Sunday 28 December 2014

My Reading Year 2014

What a great year of reading it's been. A mix of newly published and charity shop discoveries, some of the many classics I hadn't quite got round to before, books studied for my online course The Fiction of Relationship and the odd bit of rereading. Phew! Emerging from that lot, in no particular order, here are some of my 2014 fiction highlights (click on any of the headings to go to the full review*).

Translated Fiction

An impressive debut from the young French author Oscar Coop-Phane. Winner of the Prix de Flore in 2012 and translated from the French by Roz Shwarz, it's the story of one day in the life of a Parisian street-walker. In this short, stark and darkly humorous book, Nanou's words connect a series of vignettes of her clients; 'in the midst of the detritus are precious shards of humanity'.

See You Tomorrow
Also translated into English for the first time is Tore Renberg. Already an established writer and broadcaster in his native Norway, Renberg has penned See You Tomorrow, a fast-paced, gritty and frequently hilarious thriller full of flawed and idiosyncratic characters.

The Master and Margarita
Translated fiction and classic literature all-in-one. I finally got round to reading Bulgakov's surreal examination of life in Stalinist Russia, juxtaposed with Pontius Pilate overseeing the trial of Yeshua. It's philosophical, playful and generally just all-round brilliant; tellingly, the Devil gets the best lines.

2014 Costa First Novel Award

I've read some excellent debut novelists in the English language too, including three of the four shortlisted for the 2014 Costa First Novel award (only Mary Costello's Academy Street to go).

Chop Chop 
Simon Wroe's novel, endearingly narrated by lowest-of-the-low commis chef Monocle, is a bleakly funny, vicious and ultimately poignant dissection of the hell that is a professional kitchen.

Also shortlisted is Carys Bray's heart-rending debut about the devastating affect of the loss of a child. The Bradleys are a Mormon family living in the north-west of England. When their young daughter Issy falls ill with meningitis there are far reaching reverberations; many tears but some unexpected laughter too.

Elizabeth is Missing 
Think of forgetting so much that you might not even recognise your own daughter and you'll begin to identify with the bewildering world of Maud, the elderly narrator of Emma Healey's first novel. Maud is forgetful and easily confused, but one thing she does know is that her friend Elizabeth is missing. And puzzling over her whereabouts awakens a mystery from Maud's past; the unsolved disappearance of her older sister Sukey.


The best of the books I meant to read when they were published in 2013, but only got round to this year.

The Shock of the Fall
A family's loss and the struggle to come to terms with mental illness, told from the inside. Nathan Filer not only won Costa's First Novel Award in 2013, but was also selected as their overall Book of the Year. 

This one is personal (my review tells you why). Incredibly hard to read, but I'm so glad I did.

Rediscovered in 2013, John Williams's story of the life and times of a professor of literature at the University of Columbia was Waterstone's Book of the Year. A slow burn story, but once it takes hold, it doesn't let you go.

The Goldfinch*
I'm shocked to find I haven't reviewed this, probably because I read it over the summer holidays. Donna Tartt's epic has been criticised for being baggy and over-long, but has to be included because I became completely besotted with it. A future classic and my favourite book on the 2014 Baileys Prize shortlist, even though it didn't win.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel about race and identity has at its heart the tender love story of Ifemelu and Obinze (I loved this almost as much as The Goldfinch).

Elif Shafak's mystical writing combines sympathy for the conflict between the traditional and new in her native Turkey, with a wider understanding derived from her own crossing of the cultural divide.

It's a story about twin daughters Esma and Pembe, the divergent roles that fate has decreed for them and a very real tragedy which is not all that it seems.

New Writing

This densely plotted, fiendishly intelligent espionage thriller by Edward Wilson reminds me why I should read more in this genre. If densely plotted, fiendishly intelligent espionage thrillers are a genre, that is. If not, then they should be.

Man at the Helm
The first novel from Nina Stibbe, author of the warm and witty collection of letters, Love, Nina,  is an entertaining tale of divorce and village life in the 1970s, seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel. 

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy
If you enjoyed Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, then you'll love this companion novel which tells the story of Harold's journey from Queenie's point of view. Poignant, entertaining and deftly profound.

Amy Mason is a funny and unexpected new voice. I saw her staging of The Islanders last year at Bristol Old Vic, and was looking forward to seeing where she was going next. Now she's won the Dundee International 2014 Book Prize with The Other Ida, the story of one young woman coming to terms with the death of her alcoholic mother.


The scariest category of all. What if a book you've loved doesn't live up to expectations second or third time around? Here are three that did:

I've read this book several times since watching the BBC TV series in the 1970s, but it felt very apt to be rereading it on the centenary of the outbreak of  World War One. A deeply affecting memoir which brings home the personal sacrifice and devastating tragedy suffered by so many at the heart of a lost generation. 

Jane Eyre
I didn't instantly fall in love with Charlotte Bronte's independently spirited orphan when I first read Jane Eyre at school, but have come to love her since. And rereading this novel for my online course only deepened my admiration for a mould-breaking woman ahead of her time.

