Brooklyn, Peckham Multiplex 15 November

November 16, 2015



At the end of this showing, a rather full cinema broke into genuine and sustained applause, which is a rare thing indeed.  I think that was because it was a film for grown-ups dealing with grown-up themes, in spite of the extreme youth of the heroine and of the actress playing her.

The action followed the plot of Colm Toibin’s novel quite faithfully, with some understandable simplifications.  It seemed that Father Flood had been turned into a figure of straightforward benevolence, and indeed Colm Toibinn’s representative in the film, since I had more than once heard Toibin praising Saoirse Ronan with paternal pride.  Different ways of relating to the symbolic sea seemed to have been abandoned, in favour of Saoirse doing with her face what takes me thirty pages, while there were some advert-y moments like Eilis exiting the immigration shed into a screenful of light.

But it was good to see a film about nice, decent people, and indeed nice, decent, lower-middle-class people…

Rachel’s Biblical Hebrew Class 2015/16

September 29, 2015


For those interested in the more advanced kind of Biblical Hebrew class in London, Rachel Montagu has kindly sent details as below.  The course takes place in the West Central Liberal Synagogue, 21 Maple Street.  The cost averages around £130 per term but varies depending on how long a term and how many are in the class.

In my experience, these classes work in the time-honoured fashion: each student in turn reads a verse aloud and then translates it, with input from the teacher as necessary. She also provides some background and interpretation from traditional Jewish teaching.

The emphasis is certainly on understanding the text rather than grammar as such. In my experience, there have been perhaps an average of seven or so students coming to lessons. The level things are taken at tends to depend on who the students are.

In principle, students should have covered the material in the First Hebrew Primer from Eks before starting this class. If you know the qal conjugation (perfect and imperfect) pretty well for verbs with three strong roots (the ‘regular’ ones if you like) and have some idea about hiphil and niphal and verbs with weak roots, that will probably do.

If you want to know more, you can email Rachel;  or feel free to email me if you’re feeling shy.  I’ve also shared just about everything I know about studying Biblical Hebrew with the world here.

Autumn Term
A Singing Start
7th October Psalms 115, 100
14th October Exodus 14:11-15:5
21nd October Exodus 15:6-27
[28th October half-term]
4th November Judges 4:4-5:4
11th November Judges 5:5-31

Times and Seasons
18th November Leviticus 23:1-22
25th November Leviticus 23: 23-44
2nd December Leviticus 25:1-24
9th December Leviticus 25:25-54

Spring Term

Numbers: Learning how to Live Together and Worship Together
13th January Numbers 9:1-23
20th January Numbers 10:1-12, 29-36, 16:1-6
27th January Numbers 16:7-35
3rd February Numbers 17:1-18:7
[10th February Ash Wednesday]
17th February Numbers 20:1-26
[24th February half term]
2nd March Numbers 20:27-21:25

Nachum: Prophet of Good Tidings?
9th March Nachum 1:1-2:9
16th March Nachum 2:10-3:19

Summer Term

Isaiah and the Suffering Servant
13th April Isaiah 41:6-13, 42:1-10, 43:1-5
20th April Isaiah 43:6-13, 49:1-13
27th April Isaiah 50:4-10, 52:13-53:12

Samuel and Saul
4th May 1 Samuel 8:1-22
11th May 1 Samuel 9:1-27
18th May 1 Samuel 10:1-27
[25th May half term]
1st June 1 Samuel 12:1-25
8th June 1 Samuel 13:1-18, 15:1-9
15th June 1 Samuel 15:10-34

22nd June Psalms 111:1-22, 112:1-10
29th June Psalms 11211-22, 145:1-21
6th July Psalms 34:1-23, 25:1-10
13th July Psalms 25:11-22

Three Irish Classics, Pentameters Theatre 23 August

August 26, 2015


'Riders to the Sea' from

‘Riders to the Sea’ from

I was somewhat daunted by my first visit to Hampstead this millennium, with the climb up the hill once I had scrambled off the bus and the shops with their signs in Hampstead-French.  But the young couples on the pavements seemed to be talking German to each other.

