Favourite blogs for Grimace

My favourites » All entries

July 08, 2012

The Hollow Crown: 1 Henry IV @ BBC

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91pm

The second episode in the BBC's Hollow Crown series offers a stand-alone, prudently cut version of Henry IV Part 1, and immediately it is clear that the central plays of the second tetralogy are in good hands with Richard Eyre. One of my complaints in my review of Rupert Goold's Richard II was that production's rather 'clean' medieval world, which couldn't quite shake the studio-set feel for much of its length and seemed surprisingly sparsely populated. Eyre's film, conversely, begins in an Eastcheap filled to bursting with prostitutes, drunks, servants, shopkeepers and beggars, richly detailed and thoroughly evocative. The sprawling Boar's Head Tavern establishes this play a world away from the crisp backgrounds of Richard II, with a lived-in world providing genuine depth and colour to the central plot.

The visual quotation of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight is apparent throughout, from Jeremy Irons's Henry's central raised dais to the nooks and crannies of the inn, to the arrangement of bodies for the play extempore. Yet Eyre's use of the film is homage rather than plagiarism, drawing on what makes Welles's film so evocative (the bustle and neat characterisation) but creating something distinctive.

Key to this is a quite exceptional cast, headed up by Tom Hiddleston's Hal. Striding through the Board's Head as if bathed in a constant halo, Hiddleston exudes easy charm and handsome cool, taller than almost everyone else by a head and wearing a leather jacket a cut finer than anyone else's. His willingness to be part of this world - playing football with passing children, winking at prostitutes - is constantly undercut by his clear distinction from everyone else, even the slightly unshaven and grinning Poins. Beautifully, his "I know you all" soliloquy is spoken in voiceover as he walks through the tavern away from his friend, nodding and smiling at the patrons while sad eyes reflect his thoughts.

He appears in direct contrast to Simon Russell Beale's Falstaff. Beale is an inspired and unique choice. Shorter than most of his companions, and effete in his manners, Beale plays Falstaff with an earnest and ingratiating insecurity, his confidence alternating with moments of nervousness. The play extempore is suggested with some desperation as Falstaff notes Hal's pained reaction to the news of Worcester's flight; as the young Prince rubs his forehead and begins falling back towards a resumption of his responsibility, Falstaff pulls at his elbow and pleads for a play, attempting to cling onto the Prince a little longer. The play is uproarious and beautifully entertaining, with lively crowd responses and Julie Walters' Mistress Quickly toing and froing. Hiddleston and Beale have a whale of a time impersonating Irons and Hiddleston respectively; Hiddleston apes Irons's distinctive accent, and is trumped by Beale affecting a poncey version of Hiddleston's swagger. Yet as Falstaff concludes his defence, he drops his accent and swagger, and the little man looks up at his Prince with appealing eyes, begging for acceptance. Crucially, Hal pauses for a long time and then, finally, averts his eyes in shame as he admits "I do. I will". Played as an admission rather than an attack, Eyre's versions of the characters are set apart as affectionate and emotionally tied. This is a Falstaff that we are prepared, from very early on, to see wounded.

The detail of the tavern scenes is delicious, with bowling, dancing and drinking happening in corners. Hal's mockery of Hotspur's valiance is played out in a corner as a sideshow while Falstaff enters; the impression is of a full environment which we only follow parts of. Characters emerge in tiny points: Mistress Quickly nervously running back and forth from the door; Maxine Peake's Doll Tearsheet entering into a pre-practised routine with Hal for winding up the sheriff by sitting astride him and shoving his hand up her skirts, and then later passing Falstaff's bill to him with the clear implication of her inability to read (to Hal's sympathetic gaze); and the always exceptional John Heffernan as a gurning and nodding Francis, achingly moving in a cruel instant as Poins and Hal roared with laughter in his face at a final "Anon, anon sir".

In contrast, the court scenes are deeply formal and played as high drama. Irons draws on Falstaff's reference to the king as a lion, constantly coiled or springing from his throne to pace his chamber and snarl in his underlings' faces. He is a deeply troubled king - although the film opens in Eastcheap, the scene is interspersed with Henry receiving reports of war and musing on his son, presenting Eastcheap almost as the nightmarish realisation of his fears regarding Hal. His choler is quick to rise, but he is not entirely in control. Confronting David Hayman's Worcester on the battlefield, Henry is overcome and forced to stagger to the side and vomit while Hal steps up to deliver his own challenge. The dynamic between the two is visceral; in their first meeting, Hal wears an informal cap and stands with a half smile on his face; until Henry dashes away the hat and, following a smirk on "I shall be more myself", slaps his son hard across the face. It is this point of violence that brings Hal to a realisation of the severity of his father's disappointment, causing him to ascent to the dais in protestation of his own worth.

Henry is similarly violent with the Northerners, played here with Northumbrian accents. Alun Armstrong is a background presence as Northumberland, but Hayman seethes with malice as a forward Worcester, stepping forward and shouting at his king very quickly with entirely inappropriate rage, causing his immediate banishment. Both men are overshadowed, however, by a fine and nunaced performance by Joe Armstrong as Hotspur. Hotspur is, here, almost entirely without guile, building into a full-blooded rant as he describes the fop who demanded his prisoners, much to Henry's amusement. It is only, however, as Henry notices him exchange a non-too-subtle glance with his father, intended to be private, that he snarls defiance at the young man. Hotspur's rage bursts out in defiance before the doors of the hall have even closed behind him, to Henry's clear consternation. The subsequent scene between the three Northern relations, played in a splendid corridor, is one of the most gripping sections of the film, as they attempt to keep Hotspur quiet and their conversation concealed from the surrounding guards, ending up making a whispered agreement in an alcove.

The younger Armstrong continues to be impressive throughout, initially in a complex scene with Michelle Dockery's Kate that presents the couple as deeply in love yet bound by abuse; he troublingly covers her mouth, pushes her violently to the bed and talks down to her, yet she presents a formidable match and refuses to bow to him. The sense of an unequal relationship is stressed further in the appearance of a servant who openly sneaks peeks at Kate's naked back while she puts on a dressing gown, unchecked by Hotspur; the evenness of their relationship is qualified by a sense of Kate's objectification. Their united front is shown more clearly in the Welsh singing scene, as while the rest close their eyes and listen to Alex Clatworthy's beautiful song, the two begin groping each other and sneak off giggling to conduct their own farewell. In the final duel with Hal, Hotspur has the better of the battle throughout, but takes too much vaunting pleasure in anticipation of his victory, taking time to raise his sword to finish him and allowing Hal to thrust a dagger into his side.

If the film has a real weakness, it is one of sentiment. Falstaff's 'honour' soliloquy is played as a rather melancholy voiceover as Falstaff wanders through the battlefield preparations, stumbling and sad. It is an evocative reading but robs the speech of all its humour. The music acts as too much of a pointer, signposting with a heavy-handed lack of ambiguity when the audience is meant to really start listening to the words and ensuring that nothing is missed. Better are the battle scenes, cleverly shot to make the most of the television budget and giving a surprisingly impressive sense of scale; but also demonstrating the brutality of war commented on by Falstaff, as men pummel each other in the mud and grind weapons into faces.

As the film draws to its close, the shift in allegiances is clear; a wounded Hal is escorted through a field littered wth bodies by his brother, on whom he leans strongly, walking away from Falstaff, who shrugs with an indication of wounded pride. Yet the two brothers look aghast at their father as he stumbles over his closing lines, clearly in pain and already fading (another nod to Welles). A burning battlefield, a sober Falstaff (who mourns the loss of his bottle when Hal angrily smashes it in the middle of the battle) and a Prince beginning to realise the weight of his own participation in state affairs - it's not a groundbreaking rendition of the play, but a richly detailed, beautifully presented and intelligently performed one. One only hopes that Part II can live up to it.


July 02, 2012

The Gypsy and the Poet – images and experiments

hedgehurst by pb

In my last poetry collection "Enchantment" I asked Peter Blegvad to come up with images that would intervene in the book, proving breathing spaces between sections and textural moods. If you know the book you will know he came up with great work (see PB's 'Hedgehurst', left).

Well, my new poetry book is completed.

It is called "The Gypsy and the Poet" and once again I am thinking about images that will work with the poems, not illustrating them - but extending from the poems in some manner that enhances and deepens the tone of the whole book, the conversation between the poems, and between the poems and their readers.

I need to experiment with images on the blog for the next few entries and am meeting with Peter again next Wednesday. What do you think of these? What do they say to you? What might they evoke or invoke?

Watching the stars

hedgelaying


June 30, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Richard II @ BBC HD

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s90j1

The most exciting element of the BBC's Shakespeare Unlocked is off to a storming start. Rupert Goold's film of Richard II, divorced of the gimmickry and attention deficit lack of focus that characterises his stage work (sometimes to wonderful effect, sometimes disastrously) is a slick, subtle, well acted and creative adaptation of a rarely filmed play that manages the tricky feat of providing something that will be of use to educators for years to come, while also matching perfectly the BBC's current aesthetic requirements for big budget primetime period drama.

Initially, the film looks as if it has borrowed its sets and costume from Merlin, but while it never quite shakes its studio feel in the bulk of the interior scenes (it simply looks a little too clean), the misty exteriors and stunning use of beach locations give this film a sense of breadth, if not scale - the gesture towards a Welsh army is a welcome visual flourish, but these lanscapes are otherwise sparsely populated. The kinetic camerawork, however, keeps attention throughout, and visually this is a varied feast, with Goold digging into his bag of cinematic tricks (flashbacks, slow motion, montage) to fit a wordy play to a fast medium.

With that said, this is a traditional looking film, aiming (with the exception of the BBC's now-standard colour-blind casting) for period accuracy, including the retention of faintly ridiculous medieval hats. The advantage of the setting is that it creates plausible settings for scenes that might otherwise be hard to imagine, such as the temporary lists set up in a field for Mowbray and Bolingbroke's duel, or the narrow corridors down which Richard makes his descent, the camera spinning dizzyingly as it evokes Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Ben Whishaw in the title role is excellent. Softly spoken and high-pitched, Whishaw's Richard is a gentle king, with undertones (never made explicit) of homosexuality in his lingering touches of male servants in his tent. His extravagances are manifest - a monkey cackles in the temporary tent set up behind the Coventry lists, and he rides to his final arraignment on a miniature pony. He goes through numerous costume changes throughout the film, his pale pinks and yellows contrasting with Bolingbroke's dark robes. Yet while this Richard is in love with ritual and ceremony, he is frequently out of control; such as the moment in which he pulls Aumerle aside atop the battlements to ask if he has done the right thing, or in his flashes of panic immediately before he halts the opening duel. There is power in him, demonstrated particularly as he shows unexpected prowess against a murderer in his final scene.

Richard is strongest in his uncertainty. The lengthy beach scene, played against a gorgeous Welsh backdrop, gives full weight to a range of characters including Tom Goodman-Hill's wearied bearer of bad news and Tom Hughes's painfully young Aumerle, who are led by Richard even in his weakness, drooping alongside him as he sits in the sand. Richard veers from euphoria to rage in an instant, casting Aumerle into the waves on hearing of York's treachery only seconds after laughing in careless confidence. We get to see less of him in his happy state, but the impression is one of peace; he sits with his retainers, swinging his legs from a country bridge; and after Gaunt's death, carelessly fingers golden goblets even as York rails at him. Yet he is equally fabulous in his darker moments, as when he stands in golden armour on the battlements in the deposition scene flanked by outlines of angels.

Opposed to him is Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke, supported by the gruff and deliciously cold David Morrissey as Northumberland (Hotspur is one of the casualties necessary in order to ensure a 2 hours 20 minutes running time). Kinnear's conflicted, measured antihero is compelling throughout, whether glaring at James Purefoy's grizzled Mowbray, standing at the back of the invading crowd looking up at Richard or sobbing as he grabbed a handful of sand before marching into the waves to the ship that would carry him to banishment. His attempts to retain control during Richard's tour de force performance in the arraignment scene (including lying full-length on the floor) will bear multiple rewatched, as king and soldier conflict with cousin and subject in one face. Later, flashbacks of their intimacy continue to haunt him.

I very much feel the series has missed a trick, however, by not cross-casting the roles that continue into the next film. While I'm sure Jeremy Irons and Alun Armstrong will do fantastic jobs as Henry IV and Northumberland, a little grey make-up to Kinnear and Morrissey would surely have done the required work, and I would have loved to see them continue their subtle explorations of the characters. And it would have been an interesting connection to see Hotspur introduced here before stepping up to a major role in the next film.

The other performances are too numerous to discuss in detail, but the quality is consistent throughout. I was particularly moved by David Bradley's brief appearance - practically a cameo - as the Gardener. While the Northern accent perhaps unnecessarily suggests an attempt at comic relief, what stands out in Bradley's performance is the haunted look in his eyes as he kneels before the Queen in a carefully topiaried garden and sets her world crumbling about her; in one brief gaze of the camera, we see a synecdoche of the entire human cost of the play's political shifts. And unsurprisingly, Patrick Stewart is outstanding as Gaunt. The "This sceptr'd isle" speech is performed in close-up, Stewart's forehead clammy with sweat and his shirt opened. Weak in body but powerful in voice, Gaunt offers a genuine threat to Richard, a threat acknowledged by the King as he grabs the dying man's lapels and hoists him up in rage. Next to these, David Suchet's York makes less of an impact, but steadies the film throughout, a voice of at least partial integrity.

My one complaint about the film is that it perhaps takes itself slightly too seriously, particularly in the final betrayal subplot which is played po-faced, losing the inherent comedy of the conflict between the Yorks, and much of the sardonic humour that can be found in the earlier interactions between Richard and his favourites. I confess that, instead, I found the beheadings of Bushy and Green - their heads plunging straight into a river from the bloodied stumps left behind on the bridge - funnier than they were presumably intended to be, the gore contrasting wildly with the cleanness elsewhere. This is compensated for, however, by the intelligent decision to expand Aumerle's role. Aumerle is approached with the offer of money and status in a tavern, and subsequently joins the murder party who come to Richard. Whishaw languishes in a dank cave, and it is Aumerle who, while Richard struggles with a goon, fires the crossbow that transfixes his former liege. Bolingbroke's bitterness towards the young man who drags in the coffin completes the scene played ten minutes earlier when Aumerle is granted his reprieve.

Only right at the end does the director make his presence strongly felt. Nobles arrive spilling bags of bloodied heads over the the floor, and the camera cuts to Bolingbroke's face, sweating as he stammers out thanks. Lucian Msamati's Carlisle is thrown to the floor, bloodied and barely able to see out of one eye. And when Richard's coffin is broken open, he is naked except for a loincloth, arms spread as far from the body as the coffin will allow and legs bent together to one side in the traditional crucifixion pose (made unnecessarily explicit by a slow pan up to a hanging crucifix in the eaves). Invited here to reflect on the necessity of Richard's sacrifice, the audience is left with the impression of sympathy for Richard, even as we reflect on the loss of control that Bolingbroke is already experiencing; a fitting platform to move on to 1 Henry IV.

Interestingly, Derek Jacobi's documentary on the play which started immediately after this broadcast, started with the same speech as Goold's film "Let us sit upon the ground". This is, apparently, the play of reflection, and despair. Realised wonderfully here, Goold has reclaimed the play as a modern and fascinating one, which Jacobi pursued in his choice of images of Berlusconi, Hussain and Gaddafi. Jacobi's documentary (until it got to the De Vere rubbish) was also the best yet of the series in terms of its use of performance history and archives; hopefully, the pairings of new films and documentaries are going to keep providing the richest material. It's a wonderful contribution to the season, and roll on 1 Henry IV.


June 29, 2012

Free Teaching Shakespeare webinar

Writing about web page http://www.teachingshakespeare.ac.uk/

For readers interested in Shakespearean pedagogy, there's now a very exciting new resource that I'm touting on behalf of my former colleagues at the University of Warwick. "Teaching Shakespeare" is a collaboration between Warwick and the Royal Shakespeare Company, creating a package of interactive resources, guides and videos for use by teachers of Shakespeare. They're hosting a free taster webinar on Sunday 8th July, which you can sign up for now. Enjoy!


June 28, 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (Stage on Screen) @ Greenwich Theatre [on DVD]

Writing about web page http://www.stageonscreen.com/the-duchess-of-malfi.php

A much briefer review to accompany my earlier piece on Stage on Screen's production of Doctor Faustus, this time of Elizabeth Freestone's The Duchess of Malfi. Cross-cast with the same company's Volpone, Freestone's take on Malfi is more straightforward than either, treating the play as a chamber piece in a lengthy full text (2hrs 40 mins) that will appeal to teachers looking for a solid recording of the play to use in classes, but never quite grips in its own right as a piece of theatre.

That's not to say there's anything wrong with the production. Set in a 1930s Europe, the production captures the tension of an approaching war and the politicking going on behind the scenes as a nation attempts to deal with its internal squabbles while simultaneously preparing itself to face the world. This is most clear as Mark Hadfield's Cardinal prepares himself to take on an active role in the conflict, adopting a uniform reminiscent of Italian fascists and wearing it with ease.

