Monday, 31 August 2015

Greeks and Drama

I forgot to blog about it at the time, but on 14th August, the Almeida Theatre, with the British Museum, arranged a reading of the whole of Homer's Iliad, by a relay of over 60 actors and readers. ('Iliad Live'). I t started at 9 a.m. at the British Museum, and at 8 p.m. moved to the Almeida Theatre, and the whole thing was livestreamed
Iliad Live scripts
It was, in every sense of the word, Epic. 

I did not get to watch or listen to it all as I was working, but I dipped in and out all day, and was *very* impressed. Of course, the Iliad was written to be be performed, not read in a book, and works well even if you cannot see the whole thing. (Also, whoever was running the @IliadLive twitter account is a star in their own right and deserves greater recognition!) For instance:

GHOST ALERT: Now speaking is the ghost of Patroclus. He's asking to be buried. Which is fair enough after quite a long time dead.

So, having seen this, I was looking  forward very much to seeing the Almeida Theatre's production of Bakkhai (The Bacchae), a new translation of Euripides' classic. (which I booked months ago). The play premiered in 450 BC, so I shall not worry too much about spoilers...

I had a bit of a trek to get there, due to rail strikes and engineering work. However, I made it, and in time to meet up with a friend for lunch and a catch up, which was lovely.
In some respects, the production is quite traditional - there are three actors, plus a chorus(although the chorus are all women, which no doubt Euripides and the Ancient Greeks would not have approved of). 
There is minimal set and very few props - just a few fawn-skins, some wreaths, thyrsuses, and the occasional severed head.

The three actors were Ben Whishaw, Kevin Harvey and Bertie Carvel, all of whom play more than one role.

Ben Whishaw is Dionysus - he starts by addressing the audience directly "How do I look? Convincingly Human?"  Which at that point, he does, in a T-shirt and low-cut jeans, outlining for us his genealogy. (Son of Zeus, born by a lightning bolt, in case you were wondering)

As things unfold, and we learn that Dionysus is angry at those who fail to accept or acknowledge his godhood. And you really wouldn't like him when he is not happy. Although when he is happy, he could be a lot of fun to be around.
(Photo (C) Mark Brenner) 

King Pentheus (Carvel) ignores the advice of his father in law Kadmos (Harvey) and Kadmos's friend  Teiresias (Whishaw again) to join in Dionysus's rites.

This turns out to be a poor decision. Pentheus is determined to stamp out the irresponsible and unruly Bakkhai and their worship of Dionysus, putting those he catches into prison, and determined to crack down on them.

Dionysus poses one of his own worshippers in order to approach Pentheus, and to lead him on, to attempt to spy upon the wild women in the rituals. 

Dionysus is now no longer in his casual  modern dress but wears a long flowing fawnskin dress and is both sensuous and androgynous, flirting with both the audience, and with Pentheus - but also illustrating, all too clearly, that the Greek pantheon was, on the whole, much better at wrath and vengeance than at mercy. .  

Whishaw makes a very impressive god, very clearly not quite human...

As might be expected for one who has the hubris to challenge a god,Pentheus ends up humiliated and dead, having been tricked into dressing as a woman in order to spy upon the bakkhai in their rites (which, for a straight-laced, misogynistic politician he enjoyed way too much) , and then torn limb from limb by, among others, his own mother (also played by Carvel) 

There are lots of tensions and conflicts- between belief and non-belief, masculinity and femininity, wildness and civilization (or at least urbanity)

And through it all the chorus provides a, well, chorus, of exposition and emphasis, with songs an chants, all perfectly times and almost a concert in it's own right. They were superb.

