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Before and After

Paul Kincaid on prequels and sequels.

Through the dark labyrinth

There is a congruence in the latest issue of the London Review of Books (4 January 2018) that I find interesting and instructive.

In the final paragraph of his review of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, Colin Burrow remarks:

A great work of fantasy involves testing and advancing the physical and moral laws of a new world; and a great part of the pleasure of reading a book set in an alternative world lies in seeing an author discovering a possibility that stretches the boundaries of the imagined world without wrecking its internal coherence. Writing a prequel to that kind of elastic imagining is exceptionally hard, because so many of the rules have already been invented and cannot be subjected to creative strain, let alone broken. (8)

On the facing page, almost exactly parallel to this passage, in a review of Mrs Osmond, John Banville’s sort-of sequel to

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2017 in Review

Paul Kincaid being rather more efficient about summarising his year’s reading than I ever manage.

Through the dark labyrinth

It’s that time of year again, when I dust off this oft-forgotten blog and post a list of my reading through the year, along with other odd comments.

2017 has been, in some respects, a very good year. My first full-length book not composed of previously published material, appeared in May. Iain M. Banks appeared in the series Modern Masters of Science Fiction from Illinois University Press, and has received some generally positive reviews, much to my relief.

Also this year I signed a contract with Gylphi to write a book about Christopher Priest, which is likely to take most if not all of the next year. In addition, I’ve put in a proposal for another volume in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction; the initial response has been quite good so I’m hoping I’ll have more to report in the new year. So, in work terms, it looks…

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2016 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism

The Tenth Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism will be held from Thursday 23 June to Saturday 25 June 2016.

Applications are now open. Please note that this event has been timed to coincide with the Science Fiction Research Association bringing its conference to Liverpool on 27-30 June.

We are pleased to announce that the venue will again be the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, founded by Charles II in 1675, and the home of the Prime Meridian.
Price: £200; £150 for registered postgraduate students.
The Class Leaders for 2016 will be:
Andrew Milner, literature Professor and author of Locating Science Fiction
Maureen Kincaid Speller, critic and reviews editor of Strange Horizons.
Tade Thompson, writer of SF and general fiction and consultant psychiatrist
To apply please send a short (no more than 3,000 words) piece of critical writing (a blog entry, review, essay, or other piece), and a one page curriculum vitae, to masterclass@sf-foundation.org.  Applications received by 31 March 2016* will be considered by an Applications Committee consisting of Tony Keen, Andy Sawyer and Kari Sperring. Applications received after 31 March may be considered if places are still available, on a strictly first-come first served basis.
The SFF Masterclass involves three days studying texts supplied by three class leaders. It is a great way to broaden your critical perspectives, sharpen some critical tools, and to make contacts with other people writing on SF and Fantasy. The class leaders are drawn from professional writers, academics and fans, and this is a great opportunity to learn from people experienced in their craft.
Anyone interested in writing seriously about science fiction and/or fantasy, at whatever level they are in their careers, is welcome to attend. This includes not just critics and reviewers, but historians and other scholars. Those who have attended past Masterclasses are also welcome to apply (though we will prioritise applications from those who have not been previous students).
Past students have found these events immensely beneficial, and often return. For some reports and endorsements from past students and class leaders, see the Facebook page for the Masterclass;
Information on past Masterclasses can be found here. Please direct any enquiries to masterclass@sf-foundation.org.
*Please note that this is later than the date advertised in the latest issue of Foundation.

Watching Harry Price Ghost Hunter

After reading Neil Spring’s The Ghost Hunters, time to watch the ITV adaptation, Harry Price Ghost Hunter.

(Though first, because of some mysterious scheduling hiccup, I found myself watching half an episode of Jekyll and Hyde. Admittedly, I didn’t have the sound up, but I don’t think having dialogue would have helped. Seriously, what the hell was that I was watching, other than Grade One scenery-chewing and actorly gurning? )

But back to Harry Price Ghost Hunter, the new ‘one-off’ drama with ‘pilot’ written all over it. Actually, it really wasn’t bad. I could probably watch a whole series if it maintained the standard of last night’s episode. It was very spooky and atmospheric while all the time playing with ideas of how we maintain rationality, accept fraud and deception, and a slew of other things, and did all of them well enough to be interesting.