But once I had found the pub and climbed up some stairs, I was reassured by the welcome from producer Léonie Scott-Matthews and her charming assistants, not to mention the pleasingly mismatched seating.

Of the three pieces that made up 65 minutes’ running time, Riders to the Sea (J. M. Synge) was the first and best, and Maura’s despair struck home with me:

Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God.  Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the the white boards surely…What more can we want than that?

The Pot of Broth, by W. B. Yeats, was a peasant farce where the tramp hero had undergone gender reassignment and the plot recycled the good old nail stoop story.  Perhaps the tramp’s imaginings could have been given more space to breathe and the host and hostess changed their minds less easily.

Finally, The Travelling Man by Lady Gregory (in fact, both of these two were more like collaborations between her and Yeats) got a little stuck between being a much shorter Playboy of the Western World and a Biblical parallel. Again, the mother passed a little too matter-of-factly from ejecting the Traveller to despair on realising she had lost the King of the World.

Definitely an experience worth ascending the Golden Mountain of Hampstead for.

I sit through one part of the Almeida ‘Oresteia’: Facebook exchanges and other reflections

August 25, 2015
Iphigeneia clutches her teddy-bear

Iphigenia clutches her teddy-bear

Have invested in a half-price ticket for the Almeida’s five-star, critically-acclaimed, award-winning *chorusless* Oresteia. That may turn out to have been a brave decision…

Brave? How about reckless?

With Greek drama, the first and main question is what they have done with the chorus.  If they’ve just left it out, the only thing is to stay away.  I knew that perfectly well.  But I was curious.

The portion I succeeded in sitting through was misguided in the way I expected, but rather more inept. The remaining 2/3 *may* have been wonderful, But I somehow doubt it. Let’s hope for better luck with ‘Tamburlaine’ tomorrow!

oh dear!

the first bit of the Oresteia is usually the best! I have a ticket for 19th September frown emoticon

The first part here is more like the adapter’s ruminations on ‘Iphigeneia in Aulis’, so his ‘Agamemnon’ may follow after. I was in a very small minority with my views here, so you will soon be able to judge between me and the rest of the world. Call me Antigone…or an old man with wrinkled female dugs…or Cassandra would be quite appropriate…

so the first third still hasn’t reached Agamemnon? that doesn’t sound good

No it was Iphigenia in Aulis, but different. **SPOILER** Iphigenia is not a young woman of marriageable age by the rather regrettable Greek standards, able to understand and comment on what she is suffering, but a primary-school-age girl who is chemically put down without knowing the first thing about it…

The whole point about Greek tragedy, indeed Greek literature in general, is that you suffer the most terrible things, but you are able to see them, to understand them, and to react to them in words.  The deliberate unmerited killing of a young woman who has the agency to understand, react and express is the extremity of human evil while it is still human.  Putting down an unaware little girl like an unwanted dog is something very different and much, much worse–the kind of punishment the divinity will inflict on you for the first misdeed.

It is hard to imagine that a random person plucked off the street could react with words so inadequate if he found himself in Agamemnon’s position.  Some poetry–even the poetry of pauses–is obligatory.  What we had here might at best pass for some also-ran Ibsen in the hands of a third-rate translator.

oooh well I think I will just close my eyes for now and hope it is all better than I am imagining it!

Closing your eyes won’t help you with Clytaemnestra’s Samantha-Cameron-style mockney accent. But–who knows!–there may be a Cassandra and she may rave & rage like no Cassandra has ever done before…

Sam Cam as Clytemnestra! sacrilege! Though there is the germ of a good idea if we could get her an axe …

It was Blair who deserved an axe.  Cameron is more of an Aegisthus.

