Thursday, 31 December 2015

national gallery

In the last two days we spent time in the National Gallery twice, once killing time and the second passing through. It's good to be able to visit these tremendous things in central London so casually. A world-famous image round every corner; we spent most time looking at The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (here it is), which may be my favourite painting in there (there is a small painting of a moated castle in a winter landscape (I think this may be it) which I like a lot but haven't seen for a long time - it used to be in the downstairs room at the back which is only open occasionally).

pitch perfect 2

Last night we watched Pitch Perfect 2 on DVD, which Maisie had got for her Christmas. As I had anticipated, it wasn't very good; like a lot of comedy sequels, they broadly replicated the plot structure, which you can get away with, but with fewer jokes, most of which were similar to jokes in the first film, which you can't. The only real funny bits were the commentary team, whose bits really emphasised how lacking in humour the rest of of the film was. An over-reliance on the belief that crudity, especially from women, is inherently funny.

five little pigs; black coffee

Over the Christmas holidays I read two Agatha Christies, Five Little Pigs and Black Coffee, the latter being a novelisation of her first play by Charles Osborne.

The former, unusually, was too obvious in solution (hard to explain without giving it away, but the passivity at trial clearly points to one thing, which to a seasoned reader of crime fiction then points to something else) - which isn't necessarily a big deal, and I don't tend to make much effort to try to work out whodunnit in general, but there was little else to the story but that.

The intro to Black Coffee indicates that the play had initially been turned down for production, before being successfully produced. It is fairly insubstantial - it would be worthy of a short story, really, rather than a full novel, I think. One for the completists (as, I guess, would probably be all the plays, most of which haven't been novelised).

the best short stories of fredric brown

Somewhere in September I finished The Best Short Stories of Fredric Brown, an SF collection I started on holiday in Lewis. Further to the post on the two SF short story collections I did finish on holiday, his writings have not endured as the publisher and editor thought they would and deserved to. The stories were fine, but a bit disappointing, given the build up on blurb and intro. It was a collection which drew together two US collections, Space On My Hands (1953) and Nightmares And Geezenstacks (1961). It didn't make me want to seek out more of his writing.

lady killer

On Saturday 28 February I finished Lady Killer by Ed McBain. I like procedural detective novels, which this was, and it was quite good, though the plot wasn't great. He wrote a lot of them, and while this wouldn't put me off reading more, it didn't make me want to seek them out particularly. I realise that once you get beyond Chandler/Hammett/Stout in chronology, I'm not that keen on crime novels set in America.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

an advent music night

On Friday at church we had an Advent Music Night. It was an unusual and really very good variation on the 'lessons and carols' model, with a set of six readings interspersed with five pieces played on the harp by our Mary Reid. The pieces weren't Christian/seasonal, but were each linked with the preceding passage primarily in how they sounded ('chosen carefully to reflect the nature of the Bible readings' - from the notes, which were excellent, written by Mary). Mary is an excellent harpist, and the pieces (by Hindemith, Kikta, Rameau, Attahir and Faure) were varied and interesting, without a hint of cliche.

lisbon lions

On Friday I finished Lisbon Lions by Andy Dougan, an account of Celtic's European-Cup-winning season. It was a straightforward account, with obviously a lot of recourse to cuttings, and a few interviews. An odd final chapter about the travails and state of Celtic subsequently - it was published in 1997. Football was a very different industry at that time. Noteworthy how local the team were, all born within thirty miles of Celtic Park it's said. Jock Stein comes out as a less admirable figure than I'd always been given to believe. And of course the most notable thing for me is that on the day I was born Celtic drew their semi-final second leg 0-0 away at Dukla Prague, getting them into the final.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

the incredulity of father brown

On Saturday 5 December I finished reading The Incredulity of Father Brown by GK Chesterton. I picked it up (a green Penguin edition from 1970; it's the third collection of Father Brown stories, published 1926) a couple of weeks before secondhand in the Kennington Bookshop, opposite the old Interserve office on Kennington Road, which since I last went past had changed from a new book shop to a cafe with secondhand books on the shelves around the side, which I guess could work pretty well as a combined income stream. I guess it had happened quite recently, as the signage/branding wasn't very clear; I nearly didn't go in because I thought it was just a cafe. Ah, I see from this review that it's Vanilla Black Coffee & Books - and from which I see that there's a downstairs, which I didn't notice at all.

Anyway, the book. As I mentioned previously, I was going back to Father Brown after reading and enjoying Orthodoxy, though I hadn't enjoyed Father Brown stories I'd read long ago. The secret, I see, is not to read them as detective stories, but as reflections on aspects of human morality and spirituality. I enjoyed them a good deal better at that level. I recognised the things I didn't like from before as primarily Father Brown's ridiculously miraculous crime-solving skills, and plots which often strayed too far into the far-fetched and fanciful. But they were well-written, and I'll read more, now that I understand how I should read them. (I'm not claiming that's how everyone else should read them.)

First line: There was a brief period during which Father Brown enjoyed, or rather did not enjoy, something like fame.
(Last line deliberately omitted.)

The cover is one of those which looks like a TV tie-in (which in general I deplore), but in fact is a specially-taken photo, which in some ways makes it worse. This is not an edition which will be cherished for its design, I feel, but the state of the book suggests it has journeyed through the hands of a number of readers (and I have launched it back onto that journey via charity shop). The fact that it's a 'green Penguin' only shown on the front by the penguin's background (the spine, as you can just about see, is dressed appropriately).

Later PS: in response to my posting of a link to this on Facebook, Danica said this: 'I think I also read the Father Brown stories more for certain depictions of atmosphere (God of the Gongs) or character (the American journalist in The Strange Crime of John Boulnois, for example) than for detective plot itself. Nice that you love them a little more than before!'

the celts at the british museum

On Wednesday 9 December, on a day off, I went to the Celts: Art & Identity exhibition at the British Museum.

The most impressive thing was the intricacy, artistry and preservation of artefacts over two thousand years old in some cases. The heaps of stuff from hoards were impressive too.

The most striking thing was how many of the artefacts were from London. (I also liked the number which were indicated as having an unknown find location, which makes me think they've just been rattling around unlabelled in the British Museum storerooms for decades.)

The most interesting thing was that the basic thesis of the exhibition seemed to be that the Celts never existed, essentially. In the first phase - roughly from prehistory to the departure of the Romans from Britain - 'the Celts' were a group identified by the Greeks and Romans as being beyond their regions of control in various areas to the north, east and west; the only identifier which we seem to know these groups having in common is their art. In the second phase, 'the Celts' are various groups beyond the regions of control of Anglo-Saxon Britain, defined together by their related languages (in areas not previously identified as Celtic, and defined thus much later). In the third phase, the Celtic Renaissance from the 18th century onwards creates a literary and political 'Celtic world' which is largely mythical. Two phases of being 'savage other', then a phase of 'idealised other'.

One thing I did find odd was that in the panel on the modern renaissance of Celtic spirituality they did not mention the significant resurgence of interest in Celtic Christian spirituality, but instead took as the example the resurgence of druidism, which seems largely constructed and frivolous, of little more significance than people putting Jedi as their religion in the census.

They talked about - and demonstrated by artefacts - how the Celts absorbed other artistic influences into their art, like Roman and Viking. Which did make you think that perhaps in that first phase all the groups literally had in common was the art, learnt/absorbed from one another, and were linked in no other real way.

And of course the labels are full of 'may', 'perhaps', 'probably' and flat-out assertions that make you think, 'Really?'

I did wonder how the 'Celts never existed' approach was playing in non-England UK ('typical English idea'), but on the way out saw that one of the co-curators was from the National Museums Scotland.

Reviews from the first Google search page. They are well worth reading, actually, for a thoughtful range of accounts and perspectives of the objects and the text (I didn't link to the Daily Mail one which, peculiarly, just wrote about all the weapons). Telegraph. Guardian. Guardian again ('a great exhibition that achieves the opposite of what it intends. In wall texts and a richly detailed catalogue it sets out a sceptical approach to the ancient peoples of north-western Europe. Celts, we’re told, never called themselves Celts and modern constructions of a genetic and eternal Celtic identity – promoted by Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists – are as insubstantial as mist on a loch. ... In the end I just ignored the texts and succumbed to the art. The Celts may never have existed, but their art is amazing. ... I love this exhibition even though I am unconvinced by its thesis.'). Standard. FT (thinks the final 'revival' section is the strongest, unlike the previous reviews). London Review of Books ('A single ‘Celtic civilisation’ in a united Iron Age Europe never happened, and those tribes never thought of themselves as ‘Celts’. Their unity existed only in the minds of outsiders, Greeks and Romans who ‘othered’ them all together as un-Mediterranean. ... expressions like ‘Celtic nations’ and ‘Celtic Fringe’ are really English statements about England. Like Romans and Greeks, the English have had to invent a collective Other in order to recognise themselves. The truth is that Ireland and Scotland have long ceased to feel ‘peripheral’ to an imperial ‘core’. The main thing that those Atlantic nations and communities have in common is not Celticity. It’s their experience of English expansion.'). Spectator. Londonist. A couple of the reviews point up the lack of a written language in these groups, which contributes to their mystery.

