Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Mr Jones, Curzon Victoria 14 February

February 29, 2020

***

mrjones

This film started with a typical Ukrainian wooden house in a field of typical Ukrainian wheat and in the house the Ukrainian writer George Orwell is writing Animal Farm.

Apart from that, the action presumably takes place in 1933 when Gareth Jones, who has just been made redundant as Lloyd George’s secretary and has previously succeeded in interviewing Hitler in an aeroplane travels to Moscow in the hope of interviewing Stalin and finding out there the money to pay for forced industrialisation is coming from.  By that stage of course there was a National Government without Lloyd George, so the reference to him and Ramsay Macdonald sorting out the economic crisis made little sense.

Anyway, once in the Soviet Union Jones manages to escape his minder on a trip to Kharkov and tramp round the Ukrainian countryside observing scenes of hunger, death and cannibalism.  He also has to contend with Walter Duranty, the senior foreign correspondent in Moscow, who expounds the official line that there is no famine, really.  Then we get what seems to be an entirely fictional entanglement with the Metro-Vickers trial  and the British engineers being held hostage for Jones’s silence.  Similarly, the idea that Orwell was converted to anti-Communism by Jones’s account rather than his own experiences in the Spanish Civil War is…strange…

So the mingling of fact and fantasy was unsatisfactory, which can leave people wondering about the historicity of the Ukrainian famine.  Another question would be what the actual story is meant to be. If it’s about the famine in Ukraine, then why does it only exist when a Westerner finds out about it?  If it’s about the discovery of the famine, then Malcolm Muggeridge for instance had already written about it.  As the subject of a film, the story of Duranty could have been better, or compare-and-contrast of him and Jones as very able men who could not easily find a place in normal life.

 

Macbeth, Greenwich Theatre 28 February

February 29, 2020

***

macbeth

Picture from Davy’s Wine Vaults/Twitter

The Lazarus Theatre production of Macbeth at the Greenwich Theatre was manly, clear and straightforward, at least when you could make out the words.  (A scene with Macduff’s pregnant wife addressing her bump was almost entirely lost on me, and it was sometimes difficult to understand what Lady Macbeth was saying.)

In line with manliness, the witches were male and as well as having some witchy exchanges cut they wore gas masks in one scene,  The direct approach meant that the pace of the action and there was on occasion the feeling that the cast just wanted to get it over with quickly.  There was no real distinction between the external world of action and heroism and the inner one of evil, obsession and femininity.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow raised a small shiver at the end, while Macbeth’s address to sleep was rather thrown away as he busied himself with washing off blood.  The murderers waylaid Banquo in complete darkness, rather contrary to their own words on the occasion.  Duncan became simply a comic figure at times.  The scene where Malcolm relates his imaginary failings to Macduff was even more tedious than normal, though that probably can’t be helped.

It was one of those productions where you can ask yourself what they are quarrelling over–if there is no glory, magnificence or colour (apart from Lady Macbeth’s dress) then what is the point.  But it will have been useful in helping anyone studying the text for an exam remember who the characters are and what they do.

Oedipus King, Theatro Technis 18 January

January 19, 2020

**

oedipusking

Overexposed picture I acquired from Twitter

They are certainly very nice people at Theatro Technis, and go out of their way to make you feel part of the family.  At the end of the production, director George Eugeniou made an affecting appearance to thank the audience and to point out the contemporary relevance of the play.  His idea was that Sophocles had reflected in Oedipus the character of his friend Pericles, who had done much good for Athens but also lead it down the road of empire.  And now our world was beset by charismatic, dishonest leaders like Trump, Erdogan and Boris Johnson.

As for the production itself, there was some effective direction in for instance the reaction of individual chorus members to the news of Jocasta’s death, and the creation of striking stage pictures, as in the stolen and overexposed picture above.

BUT it was very difficult to make out what any of the actors were saying, even the native speakers of Standard English, so anyone who did not already know the piece would have been baffled.  ALSO the curse of naturalistic acting, when what was needed to stand and deliver (clearly!) ALSO the chorus neither danced nor sang.  ALSO there should have been some indication that Oedipus and Jocasta are King and Queen and so set apart.  ALSO the translation by Don Taylor depressingly combined inexactness with the bureaucratic-colloquial register.  ALSO the family feeling included audience members recording proceedings on their mobile phones, which distracted me at least.

