Macbeth – directed by Polly Findlay for RSC

Macbeth, my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays and the one where I feel I haven’t seen a truly memorable production yet.

I have been looking forward to seeing this production even though the reviews in the papers haven’t been all that great; I like Polly Findlay as a director, I think Christopher Eccleston is an interesting actor and I’ve only ever seen Niamh Cusack in a read-through production before.

On the whole the stage set worked well.  It was adaptable and not too faffy.  I found the clock counting down the minutes of Macbeth’s reign a bit distracting but I really liked the Porter resetting it at the end.  I found the overhead, behind-the-perspex bit of the set way too distracting.  A couple of times I noticed that I’d missed bits because I was trying to work out who was up there and what was happening.  I feel this bit needs to be more static.

One thing I wasn’t looking forward to, having read a coupe of reviews, was the fact that Findlay has done quite a lot of playing around with the text.  As someone who knows the text reasonably well I though it might be distracting when familiar lines didn’t follow on from each other.  It wasn’t and I stopped noticing very quickly as I was drawn into the action.

Christopher Eccleston made a good Macbeth.  He was credible as soldier, insecure King and madman.  The only bit that didn’t work for me was the invisible dagger scene where I didn’t feel Macbeth was shocked to see this dagger floating in midair.

Despite the reviews, I thought Niamh Cusack was a good Lady Macbeth; an ambitious woman who wants the status promised by the weird sisters and is prepared to take the necessary steps to achieve her ends.  I thought Cusack did a good job of showing what happens to people who are too shallow to consider the consequences of their ambition and who end up falling to pieces.

That said, I didn’t think Eccleston and Cusack were particularly believable as a couple, let alone a couple who love are supposed to love each other.

It was an interesting idea to use children to play the Weird Sisters/Witches.  They looked innocent and harmless and yet, with the way they played with their dolls, they were creepy; almost like the children in horror stories who turn out to be psychopathic mass murderers!  Again, one slight distraction in that towards the end of the play, one of the girls was losing her slipper sock and I was distracted by the thought she might slip and hurt herself.  It sounds silly but costumes really shouldn’t be a distraction to the audience.

Michael Hodgson did a great job as a creepy Porter/Satan.  He was on stage all the way through the play, keeping tally of the murders and marking the countdown to Macbeth’s fall.  He didn’t appear very drunk when he delivered the knocking at the door scene and the humour was played down.  I thought this worked well for this production but I feel that if you’re playing down the humour you may as well cut the effects of alcohol section; I don’t think most people in the audience noticed it.

The end of the play and the crowning of Malcolm worked really well and I loved the way Fleance was woven into it.

The evening ended very abruptly however, with only one curtain call.  The play was very well received by the audience and I don’t think it is unreasonable for the actors to make more than one appearance to make their bow, particularly as the play finished before 10pm.  It felt a little mean and discourteous of the cast to not allow the audience to show their appreciation of the play.

Overall, I still don’t think I’ve found my definitive Macbeth but I do think I have found a measuring stick for other productions to live up to.

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The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich – RSC

My first trip to the theatre in what seems like forever and the first production I’ve seen of the RSC Spring/Summer season.

The play is a comedy from around 1700 and was originally called The Beau Defeated and is about women making their own choices and wielding their own power. The play is written by Mary Rix, an almost forgotten contemporary of Aphra Benn.  In fact she is so forgotten that I can’t find any more information about her on-line so am relying on the programme notes.

Mrs Rich is wealthy but wants to improve her social standing.  Lady Landsworth has social standing but wants love.  Sir John Roverhead, Mrs Trickwell and Lady La Basset have social standing but want money.  Sir John, Mrs Trickwell and Lady La Basset think they are using Mrs Rich.  Mrs Rich knows she is being used and is allowing it to go on for her own ends.  The play ends with Mrs Rich having married a title and Lady Landsworth having found her love.

I loved the costumes designs for the play.  They immediately tell you what you need to know about the character without anyone having to spell it out.  The set design also did a great job of setting the scene too – simply and without too much faffing.

