Friday, 21 October 2016

Silence and slow time

I hope this doesn’t sound too poncey for words, but I spent last week singing music written by the Scottish composer Robert Carver. He was born around 1485, the year the Wars of the Roses ended with the Battle of Bosworth, and seems to have written some works when he was only about twenty-two. There were twenty of us singing a mass setting for ten voice parts.

This was an amazing experience for many reasons. The music was immense, overwhelming, magnificent: both huge and detailed, like the fan vaulting of King’s College Chapel. If you’re at all tempted to think of the fifteenth century as lacking in culture or sophistication, you hear instantly how wrong you are. And the harmonies Carver uses are more unconventional than what came later: there are chords you won’t hear in Bach of Handel, and would never encounter in pop songs or contemporary classical music.

The music also had a slow, intense pulse, called the tactus because it is the beat you would tap time to, and to sing it well you had to feel this, surrender to it. In later music it is quicker, but in Tudor music it is about 60 beats a minute – the same as a resting human pulse. To sing this music, we had to relax, slow down.

This has been a common theme for me, of late: I’ve been re-enacting, which means dressing up as a Tudor and attempting to talk like one, at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk. To speak sixteenth-century English, the first thing you have to do is slow down. The words are shorter and the constructions simpler: if you gabble at modern speed it sounds ridiculous. But slow down, and you start to feel how it works.

Tudor shoes have leather soles. You can’t rush in them, or you’ll go head over heels. Tudor clothes are made of linen and wool and fasten with laces and buttons. You can’t dress in a hurry: you have to take your time. These are not modern clothes that you drag over your head: they are made to fit you exactly, and many re-enactors, including me, sew every stitch by hand.

Modern life has many advantages: unlike many Tudor women, I’ve been taught to read and write, and I’ve survived childbirth. But by golly we’ve made our lives complicated, and the rate of change seems to go on accelerating­. If I’ve learned one thing from my time in the sixteenth century, it’s the wisdom of slowing down.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

God's property

I went to the Soho Theatre last night to see a new play – God's Property, by Arinze Kene. Nigel, who's one of my regular culture companions, and I had realised we were seeing a lot of Shakespeare and opera, but nothing much that was new, so our visit was the result of that. (In fact, it all started when I read Peter Hall's autobiography a couple of weeks ago. Really interesting, and he was somehow breathtakingly ambitious but low on ego. A local boy, too – when Hall was at Cambridge, his father was station master at Whittlesford, the nearest rail station to here. Anyway, there's a great moment when he's about six weeks into his first job as a director of a London theatre, and the script of Waiting For Godot lands on his desk. His experience with that, and his willingness to innovate, made me realise that my theatre experience had got rather fossilised.)

Last night was remarkable. The theatre is a great space, very like the Young Vic and the Donmar, with long benches and no prescenium arch. Below us was an eighties kitchen, and the first thing that happens is that a black guy comes through the door carrying a bag and some groceries. He goes upstairs to see if his Mum is at home. The door opens again for a younger guy with a guitar, and when he sees the first he pulls out a knife. From that moment, the drama never lets up.

There are some lovely moments of humour, but where the play really works well is in ratcheting up the tension. What struck me most is how beautifully it's constructed; the entry of new characters and the revelations of the plot are perfectly paced. There are no lulls, and no false steps. The dialogue is batted to and fro like a ping-pong ball, and the humour feeds into the drama. We were on the edge of our seats for most of the ninety minutes, and I spent the last ten minutes at least in tears.

None of the actors seemed to miss a beat at any point – all four were utterly believable. The lighter scenes also had me almost in tears, remembering what it was like to be sixteen and in love. Ach.

I'm going to be a regular customer of this place, I think. In the bar afterwards, I heard about at least two other plays and one cabaret act that I've just got to see!

More info at the Soho Theatre site.

Also this week.... I read J K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, and enjoyed it more than I expected to. I don't get on with Harry Potter: Rowling's world never strikes me as fully realised, and the way some characters are realistic and some farcical, so you can't tell who you're meant to take seriously, makes me uncomfortable. This novel avoided those pitfalls, and made the most of her ability to wind a lot of plot strands together. I thought her range was impressive, too: it's the characters at the bottom of the hierarchy who have stayed with me, and they're the ones who don't get to be in many novels.

Oh, and lastly: go and see Medea at English National Opera: it is bloody amazing. 

Thursday, 7 February 2013

A moderate feast, and a silent opera

To the Young Vic last night, to see Feast - reflecting a resolution I made after seeing A Doll's House and Three Sisters there, to go more often. They seem to be doing some great work at the moment.

