Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe at RSC

I had no idea what to expect from this play.  I’d vaguely heard of Dido, mainly through a book by Joan Aiken I read as a child.  I knew that Carthage was in what is now Tunisia but had no idea that the Carthaginians are the same people referred to as Phoenicians. Or that Hannibal, who invaded Italy with his elephants, was a descendant of Dido’s brother.

Essentially the plot is that the goddess Venus is complaining that Jupiter is neglecting their son Aeneas who has been caught in a storm on the way from Troy to Italy.  Jupiter allows Aeneas to land on the shore of Carthage where he meets Dido, the queen.  Dido and Aeneas fall in love and Dido tries to prevent him leaving to complete his mission to Italy.  Hermes informs Aeneas that he must leave and fulfil his destiny in Italy and when he leaves Dido burns everything that reminds her of him and kills herself.

Sandy Grierson, who plays Aeneas, seems to be the go-to lead for Christopher Marlowe plays at the RSC at the moment.  He was an excellent Doctor Faustus last year and plays an interesting Aeneas this year.  He is credible as a General and as a man full of self-doubt.  He was also believable as a man in love with a beautiful Queen who can’t quite belive his luck.  A long way from the ethereal Ariel he played back in 2012.

I thought Chipo Chung was an elegant, poised and beautiful Dido.  I thought in the early part of the play she was excellent as a wise and thoughtful ruler.  The problem was that her strength of character in the early part of the play made it difficult to believe she would just crumble when Aeneas left.  This is probably my modern sensibilities but I think she would probably have made plans to follow him rather than rend and tear everything that reminded her of him! Or she might have stabbed him so he couldn’t leave rather than kill herself because he’d gone.

Overall, I enjoyed the play.  I enjoyed the intimacy you get at The Swan where you’re never too far from the action. And I’d certainly go see another production to have something to compare this one to.

Osud – Janacek – Opera North

I haven’t been to the theatre for ages and then I ended up going on consecutive nights; once to see this “Little Great” at Opera North and then down to Stratford, which I will report on next week.

I don’t know very much about Janacek and I knew nothing about this short opera but a friend asked if I was interested in going so I did.

The opera is in 3 acts and engaged my attention for the whole 1 hour 25 minutes it lasted; it is part of Opera North’s “Little Greats” season, with 2 short operas each evening.

The plot can be summarised as; the composer Zivny falls in love with Mila, Mila’s mother disapproves and separates them but Mila has a baby. Mila and Zivny meet again and marry, they are poor and looking after their son and Mila’s mother who has gone mad.  the mad mother falls and drags Mila over the balcony with her to their deaths. Zivny greaves and can’t finish the opera he has written.  He dies, as students are rehearsing for the premier of his opera, saying the last act is “in God’s hands”.

I thought the staging was very clever, using minimal scenery to create the schoolroom, a cafe, a poor lodging house and back to the schoolroom.  The small changes created the right feel for the drama at each stage and, along with the music, move the story from serious to lighthearted and back again.

The costumes also worked well.  They created a sense of a different era and country without being too specific or getting in the way of the story.

I don’t have enough experience of opera to proffer an expert opinion but I did think the principles sang their parts well and for the most part acted well.  My one disappointment was the relationship between Zivny and Mila.  I felt that the love was all one way – Mila to Zivny – and that Zivny cared more about his music.  I didn’t feel a strong connection between the two of them.  One of my friends agreed although my more opera experienced friend felt we were wrong and that Zivny was a “tortured soul”.  For me there was just something lacking in the way the Director had created the interaction between the two.  There was no sense of a passionate, unbreakable bond in the relationship.

I also think singing in English disrupted the flow of the music a bit.  There were screens set up to show what was being sung so I think keeping the opera in its original language and maintaining the rhythms of that language with its music would have been preferable.  We could have read the translation on the screens.

Overall though I enjoyed exploring some new music and I wish I’d gone earlier in the season as I might have ventured to one or two more of the “Little Greats”.

Click here to find out more about Janacek

Click here to listen to a bit of Osud



Fast Women; the drivers who changed the face of motor racing – John Bullock

I started reading about women racing drivers years ago when I was bought a book called The Woman and the Car by Dorothy Levitt, originally published in 1909 and designed to help women maintain their cars.  I was fascinated by the fact that in the early part of 20th century a woman had been a successful works team driver for the Napier team.  Dorothy Levitt has been one of my role models since reading her book.  The picture at the top of this article is of her.

Then, last year, a friend bought a pre-war MG and asked me to research it and the history of the previous owners, trying to find a racing pedigree for the car.  We haven’t quite managed to do that yet but my research has led me to find out about other women racing drivers of the early 20th century, many of whom are in this book.

