Saturday 30 March 2013

Great Expectations: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

What is there to say about the The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time that hasn't already been said? Mark Haddon's book quickly became a best-seller when it was published in 2003, hailed as a breakthrough in writing about disability and slotting neatly into the English literature curriculum as a set text. Because it's essentially written as the innermost thoughts of Christopher, a fifteen year old boy with Asperger syndrome, it was generally considered impossible to adapt for stage and screen. Much of the reader's engagement with the narrative is derived from our ability to fill in the gaps, to understand, where Christopher cannot in his deceptively simple retelling of events, the problems and pressures faced by those who care for him.

Well, the National Theatre's adaptation proved that with imagination and stagecraft, the seemingly impossible can be achieved. Lauded by critics when it was first staged in the round at the Cottosloe, it has now transferred successfully to the larger setting of the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue and is nominated for no less than eight Olivier awards including Luke Treadaway for Best Actor, Marianne Elliott for Best Director and the nomination for Best Play.

So my family's anticipation was already near fever pitch when we picked up our tickets for last Wednesday night's performance. We'd booked seats in the Grand Circle so I was worried about the restrictions there might be on our view and breathed a sigh of relief when we settled in the second row and could see all but the very front of the stage clearly. Only minimal leaning was required, although I'm not so sure about seats further back and would advise careful consideration if you're booking in this tier.

The staging is simple but ingenious; the floor and three walls covered with graph lines which serve as a visual introduction to the fundamental workings of Christopher's mind; his preference for logic and difficulty in understanding anything not black-and-white, like metaphors or human emotions. Christopher is writing his book as a record of his investigation into the pitchforking of his neighbour's dog Wellington and the premise for this adaptation is that Siobhan, Christopher's teacher at his special needs school, has suggested turning his book into a play.

Acted by Niamh Cusack, Siobhan provides much of the narrative in reading out extracts as Christopher's investigations uncover much more than he originally anticipated; he meets his neighbours and resolves the mystery of his mother's disappearance as well as Wellington's untimely death. And his decision to track his mother down in London leads him to embark on a hazardous train journey from his home in Swindon, challenging the limits of his ability to interpret the world. His explanation of all the detail he sees when looking out of the train window, compared with the filtered vision of most of the passengers, is a wonderfully lucid insight into the workings of his mind, the logical way in which he processes information and the reason he finds comfort and beauty in the language and certainties of mathematics.

The problem in having great expectations, is that the play has a lot to live up to before it even begins and having seen so many trailers beforehand I'd already discounted some of the brilliance of Bunny Christie's staging and Ian Dickinson's sound. Initially I have to admit to being slightly underwhelmed; Niamh Cusack was a bit too breezy for me, her voice a little strained and I was unprepared for the amount of reading she would be doing on Christopher's behalf.  We'd booked our tickets on a Wednesday specifically to see Luke Treadaway in the role and were surprised when Johnny Gibbon appeared instead; I knew one of my daughters in particular was bound to be disappointed.

Once Christopher took ownership of some of the narrative, however, it was impossible not to be drawn in. Because the play uses Christopher's voice it's very true to the book and allows the same insights into his world. Although we don't have Luke Treadaway's performance to compare with, Johnny Gibbon is wonderful as Christopher, even more so as this is his professional stage debut - he was entirely convincing and surely has a bright future ahead of him. It's much to his credit that by the end of the performance, my daughter was cheering for Johnny (a graduate of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, after all!) and not even concerned that she hadn't seen Luke.

As Christopher's story unfolds, the transformation of the set into houses, roads, trains and particularly the platform at Paddington Station is quite simply breathtaking. The movement, choreographed by physical theatre company Frantic Assembly, is also urgent and mesmerising, particularly when Christopher dreams of being an astronaut and during his personal odyssey on the train, walking on walls, with the world speeding up around him. Sean Gleeson and Holly Aird are movingly estranged and troubled as Christopher's parents, struggling to cope with the care of a vulnerable son who doesn't like to be touched and doesn't fit into the world around him. The ensemble cast switch roles seamlessly as the action swings between bleakness and hilarity, and the ending and appendix, emerging against over-whelming odds, are touching, uplifting and yet always totally believable.