Feast was a slight disappointment, partly because it seemed a little over-hyped in the reviews. I went expecting to be exhilarated and was only really charmed.

The reviews had somehow led me to expect swirling costumes and beating drums, a whirl of colour - African cliches, perhaps? What was on offer was more thoughtful and measured, but sometimes lost its momentum. Ideas floated - the first actor on stage encouraged audience participation, but this didn't happen again - but then sank.

The evening was a sequence of playlets moving through history. The stage effects were great, the acting convincing, and the dancing excellent, and there were a couple of charismatic narrators, but what it lacked, for me, was a really strong narrative or any really dramatic moments. There was a little bit of everything, but not quite enough to bowl you over. Would I have minded, if I hadn't expected to be overwhelmed? I'm not sure....

Feast reviewed in the Telegraph.

Feast reviewed in the Independent.

And even Michael Billington in the Guardian liked it - which should perhaps have worried me, as he doesn't generally share my taste (he seems to loathe the Globe, for instance).

The friend I went with agreed with all this - but, as he pointed out afterwards, we haven't actually seen anything we disagreed about yet.

Last week I went to see the Silent Opera doing Monteverdi's Orfeo. That was fun as I went along with an acquaintance who's an opera director, so applied a critical, professional eye to the production. He was less than impressed, I'm afraid. For me, it was interesting to see how the gimmick had run away with things. In this case, they had continuo instruments - harpsichord, theorbos, harp - but no strings, brass or wind. The audience were all issued with wireless headphones, and the singers and instruments were miked up, but you only got the effect of the full orchestra if you wore the phones.

But there's something about having headphones clamped on that really distances you from the action - my friend and I spent the production taking them off at every opportunity. Suspicious minds might have seen it as a ruse to save money, since all those sackbuts didn't have to be paid to be there. But the other snag was that if you'd have taken out that element, what was left wasn't quite good enough. The staging was okay but could have done so much more: we'd expected to crawl through tunnels and get trapped in Hades; in the event we simply shuffled into the next room and went up some stairs and then down again – more like being on the tube than anything else. Not knowing the plot, I had no idea at what point we – or Orfeo – were crossing the Styx, and so a lot of the drama passed me by. This seemed a rather basic point not to have made.

It also meant that the chap I thought was Pluto was really Charon, though he did get the lion's share of the music - which was a shame as the singer wasn't up to it, simply ghosting the low notes. I happened to know the bass who sang Pluto, but my friend (who didn't) agreed that he'd have swapped the two singers. Pluto had a lot of groping, snogging and fumbling to do; there was rather a lot of That Kind of Thing, in fact, with a whole lot of dancers whose only function was to writhe on scaffolding. Which is fine if you want set-dressing, but you could have paid to have the sackbuts there instead. Not just for the ethics of it – having recorded musicians when you could have live isn't polite - but for the energy they bring: I really missed the visual aspect you get from string playing: the energy and rhythm of all those bowing arms, and the visual drama of sackbuts, which are beautiful things.

What I assumed should have been the pivotal moment – when Orfeo loses everything in a moment by looking back at Eurydice – was also oddly fudged. I thought I'd missed it: then Eurydice didn't seem terribly keen to stay anyway. It was all a little odd - whether it didn't go as planned or the effects were misjudged, I wasn't quite sure. The moments of really effective drama were mostly driven, come to think of it, by the quality of the music and the singing. The messenger who brings news of Eurydice's death to the wedding party sang her part beautifully: that was the one moment that brought tears to my eyes. And Orfeo's final raging, right across the audience, was very effective. A word for Musica, too, who had a lovely voice that rang out in her solos and also shone through the choruses.

On reflection, losing the mikes, the headphones and the ranks of mixing desks, and focusing on using the space effectively (considering what a schlep it was to find the place, we'd expected something more unusual), might have paid off better. I wondered if the problem with this kind of endeavour is that it's easy, once they're completed, to watch the finished product and point out exactly how they could have been improved. But there were a few terribly trendy elements to the  production which seemed to demonstrate that the gimmick was rather the point, and that the desire to be fashionable might have taken precedence anyway.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

What happened to feminism?

We had a very interesting week a month or two ago: in the same week we went to see 'The Taming of the Shrew' at the Globe, and 'A Doll's House' at the Young Vic. 

They were both terrific productions, I thought. I've always liked the idea of playing Petruchio as a clown, someone who's unconventional but has worked out how to do it within the boudaries of society, and wants to teach Katherina how to do the same. The BBC production years ago cast John Cleese in the part, and it worked very well. The Globe's actor went rather further, and the shock value was great. Their Katherina was what's always called 'feisty' so it was interesting to see what they'd do about her final speech. You can play it as Kate taking the piss rather to win the bet, but that's a bit of a cop-out; instead they played it pretty much straight.

