Eleanor of Castile – Sara Cockerill

Before I read this book I didn’t know who Eleanor of Castile was or which of the medieval English kings she was married to.

Turns out she was married to Edward I and had a busy and eventful life.  Although not much of Eleanor’s life is recorded Sara Cockerill has inferred a good history from what is recorded and what is recorded about her family and dependents.

I certainly didn’t expect to learn about the Spanish Reconquista from book about an English queen, although I guess the clue is in the title!  Her father, Ferdinand III of Castile, was instrumental in reconquering Spain from the Moors.

I also learned that this Eleanor was great-great-granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of my heroines of the Middle Ages.  And this Eleanor had some of the intellect, business acumen and stamina of her grandmother.  She was also very well-educated for the era; both her father and half-brother, Alfonso, were patrons of the arts and encouraged literacy in their courts.

During the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to the future Edward I she appears to have struggled with her mother-in-law who wanted to retain her influence over her son Edward.  However, the young couple were soon sent to Gascony to manage the royal duchy and then went on crusade to Acre.

The overall picture that is create of Eleanor through this biography is of a busy, business-like Queen and a close Royal couple.  Eleanor was a successful businesswoman in her own right, accumulating property and managing it whilst travelling around supporting her husband.  Yet her business dealings didn’t always make her popular.  She was also well-loved by her husband and mourned by him even when he later remarried; imagine how his second wife must have felt attending mourning services for her predecessor with her new husband!

I really enjoyed finding out more about the Middle Ages.  This book fills in some of my gaps between Eleanor of Aquitaine and the start of the Wars of the Roses.

It’s also fascinating to speculate on how England might have been different if we’d had King Alphonso I instead of Edward II.

Which, sort of, leads on the one of the downsides of this book and that is that a lot of it is about what we can infer from the records there are.  On some things it can be very clear; there is plenty of evidence that Eleanor accumulated a lot of property in England and some evidence that she was actively involved in managing it herself.  But it is quite hard to pin down the person behind the facts so Eleanor isn’t really knowable as a person.

I would, however, still recommend this book as an insight into the Queen whose heart is buried in Lincoln and who was sincerely mourned by the King who erected crosses wherever her body rested on its journey from Lincoln to London.

Vice Versa – Plautus via Phil Porter for RSC

A new play by Phil Porter based on the Roman comedies by Plautus with the snappy subtitle of “The decline & fall of General Braggadocio at the hands of his canny servant Dexter & Terence the monkey”!

Knowing the plot wouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of this farce and is, more or less; General Braggadocio has taken Voluptua as his prisoner and made her his concubine.  She is really in love with Valentin, who has left Greece and is staying with the General’s neighbour to find a way to rescue her.  Valentin’s servant, Dexter, has also been kidnapped and enslaved by Braggadocio.  Dexter plans to rescue herself, Voluptua and Valentin by getting Voluptua to pretend to have a twin sister who is madly in love with the General.  After various twists and turns the three escape and Braggadocio is left broke and thwarted.

I always enjoy productions in the Swan when the cast start interacting with the audience before the play starts.  This one started with a con-merchant “selling” gold from inside his coat, a politician handing out leaflets and a sketch artist drawing members of the audience.  It was somehow inevitable that Michael would end up being one of the people being sketched and he is now the proud (?) possessor of a picture of Michelangelo’s David with his head on it, signed by Pysipos!

The play started with a colourful, musical pageant onto stage and set the scene well for what followed.

Felix Hayes was a wonderfully over the top Braggadocio, Sophia Nomvete an excellent Dexter and Geoffrey Lumb a remarkably dim Valentin.

The staging was reasonably simple without any of the props intruding on the action, which is unusual for a farce, and set the scene well.

The most disconcerting part of the play was Kim Hartman as Climax.  She has aged very well and it’s really hard to not still see her as Helga in ‘Allo ‘Allo.  It must be frustrating for her but she is so recognisable…and I wish I’d aged as well as her!

All in all I would say that this play is fun, frivolous and funny.  And fairly forgettable.  I would see it again.  And it would make me laugh all over again.  But it isn’t a play to make you think or ponder.

Click here for link to RSC “about the play”

Click here to find out more about Plautus


Waterloo – Bernard Cornwell

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this book.  I love Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series but haven’t enjoyed the other series I’ve tried.  And this is a non-fiction book.

I loved it!  It is one of the most readable books about the battle of Waterloo I have read.  Because it reads like a story book it holds your interest and, even though I already knew the history of the battle, I wanted to know more, I wanted to understand the whys and wherefores.

The book starts with Napoleon’s escape from Elba, covers Wellington’s life after the end of the Peninsular War, details the run up to the battle and then the three days of the fighting.  I really liked the fact it covers the viewpoints of the different nations involved; French, English, Dutch and Prussian.  This made me feel I was getting a balanced picture of the battle rather than the usual single perspective you get in a history book.