Like his historical counterpart, this Harry Price is a ghost-hunter, determined to find a rational explanation for everything if at all possible. Like his historical counterpart, he is interested in using scientific apparatus to record temperature and movement, to take photographs, and so on. He does the research too. Unlike the real Harry Price, at least so far as we know, the fictional Price comes with a lot of emotional baggage. In the novel Spring tried to give his Harry emotional baggage by having him conceal the fact that he was a) married, and b) running a paper-bag supply business. In reality, Price apparently made no big secret of either, though he did allegedly fudge details of his birth and upbringing to make himself seem a bit grander than he actually was.

Fictional Harry Price, however, has a wife who was incarcerated in a mental asylum by her family, and also started out life as a medium himself, deceiving people himself before moving on to debunking paranormal phenomena. The story opens with a young man accosting him on his own doorstep, thanking him for making clear the meaning of being at peace and then shooting himself tidily in the head, to join his dead brother. Unsurprisingly, this puts a bit of a crimp in Harry’s work but then he is asked to investigate an alleged haunting at a large house, formerly a work house but now the private home of a prospective parliamentary candidate and his wife. The wife has been troubled by strange dreams and occurrences; most recently, she found herself naked in a street with no recollection as to how she came to be there. Her husband and his political mentor are very anxious to have the problem solved so as not to cause problems for the PPC’s burgeoning career.

And so we see Price go to work, eliminating the impossible to see what’s left. So far, so Sherlock Holmes. On Price’s first visit to the house, to meet the PPC and his wife, strange things happen. The servants bells ring although the wires have been cut (a detail lifted straight from the investigation of the Borley Rectory haunting) and a canary sings in an empty room even though it apparently should only sing when there is someone there. According to the PPC’s wife, she often has a feeling there are people around her when she is on her own, and she finds herself in places with no clear idea how she got there. Subsequently, when Price wanders through the cellars of the house, he discovers a mysterious chemical spilling from a bottle, and a pile of rotting apples (the presence of the chemical again echoes the investigation of Borley Rectory, when Rev. Smith describes finding a bottle of sugar of lead in the cellar when he arrived – lead acetate, a poison, but a sweet-tasting one). There is also a photograph of the children from the workhouse.

So, at this stage, the story could go one of several ways – a genuine haunting, or attempted murder (perhaps by the husband, eager to get rid of a wife who might be getting in the way of his political prospects, either by his own design or at the insistence of his repellent political advisor). Or the wife could be faking it because she hates living in the house, hates politics, or she is genuinely ill. Given the way that children seem to feature in the haunting, there is also the possibility that she has lost a child, or wants a child. Interestingly, her husband refuses to get medical treatment for her, because he is concerned that she will be locked away, something he feels would be wrong.

Price begins to pursue these different lines of enquiry, with the help of Sarah Grey, the house maid, who is initially assigned to act as his driver (she drove ambulances during the war) but quickly reveals herself to be sharp-witted, observant, a good researcher. It is she who ferrets out the story of the child murdered at the workhouse, drowned by another inmate. Price, meanwhile, has his associate , Albert Ogoro, ‘practitioner’ of some kind of African magic by night, fully-trained chemist by day, analyse the chemicals. Ogoro also assists in the first night of investigation, helpfully planting a device in the piano to make it play on its own. He is entirely pragmatic about his dual life as fake magician and chemist. As he explains to Sarah Grey, the hen he apparently sacrifices remains alive, but the people who attend his ceremonies are anyway so desperate that if what he does offers them comfort of some sort, is it so very wrong?

His approach is in stark contrast to Price’s mission to denounce and debunk the fakery: we see him break up a medium’s performance on stage, trying to explain to people what is really going on, showing them how it is faked, but to no avail. As the master of ceremonies suggests later, is it because Price himself has lost someone (the audience of course knows that it probably is – we might recall Harry Houdini at this point, who spent much of his life debunking mediums after he realised that they could not put him in contact with his dead mother). All this is significant in turn because Sarah Grey’s mother is a regular attendee at séances and public displays, spending money she does not have on tickets, seeking some sort of closure after her husband’s death. Whether Sarah Grey herself believes is less clear – her anxieties remain financial. The point, though, is that what the novel tried so very hard to convey is here placed firmly in context with a few well-chosen scenes, and done with considerably greater sympathy for those who are being deceived, and indeed those deceiving them.