What was interesting, at the Globe, was to feel - physically feel - how uncomfortable this made the audience. At first it felt like disbelief - was Kate really saying this stuff? How could she possibly mean it? Wasn't anyone going to stop her? And then it slowly turned into shock - she really was going to say it, and apparently without irony, and actually all the people on stage were in agreement with her. The sense I got from the audience was that, despite everything that they'd seen in the play, they hadn't really realised that this was, once, how some people thought. It made me want to look really closely at the text to decide whether it's possible to deduce if Shakespeare is actually over-egging it at this point, or whether you can read it as a statement of his values.

What clinched it was that we had much the same experience watching Ibsen's 'A Doll's House' at the Young Vic.At the point where Torvald, the husband, talks about how he's always seen Nora as the child that he took over protection of from her father, there were gasps from the audience. How sexist! How could he say that! What was Ibsen thinking of.... I wanted to stand up and shout - "This is how it was! This is what decent people thought in 1879! THIS IS WHY WE HAD FEMINISM!"

Both were very strange experiences. Have people somehow forgotten that things were once different? Do play audiences not know that the position of women in society has changed dramatically in the last hundred years?

I suppose there's a side point too, that it's crazy to expect the work of the past to conform to the orthodoxies of the present. I've always strongly disliked the tendency of feminist criticism to accuse the works of the past of not being feminist enough – how could they have been? And you can't demand of all writers that they be politically aware. Gah!

Friday, 22 June 2012

Henry V at the Globe

Saw a terrific production of Henry V at the Globe on Wednesday. Unusual - but really no reason - to have a female chorus. And when she said 'this wooden O' (about thirty seconds in) my eyes filled with tears to think that once again it was literally true.

I didn't know the actor - we don't really watch television apart from the odd thing on iPlayer - but Henry himself was terrific. He was very good at conveying the physical effort: lots of wiping of brow, wincing at bruised hands, and so on. And good at doing the thinking between scenes, so they developed without words. And those tricks like coming in before the other person has stopped - because you're not meant to know exactly how much the other person is going to say. But more importantly, he brought the words to life and said them as though he understood them, and they were relevant, without losing the poetry. The set pieces were truly inspiring - I felt moved to cheer louder than I ever have at the Globe, and standing in the yard is a great inducement to cheering. I wanted to boo the French, too, but nobody else did. (I also laughed at a few jokes that nobody else did - not use whether that betokens great subtelty in my understanding of Shakespeare's lanugage, or simply reflects how many of the audience don't have English as a first language.)

The actor playing Katherine was lovely in her first scene, but almost the only quibble I had with the production was that she didn't yield enough to Henry's courting. I'm sure you could make a strong case that the character wouldn't; but dramatically, I felt it needed her surrender as a princess to reflect the surrender of the country. But I like the way that the concluding dance often supplies a consummation that hasn't had quite enough time to play out in the drama. That's one of the many things I like about the Globe.

Another is the interval treats. They've always done nice nibbles and things. This time there were very classy burgers, and some good-looking frankfurters. Cider at £5.90 a bottle seemed a bit much, though.

What I don't like is the website, which in the many years I've been using it has never had some fundamental usability flaws fixed. Find the play you want to see, find the date you can go, click Book tickets.... and start again from scratch. Do you want the Theatre, Education, Globe on tour? Oh, come *on*! It's as rubbish a user journey as you could hope for.. What could be worse than taking a user who's made a decision to buy, and forcing them two steps back in the process?

Get over that hump and you face a larger one. Your £5 ticket has a £2.50 transaction fee. Splutter! Some theatres - such as Cambridge Arts Theatre - host outside productions, and the booking fee is the only way to get their percentage - apparently, though it's another one of those things that you'd have thought they could equally just bloody well sort out among themselves, frankly. But the Globe has its own company and does its own productions. It has the same layout and ticket prices for every single play, so far as I know, so there's no reason why the ticketing process should be so frightfully complicated that it has to be subcontracted to an outside agency who'd have to take their rake-off. So why the fifty percent surcharge?

I asked at the box office when I collected my ticket, and the person there said "It's a transaction fee." For what transaction, I asked - using a credit card? That's only ten percent. "It's a transaction fee."But you don't have a ticket agency - "It's a transaction fee." (At this point the person next to me said "It's not worth it, they're just robots.") The staff member said "You don't pay it if you book by phone." And I said "WHAT??? I phone you up and use up your time and I don't pay, or I do it all by myself and you charge me a whacking great fee? What the hell are you doing?" "It's a transaction fee."

