Snow in Midsummer – directed by Justin Audibert for RSC

This play is based on a classic Chinese drama written by Guan Hanqing in 13th century.  The source play is about injustice and I’m still pondering what the messages in this reworking were saying to me.  I’m still considering Dou E’s fate, the injustice of what happened to Rocket in revenge for Dou E, drought and the impact of what we do to our planet.  If that sounds mixed up it’s because I found this a multilayered thought-provoking play and I haven’t yet resolved my thoughts.

To back-track slightly, the play is set in modern-day China in a factory town called New Harmony.  As the play opens the factories are about to be sold to a business woman from out-of-town, the seller is about to leave town, with his partner, for a new life and the townspeople are suffering from the effects of a drought that has lasted 3 years.

Then we find that the drought may be caused by the curse of a woman, Dou E, who was wrongly executed for murdering the father of the factory owner.  As she is executed she vows that her blood will not fall but fly up and stain the banner above her, there will be a drought for 3 years and that snow will fall in midsummer and bury her body.

The play then unfolds Dou E’s story and resolves the curse.

I enjoyed seeing the play.  I have no previous experience of Chinese theatre other than traditional Chinese opera (not to my taste!) so wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’d read enough to know it was based on a 13th century play but hadn’t realised it wasn’t going to be a direct translation so the opening took me by surprise a bit.

I enjoyed the shades created by the staging; the bright neon lights of the town, the dingy lighting of the workers cafe and changing light around Dou E.  There was also a great sense of movement around the actors on stage; movement through time as well as space and beliefs/attitudes.  I think this sense of movement reflects China as I saw it when I visited and what I see on TV and in the papers.

I understood the desire of the ghost Dou E for the real murderer to be revealed but I felt it was unfair that poor Rocket bore the initial brunt of that seeking justice.  Rocket had no part in what happened and was appalled when he found out so it seems unjust to me that he had to die.  Even though I also understand he had to die to lay Dou E to rest and to punish the guilty.  I know this sounds contradictory and confusing but that’s what I meant about still pondering the play; it created these contradictory feelings and, I guess, real life creates contradictions too which seems to me why so many people are moving from mainstream political parties towards people who appear to be promising to take them back to a simpler, safer past.

Overall, I thought the acting was good.  I worked out one of the plot twists in advance but not the other.  And I enjoyed the evening.  I’m not sure I’m enjoying the ghosts now living with me until I untangle my thoughts about them a bit more!

Click here to find out more about the RSC production

Click here to find out a (little) bit more about Guan Hanqing

HHhH – Laurent Binet

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, never quite shouting “read me” loud enough to be taken down from it so I decided just to pick it up and get on with it.  I’m really pleased I did.

The book is in three parts; the story of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination by Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, a biography of Heydrich and the story of the author struggling to write the book.

Firstly, the title; it is the acronym for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich, a phrase current in Nazi Germany, which translates as Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.  I have never heard this before and it fascinates me.

I knew a little about the assassination from reading other books about Nazi Germany and WW2 but not the detail and not the problems Gabcik and Kubis had.  It felt like shades of Gavrilo Princip and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; almost a disaster, then a farce but somehow succeeding in its aim.  What I didn’t know about was just how dreadful Nazi reprisals were against the Czech people.

Heydrich’s biography was also interesting.  I didn’t know much about him and his background.  Another example of a seemingly ordinary man, determined to make something of himself and disregarding any moral compass he might have had to achieve that success.  Do people who want power at any cost find it easy to do that or is it more a case of never having had a moral compass in the first place?  And are we back at nature versus nurture again?

I would have like to have known what happened to Lena Heydrich and her children after his death and after the war ended.

I found the section about writing the book really interesting.  There is a certain amount of evidence available in various archives attesting to what happened but none of the people are around to explain why things happened as they did or what it felt like.  This must make it difficult to write an account that captures a sense of being there whilst not putting words into people’s mouths or ascribing them motives that we do not know they had.  How do you fill in the blanks that the records don’t cover?

