Archive for February, 2010

Knives in Hens (David Harrower) Arcola Theatre 27 February

February 28, 2010


I didn’t understand this.  The idea is that we’re in some kind of pre-industrial nowhere (but they speak with Yorkshire accents and dispense with the definite article the way Yorkshire folk do) and the Young Woman who is married to Pony Williams (they are shown above) gains control of language after visiting the miller (who actively reads and writes) after which the two of them do away with PW (who may have been making love to his own horses or to ‘that Robertson girl’ in the stables) and then they…go their separate ways.

So let’s think about this.  The stage of not understanding figurative language–that something can be ‘like’ something else–lies further back in human development than any culture we have direct evidence for.  Even in Yorkshire.  The fact that the miller has a surname–he’s called Gilbert Horn–means we can’t be any earlier than the 15th century.  The material culture on view (pen, neatly printed books, safety matches (!)) suggests mid-to-late 19th century, and the fact that the Young Woman Working In The Fields could read and write means late 19th century I think.

So I didn’t believe it.  And she killed two hens in one day, just for her and PW??  Furthermore, I was bored–and there were times when I (who spent 15 years or so within the historic boundaries of Yorkshire) couldn’t understand what Jodie McNee as the YW was saying.   While I could understand Phil Cheadle as Miller Gilbert Horn and Nathaniel Martello-White as Pony William, I was no more convinced by them.

The Young Woman–who incidentally wrote down her name as Sarah from where I was sitting–likened her creation-by-naming to sticking a knife in a hen’s stomach, which is where the title comes from.

At least it was only an hour and a quarter!

The Gambler (Royal Opera House) 25 February

February 26, 2010


For a long time, I thought this was going to be a kind of Makropoulos Affair without the ascent into real opera at the end.  The plot, concerning various Russian and other parasites losing money they hadn’t earned in the German resort of Rouletteburg (or Roulettenbourg in the Frenchified version adopted here) unrolled with them all being suitably grotesque but without the feeling of people living on the edge of the abyss that is the other side of Dostoevsky’s novella.

My companion suggested that you couldn’t really make an opera from a novel, and was unimpressed with my rejoinder of  From the House of the Dead and Manon/Manon Lescaut.

But after the interval Grandma and Polina actually had something legato (and affecting) to sing, the climactic scene in the casino came off with brilliant effect, and Polina’s declaration that Aleksei Ivanovich couldn’t expect to buy the Marquis’s discarded mistress for 50,000 francs more-or-less explained what she was about.

And it was all exceptionally well done–John Tomlinson as the General was in extremely sprightly voice, not at all like a man who has sung a few too many Wotans rather too loudly, while Susan Bickley (Grandma) and Angela Denoke (Polina) had the most prepossessing parts and made the most of them.

The orchestral playing under Antonio Pappano was brilliant, too.

St Paul’s Sinfonia (St Paul’s, Deptford) 26 February

February 26, 2010


1. J Strauss – Overture ‘Die Fledermaus’
2. Beethoven – Violin Concerto
3. Schumann – Symphony No. 4

The first item passed by with no more than a Now that’s ended, and I’m glad it’s over by way of reaction from me.  Then in the Beethoven Violin Concerto the timpanist started (whose identity is unknown to me) by seeming not to be able to find the beat, while as soloist the orchestra’s usual leader, James Widden, did seem to get lost at one point.  The French horns also made rather a mess of their entry in the first movement.  But the cadenzas (reverse-engineered from an arrangement for piano and orchestra) were interesting and in the first of them the soloist and timpanist combined to good effect.  Still, the piece did seem to last an awfully long time.

After the interval, it was Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, which I had no especial expectations of, but which turned out  well under some typically dynamic conducting from Andrew Morley and with some engaging playing from the strings (and much more reliable contribution from the brass).  A special vote of thanks to the woodwind section, who held up well all evening.

Next time (19 March), we’re promised Haydn and Elena Firsova as well as Beethoven–should be interesting!

