Category Archives: miscellaneous

A month of things read, things watched – January 2017

It’s hard to think straight at the moment, given I seem to be living in every pessimistic sf novel I’ve ever read.  The nightmares of my teens and twenties have all come true in the last ten days and writing this seems excessively indulgent when other things need to be attended to. At the same time, I remind myself that I do all the other things in order to carry on doing this, so it would be pointless to stop now.

So, here’s a round-up of things I read and watched in January 2017.

Books:

black-and-britishDavid Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) is linked to the recent BBC series of the same name. It’s a good basic introduction to the history of black people in the UK, if you’re new to the subject: my historical interests in the last few years have been such that I already knew something about most of the pre-20th century material (and quite a lot about Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson’s anti-slavery work – I recommend Adam Hochschild’s Bury These Chains, if you want to read more), though there was enough new detail to keep me interested. I was less familiar with the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century and post-war material so that took up most of my attention. The book did show some signs of being published in a hurry – there are more editorial mistakes than I thought seemly – but it does have a decent critical apparatus. It also reminded me to buy Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, which I’ve been intending to read since forever.

the-ash-treeI’m nothing if not eclectic in my reading (actually, I’m not – it’s pretty much equal parts history, various kinds of nature writing, fiction – predominantly science fiction and fantasy, and criticism these days) so next is Oliver Rackham’s The Ash Tree (2015) one of the Little Toller Monograph series. I find these to be something of a mixed bag (Iain Sinclair’s The Black Apples of Gower was entertaining, though possibly not for any reason he intended; my favourite by far is Adam Thirlwell’s On Silbury Hill). I was eager to read this because, well, I like ash trees, but the book felt rather leaden and dully fact-heavy until, towards the end, Rackham started taking a pop at various authorities over the ash dieback crisis.

wolf-borderSarah Hall’s The Wolf Border turned out be less than I was expecting, after a promising start.  I was hoping for something a bit more wolfish than I ended up with. I did not expect to get what is, to all intents and purposes, a contemporary version of the Gothic romance of the 1970s. Hated them then, really don’t like them now, even with a fresh spin. All the really interesting stuff was going on in the novel’s interstices, where we and the protagonist could only glimpse it. As a novel about national identity, it seemed have a lot to say about pregnancy. Exquisitely written, exquisitely frustrating.

weird-and-eerieI was only dimly aware of the existence of Mark Fisher as a writer, and it took his death to draw my attention to his last book, The Weird and the Eerie, which came out last year. I’ll not say much about it now as I’m planning to reread it and write about it, but I will note that I did not expect to read a piece of work published in 2016 that was so white and so male in its critical approach. Only three texts by women were discussed, and a lot of the material discussed was old. The section on Alan Garner focused on ElidorThe Owl Service and Red Shift, as though Strandloper,  Thursbitch and Boneland, all equally pertinent to the discussion, had never been written. I’m also not sure whether Fisher realised that Yvonne Rousseau’s Murder at Hanging Rock (which he discusses in the section on Picnic at Hanging Rock, bu unforgiveably does not mention in the bibliography) was intended as spoof scholarship. And yet, there was much about the basic critical thesis that I found very useful, hence much of my irritation with the text.

loveLast but not least, I read Love Beyond Body, Space and Time: An indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology, edited by Hope Nicolson. I’ve a review of this coming up in Strange Horizons so I’ll link to that when it appears.

 

 

 

 

Chiang.jpgI also read (possibly reread) Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Lives as I was going to see Arrival and wanted to read ‘Story of Your Life’. Ted Chiang is an excellent writer of a particular kind of sf that I happen to like, so job done.

 

 

 

book-cover-green-knowe Other rereads were Alison Uttley’s The Country Child and A Traveller in Time, and Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe. I’ve never much cared for A Country Child as a story, but see now that’s because it isn’t, not really. To my adult eyes, the descriptions of landscape and country ways are beautifully done; Susan Garland remains annoyingly priggish. For that kind of thing I would rather read Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford.

 

 

Films/TV:

We went to see both Arrival and Rogue One, both very well done. I’ve already written about Arrival  so I won’t repeat myself here. Rogue One is, in many respects, everything I missed from The Force Awakens. Diverse cast, women flying X-fighters, enough nods to the original without being overwhelmingly cloying and sentimental in its fan service, funny, sarcastic, genuinely tragic, bizarrely life-affirming. This is my favourite Star Wars film.

We also went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of The Tempest. The general view seems to be that the special effects probably work better if you’re in the theatre; they do not come over well on broadcast relay. (N.B., for anyone who has ever asked me what it’s like to have no depth perception without glasses, if you saw this play as a relay broadcast, now you know.)

