Review – Victoria and Abdul, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 25th September 2017

VAA PosterHere’s a film that combines two of my favourite things – Dame Judi Dench and India. Based on a true story – with a lot of licence I suspect – the ageing and grumpy Queen Victoria attends a banquet at which she is presented with a mohar – a ceremonial seal – by two Indian servants imported from Agra. Protocol required that no one – especially lowly Indian servants – should look the queen in the eye, but one of them, Abdul Karim, is more daring; he and the queen exchange glances, and, lo and behold, the queen rather liked it.

VAA Victoria and AbdulAn unusual friendship develops between the queen and Abdul over many years and she employs him as her teacher, or Munshi. Under his guidance, she develops her understanding of India, its culture and its languages. Her preference for him puts a lot of noses out of joint, not least that of son and heir Dirty Bertie. But Victoria reigns supreme, and despite their differences, Abdul stays with her until her dying day.

VAA VictoriaOn reflection, it’s not that unusual a friendship, given what Judi Dench got up to with Billy Connolly following the death of Prince Albert. Victoria and Abdul can very much be seen as a sequel to Mrs Brown, and the characters of Sir Henry Ponsonby, Lady Churchill, and of course Bertie appear in both films. In the earlier film, the queen took some solace in the company of her Scottish servant, John Brown. He died in 1883, and the action of Victoria and Abdul begins four years later. She obviously had a thing for hairy, non-English types.

VAA Abdul and VictoriaI found this a thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly funny, charming and sensitive film. It gets a little sentimental towards the end of Victoria’s life – but that sentimentality is quickly snuffed out after her death. I’ve read two criticisms of the film; one that it’s a whitewash of the ruthless barbarism of the Raj days, and another that the character of Abdul is simply too servile and two-dimensional. I disagree with both. The film is very much seen through Victoria’s eyes and she lived a cossetted life protected by all her advisers. She had little knowledge of what was taking place in India – indeed, she never went there. Certainly there was ruthless barbarism – constantly brought to the fore by the character of Mohammed, who never misses an opportunity to criticise anything British. Bertie’s personal promise that Mohammed will die in pain proves that the barbarism went right to the top.

VAA V&AAs for Abdul being over-servile; put yourself in his place. A 24-year-old man who has already achieved a position of some responsibility (as he sees it) by writing down the names of prisoners at Agra jail, is suddenly jettisoned into close proximity with the Empress of India. He was starstruck. When Victoria asks him why should she keep going, he simply replies, “service”. Abdul is the prime exponent of the art of service. If you go to a grand hotel in India today you will be overwhelmed at the magnificence of the service. I thought the presentation of Abdul was completely believable.

VAA the household revoltsDame Judi Dench is as immaculate in the role as you would imagine – allowing us to see Victoria’s warmer side, whilst still of course holding on grimly to her supreme power. She’s hilarious in the early scenes where we observe Victoria’s table habits, and she’s delightfully bossy with her toadying officials and even more tedious family. She really conveys Victoria’s adventurous spirit and hunger for knowledge – and her kind respect for all things Indian really appeals to an Indophile like me! Ali Fazal brings huge calmness and serenity to the role of Abdul, nicely bringing out the humour of his unusual and awkward position, and totally convincing as a teacher.

VAA Sir HenryThere are some excellent supporting performances too – Eddie Izzard’s menacing Bertie is a true horror, clearly desperate for power and he doesn’t care who he treads on to get it. In his final film, Tim Pigott-Smith gives a great portrayal of the private secretary Sir Henry, assuming to know better than Her Majesty until she insists on his giving way, when he turns into a naughty schoolboy who’s been found out. Paul Higgins plays the ungracious and belligerent Dr Reid, superbly bringing out all the character’s resentment, and there’s a quietly hilarious performance by Adeel Akhtar as the vitriolic Mohammed. The subtitled scenes between Abdul and Mohammed, with all the indiscreet backchat, are a delight.

VAA BertieIf you want to see a film that shows the harsh realities of the British occupation of India, go see something else. If you want a feelgood movie about an unlikely friendship, with pompous people being taken down a peg or two, this is the one for you.

Review – The Lie, Menier Chocolate Factory, 24th September 2017

The LieIt doesn’t seem like that long ago that we were at the Menier Chocolate Factory, watching Alexander Hanson in Florian Zeller’s The Truth, translated by Christopher Hampton. It was a one-act play with two couples, where the husband in one couple was having an affair with the wife in the other couple, and vice versa. Here we are again at the Menier Chocolate Factory, watching Alexander Hanson in Florian Zeller’s The Lie, translated by Christopher Hampton. It’s a one-act play with two couples, where the husband in one…. Oh, I think I’d better stop there.

Samantha BondIt’s true though; this does feel like very familiar territory. Even more so than watching a sequence of Ayckbourns or Pinters, because even if those redoubtable playwrights deal with many recurring themes, at least they place them in different locations and have a variety of character-types. With M. Zeller, we’re again back in a luxury Paris flat, with four characters called Paul, Alice, Michel and Laurence – although to be fair, this time Mr Hanson is playing Paul, not Michel. They can’t actually be the very same characters, because I doubt whether those in The Truth would still be talking together long enough to engage in intrigues as they do in The Lie. I guess M. Zeller just feels he’s on to a winning formula so why waste time changing names and locations?

Alexander HansonPaul and Alice are expecting Michel and Laurence to join them for a dinner party, but Alice is on edge. She was in a taxi driving by the Galeries Lafayette (well not the Galeries Lafayette exactly, but a road to the side) and she saw a man they know kissing a woman who wasn’t his wife. There are of course several perfectly innocent explanations for this, but not in the way that Alice says she saw it. As Paul questions her further, he realises the guilty party is closer to home than he thought; but could his best friend really have an affair without Paul knowing about it? And should Alice tell her best friend that she knows her husband is having an affair, or should she tell a lie?

