Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Long Days Journey Into Night

Bristol Old Vic is celebrating its 250th Anniversary this year, and as part of their celebrations, they have persuaded a number of their alumni to return to the theatre, among them, Jeremy Irons. 

He returns to play James Tyrone, in Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ together with Lesley Manville     as Mary Tyrone, Hadley Fraser and Billy Howle as their sons James and Edmund, and Jessica Regan as their servant, Kathleen, all directed by Sir Richard Eyre.

I have never previously seen the play, but with that line up, just up the road from home, I could'n’t resist.

The performance I saw was the first preview,  and it showed a little. This is not an easy play, nor one which is enjoyable in the usual sense.  (for those who, like me, are unfamiliar with the play, it involves cheerful themes of family dysfunction, drug addition, alcoholism, social exclusion, fear of  poverty,  and consumption).

The play is, apparently, largely autobiographical, which suggests that O'Neill had a deeply miserable life. However, although the play is not easy, there were some amazing performances.

I think that Lesley Manville deserves greatest praise - as Mary Tyrone, her performance as the deeply emotional, morphine addicted wife and mother, desperate for a home (not merely a house), tragically aware or her own weaknesses, and deeply nostalgic for her indulgent father and the religious certainty of her youth,  is absolutely stunning. 

Fraser and Howle, as James Jnr. and Edmund respectively are also both excellent, Hadley Fraser is wholly convincing as the dissolute, alcoholic elder brother, torn between his love for, and resentment of, his younger brother, and Howle is equally strong as the younger brother, facing up to his diagnosis of consumption.

Jessica Regan has the relatively small role of Cathleen, the Tyrone's maid, and does it very well - which cannot be easy, as so much of the role consists of reacting to others rather than speaking.

Jeremy Irons himself was at times compelling, particularly in his smaller gestures, and rough concern for his son and wife. He did, however, stumble over his lines once or twice, and his accent was a little uncertain, which was slightly distracting at times.

The family all come across as loving one another, but unable to beat their own respective demons, and tied in to damaging and dysfunctional relationships.

It was an excellent production of a very difficult play. Well worth seeing. Particularly for Lesley Manville's performance.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

RSC Hamlet

The RSC's season this spring includes a new production of Hamlet, and I thought it would be interesting to see it. 

The title role is played by Paapa Essiedu,with Hiran Abeysekera as Horatio, Marcus Griffiths as Laertes, Natalie Simpson as Ophelia, and Tanya Moodie and Clarence Smith as Gertrude and Claudius, respectively.

The performance I saw was the very first preview  performance, and we were told, immediately before the play began, that the cast had not had the opportunity to have a full dress rehearsal on the main stage!

Despite one or two small glitches, which will no doubt be sorted as the run continues, it was a good performance and a very good production. I don't think there was a single weak link in the cast.

The production sets the play in a contemporary, (unidentified) African nation, and at the start of play we see his graduation from Wittenberg University - there is a feeling of a clash of culture between Hamlet, with his foreign education and friends, (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, here, presented as young outsiders - gap year travellers, perhaps, tourists unfamiliar with the customs of the country.)  and the court and customs of Denmark. 

And it works really, really, well.

Essiedu's Hamlet is young and passionate, very volatile - his 'madness' a relatively short step from his earlier volatility. The friendship between Hamlet and Horatio appears deep and enduring - Horatio's loyalty to Hamlet, and his despair in the final scenes, as a result, are completely believable.

Cyril Nri's Polonius was far more dignified, and far less a figure of fun, than he usually is, which, coupled with the warmth of the scenes between him and his children, makes Ophelia's descent into madness following his death appear more a reaction to his death, than to Hamlet's repudiation of his love for her.

What else? Ewart James Walters is the most dignified and awe-inspiring Ghost you could imagine, and the final duel between Hamlet and Leartes is fast and thrilling (even though you know how it will end, and the production as a whole brings a freshness to the play which is pretty impressive, considering that the play is 400 years old. 