Actually, if you don’t come handicapped by knowledge of Greek drama, or modern theatrical practice, and you go to a matinee so that you don’t have a pressing need to go home for your tea and some chores, this may be a perfectly acceptable way of spending some time.  

It apparently enjoyed some success in North London.  

There’s a ticket offer on the Almeida site here and the Leicester Square booth may well have tickets on the day; Theatremonkey may also have some offers.

Leonce and Lena, Brockley Jack 18 August

August 19, 2015



Very nice people at the Brockley Jack, as I’ve said before.  The scampi smelled lovely and in the theatre they had new seating–the bench in front of the tech box is no more.

The idea of Leonce and Lena is that the betrothed but unacquainted prince and princess of neighbouring microkingdoms separately run away to escape their marriage but meet anyway and get married in the guise of automata.  As such, it seems to be about the expectations of the great world confining poor bare unaccommodated man who would writhe like a grub if he were Wozzeck, and subjecting the former to merciless satire.

I think it requires hordes of absurdly identical courtiers, subjects and so on to make its point, while here we had gender-blind doubling of roles and an adaptation that seeks to give more agency to Lena where the original failed to fully realize her character, which is making a rather different point.

Among the actors, the standout was Sam Adamson as a supercharged courtier Valerio, while our Leonce acted well but wasn’t always too sure of his lines.  As for the production–what you would expect from a fairytale satire or satirical fairytale is surely ludicrous exaggeration, and we didn’t get that here.  The keynote was more like restrained and decorous, which I would say is hardly the thing.

The show is certainly worth seeing if you’ve heard of the play and wonder what it’s about, or if you know someone in the cast of course…I’m not sure about wider appeal.

That bench was actually quite useful–you could put your stuff next to you and not have to search for it on the floor at the end.

The Playboy of the Western World, Southwark Playhouse 1530 15 August

August 15, 2015


A picture I found on Twitter (they're watching Christy Mahon win the races)

A picture I found on Twitter (they’re watching Christy Mahon win the races)

Some providential urging led me to read the text before going to see this matinee show, and so I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Otherwise it would have been very difficult to follow what was going on, as various cast members struggled with their Irish accents.  In fact, at the beginning our Pegeen Mike was totally incomprehensible as she delivered her lines facing away from the audience. On other occasions, she would start off speaking quite clearly and then unfortunately remember the Irish accent, which was all the more unfortunate as she played the part very well (but could have given the desperation more space to breathe in the famous last lines:  Oh my grief I’ve lost him entirely.  I’ve lost the only playboy of the western world).

You know what happens in PBWW–Christy Mahon is first of all a hero when he has killed his father, then he loses favour (especially with Pegeen Mike) when it seems he hasn’t, and then at the end maybe he’s a hero again.  So in theory it’s a satire on the mores of rural Ireland, but here the effect was more Shakespearean, with heartstoppingly beautiful poetry accompanied  by unconvincing funny business.

The production was in general lucid enough, though some things worried me. The infamous loy which Christy brains his father was played by a wooden mock-up of a peat-cutting spade.

Peat-cutting tool

Peat-cutting tool



Christy Mahon apparently arrived in his stockinged feet, but then his boots mysteriously appeared overnight for the village girls to wonder at. These may be ways of reflecting deliberate absurdities in Synge’s text, and that may also be why our Widow Quin was played with great urbanity and in imperial purple, but combining effortful Irish accents with the English (incorrect) pronunciation of ‘Bridget’ is very strange…Christy Mahon’s interlude of playing the ‘loy’ like an electric guitar made me wonder whether director Polina Kalinina had been thinking of making him into a Khlestyakov and then abandoned the idea…More seriously, perhaps, at the end I still had no idea of the relationship between Christy and Old Mahon.

