Saturday, February 06, 2016

The Winter's Tale

An ‘authentic’ performance in an historically-correct as-we-can-make-it Renaissance theatre could perhaps be a dry, academic affair but I emerged last night from the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse reeling. The visceral drama caused me to question if our contemporary theatre, whether with proscenia or without, with its powerful electric lighting and with all the artifice that modern technology can conjure, is not a waxwork effigy of what REAL drama can be. I’ve emerged confusedly pondering that drama does not depend on faultless sight lines and the most comfortable seats to experience the actors’ art. I had a great seat for Cymbeline in the same space - but I realised then conventional understanding of what a great seat is does not really apply to this space, so I was happy to try a very poor seat this time right up in the gods for The Winter’s Tale.

At first, I was disappointed. I was right at the back on a diagonal to the stage - so I had a seat with a back rest (bench seating otherwise pretty much throughout). I knew the pillar advertised to hamper sight lines was a small slender thing which wouldn’t bother me much but what I hadn’t realised was that the two rows of back-rest-free people sitting in front of me would lean forward. If you are unlucky enough to have a lady with a big hair do in front, that’s half the stage gone, and the pillar takes maybe another 10%. You are up at a very vertiginous rake to the stage, and peering down on top of the actors’ heads through glaring chandeliers. It is surprising just how much light 6 large chandeliers emit - however, even so, its quite dim on stage and even though this is a tiny space and the actors are relatively close you won’t really see their every facial expression very clearly in the golden glow.

However, you will hear even their whispers crystal clear. This space has an amazingly intimate acoustic (all that wood). And although there is a distinct stage area, it feels seamlessly part of the entire space - the audience very much feels physically and emotionally included in the actors’ world. This was particularly true of the trial scene, where Leontes appealed to us as the judges.

Candlelight itself creates an intimate atmosphere which enhances the emotional effect of the performance. This is what weirded me out - I realise our contemporary way of presenting theatre privileges the visual senses of the audience - and in fact bludgeons the eyes by maybe making things too easy to see. The visual restrictions of Renaissance theatre and its candle lighting force one perhaps to use one’s other senses and imagination more and encourage an active emotional participation.

The scene opens in Leontes’ court in Sicilia - as bright as can be, with all the courtiers dressed in white, and with Leontes himself in a gorgeous white doublet with metallic embroidery sparkling in the candlelight. I really admired John Light’s frighteningly rapid descent into psychotic violent jealousy. Rachael Stirling’s graciously statuesque Hermione at first is oblivious to her husband’s suspicions, then is falsely accused and piteously ends up in the trial scene in chains and dirty rags.

By this stage Leontes’s jealous madness has destroyed his entire family: he has broken with his life-long best friend, his son is dead of grief for his mother, Hermione herself has been humiliated in a show trial and has died, and her new-born baby is sent by the king to be exposed in a barren place. All his courtiers fear the king as a tyrant: only the feisty Paulina (brilliantly played by Niamh Cusack) bravely speaks truth to power.

The prison and trial scenes bring the first coups de théâtre. The lights at the opening are all gracious twinkling chandeliers. In the prison scene the chandeliers are all raised high (darkening the stage) and gaolers and prison visitors use braziers and lanterns. The braziers in particular feel rough and crude - visually echoing the King’s madness and the tragic turn of events. Characters are in dark cloaks now, and clever choreography with cloaks and hand-held lanterns throw up stunning effects of light and dark - strongly expressive faces and arms are lit up like a Caravaggio brought to life. Paulina’s and Leontes’ disputes in these scenes are particularly well emphasised.

And then, after the emotional storm of the trial, the chandeliers are all extinguished and the smoking stubs raised swiftly up high - the swinging, eerily smoking chandeliers , together with sound effects, marvellously evoke a storm at sea and on the dangerous coast of Bohemia.

This scene is played in the most complete darkness I have ever experienced in a theatre. We all know what happens next - “exit pursued by a bear” - and this production very nicely extends the tension to its maximum. Antigonus’s wildly swinging lantern is now the only source of light in the entire theatre, and throws careering, pitch black shadows everywhere.

And then after the descent into compete darkness and “the gap of time”, we open up into the light again. Extra chandeliers are lowered onto the shepherds’ festival celebrations, and even a fully blazing fire is carried on stage. Perdita, now fully grown, dances in her dazzling robes and veils with her prince Florizel to the minstrel’s music as if there was no fire hazard. I liked the music, singing and dancing in Bohemia very much: natural and fresh, it is completely organic with the environment and play. Prop’s to Steffan Donnelly’s Florizel - a capering, enthusuastic, slightly immature but very honourable and genial sort of chap. Also one must mention the extraordinary dance of the satyrs. Pagan, oddly disturbing and erotic. The comedic antics of the old shepherd, the clown and Autolycis also lighten the mood and prepare for the reconciliation scene ahead.