In fact, the entire play was superb. I don't know whether I have any chance of seeing the other plays in the season, Medea and Orestia, but having seen this, I would like to see the others. And I definitely want to see more of Ben Whishaw's work - I've seen him live once before, in Peter and Alice (with Judi Dench), and on screen as Richard II in 'The Hollow Crown' (and of course as Q in the more recent Bond films) but this gave him the opportunity to demonstrate he has a much greater range. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Hamlet : A Good Play

Over a year ago, I read that Benedict Cumberbatch, of Sherlock, Frankenstein and Smaug fame, was to play Hamlet, live, at the Barbican Theatre in London this year. And I have a group of friends who, like me, like going to the theater- we've previously seen David Tennant in Hamlet, and more recently, in Richard II, and agreed that seeing Mr Cumberbatch's Hamlet would be a good thing to do.

So, with some difficulty, I managed to buy the maximum 6 tickets permitted, (it later turned out that the show was the fastest seller in, well, pretty much ever. I was lucky that there were only a couple of hundred people ahead of me in the queue when I booked - later that day there were lover 10,000)

And a year went by, and on 15th August I reached the point where I was sitting in the stalls, in the Barbican theatre, waiting for the Prince of Denmark.. As the man says 'the readiness is all'

So, was it worth the wait? 

I think so. 

It should be mentioned that we saw the play on 15th August, which was (although not made clear when we booked, or on our tickets) a preview, 10 days into the run.

The play opens, not with the usual scene of Bernardo and Marcellus on the ramparts of Elsinore, but instead with Hamlet, alone on stage, looking though tea-chests (apparently paced with childhood items) while Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” plays on an old gramophone player. (The music familiar to many of us as the music from the film 'Moulin Rouge'), establishing him as, at the very least, a little melancholic.

We then moved to a the wedding breakfast, with vast displays of white flowers and of hunting trophies, as Claudius deals with the ambassadors to Norway, Laertes' wish to return to college, an Hamlet's own moodiness.
Hamlet: Scene 2 (official pic by Johan Persson)
Shortly after this picture was taken, Hamlet starts walking on the table and giving the  'O, that this too, too solid flesh..' soliloquy  (with the rest of the cast moved in slow-motion, which I thought was an effective way of allowing the soliloquies to be given, and to be clearly internal,  despite the number of other people on stage.)

Claudius - a trustworthy King
(photo credit as before)
Very effective. 

Obviously Cumberbatch is the headliner in the production, but the cast as a whole is very strong:  

Ciaran Hinds' Claudius doesn't really let the menacing, dangerous side of the character out in the earlier scenes of the play, but as the play progresses and he begins to fear Hamlet, and his own conscience, he becomes more obviously threatening.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith was a hugely powerful and commanding Laertes. Given that he has a relatively small amount of time on stage, he packed one hell of a punch.

I don't think I have seen Holdbrook-Smith before but will definitely be looking out for him in future!

Other characters were also, generally, pretty strong - Anastasia Hille as Gertrude made a great foil for Hamlet's flamboyance, and her reaction to Ophelia's madness and death was beautifully done.

Gertrude and Hamlet
I was a little less impressed with Ophelia (Sian Brooke) and with Horatio (Leo Bill) as characters, although I think n both cases this was a fault in the production not in the actors. In neither case did their relationships with Hamlet quite 'jell', for me. Ophelia's madness was beautifully done in its subtle contrast with Hamlet's own feigned madness, but she was less convincing as a object of his love, or even as a 'safe' friend for the emotionally immature Hamlet of this production.

Horatio seemed affectionate but a little distant until the very end of the play, and as a result his anguish at Hamlet's death seemed less consistent with his earlier relationship than it sometimes does. I would love to see the production again, and see whether this changes as Cumberbatch and Bill settle into working together. We did, after all, see a production only 11 performances into the run. I'm planning to see the NTLive broadcast on 15th October, and will be curious to see how the production changes.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstein got what was coming to them.

What of the man himself? 

I was *very* impressed.Cumberbatch's Hamlet has moments of pure, 'Sherlock' style intellect, (Hamlet's reaction to the Ghost' command to the soldiers to 'swear' is perfect!) lots of physical work, and much more humour than you normally see in Hamlet.

