Sunday, 11 March 2018

The North! The North!

On Wednesday night, I was in Bath at the Ustinov Studio, to see Chris Harrison's one man show, The North!, The North!.

I knew absolutely nothing about it, ahead of time (I won a complimentary ticket via the theatre's facebook page) 

It;'s a fascinating show - a mix of  narration, mime, animation (with hand-drawn art projected onto the set) and acting.

It describes itself as a 'modern myth'  - it can also be read as a modern fairy tale (with all the dark and deadly roots we know from the original versions of most older fairy tales) 

The starting point is the information that, In 1985, a fissure formed at England's centre and split the north from the south... we learn that this has led to all sorts of interesting Things awakening,and new individuals coming to power, and all the implications are simply dropped casually into the narrative for us to untangle.

It's a very imaginative, incredibly well executed production, and I'm very glad I got to see it. It was only in Bath for 2 nights, but keep your eyes own for other venues. Although you may feel the urge to leave the lights on for when you get home afterwards...

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Obligatory Snowmageddon Post

Living in the South West of England, as I do, I don't often have to deal with snow - since I moved house  years ago, we've had  couple of light dustings of snow, but nothing more. I think the last time we had any worth speaking of was in 2010, when we had a white christmas.

This week was rather different, however!

The news and weather forecasts were full of the 'Beast from the East' , and we were forecast to have light snow on Thursday, getting worse on Friday.

There was a little light snow on Thursday morning, which Loki found quite interesting! It was very cold (about -3, I think)

Then during the day we had flurries of snow, getting worse, and in light of this and the warnings from the police and Met office we closed our offices and sent all the staff home at 3, with one or two who live further away leaving sooner.

By the time I got home, after driving a couple of colleagues who had walked in, home, there was quite a lot of snow even on the main road, which of course had not yet been gritted. Fortunately my commute is short, and everyone was driving sensibly, although there were several vehicles with spinning wheels, and I saw a couple of minor skids.

It continued to snow all afternoon and evening, and was also bitterly cold (so the snow was much dryer and more powdery than we're used to) and very windy, which meant that the snow was drifting - I ended up with patches of my driveway that were almost clear.
Thursday afternoon

As it got dark the wind got up further - I was reminded of the quote from Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' "Tonight will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining" - I would have got quite worried if I'd seen any dark riders or large numbers of rooks!

And I got to watch Loki experiencing deep snow for the first time.

We'd made the choice to close the office on Friday, on the basis that the police and local council were both were advising against any but essential travel, so I spent Friday doing some work from home, and admiring the pretty white stuff outside the windows. 

The wind made it hard to judge exactly how much snow fell - I have a small drift (about 2' tall) outside the back door, and others by my front and side fences, all with beautiful curves and shapes. I think in places where the snow wasn't drifting it was about 6 inches deep.

I also walked down to the village shop, which had run out of bread and milk, and had no papers (the wine aisle looked pretty bare, too!) The main road wasn't clear, and I was very glad I didn't need to drive on it, or on my own road. I met lots of my neighbours, and lots of excited dogs and small children, but I think during the whole day, I only saw or heard about 3 vehicles go past the house, all of them either tractors or 4x4s.

And of course, working from home had the advantage that I could make a nice slow-cooked casserole, and bake some bread, in between other jobs!

Not far from here, people spent all night trapped in their cars on the A303. I decided not to try to drive into Bristol to go to the theatre, as planned! 

Today (Saturday) has been much milder - I think between 0 and 1 degrees Celsius - I went for a short, but picturesque walk after getting the papers.  (The main road was clear this morning, although ours, being less busy, and  was still mostly compacted snow and ice) 

And Loki continued to explore, periodically. He is a daft cat. 

This afternoon, it's become milder again -the last showers have been rain, not snow. Hopefully, if it doesn't freeze tonight, everything will be back to normal by Monday! 

I shall be curious to see how long it takes for the drifts to go.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

A Couple of Quiet Weeks

I had a very important responsibility recently, as my neighbours went away for half term, and entrusted me with the care and feeding of their nearly new guinea pigs. I had guinea pigs of my own, many years ago, so I felt quite nostalgic. I'm sure mine used to shout much louder, though, and as these ones are smooth coated they seem smaller than I remember (although that may also be because I'm bigger now!) 

Harry the Guinea Pig

Anyway, they survived being in my care for a week, and let me stroke them, although Loki sniffed my hands and coat very suspiciously each time I came back, and is probably wondering why I never want to hold the rodents he brings me!