To The Lighthouse
That this is my favourite Virginia Woolf novel was confirmed by rereading. Woolf's prose is as sublime as ever and (perhaps because of my own advancing years) I found a deeper connection this time to her portrayal of her parents in the form of Mr and Mrs Ramsay.

* The Goldfinch is the only book here that I haven't written a full review for.

Sunday 14 December 2014

Reading the Classics: Light in August by William Faulkner

I know I haven't posted a book review for ages. It's not that I haven't been reading, but I became completely bogged down by the modernist classic Light in August. It's one of the set texts for my online course, The Fiction of Relationship, otherwise I might have been tempted to abandon it.

In the end I'm glad I didn't, even though it was often a struggle; based in the American Deep South of the 1930s, Light in August is deeply imbued with the racism and misogyny of this place in time.

The novel concerns itself with a number of disconnected characters; beginning with Lena Grove, a young, pregnant white woman on the road from Alabama in search of Lucas Burch, father of her unborn child. It's clear he's run out on her, yet she has a simple faith that she'll find him before the baby is born. Burch is confused with a similarly named man, Byron Bunch, by the folks Lena meets on her travels and she heads for the sawmill in Jefferson where Bunch works.

The focus then shifts to Joe Christmas, an ostensibly white man working at the same mill, who doesn't really know who he is. Adopted at birth, he's described as 'parchment' coloured, passes for white but believes himself to have some black heritage. It seems he can't help but confess this to the women he sleeps with and word gets around. In the meantime, he develops a relationship with Joanna Burden, the descendant of Yankee abolitionists. He's living on her property and selling bootleg liquor, along with his business partner Joe Brown, who happens to be Lucas Burch under an assumed name.

When Joanna is horribly murdered, it sets off a train of events which leads to Christmas being hunted down, implicated by Brown but defended by Bunch and the disgraced priest Gail Hightower. Finally, he is condemned in the cruelest way by the townsfolk, for whom his most heinous crime is to be the deceitful possessor of black blood.

According to course tutor Professor Weinstein, Faulkner initially intended Hightower to be the central character and conscience of this novel, but Christmas somehow took over. Faulkner explores Christmas's formative years in detail, delving back into his early days at the orphanage:
Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows believes remembers a corridor in a big long gabled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassland cinderstrewn-packed compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrow-like childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears. 
For Christmas, the past has an unerasable hold on the present. He is a man out of phase, living in the sewer of his own impulses, sensing
something is going to happen, something is going to happen to me
It seems his body is the site where violence takes place, rather than his mind consciously deciding on it. In his rages he watches himself in slow motion; with the black girl who has been paid to initiate him in sex, we learn
He was moving because his foot touched her. Then it touched her again, because he kicked her.
Christmas has problems with women. He's more at ease with being beaten by his foster father Mr McEachern, than with Mrs McEachern's timid attempts to soothe and care for him. When offered food, he rejects it as 'women's muck' as if also rejecting feminine love and kindness. He cannot bear the pattern of women's lives, reacting so violently to being told about menstruation that he goes out and shoots a sheep like a ritual sacrifice. He runs away when his first lover Bobbie can't sleep with him because she's 'sick', yet ultimately rejects the almost manlike Joanna Burden for being too old to bear children, telling her 'you're not any good any more.'

By contrast with Christmas, Lena Grove is the life force of Light in August. She's unmarred by guilt at her situation and is tranquil and serene. Her thinking is undeveloped, indeed Faulkner has been criticised for 'essentialising' her as a 'breeder'. Her unborn child is the novel's 'ticking bomb', the linear timeline cued to its birth.

Faulkner's work is stamped by trauma and shock, peopled with characters who are outsiders in a small community, nursing psychological and physical wounds. Light in August explores the connections there may be between its disparate central characters and between the forces of life and death. As the novel progresses, new relationships are forged. The birth of Lena's child draws Hightower and Bunch into life, and even though Lena and Christmas haven't met, she contemplates the notion, through encountering his grandparents, that he may be the real father of her child.

Light in August dwells much longer on the forces of death and evil though, than on the redemption of a child's birth. Having lived a violent, displaced life, rejecting love and doling out hatred, Christmas faces an end which many have compared to the crucifixion of Christ.

Professor Weinstein describes this as one of Faulkner's more accessible works, written before he fell under the influence of James Joyce and his stream of consciousness. But I found Light in August to be the very antithesis of its title; dark, full of bleakness and frequently opaque. There may be eloquent writing but there is also a great deal of confusion and ugliness.

At the beginning of his lectures, the good professor suggests there is great value in reading books whose ideology you don't believe in, because you learn a lot. There's also the benefit of reading a book considered a classic and deciding what you think of it yourself. Ultimately, these are the reasons why I'm glad I battled my way to the end of this difficult novel.