John Light pitches Leonte’s remorse just right in the final scene. It’s strange how odd this play reads as text with the king’s rapid emotional reverses but performed well the emotions work perfectly as drama and are believably human. Hermione is restored to us as the gracious queen we saw in Act 1. The play ends, as it opened, with the king kissing the queen.

This is a stunning, fresh and powerful reading of the play in an extraordinary and unique environment. I would urge you to see it if you can get tickets.

The Winter's Tale
Sam Wannamaker Playhouse
Shakespeare's Globe, London
October 2015 - April 2016

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Quote London

“A sprawling North London parkland, composed of oaks, willows and chestnuts, yews and sycamores, the beech and the birch; that encompasses the city’s highest point and spreads far beyond it; that is so well planted it feels unplanned; that is not the country but is no more a garden than Yellowstone; that has a shade of green for every possible felicitation of light; that paints itself in russets and ambers in autumn, canary-yellow in the splashy spring; with tickling bush grass to hide teenage lovers and joint smokers, broad oaks for brave men to kiss against, mown meadows for summer ball games, hills for kites, ponds for hippies, an icy lido for old men with strong constitutions, mean llamas for mean children and, for the tourists, a country house, its façade painted white enough for any Hollywood close-up, complete with a tea room, although anything you buy there should be eaten outside with the grass beneath your toes, sitting under the magnolia tree, letting the white blossoms, blush-pink at their tips, fall all around you. Hampstead Heath! Glory of London! Where Keats walked and Jarman fucked, where Orwell exercised his weakened lungs and Constable never failed to find something holy.”
- Zadie Smith, On Beauty

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Vicky Pryce and Polly Toynbee in Omnibus Clapham

The economist Vicky Price and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee are or were both long-term residents of Clapham, and appeared together last night at Omnibus to discuss their new books: It’s the Economy Stupid by Vicky Pryce, Peter Unwin and Andy Ross and Cameron’s Coup by Polly Toynbee and David Walker. The event was co-hosted by Clapham Books - it’s great to see collaboration of this sort between our local independent bookshop and Omnibus.

Polly started the evening by praising the successful launch of Omnibus in the old Clapham library, and indeed it is great to see this handsome old Victorian public building finding a new public role in the local community. It certainly adds greatly to the mix of amenities around the new Old Town piazza area.

Both speakers were critical of the Coalition government. Polly spoke of the rigidity and stealthy determination of its ideological purposes; Vicky more of the evidence-free economic policy. Although a liberal herself, she was a government economist under both New Labour and Coalition administrations, and had words of praise for New Labour at least attempting to follow the evidence. Far from having “a long herm economic plan”, the coalition choked off reviving growth and flatlined the economy for its first two years, before surreptitiously u-turning and quietly and half-heartedly loosening fiscal policy. Basically, the Tories are ideologically incapable of accepting that government investment can create growth in the wider economy.

Polly seemed more wholeheartedly to support Labour, but I liked the way she always backed up claims with independent  evidence and sources. She strongly feels this is a very important election, and people should vote tactically to keep the tories out.

It was a very interesting evening, and very well attended: practically a full house.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Quote London - Stockwell Watchmen

It seems north Londoners have always felt a little bit nervous of security arrangements south of the river - I was mildly amused to come across this diary entry by Joshua Wingate Weeks for 30 January 1779:
"When the service was finished I took a walk on the other side of the river into the country as far as Stockwell which is a small village about 4 miles from London ... Vauxhall Gardens are also here, which we passed by. We dined at Stockwell & returned home by another road. It was late in the evening & the lamps which extended from London  to this place were lighted & formed a most august and beautiful appearance. At small distances watchmen armed with musquets are placed to prevent mischief & detect robberies & they have bells placed in such a manner as to give notice to each other by ringing them if any thing remarkable occurs, by which means they could readily come to each others assistance & be upon their guard to prevent the escape of any suspected person."

The security state has had a long history!

(Quote from A London Year: 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters, compiled by Travis Elborough & Nick Rennison. Published by Frances Lincoln, 2013)

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Fireworks over Brixton - Brockwell Park review

I really loved the way Lambeth always provided a free fireworks show for residents every year. Although obviously paid for out of our council taxes, it always felt generous and fun: a real community building experience the entire community could and did enjoy.