But back to the case in hand. The chemist Ogoro has identified the chemicals that Price found (not arsenic, as I’d thought, and they go to great pains to say that it is not arsenic that lies at the heart of this) and something is clearly amiss. By this time, the young reporter Vernon Wall, the man who in real life broke the story of Borley Rectory, has turned up; he and Price seem to have some sort of history anyway, and Price persuades him to look into the background of Goodwin, the candidate, and in particular why he left his previous constituency. Which eventually leads them to the River Thames, a narrow boat, and a meeting with a young man who turns out to have been Grace Goodwin’s lover. And there was a pregnancy; the baby should be three months old. Needless to say, there is no sign of a baby.

By this time, it would be fair to say that the plot is not so much convoluted as a tiny bit over-extended and starting to flag, but we are fast heading towards a denouement. As has been clear all along, it was the husband, but the question is, what was he doing. Early in the story, it’s mentioned that his father was a chemist, and that he in turn studied chemistry for a while. It turns out he was making a crude form of barbiturate, with which to dose his wife, having discovered her infidelity. This caused her hallucinations, and meant that she miscarried the child, and afterwards, she suffered from terrifying withdrawal symptoms. Price, Ogoro and Sarah Grey intervene as Goodwin is in the throes of attempting to drown his wife.

But this is where the drama introduces an odd little twist. Goodwin had previously attacked Sarah Grey and left her unconscious on the floor. When she wakes, she can see the figure of a child pointing up the stairs; it’s a figure that has appeared a number of times, and that we’re led to suppose is exclusively Mrs Goodwin’s hallucination. Indeed, as Goodwin drowns his wife, she sees the figure of a child below her in the bath tub, reaching up. And yes, of course it’s a piece of sensationalism, but rather nicely done (certainly in comparison to some things, like the soundtrack, which was extremely noisy). Price’s whole schtick in real life was to attempt to eliminate the impossible, but he claimed to be open to the fact that possibly, just possibly, some people were psychic, and maybe some ghosts were real. Here, the audience is invited to wonder.

The whole thing is tidily closed down with Price doing a private sitting for Sarah Grey’s mother, to reassure her. Things are looking up for Price, and he might need an assistant. The resourceful Sarah Grey is clearly the person for the job. And yes, I would actually like this series to happen, at least if it keeps to this sort of standard of storytelling. It’s not surprising, particularly, but it was effective.

I’m writing this, of course, primarily because I’m interested in how the book became a tv drama, what was saved, what was discarded. As I predicted, practically everything except the names went. A little of the story of Grey’s parents was retained; watered down, one might argue, rendered simplistic and perhaps a little sentimental, but at the same time, I liked the fact that it engaged sympathetically with the fact that people wanted comfort after the War, wanted to know what had happened to their lost relations and so on. The drama catches the dilemma rather better, I think, than the novel, perhaps because the novel was unwilling to address the broader implications of what the mediums were doing. There is a point in the drama when Price mentions a doctor in Vienna; it’s an oblique hint that for many people mediums were the therapists they needed but which were not yet available to them. Which is not to say that we should regard mediums as a necessary part of the grieving or healing process – some were downright sharks, feeding on misery, but removing them would not eliminate the need. The real point being made, perhaps, is how much deception is good, and how much bad.

The tv Sarah Grey is a more sympathetic character than her novel counterpart; more likeable though sharp-tongued and not necessarily impressed with Price. She’s willing to spar with him and certainly doesn’t worship him. There is a certain amount of needling him about his perceptions of a woman’s capabilities. She takes the initiative on a number of occasions; the camera doesn’t always follow her but we see the end results and they are acknowledged as her work. This is no coup de foudre but more a meeting of two people with a formidable array of skills between them. Cara Theobald positions Grey as Price’s equal throughout, in a very crisp piece of acting.

