Monday 29 May 2017

Theatre Review: The Mentor at Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The Ustinov Studio, under artistic director Laurence Boswell, has garnered a well-deserved reputation for unearthing significant international works to present to a British audience – and then attracting top-flight actors to appear in them. Productions like The Father, with Kenneth Cranham in the lead role, have transferred to London’s West End and beyond. And yet, there’s still been a noticeable buzz, in anticipation of Academy Award Winner F Murray Abraham’s appearance in Daniel Kehlmann’s comedy The Mentor.

Kehlmann is a literary phenomenon in Germany, particularly renowned for his novel Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World), but this is the first time one of his plays, translated with a sure and light touch by Christopher Hampton, has been performed outside his native land.

Abraham plays Benjamin Rubin, an embittered writer who presented his seminal work to the world aged 24 – and has been in slow decline ever since. Having dabbled in novels and screenplays to cover the cost of homes and ex-wives, he’s now accepted the fee of 10,000 Euros from a cultural foundation to mentor young prodigy Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman). But, from the outset, this isn’t a harmonious relationship; Rubin swiftly discovers his mentee, described as ‘the voice of his generation’, far from feeling honoured, is being paid at the same rate.

Unlike his character, Abraham’s portrayal comes from an artist at the top of his game; full of depth and nuance with the subtlest of comic delivery. Rubin heaps demands – more pillows, Speyside malt, no television – on the foundation’s representative Erwin Rudicek (Jonathan Cullen) as though he were a waiter, before demolishing the basis of Wegner’s work and setting his sights on the writer’s successful art historian wife, Gina (Naomi Frederick).

Abraham’s performance is matched by the rest of the cast, with Weyman and Frederick the epitome of a golden young couple – all light colours and chic accessories, in contrast with Rubin’s wardrobe of black – until Rubin throws a critical grenade in their path and uncovers the fault lines beneath the smooth exterior. Cullen’s Rudicek is a painfully convincing exploration of compromise, as a failed artist turned administrator, whose heart lies elsewhere.

Polly Sullivan’s light and shade design suggests a bucolic retreat, complete with flowering blossom, but the insistent chorus of frogs in the pond is an early indication that this is far from a haven of tranquillity.

There are obvious comparisons with Abraham’s film role as Salieri in Amadeus, although it’s unclear whether Wegner’s talent soars anywhere close to the genius of Mozart or is nothing more than pretentious drivel. As with Plastic, first play in the Ustinov’s season, The Mentor raises questions of life, art and ego; who sits as judge over artistic value in any endeavour? How much comes down to self-belief? At one stage, Gina tells her crestfallen husband, ‘even if he’s right, he won’t stay right’.

Of the two plays, it’s Plastic that examines the subject with greater complexity, but there are witty layers of challenging ambiguity to savour in The Mentor, too; does Wegner ever go on to award-winning heights, or is this, like so much, an illusion? Discover for yourself in this second accomplished and unmissable work in the Ustinov’s outstanding 2017 German season.

Reviewed on 13 April 2017 | Image: Simon Annand

Monday 8 May 2017

Book Review: Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E. Hardisty

Strap yourself in for a white-knuckle ride because Claymore Straker is back, in the third of Paul E. Hardisty's thrillers to feature the justice-seeking action hero. The Abrupt Physics of Dying saw Clay tackle environmental disaster and corporate corruption in Yemen, while by The Evolution of Fear,  he was fleeing for his life across Europe - in search of Rania, the woman he loves - only to become enmeshed in ecological devastation and murderous land grab on the divided island of Cyprus.

Now Reconciliation for the Dead takes us back to the beginning of Clay's story and his involvement as a callow young South African soldier in the Angolan border war of the 1980s. For those who've read the first two books, this is particularly satisfying; fleshing out events that shaped the flawed but driven man we've come to know, scarred both physically and mentally by the atrocities he witnessed. Yet, if this is your first encounter with Clay, the story still stands alone as an immersive and gripping thriller, that never lets up on the tension.

At the novel's opening, we find Clay returning to South Africa in the 1990s to testify to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about events leading to his dishonourable discharge from the army and enforced exile. He has a debt to pay, to tell the truth on behalf of those who died for their beliefs. But, at the same time, he's forced to face up to his own actions 15 years earlier and to question whether he could have done more to save those he loved.