Light in August is published in the UK by Vintage Classics.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Theatre Review: Swallows and Amazons - Bristol Old Vic

This review was written for Theatre Bristol Writers

Childhood adventures don’t come any more exciting than those of the four Walker siblings, in Arthur Ransome’s classic tale Swallows and Amazons. Set in the summer holidays of 1929, Bristol Old Vic’s production captures its spirit from the beginning; a telegram arrives from the children’s father, permitting them to sail unaccompanied across the lake with the words ‘better drowned than duffers.’
Who needs CGI? Under Tom Morris’s direction the power of imagination is unleashed as wind is invoked and the Swallow sets sail, a wooden frame and wheeled platform negotiating a waterway of blue ribbons. Distant views through the telescope are reconstructed at the back of the stage in circular frames. As the children land on Wildcat Island, they keep a keen look-out for Barbarians, recreate their heroes from Marco Polo to Robinson Crusoe, and cross swords with real life enemies in the shape of two Amazonian pirates and their dastardly uncle, Captain Flint.

Played by grown up actors, John, Susan, Titty and Roger combine all the energetic, quicksilver emotions of children with the fun of seeing full-sized adults (with facial hair in Roger’s case) dressed in silly shorts and bathing suits. Captain John (Stuart Mcloughlin) and First Mate Susan (Bethan Nash) are the oldest and notionally in charge. But Jennifer Higham is fearless and bold as Titty, leaping with great physicality from the rocks into the water, to be caught in the arms of the ensemble. And Tom Bennett captures the feverish irresponsibility of seven year old Roger, as he capers, sulks and trembles at the turn of events.

The whole cast is outstanding; the two unruly Amazons (Evelyn Miller and Millie Corser) inject a slug of high-octane anarchy and the ensemble of ‘players in blue’ choreographs the action with attitude, sprinkling water in the children’s faces and whipping up the fiercest of storms.

The intrigue of the first act is enhanced by Neil Hannon’s captivatingly original score and some wonderful musicianship. But it’s after the interval that the roof is really raised, showing how ready the audience has become for a bit of full-blooded interaction. The children in the front rows from St Peter’s Primary School in Portishead (who sang their competition -winning song ‘A Drop in the Ocean’ beautifully before the beginning of the show) seized their chance to bombard the on-stage fighters with foam rocks, while yelling for Captain Flint to be made to walk the plank – as if he has any choice in the matter.

Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Swallows and Amazons was first staged at Bristol Old Vic in 2010; this thrilling story of an endlessly idyllic summer holiday makes a welcome return for another Christmas season. It creates a horizon full of possibilities, where children are free to roam and grownups provide a safety net rather than a cage. Arthur Ransome wrote many more books in this series, so maybe there’s room for a second adaptation in the future?

It would be great to think so, because this really is an unmissable family treat, captivating for children and adults alike. If we could, we might wish to inhabit this world forever; at least, with this revival, we can enjoy the sheer, unadulterated bliss of revisiting it for a couple of hours.

Photo by  Simon Annand

Monday 1 December 2014

Theatre Review: Exit the King - Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

King Berenger I has lived for over 400 years, yet still he’s not ready to die. He’s been too busy inventing the tractor, mastering nuclear fusion and attending an endless round of charity balls with his glamorous young second wife, Queen Marie. Now it all boils down to the last hour and a half of his life, which we in the audience are there to witness in real time, whether he likes it or not.
Eugène Ionesco wrote Exit the King in 1962 after a frightening bout of illness, and it shows. Berenger features as an everyman in several of Ionesco’s other Absurdist plays; here he’s the centre of a surreal universe, in the process of collapsing in tandem with his own demise. He’s monarch of a land now rocked by earthquakes, where the sun is late to rise and the wars he worked so hard to win have suddenly all been lost.
Alun Armstrong plays Berenger as a king denying the abyss, ill-prepared for anything except the eternal continuance of his realm. Tottering around his central throne on Anna Fleischle’s cracked and tremor-ridden set, his is a forensic depiction of a verbose and heart-wringing decline. He unpeels the layers of Berenger’s ill-maintained longevity with a staggering, sweating physical deterioration and an increasingly feeble mental resistance, while nevertheless clinging determinedly to the precipice of life.
Armstrong is ably supported by a very strong cast; as Berenger inevitably weakens, it’s down to his imperious and battle-hardened first wife, Queen Marguerite, in a superbly nuanced portrayal by Siobhan Redmond, to help him face reality. Berating him for his lack of preparation, she also dampens down Beth Park’s solipsistic Queen Marie with an ‘Oh, please God, don’t start hoping again!’ She and the Doctor (William Gaunt) chillingly count down the minutes to Berenger’s death, refusing to be distracted by the frequent proclamations of the decrepit Guard (Roy Sampson) and whirlwind interventions of Marty Cruickshank’s much put-upon maid, Juliette.
This new translation from the French by Jeremy Sams has pared Ionesco’s work back to a running time of less than two hours, yet has found room to enhance its feeling of timelessness with references to central heating and pole dancing. And the dialogue still sparkles; as Queen Marguerite accuses Berenger of flirting with death a thousand times, he replies, ‘I only flirted with her, she was never really my type!’
Under Laurence Boswell’s direction, there are no false sympathies for King Berenger. The characters and trappings he has surrounded himself with are gradually stripped away, as he edges towards the central fear that we all must die alone. Veering from the bleakly comedic to highly farcical and ultimately tragic, Ionesco confronts not only his own mortality, but also all of ours. Not always the easiest or most comfortable of plays to watch, Exit the King is a philosophically questioning and fitting finale to a truly outstanding season at the Ustinov.
Runs until 20th December 2014. Photo by Simon Annand. Details and booking here.

