Thursday 28 November 2013

The Bard in my Bucket - One Year On

You can't find the meaning and rhythm in Shakespeare's prose by seeing it written down; those words need reading aloud or better still to be performed on a stage. So, a year ago, I decided that Item Number One on my bucket list was to watch all of Shakespeare's plays - preferably live. To be honest, it is the only item on my bucket list so far - not sure I'm getting the hang of this mortality thing. But then, as items go, it's quite a biggie; a list within a list, you could say.

Looking back to a year ago, I'd seen a mere 12 of his canon of 38 plays - although many more than once. How have I fared (I hear you ask) since making the conscious decision to try and see them all?

In February, there was The Winter's Tale at the RSC, seen as an understudy run, which was fun.  It was also my first theatrical review for clairethinking and an epiphany in terms of realising how much I enjoy writing about, as well as watching, theatre.

Next came A Midsummer Night's Dream at Bristol Old Vic in March, with some inspirational puppetry from Handspring and a truly remarkable Bottom. This didn't really count as I'd seen it already many moons ago as a school play, but I felt as though I was beginning to hit my reviewing stride a little here.

Third up was Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Tobacco Factory in May. I wasn't at all familiar with this early play of Shakespeare's and found it utterly charming and beautifully played. It goes without saying that Lollio stole the show...

Then I snuck in Hamlet at the RSC with Jonathan Slinger. This production came in for a fair bit of (mainly justified) stick, but Slinger rose above it, giving a nuanced and spirited portrayal of the Danish prince. Again, this doesn't officially count as I've seen Hamlet before and, for some forgotten reason, didn't quite manage to review it.

And finally for 2013 came King Lear at the Theatre Royal Bath in August. David Haig's Lear was transformed into an east end gangster in Lucy Bailey's envisioning of 1960s London. We sat in the front row, had an eyeful of blood and gore and loved it.

Until then it was going pretty well, but with nothing ticked off between September and now, I'm losing momentum. Here's the still somewhat daunting list to go at in 2014:
  • Henry VI Part I
  • Henry VI Part II
  • Henry VI Part III
  • Richard III
  • Titus Andronicus 
  • The Taming of the Shrew 
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • King John 
  • The Merchant of Venice 
  • Henry IV Part I
  • Henry IV Part II
  • Henry V
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor 
  • Troilus and Cressida 
  • All’s Well That Ends Well
  • Othello
  • Macbeth
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Coriolanus
  • Pericles 
  • Cymbeline
  • Henry VIII
  • The Two Noble Kinsmen

Full of early resolutions for the New Year, I've booked to see Donmar Warehouse and NT Live's Coriolanus in January, beamed by satellite to the lovely Little Theatre Cinema in Bath. Mark Gatiss, Tom Hiddleston and Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (from Borgen) - what's not to like?

Only twenty-two more to go. Bring it on...

Pictures courtesy of the RSC, Bristol Old Vic, Tobacco Factory, Theatre Royal Bath and Donmar Warehouse.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Henry Walker and the Wheel of Death at the Rondo Theatre

I haven't yet read Mr Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallacebut I'm guessing it might not be the most straightforward of books to adapt. If the renamed play Henry Walker and the Wheel of Death is anything to go by, the novel is a multi-faceted blurring of truth and fantasy, exploring the raw edges where magic ceases to be a sleight of hand and becomes something darker and more mysterious.

So, Shane Morgan certainly didn't give himself the easiest task in transferring this story to the stage, and it's to his credit he retained the approval and involvement of its author. This is actually a rather unusual and engaging tale, but not always an easy one to explain - hence the heavy reliance on narration from the start. On its own, this might not be a problem, but when combined with an onslaught of microphoned voices, initially the overall effect is one of confusion. The main characters are yet to be established and there are too many focal points all at once; the actors to the side, the assertive narration of private detective Carson and Henry centre-stage performing his tricks in barefoot isolation.

The story really begins to kick in when the initial narration fades and we reach its emotional heart; the relationship between Henry and his sister Hannah, brilliantly played by Dan Gaisford and Madelaine Ryan.They don't adopt the vocals of children and yet from their expressions and demeanor we realise we're being allowed into their childhood. We are able to witness their sibling bonds of complicity, their withholding and sharing of secrets.