I also liked the fact Cornwell considers the different theories as to who won the battle and opened up readers to the idea that it wasn’t necessarily Wellington who won.  I think it’s useful to consider different perspectives than the ones we are fed as children in traditional history books.

I think it is impossible to make a battle of this type easy to understand and follow.  It is, inevitably, a confusing mass of concurrent activities.  That said, I think this book helped me to gain a better understanding.  Perhaps this is because it isn’t the first book I’ve read on the subject.  I think it is also down to the author’s writing style.

After I’d finished reading it I loaned the book to my partner.  It’s unusual for us to like the same book but, knowing he is interested in European history I thought he might enjoy it.  After some initial cynicism – “if you enjoyed it I won’t” type of comment – he read it in 1 weekend and finished it with the comment “that was a really good read!”

In short, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, military or otherwise, and anyone who is interested in what happened at Waterloo but prefers a ripping yarn to a dusty tome.

Click here for Bernard Cornwell’s website

The Prussian Princesses; the sisters of Kaiser Wilhelm II – John van der Kiste

This is a biography of the 3 younger sisters of Kaiser Wilhelm II – Victoria, Sophie and Margaret – and their lives both growing up and after World War I.

The three girls were brought up by their mother, Kaiserin Frederick, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and they were brought up to think of themselves as “almost English”.  The stories of their childhood centre around their many visits to UK.

Their lives changed considerably as they reached adulthood.

Princess Victoria had problems finding someone suitable to marry, had an unhappy first marriage and her second husband turned out to be a Russian con-merchant.

Her younger sister, Sophie, married Prince Constantine of Greece.  Her married life was marked by the constant flux in the fortunes of her father-in-law and, later, her husband as they were deposed and reinstated to the Greek Crown.  She spent a long time of exile in Italy but died in her native Germany.

The youngest sister, Margaret, remained in Germany, married to the Prince of Hesse-Cassell.  She lost 2 sons in WW1 and became a Nazi in WW2.

It was interesting finding out more about the Prussian Royal family who were so closely related to our own.  However, in this book there is no real sense of these 3 women as people simply Princesses as pawns on the European political chessboard.  I think this is a shame as it’s always interesting to find out about the people behind the titles rather than add to knowledge of their dynastic significance.  That said, I didn’t really know that Kaiser Bill had siblings before reading this book so I have learned something from reading it.

I’m pleased I read this book.  It has increased my understanding of European politics in the early part of 20th century.  But I am disappointed that I didn’t get to know the 3 women as people.

The Family of Richard III – Michael Hicks

What a confusing book!  This is a book about the various families who surrounded Richard of Fotheringhay/Duke of Gloucester/Richard III throughout his life.  It tells of how anyone who was anyone in Medieval England was interrelated, often several times over, through birth and marriage.  And, as with any history of this period, there are far too many people who are important to the story who share the same name and/or title.  Keeping track of which Duke of York or Edward the author is referring is nigh on impossible.

That said I do now have a better understanding of Richard’s life and what is meant by family and family life in the middle ages.

The book is organised into chapters on aspects of the upper echelons of medieval society rather than chronologically and I found this helpful to put Richard into the wider context of his world.  Particularly useful were chapters on what was meant by family in 15th century, the House of York, the 3 brothers (Edward IV, Duke of Clarence and Richard III), the evolution of the Royal family and Richard’s heirs.

I’m still not sure I’m completely sure who is who in the War of the Roses saga but I’m pleased I read this book and I expect I might go back to it when I next read a book about that period.

Anger is an Energy – John Lydon

This is an autobiography of John Lydon, also known to many as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols.

I will admit to being hugely influenced by punk whilst not really being old enough to be a proper punk.  I will also admit to enjoying the music of the Sex Pistols; I love the raw energy of the music and Anarchy is one of the tracks on my running playlist.

John Lydon must be one of the most interesting characters in the music business.  He always has something to say and, whilst I often don’t agree with what he says, I admire him for his conviction.

I was expecting this book to reflect the anger and energy Lydon often shows in public.  What I got was something that didn’t quite achieve those heights.

What surprised me most of all was how ordinary and conventional a lot of Lydon’s life has been and is.  Given the Pistol’s image it is almost shocking to find their frontman a happily married man!  And up to the age of 7 he had an ordinary, if poor, upbringing.

I found the part about Lydon’s fight with spinal meningitis eye opening.  It isn’t something I know much about and I can’t image how horrific it must be to experience such an illness.  And illness seems such a mild term for such a vicious thing.  I think understanding that essentially John Lydon, as we see him now, only began life aged 7 after his memory was wiped by meningitis.  I can almost imagine how terrifying it must be trying to cling on to what you are now learning to make sure you don’t lose it all again.  I can imagine how that would propel you into wanting to learn and learn and learn; to fill the blanks and to create new memories.  I think it puts Lydon into context and makes some of the incomprehensible visible.

