Monday, 27 August 2012

Richard and the Drowndlings

Audience at the Globe
You aren't supposed to take photos at Shakespeare's Globe in London, but this is a picture of the audience not the players. It was at the end of the interval of the matinée of Richard the Third last Saturday.

No sooner had Mark Rylance started to utter the first lines of the play, in soliloquy - "Now is the winter of our discontent/made glorious summer ... " than the heavens opened and it POURED for the duration, enbellished by thunder and lightning. Indeed the rain was so loud that you couldn't always hear the actors.

In the interval the Ladies was apparently full of women trying to dry their sodden clothes under the hand-drier! You can see how many people had bought the flimsy £2.50 plastic macs but really it was such a soaker, only sou'westers  would have been a protection.

The groundlings were troopers. The only gaps you can see are because some came and sheltered in the overhang of the galleries. I don't think anyone went home. And this production was sold out. I tried not to feel guilty in the back row of the Lower Gallery with somewhere to lean my back as well as out of the weather.

It's a play absolutely jam-packed with references to the sun and the weather.
"The weary sun hath made a golden set,
And by the bright track of his fiery car,
Gives signal, of a goodly day to-morrow,"
says Richmond (later Henry Vll) just before the Battle of Bosworth Field - a forecast some were glad of.

"Who saw the sun to-day?" asks Richard on the morning of the battle. "Not I, my lord," answers Ratcliff. Mark Rylance had fun with:
"The sun will not be seen to-day;
The sky doth frown and lour upon our army.
I would these dewy tears were from the ground."

And right on cue, after his victory, when Richmond said, "Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction," out came the sun! Is God a Lancastrian?

Over on my other blog The History Girls is an impassioned post from Laurie Graham who is a Riccardian, which I am not (although I am a Yorkist). Richard is much in the news at present, with plans to dig up a car park in Leicester to find his body.

But here I'm talking about the play not the man. Rylance's performance was extraordinary - a cross between an English king and Count Arthur Strong! And yet it worked, the bumbling and vague Duke of Gloucester, disingenuously claiming not that he was innocent but that he had killed his victims out of love - first for Anne Neville and then his niece, Elizabeth of York.

That Elizabeth didn't appear in this production, but her mother Elizabeth Woodville (Queen Elizabeth) did and was very well played by Samuel Barnett. For this was an all-male cast, as it would have been when performed in Shakespeare's day. Barnett was Posner in The History Boys (on stage and in the film) and he made an excellent woman. Lady Anne was less good, though she was a lovely ghost.

My favourite female character, Margaret of Anjou, "the She-wolf of France" had been cut altogether from this rather stripped down version of the text. And that was a shame. Not only do we lose,

"Poor painted queen, vain flourish of my fortune!
Why strew'st thou sugar on that bottled spider,
Whose deadly web ensnareth thee about?
Fool, fool! thou whet'st a knife to kill thyself.
The time will come when thou shalt wish for me
To help thee curse that poisonous bunchback'd toad."

but that wonderful incantation:
"I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill'd him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him ..."

in the scene she plays with Richard's mother, the Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth, widow of Edward lV.  I missed that.

image by Georges Seguin (Okki)
Mark Rylance limped on with a white rose in his hand and gave it to a woman in the front row (I hope it survived the storm). The White Rose is the traditional symbol of the House of York so all the more puzzling that the programme carried the red rose on the front (a symbol of the House of Lancaster though the scene in which the rival factions pluck their blooms in "Henry Vl" was invented by Shakespeare).

I wonder how often Shakespeare's groundlings were drenched to the skin? And how much fun the actors had improvising round the text on a really wet day?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

I'll tell you what's showing at the Roxy ...

Photo: Fin Fahey.
Writers are terrible people to watch films with. Or television dramas. They may even hiss messages to you in the theatre. In fact, if novel-reading were a more sociable activity than it usually is, they would be loud and annoying fellow-readers. The thing is they know how plots work and they see things coming.

