginess (sometimes literally) of J, with the clarity and, I guess, the zip of We are all.... Even the almost equally lengthy Narrow Road had more emotional clout than The Lives of Others, and that might simply have been down to structure; Flanagan hits you early and often, whereas Mukherjee lets it build, from different angles, for so long that I sort of stopped caring before the big finale.
To Rise Again... is fun and light and still tackles some big issues, but I can't help thinking that what makes it so readable – for me, at least – is probably also its weakness. One more novel about a rich white guy in New York (yipee), and it's intellectual bits are all blunted off by the lightly comic tone and setting. Is this 'serious' enough to win the Man Booker? Is it 'the best' of these four? I'm not sure.
Narrow Road is certainly serious enough, with enough emotional and intellectual clout to justify its length, for me at least. Historical novels have a good recent track record. So I guess I can see why Narrow Road won. But. For me, I think I have to enjoy a novel a bit more than this for it to be 'the best'.
I have to find it fun (not all of the time, necessarily), and not just appreciate the artistry, the story-telling and the plot structuring, the characterisation (which actually isn't all that hot beyond the main couple of characters). I want a bit of humour, somewhere – it doesn't have to make me laugh, I'm fine with the dry stuff. I want to feel some human warmth. I want a bit of variety of emotion – Narrow Road is pretty unremitting; it's either the bleak battle-for-survival in Burma or the bleak loneliness of post-war Australia and Japan. I want some intellectual stimulation, I want something thought-provoking, something I can talk to people about and that will spark conversations beyond the finer points of the plot.
Which brings me to We are all... and How to be Both. I felt both of these had all of those things. Perhaps coincidentally, they were also the shortest two on the list, and I think that is to their advantage. That's not because I can't hack a long book (maybe I can't), but I do tend to feel a longer book requires more of an investment from a reader, and so ought to reward that, ought to justify and repay that extra investment and ought to make use of the extra two or three hundred pages. I much prefer the book that can tell a story swiftly and cleanly and blow my mind or break my heart in a hit-and-run to the protracted and drawn-out sprawl of thousands of pages that go nowhere, or get to the same place as the shorter work in twice the time.
Interestingly, and possibly also coincidentally, both are also the only two shortlisted works by women. Make of that what you will.
Both books tell good stories well, and both have compelling ideas. Both cram in varieties of emotion (although the grief in George's half of How to be Both can get a bit wearing), and both have their moments of humour. They do this with a lightness of touch that make J seem heavy-handed, and To Rise Again... seem almost pure tone, devoid of ideas. I enjoyed them both as pieces of art and as things to read more than the others on the list, and I think on my list of things I want from a novel, these two are – objectively – the best.
Ultimately, I'd have to say that We are all Completely Beside Ourselves is probably my favourite. It edges out How to be Both for the clarity of its ideas, and maybe also the engaging narrator, who just seems a bit more approachable to me than the two in How to be Both. I admit, there might also be something about How to be Both that both puts me off and reminds me of 2013's winner, The Luminaries: this book might be too clever for me. In opinion of this judge (as it were), that doesn't quite make for 'the best' novel either.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Metro's World Today (14th Jan 2015)

Today's Metro paper has shown me what a strange place the world can be. It's not just the things people do, it's the way we talk about them afterwards that make me laugh. And yes, I know this basically means I'm laughing at people's sufferings or tragic mistakes, but sometimes you have to laugh; otherwise you might take life seriously and get very depressed, very quick. Besides, all laughter is about suffering to some extent, isn't it?

Here, in no particular order, are a few of my highlights from today's news.

# An Israeli newspaper, for very Orthodox Jews, has printed a report on the Unity rally held in Paris. Loads of world leaders, linking arms to demonstrate their solidarity with victims of last week's terror attacks – including, of course, several French Jews deliberately targeted for being Jewish. The rally has been widely-reported, along with variations of photos of world leaders clunking awkwardly down the street, arm-in-arm. It looks a bit like how I imagine Last Orders at the United Nations Saloon Bar.
But when this Orthodox Jewish paper printed the picture, something was missing; they airbrushed all the women out. So, President Hollande (France) and President Abbas (Palestine) look pretty cosy, because they've been squeezed together to cover up the absence of Chancellor Merkel (Germany). The paper's reasoning? Not, as we might suspect, their belief that woman have no space in public life, but reasons of 'modesty'.
These women, trust me, were hardly caught accidentally posing in their underwear, or stretched across the bonnet of a convertible with strategically-placed soap suds. Merkel was very much wearing a coat. Mayor Hidalgo (Paris) was tucked away inside a long coat and a scarf, with her hands in gloves. So it can only have been their exposed faces that Orthodox Jews might find, I know Merkel's not aged well, but that's a bit harsh.

Helpful highlighting of the new intimacies between leaders - notice Mali's President Keita trying to keep Hollande and Prime Minister Netanyahu from running away...

