Sunday Salon: Catching up

The Sunday SalonThis is the blog post I intended to write last Sunday night, but I was exhausted from having such a full weekend so I curled up on the sofa with a book and fell asleep. It’s not a bad way to end the week!

And what exactly did I fill last weekend with? Well, I’m going to start with Friday morning because that way I get to mention something I’m super proud of: I ran 8 km before going to work last Friday. That is the furthest I have run yet, and marks the first time I felt actually confident that I will be able to run 10 km by early May, when the Bristol race that I’ve entered comes around. (I tried to repeat the achievement this week and managed 7.5 km, which is not to be sniffed at, but slightly disappointing when I now know I can beat it!)

Last Friday night, we went with my Mum and brother to the theatre to watch the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of Othello. I really enjoyed it and thought the acting excellent. The local press have been a bit sniffy, and I do agree that some of the modern touches were a misstep. But I thought the central relationships – between Othello and Desdemona, between Othello and Iago, and between Othello and Cassio – were really well portrayed.

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Recent reads round-up

I read a few good books in a row and then went on holiday before writing reviews or even notes on them and now it’s two weeks since I finished the last of them. Oops. So here is my attempt to remember what I enjoyed about them. They’re all great!

her_fathers_daughterHer Father’s Daughter
by Marie Sizun
translated from French by Adriana Hunter

I loved this book. It is simple and sparse and yet utterly moving. This seems to be a pattern with Peirene books, one that I approve of. The story is told from the perspective of “the child” (she does have a name but it’s rarely used) – a young girl living in Paris during the Second World War. She is the apple of her mother’s eye and despite the Nazi occupation is utterly happy in her little world. Then the father she has never met comes home from the POW camp and the fight for affection begins.

Sizun brilliantly depicts the changing relationships – between mother and child; between father and child; between mother and father; between grandmother and child – against a backdrop of the occupation of Paris ending, and then the war itself ending. Though the child is not the narrator, her perspective filters the story to its essential parts. This at times almost reads like poetry, it’s so distilled. But it isn’t at all abstract in the way that poetry can be. A beautiful, quick read.

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April 2016 reading round-up

Hamlet-stfWhat a literary month April was! This year’s World Book Night fell on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, but the whole month has been Bard-tastic. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory is a longstanding fixture at one of our local theatres every spring, but this is the first year we have been to see both the plays they’re producing. This season’s repertoire was All’s Well That Ends Well and Hamlet, neither of which I had seen on stage before or studied in any detail. I definitely preferred Hamlet, but I think that’s the writing more than the acting, which was great in both cases.

My reading this month has been mixed and not nearly as plentiful as March. But I did introduce a new blog feature called Hello! What are you reading? in which I ask my friends about their current reads. I’ve loved gathering their answers so far and look forward to sharing them week by week.

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Death stats in Shakespeare and other bookish fun

I saw this chart in a few places today and just had to blog about it. As Improbable Research explains, this was put together as research for a new play, The Complete Deaths, produced by Spymonkey, in which all 74 deaths in Shakespeare are re-enacted. I’m envisioning something like the Reduced Shakespeare Company, who are always hilarious, so I’m pretty sure I want to see this play. But I’m also thoroughly enjoying the above chart and trying to remember which plays which deaths belong to! Who doesn’t love the stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” from The Winter’s Tale?

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On the stage: a Royal Shakespeare Company double bill

Okay, it wasn’t exactly a double bill. But while on holiday in Stratford-upon-Avon we went to see two RSC plays over two nights and I thought both were so great that I wanted to write about them here. Apologies for the week-long delay getting round to it!

The Winter's Tale

The first play we saw was Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I had no idea of the story going in and as always it took a chunk of the first scene to really get into the flow of the language, but special mention must go to Tara Fitzgerald as Hermione because from her first line I was there, completely understanding and mesmerised. As it’s one of the lesser known plays, I’ll give a quick plot summary.

Leontes, king of Sicilia, accuses his pregnant queen, Hermione, of adultery with his life-long friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia. Polixenes flees Sicilia while Hermione is imprisoned – giving birth to a baby girl, whom Leontes orders to be abandoned. Hermione collapses and when news is brought of her death, Leontes repents his jealousy and goes into mourning. Sixteen years pass. The baby girl, Perdita, has survived, having been found and raised by Bohemian shepherds. Florizel, Polixenes’ son, has fallen in love with her and seeks to marry her. When his father opposes the match the lovers flee…to Sicilia. (NB It’s also the play with the famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear”.)

I was torn as regards the staging and costumes. It was styled like an early 20th century Northern English seaside town, with a big projection screen at the back of the stage showing a pier and the sea. I felt that this all worked with the bawdy comedy elements (so most of the second half) but that’s not my taste in comedy.