Tony GardnerBoth The Truth and The Lie are actually very similar plays – both written for the same lead actor, so perhaps it’s not surprising – although structurally there’s a very enjoyable difference. In The Truth, the individual scenes were labelled (with just a hint of Brecht) so that you could count down the stages of deception. In The Lie, we just have a one-act play, with no hints from the programme if there are any surprises in store. However, as I am beginning to realise, M. Zeller is most definitely a man of surprises, so let’s just say it isn’t over until it’s over. He must have the most deceitful imagination going, because over the course of ninety minutes he pulls the characters every way but loose through a series of lies and fantasies so that you really don’t know who or what to believe. It’s incredibly clever and inventive, and everything hangs together perfectly at the end, so the audience does get the satisfaction of a full explanation. Oh, and it’s excruciatingly funny.

Alexandra GilbreathOriginally the role of Paul was to be played by James Dreyfus, but he had to pull out at the last minute due to medical reasons. Enter Alexander Hanson like a knight in shining armour rescuing the production from disaster. We saw last Sunday’s preview, at which point Mr Hanson had only been rehearsing for a week, so he still had to have the book with him for some scenes; but to be honest we barely noticed it. Given his lack of rehearsal time, he’s absolutely brilliant. What a trouper! He really conveys the character’s intricate blend of honest outrage and feigned innocence, sometimes looking like butter wouldn’t melt, at others, as guilty as sin. And of course he has immaculate comic delivery, making the most of M. Zeller’s and Mr Hampton’s hilarious script.

Samantha Bond and Tony GardnerSamantha Bond is also superb as Alice; constantly on the lookout for signs of deception, seeking reassurance, and throwing herself whole-heartedly into the grand gesture of locking herself in the bedroom overnight. One can only imagine that the Hanson-Bond household can be a lively place if they ever have an argument. Being a thrusting woman on the business front, Mrs Chrisparkle wants to know why Alice would go to an important presentation in the morning dressed in the same outfit that she was wearing for a dinner party the night before? When she spent the night locked in her own bedroom? You just wouldn’t do that. There’s excellent support from Tony Gardner as the extremely laid-back Michel – you get the feeling nothing would ever faze him; and from Alexandra Gilbreath as the bubbly Laurence, confidently assured of Michel’s devoted fidelity.

Samantha Bond and Alexander HansonIf you saw The Truth, you’ll want to see The Lie as a companion piece. Even if you didn’t, I’d really recommend it as one of those laugh a minute plays where you sometimes watch the stage through your fingers through sheer embarrassment. As with The Truth, this is NOT a play to take your other half if you’ve been playing away from home. It’s on till 18th November and you should go and see it – not a word of a lie.

Alexander Hanson and Tony GardnerP. S. Next year at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Alexander Hanson in The Half-Truth; a one-act play by Florian Zeller translated by Christopher Hampton, where Paul and Michel have a homosexual affair but it’s fine because unknown to them so do Alice and Laurence. No, I made that up. Or did I…?

Review – Follies, National Theatre at the Olivier, 23rd September 2017

FolliesOriginally produced in 1971, and wisely with no attempt to update it in any way, Follies tells the story of a final reunion of the showgirls at New York’s Weismanns’ Follies, one of those Ziegfeld-type revue shows that hold a cult but unique place in the history of theatre. Ever since we all stopped watching the Tiller Girls on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, there’s been precious little remnant of this form of entertainment in the modern era. Even Burlesque has been handed down to us via a completely different route. We really are in another time and another place.

Follies OpeningSally and Phyllis were two friends who worked together in the Follies, and Buddy and Ben were the two boys who would wait for them to finish their show before taking them out for a night on the town. Ben was the prize guy – Buddy was just his mate; whichever of the girls (Phyllis) ended up with Ben will have “won”; the other (Sally) would make do with Buddy. But it was messy; with Ben having a fling with Sally whilst engaged to Phyllis, and their friendships all fell apart as a result. That was many years ago, and the reunion is an opportunity for Sally and Phyllis to heal old wounds. But, somehow, it doesn’t quite work that way. Meanwhile, the old hoofers and belters (aka the former Follies performers) relive their memories, recount how their lives have moved forward, renew old friendships and enmities, and are haunted by the ghosts of their former selves.

Follies Young charactersThis was the very first show that Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw together after we had tied the proverbial knot way back in 1988; a production at the Shaftesbury Theatre, which we loved. On reflection, it was an interesting choice to start off our married life, seeing as how Stephen Sondheim’s view of marriage, which peppers this show like a bazooka blaster, is so bleak. Those first few days may be full of “you’re going to love tomorrow”, but pretty soon it’s “could I leave you?” Despite that, the show’s overwhelming message is one of survival. At the end, Sally’s dreams of rekindling love with Ben are dashed but Buddy seems willing to try again; Phyllis and Ben stay together because the alternative is just too hard to contemplate. The old-age singers and dancers are still knocking out their powerful songs and kicking their heels to any old show tune. Good times and bum times, they’ve seen them all and my dear, they’re still here. And that’s got to be good, hasn’t it?

Follies Beautiful GirlsEarly on in the show, when the “beautiful girls”, each wearing their year sash, take to the very unglamorous fire-escape staircase for their grand entrance, you realise quite how anachronistic this whole piece is – on the surface. The girls are just being judged, or admired, at that stage for their visual heavenliness and how adroit they are at walking down stairs. The sash lends an element of Miss World to it, which, although it still happens every year, lost its place in the affections of the UK audience decades ago, as being very last century.

Follies CarlottaGoing back briefly to that 1988 production, it boasted a wondrous cast – Julia McKenzie as Sally, Diana Rigg as Phyllis (although we saw her understudy); David Healy as Buddy and Daniel Massey as Ben. Amongst the older, supporting cast, we had Leonard Sachs, Dolores Gray, Adele Leigh, and Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson. A substantial element of the impact of the show is that you must absolutely believe that the supporting cast of ex-Weismann Follies girls were once magnificently glamorous, superbly talented and just magic to watch. Thirty years ago at the Shaftesbury, the fact that they had really well-known performers on stage in these roles, totally emphasised this sense of enormous reputation. Today’s cast, at the Olivier, of old Follies girls, whilst still superbly skilful and a delight on stage, are not quite so famous, nor indeed as old, as in the earlier production. For instance, I know ladies never tell a lie about their age but from what I can gather online, Ms Janie Dee (Phyllis), Ms Tracie Bennett (Carlotta), Ms Di Botcher (Hattie) and Ms Dawn Hope (Stella) are all younger than me, goddammit. No wonder they’re all such great dancers.