And yet, the story focuses on Harry Price, proving the point that I made yesterday; that the main reason the novel doesn’t work because it stays so firmly within Sarah Grey’s head, when she is pretty much the least interesting person in the story. Rafe Spall’s Price is rather more attractive, inevitably, than his real-life counterpart, and he did the job well enough. My problem was that he kept reminding me of someone else; it took me ages to realise he looked terribly like Samuel West, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was what Sherlock might look like if Samuel West had played Benedict Cumberbatch playing Holmes. Having said which, there is more than a hint of Elementary about the whole thing. One wonders whether the real-life Price was quite so beset with doubts as his fictional counterpart, but without that doubt there would be little in the way of a story, other than the producing of a solution

But hey, it was fun, which is more than can be said for the novel.

(And to make life even more exciting, the programme was bracketed by trails for something called Houdini and Doyle. Together they fight … I have no idea, but I think I may have to watch it.)

Strange Horizons 2015 Fund Drive – making the world a better place to read

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The Merchant of Venice (RSC, 2015)

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice

I have been trying to remember how long it is since I saw a performance of The Merchant of Venice and it seems to have been 1989, when we saw Peter Hall’s very traditional production, with Dustin Hoffman as Shylock, and Geraldine James as Portia. I recall very little about the production other than Hoffman being a passable but not interesting Shylock (also, one who needed to understand the difference between ‘wet’ and ‘whet’ when sharpening a knife) and Geraldine James being so skittish I wanted to nail her feet to the stage to make her stand still for more than two seconds. (Also, the audience was filled with pretentious idiots – the one who loudly described Hoffman’s performance as being ‘mellifluous’ quailed somewhat when he happened to notice a small woman with a large plaster cast on one arm staring at him rather hard. It is possible that wearing a plaster cast during a sweltering summer was not improving my mood.)

Before 1989, we saw Nigel Terry as Shylock and Fiona Shaw as Portia, in 1982, in a Royal Shakespeare Company touring production, but god forgive me, I can’t recall much about that production at all, other than Shaw dressed in legal garb, so I assume that Terry’s performance did not set me on fire the way his Benedick did. (It was brilliant. Funnily enough, I have no recollection of Shaw’s Beatrice.)

Back in 2015,and the Royal Shakespeare Company presents a new Merchant of Venice for our delight. My first thought was that this was possibly going to be another crowd-pleaser. Since Gregory Doran took over as Artistic Director of the RSC, I’ve felt that the company was taking the easy option in its choice of plays – Richard II, Henry IV Pts 1 and 2, and the Love’s Labour’s Lost/Found pairing. The last two, in particular, were rather disappointing. Conservatively directed and designed, and with a strong sense of their being jemmied into a WW1 framework to bring in a bit more money at the box office, what with anniversaries and all that. However, while the productions were a little bit too stiff upper lip and patriotic for my taste, they were distinguished by excellent acting and some good bits of business. The end result, though, was tepid.

Merchant-of-Venice-2015-8-541x361 AntonioThe Merchant of Venice turns out to be rather different. It opens with a tearful Antonio on stage. Indeed, he’s on stage for some time before the play officially opens, standing awkwardly, pensive, and as it turns out, tears streaming down his cheeks. He is, it is noted, of a melancholic turn of mind, but at this stage, while his ships are late, they are not yet lost, so something else is clearly amiss. The clue is perhaps contained in the passionate kiss exchanged with his friend Bassanio, when he appears. Antonio has previously bailed out his friend, young, impetuous, extravagant, when he got himself into financial trouble. Now Bassanio is searching for money to finance an expedition to woo Portia, a wealthy heiress, and he has come to his friend – his lover? – for help. Which Antonio will of course give, because he loves Bassanio, but to do so means that if Bassanio wins Portia’s hand, Antonio will lose his lover.

