Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Hamlet : A Good Play

Over a year ago, I read that Benedict Cumberbatch, of Sherlock, Frankenstein and Smaug fame, was to play Hamlet, live, at the Barbican Theatre in London this year. And I have a group of friends who, like me, like going to the theater- we've previously seen David Tennant in Hamlet, and more recently, in Richard II, and agreed that seeing Mr Cumberbatch's Hamlet would be a good thing to do.

So, with some difficulty, I managed to buy the maximum 6 tickets permitted, (it later turned out that the show was the fastest seller in, well, pretty much ever. I was lucky that there were only a couple of hundred people ahead of me in the queue when I booked - later that day there were lover 10,000)

And a year went by, and on 15th August I reached the point where I was sitting in the stalls, in the Barbican theatre, waiting for the Prince of Denmark.. As the man says 'the readiness is all'

So, was it worth the wait? 

I think so. 

It should be mentioned that we saw the play on 15th August, which was (although not made clear when we booked, or on our tickets) a preview, 10 days into the run.

The play opens, not with the usual scene of Bernardo and Marcellus on the ramparts of Elsinore, but instead with Hamlet, alone on stage, looking though tea-chests (apparently paced with childhood items) while Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” plays on an old gramophone player. (The music familiar to many of us as the music from the film 'Moulin Rouge'), establishing him as, at the very least, a little melancholic.

We then moved to a the wedding breakfast, with vast displays of white flowers and of hunting trophies, as Claudius deals with the ambassadors to Norway, Laertes' wish to return to college, an Hamlet's own moodiness.
Hamlet: Scene 2 (official pic by Johan Persson)
Shortly after this picture was taken, Hamlet starts walking on the table and giving the  'O, that this too, too solid flesh..' soliloquy  (with the rest of the cast moved in slow-motion, which I thought was an effective way of allowing the soliloquies to be given, and to be clearly internal,  despite the number of other people on stage.)

Claudius - a trustworthy King
(photo credit as before)
Very effective. 

Obviously Cumberbatch is the headliner in the production, but the cast as a whole is very strong:  

Ciaran Hinds' Claudius doesn't really let the menacing, dangerous side of the character out in the earlier scenes of the play, but as the play progresses and he begins to fear Hamlet, and his own conscience, he becomes more obviously threatening.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith was a hugely powerful and commanding Laertes. Given that he has a relatively small amount of time on stage, he packed one hell of a punch.

I don't think I have seen Holdbrook-Smith before but will definitely be looking out for him in future!

Other characters were also, generally, pretty strong - Anastasia Hille as Gertrude made a great foil for Hamlet's flamboyance, and her reaction to Ophelia's madness and death was beautifully done.

Gertrude and Hamlet
I was a little less impressed with Ophelia (Sian Brooke) and with Horatio (Leo Bill) as characters, although I think n both cases this was a fault in the production not in the actors. In neither case did their relationships with Hamlet quite 'jell', for me. Ophelia's madness was beautifully done in its subtle contrast with Hamlet's own feigned madness, but she was less convincing as a object of his love, or even as a 'safe' friend for the emotionally immature Hamlet of this production.

Horatio seemed affectionate but a little distant until the very end of the play, and as a result his anguish at Hamlet's death seemed less consistent with his earlier relationship than it sometimes does. I would love to see the production again, and see whether this changes as Cumberbatch and Bill settle into working together. We did, after all, see a production only 11 performances into the run. I'm planning to see the NTLive broadcast on 15th October, and will be curious to see how the production changes.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstein got what was coming to them.

What of the man himself? 

I was *very* impressed.Cumberbatch's Hamlet has moments of pure, 'Sherlock' style intellect, (Hamlet's reaction to the Ghost' command to the soldiers to 'swear' is perfect!) lots of physical work, and much more humour than you normally see in Hamlet.

This Cumberbatch chap is pretty got with the acting. I think he will go far. Who knows, perhaps he will even make it to Hollywood one day!

And the show is worth seeing for the toy fort part alone.

Which brings me on to the set. 

Which is huge. The Barbican stage is BIG, and this set takes full advantage of that. And there is a lot going on. The set is the Palace, huge, and formal (and gradually cracking and  deteriorating over the course of the play, mirroring the destruction of the lives of those on stage, and that part really works. There is a sweeping staircase, and a balcony to one side of the stage, which works well for all the plotting.

I was less enamoured of the set dressing - lots of white garlands for the wedding breakfast, and lots of flowers, bizarrely arranged in brass instruments , for the play-within-a-play, as well  as an entire mini-theatre, and a war room. Again, it may be that the scene changes will get a little slicker over time, but I did find some of them a little distracting. I will admit, however, that full size toy fort in which Hamlet plays, establishing his madness, was a lot of fun! 