Much as I have always loved Simon Russell Beale as an actor, I’m forced to the conclusion, reluctantly, that he now does Simon Russell Beale in a play rather than the character he’s playing. His Prospero was … okay, better than his god-awful Lear and the so-so Timon for the Royal National Theatre, but I’d been expecting more and I did not get it. Ariel and Caliban were far better, and that set me thinking about them as physical embodiments of the two aspects of Prospero’s character. Miranda was also rather gutsier than I’m used to, which is good, and Ferdinand was wet, as usual.

I’ve written about watching the BBC productions of The Children of Green Knowe and A Traveller in Time on DVDChildren has fared well over the years, Traveller not so much. I’m glad to have the DVD but the production has entirely lost its magic for me.

I’ve also just finished catching up on the BBC’s fourth series of Father Brown, which I continue to regard as alternative history, in a Britain where the Reformation never happened. The series bible now seems to be firmly stuck around about August 1953, though the background culture is quite clearly changing constantly. I’ve been struck in this series by the sudden influx of actors of colour, and not all of them playing villains, for a wonder. The only way to cope with the series is to entirely forget about G.K. Chesterton and think of it as Midsomer Murders in the Cotswolds, with a Catholic priest, though the last episode of the series featured John Light’s disturbing Sexy!Flambeau. The writers of this episode seemed to have some slight understanding of the complexities of the relationship between Flambeau and Father Brown, for a wonder, and it was rather enjoyable in its own funny, fuzzy way. There must surely be a spin-off series called Flambeau! any moment now.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2014) dir. Julie Taymor

On Sunday night, Midsummer’s Night, Paul Kincaid and I went to see Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the rather dream-like surroundings of an almost entirely empty auditorium in Canterbury. There were perhaps fifteen to twenty of us in a theatre that comfortably seats more than three hundred people. Given that people in Canterbury turn out in large numbers to see the live broadcasts from the Royal Shakespeare Company one might have supposed they had an appetite for Shakespeare generally, but apparently not. Maybe no one likes the play? Maybe there is some weird prohibition in Canterbury on going out on Midsummer’s Night. Or, maybe everyone has an appetite for watching the RSC do Shakespeare, but not anyone else. Indeed, I admit that when I booked the tickets I had thought we were seeing another RSC production, so was rather confused on Saturday to hear the Taymor film being trailed all over the media.

Given that Julie Taymor is best known for directing the stage production of The Lion King, I wonder if an element of snobbishness enters into this refusal to see the film. There were a couple of distinctively ‘Lion King’ moments but otherwise it hardly intruded on the production. I didn’t know Taymor had directed The Lion King so was spared this concern. Maybe the putative audience doesn’t like films of stage productions, although I don’t really know what the RSC and Royal National Theatre broadcasts are, if not films (having said which, as Paul Kincaid notes, neither the RSC or RNT filmed productions are blessed with a particular sense of the filmic, tending to rely on several fixed cameras and an over-reliance on long swooping shots to give a sense of the breadth of the production). Maybe the putative audience didn’t know, as I also didn’t, that Taymor has a long history of directing stage productions – theatre, musical and opera – and that this film is of a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream she directed in Brooklyn in 2013. All I do know is that three hundred-plus people missed out, while fifteen to twenty of us had one of the strangest and most magical cinematic/theatrical experiences I can recall.

A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is not among my favourite Shakespeare plays, probably because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production of it that tries to make any sense of what’s going on. Those I have seen have focused on the ‘lovers lost in the forest’ aspect, along with the transformation of Nick Bottom into an ass (you can invariably feel the wardrobe department salivating at the prospect of transforming a man into a talking donkey). The ‘magic’ generally seems to derive simply from the fact of there being fairies in the play in the first place, that and a bit of legerdemain with a magic flower. I’ve never seen a production that was in any way ‘magical’. Indeed, I can’t think of a single production I’ve seen that really thought about the fact that most of the play is not set in the city – that is, the place of civilisation, of social rules and polite behaviour – but in that dark Shakespearian forest that pushes up against the walls of every city state, and that is the place of first resort for those for whom the rules of polite society no longer work, the place where the law of the city does not extend, a point made by Lysander when he and Hermia decide to run away together to get married beyond the law of Athens. As for the ‘dream’ of the title, while the play’s opening has Hippolyta talk about how the four days until her marriage to Theseus will be dreamed away, the idea of the dream is usually acknowledged at the end of the play, when the four mortals marvel at the strange dreams they had while they were in the forest and then return to their city lives, but there is rarely if anything ‘dreamlike’ about the play as it unfolds.

Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an altogether different beast from any production I’ve seen before. The play opens with a gawky, badly dressed figure in white-face falling asleep on a bed in the middle of an otherwise empty stage. As the figures sleeps the bed suddenly rises from the floor, elevated by a small forest of branches. The bedsheet is fastened to lines by a team of workmen who have suddenly appeared, and the next thing the audience knows, the sheet transforms into the sky, the figure has vanished into that sky, and the bed has been cut away from its forest roots by a chainsaw. It makes perfect sense and yet no sense at all, but like so many dreams it doesn’t really matter. The white-faced figure will shortly be revealed to be Puck, so we are immediately presented with the intriguing prospect that this play, this Dream, is a fairy’s dream to begin with: ‘Lord, what fool these mortals be’. Or maybe Hippolyta is already dreaming?

This strong sense of dislocation, of detachment from the ordinary or conventional, underlines something that the previous productions I’ve seen never really seemed to grapple with, and that’s the cruelty of the play. Considering that the heart of it is supposedly the celebration of a wedding, between Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, Dream is actually incredibly dark, more like a warning about the perils of marriage than something celebratory. Consider how the formal play opens, with Egeus seeking Theseus’s support for his invocation of an ancient Athenian law which ensures that either his daughter, Hermia, will marry the man he has chosen for her, Demetrius, or she will be put to death. Hermia, in love with Lysander, has already refused Demetrius, despite her father’s insistence. Theseus, however, is bound by the law, and the best he can do, he says, is to offer her a further choice, a chaste half-death in a nunnery. Robert Langdon Lloyd’s portrayal of Egeus as a man so angry you half expect the camera lens to be spittle-flecked as he rants is startling, while Duke Theseus’s rigid adherence to the law also suggestive. He could overrule Egeus in a moment but this lack of flexibility, this unwillingness to exercise power, particularly at a point when his own life is theoretically in a state of happiness makes you begin to wonder about the nature of his own forthcoming marriage. Is it purely symbolic and dynastic? Is Theseus perhaps acutely aware that he is marrying a woman who is queen in her own right, and someone unlikely to allow him to curtail her freedoms?

And so, Lysander and Hermia make a plan to meet beyond the city walls after dark, and to make their way to Lysander’s aunt’s house, beyond the law of Athens, where they can wed. Hermia tells her best friend, Helena, who is in love with Demetrius, who has eyes only for Hermia. Hoping to win Demetrius’s favour, Helena tells him about the proposed escape, and then follows him devotedly into the forest as he sets off to murder Lysander and reclaim Hermia: ‘I am your spaniel … the more you beat me, I will fawn on you’.

And as if this weren’t enough, Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, are in dispute over a mortal child that Oberon wants for his entourage, and he determines to teach her a lesson by bewitching her, so that she falls in love with the first thing she sees … which is of course Bottom the weaver, his head replaced by that of an ass, an embellishment of Puck’s. What better way to celebrate a marriage than by presenting us with a series of abusive relationships? Yes, there are comical moments but there is the sense too that the laughter is uneasy, as though we are being asked to consider not only the fates of these four couples but the state of our own relationships too.

On top of that, there is a constant undermining of power and authority. Egeus cannot control his daughter. Theseus cannot control his state (which may be a good thing on one level, but it would seem he cannot do anything about antiquated laws either). Oberon is subject to the carelessness of his servant, Puck. It is worth noting that here Puck is played as a variant of the fool, but here emphasising the fact of his mistake rather than the dazzling wit we expect of Shakespeare’s fools. Of the women, only Hippolyta seems not to be entangled by love. The whole story is presented as enmeshed in constraint, reflected in the costumes of the characters. Demetrius is, literally, buttoned up, as is Egeus and, to a slightly lesser extent, Theseus. Hermia wears a rather foolish little puffed dress, at variance with the steel her character will later show. At the beginning and the end, we see Puck tightly encased in clothes that don’t fit, as though he is free only when he is in the fairy world, or in a dream, where the jacket comes off and he seems more like a workman. The mechanicals are more comfortably dressed than their supposed betters. It’s almost a shock, at the end, to see them in costume for the play. Lysander is dressed languidly, while Helena is more practically dressed than Hermia, and Hippolyta’s costume pays lip service to court convention while looking as though she might hitch up those skirts and run like the wind at a moment’s notice. In the woods, the four lovers end up wandering around in their underwear, perhaps signalling the stripping away of city mores, or maybe indicating that this too is a dream.