In addition to Fitzgerald, there was a brilliant performance from Jo Stone-Fewings as Leontes. He played a slow-but-sure build-up to crazy and unreasonable, and was on stage for almost the entire play – there was an odd industrial tower thing centre stage on which he stood/sat/lay throughout many scenes set away from his palace, wonderfully conveying his long years of mourning.

The play has some very strong female characters, who get some great speeches defending themselves from the wrong that has been done, and notably the story is on their side, Leontes is very much in the wrong. There’s a key plotline centred around female friendship, which I can’t right now remember featuring heavily in any other Shakespeare play, though I don’t claim for a second to be much of a Shakespeare scholar.

I was pleased to find we had a picked a performance followed by a Q&A with some of the cast, which we hung around for. It was very interesting to hear their views on this “problem comedy”, with a particularly problematic ending, and a relief to find that they have all the same questions as actors as we do as viewers. In some cases they’ve had to try to answer those questions for their performance but they stressed that it’s only an interpretation and they gave examples of previous shows that had clearly followed different interpretations.

The Orphan of Zhao

Our second RSC play was The Orphan of Zhao. From a 3000-year-old Chinese story, James Fenton has written this new adaptation of the play from several old versions, one of which was popular in England in Shakespeare’s time (that being the key link). It works well as a companion piece to The Winter’s Tale, having a similar plot but very different style.

The emperor and his favourite minister Tu’an Gu are pleasure-seekers. Three good counsellors remonstrate with the emperor about his excesses. One is banished, a second exiles himself, but the third, Zhao Dun, who is married to the emperor’s daughter, wants to stay. Tu’an Gu plots against Zhao Dun, massacres his clan and forces him to kill himself, leaving behind his pregnant wife, who is put under guard. If she has a son, he must be killed. When Dr Cheng Ying comes to deliver the baby, he agrees to smuggle the baby away. When Tu’an Gu realises the baby has escaped he decrees that every male child born that month will be killed if the orphan is not returned. Cheng Ying feels that the orphan of Zhao has an honourable duty to grow up to avenge his father’s death, so he arranges for his own newborn son to be mistaken for the orphan. Tu’an Gu then adopts the child he believes to be the doctor’s son, proposing that the two men raise him together, teaching him the arts of medicine and warfare. Skip 18 years and it is time for the orphan to learn his identity and his duty, but which parent will he be loyal to?

This was a powerful play. It didn’t have the poetry or rhythm of Shakespeare’s writing, and was heavily stylised, but I found it immediately accessible. It was about honour and duty, not emotion and yet it moved me greatly. There were again some strong female performances that greatly impressed me (especially Lucy Briggs-Owen as the princess) but it was the final scene with two men that had tears flowing down my cheeks.

The staging was brilliant – it could have been the same 500 years ago, or very close to (exchange electric lights for candles, smoke machine for actual smoke, etc) – they used puppetry, petals falling from the gantry, simple props and symbolic colours in costumes. It was all pretty classical. The humour was more my taste than the bawdiness of the “commoners” in The Winter’s Tale. And it was blended well with the rest of the play, whereas in The Winter’s Tale the comedy and tragedy sat awkwardly together. If I sat down to read The Orphan of Zhao I don’t think I’d be impressed but the performance as a whole was terrific.

A very Shakespeare holiday

Tim and I have just (well, yesterday) come back from a few days’ holiday in Stratford-upon-Avon. We just wanted to go somewhere pretty to relax and have a break, but you’d have to try pretty hard to go to Bard Country and not do any Shakespeare tourism at all. We pretty much gave in and absorbed all of the culture, and despite the freezing cold had a lovely time.

We saw not one but two RSC plays – The Winter’s Tale and The Orphan of Zhao, more of which later – and went to three of the properties run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. And though I may have mocked the tourist-trap stylings of it all, there is something humbling about standing in the house where a great genius lived half his life.

Shakespeare's birthplace

On a previous holiday we spent some time in Père Lachaise Cemetary in Paris and I paid my respects at the graves of Oscar Wilde and Colette, among others. I have now added to this list of pilgrimages by visiting Shakespeare’s grave, in Holy Trinity Church.

A grave man

The town itself is pretty and though no doubt it’s prettier still in spring and summer, I was glad we had visited when we did after a taxi driver told us that the place was dead compared with how busy it gets from Easter onwards. It was far from empty.

Wintry river

Having had our fill of plays and history lessons, on our last day we went to the butterfly farm. It was pleasingly warm and full of little flying creatures, though disappointingly lacking in educational information (Bristol Zoo does spoil us). I took a lot of photos there.


As always, I’ll add more photos to Flickr (mostly of butterflies, no doubt) over the next few weeks. Feel free to have a gander.