Freestone's production is centred around three fine performances. Aislin McGuckin's Duchess is a complex and inviting figure, seductive in her early scenes with Antonio and independent throughout. With Antonio she shows a confidence and allure that is entertaining even as it illustrates her immediate dominance over her environment; her recourse to mockery of her social status only serves to reaffirm it, to Antonio's pleasure. Her gradual unravelling at the hands of her brothers is realised extremely effectively, particularly in the scene of the madmen torturing her. Surrounded by singing, staring men in straitjackets, some of whom escape their confines and run straight at her, she is reduced to a sobbing wreck, yet still with a strained dignity that allows us to see her resolve even as it is tested to breaking point. Her final death, stretched out on the floor as two men pull long cords around her neck, leaving her splayed centrestage, is particularly traumatic.

Tim Steed gives an intense performance as Ferdinand, brooding and internalised, but lashing out at those around him. As the lycanthropia takes over, he becomes ever more dissociated from those around him, culminating in a fascinating image as he lies splayed across the floor promising that he will escort snails. Without moving into full animalistic performance, Steed's take on Ferdinand served to gradually dehumanise the character, turning him into a physical being barely capable of relating to those around him.

The play is dominated, however, by Tim Treloar's Bosola. Always active, Bosola's busy industry keeps him the centre of attention whenever he is on stage. Treloar kept a delicate balance throughout between the self-interested confidence that allows the character to be so useful to the play's sundry villains, and a compelling personal integrity that emerges particularly in his emotional breakdown over the Duchess's body. Physically formidable, and with a confidence of voice that enhanced his presence, the battle becomes almost one of equals as he takes on his superiors.

In some ways, that is perhaps the problem. With so many dominant men throughout the play, there is less range and variety of pace and tone than there could have been. This is perhaps one of the rare times when the screen aspect of Stage on Screen does not lend itself to nuance; with the actors performing to the live audience, the stage projection of their voices and gestures neuters the variation on the more intimate medium, giving an impression of uniform confidence and volume when clearer arcs for the characters would be desirable.

Nonetheless there is a great deal to enjoy here. The messy deaths of the Duchess's children, including one stabbed in a pram, are particularly disquieting; but the Echo scene, as Edmund Kingsley defies superstition and then shivers at the pertinent replies of the Duchess-like Echo, manages to both chill and move. Brigid Zengeni's Julia was also strong, barely able to keep her hands of Bosola as she ripped his shirt off during their love scene, and shocked as she tasted something unfortunate on the Cardinal's Bible before he shoved the book into her face and practically smothered her with it.

My disappointment with the production as a whole comes from its entirely predictable nature; it's a faithful, straightforward and fairly obvious interpretation. That is also its strength; we lack a good teaching resource for Malfi, and Stage on Screen's production fills a necessary gap. The formality of its setting and the consistent quality of the performances make this a slightly earnest enterprise, but thoroughly worthwhile in its scope, and the production works as a tragedy of intrigue and coiled tension.

Compared to Faustus, the interview material here is exceptional, with a much wider range of creatives interviewed, and individual interviews with the cast which make it much easier to select material. Where Freestone primarily described her own directorial career in the other interview, here she offers fantastic insights into the structure of the play and Webster's treatment of women, pointing out that the women are sidelined early on in the play, leaving the final scenes focused on the male characters (her entire male company were required for the final scene). The many crew interviews give insights into a range of roles within the production, though there is still sometimes a sense of this acting as careers advice for would-be stage mangers (for example). It's remarkable, however, that even the DSM and ASM get screentime, and telling about the essentially collaborative nature of this project. What elevates this set of DVDs, however, is the general attention to the play in the interview material, which makes the education packs well worth the extra expense.


June 25, 2012

Julius Caesar (RSC/Illuminations) @ BBC4

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01k7lv5/Julius_Caesar/

I've not yet had a chance to see the RSC's new production of Julius Caesar, directed by Gregory Doran and currently playing in Stratford. The concept behind the production is fascinating, if not without its problems - an all-black British cast, performing the play as set in an unnamed modern African state. In a year characterised by the welcoming of other nations to the UK with their own versions of Shakespeare, I have my reservations about a British company "doing" Africa, particularly in a form that elides continental difference with a range of aspects. These are reservations rather than deep-rooted complaints, but worth flagging.

The design of this televised version on BBC4 was fascinating. Rather than film the stage play from live performance, the extraordinary digital theatre company Illuminations (who have previously worked with the RSC on a range of productions, including Doran's own Hamlet) began in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the thrust stage, but then moved to a range of interior locations. In a rundown world of brick corridors, flamelit rooms and clay earth floors, a sense of claustrophobic heat was created that stoked a growing sense of pressure as the film moved towards its inevitable mid-point climax. The decision to create a version of a production geared specifically for film alongside - rather than subsequent to - the theatrical production is an innovative one, finding a fascinatingly different medium for the story that gave greater priority to the environment of the play and to the psychologising of characters.

What the locations did lack was a sense of the bustle of the city. An opening carnival began the production in vibrant mood, with revellers (bolstered by a crowd of extras) singing and dancing in praise of Caesar, evoking African carnivals. The fullness of this section, set on a live stage surrounded by a typical RSC audience, allowed noise and colour to dominate from the start, creating a volatile and dangerous world in which revelers and police could talk back to one another and a spirit of celebration could barely be contained. Moving to the 'real' locations, the mood changed significantly. Large spaces dwarved the actors, who increasingly appeared in relative isolation, whispering in echoing chambers or losing themselves down winding back corridors.

This lost something in an impression of a busy public world; the conspirators needed little extra room in order to whisper conspiratorially, and the danger of being overheard was non-existent. In this sparsely populated world, the conspirators lacked pressure. This was most notable in the staging of the assassination, performed on a pair of escalators in what appeared to be a deserted palace. Rome itself appeared to be dead already, and its rulers acting out the dying breaths of an empire. What we gained, in this scene in particular, was something far bloodier than possible onstage - the noises of the daggers plunging into Caesar's body were unpleasantly fleshy.

The camerawork was strongest, instead, in the extreme close-ups, particularly in the lingering focus on the face of Patterson Joseph's Brutus. Particularly as Brutus moved around his open-plan home, waiting for the conspirators to arrive and reading the parchments that had been passed into the house, he whispered his words to himself, internalising his conflict and working through his self-justification with direct reference to the camera, his confidante. This allowed the viewer a route into an otherwise calculating Brutus, who in public scenes disappeared behind his own persona, and presented a cold, immovable front among the other conspirators, including the passionate Cassius (Cyril Nri). Even moments of apparent exterior engagement could be made personal; Caesar's ghost appeared as a reflection in his lamp, allowing the production to maintain ambiguity over the extent to which the ghost was real or simply a manifestation of Brutus' guilt.

Similarly, the appearance of Ray Fearon's Antony after the assassination was emphasised as a turning point; appearing silhouetted and blurred, he slowly emerged into focus and an ominous underscore of music (a rare use of non-diegetic sound) accompanied his unspoken (but heard by the audience) misgivings as he appraoched the scene. Fearon, however, utilised the full dynamic range offered by the camera. Leaning over Caesar's body, abandoned on the escalator, his voice rose to a roar as he faced up into an overhead light.

The action returned to the RST stage for the orations scene, where again the use of extras in a much more confined space created an energy that elevated the performances. Fearon choreographed the crowd masterfully, screaming for attention over the chaotic shouting and whipping the crowd into a fervour. It was in this scene, particularly, that the setting lent itself well to the play; without the veneer of Roman civility, Doran was able to present more clearly the cross-purpose shouting, the unbridled energy of the mob that Antony needed to direct rather than create, and the emotional outpouring that accompanied the unveiling of Caesar's body.

In another stylistic shift, the beginnings of the war were imagined as gang violence, partially recorded on camera phones in an instance of 'happy slapping'. Cinna the Poet was bound in a tyre, doused in petrol and set on fire; while Octavius and Antony's prisoners were bagged and shot in the head as the newly formed triumvirate haggled over lives. Again, there was a problem in that these scenes - moving away from the lively noise of the stage - were simply quieter, and the murder of Cinna happened too calmly to keep up the momentum of the riled crowd. Far better was the emotional argument between Cassius and Brutus in the latter's tent, particularly as Cassius raised his robe and demanded Brutus kill him, to Brutus's shock and disgust. These scenes of intimacy were the production's strength throughout, including in the early meeting of the lead conspirators with Joseph Mydell's Casca in a men's washroom, where the older man lingered over his insinuations and innuendos as he washed his hands and looked pointedly at Brutus and Cassius in turn.

The closing scenes saw the war played out in small encounters in stairwells, corridors and dead ends, and again a relative lack of ambient noise meant that it was hard to get a sense of a full scale war taking place. In the close-ups of deaths, of Antony and Octavius (Ivanno Jeremiah) walking down corridors already bristling with tension, and in the tears of Brutus as he looked down at his dead soldiers, the medium succeeded rather at evoking the personal struggle of war.

For the closing moment, the final rally of the people, Antony emerged one last time onto the main RST stage. What came clear throughout this film is that, perhaps oddly, it was the more limited environment of the live theatrical production that best evoked the clamour, noise and heat of the charged African political setting. In the push to realise it more literally, the play became far more of a psychological drama at the expense of a sense of the larger picture. Nonetheless, it's a fantastic experiment and one I hope the RSC repeats in future years; to create something specifically geared to film that complements a theatrical production is a bold endeavour that respects the advantages and possibilities of the different media, and provided a fascinating platform for a worthwhile production.


June 24, 2012

Doctor Faustus (Stage on Screen) @ Greenwich Theatre [on DVD]

Writing about web page http://www.stageonscreen.com/doctor-faustus.php

The Stage on Screen project is a simple idea; so simple, perhaps, that one wonders why the market hasn't already been cornered. Four productions of early canonical plays (Volpone, Dr Faustus, The Duchess of Malfi and The School for Scandal) were specially commissioned, directed by Elizabeth Freestone and performed to live audiences at Greenwich Theatre. High-quality recordings of the productions were made during the live run and subsequently released on DVD with extensive bonus discs offering behind-the-scenes information, educational resources and contributor interviews. The project's remit is educational; yet the productions stand alone as entertaining, professional versions of the plays. The care and attention taken to recording means that the plays suffer none of the editing problems that occasionally interrupt the live broadcast series such as NT Live, yet the audible presence of an audience retains the sense of liveness and coherence that keeps a production distinctly theatrical.

Faustus is a play particularly in need of a good screen version, as the Burton/Taylor Oxford University version still only available on Region 1 DVD. Freestone's production is a stylish take on the play's A-text, drawing on visual tropes of gothic literature to create an air of foreboding and, on occasion, out-and-out terror.

The production's aesthetic evokes late 18th/early 19th century Europe, with Frankenstein the most obvious point of reference. Imagining Faustus as Victor Frankenstein works well; here, Gareth Kennerley's Faustus is a nervy over-reacher, a young man whose own arrogance blinds him to the destruction he is bringing down on his own head. The circular stage is partially surrounded by wooden library shelves, full of books and charts, and a ladder allows access to an upper level where a telescope stands mounted. Faustus is the new man of science, rendering his laughing scorn of Mephistopholes' 'old wives' tales' all the more pointed; it is not that he does not believe in the creature he is speaking to, but rather is inclined to rational, ordered explanations. It is to science that he is drawn, as in Mephistopholes' conjuration of an astrological map to explain the cosmos.

Shelley's life and work pervade the production. Right from the start, Faustus is besieged by overconfident young men, throwing their books and ideas at him and drowning him in words. Valdes and Cornelius (Samuel Collings and Adam Redmore) evoke the 'Young Romantics', appearing with ruffled hair and louche manners, swaggering through Faustus's study and pulling out his assorted bottles. The supernatural elements, meanwhile, move in a stiff, unskilled way, their zombified physicality exaggerated by white make-up and slow, shouted speech. The notable exception to this is the masque of the Seven Deadly Sins - descending the ladder into his own study, robed figures grab at him and pull him under, writhing and squirming about the stage as they await their turn to claw at Faustus. As soon as Faustus scrambles back up the ladder, a simple hand movement from Guy Burgess's Lucifer snaps the writhing bodies back into rigid order. Interestingly, there is a sense of visual repetition as the 'invisible' Faustus later moves among the monks and cardinals in the Pope's presence, surrounded by bodies that he is unable to fully engage with.

The near-human is thrown into relief by the more overtly horrific throughout. As Faustus begins his conjuring, his companions retreat into the shadows and then flee altogether. Freestone allows the tension to build after each mention of Mephistopholes, the lights focused entirely in a tight circle on the magician with the rest of the stage in black. Eventually, after a long pause and Faustus's own sigh of nervous relief, lightning flashes and thunder rolls as the silhouette of a horned monster appears on the top level. Faustus screams from his prostrate position on the floor before the apparition finally disappears. Later, Lucifer appears in the same position; rigid and dominant, the impression of monstrosity is maintained by Beelzebub's realisation as a mask on the back of Lucifer's own head.

In this context, of course, Tim Treloar's Mephistopholes evokes Lewis in his monk costume. Treloar is an uncomfortable presence throughout the production. Where other recent actors of the role have played up the more ingratiating aspects of the character, Treloar is prickly throughout. Following the first monstrous appearance of the character, he enters hooded and barking lines at full volume from under his cowl. Faustus kneels before the furious spirit, cowed by his bile. Treloar moves throughout with rigidity and purpose, making measured turns and pointed, deliberate gestures. Once he has the bloody paper of Faustus's contract he loosens up, but maintains the otherworldly attitude throughout, allowing him to move between the occasional moment of silliness (puppeteering a skull to reply to one of Faustus's relentless questions) immediately to terrifying rage, as when asked to explain who made the world.

The film insists throughout that its audience pay attention to the controlling nature of the devils. Things that a stage audience may miss, such as Lucifer's gestures of control, are here focused on in extreme close-up, foregrounding the framers of the action rather than their object. In particular, the first sensual parade of spirits offered to Faustus saw three spirits appear and circle him, treating him as a puppet and iconicising him as a Christ-figure. The fast jump-cutting, however, keeps returning to a close-up on Mephistopholes as he hinted at a smile, showing the spirit in control even at this early stage.

The comedy is less successful, although the recorded laughter suggests that it came across better in live performance. The subtler humour works best, as in the moment where Mephistopholes allows his ranting at the summons from Robin and Rafe to drop for a moment as he and the Vintner nod 'Alright' to each other; or in his forgetting to make himself invisible before the Horse-Course sees him, to which he mutters "Oh, for fu...". The scenes of the comedians feel tired and drawn out, however; particularly as Robin and Rafe turn slowly into an ape and dog in a Jekyll-and-Hyde style energetic transformation sequence, ending with the ape riding the dog and attempting to hump him. The jokes played on the Pope are simply done, but their tiredness here feels deliberate, emphasising the pettiness of the tricks played by the smug, invisible Faustus.

The quieter battle between Joanna Christie's young, scantily-clad Evil Angel and Jonathan Battersby's slow-moving Good Angel pervades the production, including in one interpolated scene where the Evil Angel smilingly empties a box of sand from the raised space into Faustus's study; the fact that this is a battle against time is always clear. The apparent shared identity of the two with, respectively, Helen of Troy and the Old Man helps keep the battle polarised; Faustus is pulled continually between two forces. Kennerley is a nervous, self-doubting figure throughout, attempting to persuade himself as much as the audience of his confidence in his own control. His moments of terror are quickly trampled down by the myriad devils, and it is only in the play's closing moments that he is forced to confront the reality of his situation. Mephistopholes grabs Faustus by the face, promising him that all shall be done that can be done, and Faustus's attraction to Helen sees the two of them kiss repeatedly as the Good Angel/Old Man enters and looks on; the battle, in this image, is won.

A striking follow-up scene sees the Old Man attacked and killed by jumping spirits that slash him mercilessly until he falls into a lonely spotlight. Yet the lights shift to a stream coming in from the upstage door, and the music changes from an eerie whistle to choral chanting, as the Old Man gets to his feet and walks into the light. As the positions polarise, the stage is set for the final scene. An isolated Faustus begins tearing apart his study, sobbing and throwing books and papers to the floor. Once more, the production returns to the image of the disillusioned young scientist, drinking hard and babbling about the Monster coming for him. Faustus's pleas that he has been a student here for many years sound poignant coming from a younger man, casting his actions as those of reckless youth rather than informed evil. Yet Mephistopholes' final vaunts are not just those of victory over an impressionable mind, but also of a victory against God; he becomes to weep, and conquers his tears by shaking a fist at the Heaven that he knows he will never see again. Faustus's end pleasingly mirrors the initial dance of the spirits that entertained Faustus; the same spirits emerge and dance around him, dragging him to the upstage door as Lucifer appears above. In a final moment of pause, Faustus reaches out for Mephistopholes before being pulled out offstage, to Mephistopholes' wide-eyed expression of something not quite clear - shock? Surprise? Horror? Whichever it is, the sense is one of unfitness; this damnation is neither easy nor straightforward.