The production scores high on magicality as well. It makes heavy use of huge white sheets onto which images are projected as they billow across the stage, to be skies, clouds, hammocks. All this is coupled with the singing of the rude elementals in elaborate arrangements of sound that reminded me a lot of Steve Reich’s work. Other than that, special effects are limited. At one point Puck flies on a wire but when the fairies fly, they are in fact being carried by stage hands dressed in black, all very reminiscent of the puppet daimons in the RNT’s production of His Dark Materials. The magical forest – and this forest does seem to come alive – is formed of staves carried by the same stage hands. It’s surprisingly effective. The only real nod to The Lion King is a brief hunt scene, with three deer in familiar headdresses being chased by a pack of children-hounds.

The acting throughout is never less than good, and on occasion goes far beyond that. As Paul Kincaid remarked, there is that brief moment of being taken aback slightly by hearing American accents when one is used to English accents but that lasts about five seconds and the next two and a half hours zoom past. The young men are pretty, as young male actors are wont to be, these days. Lilli Englert (Hermia) and Mandi Masden (Helena) seemed to me to give more visceral performances than the kind of thing I’m used to seeing from young female Shakespearian actors (with one or two honourable exceptions, such as the RSC’s Michelle Terry), which was welcome. David Harewood’s Oberon was commanding, and all the actors playing the Mechanicals were splendid (Taymor presented them as a group of New York workmen, which ought to have jarred horribly with the rest of the play but, curiously enough, didn’t, perhaps because they were so firmly anchored when everyone else was so entirely adrift).

The outstanding actor was Kathryn Hunter, as Puck. She is known for a particularly physical style of performance and her Puck was agile and yet so strangely angular, and curiously still for someone who can allegedly put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. It’ always tempting to think of Puck as a slim young child-figure, whereas this Puck is a creature of experience, tempered with puzzlement by the behaviour of mortals. She was extraordinary.

And having said that, I have certain reservations about the production. White Theseus, black Hippolyta (the Amazon queen, of course), and in contrast black Oberon (with a little Lion King gold paint for that extra exotic touch), white (icy white) Titania: I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be reading from this. It is traditional for Theseus/Oberon and Titania/Hippolyta to be played by the same actors – was this version supposed to suggest a muddling of tradition, suggest something about the characters’ hidden natures. More problematic to me was the presentation of Helena by an African-American woman, dressed in sober Sunday church-going costume, talking about how she had always been Hermia’s friend, and then trailing after Demetrius, representing herself as his dog. It is Helena, after all, who has the speech about feeling less than her friend, not looking as beautiful, and Helena who believes herself to be mocked when both men claim to love her. And Helena who only gets her man because he remains bewitched. It was hard not to read some sort of sub-text into this, though for the life of me I couldn’t work out whether Taymor had made a deliberate choice here. One is forced to assume that David Harewood’s costume of baggy trousers, bare chest, body paint, all overtly exotic, was. Perhaps the intention was that I should, the next day, be thinking over that in my mind.

And yet, having said all that, I think about this production and weigh it against the two RSC productions I’ve seen recently: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Love’s Labour’s Won, and I know which of the three is the best. The RSC productions had fine actors but the actual look of the plays was so dull. There was little sense of energy or excitement about them. They felt very staid and conventional by comparison with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

So, while I may have messed up when I made my bookings, I think on the whole it was a fortunate error, and a midsummer night well spent.

Offered without (much) comment …

It’s that time of year when newspapers resort to cheap filler by asking the literati what they’ll be reading on holiday. The Independent offered its list (much of which was, in fairness, quite interesting, bar the usual odd bits of self-promotion), and included this gem from Margaret Drabble (a novelist for whom I have very little time, anyway, and less so now).

I’ll be reading Owen Sheers’s new novel, I Saw a Man, despite the extremely boring and irrelevant discussions about genre fiction that are accompanying its publication. It’s said to be a page-turner, but no harm in that, and he has an excellent track record in other fields, so I’m looking forward to it. I read Ishiguro’s Buried Giant as soon as it came out, and although I don’t read much fantasy fiction, I loved his ogres as much as he does and felt very sorry for them. I can see the genre problem, though – I wouldn’t have read this book had it not been by him. And, for intellectual ballast, I shall catch up with Helen Small’sThe Value of the Humanities, a book which we shall be needing as the new government revamps its education policies. She always has fine, balanced and persuasive arguments, and how we need them now.

It’s not even the comments about genre that irritate me, given I’m perennially tired with them too, yet still feel the need to try to redress the balance.

No, it’s the sheer disdain the piece exudes, even for these novels she’s supposedly keen to read.

‘It’s said to be a page-turner, but no harm in that, and he has an excellent track record in other fields’. So that’s all right, then. I was worried there for a moment.

