Wednesday, 17 January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Heisenberg : The Uncertainty Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Harry Potter : A History of Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image (c) British Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 27 December 2017


If you were celebrating, I hope you had a good Christmas and if you weren't, I hope you had a couple of nice, relaxed days! 

I have been visiting my parents, which is nice. This year, it's just the three of us, which has meant a quiet, low key time, with lots of nice food and relaxation, just what I needed after a stressful couple months!.

I've enjoyed looking out at snow showers, from the warmth and shelter of the house, and have also enjoyed watching the birds on the feeders.

The feeders were attracting the starlings this morning,after I refilled them. Mostly, however, we are seeing goldfinches, sparrows, blue tits, and chaffinches. And also the occasional coaltit, great tits,and greenfinches. 

If we are lucky, the sun may come out tomorrow in which case a walk by the sea may be in order!

Friday, 8 December 2017

Aida at the ENO

I am, as regular readers will have noticed, a fan of the theatre, but opera is something I have very little experience of. However, my friend Lyle and I decided we would give it a try, and booked to see the ENO's production of Aida. 

For those who, like me, are unfamiliar with the plot of Aida, it goes something like this:

An Ethiopian princess (Aida)  is a slave of the Pharaoh, in Egypt. The Egyptians don't know she is a princess. She loves, and is loved by, an Egyptian General (Ramades) loves her, but cannot admit this (presumably because she is a slave who doesn't belong to him). She loves him, too.

The Pharaoh's daughter, (Amneris) is also in love with Ramades.

Aida's father, (Amonasro) leads an invasion of Egypt, and as luck and Senor Verdi would have it, Ramades is chosen to lead the Egyptian armies against the invader, leaving Aida with a rather uncomfortable conflict of interest.

While Ramades is away fighting the Ethiopian Army, Amneris, who seems to be of a jealous turn of mind, decides to try to find out whether Aida is in love with Ramades, so tells her that he has been defeated, and is dead. Aida betrays herself, grieving for him, Amneris admits she lied reducing Aida's problems from 'my lover is dead' to 'my father and countrymen have been defeated in battle, and the most powerful woman in the country, who literally owns me, is pissed at me'.

Ramades returns in triumph (you can tell, because there is a Triumphal March, complete with trumpets and *that* tune that even non-opera fans can recognise) bringing with him a number of Ethiopian prisoners, including Aida's father, King Amonasro (who pretends to be an ordinary general).  The Pharaoh and High Priest plan to execute them all, because what's the point in crushing your enemies and parading them in chains through the city if you don't get to execute them afterwards?

Production photo from the ENO website

The Pharaoh is pleased with Radames, and (perhaps a little rashly) offers him anything he wants as a reward, and also announces that he will give Radames his daughter's hand in marriage and that Radames will get to be Pharaoh after he is gone. Radames, who is clearly the kind of sensitive and thoughtful guy who can see that defeating his prospective father in battle and then assisting at his execution might result in some relationship issues, asks that the Ethiopian prisoners be spared, and released. Not being a complete idiot, Pharaoh agrees, but keeps Aida's father as a hostage for their good behaviour, and gets on with planning Amneris' wedding to Radames.

After the interval, we are back with the wedding planning. While Amneris goes off for a night of pre-wedding prayer, Aida meets with her father, who suggests that if she can get Radames to tell her where the Egyptian army is likely to be, he and she can escape, rejoin the Ethiopian army and successfully fight back. (which, tactically speaking, sounds fairly sensible). Aida resists, not wishing to ask her lover to betray his country, but is persuaded when her father threatens to disown her.

Aida and Radames then have a duet in which she tries to persuade him to come away with her, singing eloquently of the beauties of her country (she doesn't mention anything about the potential social awkwardness of moving to a country after decimating their army, but perhaps she overlooked that), while he sings about his concerns about whether leaving would leave him dishonoured, and how much he loves Aida, but is silent about whether he is planning to jilt Amneris and marry Aida (probably not a career-enhancing move) or to marry Amneris and have an affair with Aida (probably not a relationship enhancing plan...)

Aida convinces him to come with her, so he discloses to her and her father where the Egyptian Army is due to be, so they can avoid it to reach Ethiopia. At which point, Amonasro reveals his identity and that he plans to use the information Radames has just provided to ambush the Egyptian army. I can' help but feel that this may be why Amonasro and his army were defeated in the first place. It doesn't seem to me that, from a tactical perspective, telling the enemy general your plan (even if he does want to marry your daughter) is a very good idea. Although perhaps the dramatic force of the opera would be reduced f anyone were to act sensibly! 

