Archive for June, 2011

Newton and the Counterfeiter (Thomas Levenson)

June 26, 2011


This is a very good book.  The theme is that Isaac Newton, having been active on the right side in the Glorious Revolution was looking for a position in London that would give him both money and a place in society.  In the end. he was offered the post of Warden of the Royal Mint, which in effect meant dealing with the internal workings of the place.  He had to reorganise the place to carry to carry out the wholesale recoinage required by a serious crisis of confidence in the currency, and I actually found this the most interesting part of the account–how he not only analysed the process to see where the blockages were, but also did things with his own hands just as in his work as a physicist.

Then we get to the story promised by the title.  Or it could be:  ‘Isaac Newton–Supercop’.  He has to deal with a number of counterfeiters, including one Willian Chaloner who has been making accusations about the integrity of the Mint’s procedures.  I didn’t really see Chaloner as having a coherent plan to ruin the Mint–rather I think he was trying to fish in muddy waters.  I’m not that convinced by the duel between Newton and Chaloner either, though it was striking to see how both sides suffered from a deficiency in the material base–a simple lack of paper, never mind engraving equipment, for instance.

I remember it once being written used his position at the Mint to vent his (suppositious) sadistic-homosexual urges on coiners, but here it seems to be a matter of standard Stuart jurisprudence–put the bloke in prison until he confesses or blabs in front of a stool pigeon or catches something and dies painfully.  Just like Russia today, although in Stuart England the case first of all had to go before a grand jury which might often enough throw it out–such independence was apparently rarer in the trial itself.  It seems that WC correctly pleaded that he was being tried in the wrong jurisdiction and was ignored–we are gratified to see the end of him anyway.

I’m still impressed by the revelation of Newton as living in a world where nails were made by hand and the whole economy ran on coinage that was minted semi-manually.

Youth (J M Coetzee)

June 22, 2011


When we discussed this at Try Books!  people said it was very well-written, but many were severely irritated by the unsympathetic protagonist and so found it hard to enjoy the book.  Although brevity also counted in its favour.

The book is a fictionalised memoir of Coetzee’s time at university and as a young man in London and Bracknell.  He certainly spares no pains in making the protagonist antipathetic, and succeeds admirably.

My own reactions were rather more complicated.  I certainly enjoyed the classical economy with which he shows us the hero doing something and you see him and his setting and his relation to his setting without it all having to be spelled out in painful detail.  But on a second reading I found the repeated questionings about the nature and mission of the artist a bit deadening and distancing.

Coetzee lived the experiences he described in the first person and the past tense, but he describes them in the third person and the present tense.  This both distances them and prevents easy identification (third person) and holds them in front of your eyes so you can’t get away from them or put them in perspective (present tense).

Try Books! wanted to know what the point of the book was.  My first answer was that it was a kind of anti-Bildungsroman, or a satire on the genre.  Instead of the hero experiencing inner growth as the result of his experiences and so becoming an artist and getting the girl, he feels lonely and miserable and unable to cope.  And doesn’t write anything.  Moreover, instead of the eternal feminine drawing him upwards, the idea of the one woman with whom he will be consumed in mutual passion makes it impossible for him to have a normal relationship with real women.

But I’m not sure it’s only the young Coetzee who is being shown up.  If you consider the actual biographical facts presented here, the hero supports himself through university, lives with a woman a decade older than him, has sex with what seems to be rather a lot of women, successfully establishes himself in a new country and works at the cutting edge of technology with the cleverest men of that country, completes a higher degree…That’s all rather imposing, but we don’t see it–it’s hidden in plain view.

So who’s inadequate now?

Perhaps he’s still the same old clever young man saying I’ll show you all these things and you won’t see them, because you’re stupid and I’m not.

Government Inspector Young Vic 16 June

June 16, 2011


Picture from

There were two main things this production lacked for me.  It was  an opera–in fact, an archetypal ENO staging–without music or without enough music anyway.  It was also  Gogol’ without the  tacky vulgarity raised to the status of existential horror (poshlost’ in a word), and that poshlost’ spread thinly over a vacuum that threatens to consume all at any moment.  What you see in the picture above is not poshlost’ but normal healthy bad taste that any right-thinking person would wish to see in his home.

What we got instead was whacked over the head with bits of funny business: NOW laugh, NOW laugh, NOW laugh…Julian Barratt as the Mayor did a very good impression of a former boss of mine, but both he and Kyle Soller as Khlestyakov were really too straightforward and…err…normal.  This could be a another case of ‘What do I expect if I go to something I know too much about?’ since in my time I’ve both played the Mayor in this piece and been mistaken for an important visitor in the Russian provinces.

Yes I remember now–the Mayor here made no attempt to approach the required level of slavish Oriental abasement.

I would have been quite interested to see how they did the dumb scene at the end, but I was so bored I’d started trying to read the back of my programme-cum-playscript.  [Gets out p-cum-s.]  Well, it’s not a dumb scene in the script here!  A very good job I went home to do my cleaning…

С Тремя сестрами по Ноттингему

June 12, 2011

А здесь какая широкая, какая богатая река! Чудесная река!

