Thursday, 31 July 2014

Book Review: Blood and Beauty - Sarah Dunant

How to get me to read your book step one: put a review on the cover from the New York Times comparing it to Wolf Hall.

How to get me to read your book step two: put it in a Waterstones two for one offer.

This is essentially how I found myself reading Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty this month. The book tells the story of the Borgias - focussing on Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia - over a pretty eventful few years. The story starts with patriarch Rodrigo scheming his way to becoming Pope and tells the story of everything that the family do to preserve and increase their own power and wealth. This includes six tactical marriages (three to Lucrezia), the fathering of four children (half by the Pope), several murders (including the eldest Borgia son, Juan), a bloody war on the Italian states north of Rome waged by Cesare and more political scheming than you can shake a stick at. It’s certainly not an uneventful book.

It’s already easy to see why the book could be compared to Wolf Hall: broadly similar historical period, similar themes, even a similar plot in some ways. But the way both books treat their central figures that really makes the comparison stick. Wolf Hall is of course famous for it’s ‘rehabilitation’ of Thomas Cromwell as a well meaning, family orientated, loyal lieutenant rather than the brutal bully which he is more often portrayed as. In the same way, Blood and Beauty offers a much more rounded and less hysterical portrayal of the Borgias than they usually receive. Lucrezia in particular is a much more human character than usual, though admittedly the book only deals with the early part of her life.

The book definitely benefits from this. I have read some Borgia-based fiction before and, basically, it was just porn and people getting stabbed with very little regard for anything resembling a plot. Not really what I’m looking for in my historical fiction, y’know? Blood and Beauty gives an actual, complete story about actual, complete people and gives them believable motives for what they’re doing, even if they’re motives and actions which are difficult to defend. The characterisation is great throughout.

It’s generally well written too. It’s engaging, pacy and really readable. The 500-odd pages fly by so before you know it you’re half way through. I can’t remember the last time I read a book so fast. That’s not to say it’s perfect though and the comparison to Wolf Hall certainly doesn’t stretch as far as the quality of the writing (but then very few books do). There are times when Dunant’s writing style - third person but clearly representing the viewpoint of a specific character - becomes a bit muddled and on a number of occasions I had to read back to work out who the ‘he’ or ‘she’ she was referring to was. That’s a small point though and certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book overall.

Whilst Blood and Beauty isn’t a genre defining work in the way that Wolf Hall is, it’s certainly a good example of historical fiction and a really good read. I was glad to see in Dunant’s closing note that there’s a sequel to come. I’ll definitely be picking that up.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Review: Medea

I do love a bit of depressing Greek tragedy, don’t you?

Yes? Good. You should check out Medea at the National then.

The plot of Medea is a textbook Greek tragedy. Medea falls madly in love with Jason (of Argonauts fame), marries him and murders her family to keep him happy. Funnily enough, the latter part doesn't go unnoticed and Medea and Jason flee into exile - Medea bearing Jason two sons in the meantime - eventually ending up in Corinth where Jason promptly leaves his wife for the resident Princess. Medea doesn’t take this fantastically well, and decides that the best way to get revenge on Jason is to murder first his new bride (via a poisoned gown that also takes out the King) and then her own children. Lovely.

As that brief synopsis suggests this is not the play to see if you want a light evening out (in which case try Great Britain since it’s playing in the same building) but it is an excellent production and well worth a little of your time. And it is only a little - the play positively zips along in a shade over 90 minutes (no interval) with excellent direction ensuring that it doesn’t feel rushed. This is a new version of Euripides’ ancient play and the translation and tone are excellent; thoughtful, horrific and frightening plausible. The production looks fantastic too - on a split level stage with Medea’s home and garden (completely with really unsettling empty swings) downstairs, Corinth upstairs where a clever use of slightly opaque glass and lighting means that your view of what’s taking place is always a little obscured.

It’s rare that I’d mention the music in a ‘straight’ play but the score here is a) important and b) really, really good. Written by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp (yes, that one) the score is an electro-infused joy that pulses through the production, driving the action on to its inevitable conclusion. In key scenes the music is so integral that it almost feels like a character in its own right. Seriously, seriously good stuff. I’d love to buy the soundtrack.