See it if you can - however great your expectations, you won't be disappointed.

Pictures courtesy of The National Theatre

Wednesday 27 March 2013

A Question of Empathy

When my first baby was born, I remember being all het up about bonding with her. What if she didn't like me much? What if she gazed over at all the other capable Mums in the maternity ward and realised she'd drawn the short-straw with this overwhelmed-looking woman who seemed incapable of putting her nappies on straight or helping her to latch on?

I raised my fears with the midwife, but was dismissed with a breezy 'It'll come naturally!' as she swept past to the next bed, which left me feeling even more inept. Suppose it didn't? Would I end up raising a sociopathic monster like the serial killer in We Need To Talk About Kevin? Why exactly was bonding so vital and if it didn't happen straight away, would we ever be able to catch up?

My nappy changing techniques always left a lot to be desired and, having eventually mastered breastfeeding, I then went in to meltdown over introducing a bottle. Things only really started to click into place when my baby began reacting to my voice and smiling as soon as she saw me. I realised I was the one making a difference to her life, keeping her warm and secure, and that I was as important to her as she was to me. If that's what you call bonding, the creation of that first essential empathetic relationship, then I got there eventually. By the time my second child was born, I was too exhausted to worry about it any more and satisfied myself with feeding and wiping the right orifices in vaguely the right order through a general fog of fatigue.

My children are both teenagers now, but I still wonder about that first bonding experience and whether a baby that misses out is able to catch up or will always have difficulty in empathising with the thoughts and emotions of others. It's generally agreed by psychiatrists that a child needs to be able to bond with an adult of some description, whether or not it's their biological parent. Without this, they tend not to develop the strength to deal with challenges, the ability to bounce back from set backs and to enjoy intimacy with others at a later stage in life.

Where expert opinion divides is on whether empathy, if not developed at the very beginning of life, can be learned later on. Is it a product of nature or nurture or, like most things, a bit of both? The National Theatre's production of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time highlights the condition that Christopher, a boy diagnosed with autism, has in understanding the emotions and reactions of others. Does autism develop before birth and so make bonding problematic however hard you might try? And why does it so often seem to affect boys rather than girls?

Simon Baron Cohen (cousin of the comedian Sacha) is a professor at Trinity College, Cambridge and director of their autism research centre. In his book Zero Degrees of Empathy, he examines behaviours on a scale ranging from 'systemising' at one end to 'empathising' at the other. There are apparently very few people who excel at both, and Baron-Cohen finds that, even allowing for social and cultural influences, men score much more highly at systemising, and women at empathising. Newborn boys are more likely to look at objects, according to Baron-Cohen, while newborn girls prefer faces.

No surprise there then for any parent who, despite their efforts at gender equality, has a daughter who acts out Barbie beach parties and a son more interested in Ken's car. But Baron-Cohen goes further in describing autism as an extreme form of systemising behaviour - linked he hypothesizes to an increased presence of testosterone in the uterus. His findings are controversial but do go some way to explaining why a parent's best attempts to bond with their baby might meet with little success.

Baron-Cohen does believe that empathy can be taught, however, although it's unclear whether teaching later in life simply allows for the development of a system to recognise various facial expressions and deliver an appropriate response, rather real empathy. Perhaps, as with babies though, that recognition might precede the development of a deeper understanding? It's hopeful to think that those who have had a difficult start in life, for whatever reason, might still be able to achieve some level of personal connection later on.