Although once wealthy, the children's father lost his livelihood in the 1930s crash and he now works as a hotel porter, widowed and drowning his sorrows in gin. The children are often left to make their own entertainment; Hannah with a dog she calls Joan Crawford and Henry in the company of the shadowy magician he knows as Mr Sebastian, who occupies Room 702. Mr Sebastian gives Henry a new pack of cards to practice magic with, but as their relationship develops it becomes clear that this enigmatic stranger has some very big demands to make in return. For Henry, it seems the price of becoming a successful magician may ultimately prove more than he can bear.

This play explores themes of love and identity, perception and reality; what may be gained in pursuit of success, but also what is lost along the way. In between the action and exposition lurk some touchingly poignant moments and, in the interval, my daughter and I were abuzz with excitement as to what had just happened and how the story might end.

Overall, there is much to commend this production by Roughhouse Theatre; the circus-themed set is striking and fully explored by the actors and there's excellent use of physicality and puppetry with some enchanting set-pieces. The company switches roles well between characters with good use of props and their reading from scripts emphasizes Henry's isolation in an increasingly sinister world. Music adds atmosphere throughout and, on balance, although overused, the microphones prove to be effective.

Towards the end, the adaptation loses its way a little again, with too many threads of alternative realities to draw together and a few inevitably remaining undone. Although the ending itself is satisfyingly circular, some simplification of the introduction and conclusion would provide a clearer framework for what is otherwise an enthralling and thought-provoking play.

Henry Walker and the Wheel of Death is at the Rondo Theatre from 13th-16th November 2013.

Photographs courtesy of Matt Collins at Crush Images and Roughhouse Theatre. We watched this play at the Rondo on 15th November, courtesy of Roughhouse Theatre.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Harvest by Jim Crace

Continuing my theme of writing about the 2013 Man Booker shortlist after judging has taken place, I read Harvest by Jim Crace recently. It's been parked on my desk for a while, waiting to be reviewed.

Harvest is set in a small, rural community, ostensibly in the years of the English enclosures, although there's a feeling of timelessness that means it could equally well be taking place in our dystopian future. The barley has just been gathered in, usually a time of rejoicing for the villagers, who all have their part to play in the harvest and its ensuing rituals of celebration. But this year, beginning with the arrival of three strangers in the nearby woodland, a series of unsettling events takes place. Over the course of the next seven days, the very fabric which has bound this isolated community together begins to unravel.

The narrator of this story is Walter Thirsk, also an outsider, who came to the village some years ago as the manservant of the present landowner, Master Kent. Slowly he's settled in, marrying a local lass and setting up home, but with his different looks and ways, he's still considered a newcomer. Now his wife has died, he considers leaving with 'Mr Quill', an educated visitor who's come to map the land. Walter befriends him, helping him to prepare his inks and vellum, only to find when trouble arrives it's easy for suspicion to fall, not just on Mr Quill, but also on Walter himself.

This is a beautifully written allegory of what happens when a community finds itself under threat from external forces, be they the arrival of strangers or technological advances, which mean its deeply traditional way of life is no longer sustainable.
This year the first warm rains were late. The field was slow to blush with green, and what early shoots dared show themselves were shy and flimsy. We watched the barley with anxiety, first fearing drought and then, once our plants reached knee-height, praying that the sky would spare us gales. 
That is our custom. 
There's a hypnotic beat to Crace's writing, a spare usage of words and pleasing measurement of tone which draws the reader in. For the first half of the book, I was engrossed; Walter is an engaging narrator and the events as they unfold are true-to-life, intriguing and often brutal.

I didn't review this novel immediately, because I puzzled over why it lost its hold on me in the final chapters. The prose is as measured as before and the characters for the most part fully formed. Without giving the plot away, I found myself increasingly worried by the lack of any overt spirituality in a community so imbued with ritual. I also struggled to understand the actions of two of the characters once reunited, and thought the events surrounding such a central character as Mr Quill were not adequately explained.