# A father has been sent down for four years after mixing up his son's lunchbox with his own drug-dealer's kit. Yep, sent the kid to nursery with a set of scales, two knives, a spoon and a tupperware box of cocaine and mephedrone. We've all been there. I bet lunchtime must have been a blast.
My favourite part is that the father, having realised the mistake (imagine how disappointed his drug ring must have been with their lunches) turned up at the nursery, demanding the drug-sack back. Do you remember Tots TV and their sac magique?

Tots TV - off their squidgy faces

But the best story of the day has to be the cuckolded Chinese wife who cut off her husband's penis...twice.
The husband sent a 'saucy email' to the woman he was having an affair with, and obviously thought he was being dead clever by not sending it from his own phone. Except the other person whose phone he used was, of course, his wife. And he forgot to log out of his account afterwards. Unsurprisingly, his wife discovered the email pretty quickly - and took a pair of scissors into the bedroom, where he was asleep and naked.
She snips off his penis and presumably disappears, leaving him to it. He's rushed to hospital, where hospital staff stitch the member back on – no comment on how much of it was removed, or how useful it was to him after the stitching.
The wife, enraged to hear that her good work has been undone, sneaks into the hospital with her scissors and, er, snips her snip all over again. This time, she throws the offending member out of the window before running off. Her husband – naked, spraying blood everywhere, and presumably in a bit of pain – chases after her. The Police are called, after witnesses describe a naked, bloodstained man beating a woman in the street. So, she's taken back into the hospital as a patient along with her newly re-mutilated husband. It's not a happy reunion – especially as she's been charged with GBH.
Metro reports that the chopped member wasn't found, probably having been 'stolen by a stray dog or cat'.
Oh, and don't forget the mistress. She's not worried about her 23-year old married lover losing his fertility; not when he has five kids already.

Meanwhile, in Cambodia...
An office boss, keen to show off his martial arts skills, boasts about his strength, inviting staff to hit him. He presumably hasn't heard of Houdini, but I bet he has now. One worker took his request to heart and beat him senseless with a stick. He was so into it that staff had to pin him down to 'stop him doing real damage' – in Cambodia, you have to do more than send someone to hospital with concussion to cause 'real damage'. The guy only got a caution from the Police, possibly helped by the large number of witnesses claiming the manager had literally been asking for it. My favourite part is that one co-worker told reporters: We don't know if he didn't understand the rules or if he was just fed up.

There's also East 17's Brian Harvey tidying up after his smash-up protest, and Woody Allen's TV series, for which he claims to have 'no ideas'. After a quick browse of Metro's website, I worry that every day might be like this.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Thoughts on Dancing Brick's 'Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice'

Thoughts on Dancing Brick's Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice

So I've just got back from Edinburgh's Underbelly, having seen Dancing Brick's latest piece, Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice. If you're looking for a review, this isn't it – this isn't a review, not as such. In fact, I feel pretty under-qualified to review it at all, because – and at the moment I'll hold my hand up to this – I don't think I really understood all that the company was trying to achieve. Although, at some point, I do need to write a review. At some point.

This isn't the review, this is more of a chance for me to try and hash out some thoughts about Captain Ko... and see where I end up. Feel free to join me, or to move on; up to you. There'll probably be spoilers.

So, Captain Ko. Oh, and the Planet of Rice. The title prepares us for a sci-fi voyage, and possibly a slightly quirky one. For the first twenty minutes or so, that's exactly what we get. But the play clearly divides into three distinct sections, and connecting them is the problem I'm currently having. Let's take them one at a time. [It turns out that these aren't sections at all – we're being shown a triptych of different plays, not one play at all, which actually makes quite a lot of difference – Ed.]

The first section is basically a loving homage to the age of classic TV sci-fi, ie. late sixties and early seventies. The sound effects are lifted straight out of the Star Trek memory banks, while the costumes (pastel blue space suits, optimistically lacking gloves) would be at home in an episode of Captain Scarlet or Thunderbirds. Captain Ko's mission is set up like a sixties TV show, with an opening sequence that harks back to an age when lunar landings were surely only months away and the rest of the solar system seemed within humanity's grasp. If you've ever seen Space 1999, you'll be right at home with the film sequences, which contribute to the very 'Gerry Anderson' feel to the whole section. It's full of a joyous optimism and confidence in humanity's prowess that seems naïve with the benefit of hindsight. But it's only naïve to us because we know that interest in the Space Race collapsed after NASA finally won, and funding dried up when competing with the USSR became defunct.

Even though that momentum fell off, a generation still grew up dreaming of the stars and hoping that one day mankind would reach out and walk on more distant planets. But of course, we haven't. The best we've managed so far is a couple of probes out in deep space, and – topically – an explorer on Mars. The Moonbase Alpha of Anderson's Space 1999 is no closer to reality than it was in the 60s, or even in the real 1999.

What's especially touching about this as a tribute is that it could be all about Gene Rodenberry and classic Trek, but it isn't at all. Perhaps it's the British nature of the company, or the slightly low-budget, home-made aesthetic, but this is much more akin to Anderson sci-fi, and the less obvious shows. I think the later soundtrack even had echoes of the Blake's 7 theme, but that could be coincidental.