ἴσθι and ἴσθι

February 26, 2010
We have been asked about the imperatives of ‘know’ and ‘be’ being the same in Greek, and whether this had any connection with ‘Be still and know that I am God’.

It is true that a grammar book will give you ἴσθι (sing) and ἴστε (pl)  as imperatives from οἶδα  (I know) and  ἴσθι (sg), ἔστε (pl) from εἰμί (I am).

Unfortunately things then begin to get a bit complicated!  The verb οἶδα is interpreted as the perfect of some hypothetical verb *εἴδω (I see) with the idea ‘I have seen’ => ‘I know’, at least if we are working purely in terms of `Greek (reasoning with the corresponding Indo-European forms is probably better).  Normally there isn’t a perfect imperative in Greek any more than there is in English–ἴσθι and ἴστε look like root aorist imperatives formed from ἰδ- to me, but whatever.

So even though it exists one would feel a bit uncomfortable at using the imperative of οἶδα and would prefer to use some other verb for ‘know’ if possible.  Similarly, (on the one hand) it’s more idiomatic to have one verb to express the idea ‘be still’ and (on the other) if there wasn’t one and you needed two words you’d prefer keep + still, become + still, or something similar.

It’s really just a coincidence that the two singular imperatives coincide–the first root is ἰδ-, but *ἰδθι isn’t allowed in Greek, so you get ἴσθι.  The roots for ‘to be’ include ἰς-/ἐς-, so ἴσθι and ἔστε are comprehensible enough.

I think the phrase quoted comes from Ps 46:

הַרְפּ֣וּ וּ֭דְעוּ כִּי־אָנֹכִ֣י אֱלֹהִ֑ים אָר֥וּם בַּ֝גֹּויִ֗ם אָר֥וּם בָּאָֽרֶץ׃

LXX gives this as:

σχολάσατε καὶ γνῶτε ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ θεός ὑψωθήσομαι ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν ὑψωθήσομαι ἐν τῇ γῇ.

So as we’d expect ‘be still’ is represented by one word and word other than οἶδα is used for ‘to know’.  And it all turns out to be plural anyway!

Measure for Measure Almeida Theatre 24 February

February 24, 2010


The girl at the ticket desk said they’d sent my ticket out to me and the theatre did not look as full as I expected (given that I thought I’d got the last ticket for this show).

But it was wonderful once it began!  Walls revolved to make insides and outsides and prison cells, and the characters confronted each other in consecutive pairs over (or occasionally without) a table:  Angelo and Isabella, Isabella and Claudio, Friar Ludovico and Isabella.  As Isabella, Anna Maxwell Martin burned as a pale flame in a black dress, sometimes flickering humanly when caught by a draught, while for once the comic scenes with Elbow (Tony Turner) were funny!  In fact there was a great deal of laughter from the audience at appropriate points throughout the play.  And the lucid direction kep the thing moving triumphantly forward.

Another picture from the same place...

Rory Kinnear played Angelo as a bureaucrat presented with a chance to go astray and abuse his power without becoming any less the constrained and timid thing he was, and it was highly convincing.  Through the course of the performance, the Duke of Ben Miles descended from being the benign if absent father to a second-rate showman, flickering this way and that to try to make his plot come out…

At the end, the Duke said to Isabella that she had to marry him and she stood, leaning forward and silent, perhaps her mouth twitched a little…

the furies/land of the dead/helter skelter (Neil LaBute) Greenwich Theatre 23 February

February 24, 2010


Enigmatic image from

The theatre was about a third full–the usual echt provincial audience I remember from 917 years ago, together with a few students–and a guy came out to tell us to switch our mobiles off, not to take pictures, and what the plays were.