The music is also important as it backs a number of dance sequences in the show. Yes, dance sequences. Unlikely, but true. It’s probably overcooking it a bit to say that these sequences constitute interpretive dance but they’re certainly very modern and very otherworldly. At first I thought I didn’t like them but on reflection they definitely contribute to the overall tone of the unnatural that pervades throughout the play and as such are actually quite effective. I doubt it’ll be to everyone’s taste but, after some mulling, it ultimately worked for me.

As high as the production values are, the reason why you should definitely go and see Medea is Helen McCrory’s extraordinary central performance. She is quite simply superb. Medea is not by nature a hugely sympathetic character - although the way she is treated by Jason is shitty, I’m still inclined to think murdering four people is a bit much - McCrory makes you feel for her. She also makes you feel with her, which is much harder. It’s a brilliantly judged and nuanced piece of acting; frighteningly unhinged, coolly calculating and heartbreakingly sad all at once. One of the standout things about the plot of the play is that all other Greek tragic heroines-turned-murderers are given some kind of cosmic or magical justifications for their actions. Medea has none of this and sets out her reasons quite clearly and plainly for the audience to hear and understand. It would be very easy to write Medea off as evil or suffering from some kind of madness (just as it is for Lady Macbeth, with an obviously much stronger case in the end), but McCrory makes it much more difficult to reach these lazy conclusions. Her Medea is a fully realised character and acted impeccably. One of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen for a long time, possibly the best from someone whose surname isn’t Branagh.

Of the rest of the cast it’s only really Danny Sapani’s Jason who gets a considerable amount of stage time and he’s very good too, especially in the post-murder scenes. He is exceptionally good as the angry, grieving husband and father and the rawness of his grief, sometimes howling sometimes quiet, in these scenes is genuinely upsetting. His pre-murders Jason is suitably ambiguous - I’m pretty sure I don’t believe that he’s only acted in his family’s best interests but I wouldn’t put money on it. The Chorus (a large group in this case) are also used frequently, especially in the dance sequences which they manage well, and are generally very good as the conscience of the play. Also, Joyce Barnaby off of Midsomer Murders is in it which is just cool. I bet the Midsomer Parva AmDram Society have never done this one!

Medea actually opens at the National tonight and runs until September 4th (getting the NT Live treatment on its closing night). It’s not an easy watch, but it is a great one and Helen McCrory’s performance is not to be missed. Top stuff.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

A Day Out at the Home of Cricket

I bloody love cricket I do.

It's a proper sport, with proper ridiculously complicated rules and played by people who aren't paid £18billion per second and can actually string a sentence together. It stops for lunch, tea AND rain. Matches can be days long and still end in a draw. Proper sport.

But I'd never been to the Home of Cricket - Lords - until a couple of weeks ago when I went on a ground tour with a friend.

Costing £18 for about two hours, the tour covers all the major sights at Lords - the Long Room, both dressing rooms, the honours boards, the players' balconies, the pitch and the media centre - as well as the MCC museum and members' private gym (they have royal tennis courts not regularly tennis courts, obviously) all with a really knowledgeable guide.

I knew a little bit about Lords and the MCC - the Marylebone Cricket Club, the private members club that essentially runs world cricket, the waiting list to join is about 20 years long and the process is so ridiculously complicated it's probably easier to invent a new sport from scratch and join its club - before the tour but I left knowing so much more. It's is incredibly interesting and the guides really know their Graham Onions. (Cricket joke there. Pretty proud of it.) And getting to walk through the Long Room and sit in the same seats in the same dressing rooms as the best cricketers in the world is goosebump inducingly cool.

The pavilion

When we were there it was the week before a test match (vs India) starting a few days later so as a little bonus we got to see the head groundsman getting the pitch ready. That's him below in the shorts and white shirt, pushing the mower by hand to make sure everything is perfect.

The media centre
The pitch, covered and ready for action
If you're a fan, even a passing one, of cricket I'd highly recommend this tour. And at just £18 you can't really argue.




Saturday, 19 July 2014

Lovely, lovely Strasbourg

Have you ever been to a place and completely fallen in love with it in less than 24 hours?

I'm not sure that I had, until I went to Strasbourg last week.