Follies Sally and PhyllisIf the framework and structure of the show now seems a little dated, the passions beneath the surface are as resounding now as they ever were. Sondheim’s score for this musical is definitely amongst his best; maybe it is his best. Broadway Baby, Too Many Mornings, Could I Leave You, Losing My Mind and the incomparable I’m Still Here are all held together with blood, sweat and tears. Ah, Paris!, You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow, and Buddy’s Blues make us laugh with a lump in our throats. The songs support James Goldman’s wistful book which builds up magnificent tension between the four main characters before they explode with emotional devastation. They will survive, against all the odds, because that’s the whole point of the show. But, boy, are they going to get raw first.

Follies PhyllisThis production has Phyllis singing The Story of Lucy and Jessie as her “Follies” number, which was a huge disappointment to us because we much prefer the alternative song Ah, but Underneath. Apparently that song is only used when the actress playing Phyllis isn’t a natural dancer. Ah but Underneath is richly self-deprecatory with astoundingly clever turns of phrases, whereas Lucy and Jessie is just a trite patter song in comparison – something Cole Porter would have written, then chucked away. An odd judgment, in my opinion, to choose a far lesser song over a great one.

Follies Sally seatedAs soon as it was announced that Imelda Staunton would be starring in the new production of Follies, I knew that I finally had a reason to join the National Theatre’s Advance Member scheme, in order to be within a whiff of a chance of getting a good seat. It worked. Ms Staunton, who it seems can currently do no wrong (Gypsy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) chalks up another personal success with this superb mix of heartbreak and old-fashioned stamina. With her brilliantly inelegant dress and tastelessly showy hairdo, you can instantly see that this Sally doesn’t have the personal style of the others, whether it be through lacking the trappings of wealth or simply some natural flair. She’s a most charming, good-natured, walking failure. Her every scene reveals Sally’s desperate lack of self-confidence, and her waspish antagonism towards her unfaithful husband is a painful delight. For such a great singer as Ms Staunton, it’s a shame that Sally only really takes part in two songs; but her Too Many Mornings duet and Losing My Mind solo reveal what an extraordinary re-interpreter of musical classics she is.

Follies Whos that WomanWe’d seen Janie Dee a few times before, most notably as Dolly Levi in Leicester’s Hello Dolly a few years ago, so I knew she was a fine exponent of the art of musical theatre. Here she invests Phyllis with a marvellously supercilious air and a wicked ability to go for the kill in any conversation; and her performance of Could I Leave You is riveting. Peter Forbes’ Buddy is a convincingly wretched piece of scum, as he tells Sally about his liaisons with the lovely Margie, guiltlessly matter-of-fact. The whole presentation of Buddy’s Blues is fantastic, with his Max Miller suit, strobe lighting comedy effect, and the revelation of just how lovely Margie really is. Philip Quast has the tough task of conveying the sullenness of the inward-looking Ben, but he does a good job with the ironic Live, Laugh, Love. And of course, there are the priceless moments of Di Botcher’s Broadway Baby, Dame Josephine Barstow’s One More Kiss and Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here. But the number that absolutely brought the house down? Dawn Hope leading all the girls with their taptastic performance of Who’s That Woman.

Follies Young characters arguingEach character has their own younger version, silently observing from close by. This is an intriguing theatrical device; it’s not always easy to tell if the older characters are being haunted by their younger selves or if the young ones are being shown up by the older ones. I think it’s fair to say that as we grow older we do think back to our younger days – after all, it’s quite easy; we remember them; we were there. When we’re young, we don’t so much think forward to our older days, because the future is a mystery; at best, all you can hope for is some comfort and satisfaction in a life well lived. I’m not sure to what extent the younger characters can say that of their older generation counterparts in this show. The delightful Alex Young and Zizi Strallen are almost criminally wasted as young Sally and Phyllis, with excellent support from Fred Haig and Adam Rhys-Charles as their young suitors; but it’s worth the wait for their brilliant rendition of You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through.

Follies HattieI’d read some rather disappointing reviews of this production; well, I don’t know what the hell those people were watching. This is as crisp, as telling, as emotional and as musically rewarding as you could possibly wish for. Irresistibly moving, it’s what musical theatre is all about. Go see it for yourself!

Follies Solange and Young SolangeP. S. The show comes in at around 2 hours 20 minutes with no interval. Apparently, this is in keeping with Sondheim’s original intent that there should be no break; that’s all very well for a youngish man of 41 (as Sondheim was at the time) but it’s tough on a packed matinee full of pensioners. Yes, I can see the artistic merit in taking it through without the distraction of a break, but if you spend the last half hour worrying whether your bladder is going to burst, you might as well have Her Majesty the Queen breakdancing naked on stage and you still won’t be able to concentrate on it. Say, Mr Producer, be kind to your audiences and preserve the very practical tradition of the interval!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 22nd September 2017

Screaming Blue MurderHaving missed the first Screaming Blue Murder of the autumn – and by all accounts it was 100% fab – we definitely made sure to get tickets for this one. Great to see that it was a sell-out, and that in order to get all the people in the Underground bunker, they had to curve the front row seats around either end of the stage. (I say “stage”; it’s more like an upside-down pallet, but you get my meaning). Dan Evans was back in charge, and on cracking form. This week in the front row he had to cope with Five Guys, not named Moe, but drinkers at The Yeoman pub in Wootton.Dan Evans They were jolly chaps, but if drinking at that pub makes you as follically challenged as those guys – then maybe I’ll take a pass. There was a posh girl called Victoria with her buddies and a guy called Graham who makes exceedingly good cakes for a well-known bakery company was celebrating his 31st birthday as part of an extended family outing. They were all very well behaved and contributed nicely to the evening – which is something you can only rarely say at this gig.

