Saturday, 30 July 2011

Don't hold your breath...

...even the books I'm reading are about the theatre.

Who could resist a book with a title that is such a dreadful pun Something Written in the State of Denmark?

This is a blog to book tome that I treated myself to when I was at the National Theatre. It is the account of one season at the RSC by a member of the cast and cover the 10 months that forms 'The Season'. To make it more exciting this is the 2008 season which saw David Tennant and Patrick Stewart playing opposite each other in Hamlet.

Osborn doesn't dwell on the stars, they are in fact mentioned only in passing and you really get the feeling that in the RSC names don't matter to the company - it is only the audience that cares about who is in the play. The play really is the thing!

I had no idea before reading this about just how hard being an RSC actor is. The actors have to know 3 plays inside out and perform them in rotation throughout the year. In addition to their main parts they also have several understudy roles and effectively have to know at least 5 or 6 parts fully for a season. I thought that I had a good memory but this just blew me away and when you read just how hard everyone works, tech crew as well it is easier to see why the ticket costs are quite high. Everyone deserves every penny!

I loved this book, and already have the other RSC blog-to-book on order (Exit Pursued by a Badger) the only problem - now I desperately want to go to Stratford-upon-Avon and see a complete season!

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Theatrical Interlude 12

Emperor and Galilean, Olivier Stage, National Theatre, July 2011.

I am really beginning to think that I should rename this blog. I assure you that I am reading but as I am working my way through the work of one particular playwright at the moment it would be quite boring to blog/read about that.

Theatre on a Sunday is quite unusual but I for one am very glad that the National Theatre had some Sunday performances as it meant that I did get the chance to see this before the run ends.

When the play opened there were a few radio items about it, and all the press I saw was favourable so I was looking forwards to this event although it is a very obscure and long Ibsen play. So obscure in fact that this is the first time it has actually been performed in English.

I wasn't disappointed. It was a little long, especially in the first half, I did find my concentration wavering a little but the acting throughout was sublime - how the lead (Andrew Scott) managed to learn all of the lines I have no idea, there is barely a scene in the 3 1/2 hours that he isn't in.

The story itself is set in around 300AD when the Roman Empire converted from the pagan religions to being broadly Christian. Julian, nephew of the emperor, has religious doubts and when he becomes emperor he decides that he will renounce this decree and that all forms of worship will be allowed. This quickly falls apart and Christians are soon being persecuted and killed. There are more themes (friendship, madness, war) but this is the general story arc.

While the acting and story were great I found the staging and costumes to be a little much. There were so many costume changes and bits of moving scenery that this did keep drawing me out of the play and back into reality. Perhaps just because you can doesn't mean you should! However this was the first time I've seen just how incredible the Oliver Stage is - Frankenstein earlier in the year really didn't use it very much at all in comparison!

Ibsen (a Norwegian) clearly wrote over a 130 years ago a play that shows how easily belief can slide into fanaticism and violence. It feels heavily prescient especially in the light of the attacks in Oslo which occurred only 48 hours before I saw this performance.

I can't say that I would rush to see more Ibsen, but having seen 2 incredible plays at the National I will certainly be trying to see more there, whether live or when they broadcast to cinemas around the country.

Andrew Scott as Emperor Julian (photo Catherine Ashmore)

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Theatrical Interlude 11

Being Shakespeare, Trafalgar Studios, July 2011

This one man show nearly passed me by, if it hadn't been for a friend blogging about it (here) and then a programme on Radio 4 I would have missed a real treat.

Thanks to working part time and I didn't miss out and instead had a day on my own in London seeing a piece of amazing theatre.

While I didn't have quite the same experience as my friend I was still blown away by Callow's performance. The play is just under 2 hours long and in it Callow takes the seven ages of man as listed in the play As You Like It and tells us of Shakespeare's life using quotes from his plays and poems.


All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

I have to confess that I don't know many Shakespeare plays well. Romeo and Juliet was the only play I studied at school and since then I've not seen an awful lot. This didn't matter, and I will now be seriously searching out, reading and watching many more.