Monday 24 November 2014

Punch and Judy in Afghanistan at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Stuffed Puppet has taken the seaside Punch and Judy tradition and transported it to the desert of Afghanistan. Neville Tranter’s one-man puppet show combines some sharp one-liners with a sense of the absurd, to put the puppeteer right at the heart of the political action.
Punch and Judy in Afghanistan tells the story of Nigel, a puppeteer visiting Afghanistan to entertain the troops. His assistant Emile goes missing on the back of an over-excited camel and when Nigel risks life and limb to find him, he unwittingly discovers the whereabouts of one of the western world’s most wanted terrorists.
Along the way, Nigel meets a whole host of manically glitter-eyed caricatures, from the owner in love with his lost camel to ‘Punch Bin Laden’ and his wife, Judy, who loves gardening so much that she’s cultivating a field full of poppies. While Emile may be joked about, his fate is unnerving. And will Nigel be able to make it out of there alive, to share what he’s found out?
With a simple set of a camouflage wall behind a line of poppies, Tranter ‘s skilful delivery is clear as he switches between an array of superbly crafted puppets, while also performing the role of Nigel. All the traditional Punch and Judy staples are here; the policeman is reimagined as a terrified young NATO soldier while the crocodile becomes a market trader, flogging a line of one-size-fits-all body bags.
There’s good use of music and witty observations aplenty. Early on Emile is described as having volunteered for Greenpeace as an alternative punishment to prison; charged with rescuing seals, he appears to have done something much more grisly with them. Perhaps we need to fear more for the fate of the camel than for its rider.
The ingredients are all in place but while this hour-long show throws up interesting, unsettling questions, the progression of the story is sometimes difficult to engage with and follow. The Tobacco Factory’s programme suggests a discovery of the repercussions of two clashing worlds of naiveté and cynicism; while these themes are certainly raised, this show falls short of any profound exploration of the resulting conflict of cultural values.

Seen at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol on 14th November 2014.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Opera Review: WNO's Carmen at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

In reviving its Caurier and Leiser version of Carmen, Welsh National Opera (WNO) has chosen a solid foundation for its autumn season. It may not have been an instant success at its première in 1875, but Bizet’s tale of the life and loves of a seductive and headstrong gypsy girl has since enjoyed an enduring popularity.
Solid Caroline Chaney’s revival may be, but not always scintillating. Alessandra Volpe takes the eponymous lead, arrested for fighting with another woman at the tobacco factory in Seville where she works. While she looks and moves convincingly as Carmen, initially Volpe’s mezzo in the Habanera is a little uneven. She does warm into the role, illustrating her indomitable will with some bull-like head-butting of her lover towards the end, but both she and her Don José, Peter Wedd, have a tendency to be overpowered by the orchestra.
What’s more alarming is the lack of chemistry between the two, which undermines such scenes as Carmen’s private dance with castanets at Lillas Pastia’s inn. Carmen’s allure is such that no man from the soldiers on guard to the bullfighter Escamillo is able to resist; in this production it’s often difficult to believe in the couple’s mutual attraction, or the overwhelming love which will compel Don José to desert the army and carry out his final act of vengeance.
Set against this, Jessica Muirhead really shines as Micaëla, the village girl bringing messages to Don José from his mother. Her soprano is crisp and full of pathos; in her early scenes she expresses all of Micaëla’s attraction for the soldier, combined with an embarrassment at his mother’s unsubtle matchmaking. Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo also has a pleasing tone, although he could do with a little more swagger at times, particularly when fighting his rival in love, Don José.
The WNO orchestra is superb throughout and James Southall conducts with great clarity and vigour. Although some of the set pieces, such as the build up to the bull-fight in the final act, feel less dramatic than they should, the chorus is consistently strong and rousing and the gang of young street children are delightfully urchin-like.
Against the grandeur of the Hippodrome, the pared back set consists of Goya-inspired backdrops and a scattering of wooden chairs and tables. With its soldiers and cigarette-girls costumed in an earth-coloured palette, it does feel like less of a lavish visual feast than other versions of Carmen, and indeed other WNO productions. What this dulled-down vision does do though, is contrast wonderfully with the greater colour and vibrancy of the finale. There may be many highs and lows in this revival, but it is still an absorbing production with plenty to enjoy.

Seen at Bristol Hippodrome on November 12th 2014. This production continues to tour; destinations and dates can be found here

Monday 17 November 2014

Book Review: The Other Ida by Amy Mason

The earliest memories of Ida Irons revolve around her mother, faded celebrity playwright Bridie Adair, and her episodes of excessive drinking.

Bridie's alcoholism isn't pretty; it breaks up her marriage and often leaves the young Ida to look after her little sister, Alice, all alone. Ida tries to reassure herself:
Things were nearly always fine, and if they weren't at least it would be an adventure.
Amy Mason's debut novel, The Other Ida, zips back and forth between childhood and a 'present day' setting of 1999. Now Ida's almost thirty and a mess herself; living in a squalid bedsit in London, she's abusing just about every substance she can lay her hands on. Bridie has died and Ida needs to get back home to Bournemouth for the funeral.