Twelfth Night, Brockley Jack 16 January

January 17, 2020

***

Twelfth-Night-cast-Brockley-Jack

As far as we know, this comedy was first performed on the sixth of January (the twelfth day of Christmas) 1601, while in the play Antonio advises Sebastian

In the south suburbs, at the Elephant,
Is best to lodge (III.iii.39-40)

So Brockley on the 16th of January was pretty close both in time and space, and appropriately enough this production was very much mainline pub theatre Shakespeare.  In particular, ID tags, mobile phones and messages from electronic devices were very much in evidence.

At the beginning I was just alienated by the people rushing around but then I was drawn in by the poetry and the combination of absolute beauty with absolutely accurate psychological insight.  I enjoyed the boyish charm of Jessica Kinsey playing Viola playing Cesario.  The character of Feste was elided, so his machinations fell to Maria, while Olivia was very much a no-nonsense North Country lass who seemed to be mourning as a matter of form to pass the time.

The audience laughed or at least chuckled quite frequently, which is far from a given at Shakespeare comedies, and this was a very reliable performance of a very reliable comedy.

But what interested me was Olivia with her hard-bitten morning and her name that contains ‘Viola’, as does Malvolio’s name.  First of all, I thought that as in some kind of student clique Olivia (I, Viola) was trying to get in on the sibling mourning thing, while Malvolio (Viola, olm)  was trying to get in on Olivia, just not very adroitly.

Then I decided that in fact this was all an hallucination of the drowning Sebastian, where he fantasises Olivia as a longed-for ideal of salvation but Malvolio (who remains unreconciled) serves a a reminder that all is not well.  In fact, Sebastian is deluded and confined like Malvolio but in a watery grave.

When Malvolio says

I will be revenged on the whole pack of you! (V.i.380)

he will indeed, for they are all dead…

Antigone, New Diorama Theatre 1500 11 January

January 12, 2020

**

Antigone

This was the story of Antigone reflected in the world of two girls too young to go drinking.  I found that painful, with the heroism and beauty of the original dismissed without hope of appeal and what felt like a lot of overextended improvisation of sisters arguing and sistering.  They occasionally got to imitate some other characters as well.

I just about managed to last out an hour by concentrating on Ismene’s spangly sneakers and counting the number of people in the audience and fantasising about a clear run to the doorway.

Once again somebody had missed the point that tragedy is about things happening to people who are adults and are able to comprehend and react to events as adults.  That is tragic, bundles of suffering crushed by the incomprehensible is just disgusting.

After Antigone’s death there followed what I thought was a rather affecting momologue by Ismene covering first sexual experience, marriage, childbirth, social obligations, widowhood, being left unoccupied in a big house.  It would have been better if the actress had spoken more clearly.

So then I thought the playwright wanted to ask what a woman’s life is for.  First of all Antigone tries to be like a man and act in the world and then Ismene although damaged experiences family life and a husband and going to ceremonies with relatives, but all the will and intellect is just the emptiness of unused rooms.

I quickly made my way to the NDT unisex toilets, and then home.  See also  Greek Drama in London 2020.

 

 

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer, Hampstead Theatre 1500 7 December

December 8, 2019

***

ravens

Part of Soviet delegation looking worried

So this was a play about the Spassky vs Fischer World Chess Championship Match of 1972.  It began with the actors playing the Soviet delegation (or Spassky’s team) speaking in what they thought was Russian.  Then they changed to English.

The curse of realism was certainly avoided, often by use of what one audience member near me described as antics.  Nikolai Krogius,  a psychologist and perhaps the leader of Spassky’s team, was played by Rebecca Scroggs, and the resemblance was not striking.

krogius

Rebecca Scroggs as Nikolai Krogius

krogius1

Nikolai Krogius as Nikolai Krogius

Russia and the Soviet Union

More of a concern was the fact that Ms Scroggs  as Krogius seemed the one of Spassky’s team who was most willing to compromise with reality, while the Russian Wikipedia article lays great stress on his pedantic nature and prominent position in the Soviet sports bureaucracy.  Oh yes; Spassky’s team referred to Russia  rather than the Soviet Union, and were equipped with regional accents which might have been meant to indicate that Geller was from  Ukraine and Nei from Estonia.  They also referred to ‘the Kremlin’ (impossible) rather than ‘Moscow’,  ‘the Committee’, ‘them’…