Over all, it's a very good production, with a very strong ensemble cast, some interesting cuts and changes in the text, and just a few too many props! I was happy to see that although some well known lines were cut (Polonius, I'm looking at you) and others appeared in unexpected places, Fortinbras made the cut. There were probably even some sledded Polacks in the wings, if one only knew where to look.

Laertes and Hamlet. Not going to end well.
Oh, and Benedict knocked over a case of swords during the curtain call, proving he is human, and then very tidily picked them up off the floor before taking his bow! 

I am very glad that I got to see it, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again at the cinema. And even if you can't see the show lie, do go to the broadcast if you get a chance.  I give it 4.5 / 5 stars. (half off for the flowers-inna-tuba)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Barons and Charters and Literary Fun

I don't live far from Wincanton, but for some reason I have never visited, or been to the Discworld Emporium , which lives there.

I almost didn't get there today. I decided to go. Which turned out to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. 

The road,you see, was closed. The diversion signs were .. unhelpful. For which read 'one sign sending you down a  tiny lane with grass growing up the middle, and then No More Signs.

And each time I tried to find Wincanton, I got back to another road block. I would have given up, but I am stubborn, and I had a full tank of petrol and nothing else I needed to do (unless you count housework, of course) so I decided that I would get to Wincanton, even if I had to go round it and sneak up on it from the wrong side.and having made that choice, I did then manage to get there.

The Discworld Emporium is easy enough to find once you get into the town, and it is, as might be expected, full of lovely things and interesting people.  (and yes, of course I bought things. How not?)

After leaving Wincanton, I headed to Salisbury, which, as part of the celebration of the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta, (Salisbury  Cathedral holds one of the 4 remaining original charters) currently has a 'Barons' Charter' trail, with 25 Barons, each decorated by a different artist.
Discworld Knight
With a link to my first port of call, one of the Barons is the Discworld Knight, decorated by Paul Kidby, and featureing a sword covered in Feegles, and a back covered in a wide range of Discworld characters, from Granny Weatherwax, to Susan Sto Helit, the Librarian (Oook), Lord Vetinari and Tiffany Aching. And more Feegles, of course. 

Discworld Knight (Back)
I didn't seek out all 25 Barons, but I did find a fair few - one celebrating the 800th anniversary, and standing just outside the cathedral (the Charter itself is kept in the Chapter House)
Another I liked was the 'Astro Baron' in full NASA gear, and 

'Looking forward Looking Back', which has a trompe l'oeil painting of the interior of the cathedral on it. 

 As well as the Barons, I visited the cathedral, which I have not been to for years. It has a lovely, modern font, in which one can see the reflections of the roof and stained glass windows.                                                                                                                           There is a beautiful, perfectly proportioned chapter house, (in which Salisbury's copy of Magna Carta is displayed in a glass case in a modern and not very beautiful tent, presumably to protect it from excessive light) 

In the cloisters, I had a brief and unexpected encounter with a small bat. It had, it appeared, fallen, and was in danger of getting squished. Several people had tried to pick it up using leaflets, which were of course rather shiny and hard to grip, so it occurred to me that if I emptied out my cotton, Neil Gaiman quoting tote bag, I could use that to give it something to grip, so it could be moved somewhere safer.
Which was what happened.   The bat was moved gently to the hedge bordering the cloisters, where it clambered from the bag onto the hedge, and a little later a verger appeared to keep an eye on it and to ensure that it was not disturbed or injured. I suspect that it was a young one and had perhaps mis-judged a landing, and then had trouble getting off the ground to take off again. And there was no sign of it when I went back through the cloisters half an hour later, after visiting Magna Carta, which I think is a good sign!

After leaving the cathedral, I noticed that one of the houses in the Close was owned by the National Trust, so I decided to visit. It is Mompesson House, and is fairly small for a National Trust property.   It is an 18thC house (just, having been completed in 1701)                                                                                                                                  It is a nice house, and also has a claim to fame as having been used as a location for the 1995 film version of 'Sense and Sensibility' (Emma Thompson et. al.) in which it  appeared as Mrs Jennings' townhouse.  The house has, as well as it's  collection of glassware, and some nice plasterwork, has a number of props and costumes from the file (in the picture, the headless gentleman is in fact Alan Rickman / Colonel Brandon's suit) 

There were some bonnets, too (although they were not, I think, Alan Rickman's).

