Tuesday, 7 June 2016

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Southwark Playhouse - review

Photo by Harry Grindrod

It's a silly story really, and a silly set-up. Young lovers lost in the woods, mistaken identities, a man becomes a donkey. And yet it delves deeper too, exploring the anxieties of love. Previous productions I've seen of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream have captured the magical nature of the play but never truly its playfulness, and here is where this production at Southwark Playhouse succeeds - inducing genuine big belly laughs and smiles throughout.

This new production by Go People adds another layer to the play-within-a-play construct of the original text: here we have a play within a play within a play, which is much less confusing than it sounds. We meet the actors (the "real" actors, not imagined - Maddy, Freddie et al) as they greet eachother with excitement and get allocated the roles they'll play. Then slowly, seamlessly, we move into the play itself - with everyday modern dress remaining, with a few additions of simple props.

Very quickly the issue of set, or rather - the lack of, is addressed. We're told to imagine, again and again: a shift in lighting, a fall of rain, a giant oak tree. We're told to "imagine yourself an audience capable of having an imagination" and soon, once the laughter lets up, we do.

This stripping back to the bare bones of theatre feels refreshing. As wonderful as sumptuous sets can be, here power is given to the absence of a visual set-up and to imagination in its place. This got me thinking about the difficulty of realistically depicting most Shakespeare, with magical woodlands or battlegrounds ("exit pursued by a bear" anyone?), and I appreciated the playfulness of this being so knowingly explored.

The laughs watching a Shakespeare are usually expected and gentle, but here it's more varied, and often hysterical - in the best way. Humour came from the play-within-a play set-up, sometimes reminiscent of The Play That Goes Wrong, and also from the sheer commitment to Shakespeare's words (Bottom as bawdy as he could ever be, acted intensely, hilariously by Freddie Fox). There was more subtle humour too via little shifts in the speech, a speedy delivery or unexpected emphasis giving laughs where you wouldn't imagine them and a more contemporary feeling in this fresh look at the text.

Freddie Fox as Bottom. Photo by Harry Grindrod.

Laughs also came from the audience interaction. With just seven actors performing a play with 17 roles, a wonderful opportunity was given for directly involving the audience in the action. One man found himself led by hand around the stage acting the role of the transformative flower. If that was me I'd be dying inside (beware the front row!) but he was a good sport and it added extra excitement - getting us all onboard and not quite believing what was happening.

What I was most impressed by in this production though, other than the sheer energy of the cast, was the balance achieved between comedy and drama. The deeper issues and feelings in the play exploring the pain of love, and ideas of truth, came to life in a way I didn't expect.

The thread that runs through the production letting both humour and emotion work is the utter conviction from the actors in believing in what is happening in their world, magical and ridiculous though it may be. The look of disbelief, relief and joy from Helena (played by Lucy Eaton) as she is finally loved by her Demetrius is layered and completely believable.

Through this energetic commitment of the cast, alongside the meta fun and audience involvement, I felt closer to the action than I ever have before with Shakespeare. As well as the theatrical devices we're also literally close with the intimate, traverse stage, and actors moving seemingly as close to the audience as possible at times. We share laughter but also in the suffering of the characters - and I think this sharing feels key, that the audience is truly part of what's happening.

In his programme note director Simon Evans acknowledges this intention, talking of a growing frustration with "a move towards a solipsistic type of play-making in which something elegant happened on stage, but from which an audience was emotionally held at arms length." In his mission to amend this distanced state to something more truthful and communal Simon Evans has absolutely succeeded.

Early on the actors jokingly apologise to any purists in the audience for the modifications of the play, and yet it feels that in this contemporary production Evans has landed on something much more akin with Shakespeare's intentions and the feeling of experiencing his plays at the time than any traditionally played out productions with period dress could ever reach.

My one draw-back to the evening was a slight craving for an interval. Usually I like plays straight-through to keep the momentum going and not lose the effect of the world-building but here the energy and humour felt almost tiring as we neared the end (the production sits at 110 minutes).

Still, to complain of being so entertained a production becomes slightly wearying is really no complaint at all, and with the final performance of the royal play the production reached its outrageous, wonderful climax leading to a standing ovation and cheers at curtain call.