Or: ‘I can see the genre problem, though – I wouldn’t have read this book had it not been by him.’ But, but, but, I thought she didn’t care about ‘extremely boring and irrelevant discussions about genre fiction’, yet they would have stopped her reading the novel if it hadn’t been by Ishiguro.

And then, the killer … ‘for intellectual ballast’. It’s hard to feel warmth towards a novelist who appears to think so little of novels.

Six weeks later …

Back on Shrove Tuesday, I decided to post every day during Lent. Not because I have a religious affiliation of any sort but because Lent provides a useful discipline for doing things, and this year I wanted to do something positive rather than giving something up. (I mostly find giving things up rather easy to do, and that doesn’t seem to be the point.) I didn’t say anything because I believe such projects should just be got on with. I’m not sure if anyone has actually noticed what I was doing.

I had hoped to write more in the way of original material but things conspired, as usual, so I instead mined my extensive archive of reviews. By that,  I mean everything I have as a computer file; there’s at least twice as much again in hard copy, which I discovered yesterday will have to be typed up by hand at some point as my scanner can’t copy with the poor print quality.

So, what did this exercise prove? Nothing, really, other than that I had a lot of reviews to put online, and I managed to republish one every day for six weeks. One article I wrote inexplicably caught the public fancy, and another review got a lot of attention when the author tweeted its location. That’s about it, really.

I’m hoping to keep to a more regular schedule of publishing material on Tuesdays and Fridays from here on, unless something is urgent. But we’ll see.

Watching Much Ado About Nothing (RSC)

After seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stunning Love’s Labours Lost on screen in Canterbury last month, we went back to the Gulbenkian last night for its ‘companion piece’, Love’s Labours Won, a.k.a Much Ado About Nothing.

After Christopher Luscombe’s rather fumbled attempt last time to explain why the two plays might be – might be – related to one another, last night Gregory Doran was wheeled in to cheerfully explain that he was ‘no scholar’ before trotting out some rather tenuous evidence to suggest that Much Ado was also known as Love’s Labours Won. I was left with the vaguest feeling they were really doing all this so that they could use the hashtags #rsclost and #rscwon, but don’t mind me.

Luscombe did also rather unguardedly comment that the theatre company had asked him to set the two plays in World War I (presumably with a nod to relevant anniversaries). Clearly, he’s been only too delighted to comply, but I do find myself wishing that he had at least decided to attempt to subvert the suggestion somewhat rather than simply setting about it with quite such gusto. As I noted last time, with Love’s Labours Lost, good as it was there was still a sense of it having been forced into its setting, particularly at the end, when the young men, rather than sequestering themselves as the play requires, suddenly all march off to war.

With Much Ado About Nothing (I’m sorry, I cannot call it Love’s Labours Won – it just feels wrong), the WWI setting makes a little more sense in that as the play opens the men are returning from a battle. Thus, in Luscombe’s version, we see them returning to the same country house that was the setting for Love’s Labours Lost, but now converted into a hospital for officers, with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) as a nurse, and his niece, Beatrice (Michelle Terry), as Sister, and Leonato (David Horovitch) himself in uniform, running the place.

As the play is set late in 1918, the country house is getting ready for Christmas, so there are decorations including a Christmas tree, and the emphasis is on getting back to normal and having fun. claudioClaudio (Tunji Kasim) has fallen in love with Hero and appeals to his lord to help him woo and win her. Don Pedro (John Hodgkinson, who played Don Armado last time, but really shone this time round) readily agrees, and the stage is set for a Christmas wedding. Ah, how lovely. Meanwhile, Don Pedro wagers that before the house party is over, he will have ensured that Beatrice and Benedick (Edward Bennett, who played Berowne last time around) fall in love. As we know, they are famously antagonistic towards one another, for reasons that are never quite clear other than that there are hints of a previous love affair. Or, as I sometimes think, maybe they just like arguing with each other.Don pedro