Overall, whether you are interested in this period of history or not, I would recommend it as an interesting book to read.

The Hypocrite – Richard Bean – Hull Truck

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this new play for ages.  I like going to Hull Truck but for some reason we don’t go very often; probably because I get to book RSC tickets much earlier in advance.

Anyway, this production is a collaboration between Hull Truck and RSC and is part of the Hull UK City of Culture programme.  And we decided that since it was a play about Hull we would see it in Hull.

There has been quite a lot of local news coverage about the play – interviews with the writer, director and cast members as well as footage of rehearsals – which left me intrigued but not buzzing.

Essentially, the play is the story of Sir John Hotham, the man who closed the gates of Hull to Charles I at the start of the English Civil War.  The action takes us from Sir John trying to work out where is loyalties lie in the dispute between King and Parliament to his beheading for treason in London. The play is a good balance of comedy and serious message.

I had forgotten what a good actor Mark Addy is until I saw him in this.  I thought his comic timing was excellent and I think the audience got a good sense of Sir John as a vain man trying to ensure he and his family came out of the Civil War with their prestige intact but who ends up in an unwinnable situation.

The banter and bickering between Sir John and Lady Hotham was the viciously funny slanging match of 2 people who are stuck in a marriage that has long-lost any mutual respect.  Caroline Quentin was a good foil for Mark Addy but I did think she was under utilised in the play.

It was great to see Martin Barrass back on stage after his nasty accident last year.  Having only ever seen him on stage as Berwick Kaler’s sidekick in York Theatre Royal Pantomime it was a bit shocking to see him in a real play but it soon stopped being a distraction as I was drawn into the unfolding story.   I rather suspect this part may come back to haunt him in the next York Theatre Royal pantomime! And I’m looking forward to it.

Danielle Bird, who played Drudge the servant, was an excellent tragi-commedic character.  I loved the clowning even though it sometimes distracted from the storytelling going on elsewhere on stage.

The least convincing bit of the play, for me, was the ghost child.  The special effects were great but it wouldn’t have an impact on the play if the character was cut.  I’m not sure what the point was.

Overall, I enjoyed my evening and am now trying, so far unsuccessfully, to get tickets to see it when it transfers to The swan in Stratford – I really want to see what non-Hull audiences make of the play.  I’ll report back if/when I do.

Click here to go to Hull Truck

Click here to see what else is on in Hull City of Culture

The Snow Maiden – Rimsky-Korsakov – Opera North

It’s a long time since I’ve been to the opera; it isn’t something my partner particularly enjoys and since he uncomplainingly comes to most theatre productions with me I think he’s allowed put his foot down somewhere.

I’ve seen some good reviews of Opera North’s The Snow Maiden in both the national and local press so when a friend said she was thinking of going I asked if I could join her.  It’s a slightly nervy thing going to the theatre with someone for the first time.  You don’t know what their rituals and expectations are; you don’t know whether they will want to discuss the staging of the production or whether they will think it pretentious; will they be offended if I want to read my programme cover to cover? etc.etc.  In the event I needn’t have worried; there were enough opinions and discussions amongst the 5 of us to keep everyone amused and space between to read programmes.

According to the programme notes this is the first full, professional production of this opera for 60 years.  So, the story is, in brief, Spring has a fling with Winter and a daughter is born to them – the titular Snow Maiden – the Sun-God is offended by this so Winter and Spring keep her hidden in 16 years of perpetual winter.  Snow Maiden goes to live with the local villagers, is adopted by a couple and works alongside the local women. A local girl, Kupava, is about to marry a rich merchant, Mizgir, but as soon as Mizgir sees Snow Maiden he falls in love and spurns Kupava.  Kupava demands justice from the Tsar.  The Tsar sees the Snow Maiden and understands Mizgir’s problem so resolves the Snow Maiden needs to learn to love.  At mid-summer eve the Tsar proclaims they will celebrate love. Spring teaches Snow Maiden how to love, she declares her love to Mizgir and as her frozen heart melts with love so she too melts.