Sophie Stanton was a wonderful Mrs Rich; a restoration version of Hyacinth Bucket.  She showed her character as being both shrewd and human.

Leo Wringer and Amanda Hadingue were also well cast as the funny country bumpkins Elder Carimont and Toni, a hard act to pull off as they were almost always overshadowed by the gorgeous Lossie and Theia, Elder Carimont’s dogs!

I can’t think of anything I particularly disliked or didn’t enjoy about the play, which I think says quite a lot about it; on the whole is washed over me rather than really engaging me.  It has a good point to make about ambition being a good thing for women to have and it made that point, it just doesn’t really have anything in it that lingers in the imagination and nags to be brought out and chewed over.

If you like a colourful, fun and enjoyable night out at the theatre go to see it.  If you like something to make you think this probably isn’t for you.

But well done to the RSC for rescuing more playwrites from oblivion.  We need more Companies to do this.

Click here to find out what’s on at RSC

 

The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

This is one of those books that has been sitting on my shelves waiting to be read for years.  It’s been there so long I don’t even remember when or why I bought it.

For some reason it caught my attention when I was looking for a book to read on the train so I decided now was the time to read it.

It is about the aristocratic Salina family who live near Palermo in Sicily and is set during the Risorgimento or Italian unification.

The central character is Prince Fabrizio Salina, a middle-aged, modern-minded scientist who sees the need for change yet is too indolent and hide-bound by his family history to be part of that change.  His nephew, more like him than his own children, is in the thick of the changes and is an up and coming man.

The book shows, through Salina’s eyes, the transition of Sicily from Bourbon principality to inclusion in this new thing called “Italy”.  It tracks the transition from aristocratic rule to professional government and the rise of the middle-class. Yet Salina continues in his belief that the more everything changes the more everything stays the same.

The book wraps up with the Princes’ death from a stroke and a post-script relating what happens to the children as they grow old.

I found the book quite hard to read.  I like the fact that I now know more about the Risorgimento and the upheavals it caused in long-established states.  It was interesting to understand how the hereditary ruling class was being gradually displaced by the growing middle-class and professional class. But it was the reading equivalent of going for a walk in the midday sun in Palermo, slow and languorous!  It might have been better if I’d read it in the evening.  It certainly didn’t lend itself to waking me up on my commute. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either.

Click here to find out more about Risorgimento

Three weeks eight seconds; the epic Tour de France of 1989 – Nige Tassell

A Stage by Stage, accident by incident telling of the battle for the yellow jersey between Pedro Delgado, who was supposed to win it, Laurent Fignon, who thought he’d won it, and Greg Le Mond, who started out as a no-hoper and who did win it.  This is the story of a remarkable race.

This is about more than just these three cyclists though as there were a number of exciting break aways and Stage finishes on the 1989 Tour.

The book begins with the shooting accident in 1987 that almost caused the end of LeMond’s cycling career.  He was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law, seriously injured and, in early 1989, was struggling to find fitness and form going into the Tour de France.  He found form during the Tour and he and Fignon were both battling to gain and keep the yellow jersey.

Delgado was in top form and defending his Tour win from the previous year but there was controversy about a failed drugs test and he got his time mixed up for the Prologue time trial and turned up late.  He spent the rest of the Tour trying to catch up to the front-runners.

Fignon, a Frenchman, was not universally popular in France and he and his team didn’t help themselves by not adopting new technology, such as tribars for time trials, teardrop shaped helmets and how disc wheels are used.

The battle for first lasted all the way to the Champs Elysees and Greg LeMond won by 8 seconds.

I really enjoyed knowing what happened on the 1989 Tour.  It is unlikely that in today’s world of team radios and solid team tactics such an exciting race will happen again.  It’s also a story of a simpler time when cycling teams weren’t as media savvy as they are today.

What the book does lack, however, is the humanity of the race.  The facts are presented, the breakaways and spills related but it just doesn’t ever quite come alive.  At the end of the book I have no more sense of the three main protagonists as people than I did at the start of it.  And none of them are cited in the acknowledgements, which makes me think they weren’t involved in the book and which might explain its 2-dimensional nature.