And my mother reminded me that when she studied Celtic at Aberdeen University it was pronounced like the football team, 'Seltic'. By the time I was there it was 'Keltic', as it is now (and probably was then) everywhere.

a three-pipe problem

On Monday 14 October 2013 I finished Julian Symons' A Three-Pipe Problem, an interesting Holmes pastiche in that it features an actor famous for playing Holmes who thinks he can solve a crime as Homes did. It was interesting, but implausible; okay, but didn't make me want to seek out any more by Julian Symons. It was clear to me fairly early on who the criminal was, but I don't generally expend much energy trying to work out 'who done it', and it doesn't hamper my enjoyment if I do work it out if it's well-written. This is quite a good article/review, on the Tipping My Fedora blog.

james hogg - the growth of a writer

On Monday 14 December I finished James Hogg - The Growth of a Writer, by David Groves. It's been on my list of 'Current reading on 1/1/..' in my diaries since 2003, the first year I made that list, so I'm not sure how long it was on the list before then. I actually restarted it a couple of years ago, as I hadn't got very far. Then last week I was realising how many more books I've started this year that will appear on the 1/1/16 list, and I had a look to see if there were any that I might be able to finish this month, and there it was.

It didn't actually take long to finish it - it's not that long. It's a not very good academic trot through James Hogg's writing career, with a couple of academic theories which aren't that engaging.

I borrowed it off a friend, who I'm not in touch with any more, but I'm not worried about getting it back to him, because he only bought it because he thought James Hogg was an old minister/theologian, tricked by the title of his most famous book.

I enjoyed The Private Memoirs & Confessions of a Justified Sinner a lot when I read it years ago. I'd like to read it again (despite David Groves' book), to see if I still think it's as misjudged as I thought it was then - it's generally perceived as an anti-Christian novel, but it seemed to me an anti-heresy novel; I don't think Christians who are familiar with the theological issues behind it would find it anti-Christian, but would agree with it (including the reality of the devil and evil, which again I haven't seen taken that seriously in things about it). I also found it very modern in structure. I was pleased to see it recently in a list of greatest British books compiled from non-British critics' views. But so many other things to read...

Friday, 4 December 2015

morris folk club

At the November Morris Folk Club I sang Thomas o' Winesbury, which I first heard in Iochdar School (when we were visiting Ryno and Mary many years ago) at a concert by Mr McFall's Chamber (an offshoot from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra), featuring Dave Brady (their one-armed roadie/driver who - I discovered some years later on reading his obituary in the Guardian - had been a folk singer of some renown). I learnt it from the CD I bought on the night. The MMC version is great.

It was a healthy sign for the folk club that there were sufficient people performing that we only did one song each (though part of that was small groups from the choir previewing their songs for the choir concert the following Saturday).

sherlock holmes (guy ritchie version)

On Saturday 31 October we all watched on DVD the Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. We enjoyed it, but it was an odd film, which made our detecting duo more action hero types than usual, though the characterisation was quite interesting. I took nothing from it, and was prompted to no further thought afterwards.

Monday, 23 November 2015

comic con

We had an enjoyable family day out to Comic Con in Birmingham yesterday (Saturday 21st - actually two days ago, it will appear, since I've posted this after midnight on Sunday night) - a convention relating to screen/print/game science fiction and fantasy in print, a particular feature of which is many people dressed up as sf/f characters (cosplay).

It is, I think, partly and successfully designed to be a safe and friendly environment in which people can feel free to be themselves: it's fascinating to see so many people being themselves by being someone else.

I was pleased to see so many women behind the comic artist stalls in particular (and in general the male/female ratio of attendees was unstereotypically even), but female cosplay, 'empowering' or not, is still heavily 'Hi, I'm Skimpy and these are my friends Cleavage and Skintight.'

(These things strike me because, like Polonius, I have a daughter.)

My favourite costume of the day was just a girl in student black wearing a sign saying 'free shrugs'. The steampunk - basically modified Victorian - looked good as a retro fashion people might actually wear in real life with a little moderation.

We had no idea who most of the people dressed up were meant to be, but that didn't matter a lot.

Probably our favourite bit of the day was playing a game in the games area, which was a very good idea for an area - about eight tables with games set up on them and a team of demonstrators, so you could go and learn (or just play) one of the games by playing it with someone. We played Colt Express with Clara, and enjoyed it, sufficiently that I bought a copy later from one of the stalls. The games area was provided by a company which sold/distributed games: they didn't have a selling stand, which was impressively altruistic, but nor did they even have flyers or business cards, so I can't even remember what they were called, which seems to be taking it a bit too far. (Perhaps they only sell to trade; or perhaps all proper gamers know who they are.)

In the afternoon we separated as the others wanted to get a good place in the theatre to watch the cosplay masquerade and I wanted to go round the stalls more thoroughly. We were all happy with our choice.

I'd think you'd need to have an ego of steel to be anything below an A-list person on the autograph tables, because most of them seemed very quiet most of the time. Even Miriam Margolyes, I reckon the biggest name while we were there, I saw with no queue, though she'd had a large one when we arrived first. But if you're someone who played a very minor part in something like Star Wars, an appearance fee and £15 an autograph, and general friendly appreciation from anyone who does come to you, must be a reasonable way to spend an occasional Saturday.

We enjoyed it, but I'm not sure we'd go again; having seen it once, we're not in the world enough to get any more out of it a second time, I think, unless one of us gets into it more; or unless we go to a slightly different version - if, say, there's an equivalent convention focussed on 'board' games (though many of them don't have boards), since the game-playing was the best thing. But then, there are probably cheaper and nearer ways to do that.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

hamlet: ethan hawke

Last week I watched (recorded off FilmFour a couple of years ago) the 2000 film version of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke (and many other familiar faces).

It was a modern version, relocated to a modern-day US business empire. It was a reasonable production, in general, though nothing special.

Assorted notes.
- Ethan Hawke seemed quite characterless, perhaps deliberately impenetrable, but it came across as a bit bland.

- I thought Liev Schrieber as Laertes was easily the best performance. I thought silence was used well in his encounters with Hamlet after the funeral, making a virtue of the fact that of course a lot of those lines were cut (though that presumably is a director's decision).

- Sometimes I got the feeling that some people were delivering lines like they'd learned them phonetically but didn't know what they meant.

- In the equivalent of the corridor scene, with Hamlet and Ophelia (Julia Stiles) being 'overheard' by Claudius and Polonius, I thought it worked well that Ophelia was 'wearing a wire' rather than being spied on (the use of surveillance, communication and media technology was a key element of the modernisation, though interestingly of course this made it very dated, not least with the presence of a fax machine, large floppy disks and a video rental store). The fact that it was uncovered while it was being made apparent that they did love each other emphasised the sense of betrayal that Hamlet felt, and the guilt which Ophelia felt in having done so and being found out. I don't remember having seen that drawn out so well, and made sense as a precipitating factor towards breakdown/madness.

- Having the post-reveal insults in the corridor scene become answerphone messages left by angry/bitter Hamlet after the event worked well.

- Polonius was shot through a mirrored wardrobe door, pretty sure as also in the David Tennant production.

- I'm pretty sure there's a shot of Hamlet getting out of a car with the Lion King theatre in the background, a little in-joke.

- Laertes holds the mad Ophelia tenderly, as a loving brother would in real life, and so rarely happens in Hamlet.

- Something else that rarely happens in Hamlet, interestingly enough, is any sense that Hamlet is changed by his first murder, of Polonius. There was definitely a sense in which this Hamlet felt guilt, or if not guilt then certainly trauma, about having murdered someone, and particularly the wrong person. So perhaps not as characterless as I said above.

- When Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) is telling Laertes to seize the moment and take his revenge on Hamlet, I did have the thought perhaps for the first time (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps something in the performance) that this is how he had persuaded himself to seize his own moment, before the play, for murder and marriage (because he was quite a mild-mannered Claudius). Probably Kyle MacLachlan's best moment as Claudius.

- While Sam Shepard (as the Ghost) wasn't quite the same, there was a slight echo, though not so extreme, of Patrick Stewart's playing the Ghostly Hamlet as not a loving father but a bully, contrasting with his brother Claudius's more surface-gentle, man of diplomacy rather than war.