My abiding memories of this performance will be Callow playing both Romeo and Juliet during the balcony scene and when he played all the parts of the Pyramus and Thisbe scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. It takes real talent for one man to act many parts at the same time well and making each one distinct.

I would urge you all to see this show but it closes on July 23rd so you'll have to be quick. I will now be looking for revivals of Callow's shows about Wilde and Dickens.

Another thing I learned from this trip is that it is okay to go to the theatre alone, not quite so pleasant as with friends as you have no one to chat to after the show, but still fine. Now to scour the listings for other things not to miss...

Tuesday, 12 July 2011


Sometimes I just don't understand the book world

I've just read a brilliant book and under normal circumstances I'd now be linking exactly where you could find a copy and be urging you to read it too. However I can't.

The novel in question is called Looking for Buttons and it was written by a friend of mine, sadly the book can't find a publisher, she's been told by an agent that it is unlikely to be published but I'm hoping that they just mean in the current climate.

Looking for Buttons is an unashamed woman's read, I hesitate to call it chick-lit but it really reminded me of authors like Kate Long and Freya North. The characters live from page one, the story tells itself and there didn't seem to be any awkward chunks of description. It all just flowed.
I was kept guessing throughout and then ending is realistic rather than fairy tale.

Now it isn't without fault and as I was asked to give honest feedback I have done so - hopefully in a way that my friend is still talking to me - but there is nothing in there that a good editor wouldn't be able to fix.

As I was reading it I was thinking about how, if I still worked in book retail, I would 'sell' the book. There would be the obvious "if you'll love" approach but I'd also have no problems hand selling the book with total honesty. The book is suitable for all ages of reader, it is modern enough that a twenty something would enjoy it but not so shocking that I'd have problems sharing it with my mum or my nan.

Now since I finished the book I've been trying to work out why it isn't being snapped up...

I've come to a few conclusions:

Chicklit is tending to be either more shocking or aimed at upper teens - Looking for Buttons doesn't hit this. It is just a realistic story with characters who are in their late twenties and early thirties living slightly larger than life lives.

There is a celebrity in the book and he is written in a way that breaks through the current cult of the s'leb - something that perhaps publishers are wary of in a society that seems obsessed by the famous.

The main reason I think it hasn't been snapped up though is snobbery:

The main character is a PhD graduate and all of her friends are also university graduates at varying levels. I wonder if there is the perception that this makes the book seem too high brow for general readers whilst at the same time there is the idea that people with degrees or higher can't be interested in chick lit.

I'm hoping that my friend doesn't give up on the book, I'd love to see it published and in the meantime I'm hoping that she makes it available via Amazon as an eBook. If she does I'll be pushing it like crazy.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Theatrical Interlude 10

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London. June 2011

This was a spur of the moment theatre trip in many ways. A friend said shall we? and without knowing anything about the play I said 'sure' and so it came to pass.

It isn't a decision I regret at all. As I knew nothing about the play I did read it beforehand just so I knew what was going on and once I'd done this I really couldn't wait to see it.

When we got to the theatre we had a surprise, we actually had tickets for the Upper Circle but had been upgraded to the Royal Circle. I don't know if it is because of the industrial action on the day, or if weekday matinees are just less popular but even with the Upper Circle shut and people relocated the Royal Circle was still more than half empty.
I was a bit worried what this would do to the atmosphere but I needn't have worried. Perhaps because there were no school parties in the theatre was lovely and quiet and everyone seemed to 'get' all of the jokes and the performance felt very friendly.

From the very first scene I fell in love with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they are such bewildered characters, yet so wise. It helps that the two actors had fantastic chemistry together I think - when I read my programme in the interval I saw that they had both been in Alan Bennett's History Boys which would explain the familiarity and ease. They are on stage during pretty much every scene of the play and even then I could happily have watched more of them!

The players, who for me acted both as the comic relief and the narrator, were funny and completely over the top (in the best way). Having recently been to the Globe they felt very 'right' for travelling actors in Shakespearean times.

