Monday, 1 October 2012

Shakespeare: Staging the World (British Museum)


As you enter the exhibition area you are met with the idea that Shakespeare is Britain’s greatest cultural contribution to the world, and also that in his time, the world was portrayed on the stage of the Globe Theatre. This is perhaps something difficult for us to understand as with modern technology the world is readily available at the click of a button, however, as you progress through the exhibition you get a real sense of how very true this is.

As you move through the various areas of the exhibition you are taken on a journey through time, and around the world, from the London that Shakespeare inhabited, to the classical world, all the way through to modernity and a display of how important Shakespeare’s work is to this day.

Both in the medieval past, and the classical world sections it was interesting to learn about how Shakespeare both reported on the past whilst overlapping and interweaving contemporary issues. I was also interested by the claim that his histories were never meant to be historically accurate portrayals, as his works have so influenced ideas about events and characters from history, most notably Richard III, whose reputation was blackened with Tudor propaganda.

In every room there was an audio to be listened to, or a video to be watched of modern members of the RSC performing sections of the plays. This was interesting, albeit somewhat distracting when trying to read the information on the exhibits. However, it was particularly effective in the witchcraft section, creating an eerie mood.

There were some utterly fascinating, and unique objects on display, from a First Folio edition, to famous paintings, to the lantern that supposedly belonged to Guy Fawkes. One of my favourite pieces on show was that showing ideas of how to combine the English and Scottish flag created under James I. One of the most disturbing objects was a requiary containing a human eyeball.

All in all this was a fascinating, well thought out exhibition, which successfully portrayed the opinions expressed at the beginning. This is not an exhibition about Shakespeare’s life, but one about the world he inhabited, influenced, and that which he took inspiration from. There’s something here for everyone to enjoy, and it’s a great opportunity to explore the world of our most famous playwright.

The exhibition is running until November 25th, more details here.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Chocolate and pistachio cupcakes

Ingredients:
230g/ 8 oz. butter, softened
230g/ 8 oz. caster sugar
4 eggs, beaten
230g/ 8 oz. self raising flour
1tsp. baking powder
150g/ 5 1/2 oz. plain chocolate (melted in a bowl over a pan of hot water)
50g/ 1 3/4 oz. pistachios, chopped

Icing:
125g/ 4 1/2 oz. butter, softened
400g 14 oz. icing sugar
A handful of raspberries and a handful of pistachios

  • Preheat the oven to gas mark 3/ 160º C
  • Fill a twelve hole muffin tray with paper cases.
  • In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and caster sugar until light and fluffy.
  • Beat in the eggs gradually.
  • Gradually fold in the flour and baking powder.
  • Gently stir in the melted chocolate and chopped pistachios until just combined.
  • Divide the mixture evenly between the cases, and put in the oven for about 25 mins, until risen. You should be able to stick a skewer or knife in and it come out clean if they are ready.
  • Remove from the oven, and put on a cooling rack.
  • While the cakes are cooling, prepare the icing.
  • I don't actually weigh ingredients out when making icing, but for those who like to, the above quantities should work. 
  • Cream the butter until pale and soft. 
  • Cream in the icing sugar.
  • Put the raspberries in a sieve and squash them into the sieve, letting the juice run into the icing. Stir in.
  • If you plan to pipe the icing on you will need to leave the icing in the fridge for about half an hour (if you leave it in too long and it's a bit too solid, just leave it to soften a bit once out the fridge).
  • Pipe/spread the icing on to the cakes. 
  • Either chop finely, or if you have a food processor, whizz the pistachios.
  • Sprinkle to pistachios on top of the cakes.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

 Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is a collaboration between the National Gallery and The Royal Ballet. It brings together an array of very talented artists to create new pieces of dance, poetry, music, and paintings. The National Gallery is housing the exhibition until 23rd September, the last performance at the Royal Opera House is tomorrow evening, 20th July.

On entering the central room of the exhibition you are confronted with the three Titian paintings that form the inspiration for the artists taking part. The three paintings: Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon, and The Death of Actaeon have not been displayed together since the eighteenth century, making this an even more special experience.