***Spoilers ahead!***

So first up was the furies, set in a very glassy restaurant, where Barry (Patrick Driver: middle-aged) had summoned Jimmy (Stuart Laing: young) to tell him something.  The airheaded Jimmie had brought his evil sister Jamie (Frances Gray: young too of course) with him, she kept on whispering in his ear–she was suffering from polyps on her vocal cords–whenever he seemed to be sympathetic towards Barry’s news that he was dying of some dread disease (not AIDS) and ending their relationship so as not to be a burden and going back to California for palliative treatment.  At the end Jamie rasped at him that if he did not die as described she would track him down, torture him horribly, and kill his children and slut of a wife.

Well, that was funny at the beginning and about as terrifying as the UCL Eumenides at the end.

Then there was land of the dead, where Woman (Gray)  and Man (Laing) stood in separate spotlights and addressed the audience, not each other.  The story was that on a particular day she had got up early to count her $400 and then he had gone to a work-related breakfast and then to the office and had tried to ring her on her mobile and say she could keep the kid if she wanted but she had turned her mobile off and had the abortion and in fact paid with her Diners Club card and not the cash.  Then the particular day was 9/11 and all she had to remember him by was the message on her mobile, that she had to refresh every week or so.  I thought this was the best of the three pieces, in spite of the cheap 9/11 reference and O. Henry neatness:  the $400 in bills (especially) and the mobile phone message were genuinely troubling images, like the net in Agamemnon, and this was also the piece that caught some tiny fragment of the essence of  Greek tragedy even without referring to it.

After the interval we had helter skelter, back in the glassy restaurant, where Man (Driver) and Woman (Gray: pregnant) had come to NY from the sticks to do some Christmas shopping.  She was wearing an old-fashioned dress he hadn’t noticed in the hotel that morning and he certainly didn’t want her to get her hands on her mobile and find out who he had been ringing.  At this stage, I thought that perhaps Chekhov (rather than Stephen King or O. Henry) was being laid under contribution, and as it turned out I was both wrong and right.

As it turned out, She had seen Him kissing & fondling Her Own Sister on the steps of the sister’s house, and wanted to know how long it had been going on.  It had been going on 6 years, and he indulged in some specious drivel about how they should put this behind them and become richer people as a result.  Then She said she never wanted to be alone with Him again–drivelled a bit about bad things happening to other people–mentioned Medea and Charles Manson’s followers–said she had in fact bought the dress from a consignment store, He hadn’t missed it in the morning–stabbed herself in the belly (and her baby) with a meat knife.

And this one I didn’t like very much.  She was much younger than Him, which I think was just the actors–it was never mentioned in the script.  There was some serious problem with Her reactions after He had said 6 years–she didn’t scream and shout as you would in real life, but also she responded too quickly and naturally to what she said to be dissociated from reality.

Once Medea had been mentioned I started to wonder how, since the robe could hardly be poisoned and anyway She was wearing it not the sister.  And it was the knife that had been there in plain view all the time–both Chekhov and Euripides.

Unfortunately it’s a complete disaster to take Greek tragedy as something naturalistic that can be translated to a domestic setting but, hey, shit happens…

The Invention of Love (Tom Stoppard) Oxford Playhouse 21 February

February 21, 2010


Still from YouTube trailer

Still from YouTube trailer

The play began with a dead A. E. Housman (or was he only dreaming?) meeting Charon before being ferried across the Styx in a punt, and continued with scenes from various stages of Housman’s life:  as a student; living in digs with Moses Jackson; lecturing to students; the old Housman meeting the young Housman beside a poetically unidentified river; together with some parallel appearances by Oscar Wilde.

The Oxford jokes certainly hit home with the audience, and Stoppard succeeded in making textual criticism seem both understandable and interesting.  The title of the play refers to Catullus inventing the love-poem and hence your own love as something you reflect/talk/write about in all its messiness, and the examples of Latin poetry that made their appearance were very lovely without quite capsizing the play.

The crucial scene surely has to be were Oscar Wilde ridicules Housman for the egregious bathos of:

Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?
Oh that was right, lad, that was brave:
Yours was not an ill for mending,
‘Twas best to take it to the grave.