Last weekend should have involved me travelling North to spend the weekend with friends, but unfortunately they were unwell, and I was unwell, so we agreed that me driving 200 miles so we could all exchange germs was not a good idea.

It was undoubtedly the right choice - I ended up spending most of the weekend curled up on the sofa doing nothing more energetic than making cups of tea, and finding even that amount of activity rather exhausting!

This weekend has been equally quiet in its own way, but I'm feeling much better, so have been able to do lots of dull but necessary stuff, like washing floors, general cleaning and housework, and so on. I also did some baking, which I enjoy, so my co-workers will get double chocolate chip cookies and walnut and dark chocolate biscuits tomorrow.  

This weekend has bee one of extreme (for this country) cold, but also, today at least, bright sunshine, so lots of beautiful blue skies, and  very bracing walks down to the shop for the weekend papers. We are told that there may be snow later in the week, although I think only fairly light showers, here. All of which meant that I was able to put all my washing outside to dry, which made a nice change, and that Loki has been forced to drink from his own water dish, as the various planters etc. outside,  which collect rainwater, and which he likes to drink from, all all frozen over.

I am very thankful that my central heating works so well!

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Imperium at the RSC

It is fair to say that back in March, when I booked to see the RSC's 'Imperium :The Cicero Plays' (based on novels by Robert Harris), and decided that since it is 2 plays, it would make sense to see both on the same day, they had not yet announced the run times. If they had, I am not 100% sure that I would have chosen to see them both on the same day.. 

Part one runs 3 hours 15 minutes plus intervals, Part 2, 2 hours 45 minutes plus intervals. That's 6 hours of theatre. It's a good thing that the Swan Theatre has reasonably comfortable seats!

The plays cover the period of Roman history around Julius Caesar's (Peter de Jersey) rise to power, his assassination, and Octavian's subsequent rise, as seen through the eyes of Cicero (Richard McCabe) and his secretary, Tiro (Joseph Kloska).

We start out with Cicero's election as Consul, defeating patrician Cataline (Joe Dixon), who is Not Pleased (after all, it was his turn!) Cataline steals every scene he is in, with his gloriously over the top villainy! 

As the play continues, we learn about the Cataline conspiracies, as Cataline, having failed to win election to a Consulship, attempts to get there by foul means rather than fair. (of course, an historian might point out that one of the main sources of evidence is the writings of Cicero, who was not exactly impartial, and who made his name by suppressing the Cataline conspiracies. But lets not be picky!)

photo of programme with cover art showing a broken bust and against a backdrop of flames and rioters

Cicero's secretary, Tiro, acts as narrator for the plays, bringing the audience up to speed with backstories and explanations, not to mention seeing things more clear-sightedly than his master at times! 

Particularly having seen Julius Caesar so recently, I enjoyed seeing the same events and characters from  a different perspective - Brutus, in this version, is not the passionate but flawed leader we know from Shakespeare, but rather a rule-bound man, anxiously reviewing points of parliamentary procedure as Rome collapses into civil war. 
photo of empty stage with backdrop of a large mosaic of a pair of eyes.
Stage and set
Julius Caesar is an amoral, manipulative, power-hungry politician, and Mark Antony (Joe Dixon again, Cataline having wound up with his head in a bucket at the end of Part 1) originally appears as a belligerent and none-to-bright drunk, before showing himself as a military force to be reckoned with, and young Octavian (later Caesar Augustus) (Oliver Johnstone) is a much more subtle chip of the old block, who is disastrously underestimated by Cicero (and pretty much everyone else)

The script was fun - lots of direct addresses to the audience, mainly by Tiro, but also by other characters who addressed the audience as if they were the Roman Senate, or people, and of course there were also a few topical allusions, and a sneaky nod to Oscar Wilde "To lose one Consul may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two..."

I felt, too, that he cast was very strong  - although regrettably (if perhaps inevitably, for a play about Politics in ancient Rome) rather short on women.

The performances I saw were the last ones, so you can't go to see it, but if you are like me you might decide to give the books a chance...


We don't go in for such things as a general rule, in this country, so when I heard a sort of rumbling thump and felt the house shake, 'Earthquake' wasn't my first thought - I had a confused thought that there might have been a road accident, or that something (like the chimney) had fallen through the roof. 