Off of this central room are a series of exhibition spaces. To the left, a room of paintings by Chris Ofili. Colourful and modern, colours swirling across the canvas, this was an absorbing room. The next room is very dark, with a black cube in the middle. This is Mark Wallinger’s installation piece, Diana. There is a keyhole, a misty window, and some peepholes to peer through into a bathroom, a woman inside bathing. This seems intrusive and voyeuristic, and fits in well with the stories Titian depicts in his paintings.

The rest of the rooms revolved around the ballets. In one room the costumes, designed by Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross, and Mark Wallinger. Some very colourful, others plainer, with simple patterns and colour schemes. In the next room, a smaller version of the robot that will appear in Machina, designed by Conrad Shawcross, giving a taste of what was to come. In the next room, a fascinating video showing all seven of the choreographers taking part in this project working with the dancers of the Royal Ballet whilst creating their new dance pieces. In the final room, set designs, and videos showing them being put together. I was now very much looking forward to the evening’s performance at the Royal Opera House, and beginning to realise just how exciting this project is.

The triple bill at the Royal Opera House kicked off with Machina. The staging was very simple, very sparse. To begin with there was a screen covering the robot Diana, the light on the end of her arm visibly gently moving, calmly, peacefully. As the piece progressed you could see more and more of Diana. Once she realised she was being watched by the dancers her movements suddenly became quicker, wilder. I know a few reviewers have had issue with the noises coming from the robot, but for me, it was all part of the piece. There were rests in the music where you could hear the sounds of the machine, showing her anger (I didn’t notice much noise in the calmer moments). Whether it was intentional or not I don’t know but I thought it added a sense of life to the robot, helped make it an integral part of the piece rather than an elaborate prop. I did, however, find Diana slightly distracting. During her ‘duet’ with Carlos Acosta I was paying far more attention to the robot Diana than I was to the dancer. There were some utterly wonderful dancers in this piece (indeed, in all three), and it was certainly an interestingly unique dance piece.

Next was Trespass. The most prominent prop in this particular piece was the curved mirror that was in the centre of the stage. I was hugely impressed with the talents of Lucy Carter, creating some quite brilliant visual effects with the mirror (sometimes it was a mirror, sometimes you could see through it, at other times it was half reflective, half see-through). Diana and her nymphs were within the confines of the mirrored curve for the majority of the time, but there were male dancers lurking on the other side who you would only see when the mirror became transparent. This all helped create a sense of voyeurism, and impending danger. The safe, watery grotto suddenly being invaded by unwanted visitors.

The final piece, Diana and Actaeon had the most colourful set design. Peeling away layers throughout, in the end we are left with a backdrop of nymphs. This is the most narrative of the three ballets, depicting Ovid’s story in a more literal sense. The addition of singing added a heightened sense of drama to the action, and the use of hand puppets for the hounds were used cleverly, creating humour as well as an interesting dance. 

Overall, I found my focus for the evening to be more on the production and staging than on the dances themselves. The dances were all interesting and creative, but I think because the staging was so varied for each, with very unique aspects this was what drew my attention. I was very impressed with all three pieces, and the work at the National Gallery. A fantastic collaboration of very talented people, and a brilliant farewell for Monica Mason!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

RHS Wisley

Taking advantage of a short spell of sunny weather, I headed over to RHS Wisley. It's a beautiful place to spend a peaceful afternoon, and also a  great place to pick up some tips if you're a budding gardener. I thought I'd share a few of my photos from my visit on here.







Monday, 9 July 2012

Aphra Behn, ‘The Rover’, performed by Artluxe at Hampton Court Palace

I admit I’d never heard of Aphra Behn until a few months ago whilst watching Lucy Worsley’s Harlots, Housewives, and Heroines. She sounded like a fascinating character, and one that, on the whole, history forgot. I was therefore delighted to hear that there was to be a promenade production at Hampton Court of one of her plays this Summer. Hampton Court Palace is one of my favourite places, and as an avid theatre goer, I was intrigued to experience a promenading experience.

Not having read The Rover, nor having been to a promenade performance previously I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. From reviews I’d read during the week leading up to the performance I had tickets for it sounded like a sumptuous, overtly sexual performance.