If you can get to Stratford and see it, I strongly recommend it. If you can't, try to catch it when it is broadcast to cinemas in June.

I believe that Paapa Essiedu and Hiran Abeysekera are both going to be appearing in the BBC's production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' which is showing later this year, as Demetrius and Puck respectively. I was looking  forward to that already, but after seeing this, I'm looking forward to it even more!

Friday, 11 March 2016


On Wednesday evening (2nd March. I'm getting behind with my blogging)  I was back in Bath's Guildhall to see (and hear) the incomparable BRIAN BLESSED. 

He was utterly superb. The festival had, wisely, decided against giving him a mike, and despite a spirited attempt to get him up onto the stage, he chose instead to bound out into the aisle, explaining that he 'hates stages' (which might, one would think, be a slight disadvantage to an actor, but maybe theatre stages are different!)

He roared "GORDON'S ALIVE", which met with great enthusiasm from the audience, before starting to talk to us about himself and (very briefly) his book.

He told us that he has recently completed Cosmonaut training with the Russians, at the age of 79, and that we should ask him about Space. And Yetis.

He then complimented various members of the audience and  spoke briefly about other actors, and the normal sort of actor's biography which is all about which other actors they know. (He then mentioned Kenneth Branagh, saying that they have a father/son relations where Ken is the father,  before deciding to give us a bit of Shakespeare, so declaimed the glorious Chorus's speech from Henry V, which starts "O for a muse of fire..."

It was superb, and  made me regret again that I didn't learn that he was performing King Lear, last year, until after the entire run was sold out. I've never seen him perform live - although his performance as Exeter in the Ken Branagh Henry V is memorable (Even if the sight of Brian Blessed in full armour on a war horse makes the outcome of battle of Agincourt seem more like a foregone conclusion and less like a forlorn hope)

And then... there were anecdotes about the different places and circumstances in which he has been asked to do the 'GORDON'S ALIVE' thing.. I'm sure that normal actors get asked to quote from their most famous performances, probably in the street, or at restaurants. BRIAN BLESSED, it seems, gets asked in slightly different situations. You know, by Masai warriors half way up Kilimanjaro, by the Queen, at Buckingham Palace, by the Prime Minister, in the Cabinet Room, or (my personal favourite) by the captain of the Russian submarine which has unexpectedly surfaced through the ice near the North Pole!

Then he spoke about his background - he was the son of a coal-miner, and left school at 14 after his father was injured. He spoke several times about having not been to grammar school, and having been in a 'C Class' (I assume as opposed to an 'A', top stream), and seemed to have a great sense of astonishment and appreciation that he has come so far, and had such an interesting life.

He talked about having been friendly, as a young man, with Patrick Stewart - they were both involved with amateur theatre before turning professional, and about how they both applied to go to Drama School, but that he did not expect to be able to attend, being just a 'class C' lad, who had left school at 14 and had no scholarships.

He did, of course, get into Bristol Old Vic theatre school, and they provided him with a scholarship, so (after a stint of National Service, in the parachute regiment (74 jumps)) he arrived in Bristol.. where, among other things, he went jogging naked with Peter O'Toole. (no, we didn't get an explanation as to *why* they were jogging naked..

A little later he talked about his time at the National Theatre (not, I think, a fan of the building. He described it as being 'like Colditz'.) And about hiding in a cupboard and jumping out at John Geilgud. As one does.

And about filming the Flash Gordon, and playing Vultan, and being told, gently, by the director that it was not necessary to add one's own *pew* *pew* *pew* sound effects during attack scenes with the Hawkmen. . .

He described how his work on 'Peppa Pig' is just as popular as his more classical work..