Tony CowardsWe’d seen all the acts before, but it had been a long while back for two of them, so it was good to get a re-visit. First up was Tony Cowards, whom we last saw back in 2011, when he came 4th in the Annual Chrisparkle Awards for Screaming Blue stand-up: no mean feat. In some respects, Mr Cowards isn’t an obvious joke-front-man; he’s quite reserved and retiring in appearance and voice; but his material is puntastic. He loves to take a word and put it in the wrong context in a throwaway line, thus creating some really funny mental images. I was well taken with the idea of a coffee enema (you never know when it might come in useful) and the constipated detective (you can guess the punchline yourself). But you might not work out what you get when you rearrange the letters of A POSTMAN. In his half hour or so he must have treated us to at least a hundred jokes and puns; he must be one of the hardest working guys in stand up, I reckon. He’s really inventive and very funny – even if the guy on the opposite side of the aisle from me wouldn’t crack a smile on his stony face. Ah, well, you can’t win them all.

Ria LinaNext was Ria Lina, whom we saw here back in 2013, and on that occasion, I didn’t think she made her material work properly. It’s always a little dangerous when the main topic of your humour is race – she has to tread a fine line between the funny and the offensive – and that last time, funny didn’t win. So this time I wasn’t expecting too much. Wrong! Her material worked an absolute treat. It isn’t an easy ride – I had to stop and think about a couple of her punchlines because they definitely challenged me as to what I find acceptable and what I find funny; humour won the argument, and I allowed myself to be swayed by the laughter of the audience. She also had a couple of excellent musical interludes – a big build up to a Brexit song – another bold move considering how much it can divide people – but that was hilarious, and then another about how she ends up sleeping with the boyfriend’s father, thereby creating a wealth of incest material. Lovely!

Steve BestOur final act, and someone we’ve seen many times, was Steve Best; as manic and off the wall as ever. If you’ve not seen Mr Best do his stuff before it can really take you by surprise; it’s a very special kind of challenging. One of the Yeoman pub guys was literally helpless with laughter for all the time he was on stage. To be fair, I don’t think he’s changed the act at all in all four times we’ve seen him; but it’s a winning formula, so why bother?! I do love the cunning way he ends the act with a visual resolution of a callback that you’ve got no idea had even been set up. As predicted, he was a resounding success.

Another Screaming Blue in three weeks’ time – can’t wait!

Review – Coriolanus, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 21st September 2017

CoriolanusBig plays and small plays, Shakespeare wrote them all. Even though it’s big in stature, Macbeth, for example, is small in size, at only 2,086 lines – little Comedy of Errors only has 1,754. At the other extreme, Hamlet has a whopping 3,798 lines – no wonder that uncut version with Albert Finney at the National back in 1976 took four full hours to endure. Coming in at fourth longest is Coriolanus (3,320 lines), and I reckon a good many of them are spent covering the hard battle for the city of Corioli, city seat of the Volscians. Allow me to give you a potted outline of what takes place: Caius Martius forces open the gates of the city and joins the leader of the Roman army, Cominius, to defeat Tullus Aufidius, commander of the Volscian army. In recognition of his valour, Caius Martius is renamed “Coriolanus”.

Coriolanus Tullus Aufidius and CoriolanusWith an eye on future greatness, his bossy mother Volumnia wants him to stand as consul, but he’s most definitely not a man of the people. He is a man of martial valour, not petty suburban squabbling; and he finds it impossible to conceal how he despises the common man. The crowd turn against him for his attitude, and he ends up seeking refuge with his old foe Tullus Aufidius, who was previously defeated, but not dead. Together they plan to attack Rome, but at the last minute Volumnia makes Coriolanus repent his double-dealing, and a peace treaty is quickly hatched between Rome and the Volscians. As a thank you for his treachery, Tullus Aufidius kills Coriolanus. Oh, those Volscians.

Coriolanus CoriolanusI’d only seen Coriolanus performed once before – also courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company, back in 1978 with the tremendous Alan Howard in the title role. In that production, his name was pompously pronounced “Cor-eye-o-larnus”; thank heavens for the return to the present day sanity of “Cor-ee-o-laynus”. My main memory of the late Mr Howard is that he emerged from the battle covered head to toe in blood; it was Visceral Central. Fast forward almost forty years and Angus Jackson’s gritty new production has our new Coriolanus, Sope Dirisu, also covered head to toe in blood. Plus ça change… In fact, when Mr Dirisu appeared out of the darkness with his black leather armour soaked in gloopy red stuff, I swear the lady next to me almost fainted. It does provoke a strong response from the audience’s collective gut – and it’s not entirely comfortable. Plaudits to Terry King, the fight director, who must have been working overtime to get so many soldiers to clash so closely in hand to hand combat; never has the clinking of axes and the wielding of knives sounded so perilous.

Coriolanus Coriolanus and VirgiliaThis production is the final in a series of Shakespeare’s Roman plays that previously featured Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus. I didn’t see those productions – although they are all returning to the stage at the Barbican later this year – so I can’t make any observations about how it fits in with the directorial vision of those other plays. What I particularly took from this production is how it highlights both the harshness of the reality of day-to-day life, and also how it exposes opposites within life; like the tough life of the working citizens and the easy life of the patricians.

Coriolanus TribunesThe play opens with a fork lift truck driver removing some pallets from the centre stage to the back of the set. It’s a slow, deliberate, unemotional procedure; it has absolutely no bearing on the story or the first scene at all other than to show you the world from the point of view of the working man; in other words, the opposite of Coriolanus. Stark grey metallic grille shutters descend and ascend throughout the whole play, imposing their unsentimental clattering on whatever scene is taking place. They disturb the peace, they suggest a life of hard, manual work; the opposite of Coriolanus. The noble warrior in question, having previously gloried in the full gore of war, must present himself to the people, in an opposite light; as the wannabe consul who has to wear the cloak of humility (literally) in the marketplace to win the peoples’ support. He’s as uncomfortable as a pre-op patient in a theatre gown, carefully straddling the podium to retain as much dignity as possible (and not to let the citizens catch a glimpse up his legs.)

