Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Theatre Review : The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Rowley - Young Vic (dir Joe Hill-Gibbins 6/2/12)

Charlotte Lucas and Jessica Raine 
There's something very modern about blood-soaked Jacobean tragedies that make them so very condusive to modern adaptations. Maybe its the moral ambiguity surrounding the heroes or the amorality of the villains that resonates so very well with our post-modern age.

In The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, Beatrice-Joanna (Jessica Raine)  is being forced into loveless marriage to Alonso (Duncan Wisbey), so she asks her lover Alsemero (Kobna Holbrook-Smith) to despatch her husband-to-be. He demurs, but scrofulus De Flores (Daniel Cerqueira)  has the hots for Beatrice and is willing to do anything for her. His price is her virtue which he duly takes, leaving Beatrice with a problem on her eventual wedding-night. Fortunately, she can fall back on that old renaissance stand-by beloved of Shakespeare, the bed trick, though unfortunately her maid Diaphanta (Charlotte Lucas) enjoys performing the trick a bit too well.

This is The Changeling supercharged - urgent, sexy and messy. The audience are right on top of the performers in the Young Vic's Jerwood space, and can feel the scratches of this tactile production. Beatrice is sassy, self-willed, vulnerable. You can see why she has so many men in her thrall. De Florio breathes heavily as he watches her, his lank hair dropping greasily over his scabby face. Beatrice can't hide her repulsion as she realises she must kiss him in order to get her way. Meanwhile in the subplot,  Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Antonio dons madman's guise to gain access to doctor Alibius's wife Isabella (Charlotte Lucas again), incarcerated in a madhouse under the lecherous eye of Alex Beckett as Lollio, rubbing his truncheon lubriciously.

Come the bed-trick on the wedding night, Alonso and Diaphanta smear each other with raspberry jelly (as one does), the resulting sheets giving notice of the truth of Beatrice's virginity. But as everything starts to unravel, this wonderful production finally starts to lose its grip as the jelly starts to fly courtesy of those wronged (which by now was the majority of the cast). It was the only bum note in the evening, as such a taut production required a  denouement which was earthier, more tangible, slightly less symbolic. Up until that point I had enjoyed this gripping production immensely, and some sniggers from the audience suggested that my doubts were not alone. But full marks to Director Joe Hill-Gibbins for a production that shocked, challenged but above all entertained right the way to the end.

Book Review - Vanished Kingdoms : The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies (Allen Lane 2011)

When I was a child in the 1970's, the map of the Europe seemed immutable. Ongoing decolonialisation granted statehood to pre-existing territories of the major European powers, and new states had sprung forth from violent conflict in far-flung corners of the globe, but Europe's boundaries, fixed in the aftermath of the Second World War, were constant. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the break-up of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovia. Europe's states suddenly became fragile entities, as centrifugal forces started to impinge on even long-established Western states like Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom. The old certainties had vanished, history had not ended.

Yet this is no new phenomenon - thirty years of post-war stability is the exception in European history, not the rule. The map of Europe has been like a kaleidoscope, borders shifting as the wheel of time turns. Yet when we analyse these patterns, so often our perspective is shaped through the prism of contemporary states, so when we look at Prussia, it is through the context of modern Germany, or Burgundy through that of modern France. What Norman Davies has done in this brilliantly conceived and executed book is to look at snapshots of European history from the perspective of those states which have failed to survive the test of time.

The result is a startling series of cameos.What is the relationship between medieval Aragon and modern Catalonia? How did a remote region of what is now Poland and Russia give its name to the State from which modern Germany sprang (and why does its name no longer exist)? Why are there two separate Galicias in Europe, and are they linked? (No, they aren't). Why did the mayfly state of Carpatho-Ukraine exist for just one day?

The fortunes of states ebb and flow. Who in the early 1980s could have envisaged that by 1991 the Soviet Union would have imploded? Yet its demise is no more surprising than that of medieval Byzantium, or of the mighty Dukedom of Burgundy. We are left with faint traces, palimpsests of what went before - Byzantine complexity, Prussian blue (which would have been Brandenburg Blue if it had been synthesised in Berlin five years earlier).

Fifteen vanished kingdoms are analysed, each in three parts. The first gives a contemporary context in the form of a short travelogue (necessary for some of the more obscure parts of Eastern Europe). Then the rise and fall of the state in historical terms is described, followed by the memory sites, the cultural traces of the vanished kingdoms which resonate to this day. We progress according to a rough chronology, and in the earlier chapters there is a slight tendency for the historical sections to resolve down to unfamiliar names of kings, places and battles, but the broader contexts largely offset this. By the time we come to more familiar historical territory (for me anyway) this is no longer an issue.