This Cumberbatch chap is pretty got with the acting. I think he will go far. Who knows, perhaps he will even make it to Hollywood one day!

And the show is worth seeing for the toy fort part alone.

Which brings me on to the set. 

Which is huge. The Barbican stage is BIG, and this set takes full advantage of that. And there is a lot going on. The set is the Palace, huge, and formal (and gradually cracking and  deteriorating over the course of the play, mirroring the destruction of the lives of those on stage, and that part really works. There is a sweeping staircase, and a balcony to one side of the stage, which works well for all the plotting.

I was less enamoured of the set dressing - lots of white garlands for the wedding breakfast, and lots of flowers, bizarrely arranged in brass instruments , for the play-within-a-play, as well  as an entire mini-theatre, and a war room. Again, it may be that the scene changes will get a little slicker over time, but I did find some of them a little distracting. I will admit, however, that full size toy fort in which Hamlet plays, establishing his madness, was a lot of fun! 

Over all, it's a very good production, with a very strong ensemble cast, some interesting cuts and changes in the text, and just a few too many props! I was happy to see that although some well known lines were cut (Polonius, I'm looking at you) and others appeared in unexpected places, Fortinbras made the cut. There were probably even some sledded Polacks in the wings, if one only knew where to look.

Laertes and Hamlet. Not going to end well.
Oh, and Benedict knocked over a case of swords during the curtain call, proving he is human, and then very tidily picked them up off the floor before taking his bow! 

I am very glad that I got to see it, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again at the cinema. And even if you can't see the show lie, do go to the broadcast if you get a chance.  I give it 4.5 / 5 stars. (half off for the flowers-inna-tuba)

Edited to add - the NT Live trailer is now available on youtube

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Barons and Charters and Literary Fun

I don't live far from Wincanton, but for some reason I have never visited, or been to the Discworld Emporium , which lives there.

I almost didn't get there today. I decided to go. Which turned out to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. 

The road,you see, was closed. The diversion signs were .. unhelpful. For which read 'one sign sending you down a  tiny lane with grass growing up the middle, and then No More Signs.

And each time I tried to find Wincanton, I got back to another road block. I would have given up, but I am stubborn, and I had a full tank of petrol and nothing else I needed to do (unless you count housework, of course) so I decided that I would get to Wincanton, even if I had to go round it and sneak up on it from the wrong side.and having made that choice, I did then manage to get there.

The Discworld Emporium is easy enough to find once you get into the town, and it is, as might be expected, full of lovely things and interesting people.  (and yes, of course I bought things. How not?)

After leaving Wincanton, I headed to Salisbury, which, as part of the celebration of the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta, (Salisbury  Cathedral holds one of the 4 remaining original charters) currently has a 'Barons' Charter' trail, with 25 Barons, each decorated by a different artist.
Discworld Knight
With a link to my first port of call, one of the Barons is the Discworld Knight, decorated by Paul Kidby, and featureing a sword covered in Feegles, and a back covered in a wide range of Discworld characters, from Granny Weatherwax, to Susan Sto Helit, the Librarian (Oook), Lord Vetinari and Tiffany Aching. And more Feegles, of course. 

Discworld Knight (Back)
I didn't seek out all 25 Barons, but I did find a fair few - one celebrating the 800th anniversary, and standing just outside the cathedral (the Charter itself is kept in the Chapter House)
Another I liked was the 'Astro Baron' in full NASA gear, and 

'Looking forward Looking Back', which has a trompe l'oeil painting of the interior of the cathedral on it. 