We arrived at Hampton Court Palace and queued to show our tickets. We were given coins and told we were the beautiful. The audience were mingling around the courtyard when two women walked out; dusted hair, red coats, and multicoloured leggings, and told the beautiful to follow them. We were led into a corridor where a woman in Restoration dress was staring out of the window. Once we’d all piled in another woman appeared, also in period costume. These turned out to be Florinda and Hellena. They had a disagreement about the upcoming carnival, and their futures. Before long, Don Pedro, their brother, stormed in and laid down the law. Florinda would marry the aged but wealthy Don Antonio, and they would bring the nuptials forward to tomorrow, and Hellena would become a nun. They didn’t have a choice.

Next we were introduced to two of the main male characters Belville, and Willmore, disagreeing about how women should be viewed and treated. We were lead onto the staircase, which had decorations strung along the banisters, making the palace look ready for celebration. We were led into the carnival. Actors tempting us with prostitutes, rakes taking poor unsuspecting women from the audience by the hand and trying to woo them. Some members of the audience seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the interaction with the cast, others less so. It was nonetheless quite an experience, and in such magnificent surroundings.

As we worked our way around the palace, continuing the story, the initial Restoration feel left somewhat, and a more modern, artistic feel took hold. We were led into the Sale of Beauty, where we met Angellica who would be sold for no less than 1000 crowns. There were a number of cast members on podiums, with skin tight clothing, or very little on at all. The audience were encouraged to inspect them, decide who we’d like to spend our coins on, and generally get into the spirit of the evening. This was the first moment where the idea of beauty as power, or a means to make a living really came through strongly. And, let’s be honest, quite disturbingly. Although this was a modern adaptation, this is a Restoration play, and one bringing out themes of the time. Women’s position was still very unstable, it may have been a time of increased power for them, but if that was based on beauty, what happened when their looks began to fade? Not that a lot of the opportunities that came their way due to their womanly charms were exactly ideal.

Next we were led into a room with a bed being the main centre piece. Here we see Angellica giving into temptation with Willmore, breaking the rules of prostitution. We were then sent on a wander down a corridor full of sexually charged scenes. People writhing on the floor, mainly being dominated by men. We are led down a staircase, a banner made predominantly of condoms hanging down the side. The sexual imagery was not subtle by any means.

The final scene was hard hitting. Willmore attempts to rape Florinda , who is only saved by the timely arrival of Belville (Willmore then moves on to Hellena). This brings home the idea that although women were gaining some position in society, and more freedom than had previously been available to them, men were still the ones with all the power, and using your body to make a way in life can have some very dangerous consequences.

All in all quite a spectacular production. It felt more and more modern as we went through. It must be quite some feat to pull off a production such as this, and it was done well. The story itself was fast paced and interesting (although I didn’t feel particularly invested in any of the characters, perhaps because it was a reasonably short production). There was wealth, sex, and pageantry everywhere you looked, as well as a sword fight at one point. The cast were brilliant; the audience were never at a loss for something to look at, or interact with. It’s certainly given me a taste for promenade productions, and I hope I get a chance to see another. I’m also now intrigued to find out more about Aphra Behn whose life we are told was quite extraordinary.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Simple Spelt Loaf


I first came across spelt flour when making Edd Kimber's chocolate sables (which by the way were delicious, check out his website for the recipe). Since hunting down spelt flour I have been wanting to try making some bread with it. I wasn't disappointed, and it's also reminded me how nice it is to make your own bread.

If you fancy making some here's what you need:

300g spelt flour
200g strong white bread flour
1 x 7g sachet of yeast
1 tsp. salt
15g butter
300ml. water

  • Mix the flour, yeast, and salt in a large mixing bowl, making sure you don't let the yeast come in direct contact with the salt as it will kill it.
  • Using your fingers, rub in the butter.
  • Gradually add the water, mixing it in with your hands. Don't use all the water if the dough is becoming too wet.
  • Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand for about ten minutes.
  • Transfer the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, and cover with lightly oiled cling film. Leave to rise somewhere warm for about an hour and a half.
  • In this time the dough should have at least doubled. 
  • Knock back the dough, put it in a greased loaf tin (or shape it on a baking tray), cover with cling film, and leave for about an hour, until doubled in size.
  • While it is rising, pre-heat the oven to gas mark 6. Once the dough is ready bake, remove the cling film and bake for about 30 to 40 minutes, until golden. To know whether it's baked through or not the bread should sound hollow when you tap the base.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Jo Wheatley, 'A Passion For Baking'