One of the strongest moments, however, comes very early on, as the two masters of the university shiver in the cold outside Faustus's study and hear, from Wagner, how Faustus is meeting with Valdes and Cornelius. The two react with shock, and whisper in fear to one another. In this short sequence, Freestone captures something of the wider society within which Faustus operates; the terror of a world threatened by the horrors he is creating. Returning to Frankenstein, this Faustus warns of the dangers of over-reaching, of personal arrogance in the thirst for knowledge. The evocation of the 19th century battles between science and faith, religious fervour and rationalism, creates a meaningful context for the battle over an arrogant soul.

DVD Extras

The education pack I was sent for review contains three discs. One, the 'Mastershot' DVD, shows the entire production from a fixed, wide shot camera angle, which isn't a great deal of fun to watch but which I can see value in for teaching purposes. The other disc includes oddly fuzzy direct-to-camera interviews with cast and creatives. Freestone's own contains rather too much personal anecdote considering the length (does it really matter how she became a director?) but she makes some useful comments about the search for textual evidence and her desire to make the play about the conflict between Man and Devil, rather than Man and Man (explaining something of Treloar's performance). Production and Costume Designer Neil Irish offers some practical notes on how to recycle materials, but is so brief as to be fairly unhelpful. Wayne Dowdeswell offers some of the best material as the lighting designer, walking through his process and giving some fantastic notes on how set and light combine to create thematic effects. This interview also includes lighting plots and diagrams, making it a genuinely exciting resource, especially for practical theatre courses.

The most impressive aspect, in terms of value, is a half hour interview with cast members, which offer personal insights into verse speaking and approaches to character. These are interesting and yield some individual points of interest, but a little basic overall for the level at which I teach; more about what it's like to be an actor then on the specifics of the production. I can't help but feel that some academic insight would have been a really invaluable addition to this disc, or perhaps an 'outside' perspective on what this production brings to the play's performance history.

The main value of the package is all in the first disc, and given the step up in pricing for the education packs (+£10 RRP, +£30 on Amazon), I'd only recommend the basic DVD for most - it's the edited film that is most useful.


June 13, 2012

Henry V (Theatre Delicatessen) @ Marylebone Gardens

Writing about web page http://www.theatredelicatessen.co.uk/?page_id=1404

In the year of the London Olympics – and even more noticable in a week where England faced off against France in their opening match of the European Championships – it is perhaps unsurprising that the schedules are crowded with Henry V, including the productions by Propeller and the Globe as well as the BBC’s new screen version. The young company Theatre Delicatessen might have taken a risk in producing yet another version, but the company’s USP of unique, found performance spaces demanded attention, presenting into the bargain a fresh and enthusiastic take on the play.

Theatre Delicatessen work in collaboration with corporate partners to re-energise disused or unconventional spaces, in this case occupying and transforming Marylebone Gardens, the old BBC headquarters. We were met on arrival by a corporal who gathered audience members, called us to attention and criticised our sloppy salutes, and were then passed to a private who led us down back corridors and stairwells, past bunks and uniform stores, into a large bunker environment where squaddies were already sat at a long table playing cards, bunks decorated with photographs lined the walls and sandbags lay scattered. A radio room burbled sections of 1 Henry IV as if news reports; and medical bays and an altar indicated other areas of an army barracks. In this low-ceilinged, dimly lit room, the claustrophobia of the waiting room of war was evocatively recreated, aided by the wonderful soundscape provided by Fergus Waldron and The Lab Collective, where explosions and planes sounded convincingly overhead and music subtly manipulated tone.

The immersiveness of the environment was not total. The charade of the audience’s ‘role’ within proceedings was limited to the pre-show and interval (“you have 15 minutes mess time”), but beyond the fact that audience members were sat comfortably on sandbags or bunks, the performance itself was functionally traverse. Director Roland Smith used the space well, creating multiple smaller areas within the bunker and moving fluidly between scenes. The small office rooms leading off from the main space allowed commanders to emerge at will and, in one powerful instance, served as a makeshift execution room for a French prisoner, a flash seen through a narrow window as gunshots were fired. A large spiral staircase in the centre of the space gave the impression of higher levels, which lent the battle scenes in particular a vulnerable feel – soldiers ran up screaming into the unknown, and the medics left behind listened in terror as explosions grew louder. The ceiling opened up at one end of the room, allowing the company to stage a French propaganda drop with a deafening roar of engines followed by a deluge of anti-English pamphlets falling from the sky; and later, a helicopter was waved down to collect the French princess. The sense of connected spaces usefully turned the events of the play into a slice-of-life representation, a perspective on war rather than its entirety.

If the environment did not quite offer the soldiers-eye view for the audience that the company seemed to want, it did offer intimacy, which became crucial. Zimmy Ryan’s Boy, in particular, built up a close relationship with the audience over successive scenes, and the decision to turn the Boy into a medic left behind while the rest of the soldiers rushed off to battle added further pathos to his execution by two hooded French advance soldiers who crept into the room. The Boy was also responsible for attempting to heal a wounded French soldier, who turned out to be Pistol’s easy capture, the latter pinning down the confused man as he cried out on his gurney. The fact that the bunker best represented itself in these scenes (as opposed to its refiguring elsewhere as tavern, field of battle, court etc.) rendered these scenes the production’s most successful, building up a sense of the soldier as individual, cut off through the messy practicalities of war.

This personal perspective was the production’s priority, made explicit in a moving programme note by Smith that spoke of one of his closest friends, killed in conflict while fighting for peace. What this did mean was that the production was more unproblematically nationalistic than many others. While the Eastcheap crew were drunken louts (increasingly a standard decision), the production remained very firmly on the side of the English, keeping antagonism alive between the two armies at all times and refusing to dwell on French losses, or to problematise Henry’s wooing of Katherine. The emphasis here was on the suffering of the individual soldier caused by war, but didn’t challenge the necessity of that war or the English claims to France.

The cuts primarily reflected this simplification of the play’s issues with nationalism. Gone were Macmorris and Jamy; gone too, more surprisingly, was Fluellen and Pistol’s final encounter as well as the bulk of Fluellen’s argument with Williams. The occlusion of the Welsh, Scottish and Irish narratives was surprising to me, but it did help maintain the moral coherence of the English army. Similarly, Bardolph’s execution was passed over quickly, whereas the execution of the traitors was played out in full. The cuts allowed Philip Desmueles’s Henry freedom to be a passionate and honest king, whose variation was less between tyranny and camaraderie than it was between professionalism and honesty; this was a king led by his heart, but able to manage his facial expressions and reserve as required.

The tensions throughout were well-maintained. Henry and Alexander Guiney’s Montjoy loathed each other from first sight, and Henry gave Montjoy a tennis ball rather than a purse as labour for his pains. Similarly, Neil Connolly’s Governor of Harfleur had to tea his hand away from Henry’s firm grip, storming off in disgust at the loss of his town. More of the tensions came out in the Eastcheap crowd, however, where Connolly’s Nym and Liam Smith’s Pistol came to early blows over Margaret-Ann Bain’s chavvy Hostess, who swigged from a can of special brew before using it as a vase for the flowers offered by Nym. The setting was of Falk.lands-era warfare; thus, the civilians captured something of that period’s St. George’s flag-waving nationalism, while the soldiers wore berets and camouflage. In this setting, the careful management of the traitors and of the common men was particularly obvious, foregrounding a sense of Henry’s absolute authority.

The verse speaking was the production’s disappointment, despite some standout performances; Christopher Tester’s Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, was beautifully articulate, while Liam Smith offered a quiet, dignified French King. Too much was thrown away in favour of conversational accessibility, however; Guiney’s Chorus appeared to be speaking prose rather than verse, setting the scene well but reducing the scenes to their functional rather than rhetorical value.

Yet there was much else to enjoy. The wooing scene between Henry and Laura Martin-Simpson’s Katherine reminded me for the first time ever of Kate and Petruchio’s initial negotiations, particularly as Katherine bit Henry’s tongue as they shared their first (unfashionable) kiss. This lively exchange established a sense of the union of the countries as something desirable for both sides, yet allowed Katherine sufficient agency to dictate her own terms. Elsewhere, Henry’s execution of the traitors prompted a long, specific engagement with Tester’s Scroop, who stood central on the stage while the other traitors kneeled and simply wept as Henry outlined his crimes at great length.

Tester’s excellent Fluellen provided the comic relief, particularly in his forced reconciliation with Chris Polick’s Michael Williams, as Henry forced the two of them to shake hands. The two French women (Martin-Simpson and Jessica Guise as Alice) shared this role in their two brief scenes, but the comedy remained largely contained in favour of celebration of Henry’s victories.

The production was overlong, even with the cuts, yet the fascinating use of space and the thoroughly entertaining performances made for an enjoyable Henry V. I would have liked to have seen a more immersive use made of the set and audience, and a clearer sense of what the production itself was trying to say. Certainly, the Chorus’s final gesture towards the Henry VI trilogy suggested that there was at least a sense of patriotism and national pride being undermined, but this was deferred until after the event as the Chorus cleared the stage, rather than interrupting Henry’s victory. Yet while the play itself may have been partly responsible for maintaining certain attitudes, the space acted as a point of destabilisation of meaning, acting to alert us to our own level of engagement and forcing response. In that sense, this remained an important Henry V.


June 10, 2012

The Bloody Banquet (Blood and Thunder Theatre Company) @ The Shakespeare Institute

Writing about web page http://bloodandthundertheatre.org.uk/#/productions/4560980158

Thomas Dekker's The Bloody Banquet (possibly written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton) has not been performed, to my knowledge, since the seventeenth century. It was a pleasure, therefore, to be involved in a major new revival of the play in the form of a one-off staged reading in Stratford-upon-Avon, as part of the Stratford Fringe.

Blood and Thunder specialise in the gorier end of the early modern repertory, and The Bloody Banquet fits right in. The play is an unusual mix of romance (lost children, reunited families, a pastoral escape) and chamber murder tragedy in the mould of The Changeling. The deaths come suddenly and unexpectedly in the second act, and the pattern of betrayals, disposal of hitherto loyal servants and passionate decisions felt interestingly modern.

Unusually for this blog, I'm talking about a production that I was actually in - playing Lodovico (who, in this production, ended up being one of the usurping King's wetworks men), a Shepherd and a Servant, and in practice serving to manage a lot of the scene transitions and body disposal. That does mean I didn't get an overview of the reading, so I'll just confine myself here to a few observations.

The play is full of fantastic villains. Peter Malin's Roxano emerged as one of the play's most fascinating characters. Spending much of the first half in disguise, Roxano was a consummate game-player, an amoral manipulator of events in the manner of Bosola, Vasques or Deflores. The same group of characters was similarly revisited in Matt Kubus's portrayal of Mazeres, one of Roxano's initial employers and probably the closest the play has to a total villain (although even here, driven by something that he conceives of as love for Amphridote, in another echo of Deflores). The characterisation across the board was fascinating; in Marc Alden Taylor's hands, Zenarchus became a deeply conflicted figure, displaying his beautiful mother (Kelley Costigan's Queen of Cilicia) to his best friend Tymethes (Jose A. Perez Diez) and acting towards the death/distraction of both of his sister Amphridote's (Rachel Stewart) lovers. Steve Quick found a quietness in the tyrannical Armatrites that prevented the character from being merely a blustering tyrant, particularly in his delicious exposure of his Queen's lies about her fidelity, pausing for effect as he embraced her with compliments then unleashed his accusation of "Whore". The Queen herself, object of all men's affections, was similarly quiet in this production, making her sudden execution of Tymethes all the more unexpected. The play's 'money shot' - the Queen demurely eating Tymethes' head - employed a melon in place of Diez's skull and provided a grim image, particularly as (so I hear reported) Costigan slowly pulled a hair out of the red pulp.

The opening plot is hugely underwritten. The opening scenes set up the flight of the Queen of Lydia from the coup that unseats her husband, and Emma Hartland cut a striking image carrying two swaddled babies and fleeing from the ravaging soldiers Richard Nunn and Brendan Lovett. The treachery and redemption of Lapyrus (Mike Connell), nephew the King of Lydia (Patrick Kincaid) allowed for a nice bit of staging with Lapyrus pulled by branches from a pit (behind a rostrum), then slowly lifting his face as he reached solid ground to meet his uncle's gaze; but it still seems surprising to me that this group of characters is then not revisited until the final scene. Director Maria Jeffries chose to cut the dumbshows, instead staging the expository choruses as walkthroughs with characters introducing themselves, which hopefully helped clarify the plot; but perhaps served to point up how briefly several of the scenes are dealt with, such as the loss of one of the Queen of Lydia's children and the rescue of another by two shepherds (myself and Dale Forder).

The first half set up; the second half tore down. I had the impression of a running joke as Sertorio and Lodovico (Forder and myself) were repeatedly called in by Armatrites to pull bodies off stage; having carried off Tymethes, Mazeres, Zenarches and Amphridote, one became particularly aware of the speed and frequency of killing. While the reading was done in basic costume and with only necessary props (although the resources of the company meant that these were far more impressive than normal for a staged reading), but a fine reaction was reserved for the appearance of a rack of bloody limbs. The final unveiling of the returning Lydian King and his men also prompted laughter, and Armatrites had the opportunity for a final display of hubris as he executed his Queen and died on his knees.

I saw very few of the performances in their entirety, so the above is based entirely on bits of shared stage time and the snippets of rehearsal I sat through. One thing seemed to be generally agreed on, however; it's a fine play, with compelling links to similar plays from the period and some truly memorable characters and moments. Pleasure to be involved in a reading of this nature too; I'm by no means an actor, but great to get a chance to see how a performance is put together from the inside.


May 29, 2012

The Merchant of Venice (Habima) @ Shakespeare's Globe. Part 2: The Production

Follow-up to The Merchant of Venice (Habima) @ Shakespeare's Globe. Part 1: Outer Frame from The Bardathon

It’s impossible to divorce context from production. Immediately after Dromgoole left the stage, still being applauded for his pre-emptive shutting down of protests, the actors of Habima emerged onto the Globe stage and called for a welcome, whipping the audience immediately into further applause, foot-stamping and cheering. After taking a bow, the actors, dressed as Renaissance-era Italians, donned bright red carnival masks and began singing, dancing and creating a festive atmosphere. This revelry continued as Jacob Cohen’s Shylock entered the stage and, in high spirits, the Christian carnival-makers surrounded him, pushed him to the ground and kicked him mercilessly in the stomach. Only at the point of violence did the crowd fall silent; but how easily the same jubilant ribaldry that had been targeted at Friends of Palestine was co-opted into the abuse of a Jew. Habima usefully pointed up the ease with which we are told what to think and can become implicated in abuse and suppression.

How many, I wonder, noticed the audacity of audience members who could shush a Palestinian protester and laugh at him as he was escorted out of the theatre to calls of “Piss off”; and then turn and nod sagely as a Jewish protester (in the trial scene) was silenced and mocked by Gratiano as he was escorted out? What has been learned from a production so concerned with suppression, if suppression is taking place within the auditorium?

Habima’s fine production of Merchant pulled no punches in its depiction of anti-Semitism, with both Shylock and Tubal manhandled and abused as a matter of course by a group of selfish and wasteful Christians. Alon Ophir’s Antonio, in particular, was sickening. This tyrannical figure refused to sit in Shylock’s chair, decorated with a Star of David, and grabbed the frail, elderly usurer by the throat as he vowed he would abuse him again. Even while trussed up in the trial scene, he leered down at Shylock, a smile of satisfaction playing on his lips as Shylock’s plans were thwarted.

The “bonds” of this production were made literal on two levels. Ropes and pulleys hung all around the set, used initially to demonstrate Portia’s (Hila Feldman) entrapment. Standing on a chair centre-stage, her six suitors gathered around the edges of the stage and held the ends of ropes attached to her corset, positioning her at the centre of a tangled web of controlling attachments. For the trial scene, Antonio was placed on the same chair, but stripped to his waist and clipped to ropes that snaked up the pillars and across the yard, literally strung up by bonds that linked the entire building. Into these same bonds Shylock was later forced, hanging limply amidst the jeering Christians.

The other bonds were physicalised as reams of computer printouts, contracts to be signed by Antonio in the first instance, but also by Bassanio, who was presented with a disturbingly realistic head representing Portia and an enormous wad of contracts, which he began scrutinising instead of kissing her, to her dismay. The focus of the men on letters and contracts was a running theme, revisited at the end as Nir Zelichowski’s Lorenzo failed to look once at Liraz Chamami’s Jessica once he had received news of his (his) good fortune. The massive contracts also became Shylock’s punishment, Gratiano draping them over Shylock and leaving him to stumble, slowly and blindly, offstage following the trial.