As Luscombe puts it, this is a play that is filled with examples of odd behaviour. Here, he is referring to Don John (Sam Alexander, formerly the King of Navarre),  Don JohnDon Pedro’s brother, who sets out to discredit Hero and stop the wedding, and to Dogberry (the exceptional Nick Haverson, who played Costard last time). Don John is the only soldier shown as having a visible injury, while Dogberry displays a formidable array of twitches to go with his legendary malapropisms. Luscombe’s contention is that by setting the play at the end of World War I, it’s possible to account for this strange behaviour through the psychological effects of being in the war, and I don’t doubt one can. On the other hand, I do wonder whether this isn’t rather too pat and convenient an explanation. I have a slight sense with both of Luscombe’s productions that, lush as they are, delightful as they are, as filled with music and dancing as they are, they aren’t terribly taxing. dogberryWell, maybe Love’s Labours Lost isn’t a terribly taxing play to begin with, but watching Much Ado this time around, I was struck by how dark it is, how really dark and strange. To push that aside with the suggestion that it’s time for fun and, oh, by the way, shellshock, seems a little bit too easy. Having said that, Sam Alexander imbued Don John with a controlled malevolence beyond anything that Luscombe’s conception might have asked for, while Haverson’s Dogberry was distressed, and distressing as he struggled to express himself. (I would love to see Sam Alexander play Iago, based on his Don John.)

I’d forgotten until last night that Much Ado is another of those plays in which the death of a young woman is faked in order to achieve retribution and reconciliation. heroAfter Claudio denounces Hero at the altar, she is whisked away by her family, and hidden, but not before Leonato’s speech about the awfulness of daughters. It’s not precisely ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth’ territory but it struck me for the first time that there is a resonance with certain elements of The Merchant of Venice.

The story comes out, finally, when Borachio (Chris Nayak), Don John’s servant, is overheard boasting about his master’s wickedness, and is ‘comprehended’ by the night watch and brought before Leonato. BorachioAfter Claudio has been suitably contrite at Hero’s tomb, he agrees to marry her cousin as penance, as you do, only to find to his delight that she is Hero. And everyone lives happily after, including Beatrice and Benedick. Except I find myself wondering what that means in their case. The relief of no longer having to put on a front when they are really crazy about each other? Or the struggle of having to really get to know one another after years of verbal sparring? Never mind, double wedding!

As you may have gathered already, I’m a great admirer of both Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry. Their Berowne/Rosaline in Love’s Labours Lost was wonderful, but there was always the danger that in doing Benedick/Beatrice, this would just be a reprise of the earlier roles, but a bit older – which is indeed what Luscombe seemed to be suggesting the roles are. benedick2I thought Bennett and Terry did better than that, though. They caught a certain weariness in the two characters (I saw something similar in the Wanamaker/Russell Beale pairing a few years ago, though that relied more on them being chronologically older). Here, you feel sympathy for the two of them, surrounded by people constantly joking or nagging them about not being married, to the point where they give in if only to shut everyone up. They already have a strong if somewhat complicated relationship, if only people would stop butting in, but they won’t.

beatriceOne can’t help wondering what sort of marriage this is going to be. The familiar theme throughout is that for strong-minded people marriage is a trap of sorts, but eventually even Beatrice and Benedick must succumb. Luscombe would, I’m sure, argue that the setting allows Beatrice to be a New Woman, and thus things will be different (he signals this by frequently showing Beatrice wearing trousers). On the other hand, given Luscombe explained in his interview that women got the vote in 1918 I’m not sure I trust his grip on history (universal suffrage did not occur until 1928 – in 1918, a limited number of women over 30 were given the right to vote, and women won the right to be elected to Parliament, but that is not the same; as an unmarried woman it would be unlikely that Beatrice would have had the right to vote at that point, though marriage might have permitted that).

dancingIf Luscombe’s approach to the play generally is a bit broad-brush for my taste, what he does excel at is set-pieces, like the dances, and intricate business. benedickWhen Benedick is concealed behind the arras, listening to the others discuss Beatrice’s love for him, Bennett performs an extraordinary series of very funny antics, and then does it all over again, hidden behind the Christmas tree on the other side of the room. The scene involving the constables and the interrogation is set in a very crowded kitchen; when the sexton comes to leave, he can’t because he is hemmed in by people, at which point all the characters pick up the chairs and table, revolve through 720 degrees and find themselves right back where they were before. It was clever and funny (though, I have to say, best appreciated by the birds-eye camera shot), and clearly an acknowledgement of something Luscombe said in an earlier interview, that thanks to the wonders of the stage at Stratford, actors would not have to carry furniture on and off with them. kitchenOther incidents include Don Pedro’s proposal to Beatrice, which Hodgkinson and Terry turned into a horribly poignant little moment (though, again, best appreciated by the close-up camera – I couldn’t help feeling a lot of this production was framed more for the camera than the audience).