Reading through this, even before I'd tried any of the recipes,  I liked it. Jo talks about how important some of the memories she has that revolve around baking are, and how baking is a great way to spend time with loved ones. I completely agree with this, having many a fond memory of baking with my Mum and Gran when I was young. Her passion for baking really does shine through, and there's a real personal touch as she gives little introductions for each section, and recipes, telling the reader where the idea came from, which family members love it most, and her favourite ways of eating that particular bake. It's a very down to earth book, and any slightly unusual ingredients are accompanied by a suggestion as to where to find them, which is very much appreciated.

Blueberry muffin loaf
I admit when I was originally flicking through this book in the shop, trying to exercise some self control and not buy it I thought that perhaps the recipes were a bit basic, food that is in a lot of cookbooks, and perhaps I didn't need it after all. (I still bought it though, of course...). I couldn't have been more wrong. Yes, a lot of the recipes are for every day type foods, but they are absolutely delicious. And actually, I love the fact that they don't involve spending ridiculous amounts of money on ingredients you'll probably never use again, and which then takes most of your day to make something fancy. I've been baking so much more thanks to this book, and everything I've tried has turned out delicious.

Singing hinnies, before and after cooking
The book has also introduced me to new food which I'd never even heard of before - singing hinnies which make a delicious breakfast, or afternoon snack, and stromboli which is a very tasty option for packed lunches. I feel like my everyday food has become a lot more tasty thanks to this book. 

Another reason I love this book is because Jo gives suggestions as to how to eat the food, what goes well with the bake, and also some recipes for simple jams and sauces, a wonderful addition to an already brilliant book.

Homemade granola, and granola muffins


If you're looking for a book with easy to follow recipes, bakes that you can make reasonably quickly, and ones that will give you great ideas for every day rather than just for special occasions (though there are certainly recipes for that as well), then this is the book for you. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

 From the moment I heard about this exhibition I had high hopes. The British Library always do fantastic exhibitions, and this just sounding fascinating. Entering the exhibition gallery, the design was spot on as always. More stripped back than some of the designs for previous exhibitions, but just right. The exhibition was split into six sections; rural dreams, dark satanic mills, wild places, beyond the city, cockney visions, and waterlands. Don't they just sound so enticing! For several sections they had created soundscapes to help fully immerse you in that particular section.
There were some utterly fantastic items on display, spanning the centuries. Plenty of medieval manuscripts, but also those created far more recently - J. K. Rowling, and Ian McEwan spring to mind. Often modern and historic documents were side by side. This was particularly noticable in the 'rural dreams' section, highlighting the fact concerns about the changing face of Britain have not changed all that much. The section started with a look at the green man, and the various myths surrounding him, which included a range of material, including a manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. ‘Rural dreams’ also contained a painting by J. R. R. Tolkein. Something that came out quite strongly throughout the exhibition for me was the importance of images with texts.
'Dark satanic mills' focused on the industrial revolution onwards. The atmosphere changed from that of the ‘rural dreams’ section whereby paintings and pictures were on display of rural scenes, to this dark section, industrial sounds playing in the background, photos of smoke gushing from factory chimneys along the top of the display cases. It was interesting to read about how very different reactions were to these developments; some writers focusing on the benefits of developments, others on what was being lost. There were texts with painfully detailed descriptions of the living conditions of the workers in industrial towns.
Next was the ‘wild places’ section. The name instantly brought to mind the Brontës and also Hardy’s Return of the Native. I wasn’t disappointed; here there were handwritten treasures from Emily Brontë and also mentions of the famous Egdon Heath of Return of the Native, so beautifully described throughout. Also included in this section was a manuscript of the works of Gerald of Wales. Having studied the contents of this text previously it was rather exciting to see the original document. 
The ‘beyond the city’ section was laid out interestingly, each display case in its own little compartment. I have to say my favourite section of this was the metroland part. The idea of creating a whole vision of how nice the suburbs of London could be with the spreading of the underground, and the poem written about the towns on the metropolitan line which you could listen to through headphones really touched a chord with me. I also found the idea that places that once seemed so far away (the example given being Islington) now seem much closer fascinating.
Next onto ‘cockney visions’ and the main section on London. Walking through London has inspired many a writer, both with its beauty, and the horrors within, and this was captured wonderfully by the pieces on display. I particularly enjoyed the picture of the white rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, dressed as a City businessman, rushing around, and descending down into the underground.
Finally onto the ‘waterlands’ section. I admit by this point my concentration was wavering, which was a great shame as there was still so much to see. Again, the atmosphere was set with sounds, and images, and the odd video clip. The creation of the idea of the seaside town, and the both positive and negative portrayals this led to, as well as the importance of the Thames, and Britain as an island nation were all brought out in this final area.
Overall, another wonderful exhibition from the British Library. There was almost too much to see. A wonderful selection of material from all different centuries. This really shows Britain, and British talent at its best. It gives a real appreciation for the ever changing landscape of Britain, the beauty and danger of the wild countryside, the contrast between the wealth and poverty in the large cities, and how this wonderful country has inspired so many. The exhibition also featured an interactive map with people’s comments on areas of the country which they associate heavily with particular texts or authors. (If you wish to contribute, or to have a look at other’s thoughts visit http://www.bl.uk/pin-a-tale/pin-a-tale-map.aspx). This map certainly brought home the idea that not only does Britain inspire authors, but also that certain areas have now become synonymous with particular scenes in stories, or with the authors themselves. I certainly went away with a new appreciation of the landscape of Britain, as well as many new pieces of literature to delve into. 
The exhibition runs until 25th September 2012.