The production was an interesting one.  I enjoyed the music – I like Rimsky-Korsakov – and it is a typical Russian fairy story.  The singing was, as far as my experience allows me to judge, excellent and the singers looked right for their parts.

The set was interesting and I can’t decide whether it worked for me or not.

Part of it involved projecting snow flakes or flowers onto not just the backdrop but a mesh screen at the front of the stage.  I liked the way that it created the feeling of perpetual winter, then approaching spring and finally warm summer.  But I do think that at times I got absorbed in the pictures being drawn, let the music and singing wash over me and forgot to follow the plot.

The more tangible parts of the set and the costumes I found more confusing.  The story is clearly set in pre-revolutionary Russia.  One of the characters is clearly call the Tsar yet the stage set was obviously a post-revolution sewing factory. And it was a noisy job moving the sewing machines off-stage for the next scene.  The action happening in front of the curtain was disrupted by the noise at a couple of points.  Some of the stage movements of the cast were post-revolutionary – particularly the dancing at the beginning when they are calling for the death of winter – and they are dressed in appropriately communist red – but their style of dress is traditional Russian peasant: except Snow Maiden, who is dressed as though she has just come off the till at Morrisons!, and her parents who are in very traditional Old Believer Russian outfits.

It was also annoying that although the Opera is called The Snow Maiden she was referred to and called Snow Princess all the way through.  Make your mind up Opera North.

I appreciate that this has been a bit of a ranty post but I’d like to emphasised that I did enjoy my foray to the opera; certainly enough to make me look forward to a trip to La Boheme with my Aunt and Cousin.

I would recommend going to see this production but Friday was the last night until Opera North go on tour.

Look here for Opera North

Look here for Russian Folk Tales

The Pike; Gabriele d’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of Lucy Hughes-Hallett

I first came across Gabriele d’Annunzio as a young teenager when an Italian friend took me to visit his sumptuous villa near Lake Garda.  At the time I was amazed that someone would have their wife living in a cottage in the garden and their mistress living in luxury in a villa designed with sybaritic indulgence in mind.

I came away from the villa with a naïve view of a WW1 hero condemned to internal exile and discarded by Mussolini.  How wrong can you be!

I have read other bits and pieces about d’Annunzio, mostly in biographies of other notable Italians of 20th century, so I wasn’t expecting to find a glamorous, romantic hero in this book but nor was I expecting to find quite the selfish weasel I did discover.

This isn’t a biography in the conventional sense; it doesn’t start with his birth and work in chronological order through his life.  It is a book of snippets and anecdotes that allows the read to build up a picture of the different facets of the man.  It covers his careers as poet, author of books and plays, war hero, would be dictator and lover.

And the picture I built up was one of an interesting polymath tarnished by bloodthirstiness and sex-addiction.  Which makes me question whether he was simply a man of his times – he lived in a period of international unrest and the rise of communism and fascism – or whether the need for destruction was innate part of his character.

The book is good at putting d’Annunzio’s life into the context of the world around him but not in ascribing nurture/nature influences to the person he became.

I am pleased I read this book and have a better understanding of the person behind the various myths but it’s always quite sad when another teenage romanticised myth is toppled isn’t it?

 

Have a look at d’Annunzio’s villa on Lake Garda

Former People; the last days of the Russian aristocracy – Douglas Smith

Have you ever wondered what happened to the Russian aristocrats who didn’t manage to escape the Russian revolution in 1971?  Being interested in 20th century revolutions I have often wondered what happens to the previous elite who don’t manage to flee whatever upheaval they are in the middle of.  This book endeavours to give you an idea by following the stories of members of the Sheremetev and Golitsyn families.

It follows their stories from the start of the 1917 revolutions up to the death of the last member who would remember living as privileged members of society and then living  through the revolution.

As you would expect a lot of the family members ended up disappearing into the gulags or being shot, although not necessarily in the early days of the revolution.  It surprised me how many of them managed to live on the fringes of the new society for quite a long time before coming to the notice of the Soviet regime.