Things go rapidly downhill for our protagonists. Radames is overcome with remorse and with being arrested and thrown into gaol. He is then swiftly tried by the high priest and all the lesser priest, and is tunefully condemned to death. By being entombed alive. 

Radames decides (arguably a little belatedly) to be Very Noble and refuses to explain himself, or to let Amneris intervene on his behalf, and as such is duly buried alive (in a large and well-lit tomb). As he muses on fate, Aida shows up,having hidden herself in the tomb to be buried alive with him, rather than (say) escaping with her father.  It's all very sad.

And in hindsight, bearing in mind that Amonasro invaded Egypt specifically to rescue his daughter, suggests that his entire war was a colossal waste of time and energy.

I did enjoy it,especially the  big choruses, I have to say. I'm a fan of big choruses! But I suspect that I shall continue to spend more time in theares than opera houses in the future! 

Friday, 1 December 2017


The reason I was in London was to met with a friend and see 'Apologia' at Trafalgar Studios.

The performance we saw was the final one.

The play is a 2009 one by Alexei Kaye Campbell, and focuses on a birthday dinner for Kristin (Stockard Channing), due to be attended by her sons, Peter and Simon (both played by Joseph Millson) their partners,  Claire and Trudi, (Freema Agyeman and Laura Carmichael) and friend Hugh (Desmond Barrit).

Over the course of the evening we learn that Peter and Simon were brought up by their father following their parents' divorce, and that Kristin is a noted art historian who has just published a memoir, 'Apologia'.

Initially, Kristin presents as an unsympathetic character - unwelcoming and casually dismissive towards Trudi,  who she is meeting for the first time, critical of Claire, and shows little insight into her sons' feelings.

As the play progresses, she doesn't become more likeable, but we do learn more of her history and character, and gradually come to understand her better, and to see why she is how she is, and the price she has paid - and come to realise that Trudi sees more than one might think.

It was very interesting.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Being a tourist - Westminster Abbey

I was in London at the weekend, primarily to see 'Apologia' at Trafalgar Studios. However, I arrived early, I decided to be a proper tourist and visit Westminster Abbey.

I was probably taken there as a child, but I haven't visited it as an Adult (not least because of the eye-watering entry fee - £22 - and the fact that there are often long queues to get in. )

It was rather crowded, and I was a little disappointed that there were more signs warning of CCTV than there were giving information about the church or the various tombs. However, those things don't detract from the fact that it's a very interesting, and in parts, stunningly beautiful building.

They had, of course, rather cornered the market in dead monarchs, from Edward the Confessor, to Richard II, Henry V,  Queens Elizabeth I and Mary I (and Mary Queen of Scots), up to George III (they don't, of Course, have Richard III, although they do have his wife.

You are not allowed to go into the shrine of Edward the Confessor,  but the chapel where Elizabeth I and Mary are both buried is open - Elizabeth has a very fancy tomb (and a not-entirely-flattering effigy)
Window and ceiling of side chapel and Queen Elizabeth I's tomb
The ceiling of the chapel is beautiful. It seems a little odd that Elizabeth and Mary should be buried together, all things considered... 

There are also, of course, lots of other famous people buried or commemorated in the Abbey (which, for my fellow pedants, isn't actually, technically, an Abbey or Cathedral anymore, but is a 'royal peculiar'.)

Isaac Newton has a colossal, rather baroque tomb, and there are some positively dreadful  (from the point of view of my personal artistic taste) Charles Fox, for instance, whose tomb presents him as a rather dissolute Roman (which , thinking about it, might not be entirely inappropriate, if Fox is the one I think he is) 
Ceiling of Henry VII's Lady Chapel
One of the most stunning parts of the Abbey is the Henry VII Lady Chapel, at the East End of the church - it has an absolutely exquisite fan vaulted ceiling. It really is impressive. I rather suspect that Henry VII was a bit of a bastard, but I will give him credit for having employed a very good architect and builders!

There is also some lovely modern stained glass (I believe the original was destroyed in the blitz - the end of the lady chapel is now the RAF chapel) 

Then there is poets' corner - Geoffrey Chaucer was buried there (although not, it seems, on his merits as a poet, but simply because he was at one time Clerk of Works. The current tomb was erected in the 16th C. 

However, since his time others have been buried there - Jonson, Dickens, Hardy, with many others having memorials there, including Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis and a number of the War poets. 

The other thing Westminster Abbey has, of course,  is the Coronation Chair, which they have had, and have been crowning monarchs on, since 1308....   