We might pause here and wonder whether Polly Findlay is over-interpreting the love between Antonio and Bassanio, but Findlay seems very determined to make this a contemporary play in every way. The characters are in modern clothes, carefully dressed to establish their social positions straight away. Antonio’s and Bassanio’s fellow merchants look more like city wide-boys while Shylock, stripped of his Jewish gabardine, is dressed instead in a suit that has seen long use, plus a pullover under his jacket, for all the world like a small-town solicitor or faintly seedy academic. The women are all band-box smart, with the exception of Portia’s maid, Nerissa, who wears a more casual shirt-trousers ensemble.Merchant-of-Venice-2015-2-541x361 wide boys

It comes as no surprise, either, that the emphasis is always on money, rather than looking for love to trump cash. Everything has a price, and that price is made quite clear. Money constantly changes hands, or else flutters around the stage. It may be that Bassanio and Portia genuinely feel affection for one another, but we can never forget that Bassanio needs to make a good marriage because he is broke, and that, if we read this production as I suggest, he will doubly sacrifice Antonio in order to do so. We are left in no doubt that Lorenzo and Jessica’s match is one fuelled on the one hand by a desire for money, on the other by a desire for freedom, rather than anything romantic. We cannot be sure that they will live happily ever after, any more than we can be sure that Portia and Bassanio and Antonio will come to any sort of accommodation.

Makram J Khoury as Shylock

Makram J Khoury as Shylock

And then there is Shylock, played sympathetically here by the mesmerising Makram J Khoury. While Hall’s production hinted vaguely at the idea that Shylock might not necessarily be the villain of the piece, Findlay’s production addresses this directly. Twenty-six years changes many things, not least me as a member of the audience, sitting there, watching young men spit in Shylock’s face and growing more and more angry with what the play is saying. No, Shylock is not a good man, but neither is Bassanio or Antonio, or any one of the others. Antonio may be gladly presenting himself as the necessary sacrifice for Bassanio’s happiness, though there is nothing remotely stoical about the way in which he prepares himself for the surrender of his flesh, but I found myself thinking more of Shylock’s stubborn refusal to relinquish his bond even when offered thousands of ducats. It is, of course, the only shred of power or authority he can claim in all this. He has lost his daughter, been robbed by her, even to her taking a keepsake of his dead wife. Despite his best efforts, you might say, she has been ‘contaminated’ by Venetian society. And his best efforts have been directed towards preserving that which is familiar to him, a society which no longer exists. Thus, Antonio the merchant who rejects usury, who helps people in debt to  Shylock, becomes the focus of everything that is bad about the world for Shylock. Khoury’s Shylock is screaming with existential pain as he gasps out his years of bitter treatment at the hands of a society that needs him but cannot bring itself to admit that he is a necessary part of  that society. Khoury’s performance is intensely powerful, shaped, as he said in interview, by his own experience as a Palestinan Israeli. It’s impossible to watch it without flinching in distress.

Merchant-of-Venice-2015-3-541x361 AragonAnd what of Portia? The heiress obliged by her father to go through an irksome guessing game with suitors in order to find a husband. Wise father, we might think, looking at some of the suitors who rock up at her door, including the antiquated Aragon (beautifully played by Bryan Protheroe, wittily employing a series of 1960s/70s comedy seducer tropes), and the young Prince of Morocco, who thinks just a little too well of himself. And yet, it’s clear that without a little help (ok, quite a lot of heavy signalling from Portia and Nerissa), Bassanio would make precisely the same mistakes as did his predecessors. He is young, enthusiastic, and bluntly as thick as two short planks, bless his little pointy head. His friends don’t help much, either. Perhaps only Antonio, older, maybe wiser, could guide him.Merchant-of-Venice-2015-5-361x541 Portia and Bassanio

Merchant-of-Venice-2015-10-361x541 PortiaPatsy Ferran’s performance as Portia is astonishing. She seems physically tiny, with a heart-shaped face, huge eyes, quizzical eyebrows, and gives the impression of constantly suppressed energy, physical and mental. She appears to have spent a lot of time on her own – conversation seems to fascinate her, as does the chance to actually articulate her ideas out loud. We infer her father was perhaps rather old-fashioned about women’s place in society. While Jessica’s rebellion is physical flight, Portia’s rebellion is the outpouring of words with a metacritical track as she tries to wrench herself back to a semblance of proper behaviour.  I’m guessing that this is what Geraldine James’s coltish performance was supposed to achieve, though it failed horribly. Here, it works perfectly.

