Thursday, 27 June 2013

Your Country Needs You...

Dorothea's War by Dorothea Crewsdon

In my stack of books from the library were two more of my weaknesses - published diaries from people serving in World War One.

The first was from a horse-mad doctor who signed up at the out break of war and served in France throughout the war.  Henry Owens' family came from Long Stratton here in Norfolk and I had high hopes for the book but sadly I found the detail too sparse. While there is no doubt that Henry was a brave man - he served with his units in the trenches and didn't take the safer option of working in the hospitals behind the lines - I didn't find anything to connect with in his story.

The second book was far more to my taste and the tale of another brave person.

Dorothea trained as a VAD before the out break of WW1 and once war was declared, along with a friend, she volunteered for overseas service. From autumn 1914 until spring 1919 Dorothea worked in hospitals behind the lines in Northern France, she nursed the wounded and those out of the fighting due to illness and rarely returned to the UK on leave through the 4 1/2 years.  Towards the end of the war the hospital she served in was subjected to air raids and her brave actions (and injury) lead to a medal.

Despite surviving the diseases of war, air raids and the Spanish Influenza there sadly isn't a happy ending to the book - this isn't a spoiler it is mentioned in the introduction - and by the end I had a huge lump in my throat. Dorothea's writing style, anecdotes and drawings really made her live and I felt like I was reading about a friend.

I'm sure that with next year being the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War there will be many books published on the subject - all I can hope is that I have time to read them, and that they are of the quality of Dorothea's War.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Women Left Behind

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

After that very busy weekend I'm spending some time at home and thanks to some less than seasonal weather I've spent a lot of the time not at work reading.  This was helped by a huge stack of my library reservations arriving in time for this weekend.

From reading back through my review and holiday posts it is clear that I have an interest in space history and it feels like I've been waiting for months for this book, it was the first one I grabbed from the pile and I spent all of Sunday reading it.

Whilst I enjoyed the book I am glad that it was just a library copy, I think because I have read so many of the astronaut's books I knew most of the stories recounted here, and often the men had recounted them in less politic terms!

I very much liked the learning about how the women felt their behaviour was an important influence on the trajectory of their husbands' careers, and also about the infighting between the wives of the different astronaut classes but for me the book rarely felt deeper than an interview in a women's magazine.

Perhaps the author had become too friendly with the women so didn't feel a warts and all book was possible? Perhaps in broadening the book out to all of the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo wives there was just too much material.

The book was enjoyable, the photos lovely but for someone with such a keen interest I found it just a little superficial, perhaps after all it is the technical detail that I like as much as the personal story?

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Theatrical Interlude 15

Othello, Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre, London. June 2013

After a wonderful performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the original setting was the decision to see Othello in modern dress a mistake?  I've found in the past that seeing Shakespeare in a dark theatre far harder to engage with...

I needn't have feared.  The Olivier Theatre stage isn't a proscenium arch and the lighting set up meant that the theatre wasn't pitch black!

In this performance the action has been transposed to modern Cyprus and is set on a modern day army base - this worked very well for me and I engaged with the characters from the outset.

Othello is a play that I have previously studied a little and I think that this did help with the interpretation. Othello comes across as easily led and you can't understand how such a respected man can be so weak, but knowing that he feels out of place as a black leader in a white world makes this corruption comprehensible.

While the play is called Othello for me Iago was the focus and Rory Kinnear played him wonderfully - keeping him from being a total pantomime villain whilst still being delightfully evil and scheming.  The cast as a whole backed up the two leads and although Shakespeare didn't write strong female characters in this play both Desdemona and Emilia made the most of their roles.

The modern setting worked very well, and the staging was simple but brilliant - it really did look like a hurriedly constructed army camp, all concrete blocks and offices in former containers.  The only thing that jarred with the setting was when Othello hits his wife in public. While in the late 1500s this would have passed without comment I'd like to think that the modern army would have punished him on the spot.

I saw this play with Rebecca and I think I enjoyed it more than her, perhaps because it was my first time seeing the play or perhaps because I did have the little bit of insight for a play that did have some ambiguity.  The one thing that I hope passes soon is the fashion for having characters throw up on stage - at least this was more off stage than in Macbeth but is it really necessary?

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Ancient Rome in London

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, The British Museum, London. June 2013.

The European ancient world has long fascinated me.  I think I was in the first or second year at primary school when we studied the Ancient Greeks, I know we'd already 'done' the Egyptians and while it was fun learning to write hieroglyphs it took the Greeks to really capture my interest.

Visits to Greece and Italy in the decades since, plus a love of historical fiction (for children and adults) has kept the love alive and although a trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum is high on the to do list we weren't going to miss the chance to see this exhibition in the Reading Room at the British Museum.

We picked an early timed entry slot but even then the exhibition was busy.  We snuck past the introductory film - we've watched a lot of BBC documentaries on this bit of history and wanted just a little bit more room to look at everything!

