May 02, 2009

Speak now or…

SpeakerOn Wednesday, BBC2’s The Speaker drew to a close. From open auditions across the nation to a nail-biting final where three teenagers fought it out to be crowned “Britain’s Best Young Speaker”.

This has been a seminal piece of television. I was lucky enough to speak live on air as part of Nikki Bedi’s BBC Asian Network show on Wednesday morning, and when she asked me why I loved the show I couldn’t help but be a little cliché: it showed us all that the teenagers of Britain aren’t just a lot of hoodie-wearing, happy-slapping ASBOs waiting to happen; they’re intelligent young people who have something worthwhile to say.

If you haven’t been watching, or haven’t yet had the chance to catch up on iPlayer then stop reading now.

One of the youngest participants, 14-year-old Duncan from Bristol, was awarded the title that hundreds had wanted so much. The big question, predictably: did he deserve it?

A few days ago, I would have said, “No,” without hesitation; you only have to backtrack to a previous blog entry to see how I thought of Duncan as a speaker. I was still smarting from the exits of Thomas (wonderfully calm and elegant in his manner) and Haroon (passionate lyrical poet) the week previously, and thought that Kay Kay was now the man for the job. “He’s a born politician!” I told Nikki, “You can’t help but like him when he starts to speak.” But after the last two episodes, I have to re-assess what The Speaker has actually been all about.

For anyone not familiar with the format, a group of ten teenagers was mentored by different types of public speaker, and each episode saw an elimination. Mentors have been as varied as Deborah Meaden (from Dragon’s Den), Kate Silverton (BBC newscaster), The Earl Spencer and Alistair Campbell. They gave away ‘Love in a Jar’ at Covent Garden, acted as tour guides in Althorp House and carried out a live news report; lobbied for public causes in a town they barely knew and spoke to the nation on a live videocast. Some of the speeches were outstanding, whilst others made me cringe, certain speakers inspired and others were just difficult to watch.

Yet this wasn’t your standard fare ‘reality tv’ – there was no grand prize, no public vote, no heart-wrenching sob stories. Watching this felt like being part of something meaningful. Is that too strong for a television programme? Well, if we take the media as a reflection of society then Britain currently celebrates mediocrity, gains most of its humour from the appalling state of politics and sees the personal lives of public figures as headline news. To see something that looks to help young people develop in a way that may actually help their future was actually quite inspirational. Because this wasn’t just about those who were lucky enough to participate. It was also about all those watching from their sofas, realising that they could do as good a job, or perhaps better.

So what was it about the final week that made me think differently about the eventual winner, and indeed the show as a whole? It was simply the change I saw in Duncan when he was placed in the bottom three on Tuesday’s show. I’d always liked Kay Kay’s Obama-esque style, I’d always found Maria’s Glaswegian lilt both charming and warm, and (despite her seriousness at the beginning) Irene always caught my attention. But somehow Duncan managed to transform from an over-eager, fidgeting child into a young man whose voice I wanted to listen to.

As I said to Nikki, it makes me wonder what sort of Duncan we would have seen had he been placed in the bottom three earlier in the series, as I believe he should have. But when it came down to it, he was the one who had made the longest journey, the person who had grown the most as part of the show. And that’s why I think that in the end, the judges made the right decision. Bravo, Duncan! And all the best with the career in broadcasting that you hope to pursue

My congratulations to all of those who were part of the chosen ten on The Speaker – I genuinely hope this isn’t the last we’ve heard from you.

V xx

The Speaker homepage

Nikki Bedi on the BBC Asian Network

April 27, 2009

Shifty – dealing out some realism

Movie image
4 out of 5 stars

On Saturday I went to the late show of Shifty, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a performance-driven film, with outstanding turns by Daniel Mays, Nitin Ganatra and Riz Ahmed, who plays the title character. There’s something unsettlingly ordinary about the tone of the script, which essentially follows a pair of reunited friends who wander around a fictional London suburb as the drug-dealing Shifty goes about his daily business. For me, it really brought home the point that the use of illegal substances lives on all of our doorsteps. The unanswered question of why Chris left London four years previously gives an undercurrent for the story to travel on, and just as you get comfortable with the plodding pace of events, something comes in to take it up a notch without being excessive – an argument, a chase, a tidbit of information about the back-story.