Ferran also pulls off something that I think neither James nor Shaw achieved, in that her Portia is all of a piece. The Portia who does her best to stamp her authority on the game being played with her body as prize in the first half is also the Portia who storms into the court of Venice to save her husband’s best friend. This is a Portia who, delighting in the freedom to use words in the first half, understands the power of words in the second half. And yet, there is something horrible in the way this Portia glories in her new-found power, still too immature to understand the damage words can do. And yet, at the same time, as she watches Bassanio and Antonio, you can see her realising that other aspects of the world don’t necessarily work as she thought they would. It’s quite clear that Bassanio is happily bisexual; his partners seem less certain about sharing, and perhaps Portia is already realising that she will be supporting not one man but two.Merchant-of-Venice-2015-12-541x361 court

It’s undoubtedly a very dark reading of Merchant of Venice: Findlay doesn’t even allow Antonio the luxury of knowing his ships have come home safely after all. Maybe in this version they never will, and maybe Antonio will lurk in Portia’s house – and she makes it very clear that Belmont is her house – grabbing a few moments of pleasure with Bassanio as the time allows, while Bassanio rushes around, spending too much, convinced that everyone in his world is happy, and Portia comes along behind, sorting things out and making ends meet. Bassanio’s great moments of passion come in trying to save his friend. Whether he will ever feel that for Portia, we have no way of knowing.

Merchant-of-Venice-2015-9-361x541 Bassanio

Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Bassanio

It’s probably not perfect – a little too much is assumed at times, a little too much not quite explored – but I’m glad to have an RSC production again that seems to have some teeth rather than relying on the set or comic business to get it through. The set this time was – very brassy, I think it would be fair to say. The stage was covered in highly reflective brass sheeting, giving a doubling effect I’m sure was meant to be significant but which felt a bit contrived. I’d love to see the RSC go for something more stripped down. I still have a fond memory of a very plain Hamlet done with a white stage and a few boxes as props. Or was that the ‘shirtsleeve’ Macbeth? Either way, more of that.

Merchant-of-Venice-2015-14-361x541 Portia and Nerissa

Nadia Albina as Nerissa, Patsy Ferran as Portia

I’ve already mentioned Patsy Ferran and Makram J Khoury, but Nadia Albina (Nerissa) and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Bassanio) are well worth watching. Fortune-Lloyd is playing Cassio in the forthcoming Othello, and I’m curious to see what he will do with that. Tim Samuels’ gorgeously laconic Launcelot Gobbo was a delight and Ken Nwose’s turn as an over-excited Gratiano was also very amusing. In fact, I thought the whole cast worked well – most of them are new to the RSC but they looked confident as a group. Ferran is barely out of drama school, which makes her Portia all the more remarkable a performance.

Jamie Ballard’s Antonio, on the other hand, remains a mystery (though maybe another viewing will sort this out in my mind). Sadness is not the same as melancholia, though the latter might be a cover for the former. Ballard’s Antonio seemed to me to be a man at the end of his tether, rather than a merchant gravely trying to deal with his crises and help a friend, the way we’re trained to see him. Indeed, it seems to me now that Antonio and Shylock have more in common than I realised when I started watching, in that their professional standing is under threat but they might be said, in this production at least, to both be losing something they love very much. And this, of course, is why, in this production, Antonio’s ships do not come home.

So, yes, I’m satisfied with this Merchant of Venice, possibly even excited. It provides food for thought and lingers in the mind, which is pretty much what I want from a production. Having said that, it might not be as risky as it at first appears, when compared to a string of rather staid productions (I remain utterly unconvinced by Sher’s Falstaff in Henry IV part 1 though part 2 seemed to me to go a little deeper into the character – one could wish Polly Findlay had directed that), but at least Polly Findlay was willing to have a go.

We also saw the trailer for the forthcoming production of Othello, which I am uncharacteristically excited about. I did Othello for A level, and am still scarred by the experience of being dragged off to the cinema to see the awesomely appalling Laurence Olivier version. Even then we knew in our heart of hearts that a white man blacked up was wrong, and Olivier made it super wrong with a performance that chewed every bit of scenery in sight. I’ve also not forgotten the previous RSC production I saw, with Ben Kingsley as Othello and Niamh Cusack as Desdemona. I saw a lot of Kingsley on stage at that time and while he was generally good, the Othello? Not so much. I’m hoping this Othello gets it right.