Monday, 4 June 2012

WWII weekend at Dover Castle



This jubilee weekend Dover castle was transported back to the 1940s for a weekend of World War Two inspired events. There were French, British, and German encampments around the grounds of castle, a live band playing forties music, drills, and an obstacle course for children, and a "battle" complete with explosions and gun shots. Although not a particularly informative day out, I think it's brilliant they put on events such as these. It's such a fantastic way to get people engaging with history, and there was certainly a lot for children to enjoy.




































































Of course, whether you are there for an event weekend, or visiting on any other day of the year, there is always plenty to see and do. From the medieval tower, beautifully done up to look as it would have done during the reign of Henry II, to the wartime underground hospital, and exciting new Operation Dynamo exhibition, it really is a full day out, and one not to be missed.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Allotmenting

Last year we had some success with growing various fruit and vegetables in containers in our back garden. It was very rewarding, and so we thought we'd get an allotment as it would give us a lot more options of things to grow. Near the end of Summer last year we were lucky enough to find an available one, and, although we got off to a slow start, it is now taking over our lives...

I thought I'd share some of our progress on here.

The plot as it was when we received it.
Some progress being made.
After lots of hard work, the soil was ready for planting, and a polytunnel was constructed. The polytunnel didn't fare well in the wind and rain of April.
Before the hosepipe ban came in. Watering the potatoes with rainbows.
Our plot as it is now. Th polytunnel repaired, lots of potatoes growing, tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries, and various currants all in place.


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

'The Liar' by Stephen Fry

I picked up this book thinking it was going to be light hearted and humourous, and then within the first chapter there is a murder! The narrative is split over three different time frames; the protagonist (Adrian Healey) at boarding school, at university, and this more sinister storyline, which you know very little about until the final fifty or so pages.

Adrian Healey is a liar. He goes through life creating an alternative world through the lies he tells people. As the reader you can never quite be sure if what’s happening is real, or if it is all part of one of his elaborate lies. This book is endlessly funny, but also deals with some very serious issues such as suicide and prostitution. Despite this, Adrian isn’t given a lot of emotional depth. There are a few moments where there are glimmers of deeper emotions, but they are few and far between.

Cleverly constructed, and intelligently written, this is a wonderfully entertaining read. From the descriptions of his time getting into trouble at boarding school, through to a final glimpse of his adult life, the reader is enthralled by Adrian. There are a host of other recurring characters, some adding humour, others the emotional side to Adrian, and how his feelings change with age. A really wonderful, fun, book. I wish Stephen Fry would bring out more novels. Incidentally, Making History is also wonderfully entertaining and complex but with Stephen Fry there to lead you through effortlessly.