Oh you had forethought, you could reason,
And saw your road and where it led,
And early wise and brave in season
Put the pistol to your head.

After making a few attempts at self defence, the older Housman stood stoically, occasionally twitching his glued-on moustache, and seeming much more genuinely poetical that Wilde, whose appalling facility and cleverness here is surely Stoppard’s reflection on himself.

Another still from YouTube

The student actors here made effective use of hair dye and facial hair to conceal their appalling youthfulness, and I was especially impressed by Matthew Osman as Housman, with his bravura lecture before the interval curtain and his uncertain stoicism, while Joseph Robertson as Younger Housman and Jonathan Webb as Jackson were also very good.  What might have been rather a reckless staging, with Stygian punt and red rowing-boat came off too…

New Testament Greek Madingley Hall 12-14 February

February 15, 2010


Picture of Madingley Hall--it's outside Cambridge


This course took place over the weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday lunchtime.  There were 7 teaching sessions of 90 minutes each: one on Saturday evening, four on Saturday and two on Sunday.  Six of these sessions consisted of the students in turn reading two or three verses aloud and translating them, while in the after-dinner talk on Saturday the lecturer gave a talk on ‘Acts and the Classical World’.

To give some specifics:  there were 17 students in the group–the age deistribution can be inferred from the class photo below.  Our tutor was Dr John Taylor, compiler of New Testament Greek:  A Reader, who took great care to make sure that nobody should feel embarrassed or humiliated because of not knowing something or making a mistake.  We covered Mark chapters 14-16, Acts chapters 12-14, Isaiah chapter 40 and Wisdom of Solomon chapter 3 (these last two being from the Septuagint and the Apocrypha rather than the NT of course).  There was a rough quota of 50 verses per session, and we finished bang on the end of the last session.

Participants were very enthusiastic about the course (and about Madingley Hall in general) and several had already been on many previous years’ editions of the same course.


Class picture from Mair's Facebook page

Class photo from Mair's Facebook page


At one meal, I had an interesting chat with a woman who had been coming to Madingley to teach Latin for 27 years.  She felt that the facilities had improved markedly over that time, while the actual Latin teaching had been more cyclical–to start off with, it had been people who had done Latin in the past and now wanted to revive it, then Beginners and Improvers had been introduced, and finally these had died off in response to last year’s increase in prices, so it was back to people reading texts.

The course will very probably run again next February, and you can see details of all Madingley Hall courses here.

There’s a general overview of what I know about provision for studying NT Greek here.

Persae Greenwood Theatre 11 February (KCL Greek Play 2010)

February 11, 2010


I got the picture for once!

I got the picture for once!

This time the two introductory speakers did not overshadow the main event, but were very interesting in their contrasting ways.  Simon Goldhill roamed the stage and sawed the air in the manner of a tragic heavy as he said that Persae was at first sight exceptionally boring, since it consisted largely of exclamations of woe.  He felt the point was that even your average militarised Athenian of antiquity could not watch half an hour or more of his defeated enemy weeping without giving room to subversive thoughts along the lines of Is what we are doing so wonderful? So this was why there had been a sudden spate of performances recently, especially in the USA, now that we were once more at war with the east.  He also made the good point that when the Athenian citizen of antiquity voted for war–which he did with great frequency–he was voting to send himself to war, and not some disaffected working-class youths.

In the contrasting soubrette role of sceptical historian of Ancient Persia, Dr Lindsay Allen wisely decided to skip over the many ways in which Aeschylus’s depiction of the Persian court was complete bollocks in favour of showing some slides to illustrate how cool it was to visit Iran.  And also pointing out that since Xerxes had succeeded to the throne by being born instead of winning it by killing lots of people like his father Darius he felt some issues about his right to rule; and the tombs of the Persian kings were positioned so as to place the dead king in a community with other kings and their family and the peoples of the Persian Empire, so that Darius appearing on his own in Aeschylus’s text was especially poignant.

