Archive for September, 2011

Phaedra’s Love Arcola Theatre 28 September

September 28, 2011


Arcola Studio 1--but not this production!

I know that looks like Uncle Vanya up there, but I have a point to make:  you want to sit in the seating in the middle facing the wall (so you can see the video projection on the wall) but not in the front row (unless you want to tangle with Hippolytus’s toy-car-cum-chariot).

I had the idea that this was an adaptation of Seneca’s Phaedra, but that’s not quite it:  it’s more like the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus done in the Senecan manner with lots of extra incest, mutilation, rape etc thrown in for good measure and with dreary existential attitudinising after Caligula (or more distantly Huis Clos) added as well.

So at the beginning Hippolytus is a cynical depressed unwashed slob given to fast food and masturbation and hence women are crazy for him, especially his stepmother Phaedra.  Both Nicholas Shaw (Hippolytus) and Joanna Roth (Phaedra) did this bit very well, and the tension was well maintained in some further incestuous interchanges with their half-sister/daughter Strophe (Emma Keele).

You know what happens next.  Fellatio.   Phaedra dead and Hippolytus accused of rape.  He will not save himself.  Up to here we’d done pretty well really, with the play keeping us securely in the discomfort zone.  Then there was an outbreak of existentialism as Hippolytus sought–welcomed–authenticity at last.  Then there followed mob violence, castration, incestuous anal rape etc not to mention a final lyrical-existential-decadent declaration by Hippolytus regarding vultures.

I think if you’re going to stage that kind of violent excess you need to do it on a really grand scale and try to cow the audience, which is not really possible in this space.

A lot of the time we had rather intrusive sound design (or just sound) and I personally couldn’t make out all the words.  I suppose that Katie Mitchell has decreed that video projections and clipboards (it wasn’t quite a clipboard that Strophe entered with, but near enough) are compulsory in all productions with some classical reference, so it must be so.

But all-in-all worth seeing, and with some impressive playing.

Jerusalem The Biography (Simon Sebag Montefiore)

September 26, 2011


As the title suggests, this book intends to narrate the story of Jerusalem from the earliest times to the present day (or the Six-Day War anyway).  Now that I’ve written it down, it does occur to me that the book rather neglects archaeological evidence in favour of written records, so I’m not too sure about that earliest times bit.  In fact, the way Montefiore took obvious sources such as the Old Testament, Herodotus and Josephus and stitched them together to make a narrative rather worried me too.  There was room for a more critical approach–or perhaps not, given the nature of the book.

This is a place of such delicacy it is described in Jewish sacred literature in the feminine–but cities are always feminine (and very often personified) in the Hebrew Bible.  He seems to have in mind the superheated eroticism of Ezekiel (for instance), but there surely Jerusalem is synecdoche for ‘the Jews’.

I found the passages relating to periods I didn’t know about–the early history of Islam and the Crusades for instance–more interesting.  But there I had the problem that I didn’t understand why at one stage the Crusaders were able to defeat the Arabs and then a bit later the opposite was true.  Again I suppose this is a feature of what the book is doing–reflecting the effect of historical change on one place, not trying to explain or motivate that change.

Towards the end, we had various historical Montefiores quite archly introduced, but I don’t think I ever learned how (whether) they were related to this Montefiore.  Again, I have visited present-day Jerusalem (and as the author points out, what you see there is a lot more recent than people like to think), but the book didn’t evoke it for me.

A bit of a missed opportunity I think.

Orange broadband: I try to escape

September 24, 2011

The Wednesday before last (14 September) I rang up Orange broadband to get a MAC code so that I could move to another provider in the hope of getting a reliable service.  After hanging on the phone for 40 minutes or so I got through to an agent who demanded to know why I wanted to leave.  I pointed out that the service was unreliable–the connection tended to drop, or at other times I couldn’t get a connection at all.  She said that was my fault because I didn’t understand the package or in the alternative I hadn’t got technical support to fix it.  And anyway she could put me on a cheaper package.  I said that the only thing I’d ever been able to get through was a recorded message saying the service was working perfectly, and could I have a MAC code please.  She said that they would send one out in the mail.

I think that providers are obliged to offer you a choice of two ways to receive the code, but never mind…

Of course, it never arrived.  I rang today, pointing out that as well as being unable to provide a service Orange were unwilling to meet their statutory obligations.  The bloke answering the phone tried It’s your fault the service doesn’t work, just keep on giving us the money again, but finally texted me the code.

The really irritating thing is the message as you’re waiting on the phone to say that Orange is committed to excellent customer service.