- Bill Murray as Polonius did run along the usual lines, but he had two good moments. One was his advice to the departing Laertes, given as if by a loving father rather than (as usually delivered) a tedious lecture. The other was that he spoke the line to Claudius, in relation to uncovering the source of Hamlet's madness, about finding things out even if they go to the top, in a way which made me think of my view that you could plausibly play it that the wise/shrewd/insightful Polonius knew or at least suspected that Claudius had murdered his brother. I'm not sure if that was deliberate in the delivery, or just me reading into it, and I'm not sure there's any other clue in this production that that was what was behind it.

- Relatedly, one also wonders why Claudius is so keen to find out what's behind Hamlet's madness, and sets R&G to spy on him in particular. As Gertrude says, the obvious explanation is his father's death and mother's remarriage, with Polonius's suggestion of mad for spurned love a reasonable second suggestion. I think an obvious explanation for Claudius's keenness is that what he actually wants to find out is whether Hamlet knows or suspects that Claudius murdered his father. I'm not sure I've ever seen that possibility drawn out - though, to be fair, it would be quite hard to convey (Claudius eying Hamlet suspiciously/guiltily all the time?).

- In the final scene Gertrude deliberately drinks the wine, knowing that there's poison in it. It's only the second time I remember seeing this, and it's an interesting and performable idea.

Reviews (some links from the Wikipedia article, then from the first couple of Google results pages - finding reviews proved to be easier than I'd anticipated). New York Times. Washington Post. LA Times. New York magazine. Observer (which describes the set up and some of the characterisation, particularly that of Hamlet, very well). Guardian ('One of the wittiest scenes sees Hamlet, morose and almost torpid with introspection, drifting through a branch of Blockbuster in which every movie genre is "Action".' - a couple of the reviews mention this 'Action' detail (in the scene in which 'to be or not to be' appears) which passed me by; 'Ethan Hawke plays Hamlet perfectly satisfactorily, though he turns him into a bit of an indie-band lead singer'). Rolling Stone. Pop Matters. CineScene (some kind of amateur site, with a review which sounds like it was written by an overearnest and overenthusiastic student). ReelFilm (another film review blog). Fleeting Joy (a site devoted to the works of the director, Michael Almereyda). Ruthless Reviews (actually quite an interesting review, making a good general case for what I have always thought would be a perfectly reasonable reading of the play, that Hamlet is a completely selfish and unsympathetic toff who treats everyone around him badly). Boston Review (a long essay article of a review). Exclaim.

On the whole the reviews were more positive than negative, I think, giving more praise to most people than I would have, with in particular a surprising amount of praise for Horatio, who I thought gave a thoroughly unremarkable portrayal. A couple of the reviews also took Laertes' brotherly love for Ophelia as hinting-at-incestuous, which is a tedious interpretation but was perhaps fashionable at the time. I think the only production I've seen in which Laertes' love was explicitly more than it should be was the first production of Hamlet I saw, in the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh in the mid-80s, where Laertes planted a most unbrotherly farewell kiss on Ophelia at his first-half departure (and which, as I remember, seemed very out of the blue). The only other thing I remember about that production was that Simon Russell Beale was Osric - he was obviously sufficiently memorable in the production that I remembered him when I started seeing him in other things. And another Hamlet blogpost ends with a mention of Mr Russell Beale.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

religion: origins and ideas

On Sunday 25 October I finished reading Religion: Origins and Ideas, by Robert Brow, an old Tyndale paperback (1972 2nd ed, first published 1966) which I'd had on my shelf for a very long time. It was a straightforward and relatively interesting, though far from gripping or intensely readable, run through the origins and development of religion, and various key theme options (meaning/meaningless, theism/monism, trinity/unity, life after death, ethics & goodness, religious experience).

It was a helpful run-through, but not earth-shattering. The most helpful point made, for me at the time of reading it, was this reminder towards the end (p93):
'Having set out the logic of these religious alternatives, we can see some options to live by. If this world has a purpose for man to discover, that purpose must be discovered by some kind of oneness with our world (Monism) or that purpose is found by knowing the mind of the Creator (Theism). If there is a theistic Creator the main alternatives seem to be the Unitarian and Trinitarian views of God. On the other hand if this world has no inherent purpose, and we begin with meaninglessness, there are again certain options such as atheistic Existentialism and Nihilism. Thus comparative religion can set out alternative systems. Which religion or world-view a man chooses is his freedom.
'This mutual confrontation of religious alternatives, and by our definition all world-views and ideologies are religious, leaves us no place for neutrality. If we live as humans at all we are religious in some sense. The question is whether there is any way to discover which is the way we ought to adopt. At that point I do not think logic can help us. Logic and argumentation can help us see the inner constituency of a particular world-view; it cannot prove that it should be adopted. That is why Paul stated categorically that faith cannot be produced by argument (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). If faith was the result of logical reasoning we would expect all the most intelligent people to be converted to one religion or ideology. It seems that God in his wisdom has insisted on freedom of religion, and this freedom cannot be forced by human reason or logic.'

Friday, 6 November 2015

legally blonde

Yesterday afternoon, both feeling coldy, the younger generation and I watched Legally Blonde on DVD; I'd seen it before, possibly in the cinema, and it was good, better than I remembered (I suspect I may have been mixing it up in my memory with Sweet Home Alabama).

I bailed out of the follow-up in the matinee double bill, Johnny English, as we have seen it many times and it's rubbish.

a private eye cartoon

A cartoon from the 30 October issue of Private Eye, thoughtful rather than funny:
a little girl and her mum stand outside a shop window, in which there is a sign saying 'Halloween Fancy Dress' and costumes labelled 'Sexy Witch', 'Sexy Fairy', 'Sexy Frankenstein' and 'Sexy Ghost'. The girl is saying to her mum, 'Mummy, do I *have* to be sexy?'

hamlet: benedict cumberbatch

On Tuesday 27 October I went with Laura (who'd got the tickets) to the Barbican cinema 3 to see a broadcast of the NT Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which is currently running in the Barbican (it wasn't a live broadcast, but a reshowing of the live broadcast of a couple of weeks ago). It was pretty good, both the production and the experience.

I'd certainly do a cinema broadcast of a theatre production again. This was the first time I'd done one, and I'd thought they might be odd and without atmosphere; I wasn't sure how they were filmed either, and I guess I thought it might be the rudimentary style (on the rare occasions I've seen examples of it before this modern approach really got under way) of just a couple of locked-off cameras and dodgy acoustics. In fact the sound was very good - all miked up, just a couple of moments where the mics rustled or dropped out - and there was quite a variety of closer shots; not closeups of the speaker, which would have been tedious, but of the smaller group, with occasional shots of the whole stage scene. Occasionally I missed having a wider shot to see how everyone - or someone particular out of shot - was reacting, but the balance was good on the whole. The shots must have been very carefully planned, and I guess camera technology is such that it is possible to move and zoom less obtrusively because of changes in camera size and quality of zoom resolution from further away. (Also, as a number of the reviews mention, some of the action, particularly on the balcony corridor stage right, was out of sight of some of the seats, people complaining they were in effect restricted view seats though not advertised as such.)

A number of disordered notes follow.

- The programme cost £8.50! A4, but not a great deal of content. I've never paid so much for a theatre programme; it's priced at the West End musical souvenir programme level. Sonia Friedman Productions making the most of their property. Have to say, however, it has lots of good production photos, which you rarely get in programmes.

- In one of the articles in the programme (which, in general, as on this occasion, I avoid reading before seeing the play if they're about the play itself) James Shapiro talks about the contrast between the 1604 and 1623 versions, with the particular example of the cut of the soliloquy after his encounter with Fortinbras's forces as he's being taken to England, which James says this 'chance encounter is the turning point of the 1604 version, crystallising for Hamlet the futility of heroic action'. Yet that seems the exact opposite of the soliloquy's conclusion, apparently inspired by this great action over triviality, 'from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth' - at a time when he's being forcibly led away from where he is supposed to be acting. The performance of the Mousetrap is a much more obvious candidate for the key turning point.

- Another article in the programme refers to the fact that the choice of what to cut is a key and necessary directorial decision, and quotes Simon Russell Beale: 'The role of Hamlet is very hospitable. It will take anything you throw at it.' The third article seems bizarrely irrelevant. I read someone once saying that articles about the play in the programme rarely relate to the interpretation of that particular production (sometimes even contradicting it), and I have often found that to be true.

- I thought the military theme well done; a nation with conflict and potential war looming over it, plans, preparations and negotiations under way; sometimes the Fortinbras/international plot is background, sometimes omitted altogether, but it was very much present here; it also informed the expression which Hamlet's feigned madness took, quite well done.

- Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) didn't hug the mad Ophelia, as usual (this will become one of the points I look out for consistently now, having had it pointed up by one of the few particularly notable features of the production I saw earlier this year), but did I think go with her to the piano to play together as they had done earlier (and which was obviously something they had often done).

- It was the usual Polonius portrayal (Jim Norton); insensitive and non-wise windbag, not particularly loving.

- Ophelia's instability was signalled early, which is unusual; I wasn't sure about it at first, but turned into my favourite performance of the evening (Sian Brooke). Ophelia in the earlier scenes, especially with Laertes, is usually portrayed as very confident and self-possessed, which makes the later sudden descent into real madness (so clearly contrasting with Hamlet's feigned madness) so unexpected and hard to understand. The descent was gradual and very well done.

- Against the modern tide, no implication that Ophelia is pregnant. (Conversely, it's been so long that I've seen a production in which there was any doubt that Hamlet is not mad, that I wonder if I've ever seen one, and I wonder why 'Is Hamlet mad?' has ever been a real question.)

- I'm very much at ease with colourblind casting, but it was a bit odd having Laertes and Ophelia of different colours.

- Horatio felt a bit characterless; usually one of my favourite characters, or at least one I identify with most, he didn't seem to be given much definition to work with.

- similarly, I like to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but they felt quite cut down, and again with little to work with (and two actors I've seen before who I know could have been given more, Matthew Steer and especially Rudi Dharmalingam). But that's Hamlet, full of tough decisions about what to cut. I still find it very odd that the play is so long, a length that could surely never have been performed in full.

- It struck me later, on the play in general, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can't have known what was in the letter that they carried with them to England. When they were parted from their friend Hamlet at sea they must have been worried about him, and clearly did not think their commission was now redundant, so they dutifully completed it and were put to death unexpectedly and wholly gratuitously because of Hamlet's rewriting. The last thing we see Hamlet say before the sea journey, however is henceforth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth, which at one level is preposterous since he's being escorted out of the country, but perhaps his rewriting of the letter, and effectively murdering his old school friends, is him putting this into practice.

- Something someone said seemed to imply that Hamlet was, in this journey, going 'back' to England; I'll need to check that.

- As often with productions of Hamlet, there are some surprising things not cut, or lines I feel like I've never heard before. Sometimes it's not obvious why they survived the edit in that particular production. This one had the rarely seen 'sailors delivering letters to Horatio' scene.

- There were some bits out of order, which isn't unusual, although less usual to have shorter bits, a line or two say, appearing in a different scene. Ophelia did quite a bit of quoting in her madness, which did make sense. I remember that in one of the reviews published from a preview night - about which there was such a fuss - it said that the play had opened with 'to be or not to be', a choice which did not survive beyond the previews I think.

- I thought Claudius (Ciaran Hinds) was a bit too blank and shouty (right from the start, from being bossy and aggressive, rather than reasoning, when telling Hamlet to stop grieving). When Claudius is unpleasant, as he often is, it's hard to see what Gertrude has seen in him, unless you're portraying her as in traumatic rebound.

(- I wonder who makes the decisions about how you play your character? Is it all down to the director? There must be some kind of back and forth. I guess the director must have an overall vision of how the characters fit together, so you can't just play it the way you think it should be played. But then having to do it someone else's way must take a lot of the fun out of of it.)

- I thought Gertrude was well done; nicely vulnerable. (Anastasia Hille - it was bugging me what I'd seen her in very recently, and I soon remembered it had been Not Safe For Work on telly.)

- The set was good, and didn't change: large interior of the palace, but with depth, and then at the end of the first half a striking moment when dirt blew into cover the stage, providing the exteriors for the second half at the same time as, I guess, reflecting the corruption which Claudius, the only person on stage at the time (having just resolved to send Hamlet to his death in England), has brought.

- The opening scene of Hamlet, sitting grievingly in a room/attic (at the front of a stage, with a backdrop which moves to reveal the full palace set behind) made me think of something similar in Rory Kinnear's. He's listening to old records which reminded him presumably of his dad; also clear implication that the black coat he takes out of trunk, smells and puts on is his dad's, which is a nice touch. Reminded me of the Michael Sheen Hamlet, where if I remember rightly Polonius give Laertes his jacket, or a jumper, when he leaves at the start, and he comes back wearing it.

(- It's kind of ridiculous that that's the kind of comparisons that come to my mind about different Hamlets.)

- Benedict Cumberbatch, the main attraction, was pretty good as Hamlet, but not spectactular. It was a good production all round, but I don't know why Benedict Cumberbatch has become such an international celebrity phenomenon - on the back primarily of a handful of episodes of Sherlock, it seems (he was in The Hobbit too, of course).

- Interesting the way the soliloquys are done with everyone else going into slow motion in the background, which I think I've seen before (that, or just freezing).

- Hamlet himself took the role of the murderer in the play, which was an interesting touch.

- Some of the reviews below remind me that Ophelia's departure to kill herself is well done visually, with Gertrude realising that's what she's going to do; she realises because she looks in a trunk and finds Ophelia's photos - she spends a lot of the early part of the play wandering around taking photos (which rings a bell from another production, though that might have been Hamlet himself) - and in particular her smashed camera.

There shouldn't be any difficulty finding reviews of this production; I'll be impressed by any bloggers that find their way onto the first couple of pages of Google results... Observer (Liked it. 'He is never in the least bit mad. This control is a marvel, and a limitation. Cumberbatch is arresting but not disturbing.' Loves the set). Guardian (didn't like it: ragbag, half-baked; hates the design; 'For a couple supposedly bound together by reckless sensuality, CiarĂ¡n Hinds and Anastasia Hille show a remarkable lack of interest in each other and suggest nothing so much as a frigidly elegant pair used to giving cocktail parties in the Surrey hinterland', which I'd agree with but would say is often the case; surprisingly, he liked Horatio; 'it says much about the evening that its single most memorable moment is a purely visual one: Ophelia’s scrambling final exit over a hill of refuse, watched by an apprehensive Gertrude'; thinks it's a potentially good central Hamlet performance let down by its surroundings and badly edited text, though I didn't think it worse edited in particular than others). Telegraph (likes it, up to a point: 'a blazing, five-star Hamlet trapped in a middling, three-star show'; I've seen other productions, of Hamlet and other things, which were very much a good central performance and nothing else around them, as if they'd put all their effort into paying for the star and getting that performance right; but as I say, I didn't think BC's was the best performance in this production. Hacked text and love/hate design becoming theme: 'The evening’s energies are dissipated not intensified by the confining Elsinore dreamed up by designer Es Devlin, and director Lyndsey Turner’s tendency to hack the text'). The Telegraph review has a link to their review of the first preview (if I remember rightly it was said the Barbican was less exercised about the early DT review since it was a good one and there was a sense that there was a publicity relationship going on there; all the same it's not a great review). Variety (thought the gravedigger was the best for years; doubled, as often, with the Ghost, I found neither anything special (gravedigger was fine, Ghost rarely makes a good impression with me, to be fair, though I thought the Ghost's accent wandered about rather oddly); 'Cumberbatch’s pivotal epiphany comes on the battlefield, surrounded by Fortinbras’ soldiers in their grey greatcoats ... All this changes Hamlet’s return to Elsinore entirely: Such is the threat of Fortinbras’s forces that the play’s politics dwarf any domestic drama.'). Standard. Daily Mail (another 'good BC, bad everything else' review). Financial Times ('In my view, critics should, in the main, respect the preview process and theatres should respect audiences by charging less for preview tickets' - a point made by many re the review controversy. 'The changed opening is one of several textual interventions, and, though it loses something - the first mention of the ghost, the suggestion of a general sense of unease - it emphasises something too: Hamlet’s isolation, suspicion and fear and the significance of identity throughout Shakespeare’s play.'; the Ghost's appearance is indeed quite late, and a different tone is set). Independent. Deadline Hollywood (a first appearance in my review links, I believe; 'This production knows Cumberbatch’s star is going to draw people unfamiliar with Shakespeare, so the staging is broad and unsubtle; it doesn’t bring anything drastically new or profound to the material'; 'When Hamlet soliloquises, the lights drop and decay is projected onto the walls of the set — something literally rotten in the state of Denmark' - didn't notice this, possible couldn't see it in the screened version). What's On Stage ('Norton's Polonius is too nebulous, and reading his "few precepts" from a notebook doesn't look good; he'd know them, and he's not funny' - it did seem odd). The Stage. New York Times ('There wasn’t even entrance applause for Mr. Cumberbatch' - apparently common in the US, the philistines; 'And why is Ophelia always photographing objects in close-up with a boxy camera? Is this meant to be a literal interpretation of her stunned lines about having to “see what I have seen”? Oh, I don’t know. But when a director throws out such tantalizing gimmicks, she had better be prepared to follow through on them. Here they just seem like avant-garde window dressing.' - fair point). Digital Spy (another first-time appearance here, I think, with a review in the form of a list, which is the only language the young people understand, apparently). Huffington Post ('whisper it quietly, this Hamlet is fine, it's ok. But it's not great'; 'Benedict's Hamlet is sarcastic, mean, aloof to his girlfriend and vicious to his mother. He also hams up the supposed mental illness for all its worth' - interesting if concerns about depiction of mental illness are starting to become an issue; an odd review in that it gives the impression that the reviewer hasn't seen a Hamlet in which he's putting the madness on - hamming it up, if you will - rather than being driven to madness by situation and thoughts and finds this dramatically untenable). Cumberbatchweb (well done, fan site, for getting onto p2 of the results; maybe it's a big site in the Cumberbatch world - ah, 1.5million hits a month, not so shabby; she and I are in the minority in not being keen on the portrayal of Horatio, though she's much keener on the Claudius than I am; also points up the lighting design, which makes the single set work so well in its multiple uses). BritishTheatre (vociferously hated it; much about the butchering of the text, meaningless gimmicks, badly acted; review based on a 'preview night', of which they say: 'The night in question has been termed a preview by the Producers, despite the fact that no literature about the production suggested that there were previews, the box office at the time of booking could not say when the press night was, the tickets themselves do not mention anything about previews, and the ticket price for the night in question was exactly the same as tickets for two months into the run. Only Producer greed accounts for this. If you charge full price for a production, it is not a preview.'). Vickster51Corner blog (well done, blogger, p2 of Google results; this a review of her third visit, post-press-night, having seen the first performance and another 'preview'; here are her thoughts on the first performance - careful to make clear it's not a review; it's very interesting to read the comparison and what's changed or developed; nice touch, which I'd forgotten, of Gertrude's clothes being wet when she returned with news of Ophelia's drowning; she liked Ophelia interpretation; we shared a number of opinions (though like a lot of the other reviewers she found Claudius too weak, where I thought the opposite); also mentions the puzzling moment, which I'd forgotten, of Ophelia frantically writing something in the corridor scene with Hamlet, which I expected to be a warning note that they were being overheard, but which passed without mention, she didn't show it and Hamlet didn't look, but Hamlet did subsequently appear to realise/suspect they were being observed for no apparent reason; I quite liked her reviews, and her blog is a new one to me; and I see from her Twitter that she went to the last performance as well!). 

