Wednesday 19 June 2013

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Despite its runaway success, I didn't get round to reading Wolf Hall for a while, mainly because my most reliable friends weren't too sure about it. They (independently) found the narrative confusing, frequently referring to 'he' without it being clear who 'he' was. Eventually I thought I'd decide for myself and took the hardback on holiday, lugging it like a brick in a sandstorm around the beaches of Cornwall.

The reason I kept carrying it was because I was hooked - by Hilary Mantel's use of language, her detailed depictions of the fabric of Tudor domesticity and her envisioning of the much reworked courtly rise of Anne Boleyn from the fresh perspective of that previously underwritten commoner-made-good, Thomas Cromwell. to me, it was clear that when 'he' is unnamed, despite the proliferation of Thomases, it's always Cromwell that's being referred to, because the novel is written from his point of view. To be fair, I did have the advantage of tackling large chunks of story in one go and would most likely have found the odd page or two before dropping off to sleep much more challenging.

In Bring up the Bodies, the second of Mantel's trilogy which has already won her a second Booker Prize, she addresses my friends' criticism by frequently writing 'he, Cromwell'. This may succeed in clearing up any confusion, but does reduce the immediacy between Cromwell and the reader, the feeling of standing in his increasingly expensive shoes. Despite this, the moment I opened the book I was basking once more in glorious prose, feasting on Mantel's opulent re-imagining of events
His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horse-back, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze.
Thus the scene of hawks in flight is set. Cromwell is Master of the Rolls now, sleek and powerful as the enforcer who has rid the King of his first wife at the cost of disestablishing the church, only to find Henry quickly wanting rid of the second, the one he risked everything for. The bones of this story are all too familiar, but Cromwell's viewpoint is as intriguing as ever. The sense remains that he (as written by Mantel) is an unparalleled reader of motive, one pace ahead of his compatriots; the cleverest man in any Tudor room.

In Wolf Hall, I loved Cromwell's evaluation of a person by the provenance and quality of their cloth and was a little disappointed that this diminished in the second volume. It would also have been illuminating to find out more about his close personal relationships; those with women are tantalisingly slight. But Mantel makes up for this with Cromwell's reflections on his life
I never lay awake a night for love, though poets tell me that is the procedure. Now I lay awake for its opposite.
After the long build up to power through marriage in Wolf Hall, the speed of Queen Anne's demise is shocking, as is Cromwell's pivotal role in it. The facts of her conviction are as slippery as the blood spilled by a beheading, but Cromwell's view, once his mind is made up, is unwavering.

Still, he is filled with foreboding by the die-hard English Catholic establishment with whom he reluctantly allies himself, not least the Seymours who see one of their own married to the King within nine days of Anne's death. The niggle I had in Wolf Hall that Cromwell might be too sympathetically portrayed is eradicated by the number of executions he sanctions, all the while calculating that the sands of his time at the King's right hand are running out.

Whatever my criticisms they are minor, because this is another masterpiece from Mantel. Perhaps the judges of the Women's Prize for Fiction were unwilling to vote for the obvious when they didn't choose this book or perhaps they were ready for a change. Whatever the reason, at the moment I find it hard to believe that Bring up the Bodies could be bettered, apart from perhaps by the final instalment of this trilogy.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Bluebeard at Bristol Old Vic

There's a particular excitement about watching something new and untested, the frisson of being in at the very beginning so you haven't been told what to think. Not only is Bluebeard a new production to Bristol Old Vic, developed as part of their Ferment programme, it also introduces theatre company Gallivant, although scratching their surface reveals a wealth of experience, not least from their writer Hattie Naylor and director Lee Lyford.

Bluebeard takes its inspiration from the French folk tale of that name, a dark and bloody fable of a nobleman who has murdered many wives and his latest spouse, who seeks to escape the same fate. Our protagonist Jim is acted by Paul Mundell, establishing his menace early by watching the audience from the stage before we can settle to watch him. As Jim builds the story of his first murderous relationship with Susan from Burnley in chilling and explicit detail, his manipulative and deviant character is laid bare for all to see. With his twisted smile and calculated delivery, Mundell embodies Jim's sense of ill-suppressed violence, one which apparently never fails to attract women in their droves. Without giving the subsequent story away, suffice to say this is a gruesomely compelling and deeply unsettling performance, in which I frequently found myself holding my breath.