The prejudice running throughout the production was not always held up to adequate critique, however. While Portia and Nerissa’s dismissive attitude towards Jessica extended to even forgetting her name, Jessica’s disappearance at the production’s close left unresolved a growing problematisation that remained unclear. The biggest change to the text was the creation of a conflict between Jessica and Lorenzo that saw her threaten to leave him, and was alluded to throughout the ring incident as she screamed at her husband, but I was unclear as to exactly what she was objecting to, and the sadness she showed on hearing of her father’s misfortune was kept upstage and unremarked. Far more problematic was the treatment of the suitors. The establishment of these scenes was entirely amusing, as a team of sycophantic make-up artists and tailors dressed actors up in stereotypical national costume. However, Danny Leshman blacked up as Morocco, covering himself in black make-up which even rubbed off on Portia, to her disgust. The laughter at this was disturbing, and the production didn’t seem to have a point to make here about racism, leaving this problematic device uncriticised and, apparently, amusing to much of the audience. A similar, though less loaded, approach informed Yoav Donat’s appearance as Arragon, moustachioed and screaming “Ole!”

The casket scenes were otherwise amusing. Human actors played the caskets; for Morocco, an actor wore the gold casket on his head and carried the others; while Arragon and Bassanio were both presented with three independent caskets. Morocco removed the gold box from his man’s head to reveal the actor wearing a skull that snapped at his fingers. Arragon unveiled a fool carrying the poem in his mouth; and this fool subsequently sprang up and began mimicking the distraught suitor. The collective mockery of the foreign suitors by the assembled court and the Death/Fool heads fed into the critique of the Christians’ prejudice more broadly, but the cartoon caricatures of Morocco and Arragon stood in problematic contrast to the dignified Shylock.

Cohen, diminutive and quietly spoken, was a victim through and through, only taking command of the stage during the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech where he roared defiance at Salarino and Salerio (Leshman and Donat again, interestingly bringing the bodies of the three racially abused victims together) who backed up in shock at the effect of their ribbing. Elsewhere, the performance aimed for pathos. We were privy to his moans on discovering Jessica’s flight, and the production closed with Antonio casting a satisfied look over the abandoned stage and leaving, followed by Cohen emerging and taking a long, slow walk around the edges of the stage in utter silence. Similar pathos was aimed for in Jessica’s performance, as following her flight she was seen repeatedly in tears, ignored or scorned by the Christians.

Despite all of the above, this was for the most part a highly amusing production. The high energy of the Christians was combined with a physical inventiveness, particularly in the representation of gondolas by actors standing in a line and side-stepping in sync while one pretended to row. Tomer Sharon’s Launcelot was extremely entertaining throughout, debating freely with the audience in his first appearance, snogging the disembodied false head of Portia’s counterfeit, and interposing himself inconveniently between Jessica and Lorenzo. Yet he was also the only character who paid Jessica attention; immediately before the interval, he sat downstage with her and they watched together as Antonio pleaded with Shylock for succour.

A group next to me were aghast during the trial scene, crying out as Shylock went to take Antonio’s flesh, which rather spoke to the vulnerability of the strung-up bodies presented. The scene struggled to recover following the interventions from the pit of “Hath not a Palestinian eyes?” and the subsequent jeering of the crowd as more protesters were evicted; and perhaps because of this, the role of Portia and Nerissa, who were kept to one side of the stage, seemed relatively unimportant. I was drawn throughout the scene instead to Aviv Alush’s Gratiano, who moved freely about the stage and mocked Shylock mercilessly, as well as appealing to the Duke and Advocates who stood in the audience galleries. Alush’s overt prejudice throughout the scene, and Shylock’s slow collapse under his assault and the smug glares of Antonio, seemed to be far more important.

Rinat Matatov’s childlike Nerissa (strikingly reminiscent of Shirley Henderson) was a sometimes sullen, sometimes sparkling counterpart to Feldman’s upright Portia throughout. The servant took pleasure in bringing a knee to Gratiano’s groin following his loss of the ring, and in teasing her mistress about Bassanio in earlier scenes. Yet women were sidelined throughout this performance, left rather to punish their fickle men either directly by slapping or indirectly by walking out. Happy endings were denied as the banter and laddish mockery of women and foreigners found no place in Belmont, which demanded maturity. Yet as the men all fell to their rings and letters, devouring material possessions to the exclusion of their wives, it was clear that the selfish nature of these men would resist education.

Have I silenced the protests? Certainly the bulk of the protests were themselves silent, and for much of the first half I and those around me divided our attention between the action on stage and the silent stance of the group in the middle gallery with masking tape over their mouths, who did not reappear for the second half (perhaps removed). The performance of the protest in the pit and galleries drew the attention of all, and the actors themselves were clearly aware of it. Interestingly, however, the content of the protests during the performance was not directed at Habima themselves as far as I could see, concentrating on the broader “Free Palestine” message than challenging Habima’s own complicity in performing to Israeli-only groups in the settlements. By remaining silent and using few words, the protests insteade aimed to draw attention to their act of resistance, attention they maintained (even when rendered inactive) for the entire performance. The final applause of the company lasted a long while, a mutual celebration between audience and actors of the successful completion of the performance. Yet anyone watching carefully, who had listened to a production that spoke eloquently of the silencing of dissenting voices, should have had serious questions about the anger with which the performance’s own dissenters were greeted.


The Merchant of Venice (Habima) @ Shakespeare's Globe. Part 1: Outer Frame

Reviewing an event such as this evening’s performance at the Globe of The Merchant of Venice by Habima (Israel’s national theatre) poses serious ethical questions. If the review focuses on the entire experience – the preliminaries, the tensions, the various kinds of performance taking place both outside and within the auditorium – then the production itself, Habima’s work, risks being sidelined. If, however, the review ignores the “outer frame” (as Susan Bennett might term it) and concentrates on the “main event”, what was intended to be seen, then it is compromised in two ways. Firstly, the experience of every audience member was shaped and formed by the extraordinary framing of the production, that was inseparable both in terms of the mindset with which we entered the Globe, and in terms of how interwoven the subsequent acts were with the main performance. Secondly, in ignoring the elements that were not legitimised or planned for, I would be colluding in the silencing of a protest that, whatever you might think about it, had important things to say and deserves to be reported.

This review, then, will be of unusual length. It is subjective, as all reviews are, but it is unashamedly so. It is also political, if only insofar as I support the right to protest and the right to express views peacefully. I did not participate in any of the protests this evening, either in the pro-Israel camp or among the Free Palestine lobby; it's a situation which I choose not to actively campaign in. Nor, however, did I participate (as did many of my fellow audience members, with that self-righteous, zealous passive aggression that only late trains, queue jumpers and people who talk at the “wrong time” draw out of the British) in the active silencing and removal of the protesters. The heavy-handedness of the policing of tonight’s performance was at least as disruptive as the mostly silent protests themselves, and I have never been in a theatrical situation where I have felt more intimidated, watched and surrounded by hate. And for the most part, that wasn’t coming from the protesters. This part will deal with the framing, and I’ll focus on the performance itself in a follow-up tomorrow.

I spent the day on the South Bank, where a heavy police and private security presence began to make itself felt from 4pm. At 4.30pm I found myself locked inside the Globe building during an apparent incident, which meant no-one was allowed in or out for some fifteen minutes. Shortly after, the Globe was cleared of all members of the public for a full security sweep (my thanks to an amusing and welcoming duty manager, who was a relief to deal with after the frankly extremely rude security team). Outside, crowd control barriers were being set up and the South Bank rearranged, heavily policed, to contain the anticipated protests.

Security gates
Security barriers set up on Bankside

Heavy disruption had been expected around Habima’s performances since they were announced. The company, I understand, has performed in occupied areas of Gaza, and is seen by many as a tool of the Israeli regime. I defer to those more knowledgeable than me to debate the rights and wrongs of the company’s actions; fundamentally, though, I had no desire to see the production boycotted. Does the Globe’s invitation legitimise an institution that assists in an illegal occupation? Very possibly; but its presence on the South Bank both gave a voice to Hebrew-language theatre and, more importantly, legitimised a peaceful protest. As the two lobbies gathered in cordoned-off areas on the South Bank, I collected a wide range of literature arguing for and against the right of these artists to perform to a London audience. In the context of a Festival such as Globe to Globe, there appears to me to be a solid argument for the value of debate; a debate which the production’s presence allowed to happen. Or, at least, should have.

Palestine protestPalestine protest
Protesters in the Palestinian camp

The protests on both sides were deeply felt and heated, perhaps unsurprisingly for a particularly hot May afternoon, but largely peaceful. Tempers frayed, however, during the bag checks, which began an hour and a half ahead of performance time. Information had been sent out to all ticketholders in advance to let us know that we would have to check all bags bigger than a handbag, and that none of our own food, drinks or anything that could be used to disrupt a performance would be allowed in. Full security gates were in place including metal detectors and pat-downs, and several of my fellow theatregoers argued strongly with the beleaguered security folk about their right to take in their own sandwiches. The fact that, inside, the Globe was charging £2 for a can of Coke and £1.50 for a bottle of water stung a little.

Israel protestIsrael protest
Protests in the pro-Israel camp

Relieved of bags, the Globe audience then had to cope being cooped up in rather too small a space for an hour until the doors opened. We were entertained during this time by the impressive human beatbox duo Sweet Combination, who sang and played at a volume significant enough to drown out any distant protest noise – although one group did manage to get a loudspeaker onto the Bankside pier to cause a little disruption. The heavy security presence remained somewhat intimidating, particularly in such close quarters, so it was a relief for doors to open and the crowd to spread out inside the theatre.

The last key element of framing came once the house was full and doors closed. Dominic Dromgoole emerged to welcome the audience. The very fact, of course, of the Artistic Director of the Globe coming out to address the crowd in person spoke to the unusual nature of this event, and for the most part he dealt with it appropriately and in good humour, hoping that we approved of the new front of house arrangements and welcoming us to the performance. However, I found myself troubled by some of the ways in which he framed the expectations for the evening. The Globe is used to dealing with disturbances, he said – pigeons, fainting, planes – and he asked the audience not to take it into its own hands to deal with any disturbances during this performance, as Security would do so. The security presence inside the theatre was exceptional, surrounding the stage itself, spread through the pit, and standing in almost every gangway in the galleries. To reduce the disruption of protesters pre-emptively to the accidental/occasional disruption of a pigeon was a rhetorical strategy I found unnecessarily demeaning.

Front of house
The new front of house arrangements (metal detectors and bag checks)

Dromgoole rightly pointed out that the actors onstage were neither politicians nor policy makers, to the approval of most of the crowd, and pointed out that anyone who disrupted the performance – or whose phone went off, an announcement delivered with emphatic glee – would be immediately evicted; but he asked the audience not to engage in any vigilantism. It's a safety caution that was important to make, and I was extremely pleased he asked the audience to ignore rather than confront protests; implicitly leaving interpretation to the individual spectator. These were artists telling a story, Dromgoole informed us, aiming to understand and to criticise, and to help make the world a better place. Now, however, while I can’t take issue with these sentiments, I found the appeal to a “better place” difficult to stomach coming from a man standing on a stage with the backing of a good fifty huge security attendants ready to evict anyone who disagreed or dared to disrupt. Whether or not the theatre is the appropriate place for this kind of protest became irrelevant for a moment; the heavy-handedness of the policing, and the gentle mockery which served to bind together an audience in derision of the Palestinian protesters, came across to me as a gesture of control and display of power that quashed any hope I had of a “better world”.

I’ll go on to the performance itself in a separate post, but I’ll deal with the protests here. About five minutes into the performance, banners and flags were unfurled in the galleries, and security acted quickly to remove the women displaying them. This was followed by a silent protest – a group stood to attention in the first gallery for the entire first half, masking tape over their mouths, presumably protesting at the silencing of the Palestinian voice. I was surprised to see this group left alone – they were non-disruptive, but so were the earlier flags; and actually, one woman in particular appeared to be obstructing the view of the person behind her, which on any other day would be cause for a steward’s intervention. Towards the end of the first half, following Bassanio’s success in the casket challenge, a younger group began unfurling banners in the pit and protested noisily when evicted. By this point, however, the rest of the audience seemed to be losing patience, and civilians began taking a turn at pointing out protesters to security and ordering them to shut up. This policing of the pit I found one of the most upsetting aspects of the evening; the audience turning in on itself over a question of etiquette, but with displays of aggression from the non-protesters that I found disheartening; security were quick to respond, but audience members felt the need to actively participate in shutting down the (silent) voices of the Palestinian protesters and, apparently, take satisfaction in being seen to do so.

The second half was much less disrupted, but more vocally when it was. During the trial scene, a gentleman standing next to me with an extraordinarily clear voice called out “Hath not a Palestinian eyes?”, and was followed by another. They left with very little trouble as soon as Security identified them and touched their arms, although I had the impression there was a little resistance. Obviously, the consciously disruptive nature of this form of protest made it more of an issue (within the conventions of British theatre etiquette) than the silent protests of the first half. However, the aggression of the audience towards this more deliberately disruptive incident was, again, perhaps even more unsettling. An angry cry of “Piss off!” was met by laughter – laughter – from around the theatre, as audience members joined in the jeering of the protesters as they were evicted. More encouragingly, one man shouted out to the flustered actors “We’re with you, keep going”. The support of the audience for the actors was encouraging; the bile displayed towards the protesters less so. As I was standing next to the men who shouted out, I felt the eyes of the audience on me, found myself at the business end of a dozen pointed fingers, and experienced something of the hostility directed at those who believe in something strongly enough that they feel the need to say it out loud.

When the performance ended, and we finally got through an initially badly organised bag reclaim procedure, the South Bank was still full of police. One group (silent when I saw them) was surrounded by police in a miniature kettle; while another woman screamed out about apartheid to the departing theatregoers.

I don’t like theatre to be disrupted. I dislike whispering, phones going off, antisocial reactions; it goes against the conventions I’ve been brought up in as a theatregoer - though to expect these in the Globe at any time is to fight a losing battle. But I’m an advocate of free speech and peaceful protest; and apart from the shouts during the trial scene, the protests outside and within the Globe space were largely silent and visual until removals began. I have never felt quite so intimidated, tense and uncomfortable at the behaviour of people around me as I did tonight at the Globe, and it was the aggressive interventions of the non-protesters rather than the protests themselves that prompted most of these feelings. The presence of such a system for controlling the reception for the production was such that, whether or not a protest had actually taken place, the presence of that which was being silenced was assumed. I am pleased for the sake of Habima that the disruption was minimal; I am glad that I had a chance to see this production. I just wish that the openness, freedom and generosity that have characterised so much of this particular set of cultural exchanges could have been more evident tonight on both sides.

Part 2: The Production


May 27, 2012

The Taming of the Shrew (Theatre Wallay) @ Shakespeare's Globe

"This is a sacred space" announced Salman Shahid, introducing Theatre Wallay's Globe to Globe production of The Taming of the Shrew. For the first time that I've seen in a Globe to Globe production, a member of the company came onto the stage to introduce the play and the company's honour at being here, before asking the musicians to play the Pakistani national anthem, to which a predominantly Urdu-speaking audience stood to attention. The joy and pride apparently felt by the company in being at the Globe translated into a confident, hysterical and moving performance, offering one of the finest Shrew I've yet seen.

In contemporary dress and peppered with modern jokes (one of Ghazi's (Gremio's) attempts to trump the offer of the disguised Mir (Tranio) involved promising a five-year entry visa to the UK), this was nonetheless surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare's play. Only a few of the extraneous servants at Petruchio's house were omitted, and for much of the play a non-Urdu speaker could follow the familiar play line-for-line. Yet a story of multiple suitors wooing a patriarch for the hands of his daughters rang true within this particular setting, taking on a tone of witty self-deprecation and boastful vaunting that made this a playful Shrew. Recent English-language productions have had a tendency to ramp up the explicit sex and violent comedy (see Propeller and the last two RSC versions), but this company brilliantly played the comedy straight, reading the play not as farce but as banter and romance, played against a painted backdrop of flying kites.

Key to this was Nadia Jamil's Qurat ul Aine, or Karin (Katherina). Karin was no monster, but a lively and independent daughter, who in an early scene with Karen David's Bina (Bianca) was more sinned against than sinning, as Bina first broke Karin's kite, then tussled with her over a shawl before going crying to Daddy when Shahid's Mian Basheer (Baptista) entered. Karin managed herself through threat rather than action, but straightaway established herself as an equal of Omair Rana's Rustam (Petruchio). As she walked around him, she allowed the audience to see her instant attraction, blowing out her cheeks and shaking her hands in approval, before composing herself as she came back into his line of sight. Their initial trading of barbs was full of laughter, the two delighting in their verbal sparring and enjoying the conflict. As Rustam crossed a line, however, Karin hit him twice in the face and took a knee to his groin, leaving him sprawled, but her shocked as he continued with his wooing regardless.

The openness of Karin contrasted with the conniving nature of Bina, who left Umer Naru's Qazim (Lucentio) hanging from a pillar, reaching out in longing. Bina was under no illusion as to the hold she had over men, sashaying between her two disguised teachers and demonstrating her superior prowess with language and music, clearly enjoying the chase. Her spoilt attitude (revealed further by her habit of sticking out tongues behind her father's back) left her in control of her relationships; but rather than contrast with another serious power imbalance, this production allowed her manipulation to be juxtaposed with Karin and Rustam's attempts to find an equal partnership.