Jim Crace has announced Harvest is to be his last novel and on The Review Show, John Mullan said he didn't think it was his best. On the strength of this, I would happily turn to one of his earlier works to immerse myself in his delicious prose. Of Harvest, I would say there's a great deal to admire in this book and I'd recommend reading it, but ultimately, for me at least, it lacks a satisfying conclusion.

Have you read this novel? What did you think of the ending?

Images courtesy of Picador Books and The Independent.
Harvest by Jim Crace is published by Picador.

Saturday 2 November 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

We all know the outcome of the 2013 Man Booker judging by now, who the winner was and, more pertinent to this post, who it wasn't. It only takes a glance back at winning books over the years to realise just how arbitrary the whole process can be, with previous judges often reflecting how they made the 'wrong' choice, now they can see which of their shortlist has matured into (that most elusive of genres) a classic. Many prominent authors have been passed over for the ultimate prize altogether (think Beryl Bainbridge or Martin Amis), while others have won it for a lesser novel (Margaret Atwood and The Blind Assassin) simply to make up for having missed out with a greater one (A Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace).

It's an achievement even to make it to the longlist, of course, never mind the shortlist. But, doubtless this is of little comfort to all the other shortlisted authors this year, as they switch from having their novels scrutinised before the award ceremony on every review show going, to being frozen out of the spotlight as the winner Eleanor Catton is feted for only her second book The Luminaries. So, in defiance of the unwritten embargo on discussing any of the novels that didn't win after the event, I'm going to review the one I've just finished reading; Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being.

This is a novel of ambitious scope, beginning with Nao, a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl, writing from her table in a French maid cafe in Tokyo. She writes to make a connection with her reader, which could be you or me but turns out to be Ruth, a writer who finds Nao's diary inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the shoreline near her remote home in British Columbia. Ruth speculates with her husband Oliver that it could have been washed up there as a result of Japan's earthquake and tsunami in 2011 and the more she reads, the more concerned she becomes for Nao's well-being. She scours the internet for names and references, trying to find a tangible reality for Nao, her programmer father Haruki, who lost his job in California and was forced to move his family back to Japan, and Jiko, her ancient Zen Buddhist great-grandmother. What Ruth uncovers and experiences as she comes close to finishing the diary, leads her to question not only her sanity, but also her own fundamental perceptions of existence.

Ozeki is dealing with some big philosophical themes here, using both Zen Buddhism and quantum mechanics to examine the nature of time itself and the ways in which we are all inter-connected. She questions the relationship between the writer and the reader; linking Nao and Ruth brings together two very different women and their cultures. Initially, I found Nao's voice to be the more compelling one - she writes in the first person as an angst-ridden teenager who finds herself an outsider in her own country, suffers the most brutal bullying at school and copes with a loss of status as well as her father's suicidal tendencies. Yet, she is also an amusing and charismatic narrator who can laugh at her own predicament and finds solace in her great-grandmother Jiko's beliefs.

Initially, Ruth seems something of a cipher - there as an instrument to comment on and clarify Nao's diary, supplemented by the chunks of information supplied by her super-knowledgeable husband. Slowly, though, her story begins to grow; there are nuances lurking below the surface of her marriage, a sense of being trapped in her own existence as a writer who has no words. Over the course of this novel, Ruth develops her own narrative, both in response to her immediate environment and through reading Nao's revelations.

I devoured this story for its sweeping breadth, combined with the very up close and personal examination of the interwoven lives of these two very different women. Having said that, though, it isn't without its flaws; ever since Bobby Ewing stepped out of the shower in Dallas all those years ago, I've had a dislike of any form of resolution achieved through dream sequences. As a plot device, it's nearly always a cop out, even though it's perhaps a little more acceptable in this book because of the feeling that reality is already being stretched taut.

A Tale for the Time Being is generally very well-written, but, because Ozeki is bringing so many strands together, it does occasionally feel a little lacking in fluency. Overall though, this is a major achievement by Ozeki; a book of multiple facets I simply didn't want to end. At the moment, I can't think the other novels on the Man Booker shortlist are more thought-provoking and absorbing than this one, but I really should tackle The Luminaries and judge for myself.

A Tale for the Time Being is published in paperback in the UK by Canongate Books. More information about the book and its author is available here