So there you are. Don't use their website: it costs fifty percent more than talking to a human being. Insane. And how stupid, that such a great institution should have one big fat lump of idiocy that sours the whole experience - which, apart from that, is stupendous.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Why make up is bad

A while ago, a friend invited me to chair a book group meeting on Catlin Moran's How to be a Woman. I was very chuffed, partly because I was flattered to be asked, and partly because I love the book to bits. It turned out to be pretty hilarious; all the women there (it was a women-only book group) were vaguely feministy in some degree (up to and including "I'm not a feminist but" where the but includes a belief in equal rights for women, but I was the only hardcore, unreconstructed, 1970s radical feminist - well, there may have been one other, but I was definitely the only person present who didn't shave my armpits (why should you? Men don't. If armpit hair is disgusting, why isn't it disgusting for everyone? Plus I think shaved armpits look horrid), which some people found so intriguing - they'd never seen an unshaven female armpit! Imagine, sisters! - that I stripped to show them. Shame nobody was interested in my pubes, really.

Anyway, as usual I digress. Next morning the friend asked me why I objected to make-up and as I wasn't really awake I said I just thought it wasted a lot of time. Sensibly - some people are so alert int eh mornings, it's really unfair - she asked me what I thought I achieved with the time I saved compared with her, as she wears a bit of make-up, every day I think. I rambled on dopily about all the stuff I do, and realised very quickly that I wasn't making much sense, plus she does loads of stuff too so it was pretty patronising. Ever since, I've wanted to think of a better answer. Here it is.

When I get ready in the morning, I have a wee, wash my face in cold water, get dressed, brush my hair and leave the house. When I get dressed up for a concert I wash, put on floor length sequins, brush my hair, and leave the house. So long as I remembered to wash and I brushed my hair (and it was reasonably clean - I've recently started washing it twice a week instead of once, but I reckon if you wash it more often it simply needs it more often) , I know I'm presentable. Now obviously this is time-efficient, and that can be bloody useful. But I think there's a more important, and that's that as long as I'm neat and clean, I'm happy. I don't have to doll myself up to feel I've made an effort. I don't feel that I can't face the world without my mascara. I don't fret that people won't take me seriously if I haven't got mascara on. I don't worry that I can't sleep with someone I fancy (harking back a bit here) because he'll see me in the morning without my hair straighteners, my lip gloss, my special bra, whatever. What you see is what you get. I'm good enough. I don't have to make an extra effort to look extra nice. That seems to me to be truly liberating.

It's also how it is for men. They wee, they wash, they shave, they dress, they're ready to go. Why would things be really different for women unless something weird was happening? Unless the rules for men and women were oddly different?

Another friend says she likes to put on lipstick when she's going out - it's a trigger: the act gets her into a going-out mood. That makes sense. That's not a need or an obligation; that's for fun. What I worry about is when it's not for fun, it's a necessity. If you can't got out without it, then it's a crutch, maybe an addiction. Certainly an inconvenience.

I have also never, ever ever ever, seen a woman I thought looked better with make-up on than without it. Call me a diehard old radical feminist, but smearing greasy crap into your face just seems bloody weird to me. It looks funny. You look great without any of that stuff. Honest.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Sasha knows what sex he or she is

Hmm, I have a feeling that it's a bit pointless continuing to make this blog keep the secret. Anyway, if you've been reading and not known whether Sasha is a boy or a girl, skip this post.

Yes, of COURSE Sasha knows he's a boy. How could he fail to notice that he's got a willy? We have never concealed from him what sex he was. That would be silly. Plus, he's got a willy so how could you even attempt it? Duh!

The thing we don't push is GENDER. That is different. We don't say "Ooh, he's a typical boy" or "Don't  run like a girl" or "You sound like an old woman" or "Big boys don't cry".  We don't say that only girls are interested in dolls and colours and what they look like; we tell him he's beautiful. We don't assume that he likes diggers and lego because he's a boy; I like diggers and lego, and I'm a woman. Mummy has a toolbox; Daddy does the cooking. We just don't believe that stereotypes are useful when you're dealing with individuals. So we try not to restrict Sasha's options based on generalisations about gender. On the other hand, we do restrict his options based on good taste and our own opinions, which can border on sheer bloodymindedness. Barbie is banned (except for jumble sale bargains) because she is BORING and Disney is banned because their Princess crap is too yukky and they over-merchandise, and because I have never forgiven them for ruining two of my favourite books, Alice in Wonderland and Winnie-the Pooh.

What things do you ban, as a parent?