Drama

The main problem with the play–allowing that the average punter does not want to know about either chess or Russian history–was that it did not seem to know what it wanted to be about.  The Cold War as a kind of myth (like the Trojan War say) was not really developed (in spite of phone calls from Henry Kissinger), while we had indications of Tennessee Williams (Fischer as a self-deluding fantasist confronting his mother , but you need to be a proper failure for that to work), Fridrikh Gorenshtein (Spassky describing his life in the orphanage), Philip Glass (repetitive music, repetitive movements, stylised video displays), and probably many others.  If we were left with anything, it was the portrayal of Fischer as a deranged narcissistic individual, of an extremity that is probably unfair for the Fischer of 1972 (but not later, see the film).

Chess 

As for chess, I think you should at least get the words right.  Instead of a match consisting of individual games we had a tournament made up of matches.  The initial drawing of lots (to determine colours) was described by some phrase I didn’t understand, and instead of the score of a game we had a move list.  Spassky’s seconds are shown preparing for Game 3 in the certainty that Fischer would defend 1. d4 with the King’s Indian, when he had already played something different–the Nimzo-Indian–in Game 1.

Nobody even now really understands why the Soviet side didn’t just have Fischer defaulted when he didn’t appear at the beginning of the match, though the play follows the explanation given by Spassky that he just wanted to play.

Fischer and Spassky

You don’t really understand that Fischer had won the Candidates’ Matches in annihilatory fashion or that he had a long history of impossible demands about playing conditions, which seemed to be partly a reflection of a tortured psyche and partly attempting to get an advantage.  He is made to say that he plays not to win but to avoid losing, when one great difference between him and the Soviet professionals of his era was that he played to win (nearly) all the time.  His statement that you only know somebody when you’ve crushed their ego by playing them at chess could have been combined with the similarities between him and Spassky (disturbed childhood in many different places, absent fathers, raised by their mothers, sisters played an important part…)

Fischer’s Icelandic security-cum-minder tells a story about how Flóki Vilgerðarson found Iceland by releasing ravens from his boat until the third one headed of determinedly towards the North-West, whereupon Floki followed it and arrived in Reykjavik.  The suggestion is that Fischer is another such pathfinder; but he refers to becoming The Muhammad Ali of chess so in the world of the play the cult of celebrity already exists.

Endgame

It all seemed very long, as many people said in the audience.  But I only checked once to see that my watch was still going and it gave me something to think about/disagree with

Sorry We Missed You, East Dulwich Picturehouse 14 November

November 15, 2019

sorry

So after I, Daniel Blake we get another tale of the deserving poor of Newcastle.

The story concerns Ricky Turner, a construction worker who turns ‘self-employed’ delivery driver and the effect the gig economy has on him, his wife Abby (employed as a carer) and his children, Seb and Liza Jane.  The lad playing Seb did an excellent impression of a schooldays friend of mine from Brotton, say 60 miles away, but then the deserving poor of the North East do not go in for much variety.  Liza Jane on the other hand was just Lisa Simpson with a spelling mistake…There were times at the beginning when the actress playing Abby seemed to be overcome with world-weariness at having to mouth such dismal platitudes…

Unlike Daniel Blake, we got a lot of how people in Newcastle talk as imagined by those who have never been there, and very few nostalgia-inducing shots of the pace itself.

The family seemed to be living in rental squalor in a run-down upstairs Tyneside flat, which already begins not to make sense–if you’ve got a family and no money it’s at least worthwhile putting your name down for a council house.  We also got to see an overcrowded A&E and the houses of various clients of Abby’s who share with her improving moments of working-class history.

The hospital was after Ricky had been attacked and robbed of his valuable packages by a group of scrotes who had come prepared with a sack to put stuff in so they must have known where he would be, but how?  Maybe ESP.  That was early in the morning when he had a full load and we got to see the hospital in the evening, yeah it makes sense.  You could ask why he wore his Man U shirt so encouraging timewasting banter when he wanted to get round quickly or what happened to the money he made when he was providing blameless service on a good route or indeed  lots of other things.