Coriolanus VolumniaThen there are the two opposing women in his life; his mother Volumnia, the power behind the throne, is as tough as nails and manipulative as can be in her constant quest to mould him into the vanquishing warrior she desperately wants. His wife Virgilia, by contrast, barely dares make a sound as she hopes her husband will survive the battle with “no blood”; clearly the make-up department didn’t listen to her plea. There’s also a stark contrast between the bloody mess that Coriolanus made of Tullus Aufidius, and his later appearance as a society chappie hosting extravagant dinner parties at his pad in Antium. Angus Jackson makes the most of Aufidius’ words of affection for Coriolanus by amusingly tempting the Volscian chief right out of the closet. You’d imagine this Aufidius has shirtless pictures of Coriolanus littering up his browsing history. It’s definitely a production of contrasts.

Coriolanus Final sceneTechnically it’s a tremendous production – Richard Howell’s lighting is evocative, moody, and indeed sometimes quite terrifying. It reveals the harshness of life and the dark uncertainty of the battlefield; and the final tableau is a magnificent capture showing the dead hero being carried into an all-devouring but inexplicable light. As you would expect, the modern-day costumes do a grand job to reflect either the battle scenes, the comfort of the patricians, or the everyday clothing of the working citizens. The only downside to the play is that it’s just unfortunate that so much of the first act is either over-wordy or straightforward battlefield fodder, extremely well performed though it may be. The battle scenes occur too early for the audience to have a real sense of the characters involved, and they end up being somewhat confusing. Who’s fighting who over what? It isn’t always obvious. Added to this, you realise that Shakespeare reserves all his best scenes for the second half of the play; you may feel you have to wait a long time for the whole thing to really get going. It’s a potential problem for any production.

Coriolanus MeneniusSope Dirisu cuts an enormously grand figure as Coriolanus; a natural hero of the battlefield but a fake friend to the hoi polloi in the marketplace. Nowhere is his true character shown more vibrantly than when he rounds on the citizens as “you common cry of curs” – Mr Dirisu is just brilliant in this scene. He really makes you feel how wonderful it would be, if you’d had a bad day at the office, just to be able to turn on everyone and say, to hell with the lot of you. He has a fantastic stage presence and you have no doubt that he would win the day at any battle. Paul Jesson is superb as the over-comfortable, benignly complacent Menenius, apparently wandering from social engagement to social engagement with absolutely no clue that there’s unrest below the surface. In modern Britain he would be the archetypal so-called Metropolitan Elite Remain voter who was gobsmacked to discover the majority voted Leave.

Coriolanus CominiusHaydn Gwynne brings all of Volumnia’s strength and determination to the fore in a performance that leaves you in no doubt that she would dominate any family gathering. James Corrigan is particularly good as the socialite Aufidius, and his fury when he finally kills Coriolanus is truly shocking. There’s a wonderful performance by Charles Aitken (superb as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years ago) as Cominius, liable to get hilariously over-emotional at times. The extended ensemble of actors give a great impression of the citizenry at large, in all its unhappy forms. I really enjoyed the scene where they all refused to take the blame for Coriolanus’ exile and his resultant joining forces with the enemy – so typical of how no one takes any kind of responsibility! Finally, a special mention to Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird as the two tribunes; delightfully stirring up trouble and doing their best to manipulate the populace – politics hasn’t changed, has it?

Coriolanus Tullus AufidiusThis excellent production emphasises the relevance of the story today and shows you how no single man can be all things to all people. Encouraged too far out of their comfort zone, who knows what calamity might ensue. Don’t push too far, your dreams are china in your hand, as the poet once said. Recommended!

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Dido, Queen of Carthage, Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 21st September 2017

Dido Queen of CarthageHere’s a riddle for you: When is a Press Night not a Press Night? Answer: when it’s a matinee! A 1pm start for a slice of Christopher Marlowe heralded the beginning of a long but satisfying day in Stratford surrounded by the Royal Shakespeare Company in all its glory (or, when it came to Coriolanus in the evening, all its gory, but that’s a matter for another day).

DQOC DidoI don’t know what the prospect of Dido, Queen of Carthage, by the aforementioned Marlowe, first staged circa 1590, does for you, gentle reader. This is the first time I’ve seen this play, having read it when I was knee high to a Punic warrior and probably not understanding a blind word of it. So I came to it with no preconceptions, other than the fact that “Dido” always makes think of a dodo and I’m not sure I would want to see a play about a dead old bird.

DQOC Nicholas DayDon’t let that put you off! Kimberley Sykes’ exciting and visually eloquent production brings this rather hidden classic bang up to date, including scenes of drug abuse and homoeroticism – and that’s just in the first five minutes. The play opens with a grand gentleman, white linen suit reflecting his white flowing locks, like Santa Claus in a snow drift, wandering through a sandy landscape, out-staring any member of the audience who dares to stare back. This is Jupiter, annoyed that Juno has taken umbrage at his dalliance with Ganymede, a pouting, svelte young man who has difficulty keeping his top on. Meanwhile Venus, who has been mainlining some substance injected by her dealer, Cupid, is also clashing with Jupiter about the safety of her son Aeneas, who is lost at sea after seeking refuge leaving sacked Troy. Jupiter ensures that Aeneas and his followers are safely washed up on the coast of Libya; Venus ensures that they all meet up and will be looked after by the beneficence of the local queen Dido.

DQOC Aeneas and his teamBut Venus has further ambitions for Aeneas, so she engineers it that Cupid will disguise himself as Aeneas’ son Ascanius, prick Dido with his hypodermic, and ensure that Dido falls head over heels in love with Aeneas. It strongly reminded me of Shakespeare’s Hermia and Helena falling for Lysander and Demetrius – and vice versa. There’s a delightfully underplayed scene where Dido and Aeneas nip off to the cave for some Carthaginian Carnals, emerging later like a couple of relieved yet still bashful teenagers. At times it’s almost like a Libyan Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. What would Colonel Gaddafi have said?