The taming itself remained problematic. Karin was angry and embarrassed by Rustam turning up topless to the wedding, with Hamza Kamal's Sifarish (Grumio) riding a hobby horse; and the return to Rustam's country house sat oddly within the context of the production. Karin was slowly denied food, and the on-stage musicians played discordantly as she danced a slow, sad, weak dance. There was a lot to recover from, and the production risked its own playfulness at this point as it offered something more severe. However, what emerged was Karin's realisation of Rustam's genuine affection for her, and her understanding that everything was a joke, including the tailor. As they debated the nature of the sun and the moon, or the sex of Daud Randle's Waqaruddin (Vincentio), she began buying into the game, laughing at Rustam as much as at herself, and enjoyed trading jokes with him.

The playfulness underpinning the performance was explicitly pointed to throughout by Maria Khan's Ravi, linked to Sly in the programme notes but actually an entirely original character, who acted as Chorus and commentary throughout. For most of the production she danced around the edges of the action, leading characters on by pulling on an imaginary rope, exchanging high fives with Rustam or leading the suitors in moments of choreographed steps. There was no clear thematic purpose to the role, but she added colour and vibrancy, as well as playing with the spectators. While not exactly an audience surrogate, her knowing relationship added localised humour to specific scenes, such as her ridiculous fake disguise as Tajir (the Merchant) when she was pulled out of the crowd, and her appeals to the audience as the tailor.

Beyond the innovations were some wonderful straight performances among the suitors. Ghazi (Mukkaram Kaleem) was bent double with age yet had an almost childlike voice at times of extreme pressure, whether cackling over the indignities suffered by his rivals or screaming as hoisted up and twirled round by an exuberant Rustam. The standout performance, however, came from Osman Khalid Butt as Hasnat (Hortensio). This preening, energetic, frenetic man won over the audience early on with his witty deprecation of Ghazi, his cowardly withdrawal from Karin and, wearing a guitar round his head, his impassioned recounting of his beating at Karin's hands. As he pursued Bina with a rose towards the play's end, only to see her leaving with Qazim, both man and flower wilted, and he was pursued by a sympathetic chorus from the audience as he trudged offstage, finally beaten. His reappearance with the dragged-up and disdainful Begum (Hamza Kamal as the Widow) was a fittingly humorous conclusion to his arc.

While much of the detail of the jokes was lost in translation, this performance demonstrated the effectiveness of simple proxemics and voice work to carry an international language of comedy. The snappy back and forth between Ghazi and Mir (Ahmed Ali) as they traded offers for Bina was fast and competitive, Ravi running back and forth between the two before declaring Mir the victor, to rapturous applause.The fast-paced series of confusions between Vincentio, the Merchant and the disguised Tranio ended in chaos, with Vincentio finally latching onto the (real) Lucentio with an embrace equally weighted between relief and desperation. And Baptista's continual exasperation with his daughters was universally recognisable.

Yet the play had one final, more serious, trick to play. The bets of the final scene were played straight, with an emphasis on the bragging of the males and the exclusion of the women from the table. As Syed Abbas Hussain's Biru (Biondello) reported in turn the refusal of Bina and Begum to come to the table, Qazim and Hasnat banged their heads in shame. But Karin came freely and shared raised eyebrows with her husband, waiting to see what his play was. Bringing the women back out, she delivered her instructions for women as a double-act with Rustam. He raised her onto a small dais, and the two mimed the stages of a relationship, including demonstrating violence followed by both turning the other cheek. As she talked about being a servant to her husband, he in turn rubbed her feet or yielded way to her. Dancing a short, sweet routine that mapped out their past and future relationship, this Shrew discovered the unity in the speech which perhaps native-language performances have ignored or been unable to find: it was a speech advocating the importance of real, practical kindness and generosity in pursuing happiness. And on that note, the production ended with more glorious dancing and repeated encores from a jubilant audience.


May 25, 2012

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Two Gents Productions) @ Lakeside Arts Centre

Follow-up to Two Gentlemen of Verona; or, Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe (Two Gents Productions) @ North Wall Oxford from The Bardathon

It's been two and a half years since I last saw Two Gents Productions perform their debut show, and a lot has changed in the meantime. I won't offer a full fresh review here as my last blog covers the important points, but it was a pleasure to see the company again and the show has remained as striking and innovative as ever, so it's well worth mentioning a few of the key changes.

Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu are currently performing the show in two versions - the original, primarily English version, and an all-Shona version written for the Globe to Globe festival. This occasioned a great deal of joking over missed cues and forgotten lines in tonight's performance, all of which fed into the community spirit of the production. This was an exercise in storytelling, beginning with the unpacking of a trunk and closing after the company had repacked all of its props, leaving only two loose ends - the glove and shawl representing Julia and Silvia. This closing scene lost some of the power I felt the Oxford performance had - in that scene, the two 'women' were left lying on the floor while Proteus and Valentine bartered them, an image that drew attention to the objectification of the women in this scenario. This time, the items of clothing were left hanging from a line, leaving the women silent but separate from the scene. The point remained clear though; this was the men's climax, with the women sidelined, and the closing image of the two women embracing left the production on a sober, sad note.

The interaction between Lance and Crab was changed this time, with Crab remaining happy and panting for both of their scenes while a white-faced Lance delivered his lines mournfully. In a pointed move, though, at the end of these scenes Crab stood upright and removed his collar, but his tongue continued panting as he turned into Proteus. Proteus and Crab temporarily shared the body of Munyevu, the former taking on the unrestrained characteristics of the latter. This was particularly brought out as Proteus began his attack on Silvia, removing the glove that signified her from Chikura's hand and licking it deeply. The sickening nature of this gesture, performed on an inanimate object, reminded me how invested I had become in the 'characters' represented by these objects, given personality through the simplicity of their use throughout the production.

I'm not sure how clear the story would have been to an audience unfamiliar with the play, particularly in the case of characters such as Thurio and Sir Eglamour, the latter becoming a taxi driver who offered to rape Silvia himself, standing over her and touching her menacingly from behind, before she fled. The threat offered to the women throughout was only hinted at in the earlier scenes as Julia and Lucetta gossipped together, but became more apparent as the women were left on the edges of the performance, hung on washing lines and denied a voice. This was something made even more apparent in the original production in the witch doctor sequence that allowed Julia to spy on Proteus; here, a more conventional overhearing scene reduced the sense of voyeurism, but arguably left Julia even more vulnerable in the presence of her betrayer. Conversely, the relationship between the two men was established more amicably at the start, with the two going through a long 'bye bye' routine that jokingly portrayed Valentine's deep affection for his friend.

The amiable interaction with the audience, including the Duke sitting among the crowd to pass judgement on Valentine, created a forgiving atmosphere throughout that allowed the actors to banter, especially in an amusing sequence where Chikura misplaced his Julia costume and Munyevu, feigning sleep, teased him mercilessly. The atmosphere of mutual enjoyment and ramshackle storytelling served the tale perfectly, making this - yet again - one of the most enjoyable evenings I've had in the theatre for a while.


May 24, 2012

All's Well that Ends Well (Arpana) @ Shakespeare's Globe

It is not unusual to note that, when adapting classical English texts that particularly deal with class systems and social hierarchies, from Shakespeare to Austen, the Indian caste system lends itself particularly well to direct translation. In Sunil Shanbab's Globe to Globe production of All’s Well that Ends Well, the transgressive nature of Heli’s (Mansi Parkeh) pursuit of Bharatram (Chirag Vora) was made explicit early on as Satchit Puranik’s Parbat (the Parolles figure) cut off his gentle mocking of Heli, squared up to her and told her, coldly, that she should give up her hopes of pursuing him.

This was a moment of rare darkness in a production that treated All’s Well as a straight comedy, with the obstacles merely delays that proved Heli’s worth to Bharatram. With a heavily cut second half (Lavatch, the Brothers Dumaine and the entire kidnap plot were omitted), the focus was squarely on Heli and Bharatram, and their journey to eventual – hopeful – happiness.

The humour of the Gujarati text was apparent from the constant laughter of a substantially fluent audience; yet one didn’t need the detail of the jokes to appreciate the matriarchal confidence of Meenal Patel’s Kunti (the Countess), the feigned innocence of Puranik’s beared Parbat, or the affable interactivity of Archan Trivedi’s Laffabhai (Lafew). Laffabhai assumed the role of Chorus or Narrator, spending much of the play downstage dancing and singing to introduce the narrative to the audience. Fitting his role within the play, he introduced characters to characters and actors to audience, generating connection and enabling play. He also set the musical tone, accompanied by three onstage musicians. As one might expect from this culture, songs made up a substantial proportion of the performance. Often these were simply amusing, such as Bharatram and Parbat’s paeon to Bombay upon their arrival. Others, however, were deeply moving. Parekh’s frequent solos, used to expound on her love for Bharatram or retell her story to Nishi Doshi’s Alkini (Diana), were beautiful, often holding notes for an achingly long time as the character began to shed tears, and were always followed by extended applause.

The revelation, though, was Utkarsh Mazumdar’s hilarious and moving turn as Gokuldas Sawaram Bhatia, substituting for the King of France. The old man was introduced to us with a certain dignity, his quiet introductory song broken by the disturbingly realistic coughs of late-stage tuberculosis. Yet once seated and accompanied by his servant Pandurang (Ajay Jairam, in an original role drawing on Indian stage traditions of foolery), his affability and good humour won the crowd over. Whether demanding to be taken offstage for a pee, or grumbling openly at the ineffectiveness of English doctors, the open nature of the character and his willingness to overthrow convention were thoroughly entertaining. In a scene that generated an extraordinary energy among the audience, Heli cured him over fifteen days that took thirty seconds, she feeding him pills while Pandurang assisted him in walking in circles around his throne. When Pandurang finally let him go and the frail old man did an elegant bend at the knees, the crowd roared its approval.

Heli’s costume changes throughout drew some of the biggest reactions, particularly when she was sent offstage while Gokuldas enforced his marriage order on Bharatram. The decision to remove her from earshot while Bharatram rejected the marriage before the King was interesting, allowing her – when she returned to spontaneous applause in a fabulous wedding sari – to engage in the marriage entirely happily, even while he and Parbat shared troubled looks.

Parbat’s role was heavily cut, with the relationship between him and Laffabhai only hinted at. Kunti’s role was also much shorter than that of Shakespeare’s Countess, but Patel made the most of her appearances, particularly in the careful teasing of Heli that made her surprising embrace, as she revealed her approval of Heli’s love, all the more touching. The combination of humour and affection throughout worked particularly well, even in the minor role of Pandurang, who showed empathy for his suffering master even as he teased him.

Set in 1900, a colonial narrative underpinned the play without dominating. The war context was stripped away and, in its place, Gokuldas (a trader rather than a king) sent Bharatram and Parbat, wearing suit jackets over their traditional robes, to Rangoon on a trade mission. Negotiating with Alkini, Parbat informed her that the British had cut off her opium trade, forcing her into a position of trading with Gokuldas, and thus coercing her to agree to sleeping with Bharatram. Yet this undercurrent of constriction was downplayed in favour of Bharatram’s tentative attempts to woo Alkini, and the sisterly camaraderie between Alkini and Heli as they swapped places halfway through the bed-trick scene.

The stories of female bonding running throughout the narrative came out powerfully. Heli, revealed already staying at Alkini's after the shift to Rangoon, confessed all to her new friend, her song interspersed with dance that saw the two of them circle each other and swing each other by the arms. Similarly, her warm relationship with Kunti found physical expression in embraces all the more marked for the relative lack of physical contact elsewhere. Moments of reunification, intimacy and forgiveness relied on a sense of physical proximity; the bed-trick scene was played tenderly, Bharatram seating the disguised Heli gently on the bed and beginning to caress her, and their later open reunion involved him placing a ring once more on her fingers, the two finally sharing a moment of mutual, aware closeness.

The simply played reunification scene allowed for the possibility of investing in the pair’s love, with Bharatram seen slowly realising what Heli had been through for him and turning to see her in, apparently, an entirely fresh light. As the audience joined in applauding a wedding song and dance, for once it did seem that all really may have been well.


May 18, 2012

The Bloody Banquet

I feel I should probably confess now that I'll be making a rare journey to the other side of the footlights next month. I'll be performing a couple of minor roles in Blood and Thunder Theatre Company's production of Dekker and Middleton's The Bloody Banquet. Thoroughly looking forward to this - there's a great cast in the major roles, and it's a fabulous play. Do not expect great things from me if you come, I'm doing this purely in a spirit of academic interest - but planning to have fun!


December 31, 2011

Hollyzone's Albums Of 2011 1–10

And here’s the top 10! These are the ten albums I would take if I could only have ten from this year, although why anyone would be so cruel as to only allow me ten albums from any given year is beyond me…

1. Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi


It’s actually illegal in most countries for the under-18s to listen to albums are sexeh as this one, so be grateful we live in an enlightened nation where a woman cooing/bellowing about desire/the devil over Spanish-influenced guitars and occasional bouts of lush strings is totally acceptable. Oh yeah, this is bloody good. It’s all lyrical gender swapping, and bursts of thrilling sound. Heck, it starts with a guitar solo without making you want to frisbee the record right out of the window.
Best bits:
- ‘Suzanne And I’ – everyone loves big, ambiguous anthems about lesbonics/friendship/who knows.
- ‘Desire’ – ecstatic chorus alert.
- ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’ – kitchen sink outro of joy.

2 Austra – Feel It Break


Do you like a bit of chilly 80s-style synth music? How about it with an ex-opera singer, ex-punk, ex-singer-songwriter in charge? Yes, that is a good plan. That is Austra’s plan. Lobbing lovely glacial synths onto a live rhythm section gives the songs quite a lot of heft and crunch, so even if the album’s a little one paced it’s a good pace, like the march of an army of sad robot penguins. There’s also the matter of Katie Stelmanis’s vocals – it’s pretty standard in chilly synth pop world to have singers who can’t really sing, but she can. So it’s all dizzying harmonies, wordless pizzicato bleeping and big stentorian bellowing, although thankfully none of that diva, singing-more-notes-than-is-necessary shit. Marvellous stuff.
Best bits:
- ‘Darken Her Horse’ – the best ‘big soaring chorus’ of the year, hands down.
- ‘Lose It’ – sounds a little like those Lloyds adverts but is really really good.
- ‘The Beat And The Pulse’ – juddering, Knife-ish, chug, one of the singles of the year.

3 Suuns – Zeroes QC


An ominous drone, a sinister groove, vocals drifting in on a distorted yet still human-sounding wind. Who are Suuns and what do they with our computers and guitars? They’re the twisted, sinister end point for all that indie-electro-dance stuff which has been around in varying degrees of palatability for the last few years, and they have made a damn fine album which isn’t as hard to listen to as it might seem at first. Its ideas are kept brief and breezy, nothing outstays its welcome. It invites us to dance, but in the style of a close second place in the Turing test – these robots have almost made a record which sounds human, but not quite. And that’s why it’s so good.
Best bits:
- ‘Arena’ – a real grower, in that it grows from nothing in a danceable number.
- ‘Up Past The Nursery’ – sparse but still funky, quite a feat in itself.
- ‘Armed For Peace’ – the only track serves as a pretty much perfect introduction to the rest of the album in just three and a half minutes.

4 Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact


Gang Gang Dance are one of those special bands who can release an album where the first track is eleven minutes long and mostly ambient noise, and yet the album is still their most poppy. There’s a duet with him from Hot Chip, which sounds like a sad nerd serenading a crazy witch. Y’see, Lizzi Bougatsos has a voice like a tiny, eight year old serial killer, which makes it doubly unnerving when she starts singing lyrics nicked from nursery rhymes or ditties about “mindkillas”. It helps that all the tracks are brilliantly buzzy electro stompers, sometimes with thrilling guitar solos, sometimes with basslines you can feel from space.
Best bits:
- ‘Thru And Thru’ – best closing track on any album this year, bar none.
- ‘Mindkilla’ – shaking the foundations with that bassline.
- ‘Adult Goth’ – a floor-filler from a dimension where floor-fillers are made by super-smart computers not slavering morons.

5 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake


Oh come on, of course this was going to be in here. It’s ruddy, bloody marvellous, with the emphasis on blood because this is one of those albums where EVERYONE DIES! It is, frankly, the best album of the year. Why is it not at #1 in that case? Only because it’s heavy as anything, and I sometimes can’t listen to it for the same reason I am not always in the mood to watch Grave Of The Fireflies. EVERYONE DIES!!! But yeah, you’ve read a million reviews of this, it’s visceral, it’s heartfelt, it’s brilliant.
Best bits:
- ‘All And Everyone’ – the way the track builds and threatens a cathartic release but then… doesn’t. Only more misery. Brutally effective.
- ‘The Last Living English Rose’ – swaggering and proud musically, broken and crushed lyrically, a beautiful juxtaposition.
- ‘The Glorious Land’ – for those painful lyrics – “What is the glorious fruit of our land?/Its fruit is deformed children”.