The second I crossed the bridge into the city's gorgeous old centre my heart stopped. Not literally obviously. That would've been unfortunate. The beauty of the place just has to be seen to be believed - and the photos below certainly don't do it justice. It's basically what would happen if Disney imagineers were given free hand to design a city. Stunning to a frankly ridiculous degree.

Architecturally (and culturally) there's an almost Germanic feeling to the place, with a lot of wooden beamed buildings and ornate wooden carvings. And pretzels (not pictured).

That said, the river the circles the city centre gives it an almost Dutch feeling too.

And then there's the cathedral...

I mean look at it, just look at it! And if I'd stopped to take a photo of every building I thought was beautiful I'd still be there now.

Safe to say I will be back, and I will be back soon.


Friday, 18 July 2014

Review: Great Britain

"Don't buy your drill bits from Poundland - that's suicide."

"My parents were Guardian readers, which is to say they were wrong about everything all the time."

"A clue is one thing I've not got."

Just a smattering of my favourite lines from Richard Bean's new play Great Britain which opened at very short notice at the National to a huge amount of hype.

The show - a satire on phone hacking scandal - could only be officially announced after the verdicts in the trials of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and friends were handed down. Even then the National still had to employ a team of lawyers to check the script wouldn't get them sued. There were no previews. Tickets went on sale a week before opening night. From a marketing perspective, does it get much better than that? Buzz was coming out of this show's ears.

So, does it live up? Absofuckinglutely.

If you've been following the phone hacking mess (and if you haven't, then I assume you must be my first Martian reader) then I don't need to explain the plot as the play replicates it almost to the letter - tabloid newspaper finds out how to hack the voicemail of any mobile phone, does so with gay abandon (great phrase) to celebrities, the Royal family, politicians and victims of a high profile crime, is eventually found out. The police are by turn complicit and inept and the politicians don't care because they need the paper's support and are too busy fiddling their expenses anyway.

The characters will also be very familiar: there's the ambitious, young, female news editor who's the darling of the paper's aging, foreign proprietor; the posh leader of the opposition who becomes Prime Minister with the paper's help; the unethical wide boy editor who becomes the PM's director of communications... Well, you get the picture.

Subtle this play is not. Hilarious it very much is.

As the quotes that start this post hopefully suggest, its humour is a fantastic mix of the satirical, the straightforward and the pleasingly bizarre. Basically, if you enjoy The Day Today - and if you don't then get the hell off my blog - then this show is very much for you. I laughed from start to almost finish. Properly laughed too. Like, painfully laughed.

The excellent material is played joyously straight by an excellent cast. Billie Piper is perfect as news editor Paige Britain - 100% unsympathetic as a character but depressingly believable all the same. She's in almost every scene and so has a hell of a lot of work to do but maintains a kind of manic energy right through the show. She also has a lot of soliloquys which are all delivered exceptionally well. (Also her accent is way more believable than the awful Irish she attempted in Penny Dreadful recently.)

Of the rest of the cast, the reliably great Robert Glenister (by far the superior Glenister brother for my money) is on top form as delightfully awful editor Wilson delivering bespoke swearing in a manner even Peter Capaldi would be proud of. But my personal highlight was Aaron Neil who is muffin-top-wobblingly hilarious as completely inept police commissioner Sully Kassan; by far the least believable character of the piece but also by far the funniest (he even gets the autotune treatment in the second act, twice). He gets all of the best lines - his act one speech about how his force has shot disproportionately more innocent blacks than innocent whites and he intends to redress the balance is the best pieces of comic writing I've heard in some time - and his delivery is straight as a die. Which is frankly quite remarkable. I hope he gets am American TV style spin off. I'd so watch that.

The play does get serious sometimes and this is when it's at its weakest for me. It's not that the points it makes about how it's the public's desire to read the stories that phone hacking generated that fuelled the practice aren't valid, they clearly are. It's just that the way these points are delivered - by and large in soliloquy by Paige Britain at the very end of act two - just come off as a lecture and an unnecessary one at that since the whole rest of the play has made the same points implicitly. The play is also completely uncritical of the Labour Party, which seems rather unfair given how close they were to Rupert Murdoch whilst in government - and how little they did to take any action to curb the excesses of the press and police (who also get off very lightly) that the play rails against.