Although I had figured out the final twist before the end, I still enjoyed this snapshot of a world that most of us would like to forget about. The impact as I left the cinema came from the simplicity of the message this film delivered in its matter-of-fact way: just one day in the life of a small-time drug-dealer, but so many broken lives and fractured relationships.

“24 hours to deal yourself out”, so says the film’s tagline – but this clever piece of cinema shows all too painfully how it’s never that easy.

V xx

April 16, 2009

Yes we can

There is only one thing to blog about today and that’s last night’s episode of The Speaker. This BBC2 series began last week, following on from a documentary about the art of oration. Has Barack Obama made public speaking ‘cool’ for a new generation? The Speaker is taking on this question by looking for promising orators aged 14 to 18.

I can’t explain the incredible tension I felt as the show began and I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat. As the hour went on I became more and more animated, shouting at the screen, laughing out loud, cringing in discomfort and at one point actually leaving the room from pure viewer embarrassment. It’s compelling television, and so refreshing to watch. In an age of ‘reality’ shows and sublebrities (to quote Luke Blackall from The London Paper) I love this group of teenagers who are putting themselves out there to do something that actually requires talent, and with no prize other than the prestige of being crowned ‘Britain’s Best Young Speaker’.

Earl Spencer was an interesting choice of mentor, (his eulogy at his sister’s funeral has become one of the most recognised speeches of the 20th Century), there was something very endearing about his attentiveness to the development of the young speakers. My current favourite, Haroon, had me worried at the beginning. It seemed that being in Althorp House unsettled him and he was toning down his style to accommodate the surroundings, which ironically disappointed the Earl. But apart from a timing issue, he completely redeemed himself with his stint as a tour guide, bringing back his originality and confidence. On the other end of the scale, I found Duncan almost unbearable to watch, verbally bouncing like an over-excited Duracell bunny. And (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen it) I think the judges made the wrong decision in the end. Personally, I questioned whether Fahmida should have made it through over Stacey last week, but on the merit of yesterday’s episode she shouldn’t have been the one to go. Her problem (in my humble opinion) is elocution; the style and energy with which she speaks is great, and much nicer to listen to than Jordan, who was my tip to head home. It wasn’t just his grating style of speaking, it was his unbearable arrogance and lack of admission that he needs to learn and improve. All he could say, in the repetitive manner that’s becoming his trademark, was that “the judges got it very wrong” to even put him in the bottom three.

I am utterly hooked to this insightful and important show – roll on next week!

V xx

April 02, 2009

The bother of bad timing

Critically acclaimed and lauded by fans, The Wire has created such a buzz that its well-overdue transfer to terrestrial television has become one of the media events of the year so far. So why on earth has the BBC given it such a ridiculous scheduling spot?

11.20 p.m. is pretty late for newly-arrived cutting-edge drama by any standards, but particularly awkward when you consider it’s not available on iPlayer, and that an episode a day is being aired Mon-Fri, giving scarce little time to catch up even if you do have a recording device (which I currently don’t).

Grievances of timing aside, the three episodes I’ve seen on BBC2 tell me that I’ll probably be jumping on the bandwagon of praise very soon. Once you cut through the thick Baltimore accent (or just pop the subtitles on like I did tonight) it’s very well scripted, and I’m already starting to get involved with the characters and their motivations. I knew it was worth a watch when it shocked me, upset me and made me laugh out loud within the space of ten minutes. A warning for the sensitive though – it doesn’t wimp out on violence or bad language, so steel yourselves.

I’ve been staying up for it this week out of sheer stubborn determination, but I do hope BBC bosses see sense soon – maintaining a lifestyle that involves watching The Wire AND getting up at 6.30 a.m. may begin to prove hazardous to my health…

V xx

The Wire

January 23, 2009

It's only a film…

Follow-up to Worth the hype…? from Grazing Giraffe

Just read this interesting review from an Indian journalist on the BBC News website:

The point I’d add is – why is everyone looking at Slumdog Millionaire like it’s something that’s supposed to change the world?

V xx

January 21, 2009

Worth the hype…?