6 Nicola Roberts – Cinderella’s Eyes


Yeah, that’s right, a Girls Aloud solo album. Nicola was clearly always the best member of GA, and by making an album with Metronomy, Diplo and Dragonette she’s shown that it needn’t be death by Will.I.Am and auto-tune robot vocals. What Nicola has realised is that all the best pop music is really really sad. And god, taken purely on its words this is a contender for the most misery-filled album of the year, with lots of lovely minor key synth pop and occasionaly shonky piano ballads driving it forward so you don’t end up wanting to kill yourself just by listening.
Best bits:
- ‘Gladiator’ – surprisingly lyrical dexterity and freakiness (Nic can apparently fire bullets from her chest, who knew?) with a nice martial guitar strut.
- ‘Yo Yo’ – top notch sad pop.
- ‘Beat Of My Drum’ – initially disorientating but after a few listens it’s great in a MIA-without-the-edge-or-the-bouts-of-cringey-stupidity way.

7 Young Galaxy – Shapeshifting


Young Galaxy are a bit hard to describe. They’re not really electro but they use a lot of synths to twinkle and parp. They’re kind of indie, in that they make songs of conventional structure and use guitars to jangle sometimes. They certainly like their percussion, and some songs are just a single guitar or synth line over an array of claps, whacks and other percussive sounds (castanets, steel drums). They have moments of small-scale Arcade Fire-ness. Ok, they have quite a few Arcade Fire style moments, albeit with fewer instruments going off at once. Then again they are Canadian. Must be in the water up there.
Best bits:
- ‘Peripheral Visions’ – if only for the big sing-a-long at the end which is quite affecting.
- ‘Blown Minded’ – stately march which nicely shows off the whole epic-but-kind-of-minimalist vibe of the whole album.
- ‘We Have Everything- – unashamedly anthemic.

8 Those Dancing Days – Daydreams And Nightmares


Adorable Swedish scamps who look like a bunch of off duty Brownies and sing sweet little ditties about… threatening violence against crap boyfriends and bitchy girl rivals alike. Wait, that can’t be right. Oh but it is, TDD serve up ADHD nuggets of joyful indie-pop, none of which overstay their welcome. It’s as if they need to wrap it up quickly and get home for tea and biscuits. I always find myself loving one album a year purely because it does a simple trick very very well, and this year it’s TDD. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but they have a scary mastery of their chosen form. Plus they’ve split up now, so no more fun for us. :(
Best bits:
- ‘Fuckarias’ – there’s no way this track should sound as muscular as it does, like being chased by a big pink truck.
- ‘I Know Where You Live pt.2’ – brilliantly huge chorus.
- ‘Can’t Find Entrance’ – breakneck speed sugary indie joy.

9 Washed Out – Within And Without


As the man who spearheaded the terribly named ‘chillwave’ invasion of the music blogosphere a couple if years back, there was a good chance that Ernest Greene, aka Washed Out, might have left it a year too late with this debut. The good news for Greene, and us, is it’s never too late for good albums and this is a very good album. It sounds suitably fuzzy, as if you’re remembering these songs rather than listening to them, with vocals floating around in the ether. But it’s not indulgent, and it doesn’t lack melodies, Greene grasping that lovely sonics mean little if they’re just tapering over a lack of decent tunes. There’s even a couple of sing-a-longs if you can decipher the words. Maybe it’s more fun to sing along in a fuzzy, distorted style.
Best bits:
- ‘You And I’ – simply gorgeous diet with Caroline from Chairlift, which just oozes class.
- ‘Amor Fati’ – gorgeous jangler.
- ‘Eyes Be Closed’ – keyboards splashing around like the ocean.

10 Harrys Gym – What Was Ours Cannot Be Yours


More sad songs from the melancholic Norwegians. Harrys Gym like to bring along a dash of electronics to their eleagic little epics, each building up and spiralling down, like tides. The record is centred around Anne Lise Frøkedal’s beautiful voice, all poised sadness or restrained sexiness, harmonising over herself. It’s an album which seems fixated on the inability of humans to be strong or heroic all the time. Musically there’s a lot of heft to the surroundings, tricks stolen from dance, trip hop and rock are peppered around the place, rhythms juddering or basslines crunching underneath Frøkedal’s latest missive about someone having the spirit crushed out of them by age or feckless partners or the weight of expectation. Heavy and light at the same time.
Best bits:
- ‘Sailing Home’ – specifically at 1:34 when the bass and the drums pile in properly.
- ‘Old Man’ – for one of the most heart rending vocals of the year.
- ‘No Hero’ – the slightly odd pairing of the indie guitars, the wobbling synth bass and the vocals shouldn’t work but does, very well.


December 30, 2011

Hollyzone's Albums Of 2011 11–28

For part one we have 11-28, the albums which were very good, but not quite good enough. Except for some which were good enough only someone else made something which was even gooderer. Anyway, there are 28, which isn’t a nice round number unless you have 14 fingers in which case it is. Sorry. I couldn’t be arsed to write about any of the other albums I’ve heard this year which means that they either weren’t very good, they were disappointing, or I haven’t heard enough of them (Ghostpoet, Lanterns On The Lake, I Break Horses and Soft Metals need to be filed under this category). Part two with a more numerically coherent top ten is tomorrow. Lucky you. You’re welcome.

11 St Vincent – Strange Mercy


Annie Clarke is a rock queen! No really, she is. She may not be death metal, but she’s throwing some guitar shapes here, alongside the stories about smalltown American scandals, sex, angry young women, sex, and lovers being shitty to each other. And sex. It’s a pretty lush album, each track a little wall of sound in itself, with strings, brass, wobbly electro basslines, and choirs of Clarkes all jostling for space alongside the guitars. Oh the guitars. This is more proof (alongside Wild Flag, below) that you don’t have to play every note on the damn guitar super fast to show you’ve got a mastery over it. Fun, thrilling, primal, sophisticated riffs are allowed too. Maybe it helps being a girl with a guitar, and if so, St Vincent is the head girl.
Best bits:
- ‘Surgeon’ – for that spiralling outro of layered vocals and the dizzying bassline.
- ‘Northern Lights’ – fuzzy chug-a-long rock out.
- ‘Cruel’ – starts orchestral then gets its claws out.

12 Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes


Lykke Li has the sort of voice you’d expect to hear in an old 60s recording, and there’s a lot of almost retro sounding instruments and songs on display here. “Almost” retro because they’re not. This isn’t yet another album with a tedious obsession with olden days music (as so many of those desperate to touch the greatness of Winehouse have attempted) but one where those old style sounds are moulded into lovely, up to date numbers. It’s classy in the way that everyone pretends pop used to be (it wasn’t) hence why it doesn’t really sound like pop any more. So if you want to pretend that things were better in the old days slap this on and pretend its 1965 and we’re all so hip and happening and things are better. Just don’t look too shocked when she sings about prostitutes and other things which would have ensured this record would never have been released in 1965.
Best bits:
- ‘Youth Know No Pain’ – wurlitzer whirls, everyone gets up and dances.
- ‘I Follow Rivers’ – the percussion on this alone is worth the price of the album (unless you downloaded it for free in which case it’s worth more).
- ‘Sadness Is A Blessing’ – how was this not number 1 all year? It would have been if Adele had released it.

13 Metronomy – The English Riviera


Apparently it’s a concept album about the English seaside except it really isn’t. Instead it’s more falsetto harmonies, more quirky little ditties, and more evolution for the band who still sound like they’re recording everything in their bedroom, in a good way. There’s more heft in the rhythm section this time around which is welcome without detracting from the charm, and it’s a thoroughly well-crafted piece of sophisticated pop elegance. It nicks from 80s smooth pop but without sounding like it should be soundtracking wankers snorting coke in yachts while wearing white jeans. No, it’s geek-indie at its best.
Best bits:
- ‘She Wants’ – sinister slap bass pushing everything forward.
- ‘The Bay’ – smooth as hell pop which strays dangerously close to 80s wanker-pop without falling into those deadly waters.
- ‘Everything Goes My Way’ – all Metronomy albums must have a wonky duet crammed full of charm, this is it.

14 Cold Cave – Cherish The Light Years


You what’s wrong with most 80s influenced bands these days? Irony. Now don’t get me wrong, I love irony, but the best things about 80s music was that everyone took themselves very very seriously, especially the synth pop brigade. Cold Cave take themselves insanely seriously. It’s proper synth pop iconagraphy ahoy with lyrics about graveyards and anguished lovers either facing impossible odds together or breaking up in melodramatic waves sadness. It’s all delivered with the subtly of a North Korean military parade, waves of drums and keyboards and bellowing. There’s not a lot of light and shade, just a juggernaut of seriousness, but the sheet sincerity of it all is infectious and endearing. I can’t resist its silliness and I advise you don’t either.
Best bits:
- ‘Catacombs’ – totally seriousface, very silly to start with, but by the end it’s sucked you in so much that the payoff is quite emotional.
- ‘Underworld USA’ – very 80s, nice guitars, silly serious sing-a-long chorus.
- ‘Alchemy And You’ – best use of trumpets 2011.

15 Wild Flag – Wild Flag


Ah, y’know what, let’s not even begin to pretend this doesn’t sound loads like Sleater-Kinney. Wild Flag have Carrie and Janet from S-K, plus mates, and they have made a record which sounds an awful lot like S-K would have done had they decided to follow up The Woods with an album featuring more big, raw rock songs with twiddly (but not fretwanky) guitars, raw and zesty vocals, and retro, kind of 60s sounding keyboards. It is big, it is clever, it is endearingly life-affirming, with blasts of handclaps, 60s girl-group style backing vocals, and a pleasingly punkish edge to everything.
Best bits:
- ‘Romance’ – exactly two minutes in when the music drops out and it’s all handclaps. That.
- ‘Boom’ – for the breakneck crunching guitars.
- ‘Future Crimes’ – the contrast between the track’s general urgent heaviness and the twinkling keys.

16 EMAPast Life Martyred Saints


Droney, fuzzy, scuzzy, it’s like Past Life Martyred Saints is making a case for “dirgey” to be reclaimed as a positive rather than negative adjective. Quite a lot of the album is heavy, not in a heavy metal way, but in an oppressive and all consuming way, like a humid evening. That’s another word which is appropriate here if we can accept it as a positive not a negative – oppressive. There’s something enveloping about Erika M Anderson’s world, with its tales of small town freaks, angry geeks, and ominous metaphors. There are also plenty of squalls of guitar noise, some of it stately, some of it pure rocking out. It’s shit. Sorry, it’s THE shit. Now there’s a negative adjective turned positive for you.
Best bits:
- ‘The Grey Ship’ – an epic in two parts, a swaying acoustic beginning and a massive rockout ending.
- ‘Milkman’ – distorted glam stomper.
- ‘California’ – fuzzy rant, less a song, more a thrilling sermon with guitar noise.

17 Grimes Geidi Primes/Halfaxa


It was quite odd seeing NME calling Grimes the future of dance music, if only because it’s not that easy to dance to. At all. Yeah I tried. I’m being cheeky and lumping these two albums together which probably isn’t fair. Also she released them as free downloads in 2010, but as they only came out on record this year I am counting them. They’re worth counting too, two albums of dreamy, fuzzy electro. That’s ‘dreamy’ as in the full range of dreams, from twinkling brief half songs, through to terrifying nightmares of sinister little-girl-lost vocals and disconcerting waves of synth. Both albums are hodge-podges of ideas in the best possible way.
Best bits:
- ‘Weregild’ (from Halfaxa) – if only for the bit where the drums kick in.
- ‘Swan Song’ (from Halfaxa) – Crystal Castles if they were dreamy rather than furious.
- ‘Rosa’ (from Geidi Primes) – almost a proper song, twangy guitar and nearly intelligible lyrics, but what’s best about it that it’s groovy.

18 tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L


Ah, the unmistakable sound of drums and a car horn. A ragged guitar accompanied by the sound of falling wood. A raw voiced and angry woman harmonising with a police siren. Who knew Little Mix’s album would be so adventurous? Jokes, Merrill Garbus wouldn’t get past the first round of X Factor, if only because rather than some dirgey ballad her audition piece would be like one of the tracks off W H O K I L L, a righteous but often funny rant about the complete shitness of modern life, backed by a percussive cascade. Under Garbus’s command all instruments, including guitars, saxophones and, yes, sampled sirens, are merely shards of percussion to be used like some modern approximation of tribal rhythms.
Best bits:
- ‘My Country’ – a cascade of instruments and vocals, all falling down a hill.
- ‘Gangsta’ – strutting, jerky barrage of noise which somehow resolves itself into a cautionary tale with a sing-a-long chorus.
- ‘Bizniss’ – the lyrical and vocal dexterity here makes it a winner.

19 Zola Jesus – Conatus


Lots of heavy percussion, thudding towards the listener like a relentless army of goth girls, each with a cryptic story of vague sadness to impart. And yet, there’s also a lot of arms in the air rave moments, albeit slowed down from the high tempos of dance music, giving the whole album a weirdly underwater mood to it. Dark and mysterious but still inviting all the neighbours around for a party with black cake, black balloons and black party bags.
Best bits:
- ‘Vessel’ – the mechanical percussion is great.
- ‘Ixode’ – spiralling, layered vocals lead to a thoroughly ecstatic conclusion.
- ‘Seekir’ – this could almost be a pure pop song if it weren’t for the weird backing vocals, but when the drums kick in the dancing’s good.

20 Katy B – On A Mission


Ok, so she’s pop as anything, this isn’t edgy dubstep, and there’s the end of the last track where she goes off on one like an Oscar winner thanking her parents, cat, local lollipop lady for making it all happen, but hey, here’s a good dance record in a year of bad dance records. It helps that Katy has a good voice, distinctive even if the lyrics are a little banal, albeit in a sassy way. Thing is, when this album is good, it’s very very good, exhilarating to dance to, and fun to listen to. And yes, it’s not an album of great lyrical insights, but it’s nice that the overall theme is a girl being confident and honest about wanting a good time on her terms.
Best bits:
- ‘Katy On A Mission’ – huge wub wub wub anthem, resistance is futile.
- ‘Witches Brew’ – captures all the worst keyboard parts from late 90s trance and makes them good again using bleepy bleeps.
- ‘Broken Record’ – the last 45 seconds are possibly the best fade out ending in ages.

21 British Sea Power – Dancehall Valhalla


In which British Sea Power make another British Sea Power record. If that means anything to you then it’s an endorsement. If not then let me explain briefly – someone forgot to tell British Sea Power about any and all developments in indie since 2001. Therefore they make quirky guitar led songs about esoteric lyrical themes (this time round is more military themes, more star gazing, and more celebrations of music itself). These songs are then polished with big epic guitar riffs, and occasional deviations into slightly leftfield areas, but always returning to the slightly unfashionable indie underneath. And then they stick an almost 12 minute wigout at the end. Typical.
Best bits:
- ‘We Are Sound’ – top notch outro, classic BSP tactic of piling more and more sheer stuff in til the song pops.
- ‘Mongk II’ – twisted vocals over a driving insistent beat.
- ‘Observe The Skies’ – the most BSP song on here.

22 Chelsea Wolfe – Apokalypsis


Super-sinister, droning, hypnotic, it starts with a 23 second cover of a death metal song, and then soundtracks the most nightmare waltz through a haunted house you could imagine. Even the songs which don’t sound like nightmares are a bit off, love songs about being weirdos freaks. Glacial beauty, but only if the glacier is made of black ice.
Best bits:
- ‘Mer’ – guitar riffs strangely reminiscent of Brand New at their most haunting.
- ‘Tracks (Tall Bodies)’ – the most unnerving love song of the year, without being at all explicit.
- ‘Moses’ – builds around an unending creeping guitar riff into a woozy finale.

23 Bjork – Biophilia


A very sparse album which actually requires some concentration, but it’s worth it for the rewards. Of course Bjork would never do something as dull as simply release an album of songs you can sing along to, and this isn’t really a collection of songs per se, more some interesting sonic experiments with moments of startling beauty interspersed between moments of “WTF?” and “huh wuh?”. Guaranteed not to be to everyone’s tastes.
Best Bits:
- ‘Crystalline’ – surprise drum’n’bass outro.
- ‘Cosmogony’ – like a really really weird Disney song.
- ‘Mutual Core’ – I love the ‘chorus’ (insofar as there is one) on this.

24 Neon Indian – Era Extraña


Could Alan Palomo have made it more obvious than starting this album with what sounds like Space Invaders launching? I wasn’t that impressed with his debut, but this follow up is a great slice of electro-pop, layering 80s computer game noises over Palomo’s chillwave-ish vocals. It sounds like a distant Wayne Coyne trying to seduce a room full of retro-gamers, probably unsuccessfully because they’re all trying to beat Donkey Kong and save the princess.
Best bits:
- ‘Polish Girl’ – chillwave with bleeps not woozy guitars.
- ‘Fallout’ – see above.
- ‘Suns Irrupt’ – see above… look, they all sound the same but I like it.