That aside, this is a great show and one I'd highly recommend everyone see, but especially my readers of a political bent. It's on at the National for the summer before transferring to the West End so you've got no excuse not to. Go see.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Book review: An English Affair - Richard Davenport-Hines

Remember Stephen Ward, the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical with the artistic and musical merit of a discarded crisp packet?

I do. I hope the night terrors will stop soon.

Anyway, Stephen Ward  was based on the true story of, funnily enough, Stephen Ward the ‘society osteopath’ who was unjustly scapegoated during the Profumo affair, when Minister for War Jack Profumo was caught having an affair with young party girl Christine Keeler who was also alleged to be sleeping with a Russian naval attache. With the press, and the Labour opposition in Parliament, playing the whole sorry mess out to be an issue of national security, the ‘Establishment’ - police, press and politicians - decided that they needed someone to take the blame and, crucially, distract attention. Stephen Ward was that man, with a blatant police fix up and a horrific show trial leading to his eventual suicide.

It’s a fantastic, disgusting, story which should’ve made a great show. Except it obviously didn’t. On any level. It did make me aware of the story though even if, given how awful every other aspect of the show was, I was sceptical about its veracity.

Fast forward a couple of months and I got Richard Davenport-Hines’ An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo for my birthday. As the title perhaps suggests, it’s unfair to present this as just another book on the Profumo affair. What An English Affair sets out to do - and does - is set the wider societal context that allowed the affair to happen in the first place, offer some biographical commentary on all of the key players and only then tell the story. As such it’s split into two parts: the first about the people involved, whether individuals or groups (the press, the intelligence agencies, slum landlords and party girls all get their own chapter alongside more obvious individuals such as Profumo himself and Stephen Ward), the second telling the story.

There’s been so much written about Profumo, but this book still feels like it has new things to say. I think the structure is a big part of that. After reading part one of the book, I certainly felt like I had a much better understanding of how and, crucially, why the events happened as they did. In particular the story of the Vassall Tribunal (which concerned a civil servant who was a Soviet spy, a groundless allegation of impropriety - sexual and political - against the Minister for whom he worked, the imprisonment of two journalists for refusing to reveal their sources and the needless resignation of a Minister whom Macmillan really liked and valued) clearly had a huge impact on the way that the politicians and press reacted. The press became more hostile to the 'Establishment' in general and Macmillan's government in particular. Macmillan and his colleagues became overly defensive of their ministers, especially where allegations involving sexual impropriety were concerned. Combined, this provided the basis of a toxic cocktail that allowed the Profumo mess to become as big as it did. The book is excellent on this story and it's background. 

It also gives a fantastic overview of some of the key players. I found the chapter on Stephen Ward in particular really interesting for obvious reasons. I was not surprised to learn that ALW’s version of Ward wasn’t entirely accurate! In the musical (using the term loosely) Ward is basically presented as a 100% good guy who only wanted to help other people with little regard for himself. The reality that AEA presents is markedly more nuanced. Ward was basically a good guy, and he was certainly unfairly treated, but the idea that he was anything but self interested seems naive. In fact, he managed to drag himself into the Profumo mess by not being able to keep his mouth shut about the fact that Profumo and Keeler were seeing each other and that he’d introduced them, as well as being desperately keen to talk to anyone who’d listen about his close ties to Soviet naval attache Yevgeny Ivanov. His relationship with Ivanov is illustrative of his personality as a whole - he volunteered to pass on anything Ivanov told him to MI5 without having the self awareness to realise that MI5 saw him as something of a joke (and a disposable one at that) or that the information Ivanov was giving him was exactly what the Soviets wanted the British to know. He was a man who loved to feel important and desperately wanted other people to see him that way too. He seems to have been largely and tragically unsuccessful in the latter.

The second part of the book, that concerned with the events of the Profumo affair, is equally eye-opening and pleasingly polemic. The author is clearly, and rightly, sickened by what happened and successfully exposes a number of the most common myths and outright lies involved in every stage of the case. For example, there's no credible evidence that Keeler and Ivanov ever actually slept together. Isn't that crazy? This whole palaver is based on that central event and it just never happened!

