The Seven Acts of Mercy – Anders Lustgarten for RSC

This is a new play for RSC and is a play with two strands. The first strand is that of the artist Caravaggio in Naples painting the Seven Acts of Mercy in the Pio Monte della Misericordia.  The second is a family in Bootle struggling to survive.  The link between the two strands is the painting.

I haven’t seen any of Anders Lustgarten’s other plays and the only other play I’ve seen that Erica Whyman has directed was Hecuba this time last year.

The play is definitely political.  Both strands of the play are about the dispossessed surviving on the margins of society. What I thought was interesting was that, although my partner and I are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, at the interval we both came up with the same word to describe the play; sledgehammer! We, and I think most people who will go to see the play, are intelligent human beings.  We don’t need battering with the message to understand it and we will come back to see more if you treat us like adults and allow us to discern the message from the storytelling.  That said, I felt considerably less battered and more engaged with the play in the second half.

In terms of the staging I really liked the way the pictures were projected onto a screen so we could see what the actors were talking about.  I’m not really familiar with Caravaggio’s work so it was a help to see them.  I thought the setting for the individual scenes were effective but the constant scene shifting I thought got in the way; and the constant unrolling and rolling of the Carragher carpet really got on my nerves towards the end of the play.  As a prop it really didn’t add anything to the the play and, as I said earlier, we’re intelligent people and we can create a run down house from a couple of chairs and a book shelf!

Actors-wise I thought Patrick O’Kane was excellent as Caravaggio.  He portrayed a man trying to paint amends for his rage and violence well.  I’d like to see him in something else in a different type of play to see how versatile he is.

Allison McKenzie, as Lavinia, was much better in this than any of the other parts she has played at RSC this season.  She came alive in this part and showed a level of energy I hadn’t seen before.

Tom Georgeson, TJ Jones and Gyuri Sarossy worked really well as the disfunctional Carragher family.  My favourite bits of the play were when they were having those honest, awkward, emotional conversations that families have when one of the central members knows they are dying.  It rang true and I found it moving.  They were also really funny when talking football.  I’m tempted to buy a copy of the play just so I can read and reread Leon’s description of the various political parties as Premiership football teams.  Exactly the laugh you need when you’re feeling glum about the way world politics is heading.

Of the other actors I felt that Edmund Kingsley, James Corrigan and Lena Kaur were underused.  They must have a lot of sitting around to do and, whilst I’m all for wanting good actors to be employed, wouldn’t it have been better for fewer actors to double up and take on a couple of the smaller roles.

Leon Lopez and Patrick Knowles were good, and Patrick Knowles very funny, as the aspirational thugs Prime and Razor but I really didn’t get the point of their rap/dance just after they’d beaten up Mickey. It seemed as though they’d briefly moved into a different play.  Perhaps that’s an age thing on my part.

The thing that really confused me about the play though, and that we discussed at great length on the way home, is what happened to Anthony Renshaw as “Voice of Hench”?

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Operation Mincemeat – Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre writes really readable histories of spying in WWII.  I enjoy reading them but they come along far too infrequently so this one has been sitting on my shelf for a while so I could savour the thought of reading it.

Like Agent ZigZag, Operation Mincemeat could almost be the plot of a 1950s thriller – possibly because some of the 1950s spy thriller writers were involved in it and because it started life as a short story.

Operation Mincemeat was possibly the most audacious plan of WWII.  It’s aim was to deceive the German High Command into believing that the Allied attacks would come not in Sicily, the obvious location, but in Greece and possibly Sardinia.  The plan they came up with was to float a body to wash up on a certain beach in Spain and with it would be a briefcase containing clues to the Allied plans.  That the plan worked was down to meticulous planning, knowing the people who were likely to be involved when the body washed ashore and an enormous amount of good luck.

Macintyre describes what happened from “storyboarding” the idea, to finding a suitable body, preparing the backstory for “Major Martin”, setting the corpse loose in the water and what happened after the body washed up on the beach near Huelva.

I had heard the story before but not in such detail.  And nor did I know much about the people involved in planning the Operation so it was good to find out more about them.

I particularly liked finding out about the person whose corpse became “Major Martin”, Glyndwr Michael.  I found his story really sad; he had a dreadful start in life in a poverty stricken family in Wales, he had a history of depression and it is not known whether he committed suicide or died from eating bread laced with rat poison because he was starving.  What a terrible way to live and die.  Part of me would like to think that what Michael achieved in the guise of Major Martin gave his life meaning but it’s still a sad, pitiful way to live and die.  His story haunts me and reminds me that however stretched and challenged NHS and Social Services are now at least they exist so fewer people fall through the gaps in society without any support or care.

The book reminded me that all sorts of people contributed to the war effort in order to free Europe from the repressive Nazi regime and that if Operation Mincemeat hadn’t succeeded my grandfather wouldn’t have got past Sicily before he was killed and my partner wouldn’t have been born as his father probably wouldn’t have got past Sicily either.  The past is sometimes closer than you think.

I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in WWII, an interest in spying and as a good place to start reading history books as a chance from fiction.