And they have the rather nice portrait of Richard II (which dates back to around 1390, and is apparently the earliest contemporary  portrait of an English monarch)

As well as the church itself, one may visit the Chapter House (nice, but not a patch on Wells, in my partial opinion!)  
Chapter House
And cloisters, where, among less memorable memorials, there is a rather nice (modern) memorial to Sir Edmond Halley, for instance.
I did enjoy my visit. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Short, Grumpy post

Mostly I post about things which are enjoyable or interesting, but this time, as the title suggests, I'm just feeling grumpy.

I have had a cold-in-the-head for about 2 weeks now, and I am fed up with it. Not least because it is a sneaky bugger and keeps fooling me into thinking it's gone, then sneaks back.

And it seems to have come with an extra load of insomnia, so for the past few nights, I've been so tired I could cry, but still ended up waking up multiple times through the night and getting less than 5 hours sleep, which is definitely no fun at all.

So, I'm feeling tired. And grumpy. And don't have any fun stuff going on this weekend.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Philip Pullman - Daemon Voices

I am glad that I am on the mailing list for Topping of Bath, otherwise I would not have known that Philip Pullman was going to be in Bath, as part of the publicity for his new book, Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling.

As it was, I got  to go along to listen as Philip Pullman talked with John McLay, about story-telling, and writing - Pullman said that he thought about telling stories, not about being a writer or a story teller - he started telling stories to others, including his younger brother, when he was very young, sometimes retelling things he had read or heard, other times making stuff up, and that at some point he then realised that people who write books get paid to do so...

He talked about the idea of a story as a path through the woods, which is one used on several of his essays; the path may interact with many other paths, other stories and other versions of the same story. He gave the example of his story I was a rat! which is a path which touches the 'path' of cinderella . . but went on to say that you can't give people a required reading list before they read your work, so you can't be sure whether or not people will recognise the 'paths' which cross with yours.  

He also lauded the benefits of habit for a writer. His ow practice is to write 2 pages a day - if your sentance ends on the top of page three you've 'won' for the day, and if you make it a habit it gets harder *not* to write. His comment was that more books are written out of habit than talent, and that if you work, ad work, and try, and fail, and try and work more, you get somewhere, and then the reward is to be described as a 'born story teller'!

He spoke, a little later, about how writing is a dictatorship, but reading is a democracy - each reader has their own talents, understanding and expectations, and that the writer's view about what it means is no more or less valid than that of any reader.

He talked about research, and how the knowledge and familiarity with the writing of others feeds into his own, commenting on how surprised he always is when teaching writing courses, and finding how little (some) of the students read, and how many don't have much familiarity with (for instance) poetry.He spoke about how important this had been to him, and what a deep impression poems heard and learned early in life had on him, and that he felt that one has to know in order to create - he was passionate about the benefits of knowing stories, or poems well, and being able to tell, rather than simply to read, them, to children.

The question of religion came up. Pullman described himself as a 'Cultural Christian', having been brought up with regular churchgoing (his maternal grandfather was an Anglican priest). He spoke about how religion is about asking big, important questions, about where we come from, whether there is anything after death and so forth, and that those questions are an important part of being human. 

He was also very clear that he doesn't dislike or disapprove of or disparage people who are religious: But what he is wary of is religious bodies or organisations gaining political power - it always ends badly, whether it results in the Spanish Inquisition, Blasphemy trials and witch hunts, or whether it results in the Taliban (Or the current situation in Rohingya)

In the Q and A section of the event he was asked about the proposed cuts to libraries in Bath, and gave a passionate response, saying that it is a National disgrace that libraries are being defunded. "Libraries are such a gift from a nation to its citizens, and politicians who allow it to be taken away should be pilloried..A nation which provides free books is one not afraid of its citizens".

It was a very interesting event, and at the end, I did wait and got my copy of 'L Belle Sauvage' signed.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre is a brand new theatre, immediately next to Tower Bridge, which opened on 26th October. It's run by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, both of whom used to run the National Theatre, and it opened with a new play, Young Marx by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, starring Rory Kinnear.

I went to see Young Marx a  few days into the run. As the name suggests, it features a young(ish) Karl Marx. The play is set in London, in 1849-50, when he, with his wife Jenny (Nancy Carroll), and their children, were living in poverty in London together with their friend and housekeeper, Helene 'Nym' Demuth (Laura Elphinstone), with Friedrich Engels (Oliver Chris) popping in on a regular basis. Marx is not having an easy time - he is broke, having marital troubles, suffering from writers block and trying to cope with splits in the nascent communist party...

Rory Kinnear as Karl Marx (C) Bridge Theatre
It's got lots of very funny moments - I particularly enjoyed Marx's statement to the police following his arrest, which was a commentary on property and theft, and the comments from the various police officers (focused on how they were not really sure of their powers or rights, what with everything being so new).