One of the main challenges of this book is the Russian tradition of naming children after other family members.  This makes it really confusing trying to work out which Vladimir or Sergei the author is referring to when he is explaining a part of their life.  It also doesn’t help that the different stories are interwoven.  I usually like my history books to have a narrative thread, keeping the different strands of events on a timeline but in this case it might have been more straightforward to organise the book into a biographical chapter on each person.

It was interesting to have a different perspective on the Russian revolution and, whilst I can completely understand why the revolution happened, it is good to be reminded that not all the aristocracy were isolated and unaware of the appalling conditions the rest of the populace suffered.

This isn’t a book you can, or want, to read in large chunks; you have to be able to concentrate on what you are reading.  I struggled to read it at times but I felt strangely bereft having finished it.

I wouldn’t recommend it to a casual reader but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about what happened.

Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen

I approached this book with some interest.  My partner had just finished reading it and was very impressed.  For me this isn’t always a good recommendation as we tend to have quite different tastes in music and books.  However, I enjoy a lot of Springsteen’s music and will agree that he puts on a cracking gig.

It made complete sense when Springsteen says, towards the end of the book, that he started writing it in bits and bobs whilst he was out on tour.  It definitely reads like a series of short stories with a linked theme at the beginning of the book and becomes more of a story towards the end.

It was interesting finding out more about the man behind the music and I was fascinated to learn that he has never had a “proper job”.  I think from the image and the stories behind the songs I’d always assumed he’d had a string of dead-end jobs until he made it in music, like a lot of musicians and actors.

The most powerful thing to shine out of the book is Springsteen’s love for his wife, Patti Scialfa.  I vaguely remember their relationship being seen as quite scandalous when he left his first wife for her but their enduring love suggests it was the right thing to have done.

I enjoyed the parts of the book that explain the creative process Springsteen goes through to put an album together.  I guess each artist/band has their own way but the way it is described in the book made sense to me; the need to find that elusive something that brings everything together and creates a central energy.

One of the frustrations of the book is that I felt it skimmed over the personalities of the people in Springsteen’s life.  I can understand an author feeling the need to protect his friends and relatives but it does leave everything feeling a little superficial.  I think that is why I generally prefer biographies to autobiographies; a writer of biographies doesn’t need to be quite so protective!

I also felt that despite the publicity the book has received for Springsteen’s honesty about suffering from depression he also skirted over what it really felt like – except when describing his last experience of it.  I feel that it might help people who also suffer to have a clearer picture and understand that someone as famous and talented as Bruce Springsteen has experienced the black dog in the way an “ordinary person” might.

My other gripe about the book is that I think, as an autobiography, it lacks perspective.  As an adult Springsteen portrays himself as a controlling, hard to live and work with, not very nice person.  And yet the evidence would suggest he is actually a good friend; most of his seem to be very long-standing and quarrels, even longstanding ones, are made up.  Confusing!

Overall, I’m pleased I read the book –  it’s always good to understand more about the music you’ve lived with for a very long time – but I’ll be even more interested to read a biography, when one comes out.

The Other Tudor Princess; Margaret Douglas, Henry VIII’s niece – Mary McGrigor

An interesting character from a turbulent period in Scotland’s history, Margaret Douglas was daughter to one Queen of Scotland and grandmother to the King who would unite the crowns of Scotland and England.

Margaret was the daughter of warring parents and her life appears to have been a constant wheel of rags to riches to rags etc.  She was close to the thrones of both England and Scotland, close friend of Mary I and regarded with suspicion by both Scotland and England.

She was one of Henry VIII pawns in the marriage mart but ultimately had a long and happy marriage to Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox.

She died in poverty, in London and is now buried in Westminster Abbey; brought there by her grandson James VII or Scotland and I of England.

I found the book interesting.  I know a bit about the history of the period from other reading so it was good to add a different perspective to what I already knew. I particularly enjoyed learning more about Mary Tudor/Queen Mary I, who was a close friend of Margaret. I think it helped me see past the image of “the woman who wanted to restore Catholicism”.