Friday, 18 May 2012

'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens


Many people often seem to think of historical novels as a modern phenomenon. Indeed, the Guardian recently compiled a list of the ten best historical novels. All of them were relatively recent. A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’s most famous historic novel is a shining example of the genre. Dealing with the French Revolution, a topic that is so far-reaching that it could lead to a novel of astronomic size and scale, this novel actually has quite an intimate feel to it. Focussing on a handful of characters, and how their lives interweave and impact on the other characters, with a backdrop of the French Revolution to bring it all into context.

Doctor Manette, having been imprisoned for many years, is reunited with his daughter, who becomes his saving grace. Holding very loosely on to his sanity, Lucie becomes an entirely essential part of his existence. When Charles Darnay enters and steals her heart, how is the Doctor to cope? When he discovers Darnay is part of the evil Evrémonde family, who were key to his incarceration, the plot thickens. They learn to live in harmony, but the events of the French Revolution are to make enemies of them once more.

The novel seems to assume the reader already possesses a certain level of knowledge of the events of the French Revolution, and doesn’t get bogged down in too much historical description. The horrors of the events are made clear, however, and the gruesome realities of life in this period are brought to life.

There are several moving moments throughout, not least when one of the characters is waiting to be taken for execution, counting down the last time they will ever see particular hours, and as another is taken to the guillotine. The focus on a small group of people, rather than scenes of large, faceless crowds really brings home the impact the events of the Revolution had on individuals, something that often gets lost in history, where statistics often seem to take the heart out of events.

Dickens’s writing is a treat to read, with beautiful descriptions, and hard hitting scenes. Being written in English, you often forget half the characters will be speaking in French. There is one scene that I particularly enjoyed where this is made apparent. The stand-off between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge is almost humourous, as they stand in front of the other and speak words of truth without the other understanding. Their inability to understand the words of the other, and the information they can glean from the tone of voice, and gestures build up to a dramatic scene not to be forgotten quickly. I’ve certainly finished this novel with a thirst to read more of Dickens’s work.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Mushroom risotto with roasted butternut squash and rocket

  • Serves two.
  • Pre-heat oven to gas mark five.
  • Peel, de-seed and cut into cubes half a small butternut squash.
  • Place on a baking tray and sprinkle with olive oil. Add two garlic cloves, roughly chopped, and some sage, salt, and pepper, toss, and put in the oven for about 40 mins.
  • In the meantime, chop some mushrooms (it's entirely up to you how many you use, to serve about two people I'd probably use between about 6 and 8), and half an onion.
  • Heat some butter in a pan, and add the onion, cooking for a few minutes. Add the mushroom, and cook until starting to soften.
  • In the meantime, make 500ml vegetable stock.
  • Add about 250g arborio rice to the pan, stirring to cover. Reduce the heat and gradually add the stock to the pan, letting it almost all be absorbed before you add the next ladle full. Stir constantly.
  • When most of the stock has been used, add a good splash of white wine. Continue to stir whilst it is being absorbed, season, and remove from the heat.
  • Remove the butternut squash from the oven and leave to cool slightly.
  • Place some chunks of brie on the plate, and spoon over the risotto (the heat from the risotto will melt the cheese, giving a lovely cheesy depth to the risotto). 
  • Place a handful of rocket on the plate, scatter the chunks of butternut squash on top, and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar.
  • As an optional finishing touch, thinly grate some parmesan (vegetarian if applicable) over the top of both the risotto and butternut squash side.  

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace reopened to the public on the 26th of March this year. I was most looking forward to seeing what Historic Royal Palaces had done with it, and was not disappointed. Although visitors use a side entrance, it is still an impressive approach, a statue of Queen Victoria looking out over Kensington Gardens, proudly marking the entrance to the palace which she spent much of her childhood in.