Lieutenant Stark, Captain Ko and, er, terror.
Dancing Brick deposit Captain Ko and her Lieutenant on the Planet of Rice in the year 2063, when that's the only planet mankind has yet to bring into the fold of its peaceful planetary union. Remember what I said about the optimism with which classic sci-fi sometimes regards the future? The Planet of Rice causes Ko some problems (malfunctioning equipment, difficulty in navigating, that sort of thing) and she finds her self repeating moments, sequences, phrases – over centuries. She loses all celestial reference points, then loses track of her location on the planet and eventually time itself ceases to have any meaning for her. Her robotic companion is only vaguely aware of the discrepancy. She becomes trapped in a loop without realising, and gets excited on discovering evidence that someone has visited the planet before them (it's the map she discarded on arrival).

And then it gets a bit strange.

In amongst the rice of the planet, Ko finds an proper Grandma cardigan and some glasses. Naturally, she puts them on. Her lieutenant sweeps away the detritus of the Planet of Rice (including bits of their spacesuits) like a sweeper of dreams who, at dawn, clears away the clutter of the subconscious to leave the mind clear for the coming day – and Ko transforms into an elderly woman, pottering about her kitchen. The spacesuit remaining under the cardigan reminded me of that generation that grew up with an eye on the stars and the stories TV told them about what was up there. This grandma could well be the girl who, as a child, dreamt of being Captain Ko, exploring the Planet of Rice, but now she's here, in her kitchen, on Earth, alone.

The play's second section – again, about twenty minutes – consists almost entirely of the elderly Ko in a kitchen which is entirely mimed to a recorded soundtrack of sliding drawers, opening and closing cupboards and clinking plates, cups, saucers, etc. It's very domestic, it's hardly the Planet of Rice, and it's far from the dreams of those who watched Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind. And in a way, I guess that's kind of the point. Watch closely, and you'll see this woman repeat the same set of processes, roughly, without actually getting anywhere. She boils the kettle a couple of times, but – although she takes a cup and saucer to the table – never actually pours anything out. She moves plates and cutlery around, as if preparing for a (solitary) meal, but it seems that company isn't the only thing she's lacking as she prepares it at least twice over. She gets caught in a loop of recurring events, and gradually time loses all sense of meaning.

Theatrically, this is brave and, I think, shows just how highly Dancing Brick think of their audience. It's twenty minutes of tediously miming out a domestic setting – and there's a lot of kitchen for the audience to hold in their heads. Following it all asks a genuine mental effort, sticking with it and making sense of this section within the play requires an even greater effort. It was too much effort for the ten-year olds, who became restless, and many of the adults looked and sounded like they were struggling. I'll admit that I – with my critic's head in place, brow furrowed analytically – stopped following it and it's only really through writing this now that it's clicking into place for me.

Speaking of things clicking into place, the third section is what really threw the audience on the night I saw the play. The mime section ends when the elderly Ko is joined by one of the aliens from the Cantina band in Star Wars: A New Hope. I know, I know; my fanboy heart skipped a beat. And there once again were the dreams of that generation who thought mankind's first alien contact would be just decades away. Instead, they're waltzing with imaginary figments and preparing for meals they forget to eat. Thinking about it like that, it's actually desperately sad, but at the time it was quite funny, with the apparently random alien and all.

The Mos Eisley Cantina alien dances with an elderly Captain Ko
But what follows is much more down-to-Earth. Except it's on the Mir Space Station. So we're back with the earlier space exploration, although this is real. This time, a Soviet cosmonaut drifts around the Earth's orbit, discovering the effects of no-gravity and space on a human body. His regular updates and chats with Mission Control are charmingly filmed, accurately reflecting the sorts of transmissions often broadcast from space craft to viewers on Earth. The rapport with his Mission Control contact is sweet, and serves to remind him of the planet he leaves behind for over three hundred days. Unfortunately for him, he's up there when the Soviet Union collapses, and the idealogical conflict of the Space Race ceases to matter. Rather than recall their man, the Russians seem to forget about him – hence his longer-than-planned term aboard the Mir Station. Without his regular updates from Mission Control and the established routine, all reference points gone, time ceases to have meaning for the cosmonaut, and he forgets how to engage with anything outside of the station. He ends up just like Ko on the Planet of Rice and the elderly Ko in her kitchen.

Translations from the Russian for Sergei on the Mir Space Station
In the end, I think that's what binds those three sections together – it's the loss of reference points and of the relevance of time. Once that's gone, people disconnect and – outside of space travel, which, contrary to those dreams of classic sci-fi, most of us won't experience – dementia sets in. Read the show's program, and you'll discover that's the heart of the show: the loss of faculties arising from dementia, but explored through the sci-fi filter. Within each of those three sections, memories and time fold inwards and collapse, as dreams and hopes fade away and cease to matter.

Dancing Brick bring a very low-tech approach to their depiction of space travel, which pales beside some of the (also pretty low-tech) footage they screen, showing 60s TV shows doing a better visual job on low budgets. That's not to say Dancing Brick doesn't effectively conjure space, but there's scope for more. They could, for instance, have much more fun with the idea of low gravity.