Energetic, playful and wildly funny - this new production brings to life the Bard's work in the most genuinely engaging way on this 400th anniversary year. So many shows have claimed to celebrate this milestone year and yet this really does feel like a celebration - full of laughs and a new appreciation of this classic, often-performed play

This is without doubt the most fun I've had at a Shakespeare and the most I've laughed at any play in a long time. Hugely entertaining and highly recommended. 

Go People's A Midsummer Night's Dream plays at the Southwark Playhouse until Friday 1st July.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

What I read in May

Amidst moving house and enjoying London life while I was still there, I read a lot less this month - but what I did read I loved.

Crossing the Sea: With Syrians on the Exodus to Europe - Wolfgang Bauer ★★
I realised recently that while I know when the media are giving prejudiced misinformation about refugees, I know very little about what is actually happening and why. So I was keen to pick up this book by Wolfgang Bauer, in which he goes undercover and joins a group making the journey from Syria to Europe, and I was glad I did.

I gained an understanding of what was happening, and was gripped by the stories of the people within the group. Bauer unflinchingly explains the horror and the necessity of these dangerous trips, taking you along the journey with them - the waiting, the fear and uncertainty of it all.

At just 144 pages, I feel though I learned a lot, and was shocked by what I did, I was still only getting a glimpse into the situation. I'd like to read more about what is happening back in Syria and the journeys involved. Still, it's a difficult read and so in a way the shorter length is helpful, making the read more of an accessible and plausible pick-up than a lengthy book.

The writing is strong and it's an important book which I really would recommend if you want to know more about what's happening with the refugee crisis - the worst since the second world war.

Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy - Irvin D. Yalom ★★
I'm training to be a counsellor soon and and have always been interested in books exploring psychology, so I knew these stories of clients in therapy would be of interest. What I didn't expect though was the quality of the writing, with the "characters" and their situations brought to light so compellingly.

There's a quote from the New York Times on the front cover which says "Dr Yalom demonstrates that in the right hands, the stuff of therapy has the interest of the richest and most inventive fiction" and I think that's absolutely right. For that reason I'd recommend this even if you have no interest in therapy.

As well as being a genuinely enjoyable read, what I found fascinating was the intimate invitation into this usually private situation. You get to bear witness to what the client would only share in this safest of spaces, but also to Yalom's thoughts about the client and the process itself - acknowledging his own weaknesses and regrets through his career.

I already want to read this again, not just because I want to soak up everything you can learn from this really masterly therapist, but because there's incredible depth in the stories and explanations. It's not a difficult read, but one you can get so much from.

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt ★★
Oh man this book! I knew its reputation was strong but I had an assumption that I would be more impressed than entertained but it was absolutely both. This is probably the longest novel I've read (773 pages) but I still didn't want it to end. Telling the story of a young boy who survives an awful, traumatic situation, we see how he moves on through his life, still carrying the weight of what happened with him.

The writing reminded me of John Irving. I've only read one of his books, The World According to Garp, but the ability to capture the intimate, believable details of the day-to-day as well as the wider scope of a life over time, is what I loved about this too.

I've also been reading The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett which I'm enjoying - more on that in the next round-up.

Let me know if you've read any of these and what you thought, or any other recommendations! And you can follow me on GoodReads & Twitter.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

a dad & his girl

I see a dad and his girl
Suncream applied in streaks of white they sit - waiting.
As the train moves off the girl braces herself, excited
She whispers something inaudible to her dad
She's shy and she wishes it was just them
Her and her dad
Beneath Mickey Mouse sunglasses, she believes it to be so

I start to fill in the blanks
Let the mum become a mystery

I imagine she's a nurse
That she's sleeping after a night shift
That they've kissed her goodbye and made their way
She wishes she could go but knows she needs her slumber
So she drifts into dreams of sea and sand and lets them be

And I imagine a divorce
Gone their separate ways, they struggle but survive
Have special Sundays and quality time
They keep smiling, and settle into a different way

And I imagine she's a writer, working to a deadline
Stressed but reassured thinking sometimes
Dad and daughter need their time too.
She shuts out the world and keeps typing

Or she's a long time passed

That this is their life but they're doing ok
They've made peace with sadness, it lingers still,
but they carry on

They talk about her, always.
She says mum would like this, too young to know if it's true,
but then of course she would

She's with them still, he knows,
and yet he can't help feeling alone
But he's not.
He's got his giddy whispering girl
and memories that make him smile, but make it harder too

the distance between what should have been and what is

But the sun is shining and they're off to the seaside
So he lets that be his world for today

I imagine her turning 18
A photo of that day placed on birthday card,
With words about his girl, now all grown up.