Home means confronting all the problems she ran away to escape; her difficult relationship with Alice, and her father's new life with her perfumed step-mother. Most of all, it means dealing with the long shadow of the play Ida's named after; the one her mother wrote before she was born:
She was almost asleep,...,when she realised what was wrong. It was so simple she could hardly believe it. She was the play, wasn't she? It wasn't just her stupid name. And if it was so terrible, so irrelevant, then what on earth was she?
Finding out about the other Ida in the play may help uncover the troubling secrets of her mother's life, but will Ida be able to cope with the discoveries she's about to make?

Real-life Ida isn't the easiest person to love; at first, like the passengers on the coach taking her back home, you might be tempted to give her a wide berth. She's dirty and smelly and she wets the bed when drunk. She's well on her way to becoming the female equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson, starring in her own version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Fear and Loathing in Bournemouth, anyone? 

But, as you get to know Ida, you begin to realise she's avoiding a script that's already been written. That she's no good with boundaries because, as a child, she never had any.

Amy Mason won the 2014 Dundee International Book Prize with this, her debut novel. Her writing is full of incisive observation and she's created a gritty, funny and layered story in which key events in fiction are mirrored by reality and repeat themselves across the generations. By baring Ida's soul, Mason does a great job of making you understand and care for her.

Occasionally, a character will leap off the page of a novel with such vitality, you can almost reach out and touch them. By the end of The Other Ida,  I just wanted to grab brave, wild, lost, endearing Ida Irons with both hands and give her a great big hug.

Thanks to Cargo Publishing for the review copy. Pictures courtesy of Cargo Publishing and Amy Mason.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Theatre Review: Institute at Bristol Old Vic

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Gecko’s latest creation deals with the stuff of life itself. Institute is a raw, heart-rending, high energy exploration into the triumphs and despair of the human condition, encapsulated in a Kafkaesque world of unfathomable filing cabinets.
Each of the four performers within Institute has their own story to tell, but don’t expect a clear narrative; instead there’s a stream of consciousness in dance form, layers of meaning stretched taut by incredible physicality. There are echoes of Salvador Dali’s surrealist picture City of Drawers here, a body full of secrets waiting to be unlocked.
Amit Lahav directs and appears as Martin in this, Gecko’s sixth show in ten years. He has a rendezvous with Margaret; the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet opens to reveal a lamp-lit table and chairs, together with a pair of disembodied hands representing his beloved. It seems he’s all set for a romantic evening, until flashing red lights and harsh buzzers transport him back to the everyday.
Margaret remains a shape-shifting illusion, an ever-receding fantasy which Martin ends up carrying on his back. It’s his co-worker Daniel who proves to be his greatest source of fellow-feeling; their tightly sequenced dance culminating in a hilarious office meeting. They have become each other’s ticket to surviving the mundane and meaningless ritual of bureaucracy.
Martin and Daniel may be the employees or patients of Louis and his assistant Karl; like so much this is never really clear. The fragmented profusion of spoken English, French and German emphasizes their difficulty in finding a common understanding, yet each has an impulse to catch their fellow human being as they writhe in disjointed agony. Support is provided by crutches and ever more lengthy poles; beginning as close-fitting aids, by the end of the piece their increasingly sinister purpose seems to be to modify and control.
Institute is complex, it could be argued overly so. In a disconnected age, how far are we all still interconnected? With care being more commonly bought as a package, can we rely on each other’s freely given support? And at what stage does the carer turn puppet-master?  These are questions which Gecko typically doesn’t answer readily, but instead asks its audience to contemplate.
Lahav’s fellow performers are Chris Evans, Ryen Perkins-Gangnes and François Testory, whose Louis is especially affecting in his attempts to retain control despite growing incapacity. They are thrilling to watch, never more so than in the passages of flowing choreography where they all move as one. The lighting, original music by Dave Price and atmospheric sound design also play an integral part; particularly mesmerising  is the vision of a body which cannot be saved, falling over and over again on the mezzanine.
Institute portrays a world of vulnerability and loss, relieved by an intense human connection ultimately betrayed by the passage of time. The piece’s final golden, frenzied expression of the continuance of life in the midst of grief helps to ensure that, by the end of the performance, there’s a great deal that will stay in its audience’s mind.

This run has now finished at Bristol Old Vic; there are more tour dates here

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Reading The Classics: To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I've been reading To The Lighthouse for my on-line course, The Fiction of Relationship. Virginia Woolf's most autobiographical work may well be my favourite of all her novels, and it clearly has a special place in the heart of course tutor Professor Weinstein, too.

Woolf has recreated her own late parents as the book's central characters, Mr and Mrs Ramsay, and their holiday home in the Hebrides is based on her childhood summers in St Ives. The story begins before the outbreak of the First World War; strong emotional currents coursing just beneath the surface are visible from the outset.