The book is an odd mish-mash of fact and chatty reminiscences.  It doesn’t cover the lives of all, or even most, of the women drivers I have come across.  It doesn’t give all the drivers equal space. And, I think, the author has his favourites amongst the drivers; possibly those he knew.  In a lot of ways this reflects my experience of trying to find out about the women who raced MGs; they have disappeared into the mists of time, written out of history by the disappearance of the marques they drove for and the increasing, post-WWII of sexism in motor sport.

Anyway, soap-box moment over!

The book is an interesting read.  It starts with Camille du Gast, the French adrenaline-junkie who was the first woman to complete a parachute jump (in 1895) as well as racing cars and boats.

Much to my delight there is a chapter on Dorothy Levitt, giving me more information about her away from the race track.  I didn’t know she got into racing because she was a temporary secretary at Napier when Selwyn Edge was looking for a British woman to rival Camille du Gast!

I was also pleased to find part of a chapter covering the life of Margaret Allan; she was a member of the all-women MG Le Mans team of 1935.  She also worked at Bletchley Park during WWII, which provides a nice link to something else I’m interested in.

Another gripe about the book is that although it is supposed to a book about women racing drivers there are far too many diversions into what their menfolk were doing in the racing world.  If I was being charitable I would say these parts were to fill gaps where there is little or no information about the women.  I could also say that it is indicative of the chauvinist world of motor racing!

To summarise, you will probably have guessed that I like this book because it gives me more information about a subject I am really interested in.  I dislike it because it shows how little the racing world cares about a group of drivers who were remarkable for their achievements regardless of their gender.  As a work of literature it is poor, yet it kept me interested and engaged throughout.

Click here for an interesting article on early motoring from Sunday Times

The Lady Penelope – Sally Varlow

A biography of Lady Penelope Devereux, sister to the Earl of Essex, who was Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite.

Sally Valow claims she wants to reclaim Lady Penelope from the vilification started by Robert Cecil during the reign of James I.  The book covers what is known of her life, or what can be inferred, from various letters, other people’s diaries, Court records and legal records.

Lady Penelope was born into a privileged circle.  She had royal connections and her parents were favourites of Queen Elizabeth – at least whilst her father was alive.  After the death of Lord Hereford her mother married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and incurred the wrath of the Queen!  Despite this both Penelope and her brother, Robert Earl of Essex, were popular at Court.

Penelope was married to Lord Rich, a wealthy landowner with Puritanical tendencies, for dynastic reasons but later fell in love with Lord Mountjoy who she had a long and happy relationship with.  During the reign of James I she and Lord Rich were divorced, almost unheard of at the time, on the understanding neither would marry again.  Penelope broke this agreement by marrying Lord Mountjoy and thus offended King James, bringing to an end her glittering Court career.

In a lot of respects Penelope was a very modern woman.  She was intelligent, educated and a political “mover and shaker”.  At the time of the Essex plot against Queen Elizabeth she was believed to have been one of the instigators and plotters.

I didn’t find the book particularly gripping or easy to read.  Somehow Lady Penelope never quite came off the page, which is disappointing for someone who must have been a vibrant character in her lifetime.

I did however enjoy understanding more about Elizabeth’s Court and the key players in it during the Queen’s later years.

Click here to find out more about the Essex Rebellion

Click here to read Sir Philip Sidney’s poems about Penelope


Casino Royale – Ian Fleming

Casino Royale is the first Bond novel I ever read.  I think must have been about 15 when I read it and I remember being shocked by how dark and sadistic it was in parts.  It was certainly much darker than the Connery, Lazenby and Moore films I grew up watching with my father.  So, when Amazon offered it as a 99p Kindle deal I thought I would reread it.

It’s always interesting to go back to the source material when you’ve seen a film version of something; what has been altered, left out and added in can tell you a lot about the gap between publication and reaching the big screen.  I’m quite fond of the recent cinema version of Casino Royale, which might possibly have something to do with Daniel Craig, and I think it’s a good addition to the canon of Bond movies.

I found the book to be an uncomfortable read.  It isn’t just the dark sadism of the beating and torture Bond receives at the hands of Le Chiffre (something glossed over lightly in the film) but the dark and deep-rooted sexist, anti-woman language that peppers the book.  As an example Bond is described as feeling that making love to the cold Vesper Lynd would be like raping her anew every time and that he was excited at the thought.  What a repellent and abhorrent concept.  I know the book was written in a different era with different social norms but I’m loathe to believe this was acceptable and accepted even in the 1950s!

I really regret rereading this book and I will find it hard to displace the images and feelings it created when I next watch the film.

On the plus side, it has saved me a fortune as I was seriously contemplating buying the original hardback Bond novels as my next collection!