I was one bewildered mother for many reasons when my first child was born, but I do wish in retrospect that I'd known more about bonding and its importance in the development of empathy. Perhaps I should have read more widely or had it explained at ante-natal classes, along with breathing techniques and winding. It would have been great to have some guidance too, in how it might be achieved if your maternal instinct doesn't flow as naturally as mother's milk or your baby doesn't seem to respond to your efforts. Do you agree? What have been your experiences - did you get the help you needed or do you think more could be done?

Photos courtesy of The Telegraph/BBC/National Theatre

Sunday 17 March 2013

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

A few years ago, while undergoing a particularly unpleasant clinical procedure, I glanced over the nurse's shoulder at the cheap, framed print on the wall. It was a painting of a country gate opening on to a field and it transported me to the triangle of lanes above my house, where my family and I regularly walk.

All at once, I was at the gate taking in the view of the surrounding countryside, the sun warm on my face. It would be an exaggeration to say that picture saved my life, but it certainly helped me muddle though a difficult time. Whenever something daunting was about to be done to me, that gate would pop unbidden into my head. The sun was always shining and the corn ready to be cut and I'd start to visualise the way I was heading and which of my neighbours I might bump into.

Thankfully, I haven't had to take myself away to my gate lately, but reading the opening pages of The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, it's importance came back to me. Sitting on a Paddington train bristling with ipads, sleet dancing down as we drew to a halt next to Didcot power station, I was conveyed to a tiny island in the gulf of Finland, where an elderly artist and her six year old grand-daughter Sophia are spending their summer. Rarely have I come across such an overwhelming sense of place from the very outset of a story.

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. 
Written largely from her own experience, you get the feeling that Jansson knows and can describe every pebble and plant on this island. Life is deceptively simple here, as the only deadlines are those set by the weather and the changing of the seasons and yet it soon becomes apparent that in spite, or perhaps because, of this, huge philosophical questions are being tackled. Sophia has recently lost her mother, we learn, and so is fearful of death. She asks her grandmother when she is going to die, and is answered
'Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.'
The preoccupations and terrors of childhood are captured with great attention to detail - there is no skirting over youthful anxieties to recall only joyful summer days of swimming and exploration. Sophia and her grandmother are based on Jansson's niece and her own mother and their characters are firmly rooted in reality. Grandmother often feels dizzy and tired which sometimes makes her less patient and less wise than she intends. Sophia is quick-tempered, alternately fearful and over-bold and often too busy to wait for her grandmother to catch up. But they develop a companionship which grows and endures during their adventures together over a summer on the island.

Sophia and her grandmother talk about heaven, whether it might contain any ants and why the angels all wear dresses. They watch birds and wildlife together, collect bones in a magic forest and offer unrequited love to a cat. When Sophia develops an irrational fear of insects, Grandmother suggests they write a book about angleworms. They explore the nearby islands with Sophia's father, a constant but unvoiced presence in the story, celebrate midsummer and endure a mighty storm, before preparing to leave in the autumn.

Tove Jansson is best known as the creator of the Moomin children's stories. She wrote The Summer Book shortly after the death of her own mother and it was her personal favourite of the adult fiction she created. The Sort of Books edition has a wonderful introduction by Esther Freud, who visits the remote island and meets the real life Sophia, setting in context the pared-back prose and crisp dialogue of this absorbing, amusing and ultimately uplifting book.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Bath Literature Festival Round Up

So, The Independent Bath Literature Festival has drawn to a close for another year, leaving behind a void which must be filled by reading all those intriguing, exotic and wonderful titles we've been hearing about. One of the signs of a successful festival is the number of books you simply have to have by the end, and once again my Wish List has grown faster than Alice.

For various reasons (the main one being my Other Half's big birthday inconsiderately landing slap bang in the middle of the festival) I wasn't able to get to nearly as many events as I wanted to this year, either as a steward or a ticket-holding member of the audience. (It was a great celebration though, complete with this cake made and decorated by my elder daughter as we couldn't afford an actual camper van!)