Cast (photo from gallery on theatre website)
The play has a young, sexy, Friedrich Engels making a decision to return to work in his father's cotton mills in Manchester in order to ensure he can support Marx financially to allow him to write, and whole sub-plots about an illegitimate child, and a duel. 

It's a lot of fun, - there are a lot of farcical elements (Marx hiding in cupboards, lots of personalised knocks on the door to identify welcome, and unwelcome, guests, and is apparently based almost entirely on genuine historical events. (although I have my doubts about Engels and Marx as a kind of music hall double act...) 

The play is on until 31st December and is being broadcast via NTLive on 7th December (in the UK). Its well worth seeing, if you get the chance.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Scythians - British Museum Exhibition

I have to admit, that before the British Museum started to advertise their exhibition about the Scythians, I knew next to nothing about them.For these who are similarly uninformed, 'Scythians' seems to be a blanket terms for the various tribes of nomadic peoples, or Iranian origin,  who lived in and around what is now Siberia, around 2,500 years ago. 

They didn't leave any writings, and until comparatively recently, were known mainly from the writings of Herodotus (who was often somewhat unreliable). They are, apparently, the likely inspiration for ancient legends about the Amazons, and possibly also for legends about centaurs, as they were among the wolds earliest horseback warriors.

More recently (for 'recently, read, starting in the reign of Peter the Great, 1682-1725) archaeological finds began to emerge, including amazing gold artefacts and, due to the permafrost, burials in which wood, leather, textiles, bodies and other organic matter were preserved, astonishingly well preserved. And it turns out that Herodotus may have been rather less unreliable than we thought.

Deer-shaped gold plaque. Second half of the 7th century BC.
© The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
The exhibition includes a lot of beautiful gold artefacts - many featuring animals from big cats wolves, boar and eagles, to deer, elk and of course horses. However, there are also other artefacts - clothing, human remains, textiles and wood, all of which have been preserved by the ice. 

Felt swan figure, third century BC.
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
It's astonishing to think this swan, for instance, is over 2,000 years old. And its a very appealing swan.

As well as the more showy gold and textiles, there are other gems - the felt bag containing cheese, (sadly, the museum has been unable to determine whether this was made from sheep, goat or horses milk), the hemp-smoking kit, and the coriander seeds...

The exhibition also includes some human remains; there is one display showing a man's skin, and his tattoos, and there are also two skulls, with their death-masks.

There are personal items too - a woman's felt stockings, a child's jacket, a flat-pack table, and a false beard. And the lack of written records leave intriguing questions - was the beard due to funeral rituals (apparently contemporary sources describe the Scythians as generally having beards, but the men in burials found are all clean shaven), was it perhaps related to the fact that women may have been warriors too. Maybe they simply enjoyed dressing up!

The Scythians were very reliant on their horses, so there are also lots of horse-related items - beautifully decorated saddles and bridles, and even head-dresses for horses, decorated with other birds and animals.

It was very interesting, and some of the things on display were incredibly beautiful.

Also - have a gratuitous picture of the Great Court at the museum. Just because I love that roof. 

The exhibition continues until 14th January, so plenty of time to see it, if you haven't already done so. 

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

'Christmas Eve' at the Ustinov Studio

Earlier this year I saw a play at the Ustinov studio called The Mentor. It was by a German playwright, Daniel Kehlmann, and was very good. So when I saw that they were putting on another of his plays, Christmas Eve, I decided to book a ticket and see that, too.

Despite the title, this is not a cheery festive play. It's set entirely in a police interview room, somewhere in Germany, on Christmas Eve. It premiered in Vienna earlier this year, and this production is the UK premiere.

Anti-terror police officer Thomas (Patrick Baladi) is interviewing Philosophy professor Judith (Niamh Cusack) who is suspected of involvement in a planned terrorist incident. 

We get to watch as Judith is questioned, learning that she was in a taxi when she was stopped, and brought to be questioned, about... what, exactly? 

Writings saved on her laptop, which may or may not be preparation for a philosophy seminar? Her left-wing views, and past travels in South America? Her relationship with her former husband?

The audience is kept guessing as to whether this is an example of state paranoia, and oppression, as Judith argues, or whether there is a genuine terror threat. 

Despite the subject matter, there are comic moments - Thomas explaining to Judith that while she is entitled to have a written record of her right, it will be  terrible hassle to get a copy as it's christmas and all the typists are off (and she eventually gets an illegible, handwritten copy)

It's very well done. See it if you can.

It's on at Bath until 19th November.