Yesterday evening I finally went to see Slumdog Millionaire, that film which has created a whirlwind around the cinema-going world. Did I like it? Yes, absolutely. I remember an interview with Danny Boyle where he said that his aim was to hurl us into the story with no time to acclimatise, and I really liked the unforgiving, unrelenting pace that carried you along all the way through. It was vibrant and fantastically shot, a visual treat that took you on a rollercoaster of emotions – intrigue, amusement, shock, sadness, anger, sympathy and (ultimately) joy. The soundtrack was outstanding – A.R. Rahman has been deservedly recognised; I’m particularly happy about the music because if I’m honest a lot of his recent work had underwhelmed me.

The performances were very good, not least from the three young actors playing the protagonist, Jamal. We all know that Dev Patel plays the Jamal we first meet, sitting in the chair on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? aged 18; but as the film progresses, we are carried on Jamal’s journey, seeing younger versions of him as we discover not only how he knows the answers to the questions, but also how and why he ended up in that chair. I loved Dev in Skins and I was very impressed with his performance in Slumdog too – he’s likeable, charming, funny and sweet. But there was one thing that niggled – his accent. I don’t know enough about voice coaching in the acting world to make an informed comment, but perhaps he could have done with some more training. For a boy who’d grown up on the streets of Bombay and Agra the anglicised accent just didn’t sit properly with the character, and there were occasions when I could barely tell he was supposed to be Indian. It’s a real shame because there’s nothing else about him I could fault at all! Having said that, I’m afraid I think that he was a little bit upstaged by the younger actors, especially Tanay Hemant Chheda who played the middle Jamal. There was something about his protrayal of Jamal that I felt captured the quality of being both innocent yet older than his years – I hope we see some more of him in the future.

So, I can safely say that I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire. But was it worth all the hype? Hmm, perhaps not. I’m not trying to belittle any of its successes or accolades; I’m just trying to put the surrounding furore into perspective. There have been reviews that have suggested that this film is a tribute to Mumbai, and contrasting ones that say that it shows the city as a terrible place – I don’t think it is either. Yes, it shows parts of life that most of us wish didn’t happen, but there’s no denying that all cities have their dark parts; and it also doesn’t show Mumbai as the most wonderful place in the world. What it does is use the city as a colourful backdrop for a yarn well-told. I haven’t read Q & A, so I have no idea how well it was adapted from the novel, but the screenplay was well done – although I personally would have liked to see a lot more Hindi dialogue, because the sweeping use of English seemed a little false. We’re getting a lot better at accepting things in foreign languages (think Crouching Tiger or Pan’s Labyrinth) but we have a way to go.

To sum up Slumdog, the story is interesting but not perfect, the direction is wonderful but not flawless and the performances were engaging but not striking. Yet, whether I thought it worth the hype or not, I couldn’t help but let both sides of my heart swell with pride during the fabulous closing routine of this British-made tale of an Indian boy.

V xx

November 04, 2008

Bond and Berowne

At 2 p.m. on Friday I had my bottom on a seat in the local cinema for the afternoon showing of Quantum of Solace – and I loved it. I know reviews have been mixed, but personally I prefer the new grittier set-up, i.e. no gadgets or gratuitous sex scenes. Yes, the storyline is a bit ropey at times, but I’d be lying if I said that’s what I wanted from a Bond film. Knowing that this was set literally hours after the end of Casino Royale, I was more interested in following Bond’s story – James as a person, as a spy and (to quote from the film) as “damaged goods”. And in that sense, I think both the film and Daniel Craig really deliver. The undercurrent that ran through the film was his struggle to deal with his emotions following his ordeal with Vesper, and yet to continue doing his job. Add in a flashy car, an aeroplane, a couple of pretty but feisty ladies, explosions, fire, some chases, Daniel Craig’s fantastic voice (I love that this Bond has a clean-cut English accent) and a fantastic turn from Judi Dench as M (ooh, feel the crackle between her and Bond!) and you’ve got a great 007 caper. I came out feeling shaken and stirred (apologies for the pun!).