Several reviews mention Simon Russell Beale's performance (among others, most of which I have seen); I do hope one day to see the video recording of his performance which I think the V&A have in their video archive.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

the great mystery of musical theatre

Last Saturday I went to see Xanadu at the Southwark Playhouse. For a theatre audience, the high proportion of men was striking. And, although I did not do a survey, and am no expert, I'd venture to say that it was clear that a significant majority of those men were gay.

Why are musical theatre and opera so popular among gay men? This is a genuine question, but not one to which you often see any serious answers given. It's a cliche, certainly, but one that is borne out in my own theatregoing experience, from opera, through G&S, to musicals.

I think it may be true to a lesser extent about theatregoing in general, which does relate to one general view is that the theatrical world has always been more accepting of, and therefore a refuge or haunt of, those with what are nowadays called alternative lifestyles.

People might also say that gay people are proportionally more likely to be artistic or theatrical in general. If this is so, and it may be (though I don't have any statistics to hand), why should it be so? Further, people may say that things like the heightened emotionality and flamboyance (or some other traits) of musical theatre reflects the gay male character - or shall we say a certain gay male character type. Again, that may or may not be so; but on the one hand, I'm not sure all musical theatre is emotional and flamboyant (or whatever), and on the other, why should emotionality and flamboyance (or whatever) be any more characteristic of a gay man than a heterosexual man?

It's a question which exercises me in particular because, of course, I like quite a lot of things which are thought to be typical of what gay men like - in particular theatre, musical or otherwise. I certainly don't feel that I'm in touch with 'my gay side' in liking these things; to me they're just things that to me any ordinary, right-thinking person would, could, should like; there's nothing distinctively 'gay' about them.

It would clearly be implausible to suggest that there's any genetic predisposition to a love of musical theatre among gay men. Perhaps if I'd finished that sentence 'in the gay community' that might have suggested one avenue of possibility, more along the nurture than nature lines - that a certain type of gay man likes it because that's the kind of thing a certain kind of gay man's community likes, and is drawn into because that's what his friends like and that's what he's expected to like (and indeed one would grow to love it more the more one was exposed to it, even if one didn't like it much to start with). (Would a Christian equivalent be awful Christian music?) A self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating cycle, perhaps with its roots in that original 'accepting theatrical world' hypothesis and having extended on from that. It's not a wholly satisfactory hypothesis, but will have to stand as a partial explanation for now.

It's something which I continue to find perplexing, and will continue to reflect on.

[Later: coincidentally, the day after I wrote this I listened to the Kermode/Mayo film review podcast, hosted on this occasion by Bhaskar/King, and they were reviewing Do I Sound Gay?, a documentary on a similar theme: as Wikipedia puts it, it 'explores the existence and accuracy of stereotypes about the speech patterns of gay men, and the ways in which one's degree of conformity to the stereotype can contribute to internalized homophobia'. So, unsurprisingly, I'm not the only person who thinks about these things.]

the martian

On Saturday 17 October we all went to an afternoon showing of The Martian at the Genesis Cinema on Mile End Road. It was surprisingly quiet, given it had only been out a couple of weeks. We all enjoyed it. On the Mayo/Kermode film review show Simon Mayo said his son thought it was the best book he'd ever read, and from the interview with Ridley Scott it's clearly one of those 'hard' scifi books which rigorously hypothesises the science to reach a situation and within that situation.

The pleasure in the film, and presumably the book, is hardly at all 'will he survive and be rescued?' but much more about the details of how someone in that situation (being marooned on Mars with limited provisions and resources) could survive and be rescued. So if one was after action and excitement one might be disappointed, but happily we weren't.

One odd thing was that I found myself imagining who'd have been cast in various roles if the film had been made ten or twenty or thirty years ago - mostly because someone briefly made me think 'is that so and so' and then realised no, that's what so and so looked like long ago. Mackenzie Davis was playing Wynona Rider's part. Kristen Wiig was playing Jennifer Aniston's part. My second seeing of Benedict Wong in a couple of weeks - also in Prometheus, another Ridley Scott. I always like seeing him, knowing him first from 15 Storeys High, in which he was great. I saw him in a Hamlet, the Michael Sheen one.

One nice bit was that when someone brings a rescue plan to Nasa, they call it Project Elrond, and Sean Bean's in the room when they talk about why they've called it this. Surprisingly, this was actually in the book, not introduced as an in-joke for the film.

Friday, 30 October 2015


On Wednesday 28 October we all went, in the afternoon (half-term, but still cheap daytime prices, £4 each), to see Spectre at the Genesis Cinema. I think the younger we were, the more we liked it.

I certainly was more interested in James Bond films when I was younger, on the telly, rather than in the cinema. Post-80s they became less casual about sex (a mixture of Aids and addressing sexism), post-Bourne they became more 'realistic' in their violence. Recently they've become more concerned with psychology and back story, rather like Doctor Who (but much less so). I do prefer having a bit more proper plot and dialogue rather than relentless action sequences, but it still didn't bear too much close analysis.

I did think about all the innocent people who must have died in the Bond-caused explosion-collapse of two buildings in the opening sequence, and I thought his two sexual conquests were still surprisingly casual and due to implausible irresistible charm and the aphrodisiac power of the nearness of death. And I'd have to say that I'd be on the side of the baddies with the view that security and espionage is more effectively done through surveillance than individual agents whose main role and skill is violence and assassination. I'm not sure it prompted me to any much further or deeper thoughts than that; one might say that action films shouldn't need to, but I do prefer my films to be thoughtful even if they are action films (which, perhaps accordingly, I'm not very keen on in general).

Thursday, 29 October 2015


On Saturday 24 October I saw Xanadu at the Southwark Playhouse. I was by myself for the weekend, but it was a last-minute thing to think about going out in the evening; I checked this, because of course I like ELO and I like musicals, but I had thought it was sold out, so was surprised to see it wasn't. I got a ticket, although I must confess I was almost put off by the things I was reading about it - not reviews, but Twitter comments - in which the overwhelming theme (of praise) was how it was the campest thing anybody had ever seen, but I decided to go for it all the same. (The fact that it's about ten minutes' walk away was also a factor in choosing it rather than other possibilities.)