Mrs Ramsay promises James, youngest of her brood of eight, that they'll be able to visit the nearby lighthouse next day, provided the weather is good. At this, James is filled with 'an extraordinary joy', until his father makes a passing comment that, of course, the weather won't be fine:
Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence.
Mr Ramsay is egotistical and abrupt, apart from his family; an academic and philosopher who, like Woolf's own father Leslie Stephen, is nevertheless in need of constant approval to validate his life.

It is Mrs Ramsay who is the emotional heart of the novel. A woman whose extraordinary beauty affects all those around her, she is often conveyed through the impact she has on others. The odious Charles Tansley falls in love with her and his fellow house-guest Lily Briscoe, painter and spinster surrogate for Virginia herself, loves and observes Mrs Ramsay closely. At the family's dinner party, as she turns to the man next to her:
How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought and how remote. Then when she turned to William Bankes, smiling, it was as if the ship had turned and the sun had struck its sails again
Mrs Ramsay breathes life into the house and provides her husband with the love and support he craves:
They became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love. The sky stuck to them; the birds sang through them.
Even though, at other times her feelings are less benevolent:
She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him
As Mrs Ramsay concerns herself with the well-being of family and friends, compelled to match-make those around her, she is also contemplating the 'wedge-shaped core of darkness' in her own soul.

The novel is written in Woolf's exquisitely lyrical stream of consciousness; Professor Weinstein describes it as 'throbbing and full throated.' It imbues every passing moment with depth and overturns the patriarchal point of view that Woolf so famously criticises in A Room of One's Own:
This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room
Shakespeare combines the domestic with the apocalyptic and political in King Lear and Professor Weinstein argues that in To The Lighthouse, by moving from a settled pre-war scene to the devastating short central section, Time Passes, and its aftermath, Woolf is doing the same.

To The Lighthouse can appear elitist in the twenty-first century, concerning itself with summer homes and dinner party meals of boeuf en daube. Mrs Ramsay is not the role model to women today that she might have been at the time of Woolf's writing; she has no profession and dwells entirely on the domestic. Yet, at a time of great social and class upheaval, she is the provider of social texture, the sole source of fusion, as she induces her family and reluctant guests to break bread together.

In her profound exploration of marriage and adult relationships, Woolf is is as relevant today as she has ever been. And the shocking brutality she introduces in Time Passes, with those we have come to love blotted out in brackets, emphasizes the fragility of our relationships. This is particularly poignant as, one hundred years on, we reflect on the senseless waste of the First World War. 

So what is the significance of the lighthouse? Like Mrs Ramsay, it is a beacon in the waves for human orientation. The sea is fluid, knowing nothing of human emotion, so all that endures is where a connection has taken place. 

In the final part, both reaching the lighthouse years later and Lily's finishing of her painting are paramount:
Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
In Lily's thoughts there is also a sense that Virginia has successfully completed the task she set out to achieve; an intimate portrayal of her parents.

The edition of the book shown is published by Harcourt. Image of Virginia Woolf courtesy of The Virginia Woolf Blog.

Monday 27 October 2014

Theatre Review: The Father by Florian Zeller at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Crossing the bridge of understanding with a fellow human being can often be difficult, especially when that person is suffering from dementia, with a very different reality from our own.
This new translation from the French of Florian Zeller’s play, The Father, uses the immediacy of theatre to create a window into the world of André, an elderly man whose perceptions are constantly shifting. He thinks he’s living in his own flat in Paris, and that his daughter Anne is leaving for London to be with her new partner, Antoine. So why is Anne now telling him he’s moved into the house she shares with her husband Pierre, until they can find him another carer?
From André’s perspective, he may once have been a tap dancer, a circus conjurer or, as his daughter tells him, an engineer. Time doesn’t move in a linear fashion but circles back and forth, with familiar faces becoming unrecognisable before reverting to themselves again. It’s a confusing and often frightening place, where events are fragmented and out of sequence. Small wonder that André blames his daughter for repeating herself and searches for his watch over and over again, to pin a timestamp on the day.
This frail space which Zeller has created is challenging to unpick and unsettling to inhabit, as the simple tasks of dressing and eating become too difficult for André to negotiate. Struggling to cope with her father’s deterioration, Anne’s relationship with her partner suffers. The music splicing scenes together becomes distorted and disconnected and a beading of neon light frames the set, switching on and off a picture that is gradually being stripped of the familiar.
Kenneth Cranham as André delivers a master class in human susceptibility, flickering between the charm he must have effortlessly displayed as a younger man and the intransigence of one who attempts to leave a last, firm tread upon the sand, for fear his footprints may be washed away. His towering performance is matched by the rest of the cast; in particular Lia Williams is outstanding as Anne, navigating conflicting responsibilities and suffering a daughter’s pain as she witnesses one of the pillars of her world being reduced to a mewling infant.
We should sit up and take notice of Zellerwho has already written a number of novels and plays which have been produced all over Europe. The Father won him a prestigious 2014 Molière award for Best Play in his native France and it’s no small achievement that Christopher Hampton agreed to take on its translation.
There is a resilient thread of poignant humour running through James Macdonald’s production, although whether it fits the Ustinov’s season theme of ‘black comedy’ may be open for debate. What is without question is that in this tour de force, the Ustinov is exceeding the already high standards it has set in previous years. The Father is not only a memorable window into a decaying mind, but also a perplexing mirror, confronting its audience with the everyday, isolating exile that so many of us might experience in old age.
Runs until 15th November 2014. Photo: Simon Annand. All seats on Mondays are £10, further information and booking here