Елтышевы (Eltyshevy) Roman Senchin

September 15, 2011


Taken at face value, this book tells the story of the Eltyshev family.  The father, Nikolai, is a policeman and the mother, Valentina, works in a library.  They have two sons: Artem, who hangs around all day doing nothing and Denis, who is in prison after inflicting serious injury on someone in a brawl.  Nikolai has failed to successfully fish in muddy waters in the confusion following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the family has a flat and a car.

In an attempt to improve his fortunes, Nikolai gets a posting to a sobering-up station, where he can steal money from prisoners who are too drunk to notice.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t manage to make very much this way and on one occasion he treats the prisoners so badly that several suffer serious damage.  It proves impossible to hush this up, and Nikolai is sacked and given a suspended sentence.  The family also lose their flat, so the family decide to move to the country to live with Valentina’s Aunt Tatyana.

The book is essentially about how the family and its members disintegrate in the new milieu.  Nikolai pays in advance for building supplies that do not appear while Artem finds himself married to the girl the local youth say is not already spoken for, and she turns out to be the village…slag.  Nikolai fails to make progress in building a house.  Artem fails to make progress at all, except he does manage to go to town and work as a builder with colleagues from the criminal world.  Valentina finds herself selling honeysuckle berries in a market where formerly she used to shop, and a former colleague of hers declines in the end to buy from her…The family first of all refuse, and then agree, to make a living by selling illicit alcohol.

The author manages to maintain interest in all of this by an economical and taut style.  It’s very well done, and I found myself wanting to know what would happen next.  Indeed I kept on nurturing the hope of a turn for the better, even though I knew it would never happen.  And I believed it all–the depiction of the awfulness of life in the Russian countryside, the impossible climate, stupid lazy and dishonest inhabitants, and absence of everything that makes life at all tolerable was completely in accord with what I know about the subject.

The question then is what does this mean.  A simple (even simple-minded) answer is that Nikolai and Valentina are people of the Soviet period, which kind of worked in a rather uninspired way.  Then the next generation are either thugs (Denis) or completely ineffectual (Artem).  Nikolai’s combination of long periods of drunken inactivity with outbursts of fatal violence is also freighted with associations, since like Ivan the Terrible he kills his son accidentally in a brawl and other people as well…Again the policeman and the librarian seem to be symbolic of the Soviet period–on the one hand, ordered violence and controlled corruption and on the other cheap diluted institutionalised culture (which she immediately forgets all about in the village).  Sounds a lot like good old symbolic realism to me.  It’s got a bit of that William Golding air:  they’re bad and weak and bad things happen to then and their faults and feebleness destroy them.

There’s surely a lot to think about here!  The Russian criticism as reflected here apparently falls into two camps:  either it’s a realistic depiction of things falling apart in post-Soviet society or it’s a study of the destruction of the characters just because Senchin felt like it.  Well the first can’t be entirely right  because you wouldn’t choose such inherently unsympathetic characters as a dishonest cop who oversteps the line and the inhabitants of a Russian village in that case.  So the second one is probably nearer the mark.  But it’s important to note that it’s very well done.  There really are no positive characters or moments, apart perhaps from unreliable transient instances of beauty and fertility in the countryside; but it’s not at all flat or uninteresting, as could easily be the case.

Later:  I see that I am in complete and independent agreement with Lizok’s Bookshelf on this one.  Though I can’t say I share her enthusiasm for Happiness is possible, which is being published in English.

Rachel’s Hebrew Class 2011-12

September 14, 2011

Rachel Montagu has kindly sent some details of her Advanced Biblical Hebrew course for 2011-12.  This stands in place of the course she used to teach at Birkbeck.

Rachel’s courses work in the classic 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. 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.

Here is the outline for this year’s class. We will be meeting on Thursdays 6.30-8.30 at New Fetter Lane, subject to confirmation.

Hebrew Class Outline 2011-12

Autumn Term

Isaiah – Prophet of Grief and Hope

15th  September Isaiah 1:1-23

22nd September Isaiah 1:24-31, 2:1-17

[29th September no class – Rosh HaShanah]

6th October Isaiah 2:17-22, 3:1-17

[13th October no class – Succot]

[20th October no class – Simchat Torah]

[27th October – half term]

3rd November Isaiah 3:18-26, 4:1-6, 5:1-10

10th November Isaiah 5:11-30, 6:1-4

17th November Isaiah 6:5-13, 7:1-17

24rd November Isaiah 7:18-25, 8:1-15

1st December Isaiah 8:16-23, 9:1-6

Haggai – God’s House and God’s Servant

8th December Haggai 1:1-15, 2:1-7

15th December Haggai 2:8-23, Zechariah 4:1-10

Spring Term

David and Saul

12th January 1 Samuel 18:1-20

19th January 1 Samuel 18:21-30, 19:1-7

26th January 1 Samuel 19:8-24, 20:1-4

2nd  February 1 Samuel 20:24-34, 40-42, 22:6-8, 23:1-7

9th February 1 Samuel 14-28 24:1-9

[16th February half term]