So much good stuff has passed me by at this year's festival you could forgive me for feeling slightly bereft, - J K Rowling and Hilary Mantel both appearing at the Forum,  A N Wilson and Pat Barker at the Guildhall and the evocative staging of To Kill a Mockingbird in the Council Chambers to name but a few.

But enough of what I didn't see! This many not be very comprehensive, but here's a round up of my very own festival highlights from another outstanding crop of erudition, discussion and debate.

The beautiful Elif Shafak was talking Turkey, with sophisticated insights into the divisions and connections of contemporary Turkish society, as well as discussing her novel Honour, a tale of murder in a traditional Muslim family with a plot that twists between London, Istanbul and a remote Kurdish village. Shafak is an extremely popular author in Turkey, especially among young educated women, and this novel sounds truly absorbing - a potential next book club read.

Paul Mason has written a novel about China - Rare Earth being the metals and alloys used in so many of the essential items of modern day life - mobile phones, computers and cameras to name but a few.

China is building a monopoly of these precious commodities while the rest of the world looks the other way - Mason suggests he's written this as fiction because he can say in a novel many of the things he wouldn't be allowed to report as fact on Newsnight. Allegedly, there's lots of outlandish sex too, making it sound a bit  like a restoration romp transported to modern day Asia.

Ross King talking about Leonardo and the Last Supper is a privilege to listen to; he's so articulate and authoritative about his subject and his passion is infectious. His insights into the reasons behind the commissioning of The Last Supper and its painful gestation are extremely  illuminating - if you're at all interested in exploding some of the dafter myths surrounding da Vinci and this painting, you need to catch up with this book now.

James Fergusson and Ben Rawlence were in conversation with Aminatta Forna about violent conflict. Fergusson is an expert on Somalia and author of The World's Most Dangerous Place.

Rawlence is a senior researcher on Africa for Human Rights Watch and author of Radio Congo, a book which aims to show the Congolese as people not victims.

Both men are the very antithesis of violent conflict, exuding amiability and calm, but with that underlying core of steel that enables them to undertake very contrasting but equally remarkable journeys to two of the world's greatest trouble spots. Both speak chillingly of having a price tag on their heads because of their potential value as hostages and of having to flee danger at a moment's notice, but also of the warmth, curiosity and genuine friendliness of many of the people they meet in the most war torn of locations. They also discuss their motivations in going towards the very danger that many people are fleeing from, because of the need to expose the truth in these desperate and ravaged territories, rather than reporting from safer havens in heavily-reinforced media hubs often hundreds of miles away. Highly recommended - catch them (and their books) if you can.

My final event of the festival was on Saturday and by now I was rather hoping I wouldn't like the authors or their books too much so that I wouldn't have to add them to my reading list! Here I was thwarted once again  though, because both Jennie Rooney and Amity Gaige were excellent in their readings and discussion of the hows and whys of writing their two very different novels.

Red Joan is the story of a cold war spy passing secrets to the Soviet Union; initially the synopsis reminded me a little of William Boyd's Restless. It's origins are different though, based on the true story of Melita Norwood, a British Civil Servant who passed secrets to the KGB from her job as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association and was only found out at the grand age of eighty-seven, to the shock of her family and friends. Rooney is a history graduate and has researched her work extensively at the M15 archive in Kew; it sounds like a fascinating story.

Amity Gaige's novel Shroder also deals with hidden identities and lives based on half truths which make those who live them outsiders in their own communities, but in a very different way. Hers is a road story of Eric Kennedy, an American immigrant whose past catches up with him. He kidnaps his own daughter and goes on the run, journeying towards truth with all that it entails for his relationship with his child.

Phew! that's it for another year then, as Bath bids a fond farewell to James Runcie and all those other lovely Bath Festivals staff who seem to be moving on in his wake. Thank you all - it's been a blast!

Did you go to any of the Bath Literature Festival events this year? What was it like for you?

Sunday 10 March 2013

Staying In is the new Going Out

‘There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. Don't even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can't do otherwise, in raptures it will writhe before you.’