Thursday 23 October 2014

Theatre Review: Stones in His Pockets at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Stones in His Pockets has enjoyed phenomenal success since its Irish debut in 1996, with award-winning runs in the West End and on Broadway. Now this entertaining and bittersweet two-hander is returning to tour with its original director, Ian McElhinney, in charge.
A quiet backwater in Kerry has been taken over as a Hollywood film set and its villagers recruited as extras, feasting on the catering facilities and spending their £50 daily reward in the pub. This unfolding story is seen through the eyes of Jake and Charlie, two of the film’s hired crowd of the dispossessed. As its star, Caroline Giovanni , struggles with her atrocious Irish accent, she visits the pub to pick up some local direction and set in motion the most tragic chain of events.
Conor Delaney and Stephen Jones play not only Jake and Charlie but also all the other characters, from sultry Caroline to Mickey, the lifelong extra. Jake has recently returned home from New York and realises that Caroline is only interested in him for his Irish dialect; he shamelessly channels Seamus Heaney and is not unduly put out to be uncovered as a fraud. But young Sean is another matter; drug-dependent and disillusioned with life in rural Ireland, he’s more than ready to be seduced by Hollywood glamour and completely pulled apart by its rejection.
As circumstances change and the locals threaten to boycott filming, the mood darkens to one of resentment with the villagers beginning to reassert themselves against their tyrannical employers. Yet the thread of humour is never lost and unwanted flowers are transported from wedding to funeral, leaving a trail of hay fever in their wake.
Delaney and Jones have both appeared in Stones in His Pockets before, although never together until now. They are a superb combination, inhabiting the play’s fifteen roles with split-second timing and never better than in the dance which brings together so many of their creations. Their freedom of interpretation is enhanced by the minimal backdrop of clouds on a screen, a traditional Irish soundscape and a couple of boxes which they manoeuvre around the stage.
For all its heritage and skill, the ending of this play feels a little too neatly wrapped up. There’s a sense of the space here being too big for the performance and a distance which would be have been naturally overcome in more intimate surroundings. Yet this is still an enjoyable exploration of the triumph of aspiration from the ashes of failure, in the virtuoso company of two fine actors and the world of characters they create.
Reviewed on 19th October 2014.
Stones in his Pockets is on tour in the UK until 18th November 2014, details are here

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Book Review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

I loved Rachel Joyce's bestselling first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, about a man who walks the length of England to save the life of an old friend. Harold's literal and metaphorical journey is a warm, witty and inspiring tale, radiating a sense of hope that it's never to late to atone for past mistakes.

Written from the point of view of the woman who must wait for him, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is Harold Fry's hotly anticipated companion. Queenie is dying of cancer and living out her remaining days in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, when she learns of Harold's walk. She hasn't seen him for more than twenty years and there's still much that has been left unsaid between them.

Queenie may have been robbed of her voice by illness, but with the help of a new volunteer, she quietly and insistently makes herself heard. It's through writing down the truth in this last, heart-rending letter that she comes to believe she can hang on until Harold arrives.

She has moments of doubt that she can make it:
I can't wait for Harold. I am here to die.
 But Sister Mary Inconnue, the nun transcribing her scribbles, doesn't let Queenie off the hook:
Pardon me, but you are here to live until you die. There is a significant difference. 
In between the unfolding chapters of Queenie's life we meet the nuns who are helping to look after her, as well as the other residents of the hospice. There's the irascible Scotsman Mr Henderson, blind Barbara and her escaping glass eye, the Pearly King and loud and colourful Finty. Other patients come and go and Queenie finds herself becoming increasingly used to the sight of the undertaker's van on the drive.

It's possible to read this novel without first knowing Harold Fry's story, but if you do then the episodes of Queenie's past fill the gaps in Harold's with the gratifying precision of a well-cut jigsaw. It seems that Queenie has not so much stood on the shoulders of a giant, as leant her frail weight against Harold's tall frame. But still she still has some resistance of her own:
I didn't want support. I had hosiery for that. I wanted love.
Queenie's discussion with Harold's son about the ordinary ways of loving reminded me of W. H. Auden's O Tell Me the Truth About Love
When it comes, will it come without warning 
Just as I'm picking my nose? 
Will it knock on my door in the morning, 
Or tread in the bus on my toes? 
while her intimate knowledge of every inch of her beach house garden in Embleton Bay made me think of Tove Jansson's innate love of her island in The Summer Book.