25 Lady Gaga – Born This Way


It’s too long, there’s too much filler, one track sounds like Shania Twain, but in the end there’s a reason the Lady is a pop juggernaut crushing all before her and that’s because when she gets it right, she gets it righter than most. The sheer OTT-ness of the album sometimes works a total treat and it is nice to hear a pop star wanting to talk about more than just being ‘in da club’. We all know what it sounds like, and I am cool with that.
Best bits:
- ‘Government Hooker’ – precision engineered for the dancefloor.
- ‘Judas’ – pop as if made by evil robots who will crush and enslave us all, but in a good way.
- ‘Edge Of Glory’ – we’ll regret it in a few years time when they are everywhere, but here is a sax solo which is great!

26 True Widow – An High As The Highest Heavens And From The Centre To the Circumference Of The Earth


Slowly slowly the downtuned guitars and sludgy bass unfurl into… something. Not really songs because they’re more like funeral grooves, as if someone decided to slow down a load of danceable songs then cover them using only guitars dug from prehistoric times. Whack a load of floating and distant vocals on top and voila. An album of gloom which isn’t oppressive. An album where all the songs seem to sound the same, but they aren’t, and besides too much variation would ruin the mood. Which is one of futile despair. One for dinner parties and social gatherings.
Best bits:
- ‘Jackyl’ – for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.
- ‘NH’ – for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.
- ‘Boaz’ – for the amazing drum and bass meets opera bit in the… kidding, it’s for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.

27 Maybeshewill – I Was Here For A Moment Then I Was Gone


More heavy rock meets post-rock from Maybeshewill, the band who like to make post-rock songs but either cut out the first five minutes of build up and just slam in the bit with the loud guitars and drum fills, or they condense it all down into four minutes. It’s definitely worth it for people who like waves of uplifting guitars to wash over them, and I am one of those.
Best bits:
- ‘Red Paper Lanterns’ – for the best in guitar riff and xylophone interactions.
- ‘Critical Distance’ – the lovely cascading piano could have been Coldplay at their best but instead it gets to play with with skittering drums and big guitars and souds all the better for it.
- ‘Farewell To Sarajevo’ – stately and pretty.

28 Yacht – Shangri-La


DFA’s oddballs return with another album of strangeness which could be self-help motivational indie-dance, or an ironic act of such subtlety that it’s impossible to know who the joke is on. Whatever they’re on (and I think they’re being sincere) they’ve added some decent tunes, all in typical DFA style. It’s not up there with LCD Soundsystem, but in that vein cowbells are whacked, beats are dropped, basslines are wobbled and the pair have a giddy enthusiasm which means you’re about halfway through the album before you realise most of what they’re saying is bollox, but it’s danceable and fun bollox.
Best bits:
- ‘Dystopia’ – for sheer balls at nicking the chorus from elsewhere and the lolling rhythm.
- ‘I Walked Alone’ – for using autotune in a way which isn’t irritating.
- ‘Tripped And Fell In Love’ – the longest track, a Juan Maclean-ish groove.


August 12, 2011

Collective Punishment And The Riots

Writing about web page http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/councils-set-to-evict-rioters-2335878.html

Is anyone else slightly scared by the threats from several councils to evict people found guilty of rioting this week from their council homes? In a statement picked up by the Independent, Councillor Paul Andrews, Manchester City Council’s executive member for neighbourhood services, said:

“If you are a tenant of any of our properties, and you or your children are found to be involved in the looting we will use whatever powers are available to us to make sure you are thrown out.”

Does this not strike anyone else as being a bit, you know, collective punishment-y? Specifically the way Andrews goes out of his way to say that even if it’s not the adults in the house but their children, it could still lead to eviction.

As we’re living in one of the more hysterical periods of public opinion I suppose I am obligated to point out the obvious, namely that I don’t condone the riots and think anyone convicted of looting should be punished in accordance to the law (attacks on the local community deserve jail). But I feel distinctly uncomfortable with the idea that we can punish people who might have had no idea that their relatives were out causing trouble, or who might have had no power to prevent their relatives from doing so had they known.

Yes, good parenting will often lead to kids who won’t do this sort of thing, but this does not mean that everyone whose kids took part is a bad person, even when in some cases they might not be top notch parents.


A little levity from the wonderful Photoshoplooter blog.

The idea that doing this will lead to people self-examining and deciding to be better people is also something of a gamble. When I first heard about the proposal it put me in mind of the Israeli policy of last decade whereby the houses of suicide bombers from the Palestinian community were bulldozed as collective punishment. It didn’t stop the suicide bombers from coming and the Israeli army recommended it end in 2005 as “the policy had little deterrent effect and inflamed Palestinian hatred”. Or the Intolerable Acts, passed by the British in America in 1774 as a reaction to the Boston Tea Party and other acts of defiance from the colonists, which provoked mass outrage across the country and lead to the American War of Independence. I find it hard to think similar won’t happen in the cases of some of the looters. They already feel detached enough from regular society to not care that they are smashing it up, making them homeless would surely only lead to more resentment and stored up trouble?

The rioters almost certainly knew they risked jail for their actions, but few would probably have anticipated losing their homes. The powers to evict clearly exist, otherwise they would not have been mentioned as an option, but it sounds like they are being called up as an extraordinary option rather than a usual part of the due process of the criminal justice system. This means anyone subject to an eviction has been specially singled out by the authorities, and this is quite likely a recipe for future antagonism and refusal to engage from the evictees.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find idea of collective punishment is somewhat gross in itself. It doesn’t even follow the judicial convention of innocent until proven guilty as it is essentially inflicting punishment on people who are innocent, alongside the guilty. We need to punish the guilty in these riots, but we need also to avoid making a whole new set of problems, both by fostering further resentment and by escalating the viciousness of our response. If the state can’t behave in a civilised way, why should the people?


July 23, 2011

Offensive Times Cartoon

Writing about web page http://yfrog.com/kh6omcj

I know I am a couple of days late on this but did anyone see the Times cartoon from last week commenting on the Somalia famine situation and the phone-hacking scandal? In case you didn’t here’s a shot of it:


Via twitter.com/SaiPang

It’s amazing on how many levels this is a bad cartoon, several of which spill over into being actually offensive. The editor should have sent it back with multiple revisions requested, and ideally it should have been spiked completely.

Whenever I see political and satirical cartoons I am always bearing in mind something Martin Rowson of The Guardian said in a talk I saw five years ago. Commenting on the recent controversy surrounding the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, Rowson said he felt it was the cartoonist’s job to attack those worthy of attack, and that these were the people in power, the people more powerful than the cartoonist. In the case of the Mohammed cartoons this hadn’t happened – as Mohammed is dead it wasn’t him (a powerful religious and military figure) being attacked but followers of his religion, ordinary Muslims who would be in a position of less power than the cartoonists were. Drawing George W Bush as a chimp, as Steve Bell is wont to do, is fine because Bush is a powerful man, but ordinary people with no recourse to reply are not.

And so to the Times cartoon. Obviously it is not a direct attack on the Somali people themselves, but look at the depicted children. Each identical in appearance, and looking like caricatures at that. There are almost overtones of ‘all foreigners look the same’. It doesn’t take much to make people look different in cartoons, and it doesn’t take much to make the people you are drawing look like, oh I don’t know, actual humans.

Then there’s the comparison of the famine with the phone-hacking case. Obviously both are serious. Endemic corruption in a country’s government, press and police can’t be easily dismissed as trivia and fluff despite the efforts of some, mostly journalists associated with News International and its outlets. I am not going to argue, however, that it is more serious than the famine because, quite simply, it isn’t. On the surface this makes the cartoon’s heavy-handed and poorly drawn sentiment agreeable.

But there’s more to it than that. This week only saw the declaration of famine. Official bodies have admitted this was a last resort. As the BBC reported -

The BBC’s Africa correspondent Andrew Harding says the emotive word “famine” is used rarely and carefully by humanitarian organisations, and it is the first time since 1992 that the word has been applied to a situation in Somalia.

The situation in east Africa hasn’t suddenly crept up on us. The Today program was reporting on the imminent announcement of famine a week before it was official, and the crisis itself has been developing for years in a country with no proper government and with militias keeping international aid efforts out.

Yes, the media has been awash with the phone-hacking scandal over these last few weeks, but can it be argued that it’s not a hugely important event? It’s certainly more important and more significant than the Royal wedding or Cheryl Cole’s ongoing problems with X Factor USA/Ashley Cole/breaking a nail. A truly honest cartoon would take this into account, and a truly attentive cartoonist would have highlighted the Somalia situation earlier. As it is it just comes across as a News International employee trying to divert attention from the serious wrongdoings of their bosses.

Anyway, if you only click on one link from this post, make it this one: https://www.donate.bt.com/DEC/dec_form_eaca.html?p_form_id=DEC01 Aid agencies may not currently be able to get into the affected areas, but they need to be prepared in case they do, or if the people in these areas can escape from the combination of environmental and human hostility.


April 07, 2011

31 Films In 31 Days

So I decided to watch 31 films in March. Deciding to this on the 5th meant I had to cram them in at various points, so I would advise if you do do this to either start on the 1st of the month, or pick a shorter month like February, June or Glovember. Oh, and don’t watch five Almodovar films in two days, it really messes with your perception of reality.

The films:

The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Dr Strangelove (1964)
Dark Star (1974)
Warriors (1979)
Pepe Luci Bom (1980)
Dark Habits (1983)
Blood Simple (1984)
Tie Me Up Tie Me Down (1990)
Desperado (1995)
Live Flesh (1997)
Taxi (1998)
Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Hero (2002)
Sky Blue (2003)
Lost In Translation (2003)
Appleseed (2004)
Saving Face (2004)
Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005)
Helvetica (2007)
Elite Squad (2007)
The Duchess (2008)
Gomarrah (2008)
Wall E (2008)
Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
A Prophet (2009)
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Up (2009)
The Infidel (2010)
RED (2010)
Submarine (2011)

31 films, 31 days, ten conclusions.

1. European crime films are much harder hitting than American ones, but American ones have more guns.
2. Pixar make amazingly beautiful films with excellent plots.
3. Amazingly beautiful Japanese/Korean animations usually have a pile of fluffy sci fi bollocks where the plot should be.
4. Katharine Hepburn is amazing.
5. Helen Mirren + machine gun = good times.
6. Eleven of the films were subtitled, three were partially subtitled, Dark Star was so mumbly it should have had subtitles, and Wall E showed dialogue wasn’t entirely necessary anyway.
7. Documentaries about typefaces can be fun.
8. Keira Knightley isn’t that irritating when she’s allowed to be sassy.
9. Three of the films featured directors acting, although I would never voluntarily watch a film directed by Eli Roth.
10. Submarine has the best mullet ever in it.


March 16, 2011

Bone Marrow IV – The Five Year Gap

Sign up to donate marrow here – www.anthonynolan.org/

Later in 2006

The razor sharp amongst you might have noticed that much of this story so far took place in 2006. Signing up, getting told I was a partial match, and giving test samples of blood all took place over a relatively short period five years ago. And then… nothing.

I didn’t donate marrow in 2006.

After the samples were sent off I waited and waited, albeit in a very passive sort of way. As so often in the process I simply shoved it to the back of my mind, although it crept forward occasionally. Each step forward was harder to shake, harder to ignore. Signing up to a register is ultimately a very impersonal act, but getting tested to see if you’re a match to another person, there’s nothing abstract about that. Somewhere out there is a person who is sick, and though I don’t know them, I’m not so totally incapable of empathy that I can’t appreciate that theirs is a desperate state to be in.

No one I am close to has, to my knowledge, had leukaemia. People have had other cancers. It’s shit, shit and unfair, and strikes people who don’t deserve it, don’t need the pain and the danger. But I don’t need to tell you that. You know. It makes people very very ill, and both the treatment and the disease itself are harsh and painful.

And so it was that when I got the letter, I assumed the worst.

I was never officially told I was the match. There was no phone call or piece of paper saying “Congratulations, your jelly is just the flavour our party requires”. Or perhaps there was and I managed to miss it. The tendency of students to move around constantly, have a new address every few months means post is often lost or left on the floor of a house you used to live in, whilst the incumbents walk past it daily, each time promising they’ll sort it out tomorrow. I don’t know. I do know I got the follow up letter.

The follow up letter was addressed to a match. It was addressed to me and presumed I knew I was the match, that I knew I was the one with the marrow that offered the most. But it wasn’t telling me to get ready or to start preparing to produce stem cells or any of that. It was a relatively short letter which seemed to speak of a tragedy I was only peripherally aware of. It informed me that the transplant recipient was too ill to have the transplant.

Everyone I have ever told this story to reacts in the same way at this point. There’s something in those words which strikes a chord with people. The great unspoken between the lines. If you are ill enough to require a life-saving transplant, then you are really ill. If you are too ill to have a life-saving transplant, then things must be even worse than that. Without the bone marrow, went my thought process, this person will die, but they cannot have the bone marrow. Not unreasonably I assumed they had died.

Three people a day die in the UK because they need a transplant and the organs (not just bone marrow) aren’t available. It’s a statistic used in drives for organ donation because it says nothing of the personal tragedies behind the stat, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a lot of people, and some of them may well have lived long lives if they’d had a chance.

It didn’t feel good to have that letter. Neither myself nor the people at Anthony Nolan had done anything wrong, hell, no one had done anything wrong. The enemy was that blasted disease, and it seemed it had outpaced us all.

March 2011

I sometimes tell the story of the bone marrow donation which wasn’t. Ok, I tell a lot of stories, I talk a lot. But that one is one I tell because I kind of hope it might have a positive impact. It’s not particularly funny and it had a sad ending. It won’t get people into a partying mood, or raise spirits, or make good dinner conversation. But it sometimes felt right to tell it because they need those men and those non-whites to sign up. If my experience was anything to go by they need white girls too.

I told the story again in the middle of February 2011. Just another recital. Nothing too serious. Then on the evening of 28th February my phone decided to play silly buggers and refused to receive any calls. I didn’t know this until I got home from work to find it hadn’t rung and someone who had then left a message. The message started somewhat unexpectedly, “Hello, this is a message for Holly Cruise, this is [name] from the Anthony Nolan register, the bone marrow register, can you please give me a call on [number] tomorrow, thank you”.

Twice? The white girl no one wanted was needed again? For another person? Was I a really good match cos Celtic women were particularly prone to leukaemia or was it coincidence?

Naturally the next day couldn’t come soon enough, I needed to know what was going on. So I rang back and spoke to the lady from Anthony Nolan. I was needed. I was a match in 2006 (which I’d worked out) and I was needed because the patient was sick again and needed the transplant this time.

Wait. The patient was sick again. The girl (I think I heard them referred to as “she” during the conversation) had been too ill for a transplant five years earlier, but was now in need? Had she been that critically ill for five years, too sick for a transplant the whole time? Had she recovered suddenly to the point of not needing the marrow but had now slid back into a bad state? I wouldn’t wish either on anyone, although I hoped it was the latter. Five years of being critically ill is a nightmare no one deserves.

It wasn’t even a question really when the lady asked if I was still willing to go through with it. Of course I was! I thought this girl was dead. I didn’t even know her and I was delighted she wasn’t. I would definitely help out. Definitely give what I could, which in this case was more than just platitudes and wishes, it was actual, useful jelly. Was I willing to help? Yes/ Was my health still good? Yes. Was I aware of what it would involve? Yes (stabbity stabbity).

The lady said it was up to the surgeon now to set the dates. I would receive more information in time. She emailed me the information leaflet. I read it, then panicked that I’d made a mistake and that the liver ‘condition’ I was diagnosed with in 2008 might be a problem. Yeah, I’m a teetotalitarian with a liver condition. Said condition is Gilbert’s which has virtually no symptoms and rarely impacts on the lives of those who have it, but I was worried it might impact here. I needn’t have worried, it wasn’t a problem.

So now I’m just waiting for dates. I keep thinking maybe I should tell them when I’m on holiday, or that if illness on my part will cause problems that we need to avoid September/October, the months which take quite a toll on those who work at universities, as the students come from all over the world bringing as many versions of the cold/flu as they can muster. I even decided to write about it, here, because I thought it might be interesting.

I don’t know if I will get as far as donating this time. I hope so if only because I don’t want this mystery person to die. It could be months before anything happens, I’m sorry I have no more narrative than this to give you at this time. But if anything more comes up I will write about it. There might even be pictures this time, or at least pictures of the actual process rather than the slightly random ones I’ve used so far. I might use the word “stabbity” a bit more as it has proven strangely popular. Or I might not. It might go no further once more. But in any case, I want at least one of you reading this to sign up to the register. Please.

It’s the least we could all do.


March 09, 2011

Bone Marrow III – The Big Needle

Need I include the disclaimer that I don’t normally write about my real life? Well, I don’t, but I don’t normally let people take my internal organs out for use elsewhere…

Sign up to the registerhttp://www.anthonynolan.org/

2006, summer and 2011, March

People are fascinated by the Big Needle. The Big Needle is a symbol. The Big Needle is a celebrity. The Big Needle is only part of the bone marrow donation process anyone seems to know about. Both in 2006 and now in 2011 it’s what I hear most often from people when I tell them what I am doing.