I think perhaps campness - in performance/theatrical terms - is one of those 'can't define it but you know it when you see it' things. I'm at ease with a bit of over-the-topness, and cheese and ham can work on stage as well as on a sandwich, and arch is fine up to quite a high point, but there can be a degree of 'enjoying something because it's so bad it's good', and I really can't bear 'so bad it's good'. Nothing is so bad it's good. Wikipedia has a rather long article on 'camp (style)' which I may read one day.

And of course 'camp' may also be a not-very-coded way of saying 'Gay men: this is aimed at you!', which makes it not aimed at me. But perhaps more of that in another blogpost. This one will be about the show rather than the audience.

I enjoyed it. I was worried at the start because I thought it started out a bit so-bad-good over-the-top in the first number, but I felt it settled down. The singing and dancing throughout were good, the acting was on the whole pretty good, and the script was well put together and was properly funny (including the self-referential and movie-referential material), as were most of the performances. The rollerskating ability was variable, but any ability at all is impressive to me, especially while singing and acting. There were a couple of aspects which had fairly clearly been tailored with the gay male audience in mind, but on the whole the raw material and the production was pretty all-inclusive.

In my view the Jeff Lynne songs were on the whole much better than the John Farrar songs, which were more 'unremarkable musical' songs to me, but that's me. The female lead, who was essentially playing a version of Olivia Newton-John, had that very typical stage musical style of female voice which I'm not keen on (I think it has a pinched, nasal quality) but which is both popular and successful, so again what do I know. Nothing more subjective than liking someone's voice or not.

My favourite performance of the night was probably Lizzy Connolly, who played the younger of the two baddy goddesses, Calliope; she was very funny in expression as well as delivery. Looking at the programme initially, and seeing the cast in action, I didn't think I'd seen any of them before, but I realised later that I had seen Lizzy Connolly before, as Jolene in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. We were sitting in the back row, more or less, so I couldn't have picked her out on the street even then (I was in the front row of the stage left section for this one); I watched a couple of Youtube clips to remind myself of the DRS number, and what she looked like, and I did remember it as an enjoyable section of the show. She looked completely different in this of course; in fact in this she reminded me of my late former colleague Sarah Mayers, which was rather bitter-sweet. I'm sure the same happened in something else I saw within the last year, though I can't remember what; it must be a generic similarity - something about the shape of the face and the curly dark hair - rather than a close similarity. Of course, the photo of Lizzy in the programme, in which she is blonde, looks nothing like Sarah did.

(Since I saw it, I have seen Spectre, which I knew Nigel Barber was in, though I forgot until I saw him, for a split-second, as one of the national representatives at a conference.)

I have noted previously that most people I see in fringe productions are on Twitter, and it transpired that every cast member (not to mention crew, which I didn't look into deliberately but saw some) was on Twitter. It was this that prompted me to start making a Twitter list of stage tweeters who I've seen.

I don't think I could say this production of Xanadu prompted any particular reflections (apart from about the audience) or provided any particular insights, but I don't think it intended to, and that's fine. It was a good production which I'd recommend to someone who liked musicals, but not necessarily generally recommend, and I certainly wouldn't feel the need to see it again (as a significant number of Tweeters seemed to intend to do).

Some reviews - not many in the first couple of pages (almost entirely earlier articles about the production coming up). Webcowgirl. and Partially Obstructed View were actually the only two that came up in the first two pages, and even when I restricted the search to the last month. Unusually, the theatre and the company haven't been tweeting links to good reviews, which suggests it's not that I'm missing them but that they're not there (good or bad). Which surprises me, as I'd expect there to be more blog reviews at least, if not professional press. Maybe if I look in a couple of weeks there will be some more.

Monday, 26 October 2015

the red lion

On Monday 10 August Bethan and I went to the National Theatre, to their redone smallest theatre (now called the Dorfman) for the first time, to see The Red Lion, Patrick Marber's football play. We enjoyed it. It was a three-hander (young future hope, manager, old coach), acted well and well written, though some of the plot and character developments seemed if not quite implausible then at least underexplained (the player's religious opposition to cheating doesn't last long). It was a nice space, and we could see pretty well though we were sitting in the sideways facing seats in the first half (usher suggested at half-time that we could sit in a couple of empty seats in the central stalls, and we took her up on that). (It was quite a last-minute purchase, and I was surprised I was still able to get tickets.

(Calvin Demba (player) was new. Daniel Mays (manager) has a distinctive face and I'm sure I've seen him before, though not sure what in. (I see from Wikipedia that we certainly saw him in Mike Leigh's All Or Nothing, and Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang, and I may have seen him in the first episode of Plus One but I baled out of that series. And I see from his Twitter account that we're going to see him as Private Walker in the new Dads Army film.) Peter Wight (coach) looked familiar, but possibly generic (from Wikipedia, certainly seen him in Mike Leigh films and Hot Fuzz.)

First couple of pages of reviews. Guardian. Observer. Telegraph. What's On Stage. Spectator (not very positive, his criticisms are fair). Independent interview (with some interesting background, including his involvement with Lewes FC). Daily Mail. Variety. Hollywood Reporter. BritishTheatre. Time Out. West Ham Till I Die (definitely the first time I've linked to a review from there - long and interesting, and 182 comments, which I haven't read; reminded me that the air was full of the smell of Deep Heat). The Arts Desk. Financial Times. Evening Standard interview. Evening Standard. Rev Stan blog. The Stage. LondonTheatre. Mostly positive, a couple quite critical. Surprising how much of the plot some of them give away (I've certainly found in the past that reviews give different things away, so as soon as you read more than one you're getting too much information, if you read them before you go).

Sunday, 25 October 2015

morris and ceri james

On Tuesday 13 October, at our normal rehearsal time, Morris Folk Choir recorded (while being videoed doing so) a song with Ceri James (here's his website) - first a version to a prerecorded band recording, as a fall back to have in the bag, I guess - and then live with the band there. He'd asked us because he'd been on the same (day-long) bill with the choir one Sunday earlier this year in New Cross.

I, and a few others I think, felt underprepared (and a bit distracted from learning our own repertoire), but we relaxed into it and enjoyed it.

One of the good things about the choir is that, while never pushing ourselves forward and putting ourselves about to pursue 'opportunities', which would not only be hard work but also a bit intense and pressurising, all kinds of interesting opportunities and projects do come our way.


On Tuesday 20 October I finished Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton.

GK Chesterton and CS Lewis are probably the two most-quoted people in books or articles I've read making/defending the case for God, meaning and morality in general and Christianity in particular (apologetics, that would be) - or, at least, the two most-quoted whose quotes resonate with me.

I've read pretty much everything non-academic of CS Lewis's, but I hadn't read any of GK Chesterton's non-fiction. I thought it was about time I did, and I got off Amazon (to top up a book order of something else, for free postage) what turned out to be a print-on-demand edition (as you can get for many out of copyright things), but none the worse for that, of Orthodoxy, his most notable work of apologetics.

(CS Lewis is widely known and praised, of course; fewer direct you to GK Chesterton's original works, though I have friends like Danica who recommend him highly (and of course CSL did himself), and his apologetics works are not come by so easily. I've read The Man Who Was Thursday, which was very good apart from its disappointing ending; The Club Of Queer Trades, which was pretty good; a couple of essays in collections; and a Father Brown collection (for which he is most famous, though I found them preposterous when I read them long ago and didn't go back to a second volume; perhaps I would feel differently now).)

It was just around a hundred pages but was the kind of book that you read two pages at a time - not because it's heavy going, but because it's densely packed with things to think about. He's a great phrasemaker, especially expressing apparently paradoxical ideas, or at least expressing ideas in apparently paradoxical ways. That's why he gets quoted so much, I guess. The writing, and the thinking it expresses, is beautifully crafted.

I found it helpful, and it appealed to me a great deal. There were bits - mostly in one early chapter in particular - where I wasn't sure what he was on about, not because it was unclear, but because I didn't really get what the problem or issue was that he was addressing. I guess for some people the whole book might be like that, or different bits from the bits which didn't resonate with me (perhaps if I read it again in the future the bits I didn't get would be addressing something live for me at that time) - just writing about issues which don't trouble them, or in a way which leaves them cold.

(Partly it may also depend on how prepared you are to read something written from another time and culture, bits of which may be jarring to your own time and culture, without thinking that invalidates its relevance or ability to speak into your time and culture. That's always something I've been prepared to do, in fiction or non-fiction. I'm not one for the arrogance of chronology, or the definitive superiority of the modern; conversely, I'm firmly of the view that people, and their thoughts and feelings etc, aren't as different as differences in time and culture might lead us to believe.)

There's a giant page of GK Chesterton quotes on Wikiquote, and that's with separate substantial pages for several of his works, including Orthodoxy.

Of the sections I noted while reading it, this was probably my favourite, especially the last eight words: 'this world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false. .... I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it.'