DQOC Chipo Chung and Amber JamesBut for every light moment Marlowe provides plenty of shade. There’s a very deeply tragic aspect to this play, from Aeneas’ moving (if long) account of the fall of Troy, to the genuine personal suffering of Iarbas, Dido’s suitor who can’t understand why she’s being so inconstant in her affections, to the imprisonment of the faithful nurse, and to Dido’s death by fiery self-immolation and the subsequent suicides of those around her. (I’m assuming after 425 years that it’s too late for spoilers.) I found it fascinating that, at the moments of high tragedy, when Dido and Aeneas part, and when Dido immolates herself, Marlowe gets the characters to quote directly – in Latin – from Virgil’s Aeneid, which would have acted as source material for the play. It’s like an early example of verbatim theatre.

DQOC Ben Goffe and Ellie BeavenThe fascinating meshing between the gods and mankind not only acts as a framework for the play but is a running thread that weaves the lives of the mortals and the immortals together. There’s a simple truth here – if you’re a god, or you’re supported by a god, you will do well. If a god’s got it in for you, or you get in the way of what a god wants – then perish you shall. With the dramatic sifting of one handful of sand, they can create any kind of havoc they want. With one jab of his needle, Cupid can cripple or liberate your emotions. It just takes one message from Hermes, and Aeneas knows he has to abandon Dido; it takes two, actually; Aeneas proving remarkably stubborn over this.

DQOC Will BlissThere are so many refreshing elements to this production that delight and astonish. The surface of the stage is covered with sand, enabling it to represent a beach, where refugees might land or from where mariners might set sail, or a visual idea of the “sands of time”, or the dust that is everyone’s fate (gods excluded.) I loved the stylistic entrance of the shipwrecked Trojans, performing energetic diving forward rolls through the curtain of (real) torrential rain at the back of the stage. I loved the imaginative use of the torn down sails to create the ring in the sand inside which Dido would end her life. I loved the scene where Dido invited the men to inspect the portraits of her previous suitors on imaginary walls, where they would recognise someone they’d seen before, as though they were checking actors’ biographies in a programme – if only Marlowe had written “oh look, he was in Juliet Bravo”; alas a missed opportunity. I loved the updating of Cupid’s arrow to a drug pusher’s syringe. I loved the fact that Hermes was wearing a shirt made by Hermès (it might have been Versace, but the joke still stands). As you can see, there’s a lot to love.

DQOC Bridgitta RoyNormally, musical accompaniment to a play like this feels artificial and invasive; but Mike Fletcher’s innovative and sympathetic soundtrack was absolutely spot on. From the portentous strings that evoke Venus’ doves to the plaintive clarinet that creates the smell of the souk (there’s even a wow moment of rock guitar in there too) the music really enhances the action and helps convey the emotions on stage. Ciaran Bagnall’s dramatic lighting adds power and exhilaration to the forces of Nature; and the costumes (see P. S. below) precisely reflect the finery of Dido’s court, the shabbiness of the refugees and the innate elegance of the gods – Venus’ and Juno’s dresses are particularly stunning.

DQOC Daniel YorkWhat is a production without its performers? This is crammed full of exquisitely observed, finely delivered performances right across the board. Chipo Chung’s performance as Dido is a thing of beauty. When she presents Aeneas with her late husband’s cloak for him to wear, despite his protestations she’s never going to take no for an answer. When Cupid’s hypodermic is working its magic, she’s a most convincing bedazzled young girl, trying, but failing, to be appropriately coquettish as she reacts to Aeneas’ every syllable. To relieve the sadness of the account of the fall of Troy, she turns into Party Animal, every inch the good-time girl; and when she’s swallowed up in her own tragedy, she cuts an immaculately forlorn figure. At first, I didn’t think her death scene was going to work – there are no flames, for example – but cunning stagecraft and perfect stillness creates a devastating final tableau. We’d seen Ms Chung in Sheffield’s Julius Caesar earlier in the year where she was a fine Portia – but this was on another level.

DQOC Sandy GriersonShe is matched by a strong performance by Sandy Grierson as Aeneas; his Scottish accent somehow underlining the character’s dour and warlike essence – this is an Aeneas that will leave light protestations to his co-refugees. Delivering that long speech about the fall of Troy – it probably accounts for over 10% of the play in itself – is a tough job, but his account never becomes long-winded or tedious as he brings the imagery of what happened fresh to our minds in all its lively atrocity. Although, physically, he’s not the beefiest of chaps, he’s like a coiled spring ready to leap into action without warning.

DQOC Andro Cowperthwaite and Will BlissEllie Beaven’s Venus also lights up the stage as she conveys the simple enjoyment of all her mischievous interventions in the mortal world; she has great presence, and her double act with Ben Goffe as Cupid is both funny and unsettling as we see the effects of drug abuse amongst the celestial beings. Mr Goffe is required to spend much of his time pretending to be Ascanius, physically cosying up to Dido, or the Nurse, or indeed whoever he wants – and the cheeky pleasure he derives from it is very infectious. The gods are all superbly presented; Nicholas Day is a naturally imperious Jupiter – you’re never going to cross him; Bridgitta Roy a splendidly sly Juno, lurking in the background, waiting for her moment to pounce; Andro Cowperthwaite revels in Ganymede’s brief but lascivious interchange with Jupiter; and Will Bliss’ Hermes is an amusingly world-weary postman until Jupiter plucks one of his feathers and then his nose starts twitching, ready to race like a Springer Spaniel on heat.

DQOC Chipo ChungThere are some great supporting performances from Aeneas’ Trojan followers; I particularly liked Tom Lorcan’s effervescently upbeat Iloneus and Tom McCall’s permanently suspicious Achates; and having a female Cloanthus, played by Lucy Phelps, creates an unusual but effective mix amongst the otherwise all-male retinue. Amber James is terrific as Dido’s sister Anna, always holding a helpless candle for her love for Iarbas, who’s superbly brought to life by Daniel York in a performance that combines brilliant throwaway humour and emotional trauma. At the performance I saw, young Ascanius was played by Samuel Littell and he truly held his own amongst all those grown-ups. Good work, young sir.

DQOC Tom McCallAn unexpected treat of a play, that gives life to what otherwise could remain a dusty old tome on the bookshelf. Very enjoyable and highly recommended! Dido runs until 28th October at the Swan Theatre – get booking!