All in all, it was an interesting day out, and it did not start to rain until I was nearly home.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

A trip to London

The full-on Hamlet post will be coming a little later, this one is about the rest of my London trip.

I arrived around mid-day, and checked into our hotel, near the Barbican, and met with my sister. 

We had plenty of time before the highlight of the trip, so we decided to go and visit the Geffrye Museum, which is based in a former almshouse and is a museum of the home.

Outside there are trees and benches and grass.

Inside, there is a little chapel, and a series of galleries with rooms, furnished as a main living room or parlour would have been furnished, in various different periods, starting in the early 17th Century and continuing up to the 1990s.

There are, unsurprisingly, more rooms for the 20th Century than for earlier periods, but all are interesting. 

After having lunch in the museum's cafe and  going through the galleries, we went out to the back of the museum where there are gardens, which are again arranged to reflect tastes of of different periods, together with a separate walled garden featuring bee-friendly plants, plants for dyes, medicinal plants, and edible herbs/plants. 

And the museum also has a number of (very clean and bright!)beehives (wisely, these are beyond a flowerbed with clear 'no access' signs!)

It is not a large museum, but it is an interesting one to visit, and I am glad we went.

Afterwards, we walked back to our hotel to freshen up and change, then went to the Barbican where we were able to meet up on the 'lakeside terrace' with one of our group, for a quick drink and  lots of chat. 

After this, we headed up to the 'Gin Joint' restaurant. This has (as the name suggests) an extensive list of gins available, and a very impressive cocktail menu which is would have been churlish to ignore.

We each indulged. Of course we did, how could we not?  

Mine was a 'Bermondsey Orchard' which featured rhubarb liqueur, apple and sage and egg white (and gin, obviously). 

Others in our group tried the 'Fort Fiesta' (which included pink gin and grapefruit) and a 'misty French' which involved lemon and champagne (and gin)...

They were all very nice. As was the meal which followed, although  it was a little alarming that all of the staff disappeared when we were trying to pay our bill. Given that this is a restaurant in a theatre, advertising  pre-theatre menu, and not particularly busy, to make it so difficult to pay, at a point 10 minutes before the evening's performance is due to start, is a bit of a failing!

Happily, however, we all made it into the the theatre and into our seats before the doors were closed!

Sadly, two of our original group were not able to join us, both due to family illness. We had one substitution, and returned the other ticket which was duly re-sold. I hope the young woman who bought it enjoyed her evening! 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

New New House!

Back in May, I moved all my furniture, and myself, out into the shed / garden annex / converted garage,  in order to allow a whole string of builders and plasters and electricians and decorators and carpet fitters to transform my house.
The living room. Note the lovely stone-cladding, and the artex ceiling

It was in great need of it. 

These are some of the 'before' pictures. The house has literally had nothing done to it for decades. 

I assume the wallpaper went up in the early 80's, and nothing had changed since. Not shown here: the lovely curtain poles, which were screwed to untreated bit of wood which were, in turn, glued to the wallpaper.

My Bedroom. With woodchip wallpaper everywhere
I can be quite certain that they were glued on, because whoever glued them on did not clear up afterwards, so there were lots of blobs of white pva glue sploodging out around the wood. 

Spare room. More woodchip. 
It's actually quite inspiring to think that there is someone out there who is even more clueless about DIY than I am...

The 'before' pictures of the bedrooms are less dramatic, because you cannot really tell that the walls (and ceilings) are covered with lumpy wood-chip wallpaper, and the carpets so thin that every floorboard could be seen. 

And these pictures don't show the black, sooty plaster, loose around the sockets and where the airing cupboard used to be. Or the lovely holes where the previous owners had TVs on the walls, and all kinds or random bits of wire everywhere...
Living room. 

Also not shown: the peeling artex ceilings in the kitchen and the bathroom. They were not fun. 

So, I moved out, and the builders moved in, and made dramatic and messy changes. 

It is very strange to come home at the end of the day and find that you can see all your brickwork, or can learn what your loft insulation looks like from the underneath. 
My bedroom. No more woodchip!
(Yellow, mostly, in case you were wondering!)
Also my bedroom. No more ceiling

But mostly what I came home to was dust. Black dust. Lots and lots of black dust. 

And then some more black dust. 

And did I mention the the black dust?

It was also a little worrying to see just how much stuff was ending up in the skip outside the house. I started to feel as if I might get home one day to find the entire house was gone, with nothing left but skip after skip of rubble.

Fortunately, things then started to improve.

