Saturday 28 September 2013

Chimerica at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Those of us around in 1989 will never forget the news images of a single white-shirted man standing in front of a column of tanks in Tienanmen Square. The Chinese equivalent of the Arab Spring was being rubbed out by the authorities and we held our collective breath, terrified we might be about to witness the crushing of this solitary figure by an overwhelming force. Rather than retreating from danger, he jumped into the tank's path as it tried to weave around him and scaled its sides to talk to the soldier within. We looked at him with renewed wonder. Who was this astonishing protester confronting the might of the Chinese army single-handed? What was motivating him and what could he be carrying in those two plastic shopping bags?

That now-iconic picture is the starting point for Lucy Kirkwood's epic new play Chimerica, a fictional account of what happens when American photo journalist Joe Schofield (played by Stephen Campbell Moore), who captured the event on film at the time, becomes obsessed in the present day with finding the answers to the enigma that is Tank Man. He enlists the support of fellow journalist Mel (Sean Gilder) and their editor Frank (Trevor Cooper) and flies to meet his Chinese contact and friend Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong). Along the way he becomes involved with Tess (Claudie Blakley), an English market analyst profiling the Chinese consumer for her credit card client. As Joe's investigation progresses the action switches seamlessly between China and America, between the present day and the events of June 1989. In the same way that Michael Frayn's Copenhagen explains the principles of quantum mechanics in simple terms to the scientifically challenged, Chimerica weaves the economic and political relationship between the two superpowers effortlessly into its narrative, so the dynamics are clear without it ever feeling preachy.

Chimerica is much more than an examination of Chinese and American interdependence though: at its core is a man's obsession and its impact in terms of human relationships. What begins as a work assignment with colleagues morphs into a lonely compulsion which Joe pursues despite the costs - to his nascent romance with Tess, his professional relationship with Mel and ultimately to the life and well-being of Zhang Lin, an English teacher with his own demons which are gradually uncovered during the course of the play.

Lucy Kirkwood took six years to write Chimerica and her crafting is evident throughout. She explores the interdependence between China and America; the nature of money and power in both countries, the way it corrupts and the way it suppresses. In an era when we are learning much from whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, Chimerica  demonstrates how this type of suppression is a two way street - there are no squeaky clean good guys here. Every character has their flaws and their own story which has changed them by the end of the evening and this is emphasised by superb acting from the cast. As well as the main protagonists, Andrew Leung deserves special mention playing both the young Zhang Lin and Benny. Apart from the first few moments, when I had difficulty tuning into some of the diction and speed, the dialogue is witty and sparkling, the action fast paced and incredibly slick.

Above all, this is quite simply sensational theatre, co-produced by Headlong, who are at the peak of their form at the moment, and the Almeida. Es Devlin's revolving set is breathtakingly clever - you can get a taster of its innovative design here as you see it under construction. The maelstrom of projection and lighting is exhilarating, the pace never slackens and the music is atmospheric. How much of this was envisaged by Lucy Kirkwood and how much created by director Lyndsey Turner and her team is something that intrigues me because I'd love to find out more about their collaborative process. But ultimately it's the story that gets you. There are many twists and turns along the way and, whether you witnessed the images in 1989 or not, Tank Man and the contents of those two plastic shopping bags will send shivers down your spine.

Chimerica is a Headlong and Almeida Theatre co-production which opened at the Almeida Theatre on 20th May 2013 and then at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1 on 6th August 2013. Our seats were in the middle of the Royal Circle which gave us a good view. Chimerica is running for a limited season until 19th October 2013.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

A long novel demands commitment from its readers, a promise you'll stay the distance whatever the ups and downs along the way. The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell may be four-books-in-one, but at over 800 pages of densely written prose, it clearly falls into the lengthy category. It was gathering dust on my bedside pile, passed over for slimmer, less demanding volumes, until I pounced on it as the perfect tome for a two week getaway last month.

Each book in the quartet is named after one of the main protagonists; Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea. Set in Alexandria in the years leading up to the Second World War, it opens with a vividly drawn description of a heady and hedonistic city teeming with different nationalities. Durrell, writing as an insider and resident of Alexandria at this time, breathes life into the details of every quarter, street and alleyway he describes.

Justine has the shape of a love story as the narrator, only later identified as L.G.Darnley, is drawn into her world of glamour, deceit and despair. We find out little about his background, only that he's come to Alexandria as a writer, quickly becoming involved with the timorous sometime-dancer Melissa. The beautiful and seductive Justine is way out of his league, already married to wealthy Coptic businessman Nessim, but when did that ever stop a man from embarking on a doomed-to-disaster love affair? At first the story is fragmented as Darnley, writing from a distant island some time after the event, seeks to make sense of what has happened and to find a form for his novel.

There are huge drifts of description and I must admit I struggled at times to get to grips with the narrative. If I hadn't been on holiday, with time to concentrate while sipping a glass of prosecco on my sun lounger, I might have been tempted to give up. There just seemed to be an excess of words to deal with, many of them too obscure unless you have a dictionary handy. Nevertheless it was the writing which finally got hold of me towards the close of Justine, both the poetry of Durrell's language and the feeling of being absorbed into a richly textured, multi-faceted place and time far away from modern European sensibilities. A place contrasting opulence and extreme poverty, chastity and complete deprivation; a boiling mass of emotion rather than intellect where philosophical arguments are nevertheless coolly examined and dissected.