“Doesn’t that involve a Big Needle?”
“I hear it hurts when they use the Big Needle.”
“Wow, I wouldn’t do that, not with that Big Needle.”


Stabbity.

The Big Needle appears to be the iconic element of the process, a sharp, stabby certainty, headed straight for the hip bone of those willing to give. I knew about the Big Needle when I signed up for the process, but like all the unpleasant elements of donation I blithely ignored it because I really didn’t think I would ever be called upon to donate and thus worrying about the specifics wasn’t worth it. I do a similar thing with my legs – I have one leg longer than the other and my hips are out of alignment. A doctor once told me there was a good chance I might need a hip replacement at a relatively young age (40s?!) but they weren’t sure. They could be right, but there’s no point fretting about it if it’s not certain. And merely being on the bone marrow list wasn’t a guarantee that Big Needle would be part of my life so I ignored it.

And when I couldn’t ignore it anymore, I discovered that as with so many icons, the Big Needle had lost relevance in recent years.

Ever had tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis? Probably not, it’s more commonly known as scrofula, and is the sort of disease which modern historians get to read about and modern doctors don’t get to treat very often. When it does pop up it gets beaten down with antibiotics. In the old days the cure was more elaborate, the monarch of the day was required to touch the sufferers. Scientific advances ensure that we don’t need Elizabeth II to high five the contagious, and funnily enough scientific advances have resulted in the Big Needle losing some influence in the world of bone marrow extraction.


“I cannot believe I have to touch you scrubbers. Helen Mirren wouldn’t stand for this shit.”

I found this out courtesy of the booklet Anthony Nolan sent me. It was full of happy smiling pictures of donors and recipients. How can anyone refuse a process where the outcome is glossy smiling photos, complete with inspirational captions? Ok, I’m being flippant, but these booklets will have been market tested and designed to perfection, they are precision tooled to make the donor feel less apprehensive about the process, to banish Big Needle.

There are two ways of donating.

I didn’t know this. The other way was even presented as the preferred method. Above Big Needle. The fearsome beast wasn’t even first choice, it was sat on the medical substitute’s bench, kicking its heels and periodically running up and down the side of the hospital, waiting to be called on. A plan B.

Plan A was much more futuristic. The donor would be injected with human growth hormone to make their marrow overproduce stem cells. The spongy mass of the marrow is less important than the tiny parts of marrow yet to come. After a few days the recipient would travel to a hospital where they would be hooked up to a machine, one tiny needle in each arm, with blood drawn out via one tube, filtered through a machine to remove the stem cells, before being put back into the donor’s body via the second tube in the other arm. I may or may not have made this up, but I came away convinced the process involved a centrifuge, with the prospect that my blood would be spun around, with stem cells flying out of it into the collection point, before being returned. The idea that my vital fluids might enjoy a ride as part of the process sounded fun.

The Big Needle was for when this didn’t work. No problem, I thought, if it happens I’ll just produce lots of stem cells. I’ll sit at home, producing really hard. In 2006 I figured I could study in the library, but produce stem cells at the same time. Essays and stem cells. Not a problem, and you don’t even have to footnote the stem cells. Now, in 2011, I’ll produce them while I work, or while I stand outside as the fire alarms go off, a strangely frequent event at work right now.

And hey, even if the Big Needle was needed, there was general anaesthetic for that.

stabbyneedle
Actually, the Big Needle is pretty big when you put it like that…

Knowing the procedures made them less scary. Is this what my ancestors felt the first time they found a dead boa constrictor and thought “Wow, I know it’s eaten half the tribe, but look, it’s just a tube with a silly face, that’s not scary”. Mind you, my ancestors ended up in Ireland, one of only two countries worldwide with no native snake species, so perhaps that’s a bad example.

Whatever, even if it did involve the Big Needle the equation was simple: stabby needle-induced hip pain for a week is less painful than dying of leukaemia. There is no other way to look at this. If I was a match I would do it, no matter what the short term pain. The person who needed marrow needed it more than I needed a pain free week.

But I would probably whine about the pain anyway. I’m not a saint.

And in the ebbing days of summer 2006, the last really good summer I remember us having in Britain, I waited to see if that one-in-four chance was going to come in. Was I the match? Would I meet the Big Needle or have to sit in the library producing stem cells?


March 07, 2011

Bone Marrow II – Twelve Small Pots

Once again I must protest that I’m not keen on blogging about my actual life but after the first of these posts it turned out a friend had made it to this stage too, so maybe it’s more common than I first thought. I dunno, it’s never been the topic of any polite dinner party conversation I’ve been part of to talk about marrow donation, although I’ve been to about two polite dinner parties in my life (once by mistake) so it could be common.

Do not lose sight of the importance of this linkhttp://www.anthonynolan.org/

2006, a few weeks later

I’m scared of donating blood. Yes, I know this is about the other donation, the one with the HUGE needles, and I know donating blood involves small needles. I have no issue with needles. I wasn’t the kid in my secondary school who reacted to their BCG jab by turning green and passing out. I used to watch the injections as they went into my arm, fascinated by the vanishing liquid. No, it’s not the mechanics of blood donation which bother me.

No one knows what causes migraines for sure. Like all migraine sufferers I know roughly what triggers them, but how extreme stress or not-so-extreme food deprivation translate into blindness, splitting headaches and projectile vomiting is a mystery. All a doctor has ever been able to say to me is that it might be related to chemical levels in the blood.

So far, despite my massive clumsiness I’ve never lost a significant amount of blood in any incident. Even the time I sliced my thumb in half (yes, I am an idiot, I know this) it wasn’t a bloody as it could have been. Well, it didn’t cause my blood-phobic housemate to pass out, so it can’t have been too bad. It wasn’t Ichi The Killer levels. The upshot of this rambling is to say that I’ve never donated blood because I’m worried it might set off migraines. It’s irrational, it probably won’t, but I don’t know. Perhaps once I’ve given marrow I should make it a target to give blood within six months to prove it. Who knows.

Thumb and Blade
The aftermath of my thumb slicing incident. Blood all cleaned (except the stuff we couldn’t clean so we put furniture over it so the landlord wouldn’t notice.

But my other worry is I don’t have enough blood. And this is where I find myself back in the summer of 2006.

When people need bone marrow donations their family is screened first. It makes sense, you’re more likely to find a match with close relatives than random strangers* like us names bobbling around on the Anthony Nolan register. But sometimes it doesn’t work out and then it’s pot luck. To the register. To sign up we gave small pots of blood, not enough to run more than a couple of tests. So when a person in need of a transplant comes to the register they tend to test a few partially matching people more closely to find the best match.

It had been only a few months since I had left the students’ union after signing up. I’d already put it to the back of my mind and can you blame me? I was a white female. They didn’t need white females, they’d said so. Had there been any men or any non-white people I would have been sent away. I’d have gone home to Leamington and wondered why I still had no feeling in my thumb (the sliced in half one, the feeling still isn’t more than 40% today, five years later). I’d have watched TV, done my essay, eaten. I wouldn’t have been one of the four people on the register that were a rough match to an ill person somewhere in Britain.

I laughed when I found out I was a partial match. “They said I wasn’t needed!” I told blood-phobic housemate, “And here I am, a partial match”. It was a one in four chance I might be the best match, which are good odds if you’re betting on horses and bad odds if you’re betting on football (yeah, I worked in a bookies for a while).


Like these but twelve of them.

To find the best match involves tests. Tests require blood. I was sent a box of twelve small pots, like the first small pot from signing up day. Only this time there was twelve of them. I took my box of goodies to the doctor’s clinic to be filled and the nurse laid them out. They had different coloured tops. They looked like pieces from a strange boardgame which only served to make it even more surreal as the nurse put a needle in my arm and filled them one by one until all were fu… no, wait. The last three or so weren’t full. We couldn’t fill them. She prodded my arm once or twice but for the last three (look away squeamish folk) my blood merely dripped in, rather than leaping forward with enthusiastic abandon as it had done initially. The nurse smiled and assured me it was normal, and maybe it was. Maybe twelve pots is a lot to ask. But my irrational side was in its element, “Look! You can’t possibly donate blood, you don’t have enough for yourself! How could someone as pale as you possibly have enough blood”. I am very pale it’s true. Even other Irish people think I’m pale. I tried to ignore the irrational voice, especially as the nice, rational nurse said it was quite normal not to fill all twelve pots.

My blood was posted to London to be prodded and probed. I didn’t have a migraine. I didn’t feel any change at all, which at least reassured me that no one was performing any voodoo on my platelets which was nice of them. So I went back to work. It was summer and time to work my arse off because that’s the lot of many students these days. Work work work whilst they bleed you dry. At least I’d been bled (slightly) dry for a slightly better cause.

And now it was time to wait and see who was the best match…

*Reading about family matches and donations I found the fascinating case of Karen Keegan, an American who needed a kidney transplant. When her children were tested to see if they were matches the results said they weren’t even her children. It turned out she’s a chimera, one person with two sets of DNA made when two fraternal twins fuse in the womb to grow as one person. Her womb and her blood were produced from different embryos but lived in one body. Biology is interesting.


March 04, 2011

Ideas For New Bank Holidays

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12640636

The government wants to move the May Day bank to either St George’s day a week or so before, or to ‘Trafalgar Day’ in October. Now there are some who might suggest that targeting the May Day holiday, a strongly socialist and pagan linked date, rather than the other May bank holiday is a bit ideological. Perhaps it isn’t. but it ignores one simple and undisputable fact – we don’t get enough days off compared to the rest of Western Europe.

The TUC have complained about this for years, saying in 2001 that with a European average of 10.8, Britain still only had 8, a number which would have been part of the European average, thus dragging it down.

So why not let us have another bank holiday without ditching an existing one? Some suggestions:

Pankhurst Day, 14th or 15th July

“Votes for my homegirls or else!”

Emmeline Pankhurst’s birthday. Why not pick a suffragette? Was her struggle, and those of the 50% of the population she fought alongside and for, any less significant than that of Nelson at Trafalgar? The uncertainty of her birth date means we can choose, shall we synchronise with France or strike out on our own? Plus mid-July is a good bet for some half decent weather.

Armada Day, 18th August

“Michel Pez said the weather would be lovely, what an idiot!”

Why Trafalgar Day? Why not another battle? Most WWI and WWII events were over longer periods of time, or are rather more international in flavour, so why not pick a military event which really sums Britain up – the Spanish Armada whose defeat was a combination of British blood mindedness and the weather. Mostly the weather. 18th August is the New Calendar date of Elizabeth I’s “heart and stomach of a king” speech, which is one of the best in British history. The downside is it would be quite close to the existing August holiday.

Reform Act Day, 7th June

George Cruickshank’s depiction of the Peterloo Massacre, a significant event in the history of democracy in Britain (and a possible contender for a bank holiday in its own right).

We don’t really do revolution in Britain, do we? The one time we did, overthrowing Charles I and the ructions that lead to Cromwell taking over, it was reversed within a few decades. Britain has long been the country of incremental changes, so why not celebrate one of the most major incremental changes? The Reform Act 1832 wasn’t perfect, it left a lot of people still disenfranchised (women and poor people mostly), but it was a significant step away from the still borderline feudal world we lived in, towards a slightly more democratic future. We could celebrate the day by going to Old Sarum and pelting effigies of crooked politicians with eggs.

First Association Football International Day, 30th November

Scotland’s 1872 team, great moustaches.

If we want major events that happened in the last three months of the year, currently underserved by bank holidays, forget Guy Fawkes Day (might upset Catholics), Halloween (might upset non-pagans/people who hate costumes and having their houses egged), or my birthday (apparently I am not significant enough, humph). What we need is something which celebrates Britain’s biggest cultural contribution to the world. Which celebrates British innovation and ability to apply rules to anything, even something which essentially used to be an excuse for a fight. Which celebrates the way England and Scotland just love to get one over on each other. The first ever official football international match, a 0-0 draw between England and Scotland. Considering the game involved men with amazing names like Cuthbert Ottaway and Reginald de Courtenay Welch, it seems rude not to celebrate it. (Wales and Northern Ireland can have a day off on the day of the first Wales vs Northern Ireland match).

Any other similarly genius/insane suggestions?


March 03, 2011

Bone Marrow I – Signing That Register

I don’t normally blog about my personal life for the simple reason that my personal life is really rather dull. But at the moment it isn’t. It’s not extraordinary, but it’s not dull, and I think it needs to be told because what I’m currently doing could and should be done by others. Maybe even you.

This is the (sort of) diary of a (potential) bone marrow donor.

These are the people you need: http://www.anthonynolan.org/

2006, one afternoon

Campus universities are a great source of bodily fluids it would seem. No, get your mind out of the gutter; I am referring to substances like blood and marrow. At one stage during my time at the University of Warwick it was a weekly occurrence to see the blood donation lorry parked in the grounds waiting for passing students to drop in. A worthy cause, it almost seemed a shame that they would come on Tuesdays as many of the sports teams played on Wednesdays and I knew of more than one sporty student who wanted to donate but didn’t want to do so on a Tuesday – “I can’t be weak for the match!”. You would sometimes also see members of Warwick Pride protesting at the ban on blood donations by men who have had sex with men, often accompanied by a groups of lesbians who would go and give their blood, whilst commenting loudly that their male friends couldn’t. It was a good way to protest.


From www.warwick.ac.uk

It wasn’t just the blood people who came to visit. Anthony Nolan would come too.

Anthony Nolan is a charity that supports research into leukaemia, and which runs a register for bone marrow donors. As with all such charities it relies on volunteers to join its register and be matched up with sufferers of leukaemia and other blood disease who are in need of a transplant. Interestingly, in light of what I observed about the blood donation truck at Warwick, Anthony Nolan allow gay men to join the register and donate with the same restrictions as heterosexuals. As one Anthony Nolan representative said “If they are practising safe sex with a trusted partner then we are more than happy to accept them.”

And so it was one afternoon that Anthony Nolan nurses took over a couple of rooms in the students’ union at Warwick.

Students make a great target market for such drives. One could flatter the altruistic nature of students by saying their increased social awareness and tendency towards idealism makes it likely that they’d sign up for this sort of thing, to positively intervene in the lives of others. One could also point out that they have a lot of free time and a tendency to be distracted by anything which looks vaguely interesting and unusual, like a queue with some nurses at the end of it. For me, it was a combination of the two.

su
Warwick Students’ Union, image from Wikipedia

There was a queue of people in the students’ union building. I was on a free afternoon (in the sense that I probably should have been in the library somewhere, reading something important and relevant and historical) and with mates. A queue leading to a room which wasn’t usually occupied was an invitation to go and join it. Is there any act more British than joining a queue just because it’s there? Who knows, I’m only half British so maybe I should have only half joined it.

It turned out to be a queue to sign up for the Anthony Nolan bone marrow register. At this point we could have wandered off again, in search of queues with less bloodletting at the end of them. But we didn’t. Call it that student conscience or whatever, but we decided a bit of queuing, form filling and blood sample giving was a good use of our time.

By this stage it was late in the afternoon, and the nurses were anxious that they would have to leave soon. One stuck her head out of the door to the room and announced to the queue that they were finishing soon, and that they would be prioritising certain groups of people.

Men and ethnic minorities.

She explained briefly that there weren’t enough of either on the register, and that they were wanted for this reason. From their website I later discovered the following:

It is a priority for us to recruit more male donors because men can generally provide greater volumes of blood stem cells than female donors. This helps faster engraftment and the reconstitution of the immune system post-transplant. If there is a choice of donor for a patient in most cases a male donor will be preferred.

Ethnic origin is important when matching donors and patients. The ‘markers’ that are tested when searching for a suitable stem cell donor are genetically inherited and often unique to a particular race. A patient in need of a transplant is more likely to discover a suitable donor amongst groups of people who share a similar genetic history to them. In practice this means that an African-Caribbean patient, for example, has the greatest opportunity of finding a donor within his or her own ethnic community. There are still too many patients in the UK from black and ethnic minority communities for whom we are unable to find a compatible donor.

The nurse looked up and down the queue. A queue made up entirely of white females. Resigned to the fact she couldn’t get any more of the rarer groups that day she indicated for the next girl to come into the room. Jokingly I turned to my mate and wondered if being Celtic (as in I have three Irish grandparents, not that I am a football team) was enough of an ethnic minority to make a difference. Probably not we concluded. There’s so many British people with an Irish grandparent that it must be pretty common. How else do you explain the 1994 Irish World Cup squad?


Ray Houghton scores for Ireland against Italy at 1994 World Cup. He was born in Scotland. Watch the glorious video here.

The rest of the process was speedy. In we trooped, one by one, to give a small sample of blood and fill in some forms to say we weren’t injecting heroin into our eyes and having unsafe sex with as many hookers as we could (even though the University of Warwick is located in Coventry, it’s hardly close to any particularly mean streets). And we left. It didn’t feel particularly significant. The whisperings about how they get marrow (“a HUGE needle”) didn’t really seem that pressing. The lady had said they weren’t really looking for white females and we were all white females. They wouldn’t need us, surely?

Surely?