Davies attempts to analyse the reasons why kingdoms vanish. Some are absorbed or destroyed by bigger neighbours, some disintegrate from within. Others merge together to make a greater whole. Looking at the examples of Piedmont-Savoy, Aragon and the Soviet Union, he puts forward the case that Kingdoms which come together from distinct constituent parts have a greater tendency to split apart over time. Small nations such as Estonia can exist successfully under the umbrellas of Nato and the European Union, so he believes that the separatist forces acting on the United Kingdom will one day win through, forcing Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales down the path trodden early last century by Ireland. Whether you agree with this analysis or not, this compelling, beautifully written book is vital reading for all with an interest in European history or contemporary politics alike.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Theatre Review : She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith - Olivier Theatre (dir Jamie Lloyd 30/1/12)

The plot of She Stoops to Conquer is as insanely clever as theatre has ever devised - Mr Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) would like his daughter to be married to Marlow, the son of an old friend, so invites him to his house. However, Hardcastle's loutish step-son Toby Lumpkin (David Fynn) intercepts him, and tells him that Hardcastle's home where he will stay the night is in fact an inn. Marlow has an unusual impediment, in that he can freely chat up women of a lower class but is completely tongue-tied in the presence of ladies of quality. Which makes him fortunate to think that he is staying in an inn, and that Hardcastle's daughter Kate (Katherine Kelly) is a serving girl.

Goldsmith's satire is very effective. In mistaking Hardcastle's house for an Inn, and Hardcastle for an Innkeeper, Marlow and his companion Hastings (John Heffernan) treat both with the disrespect to be expected at the time, and it is still today fresh and funny. As is typical in plays of the time, Hardcastle's wife (overplayed deliciously by Sophie Thompson) has aspirations above her country station, and all the humour derives from the confusions of upper versus lower class, and rural simplicity versus urban sophistication.

The humour is drawn out by the cast quite rightly overplaying everything - this is not a play to benefit from subtlety. Marlow switches easily from tongue-tied lover to skirt-chasing rogue, whilst Kate moves with equal facility from charming young daughter to sluttish serving girl.

Jamie Lloyd's production uses the Olivier's revolving stage to great effect as he switches seamlessly from inside to outside Hardcastle Hall, the only downside being the rather twee song and dance numbers which fill the gaps during the set changes.

After a slow start (this was the first preview) both cast and audience got into the rhythms of the humour and the cast seemed to feed on the laughs they were receiving from the stalls. By the end, part of the audience was on its feet, and, if that was perhaps an overreaction, it was certainly a most enjoyable production of a play that still retains its freshness more than 200 years since its first production.

Theatre Review : The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett - Apollo Theatre (dir Christopher Luscombe 26/1/12)

King George III, one of the more decent monarchs to have graced the British throne, was unfortunate to suffer from a recurring illness - probably porphyria - which manifested itself in prolonged outbursts of what appeared to be madness. Alan Bennett's play studies the impact on the King of the first such outbreak, the barbaric methods used to try to cure it and how it affected the court politics of the day. Being written by Alan Bennett, it is a story told with humour, pathos and sensitivity, but also hard-edged and shocking.

Of course, most people are familiar with this story today, largely as a result of the success of this play when it was first staged.There is a risk in reviving such a well-loved work, which has successfully made the transition into an equally well-loved film with a much-missed national treasure in the title role. The lead part is so pivotal that comparisons with Nigel Hawthorne are unavoidable - yet such is the power of David Haig's performance as George III that within a few minutes I was totally involved in his performance and not attempting to make any comparisons.

I was once in a restaurant before a show and David Haig was eating with some companions on a table nearby, and he is one of these people whose charisma fills the room. Yet in many of the roles in which I have seen at the theatre or on television, he has played characters who are either bumptious and officious, or downtrodden. This may be testament to his acting ability, but neither types really allow his natural charisma to shine through.

This role, however, has put that right. Haig dominates the stage as a monarch should, even one beset by this dreadful malady, which makes his suffering as he loses his reason and is beset by blistering and binding by his doctors all the more poignant. He is well-supported by the large cast, especially Beatie Edney in the unattractive role of the monarch's plain but much-loved wife, Queen Charlotte and by Clive Francis as Dr Francis Willis.

The play itself looks a bit baggy in places. There is too much of Fox and Pitt and the machinations of the would-be Prince Regent, too much history lesson and not enough characterisation of the lesser roles. Parallels with contemporary politics are spurious and forced. But this is all about one man,  and the play comes alive when contemplating the true nature of kinghood, born to the purple, right down to his porphyria-stained urine.