All of which leaves me quietly pleased to have seen Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice, but perhaps more pleased with the intellectual tussle I faced afterwards. I think I've got somewhere with it all. Possibly.

Please note: a condensed, proper review version of this (after I'd sorted out my thoughts) appears on, for whom I went to see Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice. That gives it three stars, because the editors disagreed with my fourth star for bravery.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Artistic Director's Welcome to Merge2012: Our City, Our Story

Hello, and welcome to the third Merge Arts Festival - Merge2012: Our City, Our Story. Thanks for coming along.

This year's Festival has been inspired by the archives held at Hull History Centre. There's a wealth of information from Hull's rich past in there and it's well worth a visit.

We hope Merge2012 brings together yet more people in a celebration of the city's talent and heritage. You'll see the archives reflected in our centrepiece event, Merge @ Hull City Hall, our evening concert featuring a selection of local (Hull, the East Riding and Lincolnshire) folk songs housed in the archives. There's also Winifred: A Dramatic Portrait, which dramatises the life of local author Winifred Holtby. Other events in our program also go some way to celebrating local talent and local heritage.

This is our biggest festival yet, and once again I am grateful to a wide range of people for their support. Many of them are named in this brochure, but a few deserve a special mention. The University of Hull's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences has again been generous in their support, and we recognise generous support from the City Council in various guises. We'd also like to thank our venues, the City Hall, Hartley's Tap and NAPA, for their support and generous hosting. Other people worthy of special mention are listed along with Merge's staff.

We hope this year's program inspires and educates. If Hull is to be an aspiring city, a city worthy of pride, its youth has to be stimulated, involved and engaged in the arts, in culture, in sport and in education. With the way things are going, they’re going to need all the inspiration they can get.

I hope you find something of interest, something to make you think, or something you didn't know (or all of the above!). You can leave us feedback on our Facebook or Twitter, or email us on

Please, get yourself a drink, and enjoy the Festival!

Richard T. Watson
Artistic Director | Merge Arts Festival

Merge is:
Artistic Director: Richard T. Watson

Production Manager: Stefan Ward-Caddle

Publicity Director: Portia Ellis-Woods

Publicity Assistant: Becka Willougby

Education Director: Zoe Hughes

Design by: Becka Willoughby, Will Langdale & Richard T. Watson

With special thanks to:

Professor Alison Yarrington and the University of Hull’s Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
Marianne Lewsley-Stier and iHull
Martin Taylor and staff at the Hull History Centre
Louise Yates and the City Arts Unit
Claire Balfour and staff at Hull City Hall
Barbara Dawson and staff at Northern Academy of Performing Arts
Staff at Hartley’s Tap
Paul Hunter and the New Adelphi Club
Steve Gardham
John Connolly and Bill Meek
Andrew Penny
Dr Jane Thomas & Professor Marion Shaw
Piaf Knight
Lisa Hey
Dale Christmas
Keira Walker
Professor John Stringer
John Morrison
Ian Watson
Felix Hodcroft
Jamie McGarry and Valley Press
Ashley Fisher
Will Langdale
Jonno Witts
Elizabeth Coombs Photography
Sarah Clinch and Hull CVS
The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Coronation of Poppea at Hull University

The Coronation of Poppea - Middleton Hall, University of Hull

The court of the Roman Emperor could be an opulent, gaudy place – one where hot Italian passions were indulged; a passionate, dangerous environment. Especially passionate and self-willed/selfish was the court of Emperor Nerone (in English, Nero, now infamous for allegedly playing his fiddle while the city burned), portrayed in Claudio Monteverdi's opera of 1642, The Coronation of Poppea.

In its earlier form, this was the first opera to be based on historical material instead of mythology, although it still had a couple of Gods (Virtue, Fortune and Love) come along to kick everything off. The English-translation (by Christopher Cowell) presented for two nights in the University of Hull's Middleton Hall had been edited down by conductor Dale Christmas, cutting out all of the supernatural elements, much of the instrumental sections, and giving us instead a trim, lean near-tragedy driven entirely by the self-will and passions of one man: Emperor Nerone.

Nerone's a posturing, bullying little man under Jake Smith's direction, played by Beatrice Acland – it's a soprano part, making the Emperor of the Roman Empire prone to almost shrieking and having temper tantrums at times. But then what should the Romans expect? When you concentrate political control in one man from a young age, as in Nerone's case, giving him the wealth to match his power over life and death, of course he's going to consider his will paramount over all other concerns. Even the high-minded, intelligent Seneca (James Robinson, bass, in appropriately magnificent form) recognises Nerone's life-and-death authority with little opposition. It's knowing that death can happen so easily, on Nerone's whim, that gives the later half of this opera its tension – although (spoilers!) it never actually lives up to that threat and is left groping for a climax. Oh, and that innuendo just then...entirely deliberate.

Seneca (James Robinson) on the virtues of solitude - oblivious to the orchestra behind him...