 As well as the Barons, I visited the cathedral, which I have not been to for years. It has a lovely, modern font, in which one can see the reflections of the roof and stained glass windows.                                                                                                                           There is a beautiful, perfectly proportioned chapter house, (in which Salisbury's copy of Magna Carta is displayed in a glass case in a modern and not very beautiful tent, presumably to protect it from excessive light) 

In the cloisters, I had a brief and unexpected encounter with a small bat. It had, it appeared, fallen, and was in danger of getting squished. Several people had tried to pick it up using leaflets, which were of course rather shiny and hard to grip, so it occurred to me that if I emptied out my cotton, Neil Gaiman quoting tote bag, I could use that to give it something to grip, so it could be moved somewhere safer.
Which was what happened.   The bat was moved gently to the hedge bordering the cloisters, where it clambered from the bag onto the hedge, and a little later a verger appeared to keep an eye on it and to ensure that it was not disturbed or injured. I suspect that it was a young one and had perhaps mis-judged a landing, and then had trouble getting off the ground to take off again. And there was no sign of it when I went back through the cloisters half an hour later, after visiting Magna Carta, which I think is a good sign!

After leaving the cathedral, I noticed that one of the houses in the Close was owned by the National Trust, so I decided to visit. It is Mompesson House, and is fairly small for a National Trust property.   It is an 18thC house (just, having been completed in 1701)                                                                                                                                  It is a nice house, and also has a claim to fame as having been used as a location for the 1995 film version of 'Sense and Sensibility' (Emma Thompson et. al.) in which it  appeared as Mrs Jennings' townhouse.  The house has, as well as it's  collection of glassware, and some nice plasterwork, has a number of props and costumes from the file (in the picture, the headless gentleman is in fact Alan Rickman / Colonel Brandon's suit) 

There were some bonnets, too (although they were not, I think, Alan Rickman's).

All in all, it was an interesting day out, and it did not start to rain until I was nearly home.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

A trip to London

The full-on Hamlet post will be coming a little later, this one is about the rest of my London trip.

I arrived around mid-day, and checked into our hotel, near the Barbican, and met with my sister. 

We had plenty of time before the highlight of the trip, so we decided to go and visit the Geffrye Museum, which is based in a former almshouse and is a museum of the home.

Outside there are trees and benches and grass.

Inside, there is a little chapel, and a series of galleries with rooms, furnished as a main living room or parlour would have been furnished, in various different periods, starting in the early 17th Century and continuing up to the 1990s.

There are, unsurprisingly, more rooms for the 20th Century than for earlier periods, but all are interesting. 

After having lunch in the museum's cafe and  going through the galleries, we went out to the back of the museum where there are gardens, which are again arranged to reflect tastes of of different periods, together with a separate walled garden featuring bee-friendly plants, plants for dyes, medicinal plants, and edible herbs/plants. 

And the museum also has a number of (very clean and bright!)beehives (wisely, these are beyond a flowerbed with clear 'no access' signs!)

It is not a large museum, but it is an interesting one to visit, and I am glad we went.

Afterwards, we walked back to our hotel to freshen up and change, then went to the Barbican where we were able to meet up on the 'lakeside terrace' with one of our group, for a quick drink and  lots of chat. 

After this, we headed up to the 'Gin Joint' restaurant. This has (as the name suggests) an extensive list of gins available, and a very impressive cocktail menu which is would have been churlish to ignore.

We each indulged. Of course we did, how could we not?  

Mine was a 'Bermondsey Orchard' which featured rhubarb liqueur, apple and sage and egg white (and gin, obviously). 

Others in our group tried the 'Fort Fiesta' (which included pink gin and grapefruit) and a 'misty French' which involved lemon and champagne (and gin)...

They were all very nice. As was the meal which followed, although  it was a little alarming that all of the staff disappeared when we were trying to pay our bill. Given that this is a restaurant in a theatre, advertising  pre-theatre menu, and not particularly busy, to make it so difficult to pay, at a point 10 minutes before the evening's performance is due to start, is a bit of a failing!

Happily, however, we all made it into the the theatre and into our seats before the doors were closed!

Sadly, two of our original group were not able to join us, both due to family illness. We had one substitution, and returned the other ticket which was duly re-sold. I hope the young woman who bought it enjoyed her evening!