She's not seen it in years, it takes her back

She remembers those glasses, and pink jelly shoes
An ice-cream melting in the sun, making a mess,
And her dad, chasing waves with her, laughing

She tries to play it cool, make a joke,
But she's moved by the memory
She's felt a chaos lately but this brings her calm
Brings her back to what she knows and what she needs

And I settle back into my surroundings,
and remember it's not real,
But I smile, anyhow, at hypothetical hope
And the possibility of glancing at strangers

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Hardy Animal review [a performance about chronic pain & human resilience] - Battersea Arts Centre

Photo: Paul Blakemore
When I mentioned to people I'd been to see a performance about chronic pain - I often got a bit of a grimaced reaction. I wondered about people being uncomfortable with illness, particularly when chronic, but landed on the conclusion that any discomfort was with the idea of illness in entertainment, particularly as a one-woman-show. I guess there's a presumption of a bleak, heavy experience. But Laura Dannequin's Hardy Animal really wasn't.

For me, a performance about chronic pain was always going to be of interest because, having a chronic illness, I relate. So when I saw Laura Dannequin was bringing her one-woman show about her experience to the Battersea Arts Centre I knew I had to go.

The performance begins with Laura standing, a fair distance from us. A voiceover begins. We focus on Laura's physical presence, and our imagination follows the directions of her voice. She tells us of how she's standing still, how parts of her body feel heavy, how she wonders if anyone's clocked how disproportionately large her hands are to her frame. She comments on our act of looking, and hers too - meeting us with her eyes, she talks of connecting with members of the audience.

She talks of all the dances she wanted to do for us - a big fuck off of a dance, or a dance so beautiful it moves you to tears but you won't know why.

All of these comments, thoughtful and funny, bring us back to her stillness and to an absence. It feels like too long without movement. I wonder if she's swaying or if it's my imagination, and I wonder if she feels it too. We know she's imagining dances for us because she can't do the dance she wishes for us, for herself, and there's a real sadness to this and a sense of  loss - a distance between what she wants to do, and what she can do.

This stillness, and the tender, funny voiceover, reminded me a lot of Ivana Muller's 60 Minutes of Opportunism which I saw and loved back in 2011. For different reasons both artists play with ideas of performance, and prove that power can come from holding back and going against expectation. I was also reminded of the work of Forced Entertainment, in their use of microphones and lists, and the humour in the knowing of the audience-performer relationship.

At one moment early on, Laura (again, via voiceover) comments that some in the audience aren't quite sure if it's for them yet, and to hang in there. Perhaps she knows that on paper, or even in person - in the beginning, this isn't going to be for everyone. Her commenting on this, in an endearing but matter-of-fact way, is both reassuring and funny.

Once we finish this lengthy introduction Laura moves further back in the space, the lights go down and she is lit by torch light alone. She removes her top and, facing away, speaks, live, into a microphone. We learn about her pain, how it started, how it continued, the things she tried, the other things she tried, the things she was told.

It feels repetitive but it doesn't feel dull, it feels painful and truthful, and almost funny if it didn't carry so much real frustration.

As she speaks, she moves her bare, lit back. And it makes me think about invisible illness, and how even with clothes removed we're no closer to seeing what she experiences, but it's all happening beneath the surface. And that's difficult, as is the telling, and the inevitable isolation of it all, and maybe that's why she faces away. It's powerful.

The funniest moment in the performance though comes from Laura recounting conversations she's had with people about her illness. Without anger or bitterness in her performance, just a slightly weary fatigue of repetition, we see the patience involved in knowing people really have no idea and the many difficult conversations. She also manages to be informative re the nature of her pain, scientifically, which is illuminating without feeling at all dry.