Book Review - The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (Virago Press 2006)

It's 1947, and lives are reaching out for normality after the dislocation of war. For some this is difficult, unable to replicate the adrenaline rush of falling bombs and saving lives. For others, the relationships which made sense in the unnatural intensity of the war years no longer provide security and satisfaction. 

Sarah Waters' novel follows the interlinked lives of five people in these dismal years. Helen and Viv work in a dating agency. Helen lives with the sophisticated Julia, whilst Viv has been having a long-term affair with Reggie. Viv's brother Duncan works in a factory and lives with Mr Mundy, but is hiding a secret in his past. Kay lives alone and walks the streets without purpose. But why does Viv become so animated when she sees Kay walking in the street?

Structurally, this book is a bit like a classic detective novel. You are introduced to the story in the middle at the scene of crime, and the action unravels both forwards towards dénouement and backwards as the criminal and their motivations are revealed. In 1947, you learn about the characters, but subsequent sections are set in 1944 and 1941 and as we rewind backwards we find out why the characters are who they are and act how they act.

Sarah Waters is adept at creating a sense of time and place, and her picture of wartime London is highly evocative. The ebbing and flowing of relationships is sketched out with care and sensitivity. Yet there is something at the heart of this novel which didn't fully work for me. It's as if it were somehow not a true story of a series of relationships, but a technical exercise in showing how a book about relationships could be written in reverse chronology. 

Perhaps that's unfair, perhaps one is just too conditioned to the unflowering of the plot, of the novelist's relentless drive towards a conclusion. Certainly, there are many novels where one has appreciated the storyline but the ending leaves one disappointed, and by this device of reverse chronology Sarah Waters has avoided having to finish with her characters facing the humdrum normality of peacetime at the end of the book. But because of the structure of the book, we know who survived the falling bombs, the back-street abortions, and the slow reveal of why Helen has silk pyjamas and Viv wants to give Kay a ring does not provide an adequate motive force for the book as a whole - which is unfortunate, as many sections are compelling and the period and interrelationships are delineated with such care.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Book Review - The American Future : A History by Simon Schama (The Bodley Head 2008)

In 2008, America stood on the cusp of a change which even just a few years earlier would have been unthinkable. Barack Obama, a black American, had a realistic chance of being elected President of the United States. His vision of change was providing an inspiring alternative both to a discredited Republican regime and Hillary Clinton's Democratic Party machine. Establishment politics had failed - the long years of easy credit and economic boom had come crashing to an end, whilst American troops struggled to make an impact against nebulous foes in Iraq and Afghanistan. If ever there was a potential political watershed, this was it.

Simon Schama's TV series and book were an attempt to take a long perspective on America's most pressing issues, mixing historical aperçus with contemporary analysis to brilliant effect.

When West Point Academy for officers was founded, the study of French was compulsory for the practical reason that many of the textbooks were written in French. But the principles of mathematics and engineering that were instilled allowed the Army to play a major role in the Civil Engineering of the new nation. They helped create, for instance, the levées that protected New Orleans until contemporary negligence contributed to their breach  in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Switch to the retired General who, when asked if the Army could have done more to fix the infrastructure of Iraq, said that that is not what the Army is for.The Union's success in the American Civil War was largely due to the success of West Point graduate Montgomery Meigs' clear-headed and incorruptible approach to logistical management. Switch to Iraq, where "Construction companies awarded no-bid contracts had bungled the job after pocketing front-loaded operational budgets". No explicit contrast is made - none is needed.

For a country founded on immigration, America's attitude to new immigrants has often been ambiguous. Discrimination against Chinese workers in the West is contrasted with American migrants to Mexico in what is now Texas. The first part of the American history is the search for land, as settlers pushed further and further west, and the American army made gains to the South. Treaties with American Indian tribes are torn up with impunity by Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Mexican war. Rewind to Schama's meeting earlier in the book with Generals Freddy Valenzuela and Ricardo Sanchez, all-American heroes in a Hispanic military café in San Antonio, Texas.

For the American history is a complex history, ebbing and flowing from highest ideals to naked greed and corruption. What Schama manages to do is to select examples that not only encapsulate how America came to be what it is today, but also to underline its complexity. He moves easily back and forward through the history of the Meigs family and the history of the nation, but eschews easy answers. As the past four years have shown, the problems that contemporary America faces are too deep-seated simply to be solved by well-crafted words, but this book is a fine attempt to shed some understanding on its most intractable issues.