Then again I had some sympathy with the boss Evil Bastard Maloney, who unlike the others had clearly read his Marx before expounding his views on the cash (now modernised to data) nexus, but if you are really living by results rather than incarnate evil you don’t immediately crack down on somebody who has previously been a good provider.

It is probably pointless to point out that operatives who are told what to do, how to do it and when to do it would not count as self-employed for tax purposes or to complain at Seb’s obligatory Black friend (about 2% of the population  of Newcastle have at least some African ancestry, so it’s possible but very formulaic).

Apart from the caricature of life in Newcastle, the real problem is that you need to start with the characters and their relationships and then the way that external circumstances get into them if you’re going to call it a drama, otherwise make a documentary.

 

Bellingcat, Bertha Dochouse 25 June

June 27, 2019

****
bellingcat

Bellingcat:  Truth in a Post-Truth World explained how you could work out hidden things from open-source data, and the basis seemed to be that if bad guys were going to flood social media with disinformation they would give away more than they realised.  Eliot Higgins made a charismatic and very English lead figure, and I finally got the point about the MH17 incident–there is not much that can shoot down something flying at the altitude of a civilian airliner.

On the other hand, I did not get much of a feeling for how the members of Bellingcat had assembled themselves into a group in the first place or indeed who it was we heard of extending financial support to Eliot Higgins in the telephone.  The academic talking heads we saw had sensible things to say, but we never found out who exactly they were or what their perspective was.  The film correctly laid emphasis on transparency–or, as I would say, reproducibility–but did not give any examples of Bellingcat’s results being reproduced or verified by other actors.

Eliot Higgins was keen to stress that everything came from open sources, but I am not sure how far the various Russian administrative databases used to identify the Skripal perpetrators would count as open source, more like knowing somebody who had bought a CD of knocked-off data in a Moscow subway.  (The Spectator has an intelligent discussion of the point here.)

Anyway, at the end of the film I felt enthused at the idea that reason and goodwill could triumph, and positively eager to do battle with the forces of darkness.

Recommending a dictionary

December 14, 2018

dictionary

We were asked by a Russian contact to recommend an English dictionary. I think I would plump for the Concise OED.

Naturally enough, both dictionaries of American English and dictionaries for learners of English are beyond my ken.  A very long time ago (probably before I left school) I got myself a Concise OED.  When I had worn that out I got a copy of the Chambers dictionary (in 1989) on the grounds that it had more words.  The corresponding Wikipedia article has a different opinion, but as they say it depends on how you count entries.

Anyway the single-volume candidates that a native (but non-specialist) English speaker would use seem to be the Concise OED and the offerings from Collins and Chambers.

I had a look at what was available in the shops today.  As for new words, the Concise OED had entries for hashtag and flashmob (as flash mob) while the Collins Reference dictionary didn’t (although it was published later).  It also had something useful to say about the stressing of controversy, while the  Collins Reference didn’t do pronunciation at all.  The large Collins was covered in cellophane while there was no sign of the Chambers.

Back home, I was able to compare some bits of the large Collins and the COED on Amazon.  The Collins annoyed me by including encyclopedia-style entries, which I don’t like, while for  the terms aorist and accusative the Collins tended to flap around giving examples while the COED gave concise, pointed definitions.

While I can’t judge how up-to-date the Chambers is on the basis of my 1989 copy, the definitions of aorist and accusative there are a lot better than the ones in Collins if not quite as good as the Oxford ones.

In general terms, I think that the Oxford dictionaries:

i)   have the most systematic infrastructure for capturing new words and usage;

ii)  have the best definitions and etymologies. (In fact I think that in many cases they have the natural definition since they were there first and other dictionaries have to work round it for reasons of copyright or at least embarrassment);

iii)  are taken as the default in libraries and schools.

So in general you would take the suitable size Oxford dictionary as your default and look to something else only if you had particular needs.  The Concise OED also happens to be cheaper than the other candidates.

Turning now to the Internet, if you’ve got a word that refers to something reasonably definite and you’re dealing with widely-used languages (like English and Russian), your best bet is often to turn to Wikipedia where you can see a picture/chemical formula/mathematical definition/Linnean binominal and compare what the corresponding articles say in the two languages.