An talked with huge enthusiasm about his involvement in the Mars project (He has been training with astronauts and other scientists), his optimism and enthusiasm for space exploration, and for the human race, and his admiration and love for Shakespeare ("The blue planet, our planet, has had it's author. It would be greedy to expect another")

It was such fun. I did have a certain amount of sympathy for the poor festival person who ha the difficult task of interrupting him and persuading him to stop talking (she did a splendid job, the event only over ran by 15 minutes)

And afterwards, he signed books, and posed for photos, and said thank you to us for buying his book.

I'm just disappointed there wasn't time for him to tell us about Yetis, or the time he punched a Polar Bear.

ETA: I just re-read this, and I can't believe I forgot to mention that he finished up the evening by telling us about the time he appeared as Pavarotti on 'Stars in their eyes' and then singing us o sole mio. On top of everything else the man can sing. Glorious!

Monday, 7 March 2016

Shakespeare and Stuff

After Alice Roberts and Neil Jordan, my day of Bath Lit. Fest. on Saturday continued with their 'Shakespeare Gala', which I saw with my friend T.

The brochure wasn't very detailed, so I was not sure what to expect.

The first half of the evening was series of short scenes presented by The Salon Collective , who explained that the scenes were prepared for in the way that actors in Shakespeare's own day would have received them: each actor being given only their own lines, and the 'cue word' -the last word of the preceding speaker's line, so they do not necessarily know what the scene is about or who else is involved.

The scenes they performed were all Shakespearean, mainly linking scenes, so we had Emilia helping Desdemona prepare for bed, rather than a big confrontation between Othello and Desdemona.

It was interesting, although not as much fun as I had hoped.

There was then an extremely long interval, and I think a lot of people left  during the interval,as there seemed to be a lot of empty seats for the second half. Which is a shame, as the second event was a lot of fun!

It was a largely improvised performance, based on suggestions as to style and content from the audience, and performed in extempore Shakespearean verse. Our show was a late comedy, entitled 'The Wives of Bath' and involving  mistaken identity, lechery, treachery, and just a soupcon of history, all interspersed with occasional pauses for the artists to explain the rhyme schemes they were using.

It was very, very clever, and enormous fun.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Celts and others

It's the Bath Festival of Literature again, and so far, the events I've been to have been excellent.

The first was a talk by Dr Alice Roberts, about the Celts.  I had watched the programme which she and Neil Oliver made for the BBC, which was shown last November - its a fascinating subject; so much is known, but also there are so many things which are not known, and cannot be known.
Prof. Alice Roberts

Dr Roberts is an excellent speaker, and her enthusiasm is infectious. She is not, herself an archaeologist; she is an anatomist, and is currently Professor of Public Engagement in Science, at Birmingham University.

She explained the uncertainties about the origins of the Celts (hint: not where you thought) , and the fact that certain things we think we know (such as druids and human sacrifice, and Celtic warriors taking heads) seem to come from just one (Roman) source, with no confirmation..

She talked about some recent discoveries in Germany, and the quality of the work being done there, and waxed enthusiastic about proofs of decapitation.!

It was very interesting, and although I didn't buy a copy of her book then and there,I may yet succumb! (It's a big, glossy, physically heavy hardback)

After this event, my friend T and I indulged in tea and cakes, and a visit to Mr B's Emporium of reading Delights, where I was very restrained about the number of books I bought, then, after a little more shopping, I headed to the Masonic Hall, to hear Neil Jordan interviewed about his most recent novel, The Drowned Detective.  

Neil Jordan
I have to admit that I have not read any of his books, I was aware of him as the director of films such as The Crying Game, Michael Collins, and Interview with the Vampire. However, I enjoyed hearing him talk about the new book, which is a detective story about relationships, and memories, and a touch of the supernatural, set in an unidentified eastern European country.. it sounds intriguing.

He also spoke about the respect writers have in Ireland, about how he 'drifted' into becoming a director, a little about Interview with the Vampire. I'd have loved the chance to sit down with him for a chat - he's the sort of person who it would be interesting to get to know him better. And I have bought one of the earlier books to get started!