Nerone's passion is for his mistress, Poppea of the title (soprano Abigail Spear), who lounges around the 1920s art deco apartment to which Smith has (sort of) relocated this Tudor-esque storyline. If we imagine Nerone about three times fatter/rounder then his desire to divorce his wife (Ottavia, soprano, Rachael Nolan) and replace her as Empress with his mistress could work in Henry VIII's England just as easily as in Ancient Rome. Unlike Anne Bolyen, however, Poppea's seduction of the Emperor is all about giving him what he wants (Anne Boleyn preferred to tempt her king, but keep him wanting until he'd committed to their affair by divorcing his queen and breaking with the Pope). Likewise, when together, Nerone and Poppea can't keep their hands off each other, their duets filled with phrases like 'to posses you' and 'to be with you' – but this is a relationship where they've clearly already 'possessed' each other, as far as Giovanni Busenello's libretto is concerned anyway.

A cloying embrace between Nerone (Beatrice Acland) and Poppea (Abigail Spear)

The passion isn't quite there onstage though. Poppea's nurse, Arnalta (Pam Waddington-Muse, a concerned contralto, who produces much of the opera's comedy), is on to something when she talks about Nerone as a schoolboy; Acland's Nerone is all about lustful pawings without convincing anyone that he has done or can do the deed, even with Spear serving herself up on a plate. The vocal blending of their duets is a poetic and musical union of their characters, but it has no counterpart in the physical and visual relationship which seems to always be promising that same intimacy, but always delaying it. It's only in the opera's closing moments that these two (the lovers are both soprano parts, which may be inhibiting) actually kiss each other, and it feels like they've finally overcome whatever nerves or inexperience had been holding them back – though we know from the libretto that they've already slept together.

Ottavia (Rachael Nolan) listens to Seneca praising her good fortune.

Monteverdi's score, arranged specially for this production by Matthew Moore, is played by a medium-sized ensemble (of maybe twenty musicians), featuring a smattering of period instruments like the harpsichord and the eye-catching theorbo. They're one more element giving the piece a Renaissance feel (despite Smith's attempt to relocate to the 1920s), relying on strings and recorders for much of the opera. It's all quite light and rippling, rarely lingering on a phrase or theme. In fact, there's very little in the way of tunes, as such; the orchestra, conducted by Christmas, competently underscores the action with melody throughout, but you don't go out humming any arias. This is early opera, a century before Mozart, and in its day was redefining what dramatic music could be and do, so we shouldn't expect it to be hugely adventurous by more modern standards.

The decadence and passion of Nerone's court is never quite visible in this visually 1920s relocation, and the relationship between Nerone and his mistress feels like an extended exercise in delayed gratification. And so Hull University's Coronation lacks a killer punch, despite its musical successes.

Images thanks to Elizabeth Coombs Photography.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Pickwick Papers - My Charles Dickens #12in12

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836), Charles Dickens

The Posthumous Papers of thePickwick Club was the fictional publication that really made the name of Charles Dickens famous. After his reasonable success with descriptions and written sketches of London life (Sketches by Boz) in 1833-36, Dickens gained a popular following and the beginnings of a loyal audience thanks to the increasing success of The Pickwick Papers.

His publishers commissioned Dickens to provide the text for a picture novel about unsuccessful, bumbling sportsmen, with the pictures supplied by Robert Seymour. But rather than wait to be given illustrations to describe, Dickens began writing his descriptions before anything had been drawn and so, increasingly through The Pickwick Papers, his words took precedence over the illustrations. Seymour, who had originally proposed the idea of a series of illustrations of city-dwellers inexpertly hunting etc., shot himself before the second instalment's publication – though that probably wasn't just down to Dickens's increasing level of artistic control.

The collection of illustrations and story-captions detailing the exploits of the Pickwick Club eventually attracted a wide readership – and it's easy to see why. While not quite the soap opera of its day, The Pickwick Papers is a running light comedy, with each instalment dropping its increasingly familiar (dare I say predictable?) characters into fresh situations full of potential mishaps and fumbles.

Handily, the members of the Pickwick Club take copious notes of their bungled adventures and the mishaps they endure. A few select members, who seem to have unlimited reserves of money and free time, set out with Pickwick to discover curious things about England, people and life in general. The exception is Pickwick's manservant, Sam Weller, credited with much of the book's popular success – in part, no doubt, due to his down-to-earth worldliness, as compared with Pickwick's utter cluelessness. Think Jeeves and Wooster, but with a cockney Stephen Fry who doesn't have that smug, quietly superior face.

The Pickwick narrator's style is either naïve or sly, often telling us one thing and probably meaning quite another. Much of the comedy of the book lies in the discrepancy between, on one hand, the narrator's interpretation of the notes taken by the Pickwickians, and on the other hand, the likely reality of the situation. For example, while staying in the house of a regional newspaper editor, Pott, who spends the evening reading his editorials to Pickwick, Pickwick has his eyes closed in rapturous enjoyment of the prose...or has fallen asleep in boredom. Here is a narrator who, like the world of people he describes, seems to have fallen for the legend of Pickwick's intellect and popularity, interpreting his notes accordingly. In reality, Pickwick is a bumbling, inept man with more money and self-importance than sense.