There are four routes to explore, all leading off from a central room surrounded by portraits of important members of royalty that have associations with the palace.
I chose to try the Queen's (Mary) apartments first. From the staircase which leads you up to them, I knew this was going to be something quite special. Lighting was kept low throughout (flash photography wasn't allowed so I apologise in advance for the quality of some of the photos), and sound effects used to bring the story to life. To wander through these apartments was to experience history in an entirely new way. It may not be to everyone's taste but I loved the mix of modern artistic additions alongside the fascinating historic objects. It created something quite magical.

The Queen's gallery was the only large, stately looking room on this particular route. A string of birds hovering above the room (presumably, as I discovered from the guide book because she kept bird cages in this room) cast entrancing shadows along the wall, framing the portraits which line the wall. 



The next four rooms on this tour were smaller, and more intimate, some mainly showcasing historic objects, others with modern installations taking centre stage. The use of light, shadow, and sound effects throughout created an atmosphere which you don't often find in historic sites.
One of the interesting things about Kensington Palace is that it is still used as a royal residence today, and although it means a large part of it is closed to visitors it also means that it is not just a place of historic interest, but also somewhere where history is still being made. The next route I chose was the Princess Diana section. What Historic Royal Palaces have done particularly well is dealt with subject matter crossing several centuries, and displayed each section in a way relevant to the age, as well as being modern and forward thinking in terms of public heritage. Although I went straight  from a series of rooms, the contents of which were from the seventeenth century into an exhibition about a twentieth century princess, I was completely absorbed in each, and didn't once feel that the contrast was too stark. You are led into the world of the age which you are being shown.  The entrance to the Diana exhibition was lined
with this wallpaper, which I thought was fantastic, and really helps transport the visitor into the glamour of the room you're heading towards. Although only a small exhibition, there were some gorgeous dresses on display, and the photos of Diana around the room remind you of the tragedy that ended her life. Incidentally, whilst visiting Kensington Palace you can see the golden gates in front of which a sea of flowers were placed by the mourning public on hearing of her death.

Next, I moved on to the Victoria tour. This begun in the room she held her first Privy Council meeting on the morning she became Queen. The room is dominated by a large wooden table, and there are shadows cast around the walls of men. It gives a real sense of how intimidating this could have been for the young Queen.

The next series of rooms are beautifully elegant, and I think it was during this route which I felt most aware of the fact history had really happened in these rooms, which is very special indeed. These rooms show Victoria in her happy marriage to Albert, and through to the room in which she would have played as a child.

The Victoria route was probably the most informative in its narrative approach to history, walking you through her life; her biggest achievements, her heartbreak over the loss of Albert, the glory of her Diamond jubilee, particularly potent at this time as we approach our own Queen's diamond jubilee.

I particularly enjoyed one of the rooms on the route, though I admit I can't remember exactly what it was, but it was darkly lit, and full of cabinets of fascinating objects, and books, quite a cabinet of curiosity!

This led me on to the final, most traditional route, that of the King's State Apartments. Up an impressive stairway, and in to an imposing, stately series of rooms, there's a real sense of power and wealth running throughout. A series of figures leading the way through these rooms, giving a sense of the activities that would have taken place.

All in all a wonderful visit, Historic Royal Palaces have done a wonderful job, the palace is quite magnificent. My only slight quibble is that, certainly in some areas, I didn't feel I learnt an awful lot. I liked the fact there weren't signs up all over the place, ruining the atmosphere, but could have used a little more information. There were members of staff in most rooms, but having no specific question I wasn't quite sure how to strike up a conversation with them. Saying that, however, it didn't detract from my day at all, and having perused the guide book I feel I know a little more, and the visit was just wonderful.


Thursday, 26 April 2012

'Polyphonia' / 'Sweet Violets' / 'Carbon Life'

The wonderful evening of dance started off with Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia. Very stripped back, danced to a solo piano, with no scenery, and dancers in simple, plain leotards that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a ballet lesson, this couldn’t have been further from last week’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The entire cast were on stage for the first and last piece, but between that the ballet was made up mainly of solos and duets. The movements quite simplistic, but put together in a series of movements that were interesting to watch. There was a real sense of unity between the various dances, and in the large group numbers, a repetition of movements by the couples, a few beats apart made for an enjoyable start to the night.