However times are tough and cash-strapped councils have to look to their bottom line in these days of endless austerity. So I feel very conflicted by Lambeth’s move this year to a ticketed event in Brockwell Park.

Brockwell is the only park in Lambeth with the potential to ‘hide’ a fireworks display from non-paying watchers - Clapham Common is completely open (The tories over in Wandsworth pioneered this approach in Battersea Park in the early 90s). Clapham Common has the best public transport access in the area as well. The Council claimed traffic was a problem with the Common’s event, which is why it moved to Brockwell originally. Brockwell’s poor public transport access however means a large proportion of the many thousands attending walk all the way from Brixton station on narrow pavements alongside busy roads in the dark.

As one approaches the park, many wardens were there to make repeated requests to ‘stay on the pavement’: but sheer weight of numbers make this completely impossible.

When I heard that the display was no longer free, I did consider boycotting it but in the end decided to go.

Sadly, the whole atmosphere of the event has changed.

Although Lambeth planned for around 50,000 attendees (around half of last year’s 100,000), people were crammed into a relatively small fenced-off area, which meant standing shoulder-to-shoulder in pretty packed conditions - not great for the many parents of small children there. Inadequate signposting in the dark meant getting into and out of the event was quite difficult and indeed frightening for some parents with toddlers. To me it felt like all the security was in aid of excluding non-payers and not on the safety of those attending.

Surprisingly for a commercial event (and in stark contrast to the free events of the past), the show was beset with organisational problems. The display started 30 minutes late, with no indication of why this was so, apart from blaming some people who had strayed into the fireworks fallout zone. Why this happened is unclear - never happened before to my knowledge. Were the security staff too busy checking tickets to keep an eye on the crowd?

When the show began, it unfortunately began with a poorly conceived “human catherine wheel” which must have been entirely invisible to 90%+  of the attendees. There were many disappointed and sarcastic comments around where I was standing - about a third of the way back and directly in line with the wheel. I am 5’11”, there were no trees in the way, and I couldn’t see a thing. People in front were holding up mobile phones - I could see on the screens the phone cams weren’t picking anything up either! Only in the dying moments of the act did we see a dim glow in the distance. Note to organisers: this sort of curtain-raising event needs to be elevated so the crowd can actually see it. A pre-warm-up event - the excellent electricity boys - were slightly elevated and this made all the difference.

The fireworks proper started immediately afterwards and as usual, were magnificent. Excellent choreography and pacing, with terrific variety of types and stupendous climaxes. I also enjoyed the soundtrack and felt the sound system was better than usual: however, as mentioned above I was nearish to the front and I gather those behind found the fairground music clashed with the fireworks soundtrack. I couldn’t hear the fairground at all.

And then a crush in the dark to get out. Following others blindly in the hope they knew where to go (in the absence of any direction from the organisers). Mud everywhere. 

We’ll see what I feel like next year. Although I am sure the fireworks will be as spectacular as always and well worth the £7 charge, I’m not sure I am prepared to put up with all the hassle of actually attending the event.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Quote London

"I arrived in 1978 from China, where the parks had been ransacked and cultivating flowers was condemned as a bourgeois habit. When I saw chestnut trees and expanses of lawn in London, I was almost mad with joy. These days I like to take a stroll in HYde Park, and I always end it by reading a book at the Orangery." - Jung Chang

Monday, August 04, 2014

100 Years

While watching the Westminster Abbey service tonight I got the urge to light a candle. Both my grandfathers fought in WW1, on opposing sides. My English grandfather ran away from home and lied about his age to get into the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner of the RAF). He survived the war and remained in the RAF for the rest of his career, retiring in the 1950s. My Polish grandfather regarded himself as Prussian and fought in the German army. He survived a gas attack, but his lungs were severely compromised. He was a farmer by vocation and ended up on a glorious smallholding in the hills above Durban, South Africa. He sent me boxes of his home-grown passion fruit when I was a child. Both grandfathers died in the 1970s.

And that was the sum total of our family's history with WWI, or so I thought. Recently my brother and I have been tracing our family tree, and I was pretty surprised to find I had a grand-uncle Percival living at home in the schoolhouse at Slapton Sands, Devon, in the census of 1911 (My great-grandparents were the school teachers there). He was a tailor's apprentice. He was born in 1894, so was peak age for cannon fodder in the war. He died somewhere in 1916. I still have to follow up all the details.

The odd thing is no one in my family ever mentioned him. My grandfather never said a word. I don't think my father or his sister Patricia even knew of Percy's existence - my aunt Patricia had a huge fund of family stories and was interested in all the connections so I feel certain she would have said something about him if she had known.

Poor Percy. In memory of his short life and miserable death, a candle tonight.