I've previously felt a frustration at never seeing my situation reflected in art but I've realised there's no big drama in chronic illness. There's emotion at times for sure, and it's bloody hard, but the chronic aspect is key - it's enduring and it's exhausting. Hardy Animal was a brilliant exploration of that experience and the resilience and strength involved, but it also showed something really important - that illness does not define someone. Even when she couldn't dance, Laura was a performer. She was, and is, funny and charming and interesting.

And in this performance Laura gets to take back some control, of how her story and her body is seen, and I loved that.

So, if you're someone that suffers with chronic pain or illness I urge you to see this - it will make you feel less alone, you'll laugh and potentially cry in recognition.  But also crucially if you have no experience with chronic pain, I still think you should see it. Because it's funny, interesting (and great to get an insight into a more-common-than-you-realise experience) and because it's a really playful, powerful contemporary performance.

Keep an eye on Laura Dannequin's website for future performances of Hardy Animal.

And, just because I love him (how can you not?), here's a quote from Daniel Kitson on the performance:
"Entirely blown away by it. Hardy Animal is a spoken word and dance piece about a woman dealing with and working through her chronic back pain. I know. I know how it sounds. But it is entirely excellent. It's defiant and angry and sad and funny and beautiful, really beautiful, and brave, and just so very very good indeed."
Daniel Kitson
If you have a chronic illness, or are just interested, here's what I've written about my experiences

Monday, 2 May 2016

What I read in April

Bossypants - Tina Fey ★★
Pretty much exactly what you'd expect: insightful, fun, funny.

Strange Weather in Tokyo - Hiromi Kawakami ★★
This was a gentle and captivating story about friendship and love. Not a huge amount happens and yet it managed to be completely absorbing and addictive, and just really believable. I loved it.

Our Endless Numbered Days - Claire Fuller ½
I hoped I'd love this as everyone seems to but I really didn't. It might just be that I don't read a lot of YA and it's not for me, if it is indeed classed as YA. As strong as the world-building was, I found myself frequently irritated with the narration style - perhaps that the protagonist is so young and this is reflected in the descriptive prose, but I just kept wishing sentences to end sooner that they'd be more powerful for it.

I've also consumed several stories in this trope recently of someone coming back to society years after an abduction of sorts (not a spoiler, we know from the beginning) so my lack of enjoyment may have been fatigue with that too.

Then for Genrethon I read:
The Complaint - Nick Whitby (play) 
The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby (memoir) ★★
The Collossus - Sylvia Plath (poetry) 
The Martian - Andy Weir (sci-fi) ★★
Bird Box - Josh Malermann (horror) 
Not The Worst Place - Sam Burns (play) 
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll (classic) ½
Lungs - Duncan Macmillan (play) 

You can read my thoughts on all of these books and the readalong itself here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler 
This is a novel that I've heard about a lot, the name thrown around as a strong read, but without really knowing what it entailed and now I've read it I see why - it's hard to discuss as something so central is held back for so long. But I'll try!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an interesting look at family and identity, and belonging and alienation. The author plays with storytelling not just as writer but how we do this as people, what we want people to perceive a situation as and how we want to control their judgement. So that was interesting, but I struggled to really connect to and enjoy the story, perhaps because of the intentional slight bitterness of tone, and the feeling created by the very thing the novel explores - the positioning of the protagonist as an outsider. Though it builds to something more positive, there is a subtle sadness to this book that I found hard to shake off when reading, even when the action was exciting and intriguing.

So my not completely loving it I think was because the writing was strong and left an effect. I did enjoy the book overall - I wanted to know what would happen, or indeed what had happened previously, and I appreciated the playfulness of the plotting.

Let me know if you've read any of these and what you thought, or any other recommendations! I'm on GoodReads & Twitter.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

What I Wonder About The Royal Family

When I wonder about the royal family, I wonder about their day to day lives. I wonder if the Queen washes her own hair, and what she has for breakfast. I wonder if tea is only made in dainty china, never mugs. I wonder about the process of making a shopping list, the little treats they like. If they've ever had a Magnum.