Nowadays, if I find that I don’t know an English word it tends to be something I can either look up on Wikipedia or find in the Urban Dictionary.  And there are also resources like OneLook that will search the free online versions of numerous dictionaries for you.

 

Conversation Exchange, use and abuse

November 21, 2018
celangspic

FIGURE 1:  COMPARATIVE M/F INDICATORS BY LANGUAGE SOUGHT

Once my Conversation Exchange partner Kseniya (from the provincial town of X, well-known in 19th century literature) and I discussed the proper use of that resource.  I had some opinions as set out here.

Kseniya felt that these points were of frightening irrelevance. She thought that it was very difficult to find an English speaker who wanted to practise Russian and many of those you did find were in fact just looking for a woman.

I said that there were plenty of sites for that and these days you could surely speak to your intended via Skype on one of those. She had asked one of her undesired contacts about this and he had said that all the women there were crazy. I also said that she could look for female conversation partners, but they were apparently likely to want to talk about clothes and cosmetics.

She asked me why such men were looking for women particularly from Russia or Ukraine.  I said that since I wasn’t one of them I didn’t really know.

Anyway, the aim of the present study is to see whether there is evidence of men looking to use CE specifically to make contact with women from Russia/Ukraine (that is, Russian speakers) rather than to enhance their language skills.

The hypotheses to be tested as indicators of this behaviour were:
i) There is an excess of M over F for ENG->RUS;
ii) This surplus is more marked below Upper Intermediate;
iii) This excess is greater for ENG->RUS than for comparator languages.

Here by ENG->RUS and so on we mean English speakers seeking to exchange with Russian speakers.  From the data at https://wp.me/pBfTB-28k we take Portuguese, Italian, Turkish and Japanese as comparators, because they seem to be languages of similar importance and popularity to Russian among English speakers and also to avoid excessive labour in counting instances.

We give some results below.  (Data was collected on 18/19 November 2018.)

TABLE 1:  NUMBERS OF CE USERS LOOKING TO EXCHANGE ENGLISH FOR RUSSIAN BY SEX AND LEVEL

ENG-RUS via chat M F
Beginner 1205 219
Elementary 276 52
Pre-intermediate 160 41
Intermediate 153 35
Upper intermediate 65 13
Advanced 40 15
Proficient 11 2
TOTAL 1910 377

A comparison of males and females as in Table 1 above certainly showed an excess of males, which is strange in view of the belief that the vast majority of students of modern languages in English-speaking countries are female.  However, this anomalous pattern was repeated for the other languages considered, for instance Italian as in Table 2 below:

TABLE 2:  NUMBERS OF CE USERS LOOKING TO EXCHANGE ENGLISH FOR ITALIAN BY SEX AND LEVEL

ENG-ITA via chat M F
Beginner 675 570
Elementary 332 249
Pre-intermediate 265 154
Intermediate 264 173
Upper intermediate 125 66
Advanced 82 44
Proficient 26 9
TOTAL 1769 1265

Now then, Italian is really only spoken in Italy and Switzerland, so it is hard to see the excess men here all looking for an exploitative relationship with a woman from a poor country.

We can also see from the data above that a great many of the users of CE do not claim to be at a level to make use of it effectively.  But we can compare the difference in the percentage of M and F declaring themselves to be below Upper Intermediate level.  For instance, with regard to those seeking Russian speakers (Table 1), 93.93 % of men assign themselves to a level below UI as opposed to 92.04% of women, a difference of +1.88%, indicating that the men report themselves as less linguistically advanced than the women.  Similarly, the ratio of M to F here is 5.07.

Table 3 below shows these indicators for English speakers seeking the languages indicated:

TABLE 3:  COMPARATIVE INDICATORS OF M/F RATIO AND PERCENT <UI BY LANGUAGE SOUGHT

RATIO PCDIFF
ITA 1.40 -3.76
POR 2.87 -4.71
RUS 5.07 1.88
TUR 2.12 -6.81
JAP 2.23 -2.03

These results are illustrated in Figure 1 above.  We see that by comparison with the other languages considered, those seeking Russian are marked by a large number of men relative to women and a large number of these men assigning themselves to lower levels of proficiency.

To summarise:  this study provides support to the hypothesis that such men were looking for women particularly from Russia or Ukraine.