I am pleased I read it. I know more about the 1989 Tour than I did. I won’t be looking out for any more books by this author.

Whisper of the Moon Moth – Lindsay Jayne Ashford

The latest of my 99p Amazon Daily Deals I actually started reading this some time ago and got sidetracked, which I think says something about the beginning of this book.  The book’s start is pleasant but doesn’t really grab you, making it easy to put to one side if something more interesting turns up.  This is a shame as the middle part of the book was interesting.

I should probably let you know at this stage that the book is a fictionalised biography of the life of the film star Merle Oberon from her time as a young woman in Calcutta to the point she marries the director Alexander Korda.

Before reading this I didn’t know much about who Merle Oberon was.  I vaguely remembered that she was in the film of Wuthering Heights, which I loathe because it is given a happy ending.

What I have learned from this book is that whilst she was alive Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson made sure her background was entirely fictional to hide the fact she was Anglo-Indian, which would have made her persona non grata in Hollywood.

The book takes what facts have been discovered about her and turns them into a reasonably plausible story of her life in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book gives a good flavour of the lives of Anglo-Indian people trying to be accepted as more English than Indian to improve their lot in life.  This is interesting from a sociology perspective but the least interesting part of Estelle’s story.  And I think that because I read this section in dribs and drabs I kept forgetting who Estelle was going to become.

The parts about the young girl and her mother working out how to survive in cold, dreary London are really interesting.  This is where the story starts to come more alive as Estelle moves into the film industry and moves up the ladder, changing her name and history to facilitate it.

The book doesn’t sidestep the numerous people Merle had affaires with although it does edit some of them out and cleans them up into “love affaires” rather than rungs on the career ladder, which I suspect they were.

The most annoying parts of the book are where it casts certain people as villains of the story when there is no evidence they were, for example the part where Vivian Leigh blackmails Merle into not taking a screen test for the part of Scarlett O’Hara.  This doesn’t seem very fair to me.  It’s ok to cast villains when they are wholly fictional but not when they were once living, breathing people and there is no evidence of it.

The true end of the book occurs around the death of Oberon’s mother when she learns that her mother was actually her grandmother and her sister, long estranged from their mother, was her birth mother…and her father was still her father!  This must have been a shocking revelation, assuming Estelle grew up without knowing the truth.

The actual end of the book is a summary of what happened after this revelation and Oberon’s marriage to Alexander Korda.  This is simply a list of facts and spoiled the book for me.  I would have much preferred a suggested further reading list or a link to an online biography.

Overall, this was an interesting book but I think I would have preferred a genuine biography to this fictionalised one.

The Kindness of Strangers; The Autobiography – Kate Adie

I probably wouldn’t have bought this book but a friend left it when he’d finished reading it whilst staying with us and I happened to pick it up and start reading it without thinking much about it.  I’m so pleased I did.

I am familiar with who Kate Adie is.  She was the war journalist du jour when I was in my early 20s and famous for always wearing her pearl earrings no matter how dire the situation she found herself in.  I hadn’t given much thought to who she is and how she ended up as a war journalist.  If I had I think I would have expected her to have begun her career as a journalist on a local paper, graduated to a national and then moved into television.

The truth is more interesting and, I think, not a path open to people nowadays.

The book starts by giving an overview of growing up in Sunderland in the 1950s/60s, in a reasonably affluent household.  It really gets into its stride when Adie finishes her degree and joins the embryonic Radio Durham as a producer.  The whole experience sounds utterly chaotic, totally exhausting and a whole lot of fun.

The transition from Radio Durham to Radio Bristol to television and from producer to reporter appears to have been a matter of pure chance and of being in the right place at the right time when someone needed someone to do something and there wasn’t the time of budget to find a person with experience.  There is a strong sense of “everyone is in this together” and “we’ll find a way to make it work” ethos when Adie is talking about the BBC in the early parts of the book.

Adie herself comes across as likable and fun.  There were several laugh out loud moments in book – a bit disconcerting for fellow train passengers! – which was unexpected.  Having mainly seen Adie report from war zones I have always had the impression that she is a very serious woman.  Looks like I was much mistaken.