I’m now going back to contemplating Double Cross as it sits in my pile of books waiting to be read.  Although I wouldn’t want to hurry into reading it just yet!

American Scoundrel; the life of the notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles – Thomas Keneally

Would I have bought this book, or even looked at it, if I hadn’t been mooching around the Gettysburg Battlefield bookshop waiting for my partner to finish talking to an author whose book he was buying?  Probably not.  But I was and so I did.

I was initially attracted by the blurb on the front cover and then noticed it was by Thomas Keneally whose book Schindler’s Ark I found fascinating (and very different from Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, loosely based on the book).

The American Civil War isn’t a period of history that particularly appeals to me but I enjoyed finding out more about the not-very-United States at this time.  One thing that stood out for me is how very recent it is.  Had I been born in the US my grandparents would have known people who fought in the Civil War!  I find this quite hard to grasp, possibly because as a citizen of the UK Civil War is something that happened centuries ago.

Thomas Keneally paints a good background picture of New York and its politics; the corruption, the divisions and the opportunities for men of ambition.  Dan Sickles fits well into this picture as an intensely ambitious man on the make.  In him I can see a reflection of the career politicians of our own era; people who nominally have a profession but whose only interest and real job is politics, but that a soapbox for a different forum!

The first, and largest part of the book is about Sickles building his political career to the point of becoming a Democrat Senator representing New Year and about his personal life, married to the young Theresa yet maintaining a string of mistresses.  The story builds up to the point at which Dan murders Philip Barton Keys for having an affair with Theresa.  The second part of the book deals with the murder trial and Dan’s acquittal.

The third part of the book is about the Civil War and Sickles transformation from Southern supporting Democrat to Unionist prepared to work with the Republicans for the cause.  It also covers his transformation from politician to General.

The final part of the book covers the period from the end of the War to Sickles death in XXX.  This is probably the least interesting part of the book as his influence wanes.

This was an interesting book from the point of view of learning more about the US at a time when it was deciding what sort of a country it wanted to be and when the sticking plaster came off the cracks.

It was also interesting to learn about a man who was clearly very charismatic but today relatively unknown.  And yet…

I find it difficult to admire a man who achieved so much and yet was corrupt, hypocritical and who literally got away with murder.

It seems grossly unfair, although not surprising, that Dan was a serial philanderer being quite open with some of his mistresses and yet it is seen as understandable when he throws a wobbler on finding out that his wife has fallen in love with someone else.  If you neglect your wife it shouldn’t be surprising when she falls for someone who shows her interest and affection!  Typical double standards of the period.

It also seems incredible to me that despite the number of witnesses and the clear evidence of intent Dan Sickles was acquitted of the murder of Philip Barton Keys.  He deprived a man of his life and yet he walked away scot free!  And then treated his wife as though she was the scourge of society by isolating her in a house on the edge of New York.  I know I’m bringing my 20th/21st century sensibilities to this 19th century event but the inequality of justice makes me head for my feminist soapbox.  Anyway, rant over.

The Civil War part of the book was least interesting to me, as I said earlier, it isn’t really my thing.  That said, I admire Sickles for managing to reinvent himself as a General, having had no previous military experience, and, given that his men admired him, his charisma and energy clearly had an important role to play.  Mostly, during this section of the book, I enjoyed the novel experience of knowing more about a part of the American Civil War than my partner.

In the after-War years the most admirable thing about Sickles is his refusal to allow his disability to curtail his activities back on the political scene.  Having lost a leg at Gettysburg he could be an excellent role model for modern day wounded veterans.

Overall, I found this book very detailed and quite hard to read.  It isn’t bedtime reading as you need to be alert to keep up with what is happening.  It added to my knowledge of 19th century politics in USA, which informs my understanding of the USA today.

Would I recommend it?  Possibly, but only to someone with patience and an interest in American politics.

Mary Poppins – Alhambra Theatre Bradford

I thought I’d do an extra review this week as yesterday evening I had a very different theatre experience from my usual ones; I went with my Aunt, my cousin, my cousin’s elder daughter and her daughter.  Four generations all looking forward to seeing the same production and already singing the songs before we got to Bradford.

My theatre going experiences don’t usually involve a child of 9, and this one is particularly squirmy and full of questions, so it’s a testament to the production that she was relative still and quiet for much of the time. No credit for this goes to the Alhambra whose booster seats seem designed to be so uncomfortable as to encourage children to squirm and wriggle.

So, to the productions itself.  I think it is a good halfway house between the saccharine Disney film and the darkness of the books (which gave me nightmares as a child!).  It portrays a world which modern children will comprehend.  The jolly songs from the film are there; Jolly Holiday, which is wonderfully colourful, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Spoonful of Sugar, Chim Chim Cher-ee and Step in Time.  There are new songs too, which for the most part I found a bit gloomy although I did like the Miss Trunchbull-esque Brimstone and Treacle.

Zizi Strallen, following in the footsteps of her sisters and aunt, was a good Mary Poppins and made me forget about Julie Andrews in the role.