The exhibition is very cleverly laid out, you start with a general idea of what 79AD life in the area was like  - things like inn signs, graffiti and murals as well as shopping artifacts are all displayed and then slowly you realise that you are entering a Roman house. You take a tour around the house popping in and out of rooms and the garden and each one is fully of frescoes, mosaics and household items which really bring the period to life.  Mr Norfolkbookworm had read the accompanying catalogue in advance of our visit and so it was like having my own private guide - I'm afraid my point of reference were the Roman Mystery books by Caroline Lawrence.  Both references really did complement each other and the exhibition.

Once you've wandered around the house the exhibition becomes a little darker - it is like the ash cloud from Vesuvius is descending over the exhibition. The first things you see are some of the molten and burned items then there are some of the preserved bodies from the area.  There aren't many but they are incredibly moving and one that has been preserved in resin not plaster and in that you can see the tendons, muscles and bones.

Despite there being lots of people in the space I didn't feel cramped and could always see the items I was interested in. In such a small place the exhibition organisers have done a great job in bringing Ancient Rome to life and now I really want to visit the 'real thing' more than ever.

Plaster cast of a dog
(NB for the faint hearted some of the 'restricted' items are on show including the infamous Pan and Goat statue)

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Theatrical Interlude 14

A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Globe, London. June 2013

This past weekend Mr Norfolkbookworm and I had one of our periodic London weekend splurges - two plays, and exhibition and a night in a hotel.  We're home again and shattered but had a great time.

It was a nice leisurely weekend with lots of time to explore new areas of London and to revisit other places without a rush.  Lunch at The George Inn was lovely and the experience of time travel started early as we were entertained by sword dancers while sitting the yard.

Our run of good weather whilst at the Globe broke this time but as we were tucked up at the back of the top gallery we stayed totally dry - unlike the poor actors and Groundlings! Mind you the rain came down so hard at one point that it was rushing off the thatch so fast it was like watching the stage from behind a waterfall! Jokes about the day being more suited to The Tempest abounded!

Despite the rain the performance was, as ever, fantastic.  I was a little wary of this one way back in January when I booked - there are so many staging of this play every year could the Globe do something different?

From start to finish the play lived for me, the miming of Theseus' conquering of the Amazonian queen was a delight and set the tone - light hearted and fun but with just a little edge.  This is magical mischief rather than malevolence and was great fun with all characters having funny lines/mimes/actions not just the mechanicals and Bottom.  It was the play within a play towards the end that really made the play for me - to perform Shakespeare in such a slapstick and funny way without losing the words or rhythm is an achievement.

As with most Globe productions I found this to be a full ensemble piece with all of the cast being equally good although occasionally I couldn't here all of Oberon/Theseus' speeches but as it was so wet this may have been the reason. From reading the programme afterwards I found out that this was the first time a lot of the actors have performed in the space and so congratulations to all of them in such conditions!
Spotting actors from previous productions is always fun and Bottom was played by the scene stealing Grumio from last year's Taming - his acting with the asses head has to be seen to be believed.

Another great play reinforcing how much I love seeing them performed as they would have been at the time.

The quartet of lovers fighting under the influence of the fairies (from The Times)

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Theatre at the Pictures

The Audience, National Theatre Live. Cinema City, Norwich. June 2013

It has been a while since I've seen a live broadcast at the cinema. Several of this season's plays I've seen live and one I just couldn't make it to any of the showings however I knew I had to see this one if at all possible.

I'd really have liked to have seen this one on stage but lack of time and unavailability of tickets when I was free made it impossible, so the next best thing has to be the National Theatre Live.

The play is deceptively simple - once a week, when possible, the Queen meets in private with the Prime Minister. What is discussed in these audiences is not known...

There have been 12 Prime Ministers in the 61 years since HM came to the throne and not all of them get a mention here but those that do are very cleverly portrayed. The 'audiences' depicted are usually from momentous points in the political life of the PM and the interesting view is that the Queen is actually more of a therapist than monarch.  In her constitutional role she can't give opinions or change how parliament is working but through these conversations you see her try to influence outcomes through her guidance, advice and experience.

Through very clever costume and wig changes the play moves backwards and forwards in time  - Major is the first PM that we meet, then back to Churchill then forwards again.  One scene must be re-written weekly, if not daily, as the conversation between HM and Cameron mentioned Prince Philip's current stay in hospital.

The play is genuinely funny, heartwarming and moving - I don't think I've been to a NT Live screening where there was so much laughter.  I was unsure at first about the conversations held between the Queen and her childhood self and while they grew on me and I can see why they were included I did find that they did break the flow a little.

The only thing I really didn't like about the broadcast was the tight focus on characters - this often meant we missed the clever costume changes, and made it hard to suspend belief and see Dame Helen Mirren as a 20 year old.  Seated in the theatre at a distance from the stage this would have been easier to see - although then of course you'd miss the subtle eye rolls and facial ticks that show what HM is thinking during the audiences.

In the interval there was an interview with the play's author and I really liked what he had to say about truth and accuracy.  Obviously no one knows what happens in the audiences but as he said from biographies, memoirs and interviews you can get a feel for how they go - thus these exact words might not have happened but the audience would have gone along those lines.