Только странно, вокзал железной дороги в двадцати верстах...

Господи Боже мой, мне Москва снится каждую ночь, я совсем как помешанная.

Я не помню, как по-итальянски окно или вот потолок.

Так рассказывают, будтo Соленый и барон встретились вчера на бульваре около театра...

Город наш существует уже двести лет, в нем сто тысяч жителей и ни одного, который не был бы похож на других,[…

Three Sisters Theatre Royal Nottingham 11 June

June 11, 2011


Picture from Eastwood Advertiser

I took advantage of my train journey to Nottingham for this show by Cheek by Jowl’s Russian company to re-read the play.  I wasn’t entirely convinced.  It seemed to be too long for what Chekhov had to say.    I wasn’t convinced by this show either.  In typical CbJ style, we had a bare stage with some furniture and props scattered about.  This became especially problematic in the third act, which revolves around people from the dangerous and dirty outside world of the fire intruding into the room that Olga and Irina now share.  Irina also has to remark that she has forgotten the Italian for window, or for that ceiling, which left her gesturing helplessly into emptiness.

At the interval, the lady sitting next to me said that the characters running round the stage to get to their positions was a bit odd, and the fact that all the military were in the same uniforms was confusing.  She was quite right, though I think the first of these is just the way CbJ do things.

I imagine the basic idea of this production was that these people aren’t really grown-up, as was evidenced by the dolls’ house that was prominently displayed on various parts of the stage in each act.  I thought the part of Natalya Ivanovna the lower-middle-class sister-in-law was dreadfully overplayed (by Ekaterina Sibiryakova).  That’s lower-middle-class, not peasant-from-farmyard.  In fact, there was quite a lot of overplaying– the essence here is the sudden changes of mood, not the underlining of them with screaming and shouting.  At one stage we were being beaten into the famous laughter-through-tears with Masha hysterical at the departure of Vershinin, her husband in the false whiskers he had confiscated at school, and a gunshot off signalling the death of Irina’s fiance.  NOW cry NOW laugh NOW cry again.  It should be more subtle than that.

Irina Grineva as Masha (from CbJ site)

The cast didn’t necessarily have a great afternoon in front of a non-Russian-speaking audience.  Mikhail Zhigalov (Chebutykin), Alexander Feklistov (Vershinin) and Evgenia Dmitrieva (Olga) all fluffed some lines, and  some other lines were just inaudible.  Irina Grineva (Masha) came off best, as the only character inhabiting the adult world of competing demands and not in the end retreating into childish fantasy.

Rita/Iolanta GSMD 9 June

June 10, 2011


More interesting part of poster

The first thing to say about Rita is that the audience laughed frequently and spontaneously, a rarity in opera outside Gianni Schicchi in my experience.  In this Donizetti one-acter, Rita is the owner of a bar who believes in order and discipline and beats her husband Beppe.  Then her believed-to-be dead first husband Gasparo–who believed in beating her–turns up and they contend to see which one won’t have her.  With hilarious consequences.

There was a lot of inspired comic business–Beppe unvacuuming the premises in response to his sudden freedom, a fight in slow-motion, some other less tasteful things that Beppe got up to, a good gully catch by Bortolo the servant.  The singers were well-matched–perhaps Anna Patalong was still a bit too lovely even under her severe get-up, and Alberto Sousa as Beppe entered into the comic aspects of his role with such gusto that as well as enjoying an immediate rapport with the front row of the audience that he once or twice lost concentration as regards singing.

The orchestra played pretty well once they’d got started–the woodwind caused me some anxiety at the beginning.  The set was a corner representing the interior of a typical Italian bar, except that the signage was in English and you could get tea and sandwiches–perhaps that was one idea too many…

When we came to Iolanta, there were many ideas all too obviously on show.  The corner had transformed itself into a disused swimming pool in a Soviet-era psychiatric hospital with access from the upper level via a ladder you had to let down each time.  The swimming pool was adorned with some rose-bushes, a four-poster bed for Iolanta, and many tree roots for the poor blind girl to trip over.

The problem with all this is that Iolanta is very uneven–there are passages of strong passionate music like pure emotion and there is rather a lot of bombast, bluster and trash as well.  Enforcing all those breaks in the action as characters clambered into and out of the pool just underlined the unevenness.  I saw another production of this opera at the Guildhall a decade or so ago where the setting comprised a bare stage, a rosebush darkness, and darkness when required–that kept it going and it was wonderful.

On this occasion, I was impressed by how Natalya Romaniw (Iolanta) had completely mastered the vocal demands of her role.  I was also very taken by Sioned Gwen Davies as Marta–she genuinely seemed to be old and her Russian was very good as well.

At the end all the crap on stage tried to turn into stars amidst the darkness of night and it didn’t really work.

But all in all a highly enjoyable evening of opera, more so than the great majority of full-length productions I’ve been too recently.

(There are some interesting photos in Opera Britannia’s review here.)