And it is always interesting to read about people who have had eventful lives.

What was really annoying about the book was the terrible proof reading!  There were so many errors – spelling mistakes, incorrect names etc – that I started questioning whether the author really knew her subject.  I know, and understand, that mistakes slip in but when they become noticeable enough to intrude on the narrative someone isn’t doing their job properly!

Would I recommend this book?  Yes, if you’re interested in getting a different perspective on the Tudor court and know a little about the situation in Scotland and between Scotland and England at the time.  I think it would be confusing if you didn’t have some background knowledge.  And if you can lock your inner proof reader away for the duration!

Find out more about the Lennox Jewel

The Tempest – Greg Doran for RSC

Perhaps it’s that I’m mentally tired, having just started a new job, perhaps it’s because I enjoyed the York pantomime so much earlier in the week or perhaps it was just the weight of expectation but I didn’t particularly engage with this production.

I loved the stage set with the skeleton of a ship enclosing the stage.  It created a dramatic impact and immediately shipwrecked you on a mysterious island.  And it kept the set simple so attention was focused on the actors.

The problem with the focus being entirely on the actors is that they then have to shine in their roles and I’m not sure they did.  I think, for me, what was lacking was a belief in the relationships between the characters; I didn’t feel either Prospero or Alonso had any sort of paternal bond with their child, that Prospero felt anything more than mild fondness for Ariel or that Miranda and Ferdinand were at all interested in each other.

I thought Ariel was suitably ethereal and liked some of the technology used to make him more so – particularly showing him imprisoned in the tree and as a harpy – but found it a bit distracting when he was visible moving at the side of the stage and could see the time delay from movement to screen.

I really liked the bright colours that flooded the stage when Iris, Juno and Ceres are performing their betrothal masque for Miranda and Ferdinand.  Even though it was probably old-tech creating the effects it still felt a bit magical.

I really wanted to love this production.  It has a great director, fabulous actors and an impressive set.  But, for some reason I can’t quite pinpoint, it didn’t really float my boat!

 

Cinderella – York Theatre Royal

I have been going to the York Theatre Royal pantomime with the same group of friends since 2009, which makes us mere babbies and bairns compared to most of the audience and pretty well all of the cast.

The Theatre Royal panto is one of the few in a provincial theatre that gets reviewed by the national press and is usually described as a must see.

Berwick Kaler, writer, co-director and nonpareil Dame, tends to describe it as “our annual rubbish” but for me York’s panto is the best tonic to combat the mid-January blues.

This year was loosely based on Cinderella although generally it’s the same panto, with the same cast just different character names, different costumes and some topical issues introduced.  It is always funny.

This was my first visit to Theatre Royal since its refurbishment and the new, banked stalls seats are great.  We had a much better view of the stage without having to look around people and, unless you are a small child, it doesn’t matter if someone tall sits in front of you because you can now see over their head.  The team who designed  and delivered the refurb should be congratulated.

I’m not going to single out any of the cast members.  I think they all did a cracking job and at one point I got the giggles at the sheer number of cast members who also had the giggles.  The costumes were colourful and those for Baroness Von Naff, Priscilla and Hernia in”Got to Get a Gimmick” were inspired.

I liked having 2 films in the show this year too.  It keeps us, as an experienced audience, on our toes when the film arrives in a different place and doesn’t feature the person you expect to see.  Congratulations to Suzi Quatro for agreeing to send herself up and, as always, to Harry Gration, who must sometimes think “why do I let myself get talked into doing this?”  The second film also allowed Martin Barras, the Dame’s regular sidekick, to appear in the panto even though he couldn’t be on stage.  Martin, I hope your recovery continues apace and we hope you’ll be back next year.

In summary, I think everyone should treat themselves to a panto trip in mid-January and if you’re lucky enough to live close enough to visit the one in York booking your tickets should be a no-brainer!  I’ll be there, in April, queuing for my 2018 tickets!