Actually, that is the trouble with these two productions. I keep being left with this nagging feeling that the cast are so much better than the director. (Talking with Paul Kincaid just now, he suggested that Luscombe might be an actors’ director rather than a production’s director, which is a much neater way of saying what I’ve been strugglng towards for the last thousand words.) Luscombe praised the ensemble acting, and rightly so. It’s been a long while since I saw an ensemble that works so well together. Even the so-called minor parts are very rich. I’d love to see what this looked like stripped of all the fripperies, because I suspect it would still work because of the quality of the acting. They are comfortable in their roles but not complacent. And they know how to connect with the audience. Bennett in particular is adept at running with an audience’s response. Last night, someone snorted at Benedick’s awful poetry, and Bennett paused, smiled, turned towards the snorter, and began reading the poem again.benedick3

So, splendid performance, but I’m hoping that Doran et al stop fannying around with the companion pieces routine fairly soon. Also, much as I’m looking forward to The Merchant of Venice, Henry V (hoping that Alex Hassell has something to pull out of the bag after his rather lacklustre Prince Hal) and to Hugh Quarshie’s Othello, which I hope and strongly suspect will be a thing of wonder (I’m still scarred by doing Othello for A-level, and by a truly dreadful production starring Ben Kingsley and Niamh Cusack), I’m hoping that they will get beyond the crowd-pleasers and money-pullers before I get too old to drive to Canterbury. I have still never seen Cymbeline, Titus Andronicus, King John and Henry VIII, and would quite like to before I die.

In which I express my disapproval of BBC Radio 4’s Chain Reaction – with statistics

This is a rant. I don’t rant very often but right now I’m in the mood for it.

Last night, in the second episode of the tenth series of BBC Radio 4’s Chain Reaction, in which mainly comedians interview people they admire, mostly other comedians, and the next week the interviewee becomes the interviewer, Reece Shearsmith interviewed Bob Mortimer. In fact, they seemed to spend way, way too much time talking about Mortimer’s comedy partner, Vic Reeves. So you’ll never guess who Bob Mortimer has chosen to interview next week. I joked to Paul Kincaid before the episode that he’d choose Reeves. I’m so sorry I said that.

I rarely listen to Chain Reaction any more. Partly, it’s because great comedians, or for that matter, even indifferent comedians, don’t always make good interviewers. As a result, the end result is often cringingly embarrassing (last night’s programme was just one more tired rehearsal of stories we’ve heard far too many times before, and I already want to string hazard tape round next week’s episode).

The other reason I rarely listen to Chain Reaction is this: out of nine complete series (8 x 6 episodes, 1 x 4 episodes) and the three episodes so far broadcast or announced of the tenth series, so far involving 65 people, 9 of the interviewers/interviewees have been women. That’s one seventh of the participants. Here’s a link to the episode guide so you can see who’s been on.

Here’s a few more statistics.

Out of nine complete series, on four occasions the chain has started with a woman interviewer, each of whom interviewed a man. For two of those series, the interviewer was the only woman who appeared in the series. On one occasion the male first interviewer chose a woman (Jeremy Front chose his writing partner, his sister Rebecca).

On four occasions within a series, a man has chosen a woman (Front chose Front, Richard Wilson chose Arabella Weir, for the last episode of a series; Ade Edmondson chose Ruby Wax (who chose Harry Shearer); Tim Minchin chose Caitlin Moran, who in turn chose Jennifer Saunders – thus making her the only woman to choose a woman). Two of those choices by men occurred in one series (Front and Edmondson), thus making Series 8 the only that has ever exhibited anything like gender parity.

Four series have featured no women whatsoever, and there has as yet been no woman in Series 10.

From the fact that no fewer than four series have begun with a woman, who then turns out to be the only woman in the series, it seems that someone somewhere in the production team may have recognised the need to include some women, and has attempted to redress the balance, but appears to lack even the faintest glimmer of an idea that the whole premise of the format may be just ever-so-slightly flawed. Similarly, they seem to be blissfully unaware of just how badly flawed the format is, given that quite apart from how few women have appeared, all of the 65 people appearing so far do seem to be, to use former BBC Director-General Greg Dyke’s own words, ‘hideously white’.

It’s also fantastically cosy and unimaginative. Front interviews his writing partner Front, who then interviews her co-star, Chris Addison. Bob chooses Vic – of course he does. And they’re usually well-established comedians interviewing even better-established comedians. If it has to be about comedians, where are the Sarah Millicans, the Shappi Korsandis, John Finnemores and Paul Sinhas, not to mention the Tom Wrigglesworths, Francesca Martinezes and Lloyd Langfords, to name but a few of my favourites (though if they’ve had the sense not to get involved, well done them).