I would return each evening to find plasterboard, and then plaster, and new skirting boards, and new electrical sockets, and all sorts of things.
Living room

And then came the decorators, and the new, non-black, walls went from pink, to  white(ish) to the colours which I had chosen.

Then, last week, after the decorators had finished, the carpet fitters arrived. I had not, originally, planned to replace all of the carpets but in the end, I decided it was easier than doing them bit by bit, plus they really, really needed to be replaced...

And so now I have new carpet everywhere. 

And it does, I think, all look rather nice.

The carpet fitter finished on Friday morning, and on Saturday morning two blokes with a van arrived to move all my furniture back indoors, so I am now, officially, moved back in.

spare room
And I feel that I now have the house which I 'saw', when I first looked around the house last Spring, before I bought it.

It is not quite finished:

 I don't have any curtains yet, and all of my books are in boxes (the third bedroom is, literally, half full of boxes of books right now.) 
Bedroom with furniture!

I am stalking a couple of carpenters with a view to getting some bookshelves and cupboards built into the living room, and one day I want to have a wood-burning stove in the fireplace, and some better quality furniture.
The books, awaiting unpacking.

And outside, the garden needs work.  But for now, by new house is all shiny and new, and I am very happy with it.

Now, I just need to get the books unpacked ...!

Friday, 10 July 2015

Car Troubles, Bees, Summer, and Friends

Last week was mostly distinguished by being very, very hot. At least by English standards.

It was an mixed week for me - on Monday, the exhaust pipe (or at least the back half of it) fell off my car on the way home from work. Annoyingly, the exhaust broke somewhere in the middle,and the bit attaching it to the back of the bumper didn't, so it didn't actually fall off, it just dragged along the road, so I had to stop can carry out emergency tying bits of the car together (fortunately I had several bits of bungee in the boot)

Fortunately my neighbour is a mechanic and kindly removed it for me once I got home, and the car is now fixed, but it was not a good start to the week. 

Wednesday I had planned to go to the cinema to see the live broadcast of Carmen but it was too hot, and by the time I got home from work I was tired, hot and had a nasty headache, so I didn't go.

After that, the week started to improve. On Thursday I went bee-ing again, which was interesting. I am starting to feel a bit more confident, and competent,  around the bees, which is nice. I am going to have to start scouting around to see where I might  be able to keep a hive or two next year...

Then on Friday evening I met up with my friend T to go to the theatre, in Bath,which was lots of fun.
Catherine Steadman (Kate) and
Michael Pennington (Mr Hardcastle)
We saw 'She Stoops to Conquer'  which is on as part of the Theatre Royal's summer season. The play was originally performed in 1773, but for this production the setting has been updated to the 1920s, which mostly works - it is still feasible, just about to have the big class divides which underlie the plot.

The plot relies heavily on characters being unable to recognise one another, and on the dashing young gentlemen being fooled into thinking that the manor house was in fact an inn...

Hubert Burton plays Marlow, shy and tongue-tied with women of his own class, forward and brash with women he believes to be his social inferiors, and cringingly snobbish and superior towards his host, Mr Hardcastle (Michael Pennington) who he believes to be an inn keeper. Marlow has a touch of Bertie Wooster about him, and while his way with innkeepers and serving maids is a little unappealing to modern eyes, it is very well done.

Micheal Pennington had a far less showy role, but played it with beautiful restraint, as Mr Hardcastle, ready to welcome the son of his best friend as his daughter's suitor, but  met with arrogance and treated as a servant.

Catherine Steadman (who I last saw in 'Oppenheimer') was Kate Hardcastle, who seemed more n control of events than any of the other characters, and seemed to enjoy playing the barmaid to 'conquer' Marlow.

It was all good fun, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and felt the setting - (both the period and the revolving set) worked well.

The play is on in Bath until 18th July, so plenty of time to see it if you are in the area!

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Indigenous Australia, and Bad King John

I spent this weekend visiting relations in London.We had tickets to see the Globe Theatre's production of Shakespeare's 'King John', and also took the opportunity to visit the British Museum and see their 'Indigenous Australia' exhibition.

The exhibition is not big, but it is very interesting, and has some beautiful artifacts and art, and it appeared to me that the curators had tried very hard to ensure that the exhibition was presented in a way which was respectful of the indigenous Australian's culture and history, including details of how they were treated by the British Colonists and Australian Government, although there were a few odd phrases... for instance, referring to the lack if recognition of Indigenous People's rights to / occupation of Australia as a 'mistake' and a 'misunderstanding' seemed a little odd - not least because it implies that the country would not have been Colonized had Cook and his successors understood more, which, baring in mind British Colonial Expansion in the 18th and 19th Centuries seems a bit unlikely! 