My main criticism of the book though is that I really don’t feel I know much about Kate Adie as a person; the “what makes her tick”, what does she enjoy doing when she isn’t reporting, who are her family.  I think this is fairly typical of an autobiography where an individual is more likely to draw boundaries between what they are happy for people to know and what remains private.  I understand the desire to do this but it does lead to an incomplete picture of the person.

However, if you want to know more about life at the Beeb when local radio was new and there were fewer rules and regulations this is an interesting place to start.

Double Cross; the true story of the D-Day Spies – Ben Macintyre

I couldn’t resist reading more about the D-Day spies after having read Operation Garbo and Ben Mackintyre seemed a good place to start; I always find his books readable and this one was no different.

I read it on the train on the way to college and found myself slightly resenting my colleague when he wanted to talk on the way home and I couldn’t read a bit more of my book without appearing really rude!

The most powerful statement in this book is somewhere near the beginning when it states that by 1943 Tar Robertson, Head of the Double Cross section of MI5 knew – not just thought or guessed but knew – that every spy the Abwehr thought they had in Britain was actually working for him.  Think about that for a moment.  I find it utterly astonishing, especially considering the Russian spies who were undetected in the higher echelons on the Secret Services!

As well as including Juan Pujol Garcia – Agent Garbo – this book tells the stories of Dusko Popov, a Serbian playboy, Roman Czerniawski, a passionately patriotic Pole, Lily Sergeyev, a bored French woman, Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, a Peruvian playgirl and Johnny Jebsen, an anti-Nazi German Abwehr officer.

The individual stories have a slightly incredible feel to them, almost a feeling of “this has to be true because you just couldn’t make it up” and yet together this group of remarkable people helped to save the lives of many of the soldiers who were part of the D-Day landings.  Their misdirections kept units of the German Army tied up away from Normandy.

The stories that stand out for me are those of Lily Sergeyev and Johnny Jebsen.

Sergeyev’s because I feel she wasn’t treated particularly well.  It is remarked upon throughout the book that double agents are a tricky bunch of people to deal with.  You have to keep them happy/occupied/interested in what they are doing to make sure they don’t become triple agents.  It doesn’t seem beyond the capability of the secret services to have turned a blind eye to Sergeyev bringing her dog into the UK.  Especially when it seems to have been the only thing she really cared for.  MI5 were lucky that Sergeyev cared more about the work she was doing than in engaging in payback.  They were fortunate that Lily was content to know she could screw things up if she wanted to.

Jebsen’s is a more difficult story.  He was a close friend of Dusko Popov and each tacitly admitted to the other they were spies without spelling it out.  Jebsen was seen as a risk by the Double Cross team, in part because he was a Abwehr officer and in part because of his lifestyle.  He knew he was at risk of being abducted by the Gestapo, because of some financial mis-doings, and of being whisked back to Germany from Lisbon.  Unfortunately, he trusted his boss in Lisbon and didn’t have time to alert the British and escape.  The Double Cross team knew Jebsen’s health wasn’t good and expected him to break easily under torture.  This happened close to D-Day and everyone in the Double Cross team was concerned that Operation Fortitude would be blown out of the water.  As well as anxiously trying to find out what had happened to Jebsen they were searching the transcripts from Bletchley to find out if their misinformation was still being believed. Against all the odds Jebsen held out and reports came in, after the war, that he was sent to Mauthausen and then Sachsenhausen.  He disappeared from there and Ian Wilson, his MI5 handler, spent until his death in 1978 trying to find out what happened to him.  A remarkable man.

This is another great and readable book about spying in WWII from Ben Mackintyre.  I would definitely recommend it if you want to know more about Operation Fortitude and the people who created it.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

I kept looking at this book for ages before I decided to buy it.  And then it sat on my pile of books to read before I decided to read it.  I wonder what it is about somethings that interest and intrigue us but not enough to compel us to immediate action?

Anyway, its time came last weekend on a flight home from Cork.  This was a perfect book for one of those times when you want to be distracted from yourself but without having to invest too many brain cells in the process of assimilating what is being read.