When the play began, it was really rather wonderful.  The production made sensible use of the chorus, and masks, and Persian-style props and music.

The chorus spoke in unison (or antiphonically on occasion) and also represented the offstage disasters described by Atossa and the messengers.  Someone had conceived the idea–and it was a good one–that the piece was more like a masque than what we would call a play.  The use of melodrama (speech over music) to heighten the effect at critical passages was effective, though I’m sure I don’t approve really.

Among the individual performers–well they were good too–Charlotte Maskell (Atossa) was perhaps not commanding enough, but the scene of her pouring mixing a libation was much more gripping than the similar and allegedly far more dramatic voting scene in the Eumenides the previous night.  As Darius, Petros Bouras-Vallianatos  gave a wholly committed and commanding performance, in somewhat Modern-Greek-style Ancient Greek.  The two messengers of Oliver Mitchell and Jasmine Kirkbride were extremely effective, especially in kicking and beating the chorus as these latter represented vanquished Persians.

As Xerxes, Ben Donaldson pleaded with a now-implacable chorus like a ship tossed against rocks in a storm, in the end seated himself the throne vacant in the centre of the stage

–ἰὴ ἰὴ τρισκάλμοισιν,
ἰὴ ἰή, βάρισιν ὀλόμενοι

–turned his head away in disgust–the lights went down–the curtain came down–the rest was clapping and shouting.

There were some problems of ensemble in the chorus from time to time, and the surtitles were not always very synchronised with the speech.  But this was a fine example of how a student production works when it’s successful–when there’s an idea they can get hold of.  And especial congratulations to twin directors Rosamund Williams and Charlotte Domanski in succeeding so triumphantly with the apparently unstageable.

Choephori/Eumenides Bloomsbury Theatre 10 February

February 11, 2010


Easily the best performance of the evening came from Oliver Taplin in the pre-match talk.  Once he had shambled on looking alarmingly like the kind of derelict you see hanging around the Moscow metro (and with a suspicious bottle of clear liquid in his hand) he held the attention of a capacity crowd–in fact, probably more than there were for the plays themselves–for half an hour, and could easily have done so for much longer.  Maria Wyke was pretty good in a supporting role as well.

At the end, we were left with the question of why the plays of Aeschylus written two and a half millennia ago seem more relevant than nearly all of those written in the intervening period.  Then all we have to do is work out how sheepsguts should hale souls out of men’s bodies.

As for the plays:  there were some signs of sound directorial ideas in Choephori–at least Agamemnon’s tomb was not downstage centre, while Orestes and Electra raised and lowered their arms appropriately when invoking celestial and chthonic deities.  But Orestes seemed to be having difficulty remembering his lines and even made a brief exit-and-return during the tomb scene with Electra.  Kelly Agathos as Clytemnestra provided the best acting on display–though I have to release my inner bitch by saying that while being blatantly young, good-looking and well-dressed is rarely a handicap for an actress, it doesn’t really fit here.

The dead Clytemnestra and Aegisthus were dragged around for no apparent reason (a reference to Hamlet via I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room perhaps, as well as to the death of Agamemnon), which provoked some nervous laughter in the audience.

The Eumenides after the break was in many ways more encouraging.  We had a video appearance from the late Cytemnestra in black-and-white and the Erinyes presented themselves very effectively on the whole, though they did have some appallingly anodyne music and dance steps given who they were supposed to be.  The gold-tanned Apollo of Sam Smullen was pretty good, as was the silver-painted Clare Glenister as Athena.  But there was again a tendency to rush through the forensic exchanges as not being very interesting to the audience, when I think you need to pause and allow the twists and turns to sink in.

At the end, one had the feeling that the production’s sympathies were with the Erinyes–the programme notes certainly favoured their cause.

I just about managed to avoid being pissed upon by some drunken students from the UCL Union on the way to the Tube–divine retribution for thinking disrespectfuly of Professor Taplin…