(actually that's not quite true. my absolutely first thought was that the Cat had done something unspecified, but as soon as I realised he was  in his hammock, giving me a dirty look or having woken him up, my thoughts went to accidents not earthquakes. But I have learned that earthquakes are another of things which, according to the cat, are entirely my fault)

But it seems that there was a 4.4 Magnitude earthquake, centred on Cwmllynfell in South Wales, which is around 70 miles from here, as the crow flies (or the tremor travels)

screenshot of British Geological Survey's webpage with details of earthquake location

It's my first earthquake. Or at least the first I've noticed. A quick perusal of the BGS's website shows me that it is the 16th earthquake in the UK this year, although larger than most - apparently we get one this size about once every 2 to 3 years. Just never one which I've personally felt, before.

copy of British Geographical Society seismometer image

It doesn't seem to have caused any damage here. The pictures on the walls rattled, my toothbrush fell over, and the sparrows outside went quiet for a moment or two, but that's about it. 

Very odd sensation, though, and I am glad we do not make  habit of having them.

(all my Californian friends, and others in earthquake zones may now laugh!)

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Home, Cooking, Cars

After my theatre binge in January, things have been a little more low key  - I've been at home and at work, the weather  has been cold, and wet, and windy and unappealing, and I've had issues with my car.

I was driving home and my car started to lose power and basically no go at all - complete with flashing dashboard light. Quick stop to check whether this is a 'do not drive another inch' light or a 'limp to a garage' light. It turned out to be the latter., so I crept home, (probably annoying anyone behind me, but fortunately it was a Sunday morning so not too much traffic) .

When I got home I was able to speak to my mechanic (who is usefully also my neighbour), who said "that sounds like a coil", and that this meant that it would not be firing one one of its cylinders. I'm familiar with the idea of not firing on all cylinders as a metaphor, and now I understand it! 

So on Monday, Neighbour took my car with with him to work (happily I'd booked the day off so didn't need to work out alternative transport) and brought it home that evening, restored and ready to go, and with a new coil and some spark-plugs ( I think) 

Then a week later it was off again to have its MoT test, which it passed with flying colours, so that's done with for the year.

Last weekend I made a small batch of marmalade, which is something I enjoy doing, (plus you end up with delicious marmalade) 

I've still got another 2 or 3lbs of oranages so will make another batch soon.

I have planted out some mini-daffodils, although so far no buds or flowers. Hopefully they will come out soon. So far, all I have is a few primroses.There are lots of snowdrops in the headge-bottoms, but none in my garden.

And still it rains.

This weekend, so far I have mostly been baking, and batch-cooking stuff for the freezer.  Still to do: deep cleaning the kitchen! (who says I don't know how to party?!)

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre

I enjoyed my first visit to the new Bridge Theatre, to see their opening production, Young Marx, in November, so was looking forward to going back for their first Shakespearean production, Julius Caesar, which features David Calder as Caesar, Ben Whishaw as Brutus, David Morrissey as Mark Antony, Adjoa Andoh as Casca and Michelle Fairley as Cassius. 

Which is quite an impressive cast, I think you'll agree!

For this production, the seating in the stalls has been removed, and the galleries extended to the 4th side of the theatre, creating an arena-style central area, where the audience members who had bought 'promenade' tickets were allowed to stand.

As we waited for the play to start, the promenaders were given the chance to buy nuts, and drinks, and badges and red baseball hats supporting caesar...

And in keeping with that, the production is in modern dress, and there's something worrying familiar about Mark Antony, particularly once he starts to make speeches...

I was curious about how the 'promenade' style would work, and how easy it would be to see the action, but it turned out that there were various 'blocks' which came up and down as and when needed, with the audience moving around them, which worked well both to keep the actors visible and also to take the place of scene changes.

Ben Whishaw's Brutus is presented as a liberal, intellectual man  - when we first see him at home he is seated at  desk with lots of books - I admit I was a little distracted trying to read the titles of his books (they included books about Franco and Hitler, that I could see),vehemently opposed to tyrants and nepotism, but unfortunately a bit short-sighted in dealing with others. 

Michelle Fairley makes an excellent Cassius, passionate and much more astute than Brutus -  shes' not an actor I am particularly familiar with but hers here is a stand out performance.

The promenade audience are showered with political flyers, with balloons, and follow the actors around the stage. It's very dramatic, and it must be amazing to be part of that (I'm considering going back to see it from that angle!) 

It's a superb and very timely production - well worth seeing. It's on at the Bridge until 15th April, and is being shown in cinemas via NTLive on 22nd March. (and presumably other dates internationally) I'm sure the filmed version won't be as stunning as being there in person, but it will be a lot better than not seeing it at all. Go if you can!

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Mary Stuart (Almeida West End)

Another weekend, another couple of plays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Living with gods - British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's fascinating stuff. 

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

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

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Birthday Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, weird, but well presented weird!

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Heisenberg : The Uncertainty Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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