The monologue is powerfully written by Hattie Naylor, so many words yet none of them superfluous. There are satisfying touches of repetition as Jim commands his way, an iron fist in a velvet glove, to the inevitable ending of his various one-sided relationships when the gloves most definitely are off. I particularly liked Jim's impersonation of his new wife's aunt, which brought some welcome albeit short-lived light relief, and felt she could have had a greater role to play before the shockingly satisfying denouement. The use of exuberant northern soul music provides the opportunity for some tormented dancing while, at other times, sound combines effectively with the starkly illuminated set to create a series of searing images not easily erased. Having recently seen Hamlet at the RSC I thought I'd had my fill of fluorescent tubes for a while, but they are used to great effect, particularly in the latter stages of the production.

I came away feeling I would have liked a few more comedic moments, a genuine belly laugh or two, to lighten the tone of our encounter with this evil man. On reflection, though, those moments are there and perhaps just need to be enhanced. If one measure of good theatre is how long it stays with you, then the provocative and intelligent Bluebeard is very good indeed, a disturbing emotional assault, indigestion for the intellect. A highly promising start for Gallivant, catch it while you can at Bristol Old Vic, especially if you like to be made to think about the essential nature of attraction and eroticism, the roles we accept within relationships, the why and how in the creation of a monster. You'll need to steel yourself though, it's not for the faint-hearted and the 16+ warning is definitely there for a reason.

Pictures courtesy of Bristol Old Vic

Sunday 2 June 2013

Complicite's Lionboy

The combination of epic children's adventure trilogy Lionboy and Complicite's extravagantly magical storytelling holds the promise of a sumptuous treat for the senses, so it was with great anticipation that my daughter and I headed for Bristol Old Vic to watch this new production, Complicite's first ever aimed at a family audience.

Lionboy by Zizou Corder (the pen name of Louisa Young and her daughter Isabel) is the tale of Charlie Ashanti, the son of two famous scientists working on a cure for asthma who mysteriously go missing. The story is set in the near future when most of the world's oil has been used up, travel by car is the preserve of the wealthy and planes have given way to boats. Large corporations are immensely powerful and the Corporacy, a pharmaceuticals giant, is the largest and most powerful of them all. Charlie is a normal 11 year old Londoner in all aspects apart from one; he can talk to cats and it's the neighbourhood moggies who set him on his continent-crossing quest to find his parents.

The play opens with the characters introducing themselves and their story, something I found endearing. The actors narrate with great energy and charisma; Adetomiwa Edun is a likeable and resourceful Charlie, transforming himself through effortless physicality into the cats and lions he converses with, while Femi Elufowoju is mesmerising as the lion-trainer Maccumo. Robert Gilbert portrays just the right level of menace as Charlie's pursuer Rafi and great moments of comic support are provided by the rest of the cast. The intriguing set is based around a large hanging disc which tilts to suggest moonscapes or the African sun, as well as transforming into the backcloth for shadow-puppetry or the sewers of the Corporacy headquarters.

There's an awful lot to like about this production; the showmanship of the circus and all its characters is a triumph, as is the flight of Charlie and the lions in a hot air balloon to Africa. The percussive sound is evocative throughout and there's enough technical wizardry to keep all the family happy, not to mention the inventive use of commonplace objects such as aluminium ladders to suggest the towering strength of the Corporacy or wet rubber tubing as slippery eels. The occasional splattering of the front row is amusing for those of us not sitting there (and for the actors too, one suspects). But there's a lot of story to squeeze in and some moments inevitably feel compacted. The portrayal of quite complex arguments as a boxing match in the Corporacy headquarters in the second half works less well and left us confused as to the sort of audience participation we were being asked for. And while Complicite's style is very much one of narration, I occasionally felt there could have been a little less of it and a little more dialogue and direct interaction between the characters.

As with many of Complicite's productions, this show has had a long gestation, being over three years in the devising, so the sense of a rushed ending is not likely to be through lack of consideration but because of the need for simplification. If I'd lived and loved the Lionboy trilogy as a child, I might not be entirely happy with what was left out in this adaptation. As a piece of theatre, however, this was every bit as engaging and inventive as I'd hoped.

PS The programme is lovely too!

We saw Lionboy courtesy of those lovely folk at the Bristol Old Vic, it continues its run at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Oxford Playhouse, Wales Millenium Centre and Warwick Arts Centre - check Complicite's website for dates.