The second book weaves a layer of gossamer over the first, covering some of its gaps by means of an 'interlinear' provided by Balthazar, a doctor, interpreter of the Cabal and confidante of Justine's. Here we learn all is not what it seems, that many of the protagonists have previously unsuspected motives for their actions and there's much more at the heart of this hugely-scoped quartet than a simple love story. Mountolive, the only book written in the third person, reinforces this and throws light on yet more characters from the perspective of the British ambassador. It's only in Clea, the final instalment, that the story moves on as Darnley is drawn back into the lives of those he left behind in an Alexandria now ravaged by war, to find how much they too have changed.

The four books, although all written from different perspectives and initially published separately between 1957-60, have many recurring themes and motifs in common. I can't imagine reading any one in isolation, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts, the reworking of events becoming the stuff of life itself. I was still reading Clea after I got back from holiday, but by that time there was no problem in getting to the end because I was hooked. The fate of many of the characters has stayed with me and it's one of those novels that - despite its length - you want to reread immediately to see what clues you missed first time round. As commitments go book-wise, The Alexandria Quartet is a big one, but like all the best relationships its impact is long-lasting, profound and deeply rewarding.

Saturday 7 September 2013

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn

Last weekend my family and I made our annual pilgrimage to one of our favourite places, the idyllic Cornish town of Fowey, a location beloved of the du Maurier clan who still own a house on the riverbank at Bodinnick.

A view of Fowey with the du Maurier house Ferryside on the left

Which reminded me I was seriously tardy with my review of Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing by Jane Dunn, an accomplished biographer who lives near me in Bath.

Jane has a particular interest in families and their influence on the lives and works of her subjects
families are the soil out of which character grows and there is no richer compost than the relationship of sisters
Previously she's examined the sibling bond between Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell and here she focuses on the writer Daphne du Maurier and her less well known sisters Angela and Jeanne.

(l to r) Angela, Jeanne, their mother Muriel and Daphne

Even before the eldest sister Angela was born, the du Mauriers were celebrities in Edwardian society; their father Gerald was renowned as the actor who made the role of Captain Hook in Peter Pan his own. J.M.Barrie was a family friend and the girls were taken every year to see the play performed at Wyndhams's theatre.

Gerald as Captain Hook
Throughout their childhood the sisters would re-enact the play in their nursery, the words and ideas becoming engraved deep into their psyches. Daphne was always Peter; Angela was more than happy to play Wendy, while Jeanne filled in with whatever part Daphne assigned her.
As in the nursery, so in the life of a family which created its own language and childhood nicknames. Daphne (known as Bing) took the leading role as her father's favourite, the one who had the looks, the talent and eventually the husband, children, money and fame as well. She lived increasingly in the world of an imagination more vivid to her than real life, often developing crushes on people as she perceived them rather than as they really were, using them as 'pegs' on which to hang the characters in her writing.

Angela (Piffy), considered plain from a birth in a family that valued beauty, lacked belief that she could really achieve anything of her own and fell easily in and out of love, firstly with men and then more often with women. She tried singing and acting before turning to writing and had several books published, but never emulated Daphne's success, leading her to entitle her biography 'It's Only The Sister'.

Angela's biography
But, at a time when Daphne was being faced with the unwelcome realities of life as an army Major's wife, Angela's world opened up as she became involved with a group of liberated women in Hampstead, including the actress Marda Vanne and writer Dodie Smith. Jane's writing gives us a fascinating insight into the life which could be lived by women outside the conventions of marriage and domesticity in the 1930s, if, of course, they had the means to support themselves. Once her father died, the grip of his Victorian values was loosened and Angela had a series of relationships with women frequently much older than herself.

Jeanne (l) with Daphne
Jeanne (Bird), the youngest, was favourite of her mother Muriel, a pretty child who became a painter, trained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and increasingly involved in the artistic life of Cornwall. Of the three sisters, Jeanne's voice is mostly absent because, in writing this book, Jane was denied access to her letters by Jeanne's lifelong partner the poet Noel Welch. Like their mother Muriel, she often doesn't seem to have a presence of her own but is glimpsed in the writings and reactions of others.

One of Jeanne's paintings

This biography is richly illustrated with photographs from the du Maurier family album which track their lives as they grow with the century through the opulence of the twenties to the deprivations of war and beyond. As Jane explains in her preface, she doesn't seek to write a full biography of each sister, rather to consider them side by side as they lived in life. But this is a difficult balance to achieve and inevitably Daphne emerges as the fascinating but flawed leading character in this book. She often appears unlikable and cold in her relationships, yet is generous to a fault with her wealth in supporting family and friends, has written more than her siblings and had so much more written about her.

Daphne and her children at Menabilly

And, although the whole family fell in love with Fowey and lived there for many years, it was Daphne alone who became obsessed with nearby Menabilly, the run-down country house which provided inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca, her bestselling novel which became a chilling Hitchcock film.

It's fascinating to examine Daphne's character and work not only in the context of her two sisters but also her parents and the wider du Maurier clan. Although Jane does succeed in bringing Angela and to some extent Jeanne to life, it's through the prism of Daphne that this engaging, highly readable and thoroughly researched biography is at its most successful.

Images courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Getty Images and the BBC