I also appreciated the section (too long to reproduce here) where he wrote about the ways in which different people objected to or complained about different aspects of Christianity in ways which were polar opposites to each other, and the church's great balancing act (in the 'paradoxes of Christianity' chapter).

And finally, a couple of quotes from the 'romance of orthodoxy' chapter:
- 'In actual modern Europe, a free-thinker does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who, having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions'
- 'But in truth this notion that [the New Theology] is "free" to deny miracles has nothing to do with the evidence for or against them. It is a lifeless verbal prejudice of which the original life and beginning was not in the freedom of thought, but simply in the dogma of materialism. The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it.'

I'm sure it won't be long before I read some more GK Chesterton.

Saturday, 24 October 2015


This morning I finished watching Prometheus, the Alien prequel. I remember it had disappointing, and disappointed, reviews, and that seems fair enough. It was okay, visually impressive (with a lot of forward-referencing), but it didn't seem to stand well as a film by itself. It was a bit hard to follow what was meant to be the unfolding situation, and when people did give a point of explanation it was hard to work out how they'd worked that out. Kind of film you want to go online afterwards to see what the story actually was. Like Alien itself, a key message was don't trust robots or corporations.

Friday, 23 October 2015

st john passion

The oldest draft post I've got here is one which notes that on Monday 7 April 2014 we went to Cadogan Hall to hear the Barts Choir do Bach's St John Passion. It was fine!

(Hmm, turns out it wasn't the latest, just the 100th; there were 21 on the next page... At some point in 2014 I resolved to try to note all the things I did on the blog. As you can see, there's quite a backlog.)

one hundred years of solitude

I marked the day of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's death, Friday 18 April 2014, by abandoning his most notable work, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, after about eighty pages. It was just a bit dull. I was reading it because it's one a couple of those 'greatest books ever' lists that I've got, and although I find it hard to give up on a book before finishing it, I'd given it a go for some time, and I'm getting old, with a finite amount of time to read an infinite number of books, so I'm increasingly inclined to force myself to stop reading a book I'm not enjoying.

I really haven't got much more to say about it than that it was tedious and heavy going, and just felt like soap opera for people who liked literature and wouldn't be seen dead watching soap opera. It was hard to keep track of who was who, and I realised I just wasn't interested enough to care and to make the effort. One of those books of which I thought, I really don't get what the big deal is, this is wholly unremarkable. (One might wonder if it's the translation, but presumably most of the people whose opinion is communicated in English read it in this translation.)

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

three one-act irish classics

On Saturday 15 August Bethan and I went to Pentameters (our first time there) to see what was billed as Three One-Act Irish Classics, by Synge (Riders To The Sea), Yeats (The Pot Of Broth) and Lady Gregory (The Travelling Man). It was okay; both the plays and the performances were a bit variable, but we were glad we went. It wasn't very long (they played them back to back without an interval), and it was an interesting little theatre above a pub. The lady who had set it up, Leonie Scott-Matthews, spoke before and after the performances, very informal and communal (she asked who hadn't been before; most had); there were about a dozen in the audience, I think. When I arrived there was a locksmith opening it up as they'd been accidentally locked out. Of the cast of four, Clare McGrath and Victoria Otter I'd not be surprised to see again. The first play was the best, and reminded me of the kind of play I used to see at home done by amateur companies, with its very Hebridean theme of loss of sons/brothers at sea.

Not many reviews, unsurprisingly. I did find one from the Camden Review, one on a theatre blog Notes of an Idealist, and a little one on a personal theatre blog, Loitering In The Theatre, who all enjoyed the triple bill, perhaps slightly more than we did.

Sunday, 18 October 2015


On Thursday 2 June I finished Stonemouth by Iain Banks. It was okay, but I felt like it was going over familiar ground. I don't have many books of his left to read, sadly.

is hell for real

On Sunday 12 July I finished Is Hell For Real, a Zondervan collection of essays on the subject edited by Morgan & Paterson. It was okay, but didn't really scratch where I was itching, as they say, which was something less on the fact that the Bible (and Jesus in particular) teaches unambiguously about it, and more on why it is fair and necessary, and its nature.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

he saw us

On Wednesday 4 March I went to see Anna Rebmann and Danica Smith doing He Saw Us at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. It was a series of monologues written by Anna of women who had met Jesus, but as contemporary equivalents rather than of the historic period, interspersed with Danica playing Sacred Harp tunes on the fiddle, and finishing with them both singing a setting of the Magnificat by Libby Roberts, which was an unexpected pleasure.

We were a small crowd, mostly friends from church. I enjoyed it, and it was more impressive when you realised that Anna had written them herself. It's a high-risk strategy getting Danica to accompany you, because she's so good, but Anna held her own. It's a pleasure seeing two friends performing together.

There are events pages for it on Anna's website and Facebook.

in the loop

On Monday 27 July Bethan and I watched In The Loop, which had been on the digibox for ages. It was quite good, but not nearly as good as The Thick Of It.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

the pundit's folly

On Sunday 9 August I finished The Pundit's Folly by Sinclair Ferguson. Originally a set of conference talks on Ecclesiastes, I think; it was okay, probably a bit disappointed that it wasn't better. But then, I've read a lot on Ecclesiastes.

The cover is, I think, an unusually bold design for a Banner of Truth book, with no text at all on the cover (you can see the spine, pink capitals and publisher logo in white boxes), just a striking, partly-coloured image which looks like the kind of line drawing or engraving of the kind one would think of as pre-20th-century, and which suits well a book on Ecclesiastes. There is, inevitably, no indication of whether this is an old or new image, or who made it.

Monday, 12 October 2015

bye bye birdie

On Friday 4 September we all - with Hei Mun (who organised it, of course), Laura and Margaret - went to the Old Rose & Crown in Walthamstow (my first time in this pub theatre) to see Bye Bye Birdie. It was very good. I enjoyed it at least five times more than Miss Saigon, which I'd seen the day before; the younger generation, conversely, preferred Miss Saigon; when I asked tonight why she didn't like this one so much, she said that nothing happened in it.

A stage musical from the early 60s, made into a film which I've never seen. Funny script, proper songs, very good performances, lots of harmony/ensemble singing, and good dancing. They took a risk playing good songs from the period before the start and at the interval, but the show's music bore the comparison.

The small band was at the back of the performing area (audience seated on two edges of the 'stage', front and left). One of the most striking things, which actually made the show more enjoyable, was how much the drummer in particular seemed to be enjoying not only playing but also watching the show; she was very cheery; and indeed I tracked her down on Twitter to thank her for this enhancement of the theatregoing experience...

I didn't know any of the songs, except the short 'We love you Conrad, we do' song, which passed into popular culture, perhaps via 'We love you Beatles', as a football terrace song, as in 'We love you Arsenal, we do'.

Once again an excellent fringe production worthy of a much bigger theatre, and performers as good as any on a west end stage, whether living out a career in the London fringe or a bright hope for the future. We'd seen Zac Hamilton (Conrad Birdie) before, in Princess Ida at the Finborough (he has a memorable face; a couple of others may have been in things we've seen, but I didn't remember them). The standout performances were Ryan Ford Iosco as the manager Albert Peterson, Liberty Buckland as his assistant/fiancee Rose Alvarez, Abigail Matthews as fan club president Kim Macafee and Harry Hart as her dad Harry Macafee.

(One of the most interesting things in the programme is that most of the cast listed their Twitter account in their bio. I've noticed more and more that people in fringe/offWE things I see are active on Twitter, which must be useful professionally.)

All Star Productions do things regularly there, I think, perhaps usually musical, and Bethan went there with Hei Mun earlier in the year to see something.

Some reviews. BritishTheatre. A Younger Theatre (a surprisingly poor review, which suggests I should ignore Lucy Streeten's reviews in future because we obviously see things very differently). LondonTheatre. MusicalTheatreReview. Voice Studio (someone's reviews on their work site). IndieLondon. Remote Goat. Civilian Theatre (a review blog, new to me). Unsurprisingly, not so many reviews on the first couple of results pages, and all online-only reviewers.

miss saigon

On Thursday 3 September - the second-last day of the school holidays - the younger generation and I went to a matinee of Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre. My parents saw it many years ago in its full run, when it featured Jonathan Pryce and, I presume, a more extravagantly-staged helicopter scene, since it was often mentioned and didn't seem particularly fancy in this one (a shorter, revival run).

The two main roles, the Engineer and Kim, were played by two different people, but there didn't seem to be any indication which was performing at our performance, which I take to mean that it was the primary person - Jon Jon Briones (it was definitely him) and Eva Noblezada respectively. (The programme did come with an insert that indicated that Ellen was being played by a new cast member, Carolyn Maitland, rather than Siobhan Dillon.)