The trouble is, the format invites this inward-turning. Select a comedian to choose a hero, they’re likely to choose a comedian, who chooses a comedian. There are rarely break-outs. Catherine Tate chose David Tennant – ah, bless. Stewart Lee chose Alan Moore, who chose Brian Eno, and sadly that was the end of that series. Eddie Izzard chose Alastair Campbell, who promptly chose Alistair McGowan, who chose Simon Callow, and again the series ended. In fairness to Chris Addison, after being selected by his co-star he then chose Derren Brown, whose interview of Tim Minchin I recall being not bad, perhaps because he makes a living talking to people rather than at them. Which led to Caitlin Moran and Jennifer Saunders, but this really is the exception.

And I’m not even sure this format actually set out to be about comedians. The strapline for the first series was “Series in which public figures choose others to interview”. Here, I fear the BBC’s definition of ‘public figure’ and mine are somewhat at variance with one another. By beginning with Jenny Eclair, the die was immediately cast. By series 4, it had become “Chat show in which one week’s interviewee becomes the following week’s interviewer”. But given all bar one initial interviewer has been a comedian (I presume Terry Christian was chosen because he is apparently the butt of so many jokes from a generation of comedians) it’s difficult to imagine it being about anything but comedians now. (It’s always rather sobering to recall that once upon a time The News Quiz competitors were mainly actual working journalists rather than comedians. Now, the journalists are very much in the minority, and have to be remarkably sharp-witted to survive on there, having to be more comedians than journalists in fact.)

The point, of course, is that if you ask people to choose a hero to interview, you can’t then dictate to them about that hero’s gender, skin colour, or anything else. On the other hand, after nine and a half series, you might then want to grasp the cluebat that has been placed before you, clearly labelled, and can the show because it is so clearly lacking in any kind of diversity whatsoever.

While we’re about it, another sausage-fest is The Infinite Monkey Cage. It’s been criticised before and I’m told that women do appear regularly, though it seems that every time I turn on, it’s Cox and Ince, two people I otherwise quite like, and regard as being reasonably intelligent, larking around with their male mates like they’re still in the sixth-form common room at a boys-only grammar school. I have skimmed down the episode guide on the BBC website, and while it doesn’t list contributors with any degree of thoroughness, I find it telling that a woman isn’t actually mentioned at all until Series 5, and then it’s a comedian rather than a scientist. They don’t mention a woman who’s a scientist until Series 7.

What to do? Well, one can complain to the BBC, and people do. Indeed, I am sure I have complained about The Infinite Monkey Cage, so it’s probably time to complain about Chain Reaction too. One can turn off, and I do, though it’s hardly going to change things when there is clearly an audience for this kind of thing even if I’ve withdrawn my attention.

What really astonishes me, though, is that even now, after the endless controversies about the lack of diversity on BBC radio and tv, about the ageism, the sexism, the ableism, that no one in BBCland pauses to consider that maybe, just maybe, something needs to be done about certain programmes, like not recommissioning them.

Actually, I lied. It doesn’t astonish me at all. But I am very, very disappointed.

P.S. I got in touch with Radio 4’s Feedback programme on Friday, so we’ll see what happens.

P.P.S As it turned out, Feedback did nothing, possibly because they were marking the Head of Comedy’s departure after seventeen years, so maybe criticising something the HoC presumably signed off would have looked bad. On the other hand, and slightly to my surprise, I must admit, Vic Reeves chose Olivia Coleman. Who she will choose, we can only wait and see.

Reading while sleeping

From Orfeo (2014) by Richard Powers, an amazing description of reading while on the verge of falling asleep.

  He took up the open book, and once again, for another night, he trained his mind to settle in and read. It took some time to build up a rhythm. The sense of concentrated elsewhere filled him with that primal pleasure: seeing through another’s eyes. But after some paragraphs, a clause swerved and slid him sideways into a drift, a soft passage several pages on, in the middle of the right-hand page, a sense-rich description of a man and woman walking down a street in Boston on a July night, reprised, in misty da capo, again and yet once more, his eyes making their closed circuit, hitting the right margin’s guardrail, looping back around and trying the line again, tracking along the circuit of text, slowing then slipping down the stripped cogway of slick subordinate clauses, retrying the sequence until his dimming sight again found traction — the man, the woman, a moment of regretful truth along the esplanade — before snagging and starting the fuzzy looping climb all over again.

At last, after who knows how many round trips, he jerked awake. And the words on the page, before Els’s now-focused but disbelieving eyes, marshaled like troops on a parade ground and solidified, only to reveal no man, no woman, no night, no Boston, no exchange of intimate insight, but merely a Bulgarian writer describing the secret will of crowds.

He put down the book, shut off the light, and settled his head deeper into the pillow. As soon as the room went dark, he came wide awake. The floorboards snapped and blasted like an exchange of gunfire, and the furnace shuddered like a great engine of war.