The book also exposes the dirty tricks, manipulation and outright lies that the police, press, politicians and judiciary were prepared to go to to 'get' Ward to devastating effect. Some of the best passages of the book are these - the material is infuriating (the press manipulation of Keeler, the disgusting intimidation of potential witnesses in Ward's trial were subjected to by the police, the ridiculous theatricality in his trial, the list goes on and depressingly on) and Davenport-Hines is angry without sounding like a crazy person. A difficult balance. 

An English Affair is a great read - a pleasing antidote to Stephen Ward! - and is widely available in your book selling repository of choice. Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Book review: Beginning - Kenneth Branagh

Here’s a question: what have Chloe and Sam from The Only Way Is Essex, Paddy from My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Aleksander the fictional meerkat from the Compare The Market adverts got in common?

Bare knuckle boxing? A fanatical devotion to fake tan? Sidekicks called Sergei? All good guesses, but no.

In the past few years all of the above have released autobiographies.

Isn’t that depressing? I’m sure they’re all nice people (apart from the one who’s a fictional meerkat, obviously) but, come on guys, really? The cult of the celebrity memoir, together with the celebrity perfume, is one of the things I find most depressing in the world. I mean, who is buying this stuff? And why have they got so much money to waste?

Cast your mind back 25 years and the situation was rather different. Autobiographies were reserved for people of experience (trans: old) who’d accomplished great things in their lives. The idea that someone young would publish one was ridiculed - they’d barely lived a life yet, how egotistical and ridiculous it would be of them to write their life story.

Such was the general reaction to Kenneth Branagh’s autobiography, Beginning, when he published it at the tender age of 28. The reaction and the accompanying perception that he was a complete egomaniac are something with which he is still associated today as one look at any reviews of his performance as the prototype egomaniac Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in which many critics suggested he was sending himself up, will show you. Which is a shame really since, as far as I can work out, that perception is complete and utter bollocks.

It’s also a shame for Beginning which, rather than the self absorbed rantings of an insufferable luvvie, is actually a really interesting, well written and pretty self effacing read. It’s one of only two non-fiction books that I’ve ever reread (Rupert Everett's Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, since you asked).

It helps, as it always does, that its author has a very interesting life story. Born in Belfast and raised in Reading, Beginning tells the story of Branagh’s life until the age of 28 as he finishes filming his masterful Henry V and takes in his stint at RADA, early career and setting up the Renaissance Theatre Company - a remarkable company featuring the likes of Judi Dench and Richard Briers - en route.

For me it’s the Renaissance story which is the most interesting. For anyone with even a passing interest in theatre it’s fascinating to see the mechanics of someone setting up their own theatre company from scratch; everything from trying to devise an understudy system to securing venues and finding financial backing. Renaissance was designed to be an actor’s company, giving all its members fair conditions and the space and opportunity to create exceptional performances in a repertory context (it’s contrasted favourably with the RSC in this regard). The first season that Renaissance performed, which is discussed in detail in the book, was a cycle of three Shakespeare plays directed by great actors who had played the lead roles before; a concept which just sounds like heaven to me. It also led directly to the making of Henry V which is just another reason to love it. The story of how this was pulled off (or not, in the case of the attempts to get Anthony Hopkins to direct Macbeth) is utterly fascinating. And pretty inspiring too, frankly. I mean the force of nature you have to be to make shit like that happen is pretty awesome.

Beginning is also a beautifully written book. It’s joyously frank (in the preface, Branagh poses himself the question of why the book is being written and answers, “money”), laugh out loud funny in parts and gently self-mocking throughout. I love the stories of his early stories with chronic corpsing, struggling to assert his authority over a maverick Aussie director and attempting to learn to ride a horse. And of course there are a lot of fascinating anecdotes that feature other amazing talents (Gielgud, Jacobi etc etc etc) which all avoid coming off as vanity name dropping. I guess because they’re legitimately included as people he’s known. Which is just damn cool, frankly.

I’m not sure how easy it is to get hold of a copy of Beginning these days (I could just Google it but, y’know, I’m lazy) but if you can you definitely should. I’d offer to lend you mine but I don’t trust you to give it back. No offence. I just love this book too much to take that risk.