I think this book is an odd mix of the really interesting and the really dull.  It took me ages to read it because there were parts that just didn’t really interest me; the extraneous detail you tend to get in autobiographies that would be covered in less detail in a biography.  Other parts of the book wiz along, giving a good Johnny Rotten/John Lydon-centric view of life in the Sex Pistols and PiL.

Overall, I’m pleased I read this book.  I enjoyed finding out more about John Lydon the person behind the Johnny Rotten and John Lydon-frontman personas.  Would I recommend it?  Yes, as long you have patience to get through some dull bits and someone to sound off at when Lydon goes off on one of his rants!

Evita – Grand Opera House York

It’s ages since I last saw Evita and I probably wouldn’t have gone this time if my aunt and cousin hadn’t said they would like to go.

As a musical it’s always an enjoyable experience; I come out of the theatre humming the songs and usually end up with a medley of them as an earworm for weeks.  As someone who is interested in people and in history I wonder why Lloyd-Webber and Rice chose to create a musical around a manipulative woman, a dictator and a revolutionary; should we really be glamourising them?

I don’t think the stage set for the musical has changed much since I first saw it back in the late 1970s/early 80s although technology has enabled the set to be less static.  I like the setting.  The simplicity of it allows the actors to tell the story and means the story moves on at a decent pace with little waiting for scenery to move.

I thought Kevin Stephen-Jones was well cast as Juan Peron.  He was credible as a middle-aged General attracted by the young “actress” half his age; and as someone just good enough to have risen through the ranks but who needed the drive of his young wife to push him up the next rung of the ladder.

Gian Marco Schiaretti, as Che, had a beautiful voice and a well honed body but his acting skills were not up to the job.  At various points he was standing one stage looking like the brainless narcissists you see in a gym admiring their reflections in the mirror.  I suspect he thought he was looking strong and manly but it just looked wooden.

Emma Hatton sang a very good Evita and acted the relationship with Peron well; it was believable that it was a mutually beneficial business relationship rather than a love match.  Where I think she fell down was in acting Eva’s ambition.  I didn’t feel there was any drive behind Eva’s determination to escape the humiliation of her illegitimacy in her home town or the ruthless drive to succeed at any cost when she arrived in Buenos Aires.

The rest of the cast were competent without anyone standing out.

Am I pleased I went?  Yes.  Do I still have an Evita soundtrack earworm still stuck well and truly in my head?  Yes.  Would I rush back to see it again?  No.  But if someone asked me to go with them again I’d happily agree, knowing I would have an enjoyable evening.

Click for details of AGT touring production of Evita

Click here to find out more about Eva Duarte Peron

La Boheme – Puccini at Grand Opera House, York

It’s odd how life works out sometimes isn’t it?  I haven’t been to see an opera for years and then see two within a couple of months!

This one was more familiar to me than the last one; I knew quite a bit of the music even though I’d forgotten chunks of the story.

I wouldn’t say the Company was the best opera company I have ever seen but both they and the orchestra were competent enough for it to be a pleasant evening.  I know that sounds as though I’m damning them with faint praise, I did enjoy myself, but mostly because I enjoyed letting the music swirl around and cocoon me rather than because I was engaged with what was happening on  stage.

The women played their parts well and, more to the point, looked like the young women they were portraying.  The most distracting part was Mimi working up to a crescendo looking, through her body movement, as though she was about to break out into the Zorba the Greek dance.

The men were a different kettle of fish.  The singing was good but they looked like prosperous middle-aged men rather than starving young artists living in a garret.

The costumes were a bit of a mish-mash too.  The men’s costumes were straightforward and simple.  Mimi looked as though she had strayed out of the Wizard of Oz with her blue dress and white apron.  Musetta started off looking great, then appeared in the most hideous dress I’ve ever seen on stage (including amateur productions) and finally in a black velvet number that had definitely seen better days.  I know operas are expensive to stage but I would have thought opera companies would know not to use black velvet, which never ages well.

I think what really made this opera farce rather than tragedy though was Mimi’s death-bed scene.  Until that point I had been going along with the story and accepting the cast in the characters they were playing.  Unfortunately, as Mimi was breathing her last farewell to Rodolfo and embracing him she slightly dislodged his toupee.  Not enough to create uproar and not enough for most people in the audience to notice it.  But I noticed and, predictably, got the giggles watching him try to straighten it surreptitiously.  I’m not sure whether the people sitting behind, watching my shoulders shaking, realised I was giggling or thought I was moved by Mimi dying.

To summarise, this is what you get from provincial touring opera companies; a pleasant evening without it being particularly engaging or thought-provoking.

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.