The weakest parts of the play for me were when the scenes from Hamlet were acted. I realised that the transition from modern speech to pure Shakespeare would be sudden but personally I felt that the actors acting Hamlet were melodramatic and out of step with the rest of the play somehow. Even so they were still good, just not as good as the others!

Throughout I was trying to recall what the play was reminding me of and then in a light bulb moment it came to me - the sparse setting and the questioning themes all made me think of Waiting for Godot. It was only afterwards when I read more about Stoppard and this play that I found out others had made this connection.

For a spur of the moment decision to see a play I wasn't disappointed. It was another resounding success.

Monday, 4 July 2011

High hopes

Caddy's World by Hilary McKay

I picked this one of the shelf with some trepidation, I love Hilary McKay's books, and have done for years. Even before the delightful Casson family books there was the Exiles series - what reader wouldn't sympathise with the Conroy sisters when they are sent to stay with Big Grandma and forbidden to read?

Then there was the sequel to A Little Princess, which I blogged about here.
I wasn't a fan and so on learning that Caddy's World was going to be a prequel to the Casson family saga I was nervous.

In the main I shouldn't have been, the book did fit in with the other stories quite well and it is obvious that McKay is happier writing about younger teenagers, Caddy and her friends feel much more realistic than Caddy does later on as an almost adult. The review I found here sums up 95% of my feelings about the book.


There was just one thing that threw me out of the book. The book is supposed to be set in 1996, in the epilogue Rose finds a picture from the time of the book and it is dated 1996 so this is an author stated fact and not a fan doing sums, but in the book Indigo has already been called "the next Harry Potter" in a newspaper article.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone wasn't published until 1997 and the hype and general media interest in the books didn't begin for at least 18 months after that.

I am sure that I am being hyper critical with this but after having gone to so much trouble to make all of the chronology fit, and to set a book that did really feel as if it was the first in the series and not a later fill-in this fact that could so easily have been checked spoiled the read for me.

I did enjoy the book, it has (mostly) restored my faith in an author I've loved for years and I am sure that nobody else will be upset by the too early reference to Potter.

I just have a bit of a 'thing' for accuracy in books - whether it is getting the date wrong in a children's historical book (one I read put the Dunkirk evacuations in 1941) or using old / wrongly labelled photos in a space reference book (the external tank was only white for 2 missions the other 133 flights have had orange tanks so why did a book published 4 years ago have the wrong picture...)

Rant over. It is a good book, a great story and the characters all really came alive. Now I've got to hunt out all of the Exile books and the rest of the Casson books and have a serious re-read...I might be some time!

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Bedtime Stories

The Reading Promise , 3218 nights of reading with my father by Alice Ozma

I've had this book on reserve in the library for a couple of months, in fact as soon as I read the pre-publication blurb I knew that I wanted to read this book.

The jacket reads
"When Alice was nine years old, she and her father - a beloved school librarian - made a promise to read aloud together for 100 consecutive nights. upon reaching that goal, they decided to to continue what became known as The Streak for as long as they possibly could."

I've mentioned before the memories I have of being read to (Dad, why did we never read The Horse and his Boy when reading the Narnia books?) and so this book was always going to appeal. And when it finally arrived I read it in one day.

I think I thought it would be more about the books the pair shared, why they chose them and what they thought of them. It wasn't really like that.

This was the story of Alice's childhood and teenage years with her single parent dad with some mention of the time they spent reading together, there was very little about the books themselves.

It was an enjoyable read, but it wasn't what I was expecting and to be honest without the 'hook' of the 3218 nights I'm not sure that the book would have ever crossed the Atlantic to the UK. On the plus side it was lovely to read a book that was so positive about reading and about the father-daughter relationship, but it was a bit too 'touchy-feely' for me as a rule.

I think that as an avid reader the one thing that disappointed me the most was this closing paragraph:
"My father and I had no idea what The Streak would become and therefore never made a list of the books we read. Many have been forgotten"
they do go on to list some that they remember but as someone who has kept a reading diary for the last decade I wanted to know what they read and what they thought of the books.