The Leaden Echo Leonid Desyatnikov

June 5, 2011


This is all right.  There are ostinati and indulgent passages of violin writing.  It’s all very expertly performed.  The problem for me is that the composer Desyatnikov is determined not to show us anything of himself.  The extensive and interesting notes make the same point by way of a quotation from The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

So the CD contains:

Return which builds up to a sample of traditional Japanese funeral music; so variations in reverse I suppose

A triptych of pieces (Du côté de chez Swan, Variations on the Obtaining of a Dwelling and Wie der Alte Leiermann…) that derive respectively from Le cygne, Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, and the song by Schubert.  All of these pieces left me asking ‘Why?’

The Leaden Echo a setting for counter-tenor and smallish ensemble of part of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  On the one hand, the musical manner is that of Purcell’s approach to setting English words as filtered through Britten, but without Britten’s economy.  On the other hand, leaving out the Golden Echo means we get something that Britten has already done a great deal better in his setting of the Lyke-Wake Dirge.  It also leaves Hopkins expounding And wisdom is early to despair, which sounds more like A E Housman and is not what GMH meant to say here.  But then I would have had no idea of what William Purefoy was singing without looking at the texts.

Finally Main theme from motion picture Moscow Nights is what it says: high-grade film music.

I very much preferred Desyatnikov’s Russian Seasons.  There the original material had sufficient emotional content and closeness to him to draw out something…good…the refusal to either poke fun or sentimentalise in itself told you something…


La carte et le territoire (Michel Houellebecq)

June 5, 2011


This latest and indeed prize-winning book by Michel Houellebecq is at least overtly the story of Jed Martin, an artist who first of all photographs mechanical components, then Michelin maps; then he produces paintings of people at work as a result of which he becomes very rich and shuts himself away in rural seclusion.  At the end of his life he produces works in video showing objects of memory being slowly destroyed by an encroaching nature.  He also makes the acquaintance of the writer Michel Houellebecq, who is first of all sinking into depression (and failing in personal hygiene) while living in Ireland, then perks up after returning to France before coming to a bad end.

I certainly enjoyed the book, though a lot of the satire on important French media and political types passed me by.  I wonder what Frédéric Beigbeder thought of being assigned a lifespan of 71 years?  Well, it’s more than Houellebecq gave himself anyway.  The description of the art world, and in particular Jed’s works, was very well done I thought.  The superimposed timelapse images of decay and destruction as described at the end definitely frightened me.  Since they’re essentially constructive and don’t require any manual skill to execute, I wonder why Houellebecq doesn’t have a go at producing them himself.  Maybe he feels he’s already done that in his books.

The features of the Houellebecq novel are present and correct:  Michel Houellebecq, against the world, against life, as he himself might put it.  But I’m going to try to see what positive values there are at least implicit here.

Jed Martin has two (serious) girlfriends:  Genevieve from Madagascar and Olga from Russia.  Clearly they represent two poles.  Genevieve regards her art as a game and her works are described sympathetically.  She works as an escort to support herself (and Jed to an extent) and contracts a stable marriage with one of her clients.  There are some picturesque Madagascan customs described that involve digging up the dead and having them take part in family occasions.

Olga puts her career before Jed when she leave him to go back to Russia.  She features as parasitically connected to the art world.  Her father is an academic entomologist.

Clearly Genevieve is on the side of the good things–she has a proper French name,  after all.  Commercial sex gets a good write-up, on the grounds that the act is purified if not sanctified by payment, and burial is from many angles presented as superior to cremation.  She also gets the chance to start a family.  Contrariwise, Olga fails to develop a family life when she returns to Russia and insects feature very prominently as sources of disgust.

The discussions that Jed has with his father about Charles Fourier, and with Houellebecq about William Morris, seem to revolve around the idea of work for work’s sake, or intrinsic motivation to put it in terms that Houellebecq would severely object to.  There is no sign that doing their work actually causes anyone any satisfaction, unless it’s Marylin the publicist who needs something to compensate the complete emptiness of her personal life.  In fact, I think the only affect Jed derives from his work is when the picture of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst dividing up the art market makes him sick.  Since it says art market theirs is purely extrinsic motivation, see…

Then there are Jasselin’s dogs as the caricature of a child, in the end condemned to childlike as sexuality, so a child would be a good thing.  And Jed’s social network, a few bare branches, so a luxuriantly intertwined tree would be a good thing…

This looks not too different from  mainline European (not Anglo-American) conservatism to me.  And with added sex, though we’re finding it a bit difficult by now:  sexuality is a fragile thing, it is difficult to enter and easy to leave.  I don’t think you can call his views Vichy, since the unwelcoming, aggressive and stupid inhabitants of rural France get a pasting, as does the cult of local produce and handicrafts.

But I feel like a typical (self-parodic!) moment of gloom to end with:

La nuit tombait sur la rue Jeanne-d’Arc, les feux rouges des voitures s’éloignaient au ralenti vers le boulevard Vincent-Auriol: Au loin, le dôme du Panthéon était baigné d’une inexplicable lumière verdâtre, un peu comme si des aliens sphériques projetaient une attaque massive sur la région parisienne. Des gens mouraient sans doute, à cette minute même, çà et là, dans la ville.