Dickens' audience may have also fallen for Pickwick's charm, but either way the novel's popularity rose and made Dickens a household name. Not only that, but The Pickwick Papers gave Dickens his first experience of writing weekly instalments of novels – a pattern he followed for years afterward. It's a light read, quicker perhaps than some of Dickens' later work, but no weaker for it. While not so mature or impressive as, say, Bleak House, The Pickwick Papers is a solid debut into long-form fiction.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Everyman at Hull's Holy Trinity Church

There's something about a play's character crying to God for forgiveness that makes me veer between two thoughts. One, the distant 'At least I'll never be like that', the other, a humbler, and perhaps more realistic 'There but for the grace of God go I'. Of course, it's the second of those two that the original performers of this play were after; the audience is supposed to recognise their own fragile state of grace, their own dependence on divine mercy, and to repent sharp-ish before their fate catches up with them.

The title alone should give it away. Everyman. That character crying out to God, to mercy, to charity and to all the things he's held dear through his life? That's Everyman, and he represents, yep, you've guessed it, every one of us (in this production, he's played by three people, including one woman). We are each as guilty as him of the faults he admits by the play's end – it's the usual: greed, lust, anger, gluttony, sloth.

Though we aren't quite complicit in Everyman's sins, we (and I mean the play's immediate audience, rather than mankind as a whole) are drawn into his repentance all the same. He stands barely metres in front of us, asking that he be forgiven, asking who he can turn to, and it's that insistent questioning that raises questions for the audience. Questions like: what would I do if called to give an account to God? Of course, you might not be too worried, if your opinion of an afterlife is that it's non-existent, but just go with it for a minute. There's a value to questioning the balance and account of your life when near its end, even if you don't believe that anyone supernatural's going to check up on you in your grave. Everyman is especially concerned about the balance of Good Deeds in his own account, and finding the book empty (like he does) should be a cause of concern even for a hardened atheist.

Good Deeds (Mondé Sibisi) sleeps until Everyman repents

But Everyman is hardly aimed at atheists; it's aimed at Catholic believers, reminding them that they're going to be checked up on on death, and they'd best keep their house in order. So of course, it makes perfect sense to stage Everyman in the Minster, in God's house; here is the perfection of God, aspire to it, everyone. And the church is perfectly suited to being a performance space – what is the church mass if not an elaborate performance by actors before an audience? - with the acoustics and (mostly natural) lighting to rival many more modern theatres. Religious ceremony is the birthplace of theatre, the elaborate and stylised address to the masses, the faintly poeticised and increasingly stage-y message preached to an audience sitting in hushed rows.

The University of Hull Drama Department's production immerses its audience in Hull's Holy Trinity Church (increasingly being opened up as a venue these days), where the architecture serves to hammer home the message of obedience to the divine will and serves as a reminder of both God's majesty and God's grace. We follow the story through the church on foot, taken to four different stations along Everyman's journey from frail sinner to reconstructed penitent. As Everyman hovers close to death, we walk – fittingly, perhaps, gingerly, certainly – over the graves of past generations, the inscriptions and memorials a fixed and literal reminder of the the transitory nature of human life. Again, the church's architecture reinforcing the message Death has already given to Everyman: Life was but lent thee:/ for as soon as thou art go,/ Another a while shall have it and then go therefro.

Jack Fielding's Everyman is left with no doubt about the message from Death (Johnny Neaves)

The University Drama Department – and specifically Dr Philip Crispin – has produced this living examination of medieval drama, following on from Mankind in 2010. Mankind was declamatory, static (literally and figuratively) and in a theatre. This is a much more immersive, flowing piece. A series of strong individual performances give life to a poetic depiction of human life close to the brink of death – the great unknown, guidance on which can be found in the Bible and, of course, this morality play.

Images thanks to Elizabeth Coombs Photography.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Bleak House - My Charles Dickens #12in12

Bleak House (1852-3), Charles Dickens

Unlike previous entries in the #12in12 Charles Dickens project (The Chimes and Hard Times), March's (delayed) instalment is rather long. This month it's Bleak House, published in twenty monthly issues in 1852 – 1853 – in my defence, it took Dickens much longer to write it than it has taken me to read it.

Bleak House came just before Hard Times in Dickens' writing career, although it feels much more mature – like the achievement of a much more accomplished writer. Perhaps that's because any moral or ethical point Dickens is making with Bleak House is much more subtle than the hammer blows of Hard Times. This makes Bleak House a subtle, complicated and downright imposing book.

The house of the title, Bleak House in St Albans, is a warren of twisty, interconnected corridors, rooms heaped upon one another and obscure little windows. It's a convoluted jumble of a building, presided over by a pair of charmingly selfless characters – John Jarndyce and Esther Summerson – and is the ideal object for Dickens to use as a title. The house itself isn't all that miserable (in fact, it's usually quite pleasant, and the northern house named after it in later chapters is especially pleasant), but it is a perfect reflection of much the book's content.