I have recently been watching (or trying to watch) lots of DVDs with a friend, another writer, who is much more into films than I am. Some have been more successful than others as choices to satisfy both of us. And there are several reasons for not enjoying a film, not all of them to do with the quality of the film itself.

However, we have recently given up on three films and I am trying to understand why. The first was Jackie Brown, not in itself a bad one (and it had Oscar nominations). But as soon as I knew what Samuel L. Jackson had in mind for his first victim, I felt I knew more or less how the story was going to play out. (The plot summary on Wikipedia has confirmed this more or less).

The second to fall prey to the Eject button was Water for Elephants and we gave it two chances over two nights. It didn't help that Robert Pattison should really not play roles where he is required a/ to smile or b/ to show any emotions beyond "moody vampire." Or that animal cruelty was involved. But I found myself predicting that he would heal the dwarf's antagonistic dog of an illness, that the elephant would kill the cruel ringmaster etc etc. (as well as the obvious R-Patz falling for Reece Witherspoon who is married to cruel ringmaster - anyone could have seen that coming).

"Right," said my friend. "We'll watch John Carter. It's got Taylor Kitsch in it."

I've got no objection to watching less-than-marvellous films with handsome young men in them but really we could not abide it and back in its Love Film envelope it went.

What was the problem? The film-maker had completely forgotten the art of storytelling and the arc of story. It had FOUR beginnings, to start with - a framing device that went out with Heart of Midlothian and Wuthering Heights. Once into the story proper (based on the first of a series of eleven books by Edgar Rice Burroughs), we were on Mars.

Cue tall aliens with four arms and our hero bouncing ridiculously high with each step because his bones are too light for the atmosphere or some such taradiddle. Add a pleasingly martial beautiful princess in regulation Leia-type gold bra and harem pants, a lovable monster, some spooky villains and elaborate space craft and you have the full panoply of SF tropes and clichés to play with.

But oh the names! I invented the term Erg of Slerg for that brand of fantasy or SF which majors on long, awkward or plain unpronounceable names and they were here in spades. Dejah Thoris is the princess (who might just as well have been called Deja Vu) and there was Tars Tarkas, Sab Tharn, Tal Hajus, Tardos Mors ... are you chewing your own arm off yet?

Where was Jabba the Hutt when you needed him? Or Obi-wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker? At least George Lucas could do names. And he knew that you mustn't linger over a spacecraft in proportion to the money it cost to build it. He also knew - at least when he made the first Star Wars movies in the 1970s that what really mattered was story (he seems to have forgotten all that in the second trilogy).

"Doesn't Taylor Kitsch have a beautiful mouth?" said my friend hopefully. But no-one could really have made anything remotely fascinating out of this pig's ear of a plot and script.

It had Dominic West too. And Ciaran Hinds. And Mark Strong. I even glimpsed Art Malik. And lots of CGI.  But someone had forgotten TO TELL THE STORY! No amount of fireworks and 3D and hot blokes with their shirts off and special effects can make up for it if that one basic essential is overlooked.

Someone please tell me a good recent film we can watch on DVD next time. Somebody tell me something good that's showing at the Roxy. I won't even moan if I can guess what's coming. That's a given.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


On Saturday I saw a play at the National Theatre, unlike anything I have seen staged before. It was London Road, a piece of "verbatim theatre" by Alecky Blythe, with music by Adam Cork. Our visit was organised by our theatre producer daughter, who had seen London Road at the Cottesloe last year and was keen to let everyone know about its revival at the Olivier.

But a musical based on the murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich a few years ago would not have been something I was naturally attracted to. And how wrong I would have been to let the subject matter put me off.

For a start, it's not "about" the murders that Steve Wright was convicted of committing. It's about the reactions of local Ipswich inhabitants to those murders or rather to everything that came in the wake of those murders: invasions by news teams and tabloid journalists, police tape cordons, suspicions of every man in the street.