Queenie Hennessy may be reflective and almost unbearably sad, but it captures the warts-and-all humour of life while remaining addictively readable. Rachel Joyce has a rare ability to write about profound ideas with an enviable lightness of touch; any doubts I might have felt about the almost heavenly surroundings of Queenie's last days were swept away in the impact of her story's ending. Building on the spirit of Harold Fry's renewal in the first novel, by the end of the second there's a satisfying sense that Queenie Hennessy's life has finally come full circle.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is now out in hardback, published by Doubleday Books. 
Thanks to Transworld Publishers for my review copy. 
Images courtesy of and the Guardian.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Reading the Classics: Franz Kafka

After wrestling too long with Herman Melville, it's with relief I turned to Franz Kafka for Week 4 of my MOOC*, even if he has been called 'the coldest writer of them all'.

In a course about relationships, it's a fascinating prospect to study a writer who had such trouble with them. The only work of his I've read to date is The Trial, so I've been looking forward to extending my knowledge.

Professor Weinstein describes Kafka as triply alienated; a German-speaking Jew living in Prague. His two stories The Metamorphosis and A Country Doctor both illustrate this sense of otherness, where anything can and will happen. The protagonists are shipwrecked in their own changing bodies, just as we all may be through the aging process of debilitating diseases and decay.

*If you haven't read these two stories, there are spoilers*

The Metamorphosis (1915)

The tale of travelling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into 'a horrible vermin', is one of Kafka's best known works.

Gregor is a conscientious employee and his first prosaic concern is that he'll be late for work. He clings to the normality of routine, the reality of his new situation only dawning once he's managed, with difficulty, to open his bedroom door. There he confronts the horror of his parents and sister Grete, as well as the chief clerk who has arrived to berate him for not turning up in the office.

After the initial shock, Grete takes on the maternal duties of feeding and looking after him and Gregor gradually becomes more comfortable with his insect body, climbing the walls and ceilings. But he's unable to communicate with his family and stays shuttered away in his bedroom lair, listening to their discussions of how they will cope, now he can no longer provide for them.

Kafka was humiliated by his father and Professor Weinstein suggests this tortured relationship is mirrored in The Metamorphosis, with Gregor, originally the family breadwinner, in turn ignored, attacked and fatally injured by a father rejuvenated through his son's misfortune. We already recognise that for Kafka, writing was a priestly act not compatible with relationships. It may be that it was also a form of therapy, a way of reasserting himself against his father's tyranny.

As Gregor increasingly 'exits the human', there is a question mark over how his family interpret him. Is he still their son and brother? Grete doesn't think so:
I don't want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it. We've done all that's humanly possible to look after it and be patient, I don't think anyone could accuse us of doing anything wrong.
They don't have the access to his internal perspective that the reader does and have no way of communicating with him. Increasingly, they view him as a burden and a pest.

Gregor is fatally injured by his father's apple-throwing. He stops eating, another theme commonly found in Kafka's work, where many protagonists have problems with food. In his 1924 story A Hunger Artist,  for example, the fasting man laments that he only does so
because I couldn't find a food which tasted good to me. If I had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content
Similarly, Gregor has been denied his humanity. The only form of nourishment he can find is through his sister's violin playing and this will not sustain him. He dies because of a failure of empathy which, Professor Weinstein argues, is how genocide occurs.

Gregor never asks how or why this has happened to him, so we as readers ask instead. Was he already an automaton, a slave to his job, so that his transformation is from one form of mindlessness to another? Or does he represent an artist, living a weird, individual existence and shunned by those around him?

The family don't mourn Gregor's passing as they surely would if he had died in a more conventional fashion. As he is discarded with the rubbish, they decide they can move to a smaller flat now and Mr and Mrs Samsa notice for the first time how Grete has grown into an attractive young woman. Professor Weinstein suggests an interpretation of Gregor as a sacrificial, Christ-like figure, giving his life so his family can recover theirs.

A Country Doctor (1919)

A doctor having to urgently attend a sick young patient on a winter's night is stranded because his only horse died the night before. In this absurdist tale it seems there's no hope, until a groom unexpectedly emerges from the disused pigsty with a crack team of horses. But there is a Faustian pact to be made because, as the doctor speeds away to his house call, he realises that the groom will rape his maid, Rosa, while he's away.

Kafka's surreal story has the texture of a dream and it is this doctor's nightmare - one where he surrenders control. In arriving at his patient's bedside, he first diagnoses him as being completely well, before realising he has a gaping wound in his side.

This story is hard for the reader to understand, too. The shaped of the wound suggests a sexual dimension which seems to refer to Rosa's ordeal, reinforced by the horses neighing frantically at the windows. Is there a purpose to the suffering and the wound itself? Professor Weinstein quotes Kafka's violent imagery
Art is the axe for the frozen sea within us
So is this wound 'art', the breaking of one code of logic, in order to create another?

Finally, the doctor becomes a sacrifice, stripped of his clothes and laid beside his patient. If he can't save a life it seems he must be killed. Professor Weinstein draws a comparison with King Lear, who tears at his own clothes in his madness and proclaims to Edgar that
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art
The doctor has lost his trappings of authority and is reduced to the same lowly status as his patient. In the completion of another form of metamorphosis, he has realised that writing a prescription is easy, but coming to an understanding with a fellow human being is hard.

*Massive Open Online Course, The Fiction of Relationship.
Images courtesy of Feed Books and Koji Yamamura Films.