It's 1981 and the Cold War is at its height. As young paratroopers, Clay and his friend Eben are fighting the communist insurgency in Angola that threatens South Africa's Apartheid regime. Deep in enemy territory, they find themselves caught up in a conspiracy that undermines a previous unthinking faith in their country's cause. Bearing witness to ever greater and more visceral inhumanity, unable to stand by passively, they begin to reconsider their own allegiances. It sets them on a trail delving into a web of such unimaginable immorality, not only their own survival but that of an entire population is at risk.

What's really shocking is that the cold brutality depicted here is not the product of an unusually febrile and twisted mind, but, like Hardisty's previous books, based on true events. The level of detail from this ignominious period of South Africa's history is astonishing; from the terror and confusion of battle to the precise and horrific reasons for having specific items of equipment in a laboratory. It brings the story vividly to life; a corrupt regime doing whatever it can to protect its ideology. Those in positions of power killing without compunction to hold on to what they have. Faced with such ruthlessness, how far is Clay justified in using violence himself to defeat it?

Such philosophical questions raise Reconciliation for the Dead from being merely a hard-hitting, entertaining read to something more profound. It's interspersed with transcripts from Clay's interviews with the Commission; is he a reliable witness or has post-traumatic stress warped his memories and confused what really happened? The Commissioners seem divided; we find out little about them, but by their names discern they might be adopting different positions along ethnic lines.

There's less romantic distraction than in the first two books, with Rania only featuring at the beginning and end. Clay's relationship with fiancée Sara is unpromising - you can tell this, from the moment she visits him in the hospital and 'she looked heavier than he remembered her.' The most prominent female protagonist Vivian is a likely candidate but comes with her own troubled background and agenda.The storyline is all the better for it, concentrating instead on what Hardisty does best; tautly written, meticulously researched action and reaction in a spiraling collision of opposing forces, that has you hooked until the final page.

Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E.Hardisty is published by Orenda Books in paperback on 30th May 2017. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Book Review: Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone

Eli Goldstone's Strange Heart Beating has one of those singular covers that never fails to draw comment, even though reactions in my small sample veered between captivated and unconvinced. Maybe its contents will prove equally divisive, but I for one adored this striking debut novel from a bewitching and deceptively complex young voice.

Leda Kauss has perished in a bizarre North London boating accident involving a swan. From the outset, her death has an air of inevitability. Women in her family frequently die young in unusual circumstances; freezing to death in the 'javelin of a pine tree's shadow' or from the sepsis caused by the shard of a fallen chandelier.

Leda's husband Seb, the story's narrator, is undone. Robbed of a future with his beautiful, sophisticated artist wife and struggling to cope at work, he lashes out at those around him. He is alternately arrogant and apathetic, driven to extremes by his grief. Sunk in a morass of memory, he begins to research Leda's Latvian childhood:
I've taken it upon myself to learn more about her. Even in death, why shouldn't I get to know my own wife? I'm unlikely to find a woman to interest me more. I take a trip to the library. It's the first time I've set foot in the place, even though I signed a petition to save it.
Sifting through her belongings, he comes across photographs of people he doesn't know and a packet of unopened letters from Olaf, a man Leda never mentioned. He decides to travel to Latvia, to find out more about the enigmatic woman he married.

This is a book of layers to become immersed in, tumbling away from the sharp edges of reality down the rabbit hole of Leda's origins. The title is taken from W B Yeats' poem and references to the classical mythology of Leda and the Swan, are threaded through the narrative, although - as Seb discovers - it is his wife's identity that appears to have changed its shape.

Seb's narrative is interspersed with extracts from Leda's adolescent diary; meeting those she grew up with, he becomes increasingly unsettled by what he didn't know, finding more fresh questions than answers. At the same time, he is absorbed by Leda's forested homeland, so different from his own intellectual life in London. Finding Olaf, he is gradually drawn into the sinister and near-feral tensions of an exclusively male circle of hunting friends.

Strange Heart Beating is distinctive in its imagery, filled with the bitterness and melancholy of lost love, darkly witty and immersive from the first page. Eli Goldstone, a graduate of the City University Creative Writing MA, has produced a remarkable debut. She anatomizes grief from the inside out, stripping it back to the sinew, hinting at the magical realism of Angela Carter's writing but establishing a penetrating and fearless style that is firmly her own.

Strange Heart Beating is published by Granta Books on 4 May 2017. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.