So the London Road Neighbourhood Watch is formed to re-establish some kind of normality, which they do through Quiz nights and a London Road in Bloom competition, won every year by the same person. The play begins with their AGM and immediately we are in a world familiar to anyone who has ever organised a protest, tried to save a library or whatever.

So although most members of the audience would have been untouched by murder, there is something much more common to relate to. The words spoken by the very versatile group of eleven actors are all taken from interviews taped by the writer (that's where the "verbatim" comes from.) And the music - with strong touches of John Adams - takes its shape from the words, leading to fugues, ensembles and haunting motifs.

Kate Fleetwood, who was Lady to Patrick Stewart's Macbeth recently, is now Julie, the dowdy committee secretary, in a long cardigan, organising the multiple flower baskets that have burgeoned to sweeten the atmosphere of the road. "Petunias, begonias and ....impatience [sic]" she sings.

Rather touchingly, the residents of London Road don't know much about flowers, referring to "lily-type things" and Busy Lizzies as if they were different from Impatiens. And the monstrous prize-winning garden wheeled on at the end has grottoes, gnomes, a lighthouse, Jesus and the Virgin Mary!

We are a long way from naked strangled prostitutes by this point. But the neighbours have been haunted by the idea that the women could have been killed in Steve Wright's house - in "their" road. "He only lived here ten weeks - ten weeks!" Strangely this urgent question is never answered.

There was a period when their lives were all questions, every male a potential murderer. "You automatically think it could be him," is one particularly memorable refrain. This is suburbia trying hard to unthink the unthinkable, while speaking of the unspeakable.

'Any man has to, needs to, wants to/ Once in a lifetime, do a girl in," says Sweeney in T S Eliot's fragment Sweeney Agonistes, and you feel that demotic ghost hovering over the production.

I found it arresting, moving and fascinating but wouldn't have wanted it to go on a moment longer than its two hours, ten minutes (including interval). As with reading the virtuoso novels of Roddy Doyle, I felt  claustrophobically hemmed in by the predictable cliché-ridden language and thought patterns. No-one had an original idea or word.

In the most emotive scene, three surviving prostitutes sing about how they don't work the streets round London Road any more. But that is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, as I'm surprised someone didn't say.

And one resident really must have said to Alecky Blythe that they would shake the hand of the man that did it, because it had cleaned the girls off London Road.

Behind the lace curtains and the petunias some have hearts of gold, others of stone.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Dear Agent.....

Exciting news for all fans of Nicola Morgan's helpful books on writing! This is one for all those who have actually written their book and are wondering about the next stage. (Previously ebook titles were Tweet Right and Write a Great Synopsis).

For those of you new to this kind of practical and thorough advice, Nicola Morgan has been blogging at Help I Need a Publisher for some time. Her books are compilations and distillations of posts which she has created and had reader response to. (Go to her blog for extracts from Dear Agent and chances to win a free copy).

And I can assure you that even a hardened old pro like myself has found them full of excellent tips. I want to publicise Nicola's excellent special offer for those of you who have Kindles or the Kindle App on your computers:

Dear Agent will be available on Amazon on August 10th (and shortly afterwards elsewhere) for the STUPID price of 75p for THREE DAYS ONLY. 

I don't want to jinx anything but I used my early copy to help me contact agents for my new venture of an adult book, under a pseudonym so no-one would know it was me. And I got a reply within 24 hours asking for the full manuscript! 

OK, that's not the same as a contract but I do put it down in no small part to Nicola's excellent advice. And as the author of more than 90 books, fiction and non-fiction in the last ten years, she really does know what she's talking about.

And I'm not even getting a percentage for this testimonial!

I'm just telling you that, if you have completed a book, this is the next one you need to get.

There isn't a link on Amazon yet but do take a look on Friday. You won't regret it.