On Friday evening I was back in Stratford at the Courtyard Theatre for the RSC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. It’s not one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays, and I recently bought a copy to try and familiarise myself with it beforehand. Now I know why it’s not all that well-known! It’s very hard work to read because it’s linguistically challenging – it’s still quite funny, but the edge is taken off when you have to keep checking the notes to make sense of what you’ve just read. But, as my old English teacher used to tell me, Shakespeare didn’t write his plays to be read, he wrote them to be seen. And for me, Love’s Labour’s is the perfect example of that. With all the complicated language put into context on stage with great direction and sparkling performances, the play became something fantastic. I laughed till it hurt…in fact I think I slightly annoyed the woman who was sitting next to me! Obviously, I thought that David Tennant was fantastic as Berowne, but we know I have no objectivity when it comes to him… DT aside, I loved Edward Bennet’s performance as the King – excellent comic timing and subtle but wonderful expressions; and Mariah Gale and Nina Sosanya were stunning in both looks and performance as the French Princess and Rosaline respectively. It’s on for another couple of weeks so anyone who’s tempted should definitely check the box office for returns!


V xx

September 09, 2008

'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas' by Ursula K LeGuin – from The Wind's Twelve Quarters

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The ringing of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved. Some were decorous: old people in long stiff robes of mauve and gray, grave master workmen, quiet, merry women carrying their babies and chatting as they walked. In other streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows’ crossing flights over the music and the singing. All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race. The horses wore no gear at all but a halter without bit. Their manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green. They flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another; they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own. Far off to the north and west the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. The air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to make the banners that marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then. In the silence of the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding throughout the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells.

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?

They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. But we do not say the words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic. Given a description such as this one tends to make certain assumptions. Given a description such as this one tends to look next for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by his noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by great-muscled slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians, I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few. As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb. Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. There were not less complex than us.

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe happy man, nor make any celebration of joy. How can I tell you about the people of Omelas?

They were not naive and happy children – though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! But I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For instance, how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor estructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however – that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc. – they could perfectly well have entral heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it. I incline to think that people from towns up and down the coast have been coming to to Omelas during the last days before the Festival on very fast little trains and double-decked trams, and that the trains station of Omelas is actually the handsomest building in town, though plainer than the magnificent Farmers’ Market. But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas – at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no.

Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the gory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were no drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcane and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond all belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial. A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer: This is what swells the hears of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life. I don’t think many of them need to take drooz.

Most of the processions have reached the Green Fields by now. A marvelous smell of cooking goes forth from the red and blue tents of the provisioners. The faces of small children are amiably sticky; in the benign gray beard of a man a couple of crumbs of rich pastry are entangled. The youths and girls have mounted their horses and are beginning to group around the starting line of the course. An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd alone, playing on a wooden flute.

People pause to listen, and they smile, but they do not speak to him, for he never ceases playing and never sees them, his dark eyes wholly rapt in the sweet, thing magic of the tune.

He finishes, and slowly lowers his hands holding the wooden flute.

As if that little private silence were the signal, all at once a trumpet sounds from the pavilion near the starting line: imperious, melancholy, piercing. The horses rear on their slender legs, and some of them neigh in answer. Sober-faced, the young riders stroke the horses’ necks and soothe them, whispering. “Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope…” They begin to form in rank along the starting line. The crowds along the racecourse are like a field of grass and flowers in the wind. The Festival of Summer has begun.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.

The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes – the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked; the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good, ” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no real doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.

Now do you believe them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

August 21, 2008

"The play's the thing…" – Hamlet, 15th August 2008

HamletOn the morning of Friday 15th August, at 7.30 a.m. I dropped my brother off at the RSC Box Office to queue for returns to see the current production of Hamlet. As I’m sure most of you know, it stars David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, meaning that tickets sold out months ago – well before we decided we wanted to go.

At around 9.30 a.m. I received a phonecall to say that our efforts hadn’t been in vain and that two tickets for that evening had been paid for. I jumped in the air with excitement – I think I genuinely had trouble breathing! But that was nothing compared to the call about half an hour later, where Himesh told me he had just bumped into David Tennant as he walked down the street. Mr. Tennant looked like he didn’t want to draw attention to himself, but was still very polite when Himesh stopped him to say hello. I think it took the rest of the day to calm my heartbeat back down to a normal rate…but I just about managed it in time for the evening trip to see what is considered Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.

Arriving at The Courtyard Theatre, we could feel the excitement in the air. Anytime you attend a play there’s normally a feeling of anticipation, but this was something different. There has been so much hype around this production that emotions were obviously a little heightened – and Himesh and I were no different in our feelings!

Getting to our seats, we could barely believe our luck: we had only tried for tickets on the off-chance and there we were on the front row of the gallery having paid £5 each thanks to the RSC’s 16-25 ticket policy.