I laughed lots and I did have a lump in my throat at the end, I wish I'd managed to see the play live on stage but this was a great alternative.  If it is shown as an Encore and you aren't sure if you'd like it I'd say go - it doesn't matter if you are to the left or right politically or a rabid republican it is just a great play!

image taken from the NY Times

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Something entirely different

War Requiem (Britten & Jarman)

Having just read a book featuring Benjamin Britten and it being the centenary of his birth Mr Norfolkbookworm and I visited the cinema recently to see this film.

I'm not sure what to make of it.  The film is Jarman's response to the Requiem and the first 3rd was stunning telling the simple narrative of a soldiers and nurses in the First World War.

After this I'm not sure what it was about apart from the segment that was set to a crescendo of music as it showed the futility of all wars since 1914.  It was graphic but the images really fitted the music.

The parts of the film that were obviously symbolic passed me by totally I just didn't understand the images at all.

If the whole piece had been like the first movement I think I'd have been totally spellbound and profoundly moved. In the end I was just confused.

On reading about the piece of music I can see why it moved away from being totally a WW1 story - it wasn't written about that war, and wasn't about the 'Glorious Dead' of this war despite using the poems from then.

The music also wasn't quite to my taste, I can see (hear?) that it is technically good but I didn't connect with it totally.

On the whole I'm really glad that we had the chance to see this on a big screen thanks to having a great art house cinema but I don't think I shall be hurrying to anything else by either Britten or Jarman.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Theatrical Interlude 13

Rocky Horror 40th Anniversary Show. Theatre Royal, Norwich. June 2013.

I've seen the film version of this a few times and often listen to the sound track on my iPod but this was my fist time seeing it live, and even then it nearly slipped by as I didn't notice it listed in the brochure at first.

What is there to say about such an iconic show? It was brilliant - all of the actors were great with stunning voices and it was just a laugh from the very beginning.  Mr Norfolkbookworm and I didn't go in costume (the world is not ready for either of us in a corset and I fall off 1/2 inch shoes let along stilettos!) but many in the audience did and they were audacious and daring as well as very clever.

There were a lot of people in the audience who knew the "heckles" for the stage and it seemed that sometimes these had a particularly Norfolk twist to them for the narrator was occasionally hard pressed not to giggle but even then he managed to come back with some witty lines.

You either like Rocky Horror or you don't I feel - I loved it. It was like pantomime for grown ups and left me smiling and humming for the rest of the week.  If it had been possible I think that I'd have got tickets and gone again, I had so much fun.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Advance copies

The Time by the Sea by Ronald Blythe.

This book is published by Faber and Faber in the UK but this review is based on the electronic proof copy provided by Net Galley

Ronald Blythe came into my reading world late last year from two different directions.  I attended the East Anglian Book Awards and sat with on a table with his publisher and just after this his name was mentioned several times in conjunction with other authors - Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin - who's writing I enjoy greatly.

The Time by the Sea covers just a few years in Blythe's life, when he lived in Aldborough (Suffolk) and came into contact with the influential Aldborough Set.  This group of people was as important in East Anglia as Woolf's Bloomsbury Set had been earlier in the twentieth century.

Blythe comes to this specific area of Suffolk thanks to his connections to John Nash and quickly meets other important figures from the world of art, music and literature such as Britten, Forster and Hambling.

This book could so easily have been a "luvvie-fest" but instead of feeling like Blythe is name dropping I felt that he was really sharing his memories of these people in their Suffolk setting nearly sixty years ago.

The landscape around Aldborough is vital to all of the memories and as I am familiar with the landscape and towns talked about I felt that I was wandering around the area with Blythe and his friends.

Some names I knew but many of these important and influential people I'd not come across before and I read this with the book in one hand and the Dictionary of National Biography open on my computer!

Not knowing all of the characters didn't matter to my enjoyment of the book, and having read works from friends who appear later in Blythe's life, it was nice to travel back in time with him.  My list of books to look out for has grown a lot and in this Britten centenary year it was nice to learn more about him from an informal point of view.

Reading this book in electronic proof form was not without issue however as many of the chapter heading images weren't shown and the formatting didn't make it clear when Blythe was quoting - either poetry or memories from other people - which made it hard to follow at times.  This is why I've reserved the physical book from the library so I can see the bits I've missed.

My other slight criticism of the book is that sometimes Blythe leaves a person's tale before you've really got to know them. I realise that this is because it is a book of his own memories and not a biography of his friends, but tantalising little snippets are given and then not expanded on.  Sometimes I wasn't sure if this is because Blythe is a genuinely nice person who doesn't want to speak ill of anyone or if because he wasn't actually a full member of the 'set' and so doesn't actually know the whole story. I am just a nosey person who wants to know the full story!

Blythe's whimsical style really appeals to me and his love for East Anglia shines through, as does his respect for people, buildings and nature alike.  I can't wait to read more of his books now.