23rd February 1 Samuel 24:10-23, 26:17-25, 27:1-4

1st March 1 Samuel 28:3, 7-19, 31:1-5, 2 Samuel 1:23-27

Gideon the Strong Hero

8th March Judges 6:7-32

15th March Judges 6:33-40, 7:1-14

22nd March Judges 7:15-24, 8:22-35

29th March Judges 9:1-15, 21:25

Summer Term

The Wise (?) Man  and his Wiser Donkey

19th April Numbers 22:2-23

26th April Numbers 22:24-40. 23:1-6

3rd May Numbers 23:7-29

10th May Numbers 24:1-25

Abraham and Lot: How to be an Alien

17th May Gen 14:1-21

24th May Gen 16:1-16, 21:9-21

31st May Gen.19:1-25,

[7st June half term]

14th June Gen:19:26-37, 23:1-12

21st June Gen 23:13-21, 25:1-11


28th June Psalm 113:1-8, 114:1-8, 115:1-18,

5th July Psalm 116:1-19, 117:1-2, 118:1-12,

12th July Psalm 118:12-29, 119:1-8, 73-80,

17th July Psalm 119:65-72, Psalm – class choice

A New Way To Pay Old Debts Rose Theatre 13 September

September 14, 2011


'Mind the body!'

 The unimpressive photograph above shows the layout for performance:  banked seating around three sides of a playing area and the excavations beyond the railing left in darkness.

The play (by Philip Massinger, dating from 1625) concerns the evil machinations of Sir Giles Overreach, aimed at beggaring his neighbours and marrying his daughter into the nobility, in the shape of Lord Lovell.  His most wretched victim is Wellborn, formerly landed and well-off as well, whom he has reduced to destitution.  Since this is a comedy, you can safely assume that the evil machinations are frustrated, the young lovers are united, and virtue is triumphant.

The staging was clear and direct, and the whole affair was rather jolly.  It would not be entirely true to say that all the actors were perfect in their lines.  Of those who were, the standout performance came from Josh Rochford in the two roles of Marrall, Sir Giles’s wicked (later repentant) henchman and Tapwell the proprietor of a low dive.  Thomas Shirley also projected youth and innocence effectively in the role of Allworth.  Kyra Williams was very charming as Lady Allworth, virtuous widow and stepmother of the last-mentioned, though not always perfect in her lines.  Keith Chanter as Sir Giles tended to intone his lines in a rather distant fashion, preceded by spreading his arms, none of which was I thought a good idea.  Wellborn is supposed to be the engine of the plot, but as played by Frankie Spires he was rather standing around waiting for something to happen.

I think this production is certainly worth seeing, but probably later on in the run when everyone has become intimate with their part.  And the Rose Theatre is interesting to visit anyway, as well as having a very friendly front-of-house.

Oh What A Lovely War Greenwich Theatre 10 September

September 11, 2011


–President Wilson is very concerned about the War.
–I hear he’s a sick man.
–Yes, he’s an idealist.

That repartee certainly put this blog in its place!

As everyone knows, Oh What A Lovely War retails the history of WWI in the form of a pierrot show.  In this production by Blackeyed Theatre, it was performed by five male actors, so the picture above shows two important details–female impersonation and a video screen.

I rather felt we know all that:  It was a stupid waste of lives.  So what’s new? Some of the scenes, like the conference between monoglot Allied commanders or  soldiers literally going like lambs to the slaughter still retained some shock value, but one never felt that the war party might have any ounce of sense or that patriotism might be anything other than hogwash.

Maybe you just need larger forces to bring it off convincingly?  The five performances here certainly danced, sang and acted with great commitment, and I especially enjoyed the singing and female impersonation from Paul Morse.

As stated on the company’s website, this show will be touring to all kinds of places until the end of November.

Richard III Old Vic 09 September

September 11, 2011

Not quite what we saw from our coign of vantage (picture from

This production starred Kevin Spacey in the title role.  The first half seemed to be more Ubu Roi than Shakespeare:  farce and corpses.   I approved of the repeated elimination of royals`and nobles of course, but could have done with fewer words.   Some cuts might have been in order:  the text of a Shakespeare play is helpfully considered as the totality of what might be given under the title of say Richard III rather than what one would give in a specific performance.  I wasn’t convinced by the seduction of Lady Anne either:  it resembled a schoolboy proof of a mathematical theorem, which starts with a statement of the problem, ends with the desired answer, and has something you’re not meant to look at very closely in the middle.