So what should you do about the accents?  The Irish audience that Synge wrote for will hardly have heard the speech of a different nation, while it would make no sense to deliver the various Irish constructions, Whishts, and phonetically-written-out divil, kidnabbed and so on in RP.  The sensible thing would be to adopt the speech of Irish people who have lived in England for some time–so that you realise that they’re Irish and then forget about it–which is perhaps the way the Irish cast members would naturally speak anyway.

But very much worth seeing all the same!  (Keep clear of the lighting desk for fear of extraneous commentary.)

That looks interesting…

August 14, 2015

Playboy of the WesternWorld P-314


Below I list things I have come across and which I ought to remember to do something about:

Three Irish Classics (Riders to the Sea, The Pot of Broth, The Travelling Man) Pentameters Theatre  11-30 August

The Playboy of the Western World Southwark Playhouse, 12-29 August.

Leonce and Lena  Brockley Jack, 18-29 August.

Tamburlaine the Great Tristan Bates Theatre, 25 August-12 September.

The Bald Prima Donna  Cockpit Theatre  26-30 August.

Lunchtime Concert from the Academic Student Choir of the Ural Federal University St-Sepulchre-without-Newgate 2 September.

Filumena (Eduardo De Filippo), Drayton Arms Theatre 6 September to 18 September.

The Way to Ukraine: journalist Sarah Hurst talks about and shows excerpts from her new film on the Russian citizens abandoning Russia for Ukraine, Pushkin House 10 September.

The Colour of Money: Falciani’s Tax Bomb Barbican Cinema 14 September

The Cocktail Party, Print Room at the Coronet, 14 September to 10 October.

Volpone Brockley Jack 29 September to 17 October.

What’s So Special About The Third Sector?  Ye Olde Watling 13 October.

Сердце Пармы (Алексей Иванов)

Ложится мгла на старые ступени (Александр Чудаков)

Здесь был Рим (Виктор Сонькин)

Лавр (Евгений Водолазкин)

Aesthetic theory and the book group

July 9, 2015


Book group members are not infrequently confronted by the question, How does our practice measure up against the thought of Kant, Heidegger, Gadamer, Adorno, Bourdieu and Gell?

As we have seen, Kant wanted to see whether such a thing as aesthetic judgment, where we demand that others share what appears to be our purely subjective reaction, could in principle be justified.

His problem therefore can be seen as the solution to why book groups exist–why one would want to debate reactions to artistic literature and indeed convince others.  However, Kant’s contention that aesthetic pleasure is disinterested does not really seem to apply to novels in the same way as other forms of art, since they are normally thought to confer some benefit in terms of understanding what people are like and how they relate to each other or at least how to write decent English.

Kant’s insistence that there are no rules that will make something beautiful may at first sight seem to be contradicted by the practice of publishers, who seem to believe there are very definite rules for producing a book that will sell.

But selling many copies is hardly the same as being ‘beautiful’ or as one might say in this case ‘aesthetically valuable’.  That rather fits in with the thought of Adorno, who thought of the cultural product of the era of late capitalism as being something to be consumed, whereas in better times the aesthetic experience was produced by the participant.  So the book club members who seek distinctions, indeed distinctions that are not differences, in the products of the publishing industry, may be compared to his famous hobbyist listener who has an encyclopaedic recall of available recorded performances but with little understanding of the music that can be heard.

Heidegger of course  thought that art worked by selectively focusing an historical community’s tacit sense of what is and what matters and reflecting it back to that community, which thereby comes implicitly to understand itself in the light of this artwork. Artworks thus functioned as ontological paradigms, serving their communities both as “models of” and “models for” reality, which meant that artworks could variously “manifest,” “articulate,” or even “reconfigure” the historical ontologies undergirding their cultural worlds.  Or a rose is a rose is a rose, talking about its rose-ness is infantile self-indulgence and making an institution of talking about it is even worse.