So much of the setting and plot was pretty sordid. I wasn't at all impressed with the songs, either music or lyrics, although they were sung (and danced) perfectly well. The use of recitative (is that the right word? Through-sung?) I don't like in musicals, where I think it's an attempted indicator that this is higher art than 'ordinary' musicals and more like the opera form to which it aspires in artistic status (and in which I don't like recitative either). It's also miserable, which also perhaps reflects its seeking after high art status, since obviously nothing cheery can be high art. The number I enjoyed most was the unaccompanied male chorus song at the start of the second half, although the song itself was unremarkable, and it also served as a reminder of how most of the musical (like many other musicals and operas) was just a sequence of solo performances.

And while I'm not keen on tragedies in general, it was my least favourite kind of tragedy, the infuriating kind in which tragedy could be averted by one simple conversation; a bit more communication and a bit less acting on jumped-to conclusions: that's not tragedy, that's stupidity.

I really didn't like it. The younger generation did like it: I'm not sure why, in particular, other than getting to see a big, non-family musical. She had been listening regularly to a CD of the songs which happened to be in the holiday home we'd been staying in not long before.

Yet again I feel sorry for, and rather mystified by, people whose annual or holiday theatre trip is to a big West End musical. They have consistently provided my least satisfying theatre experiences, and I continue to be surprised that they're so popular. Spectacle? Undemanding entertainment? It's just what's expected of you to do? I have to say it's often a sense of obligation that takes me to these, the idea that I really should see what all the fuss is about, especially when they've run a long time. I never saw Cats, in the end. I do intend to see Phantom of the Opera, eventually...

Some reviews of this revival production (mostly from May 2014, when it opened; it runs into next year, when it goes on overseas tour) from the first two pages of Google results (interestingly, more ticket-selling sites manage to get their pages in among the reviews than in my usual review searches). Telegraph (I see instantly it was a different actor playing Chris, the main US GI character, then). Guardian. London Theatreland (suspect this more a ticket-selling site than a reviewing site). LondonTheatre. Evening Standard. LondonTheatreDirect (another ticket-selling site, another glowing review...). Daily Mail. Independent. What's On Stage. Time Out. Financial Times. BritishTheatre. A mixed bag, but very much tending to the positive.

the secret life of walter mitty

On Thursday 27 August we all watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (the Ben Stiller version), which we all enjoyed; it was better than I'd expected. That's it.

dominion; morris performance

Today (that is, Sunday - I see this has published a minute after midnight, so it'll show as Monday) I finished Dominion by CJ Sansom, an alternate history thriller set in a 1952 in which Britain surrendered after Dunkirk. I enjoyed it quite a lot, though more for the alternate history than the thriller. In general, whether on page or screen, I'm averse to stress, danger and tension in fiction, so I'm not a great one for thrillers or certain kinds of crime stories, for example. Even in a comedy or a children's programme, if someone is doing something as simple as looking for something in someone else's room, I don't like it. So I wasn't big on the specific plot, but I liked very much the carefully thought-through alternate world in which it happened.

There was quite a bit at the end of the book by CJ Sansom about how he wrote it, and the thinking behind it. He mentioned that Robert Harris's Fatherland was, in his view, the best novel of this kind, and I think I had read that somewhere else around the time I picked up Dominion, because I picked up Fatherland somewhere subsequently and will give it a go too.

Perhaps the thing I'll remember most for longest is how in that post-novel section he speaks very strongly against Scottish nationalism in particular (the book was published in 2012, when the 2014 Scottish independence referendum run-up was already under way), in the context of the dangers of the rise of European nationalism in modern times and the lessons we need to learn from 20th century history of the dangers of nationalism. In the novel, as in the afterword, he identifies the SNP as being appeasing of and insufficiently opposed to Nazism.

I had previously picked up one of his Shardlake historical detective novels set in London, so I'll certainly read that in due course.

I had a big final push on Dominion this weekend courtesy of long bus journeys to and from Croydon yesterday, where Morris Folk Choir were singing at a musical benefit evening in memory of Marian's brother Jim, at Ruskin House. We were a smaller choir than usual on the night, and for some the music was a background to their socialising, but those who were paying attention seemed to appreciate it.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

nell gwynn

On Saturday 19 September, at the last minute (we'd just eaten across the road and went in to pick up a leaflet), the younger generation and I went to the Globe to see Nell Gwynn, a new play by Jessica Swale (the first night, as it happened) - Bethan didn't fancy it and went home. I was glad to go, as I hadn't been this year.

We got £15 seats in the lowest seats, in the very left-hand section but in the back row so there was a wall behind us to lean on, which makes it the best row. If I'd been by myself I'd have got a £5 standing ticket, but it would have been too long for us both to stand. She did want to give standing a go, though, so we stood for the first half, mostly at the left-hand side of the stage. (The man who sold us the tickets said that we would be able to walk down into the ground from where we were sitting, when he saw that we were thinking about it. I'd also asked him about age suitability, and he said they didn't have an age suggestion, and there was some language but nothing else that he was aware of (and he was right; I thought it was worth checking, as it could have been quite adult given the story).) It was nice to be able to go to our seats for the second half; there were people sitting in our seats during the first half, which we didn't mind, but they weren't there for the second half; a few others were absent too, I guess either because they'd gone for better seats they'd seen empty, or they'd decided to stand. The seats were a fairly similar view to what we'd had standing - often behind the actors, sometimes with a big pillar between us and them - with the drawback that you couldn't move about to allow for where things were happening to get a better view.

We thought it was a pretty good play, and enjoyed it. We have a lot to be thankful to Horrible Histories for, in getting children familiar with history. As with Julius Caesar, when we went last year, we missed some of the dialogue because of where we were standing/sitting, but nothing too major. I liked the approach they'd taken, using the theatrical company as the way in to the story and the focus of much of the action, rather than the court. (The programme was a good one too, historically informative.) It was well done, well acted, pretty funny and some good songs (I guess original).

Some of the faces were familiar, mostly from the Globe. Amanda Lawrence, as Nancy, Nell's dresser, got a lot of the laughs, sometimes for business we couldn't see, especially the scene where she is called upon to be an actress, and I'd guess she'd do well in reviews. When I saw that Graham Butler, who was playing Dryden, had been in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, I then recognised him as the lead from that when we saw it, from some of his mannerisms. The programme told me that Gugu Mbatha-Raw was in a Donmar Hamlet; Wikipedia indicates that she was Ophelia to Jude Law's Hamlet; I remember very little about that production (not sure I blogged it) except feeling very sleepy and Jude in front of a wall in the snow, so without reading some reviews to possibly remind me, I don't remember anything about her performance in that (I certainly didn't recognise her from it); but she was certainly good in this.

Some reviews from the first couple of pages of a Google search. Guardian. Financial Times (agree with it that the theatre scenes are the best). Telegraph. Culture Whisper (new to me, I think). The Stage. Evening Standard. An Independent interview with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jessica Swale (in which the interviewer asks about casting a non-white actress as Nell, which I realise made no impression on me at the time at all, so used am I to what they call 'colour-blind casting' in plays (particularly in plays set or written in pre-20th-century Britain)). The Arts Desk. Sunday Express. The Hollywood Reporter (first appearance in my blog, I think. A good line: 'Mindful that the story of a poor girl who screws her way to the top isn't exactly what today's audiences would consider an empowering narrative, Swale's play takes pains to paint Nell as a proto-feminist class warrior whose innate honesty and instincts about what makes people tick keep her afloat'. Also: 'Oddly, given the play is about a woman whose sexuality, perceived and actual, was so much a part of her success, the show is peculiarly lacking in body contact between the actors beyond a few chaste kisses' - which I was very happy about, I have to say). What's On Stage. Time Out. South London Press. A Younger Theatre. TheatreCat. Several reviews refer to Gugu as a rising Hollywood star. The reviews are almost uniformly positive (The Arts Desk's probably the least positive; negative comments in general relate to lack of depth/analysis and broadness/crowdpleasingness/Blackadderishness of humour, neither of which bothered me).

Friday, 9 October 2015

this boy

On holiday in Harris I read This Boy by Alan Johnson, finishing on Friday 28 August. I enjoyed it quite a lot. I'd heard it was good, and it was certainly full of good review quotes at the start of the book, but a couple said things like 'much more than a misery memoir', which made me wary, as I really can't abide misery memoirs (and I did know his childhood wasn't idyllic).

But the quotes were accurate; it was certainly the story of his childhood, but one which rather than taking the world around it as simply the backdrop for a me, me, me story, set the story in the context of the world of the time and used the story as a way to tell you what the world was like then. And by 'the world' I mean Britain and London in the 50s and 60s. Well written, and interesting.