RSC Stitch in TimeP. S. On the subject of costumes, the RSC has launched their Stitch in Time campaign, highlighting the importance, and unsurprisingly the expense, of accurate and evocative costumes in their historical productions. Even if you’re not able to contribute to the campaign, their website offers a fascinating insight into the attention to detail that their expert staff bring to creating Just The Right Outfit. Well worth a little donation, I reckon, if you admire their work.

Production photos by Topher McGrillis

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)

Murder in MesopotamiaIn which Hercule Poirot encounters an archaeological dig in Iraq, only to discover that the wife of the leader of the dig has been murdered in a seemingly impossible manner. There’s a motley crew of archaeologists and assistants working there – and one of them must have done it! As you would expect, Hercule Poirot gets to the bottom of this case fairly quickly. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

katherine_woolleyChristie dedicated the book to “my many archaeological friends in Iraq and Syria”. The story takes place in the wilds of ancient Babylonia and Assyria, where Christie had visited with her husband Max Mallowan; and it is largely accepted that the character of Louise Leidner is based on Katharine Woolley, stalwart of many archaeological digs, and the person to whom Christie had previously dedicated (along with her husband) The Thirteen Problems. The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during November and December 1935; in the UK, an abridged version was published in eight instalments in Women’s Pictorial Magazine under the title No Other Love. This version provided some of the characters with different names: Dr and Mrs Leidner were originally Dr and Mrs Trevor, and Amy Leatheran was Amy Seymour. The full book of Murder in Mesopotamia was first published in the UK in July 1936, and in the US shortly after.

PlanIn this book, Christie returned to the first-person narrator style, the narrator in question being Nurse Amy Leatheran – Captain Hastings, presumably, still occupied in The Argentine. It’s a style that works very well because you get to know the intimate thoughts of another person directly involved in the case, and not just the amazing workings of the Poirot brain. The frontispiece and first chapter being written by Dr Reilly makes the opening structure to the book a little clunky, but by the time the story gets going you completely forget about how it is that Amy gets to write the story in the first place. She warns us that she’s not much of a writer and isn’t very learned in matters of grammar; but this only goes to make us warm to the character even more. In the best Hastings tradition, Amy appends a plan of the dig house so that we can see for ourselves how tight-knit a community it is, and how unlikely it is that the crime could be committed without anyone else knowing. When a second character makes it clear that they have made a great discovery about how the crime was committed, you just know that this character is also going to be murdered within a matter of hours. It’s an off-shoot of the slightly melodramatic style.

police interrogationThere were two particular aspects of this book which struck me as I was reading it. One is that it is just a short space of time from the moment Poirot arrives on the scene to when he delivers his denouement speech – approximately four days by my reckoning. The second is that, for once, for me, Poirot’s long interrogations of all the suspects got a little dull. It felt somewhat repetitive; even though the structure is not that different from Murder on the Orient Express, where Poirot and his team take the suspects one by one, but there you can see it is part of a rigid structure; in Murder in Mesopotamia there is no real sense of structure, it just feels rather ambling.

NurseThere are a few splendid moments of pure Poirotism, however, and the relationship between Amy and him is a fascinating one; usually it’s the typical Poirot-style respect for others, but occasionally he flies off the handle. When Amy believes she is in the firing line during the denouement, she stands up for herself – and Poirot doesn’t like it: “for the moment will you silence yourself. Impossible to proceed while you conduct this argument.” Amy sometimes implies that Poirot has a strong feminine side; on one occasion she says he shows kindness that even a woman couldn’t; on another she notes his interest in gossip: “”I like all the information there is,” was Poirot’s reply. And really, that described his methods very well. I found later that there wasn’t anything – no small scrap of insignificant gossip – in which he wasn’t interested. Men aren’t usually so gossipy.” She could also predict that Poirot would make a grand denouement scene – as his readers know he certainly will. He commences the denouement with what Christie calls “a most theatrical bow”. And when Captain Maitland is impatient for his conclusions, Amy notes “but that wasn’t the way Hercule Poirot did things. I saw perfectly well that he meant to make a song and dance of it.”

Rude sculpturesAmy herself is rather prim and proper, disapproving of some of the ancient pottery: “after that she showed me some queer little terra-cotta figurines – but most of them were just rude. Nasty minds those old people had, I say.” She is slightly amused and slightly repelled by Poirot’s overall foreignness: “Of course, I knew he was a foreigner, but I hadn’t expected him to be quite as foreign as he was, if you know what I mean.” She describes Mrs Mercado as “though she might have what my mother used to call “a touch of the tar brush””, which today comes across as a thoroughly unpleasant example of racism.

plateBut it is Poirot who comes out with the most startling piece of sexism, in his advice to the thwarted Carl Reiter, who allowed Mrs Leidner to treat him like a doormat: “Mon ami, let this be a lesson to you. You are a man. Behave then, like a man! It is against Nature for a man to grovel. Women and Nature have almost exactly the same reactions! Remember it is better to take the largest plate within reach and fling it at a woman’s head than it is to wriggle like a worm whenever she looks at you!” I don’t know about you, but I had to read that twice. That’s an extraordinary thing for Poirot to have said. One can only assume that sometimes Christie liked a bit of rough. Later in the denouement, Poirot propounds: “there is no hatred so great as that of a man who has been made to love a woman against his will.” I can envisage the entire female sex rolling their combined eyeballs at that one.

Tigris Palace BaghdadThe book is absolutely crammed with references – especially place names – that might benefit from a little exploration. It’s the University of Pittstown that organises the expedition to Iraq; there’s no such university, of course, although there are Pittstowns in both New York state and New Jersey. It’s much more likely that Christie wants us to think of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When we first meet Amy Leatheran she is writing a letter from the Tigris Palace Hotel in Baghdad. This was a very fashionable hotel in the middle of the 20th century. She trained at St. Christopher’s Hospital; there is one such hospital in the UK, in Fareham; there’s also a St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia – take your choice.