None of the rest of the cast particularly stood out, which, for me, was good because it meant no one was getting in the way of the storytelling.  If I was going to gripe it would be about Bert’s accent.  Not as dreadful as Dick van Dyke but Matt Lee’s natural Australian kept popping out.  Either be an Aussie or be a Cockney just be consistent.

My favourite bit of the “new” parts was the scene in the park where the statues come alive and start dancing.  It was beautiful to watch and remember thinking that it was wonderfully balletic.  So it came as no surprise when, on reading my programme in the interval, I found that the wonderful Sir Matthew Bourne is the choreographer for the production.  If you haven’t seen any of his productions and/or you want to introduce your children to ballet take them to see one of his – I’d recommend Nutcracker.

Anyway, back to Mary Poppins!  The set was excellent.  It moved seamlessly to change the setting from street to house to park to rooftop.  Nothing intruded or got in the way of the actors and it all contributed to the storytelling.

My cousin thought this was the best production she’d ever seen.  I wouldn’t go that far – I’m singing snippets of tunes from a number of different musicals this morning not just Mary Poppins – but along with the rest of my party I had a thoroughly good time.

The Two Noble Kinsmen – William Shakespeare and John Fletcher – RSC, Swan Theatre

This play couldn’t be more different from The Rover, which is the last time I saw most of this cast.

The Two Noble Kinsmen is Shakespeare and Fletcher’s take on The Knight’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  I studied The Knight’s Tale, briefly, for A-level English Lit so I knew the story even though I have never seen the play before.  It is supposed to be a tale of chivalry; essentially, as I see it, this is play about how men (mostly anyway) see violence as a way of solving problems, how ego gets in the way and how it spirals.

The death of 3 kings is revenged by war, so there is more fighting, more death.  Two boys squabble over a woman – one who doesn’t even know they exist – and decide that fighting to the death is the only way to decide who she belongs to!  Perhaps some of the so called World Leaders should be made to watch this play so they can see how ludicrous their posturing and warmongering is!

I thought Jamie Wilkes and James Corrigan were very believable as the cousins Arcite and Palamon.  Their arguments and rivalry over Emilia were exactly what you would expect from teenagers in the playground!  I could almost hear the eldest honorary nephews when they were teenagers in the dialogue.

It was an amazing transformation to see Danusia Samal morph from the sophisticated, beautiful singer of The Rover to the lovelorn, bewildered and smitten Jailer’s Daughter of this play.

Again, as with The Rover, there seemed to be quite a few cast members who were there as decoration rather than playing a meaningful part in moving the story forward.

The staging was very different from The Rover.  Gone was the central staircase and instead we had a series of grills round the edge of the stage, which could be raised or lowered to create different environments.  From where I was sitting, at the front of the stage, this was very effective but I suspect I might have felt differently had I been sitting at the side with people hanging off the grills above my head or kicking it violently about a foot from my face (the lady this happened to didn’t return after the interval! And I haven’t yet been to an RSC production this season where everyone has returned after the break).

I didn’t hate this play but I can’t say I loved it either.  I think this is more to do with my belief that violence solves nothing than Blanche McIntyre’s direction.  As a RSC directorial debut I thought it was an interesting take.  I would like to another, more familiar play directed by her to be able to make a more informed decision, unfortunately Titus Andronicus, which she directs next season won’t be it; “and everyone dies” plots aren’t really my thing!

Harry Potter & The Cursed Child – JK Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

I didn’t plan to read this book.  I loved the original 7 Harry Potter books – children’s school stories form one of my many collections, although they are mostly vintage stories – and I’m not really fussed about finding out what happened next.  However, when your nearest and dearest buys you a book for your birthday it would be rude not to read it.

I started it expect to find it hard going and not terribly interesting.  I don’t mind reading plays but it’s always easier to read them if you know the story and are reading to delve deeper into the language or to understand nuances you didn’t quite catch when seeing it on stage.  Actually, I found it very easy to read and would have completed it in one sitting if I’d had the time.

I enjoyed finding out what the alternative ending to the original Harry Potter story might have been had certain things gone a different way.  I’m not sure how the authors came to their conclusions about some of the characters though.  At least one of them seems inexplicable to me (it’s difficult to be more explicit without spoiling the story for anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the play but who is planning to).

I think Albus, as the central character in the play, is believable.  I can imagine that life is hard for the child of famous parents, trying to find their way in world and make their own mark.  It’s also credible that a child trying to find their own way would make friends with someone the rest of their family might disapprove of.

I did struggle with the idea of Voldemort having a child and that child remaining unknown for 19 years.  And if the child did manage to remain unknown how, when the Death Eaters have been defeated, did she learn about her parents and about the Dark Arts?  It just doesn’t add up.

Nor does it add up that the Potters and Granger-Weasleys would suddenly become friends with one of their arch-enemies from the original series.

I think these last two points highlight the main problem of this book for me.  It is a script and so you don’t get to find out what the characters are thinking, what their back story is or what their motivations are.  One of the joys of the original books was the gradual unfolding of the story and the build-up of the characters so you understood why they were who they were.  Of necessity a play can’t give you this same depth.

Did I enjoy reading it?  Yes, with reservations, but unlike the books in the original series I don’t think it will be a book I return time after time.