But over all I enjoyed the exhibition, learned things I didn't know before, and would encourage anyone likely to be in London to see it.

After visiting the exhibition, we browsed a little elsewhere in the museum, including taking a look at the Waddesdon Bequest, which includes some lovely medieval jewels, plate and other artifacts.(The museum has just rehoused it in a newly refurbished gallery) 

I am not a big fan of the elaborate gold / gilt tableware, although the workmanship is amazing, but the various jewels are beautiful, and fun - I rather liked this little ram. I should be happy to give it a home, if the Museum should suddenly decide to start rehoming its art!

After that, we had a very pleasant Chinese meal before heading over to the Globe to see King John

I have never seen the play before, and deliberately decided not to read it before seeing it, although of course I am broadly familiar with the history. It isn't performed very often(this is, I think, the first time the Globe has done it) and I did wonder whether there was good reason for that, and that it perhaps isn't one of William's best.

I need not have worried. It was excellent, with a very strong cast. I enjoyed it immensely, and there were a surprising number of funny moments, among the battles and deaths and betrayals.

King John was played by Jo Stone-Fewings, (who played Buckingham in the production of Richard III I saw at Trafalgar Studios last year). His John was initially gleeful (the play started with his coronation, during which there was a plainsong setting of 'Zadok the Priest') 

Alex Waldmann, as 'the Bastard' had, in some respects, the biggest role, and seemed to have a good deal of fun with it, and left the distinct impression that had the play continued much longer, John might have discovered he had a usurper on his hands...

The rest of the cast was equally strong. Tanya Moodie's Constance seemed, at first, to be pushing her son (Prince Arthur)'s claims for political reasons, arguing her (his) case, but as the play progressed and Arthur was captured by King John, she was the bereft and mourning mother, a picture of grief.

I don't think there was a single weak link in the cast,

Although I had not realised it in advance (perhaps because it wasn't me that booked the tickets, the performance we saw was the last in the run, so after the play ended there was a brief speech from Artistic Director Domenic Dromgoole, followed by the cast throwing roses ito the crowd. (with a special cheer for (I think) Giles Terera who managed, at the third attempt, to get a rose up into the gallery! 

It was a great evening, and I'm really glad that I got to see the play. Seeing it at the Globe was an extra bonus, and even a minor train issue on the way back didn't dampen our enjoyment! 

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Two Plays

I had a ticket to see Damian Lewis, John Goodman and Tom Sturridge in Mamet's 'American Buffalo' at a matinee performance, and another to see Chiwetel Ejiofor in 'Everyman' at the National Theatre in the evening.

Which made for a fun day.

The last thing I saw Damian Lewis in was the BBC's adaptation of Wolf Hall, in which he played King Henry VIII.  His role here is very different.

The play is deceptively simple; three no-hopers, none of whom is as smart as they think they are, trying to plan a robbery to recover a rare and valuable coin (the titular American Buffalo (nickel) ) 
American Buffalo (photo from theatre site)
John Goodman is excellent as the slow-thinking Don, roughly generous towards the young, vulnerable,  Bob (Sturridge), and guilty when Teach (Lewis) persuades him to exclude Bob from their heist.

In fact all three performances are great - Lewis is flashy (and so very 70s!) but also lets us see Teach's underlying insecurity, and Sturridge's Bob is both pathetic and oddly appealing. 

It was a beautiful sunny day, so between plays I wandered along the embankment, through a pop up market, and visited Cleopatra's Needle.  Which is nice, and has some only-slightly-shrapnel-damaged sphinxes flanking it, which I don't think I have ever seen up close before.

Everyman  was very interesting. It's an updating (written by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy) of a 15th Century mystery play in which 'Everyman' has to account to God for his actions in life.

Everyman (Image from National Theatre site)
I had mixed feelings about it. Ejiofor is a superb actor, and I enjoyed the verse and the updating of the story, with Everyman starting the evening with an alcohol and cocaine fuelled birthday party, before being confronted with Death, the frailty of his relationships with friends and material possessions, and even with his family. 

However, the staging seemed, at times, to overwhelm the play - I can't help but feel that a slightly more muted production might have allowed the acting, and the writing, more space! 

I did, however, enjoy the specially printed banknotes, some of which were blown out into the auditorium, and loved Kate Duchene's cleaning lady/God)

Everyman and God (photo from National Theatre production gallery)
Despite some reservations about the over the top staging, I did really enjoy the play, and I'm glad I went.  I may even see the NTLive broadcast to give me a chance to see it again, and see what else I spot on a second viewing.