After the interval, things improved and I was impressed by a scene between Richard and Queen Elizabeth that developed Aeschylean power and scope.  At the end Kevin Spacey got a standing ovation from most of the audience.  Since the production largely involved him standing downstage centre with others disposed symmetrically in respect of him, I’d assumed he was the director too.  But no, Sam Mendes was credited.

I felt that the production suffered from a lack of contrast:  if the realm really consists of a few square metres of bare boards with no apparent sign of beauty, nobility, or wealth, then there’s really nothing shocking in what Richard does (and we’re back to Jarry or perhaps Pinter).

The Rape of Lucretia BYO Peacock Theatre 07 September

September 8, 2011


Symmetry is violated for once (picture from BYO site)

Let’s start with the good news:  enough of what is in my opinion the most beautiful music in all opera (outside of Cosi fan tutte) came across to engage the audience at critical moments, and the ensembles were uniformly lovely.

On the trial match side of things, Kate Symonds-Joy as Lucretia’s nurse Bianca can surely see her name inked in on the teamsheet of a successful career, especially after her earlier run-out in Il Giasone.  Although they quite often seemed disengaged (that trial match feeling again), each of Barnaby Rea (Collatinus), Ashley Riches (Prince Tarquinius) and Rowan Hellier (Lucretia) did manage to pull something out on occasions when it mattered.

But…but…both the orchestra (Southbank Sinfonia, under the direction of Peter Robinson) and the production (director Martin Lloyd-Evans) seemed to be in difficulties coming to terms with the piece.  I do wonder how many of the singers will have been audible beyond the first few rows, and I don’t think that any of the singers playing the  noble characters really inhabited their roles.

The orchestral playing was often stolid and leaden, lacking in subtlety and variation, while the production frequently resorted to arranging the performers symmetrically around the one downstage centre, and in the worst case they stood in a line staring at the audience.  I think that this approach should be severely avoided in what is anyway a rather static piece; and having the characters symmetrically disposed in empty space only compounds the offence.

The production also decided that it was going to tell us what to think about the notorious disconnect between the words and music in the “so that’s all right” ending.*

But as I said I believe that enough came across to make a rewarding evening.

Is it all?
Is all this suffering and pain
Is this in vain?
Does this old world grow old in sin alone?
Can we attain nothing
But wider oceans of our own tears?
And it, can it gain nothing
But drier deserts of forgotten years?
For this did I see with my undying eye
His warm blood spill
Upon that hill
And dry upon that Cross?
Is this all loss? Are we lost?
Answer us
Or let us die in our wilderness.
Is it all? Is this it all?
It is not all.
Though our nature’s still as frail
And we still fall, and that great crowd’s no less
Along that road endless and uphill;
For now he bears our sin and does not fall
And He, carrying all turns round
Stoned with our doubt and then forgive us all.
For us did He live with such humility
For us did He die that we might live, and He
Wounds that we make and scars that we are.
In His Passion is our hope
Jesus Christ, Saviour. He is all! He is all!

Since time commenced or life began
Great love has been defiled by fate or man.
Now with worn words and these brief notes we
To harness song to human tragedy.


The Golden Dragon Arcola Theatre 02 September

September 3, 2011


Picture from Edinburgh production

Actors Touring Company kindly sent me an email: ATC would love to invite you to see the show on our official Press Night which will take place on Friday 2nd September. If you are unable to attend the Press Night we would be happy for you to come along on to our Preview Night on Thursday 1st September. Both performances begin at 7.30pm. We will provide you with a free ticket to the performances of your choice as a thank you for your time. 

I was interested to see what a theatre full of bloggers would look like and I’d heard of playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, so I thought I would go along but pay for my own ticket to ensure the complete impartiality of this blog.

As a first approximation we got something like Georges Perec (La vie mode d’emploi) adapated by Bertolt Brecht and staged in the poor theatre style of Jerzy Grotowski, with plenty of stage directions spoken by the actors, men playing women, old actors playing young characters, undersized furniture…a good night of modern European theatre.

The action concerned the staff and customers of a Vietnamese-Chinese-Thai restaurant and other people living in the block of flats it was located in.  So far so Perec, although the addition of the Ant and the Grasshopper from Aesop stretched the boundaries a bit.  As things went on, these stories blended into each other, we encountered a Rabelais-style kingdom-in-a-tooth, the alienation effects were moderated and some of the characters even gained names.  On the other hand, the jokes also grew less frequent and the audience laughed less.

The ending once more played with our expectations of an ending (and offered an instead-of-an-ending, though we could call the rotten tooth spat into the river the objective correlative of a Joycean epiphany I  suppose).  But all in all a good evening of modern European theatre without needing to go beyond E8, even if £ 17 for 70 minutes of five actors and 70p worth of props seems a bit steep.  And you feel hungry again as soon as it’s finished…

Oh yes, the audience–they did appear to be younger, better-looking and more intelligent than the average…