The twisty corridors of Bleak House, which sounds like the sort of house where someone could easily wander about getting lost and going round in circles, are reflected in the goings-on of the Court of Chancery in London. Until 1875, the Court of Chancery was the part of the British justice system overseen by the Lord Chancellor and, in this case, often concerned not with criminal cases but with cases involving inheritance, commerce and land ownership. Complaints about the slow and drawn-out procedures of the Chancery Court had been common since Tudor times, and Dickens not only lambasts them in his introduction but also provides a mirror for them in not only the structure of the physical Bleak House, but in the structure of the novel Bleak House itself. It isn't without humour, and Dickens clearly takes delight in spinning out descriptions of just how long Chancery takes over resolving the now infamous case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce:

'Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made party to Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suits. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legions of bills in the suit have been transformed into bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.'

Like the physical house, Bleak House the novel has two characters presiding over it: Esther Summerson and an all-knowing, all-seeing narrator. The two of them take it in turns to tell the story and so we see Jarndyce and Jarndyce from the perspective of a ward of the court (apparently orphaned and abandoned Esther) and also from inside the court itself, as well as from wide-ranging perspectives outside – parties to the case and otherwise.

It's this wide-ranging perspective that I really admire about Dickens' writing here, especially in Bleak House. I've said before that his ability to write a striking character is his great strength, and in Bleak House Dickens has excelled himself. There are a great many characters, in a narrative that spans England geographically and socially – from Jo the crossing sweeper to high society's Lady Dedlock – and yet every one of those characters is sharply drawn and memorable. Even with a few words, Dickens creates a loving portrait of some person, and that person can be recognised when they return ten chapters later (as they have a habit of doing with this twisty, jumbled narrative) and appear just as fresh.

There's much more to Bleak House than the Court of Chancery and the social satire Dickens lays in with (Chancery isn't the only thing to be satirised; do-gooding philanthropists so focused on foreign shores they neglect their own offspring also take some flak) – though whether it really needs to be so long is another matter. The middle drags somewhat, and I hope Dickens won't mind me saying that the introduction of a detective late on smacks of an author needing to quickly tie up several lose plot ends with a character deliberately setting out to discover and expose the truth. Even so, the detective, Mr Bucket, must be one of the most finely-characterised plot devices in Western literature.

Like the physical house, the novel Bleak House has a dozen or more little compartments and rooms, all huddled up on top of one another, and connected by twisting corridors; the reader may get lost wandering the house, but Dickens as guide makes sure each room is beautifully decorated and somehow reminds the reader of the route back.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Breaker of Hearts (ENO Mini-Opera)

The Breaker of Hearts

The Chorus of Sleepers appear, shuffling, shambling, (un)dressed for sleep – sleepwalking. They could be all ages, all races, but they move as one, united in sleep. There is a low hum. When they sing, they are usually divided into either boys and girls, or men and women, depending on their ages.

Here he comes.


Here he comes.
Here he comes.


Hear his tread on the stair.
He comes.


Smell his scent in the air.
He comes.


Feel the twinge of despair.
He comes.


Know he is near.
Softly-slinky and grimly-gory.


Heart-Breaker prowls in the witching hour
looking out for joy to devour,
never letting new hopes flower
and turning every sweet dream sour.
Touting lies and the barely true
he swigs a cup of witches' brew,
takes a face you thought you knew
and turns it into something new.

He comes –
the Lurker of Dreams, the Breaker of Hearts.
Closer and closer, rising up from Hell;
The actor of the Id, he plays many parts
and now you must fall for his spell.
He comes.


He comes.

Already, this Breaker of Hearts can be seen approaching
He comes.
He'll bring your fear to you,
it's a gift to you of his;
it won't be anything new
you know already what it is.
Hear him closer.


He comes.
Getting closer.


He comes.
Drawing closer.


He comes.
Here he comes.
He comes to play with your greatest fear;
to hurl you from heights or drown you in ice,
to scorch you, scald you, burn you.
He'll chase you with dogs and with wolves,
he'll chase you down flights, you'll get into fights;
you'll murder, rape and maim.

Here he comes.
He'll show you the deaths of those you hold dear,
make it your fault, make you feel the blame;
it'll scar you, scare you, bleed you.
He'll send his creatures to devour you,
and takes a care to send your biggest scare -
his snakes, his crows or his bugs.

Here he comes.
He comes from the depths of deepest Hell.


Even the angels fear his tread.


And nearer.
He comes with:
Legal writs and rich men's Wills,
money bags and heart burn pills.
In my dream, my son is on trial
for treason and starting a fire.
I swear he's an innocent boy;
and even the judge says I'm a liar.

The shadowy Breaker of Hearts resembles a distant judge
He'll take your heart and he'll tear it.
I fall on my knees to beg for his life,
'He has a child just a few days old,
please, won't you show him some mercy?'
but the judge's smile is bloody and bold.
He'll take your fears and he'll make them real.
He comes.


He comes.
He comes with:
A dozen corpses, a deathly moan;
a childhood terror, now re-grown.
In my dream I'm back in the camp,
condemned once more to a lifetime of pain,
back where the Jew should fear to be.
And the Commandant is there again.