I wonder how they process being princes and princesses. I wonder if, when the children are of an age to have a sort of understanding, they have a talk with them. Explain how it works. Explain that they're special. And how they do that without inflating egos. I imagine anxieties over little boys running riot at nursery, stealing toys - because mummy says they're royal.

I wonder if the Queen reads, and who her favourite author is. I wonder if she watches telly and I wonder if she secretly loves Loose Women.

I wonder about secret scandals, hidden romance and mental illness, and I wonder about their Sunday lunch - making small talk around the table and settling onto the sofa for a lazy afternoon.

I wonder if they see the humour, in a lifetime of waving and smiling, and I wonder if they ever wish for anything more.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Genrethon round-up

This week I took part in Genrethon - an online readathon encouraging trying out different genres.

As much as I was excited to get involved I was also wary of the concept of a readathon, worrying I'd get carried away and focus less on enjoying the reading experience and more on finishing books. 

I needn't have worried, the readathon didn't change the way that I read, it just changed what I read - meaning I tried genres I haven't ventured into before (horror and sci-fi), and picked up books that have been sat on my shelf for far too long (plays). I loved a classic I didn't expect to and finally got round to reading a brilliant memoir that I will now be recommending to everyone.

My reading list for the week was made with the idea of picking and choosing as I fancied, but I actually read so much more than I expected, hugely helped by mostly reading really short, quick books!

So overall I read eight books from six genres, and here's what I thought:

The Complaint - Nick Whitby (play) 
This was a play I'd bought as part of a mystery bundle, and I didn't love it. The set-up of a complaint within a crazily bureaucratic nonsensical society was kinda interesting, but I just didn't really feel any kind of reaction to it.

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby (memoir) ★★
This poetic memoir was stunning. Former Elle editor Bauby writes (via a transcriber, blinking for appropriate letters) of his life with locked-in syndrome, contemplating his new situation and the life he left behind. It was funny and thought-provoking, and just a wonderful read.

The Colossus - Sylvia Plath (poetry) 
This wasn't for me. There was more focus on nature than I'd expected, and amidst the mellifluous writing I struggled to connect.

The Martian - Andy Weir (sci-fi) ★★
So much fun! I enjoyed this way more than I thought I would, and found myself really needing to find out what would happen. As gripping as it was, it was also funny and generally a light read. I'll definitely be trying more sci-fi after this, and think it's the perfect accessible entry point into the genre.

Bird Box - Josh Malerman (horror) 
Horror is a genre I never read and now I have no idea why - I loved this. Really tense and genuinely scary at times with those fun hold-your-breath moments you get in good horror. I could completely imagine and believe in this world and found it really intriguing, nervously anticipating what would happen next.

Not The Worst Place - Sam Burns (play) 
Exploring two teenagers at a point of deciding whether to stay in or leave their hometown, this was an enjoyable read with a believable relationship and characters - though not powerful enough to leave me thinking about it for long.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll (classic) ½
So I started reading a novel I've got high hopes for but wasn't really engaging in to begin with, and the protagonist mentioned Alice, so I decided to pick that up instead! And I'm so glad I did. It was a really fun read that I'd like to write about more. I loved the pure imagination of it and also Alice as a character - how curious and precocious she is. I did find, because it was so random, I needed reading breaks from it so I didn't grow tired of it but could just really enjoy it for what it was: fantastical, nonsensical fun.

Lungs - Duncan Macmillan (play) 
This is one of my favourite plays I've ever seen on stage and I finally got to reading it. Watching the play was completely absorbing and emotional, and on taking it in for the second time some of that emotion was lost with the surprise factor gone, but I still think it's a remarkable piece of work to read. It's a realistic, powerful look at a relationship that captures everyday moments and builds up to a snapshot of a lifetime. I think if I hadn't watched it I would imagine it would be a much more heavy watch whereas there are actually so many funny moments. I'd be curious if that comes through when just reading it.

Thanks to the lovely BookTube ladies who ran the readathon: UnderTheRadarBooks / Lauren And The Books / squibblesreads / ViennaWaitsBooks   

Let me know if you took part and what you read during the week :) You can follow me on Goodreads here, and also on Twitter.