I shan’t mince my words: the play was phenomenal.

The tone that the director took made it very accessible to people like me who aren’t overly familiar with the play, but didn’t patronise those who are, like my brother. The use of a modern setting echoed of Baz Luhrmann’s film of Romeo and Juliet, but obviously more intimate because of the small theare setting. And this modern environment gave the opportunity for some very clever direction, and very interesting delivery dialogue, particularly to inject humour.

That brings me on to the performances. I really enjoyed the whole cast, but highlights were Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius and of course the two headline castings of Patrick Stewart and David Tennant. There’s always a worry that when something has created such a stir, it’s been overrated, but I’m so very pleased to say that this wasn’t the case here. Stewart played Claudius as charmingly dark – sometimes you just forgot that he has murdered his own brother, until he switched to show the true nature of the character, and his performance as the Ghost was eerie and powerful. As for Mr. David Tennant, what can I say?

I suffer much mocking from friends for my unfaltering love of the man, and perhaps my review of his performance can’t be entirely trusted even if I try to be objective…but he played the title role so engagingly I can still see certain scenes in my mind. Hamlet goes through so many faces and emotions, requiring a diversity that I think Tennant displayed almost effortlessly. The infamous “To be or not to be…” has been controversially moved in this play – I’m not enough of a Shakespeare expert to comment on that – but there was no movement in the whole theatre as the lines were spoken. David’s calm manner in that scene was contrasted by his energetic leaping as he feigned Hamlet’s madness, and both were contrasted again by the various scenes of Hamlet’s despair, for his father and for Ophelia. Those of us who are Doctor Who fans will have noticed glimpses of the Time Lord in the wonderful moments of humour. One of my favourites was Hamlet’s line “Words, words, words” during a conversation with Polonius. And there was fantastic use of David Tennant’s hair to reflect Hamlet’s state of mind: you have to see the play to understand, but it was just genius.

This is only my second trip to see The Bard’s work on stage, but I have been well and truly bitten by the bug and will be trying to get tickets for all of this season’s productions, not least another trip to see Hamlet. If you’ve never seen any Shakespeare before: do it. It’s not just for theatre buffs and it doesn’t cost a fortune. If you’re aged between 16 and 25, are on summer hols at the moment, and particularly if you’re in the Midlands area, get yourself down to Stratford and queue up for a £5 ticket. It’s more than worth getting out of bed early for.

V xx

August 14, 2008

The Dark Knight: IMAX–style

Last night, I finally saw The Dark Knight at the Birmingham IMAX, and it was completely worth the wait. It was my first IMAX experience, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But from the opening scene I was sold: views from the top of tall buildings made you feel like you were up there, and chase scences practically gave me travel sickness! If anyone hasn’t done the IMAX thing before, I highly recommend it. My friends and I have already decided to see the new Harry Potter at Millennium Point when it comes out.

To the film itself. The hype surrounding the The Dark Knight made me a little worried that I would be disappointed, but my concerns were unfounded. It’s well-scripted, edgy, thrilling and packed with great performances – I went in a group of 14 people and all of us came out impressed. Something thing we all agreed on was Heath Ledger: he was the epitome of a mad comic book hero for all the right reasons. Frightening, compelling, laced with dark humour…it’s such a tragedy that he and his talent have been lost. There were differing opinions on Christian Bale, but I firmly wave the flag in his favour. In my humble opinion, his incarnation as Bruce Wayne/Batman is one of the best castings of recent times, and I think his screen presence is incredible…not to mention a voice and jawline that were made to play the caped crusader! Someone who was a bit of a surprise star for me was Aaron Eckhart. The Joker was an out-and-out insane psychopath, but I was actually more disturbed by the change of Eckhart’s Harvey Dent from hero of the people to a broken and revenge-filled madman. The best line of the film for me was The Joker’s assessment of this transformation:
“Madness is like gravity – all it takes is a little push.”

It’s all been mentioned before but I also liked the poignant messages regarding terrorism, civil liberties, the ‘Big Brother’ concept and the decency of society. And finally, I couldn’t help but smile at the casting of a number of British actors – not just Christian Bale and Gary Oldman, but some of the smaller parts too. All in all, I found The Dark Knight to be a summer superhero blockbuster that truly hits the mark. Bravo Christopher Nolan – bring on the next instalment!

V xx

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