On the other hand, Gadamer‘s hermeneutic approach, whereby the art-ness of the work of art resides in the dialectical transformation of our interpretations as they enter into contact and indeed conflict with the artwork does sound rather positive for the book club.  Indeed, if one thinks (as Adorno probably would) that the readers were initially only consuming or confirming prefabricated commonplaces, then it is only in the book club setting that the real aesthetic experience might arise.  On the other hand, Gadamer would not have approved of the antiquarian tenor of much book group discourse–Is it a true story?  Was the author ever married? and so on.

This seems rather reminiscent of Bourdieu, who saw this kind of naive view of the artwork as a window whose function was to admit sweetness and light as characteristic of the dominated sections of society, since nothing more rigorously distinguishes the different classes than the disposition objectively demanded by the legitimate consumption of legitimate works, the aptitude for taking a specifically aesthetic point of view on objects already constituted aesthetically.  He would certainly have been interested in the petit-bourgeois aspirationalism of the book group, showing as it does an anxiety with regard to the assimilation of high culture together with a desire to assimilate it to the comfortable and the homely.

Gell’s treatment of the artwork as a social actor amongst other social actors at first sight seems like a comfortable fit for the book group, but here as in many other cases we find that his art nexus resists facile application.

Gell's Art Nexus

Gell’s Art Nexus

First of all, we note that the ‘recipient’ here seems to be conceptualised as an individual, which is a strange kind of thing for an anthropologist to do.  If we ignore this consideration, the book group experience seems to be one of struggle between Index and Recipient as to which will be master, where victory for the Recipient is equivalent to the Index being supplanted by the Prototype.

Immanuel Kant’s account of beauty

May 17, 2015




We have been asked to explain Kant’s account of beauty, so here goes.

Kant starts off from the idea that the sensation of beauty is both subjective and universal.  It is subjective because it belongs to the subject (perceiver) rather than the object.  In particular, there are no rules that will make the object beautiful to us if we do not perceive it to be so.  It is universal because the statement ‘X is beautiful’ carries the implication ‘I like X and you ought to like X’.  This is different from the normal situation of liking ice-cream for instance where there is no insistence that anyone else should like it.

So how can something–a kind of pleasure–be both subjective and universal.  In Kant’s thought, pleasure is seen as springing from meeting some need (like hunger for instance).  So what need are we talking about here?  Kant suggests that it is the need for understanding.  But beauty is not about understanding as such–Kant gives the example of an innkeeper’s son in a bush imitating a nightingale, which song ceases to be beautiful once he is found out.  Instead it is the promise of understanding that beauty provides.

So that explains how the sensation of beauty can be both subjective and universal.  By analogy with hunger, there is no particular difficulty with saying that the catalogue of things that are beautiful will be different in different times and places, since what will satisfy your hunger (which is surely something real) will depend on what you are used to and what you’ve eaten recently.

Ingenious, or what?



A 3 month Biblical Hebrew course in Israel

May 17, 2015

Gratuitous picture of Magdala


We have received the following query:

I’m wondering if you could recommend a 3 month Biblical Hebrew course in Israel…I have the time from  July to Sep available this year.

My first response would be that this may be confusing the end with the means–if you want to learn Biblical Hebrew or anything else the best thing is to get on with it here and now.  Do what you can, with what you have, where you are–a sentiment famously endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt.  If you are an undergraduate doing a year abroad, then the university will try to make you learn something just by being there, but in other circumstances it’s all a bit more uncertain.

As for answering the question as posed, I suspect that if you want a particular set period the best thing would be to find a private tutor.  You could look at craigslist for instance and there is a listing of Israeli free ads sites here. Even better–post an ad yourself saying what you’re looking for.

As to actually existing courses, you could try the Biblical Language Center–Randall Buth did inform me that they would be doing courses in Israel in 2015, so you could write and ask him about that.  There is also a summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Again if I were you I would write to the coordinator, Steven Fassberg and ask if he had any suggestions.   The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a page about English programs in Israeli universities and you can also write to them.

So my advice would be:

i)  make sure that you are clear about the what and the how in your intentions;

ii)  ask around!


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