BabyloniaThen there are all the exotic, Iraqi locations for the dig. The main site in the story is at Tell Yarimjah, a tell being an artificial hill created by many generations of people living and rebuilding on the same spot, a short distance from Kirkuk, in north-eastern Iraq. The area is rich in history and archaeological possibilities, although today, sadly, it is at the centre of the ISIS zone. Hassanieh is said to be a day and a half from Baghdad – there is a small village by that name in Syria, and I would guess that time-distance would be about correct. Mrs Kelsey, with whom Amy travels to Iraq, has a house at Alwiyah, which is a suburb of Baghdad – it’s also the name of a famous club that was frequented by ex-pats and locals as recently as the 1980s. Neighbouring frontier posts of Tell Kotchek and Abu Kemal are mentioned, together with Deir ez Zor; Tell Kotchek is on the border between Iraq and Syria, currently under the control of Kurdish forces, Abu Kemal is another border town, part of the Deir ez Zor region of south eastern Syria, currently under the control of ISIS.

Belle dameWe also have some books to research. Amy is reading Death in a Nursing Home which sounds like an alternative version of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, which had been published just one year earlier, in 1935. Mrs Leidner’s bookshelves include Linda Condon, a novel by the American Joseph Hergesheimer, first published in 1919, and Crewe Train, a 1926 novel by Rose Macaulay, both of which feature independent women at their core – hence Poirot’s assumptions about Mrs Leidner’s character. Another literary work that is mentioned in connection with Mrs Leidner is La Belle Dame Sans Merci; this is a romantic ballad by John Keats, dated 1819, featuring what the Wikipedia page calls a “destructively beautiful lady”. I need say no more.

The Mystery of the Blue TrainOne other cheeky reference is to a certain Mr Van Aldin; Dr Leidner tells Captain Maitland that he has heard of Hercule Poirot through a mutual acquaintance by name of Van Aldin. Could this be the same Van Aldin whose daughter is murdered in The Mystery of the Blue Train? I think so.

GooseThere are a few interesting turns of phrase that I’d also quickly like to look at: Amy says that Mrs Mercado’s attitude to Mrs Leidner’s first husband is “one way of calling a goose a swan”. It’s a phrase I hadn’t heard before and I think it’s rather amusing. Geese feature quite heavily in Amy’s vernacular as she also refers to “a goose walking over my grave”, which I also hadn’t heard before I came across it in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Similarly, Bill Coleman refers to cash as “oof”, which was also new to me until I read Partners in Crime. One last new word for me – electrotype. Some articles are described as electrotypes at the end of the book – this was a chemical method for forming metal parts that exactly reproduce a model, invented in 1838 by Moritz von Jacobi in Russia. It’s a useful way of reproducing an original, say for a museum or gallery, so that the art style can be observed without the original needing to be there – for security purposes.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Murder in Mesopotamia:

Publication Details: 1936. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in 1967, price erased but maybe 3/6. Tom Adams’ cover illustration shows us some of the main clues in the story – the scary mask, the bloody rope, a valuable goblet, and one of the notes received by Mrs Leidner, that reads “you have got to die”. It’s an unsettling image, for sure.

How many pages until the first death: 53. There’s a lot of build-up which allows us to get a really good understanding of the character of Mrs Leidner. Poirot doesn’t have that benefit, and has to find out everything in retrospect.

Funny lines out of context: Just one or two, brought about by that funny old word that nowadays has a much more precise meaning than it did in 1936.

““Oh dear, dear”, I ejaculated.”

“Captain Maitland uttered an occasional ejaculation.”

Memorable characters: Christie goes to great lengths to paint as full a picture as possible of Louise Leidner, with many descriptions and many detailed conversations, but, even so, I’m not entirely sure that you could call her a “memorable” character. I think Amy Leatheran is much more memorable, through her role as the narrator; a well-meaning nurse but lacking in some finesse. Many of the men working on the dig aren’t particularly well drawn – it’s easy to mix up your Coleman with your Emmott, for example.

Christie the Poison expert:

There’s no poison element to the first death but the second is caused by drinking hydrochloric acid, one of Christie’s favourite poisons. She even describes its physical effect on the lips of the person who drinks it. Nasty!

Class/social issues of the time:

Because the action of this book doesn’t take place in England, it seems that the day to day issues of England don’t impact so much on this story as they do in others; even though it’s a largely English cast of characters.

As you might expect, there is talk of “dagos” and “coloured people” (which, of course, was extremely polite for 1936). But it’s still a world where it is acceptable to shout at Arabs: ”Arabs don’t understand anything said in an ordinary “English” voice”; and where it is acceptable to refer to someone as “only an Iraqi” – not as important as a white Caucasian person.

As in Death in the Clouds, Christie still doesn’t have much respect – in print at least – for archaeologists. Whereas in that book the Duponts could argue until teatime without noticing anything going on around them, in Murder in Mesopotamia, Mrs Leidner goes in for the killer observation: “Archaeologists only look at what lies beneath their feet. The sky and the heavens don’t exist for them […] oh, they’re very queer people”.

Classic denouement: Yes, and extremely lengthy! You could almost say that the denouement procedure starts within minutes of the second death, which means that it covers approximately 44 pages. Poirot engineers the classic situation of everyone being present whilst he laboriously goes through all the possibilities. Definitely the strongest part of the book, in my humble opinion.

Happy ending? In a sense, yes, but it’s not emphasised. There is a wedding – but it’s between two relatively minor characters so it doesn’t mean that much to the reader. Amy’s narrative ends on something of a low note.

Did the story ring true? Not entirely. There are two facts that the reader is asked to believe – including the method of the murder – that are fairly far-fetched.

Overall satisfaction rating: Whilst it’s interesting to see Poirot operating in a different environment this isn’t an overly successful book in my eyes. I’m going to be generous and give it a 7/10.

Cards on the TableThanks for reading my blog of Murder in Mesopotamia and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge will be Cards on the Table. This is the book where Christie tells us up front that there are just four suspects and one of them is the murderer – so don’t go considering the butler or someone’s second cousin once removed, because they definitely didn’t do it! I’m not sure if she lets Poirot into that secret mind you, I’ll have to re-read it first. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!