The basic premise of the story is that in 1922 Count Alexander Illich Rostov is sentenced to internal exile in newly Bolshevik Russia.  His place of exile is the Hotel Metropol in Moscow.  Count Alexander is safe as long as he doesn’t set foot outside the hotel doors.

The story is about Rostov’s life from 1922 to 1954.  It tells of his friendships with the hotel staff.  It portrays the growing confidence of the Bolshevik regime seen through their activities in the hotel.  It relates how old and young learn from each other when it tells the story of Rostov’s friendship with lonely child Nina and then his guardianship of her daughter Sofia.  Mostly the book tells us that it doesn’t matter how wide or narrow your physical horizons it is the openness of your mind to the possibilities life has to offer that counts.

If you discount the total improbability of someone being sentenced to imprisonment in a luxury hotel when they are accused of being an unrepentant aristocrat this is a gentle, enjoyable story of how a person’s life unfolds.

I found it frustrating not knowing what happened to Nina.  Although, having read a fair bit of the history of the Bolshevik revolutions I can guess what is likely to have happened.

I suspect this might end up being one of those comfort reads that I go back to when I’m feeling unwell or out of sorts with the modern world.

The German War: a nation under arms, 1939 – 1945 – Nicholas Stargardt

The blurb on the back of this book describes it as being a history of the ordinary people of Germany using the letters and diaries during the war years.

I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a while but saving it as a bit of a treat.  More about ordinary people and less of an historians perspective on what was happening.

It didn’t work out quite like that.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting book and it does seek to understand the extent to which ordinary German citizens were bought into the Nazi ethos and what alternative beliefs were current.  It just has more of an historian’s perspective and few quoted letters and diaries than I was expecting.

The book is in 5 parts; Defend the Attack, Masters of Europe, The Shadow of 1812, Stalemate, The War Comes Home and Total Defeat.

The first shock, to me, was that to the average German citizen the British were seen as the aggressors of war who wanted to encircle and weaken Germany.  Oddly, I’ve never come across this before.  I understand that nations always find another nation to blame when they choose to start a war but I was genuinely shocked that Britain was being held accountable. Probably gross naivety on my part!

The second shock was that Viktor Klemperer comes out of the book with his image slightly tarnished.  I’ve never actually read his diaries although I know of them so hadn’t realised he actually led a very sheltered life during the war and never ended up in a KL. I recognise that it seems unfair to blame him for that stroke of luck, which allowed him to survive.  And I feel uncomfortable with my reaction.  But…

However, what mostly comes out of reading this book is that whilst things were going well most people were happy to go along with things.  When things started going badly people couldn’t see an alternative to continuing going along with things.  The Nazi propaganda machine didn’t convince all the people all of the time but it did a ruthlessly effective job at doing it for a lot of the people a lot of the time.  A useful reminder of how important it is to gather your news from multiple sources.

It wasn’t quite the book I was expecting but it was a different perspective and I’m pleased that I have read it.

Eleanor the secret Queen; the woman who put Richard III on the throne – John Ashdown-Hill

A biography of Eleanor Talbot, the woman whose alleged marriage to Edward IV meant his children by Elizabeth Woodville were illegitimate and allowed Richard III to depose his nephews.

This book tells what little is known, or can be inferred about Eleanor Talbot.

Talbot was the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury by his second wife.  Her first husband was Sir Thomas Butler, son of Lord Sudebury.  her second husband may, or may not have been the man who became Edward IV.

As is often the case with medieval woman, Eleanor is a shadowy figure and doesn’t come across as particularly interesting so it’s hard to imagine what Edward might have seen in her other than a challenge.  Her younger sister comes across as much better company!

What was interesting was understanding more about how solemnly medieval England viewed pre-contract marriages and understanding more of life in Plantagenet Britain.

Ultimately though I found the book frustrating.  I want to understand, as far as I can, just how it came about that Richard III came to his throne.  I want to understand the Court’s response to the allegations of  Edward and Eleanor’s pre-contract.  This book just doesn’t do it.  It takes too many leaps of faith and presents them as fact to cast any real illumination onto the subject.