The Breaker of Hearts appears to assume a military aspect
He'll take your memories and he won't spare you.
Every night he comes to take me back,
back to Dachau where my people burned.
Every day I must endure my life
To which my people can never return.
There is no escape from the dread of sleep.
He comes.


He comes.
He comes with:
a diagnosis ready-made;
his only hope is to get paid.
The doctor could have cured my sister.
Now I see him every night,
leaning over me in my dreams -
I can't shake him from my sight.

The Heart-Breaker now looks faintly medical
He'll take your trust and he'll snap it.
The operation was easy but not that cheap
and we had no way to pay.
Now she's cold and in the ground,
and it's too late even to pray.
The Heart-Breaker grinds the bones of hope.
He comes.


He comes.
He comes with:
a cross in his hand, and a rosary,
pouring on guilt and misery.
Sins and sinner you find here,
clutching feebly at a cross.
Twenty Hail Marys twice a day,
else he says that my soul is lost.

The Heart-Breaker now bears a striking resemblance to a priest, and looms larger than ever before
He sees your sins, he knows your fears.
I've tried to do as I've been taught,
but I've fallen into a snare.
Well you know, oh my God,
women's beauty is not fair.
He'll burn your guilt right into your soul.
He comes.


He comes.
Touting lies and the barely true
he swigs a cup of witches' brew,
takes a face you thought you knew
and turns it into something new.
Heart-Breaker prowls in the witching hour
looking out for joy to devour,
never letting new hopes flower
and turning every sweet dream sour.
He's come!

Finally, the Breaker of Hearts comes into focus. The Chorus, in their sleep, are probably terrified of him, though strangely immobile.
Sleep no more!

They all scream, briefly, as if awaking from a nightmare.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Book Review - A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration, by Jenny Uglow

Charles II faced some hefty challenges when he officially become King in 1660. The country had just spent ten years ruled by parliament without any royal authority, the memory (and threat) of civil war was still fresh and Charles himself was returning from ten years of exile with a court keen for revenge and a restoration of their former lands and privilege.

After the execution of his father, King Charles I, in 1649, Charles II was more aware than most of our kings that ruling a nation is a balancing act between different parties. Push one of them too far, or refuse to give way enough, and the whole system can erupt in your face. Charles I found this to his cost, when parliament tried and executed him for crimes against his people. The idea of a king entering into a contract with his people, a two-way agreement, became current and much more accepted – there was currency in the idea that a king only ruled with the permission of his people, as represented by parliament, and after 1649 a king had increasingly limited power without his parliament.

This balancing act is explored by Jenny Uglow in her book covering the first decade of Charles II's reign (1660-1670), A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration. The infamous Merry Monarch of folk legend is shown as a human being, made wary of others by his years traipsing around European courts. Uglow shows him as an expert poker player; inscrutable, calculating and forever keeping cards close to his chest despite his outward shows of merriment. It's a concept running through the book's design, with the six sections named The Deal, Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades and The Clearance.

It is this gambler's calculation that Uglow strives to bring to the fore, highlighting Charles' secret deals or risk-taking again and again. In this story, the court's habit of gambling vast sums begins to look like a symptom of following an easygoing, faintly irresponsible king, and not the other way around. For all of Uglow's striving, though, her Charles never quite comes across as a consummate gambler; it's an interpretation that is valuable, certainly, but seems to be missing something.

That's not to say that Uglow makes Charles look carefree; quite the opposite. His merry-making and pleasure-taking is merely a diversion from the many hours he puts into the work of state. Uglow's Merry Monarch is a man seriously engaged and concerned with the running of his country, a genuine public servant, aware of the new importance of the parliament – and constantly feeling its purse strings like a noose. But he can also enjoy his life and can be seen to enjoy it (special attention is paid to several of Charles' mistresses, and the eldest of his illegitimate children, the Duke of Monmouth). He works hard and plays hard, sometimes using his play as a means to arrange secret treaties and affairs of state.

Charles' method of rule – that balancing act – was in contrast with that of his cousin, Louis XIV, who, during the course of this book, manages to establish an absolute monarchy over France and becomes the dominant power in Europe. Louis acts as a weight in the grand scales of Europe, to be weighed against Holland (including the future William III) and England, but also as an example of what the people and parliament of England fear – a tyrant on the throne, with no representatives of popular opinion. It's what the people fear, but also a leadership style preferred by Charles I, and Charles II's struggles with parliament (mostly over funding his costly wars with the Dutch) indicate how attractive the concept must also have been to him.

Louis XIV wouldn't have tolerated the scheming and factionalism that is rife in Charles II's court. But this courtly intrigue, and its overspill into the parliament, makes A Gambling Man that much more fascinating – not only is this a biography of a king's reign, it's an insight into the politics of a decade, delving into the birth of modern party politics and the gradual demise of individual royal authority.

Uglow's book colourfully illustrates the the first decade of Charles II's reign, balancing the risks taken by a monarch holding onto power with documenting the rise of parliamentary politics and the gradual transfer of power.