Franz Kafka's Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way

(with thanks to

(manicure, popcorn and Dallas dvd optional)

Monday 4 March 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream at Bristol Old Vic

Theatre at its most creative will take your very breath away, captivating the audience with the simplicity of its ideas and breadth of its imagination. War Horse, now a global phenomenon of course, embodies this creativity and must surely be a difficult act to follow for director Tom Morris and Handspring Puppet Company. What would their next collaboration be, and how could it live up to the heroic sacrifices of Joey and Albert in the trenches of war-torn France?

Well, Tom Morris took over as Artistic Director at Bristol Old Vic Theatre in 2009 and has reunited with Handspring to stage a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream the like of which you won't have seen before. This has long been viewed one of Shakespeare's more accessible plays - often taught to the younger secondary school years as a sort of 'look, isn't he fun?'  introduction to the Bard. As a teenager, the plot left me confused when I saw it as a lacklustre school play, but fortunately my daughters, with the benefit of a rather better education than mine, were now on hand to give me a synopsis.

The play does have a fiendish number of characters and events to grapple with - opening with Theseus, Duke of Athens and Hippolyta discussing their forthcoming nuptials. Then, there comes a love rectangle (if that's what you call a love triangle with an additional side) between four young Athenians. Hermia doesn't wish to marry her father's chosen suitor Demetrius, because she's in love with Lysander. Demetrius is in love with Hermia, but Helena is in love with Demetrius. Lysander and Hermia decide to elope and run away to the forest but Helena tells Demetrius in the hope of winning his affection.

In the same forest, a troupe of amateur actors gather to rehearse a play they're hoping to stage for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. Nick Bottom the weaver is wildly enthusiastic and tries to take on every role, but the whole troupe is watched over and manipulated by the fairies who live in the forest. The fairy King and Queen, Oberon and Titania, have fallen out and Oberon decides he will teach his wayward wife a lesson. He calls on his mischievous jester Puck to gather magical juice from a flower called love-in-idleness and apply it to Titania's eyes when sleeping, so that when she awakes, she will fall in love with the first creature she sets eyes on. Overhearing Helena and Demetrius, Oberon also instructs Puck to spread some of the potion on the eyelids of the young Athenians, which sets the stage for a comedy of misplaced ardour on the grandest and most amusing of scales.

This Bristol Old Vic production signals from the beginning that this is a unique interpretation, as the four young Athenians enter with their own 'mini-me' puppets and often concentrate on delivering dialogue through these avatars rather than speaking directly to one another. If my family and I are anything to go by, I'd say it takes a little time to tune in (as with War Horse when at first you notice the actors inside the frames) - weren't these puppets just a distraction? As the plot developed however, they became so much more - an exchange of souls, almost Northern Lights style daemons, an embodiment of alienation and reconciliation.

The woodland teems with life and possibilities as Puck is constructed from a fantastically ingenious collection of everyday objects and the forest is represented by a chorus of planks of wood used to great effect - as trees, as beds, as musical instruments, a pack of hounds and so much more - they are the thread that weaves this production together. Theseus becomes Oberon and Hippolyta becomes Titania through mesmerising adornments; the gathering of the love-in-idleness is magical and the appearance of Bottom in his altered state has to be seen to be believed!

This play delivers in terms of acting as well as puppetry - there is great energy in the cast and the scene between the four young Athenians in the woods is utterly convincing, with special mention due to Akiya Henry as Hermia (though she be but little, she is fierce) and Naomi Cranston as Helena. David Ricardo Pearce is outstanding as Theseus/Oberon, and the performance of the band of actors at the end is so comically terrible, with Miltos Yerolemou in particular deserving great credit, that I found myself crying with laughter.

So, farewell to the rambling confusion of my old school play and welcome to this breathtaking and hilarious production - surely due, if the preview audience reaction was anything to go by, for a massively successful run in Bristol and beyond.

Rehearsal pictures courtesy of Bristol Old Vic