Next up was Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets. If by the title you are imagining a nice romantic ballet, with pretty tutus, and sweet pas de deux, you could not be farther from the truth. This is a gritty, violent ballet, and I thought it was fantastic. The music is quite stripped back again, the scenery and costumes are generally dark and grimy (a few of the female dancers get red costumes at points, contrasting nicely with the darkness of the rest of the production. Red being associated with prostitution, and also the colour of blood, it fits in well with the story). I have read some reviews that thought it was confusing, and thought there was too much going on. I admit I didn’t follow it the whole time, but reading the programme gave me enough information (and I thought added a lot of interesting information, making me appreciate it a lot more. I was utterly intrigued by the inspiration behind it. What fascinating characters, and brought to life wonderfully by Liam Scarlett’s choreography).

The curtains open on a dreary bedroom, an iron bedstead taking centre stage, a grimy mirror propped up behind. This is the room the first murder will take place in. There are many moments throughout this ballet that were almost uncomfortable to watch, women being flung around, overpowered by men. It was spot on in terms of the story. The scene changes many times, props being re-used. I know people like to clap in between dances, and scene changes, but for this especially, I found it particularly annoying. The ballet had sucked me into this world of murder and despair, and I didn’t want anything breaking me out of that.

One of the most unsettling characters was Jack, (presumably named after the Ripper), and something of an alter-ego to Walter Sickert, the artist in this story. In the final scene he appears from behind the mirror, dressed all in black, has quite a violent scene with Walter, and vanishes again. The closing scene is a woman dead on the bed, a blood smear across the mirror, and Walter huddled in the corner, chilling!

I thought this was an absolutely fantastic ballet, it lures you into the dark underworld of Victorian London, and doesn’t let up until the final curtain comes down. I was pretty close to giving it a standing ovation. Just brilliant, I want to see it again, really wish I’d booked to see an earlier performance of the triple bill so I could have gone again during this season, the whole evening was fantastic.

This brings me on to the final piece, Carbon Life, choreographed by Wayne McGregor, and the piece that seems to have had most coverage in the press. I’d heard great things about it, and was quite looking forward to it, despite not being the biggest fan of previous McGregor pieces I’ve seen. It starts with a screen down, dancers in nude costumes, lights on them, creating something of an ethereal vision. The screen comes up, the band is revealed, the dancers reappear with black pants on, and a group number ensues.

I loved the band being on stage, and the mix of popular music with dance. At one point there are two male dancers on stage, dancing within a circle of light, one of the singers circling. The lighting, costumes, and staging all worked wonderfully together, creating a great unity between performers, both musician and dancer alike.

The dance itself was appealing. I have always enjoyed larger group numbers (and with so many principals and soloists it was of a very high standard). The mix of this, and the more intense pas de deux made for a brilliant ballet, that went all too fast for my liking.

It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, a fair few audience members left, but at the end the applause was immense, I’ve not heard such an enthusiastic crowd before. Carbon Life was a very special experience, but not one I imagine will be repeated very often. How likely is it that people like Boy George and Mark Ronson will be able to give their time to such a project again? I’m so pleased I got to see it, and hope they bring out a DVD (though it’s never as good as seeing it live, it’s better than nothing!). Although I’ve always been a big fan of classical ballet, this triple bill certainly made me eager to see more modern dance, and seeing new works is always immensely exciting.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Royal Ballet's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' (choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon)

I was sad not to have managed to get to see this when it was first on, and so was delighted to be able to experience it this time, and to see Lauren Cuthbertson dance the role of Alice. It’s not often you see a new full-length ballet, so this in itself was quite special. A lot of time, love, and money must have gone into this production, and it really did show.

The curtains open on a garden party scene. The scenery is beautifully idyllic, but it’s not long before Alice is plummeting down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Throughout the entire production there will be a number of impressive uses of technology helping to bring this most eccentric story to life. A screen comes down, and there, seemingly floating in the middle of it, is Alice. She lands in a room of doors, none of which she can get through. A small door appears on stage at this point, and Alice tries to squeeze through to no avail. A range of visual tricks are used throughout this scene to allow for the series of size changes in the main character, which must have been something of a logistical nightmare. Cuthbertson plays the part spectacularly, trying to fit through the tiny door, and then jumping up to reach the door which is suddenly far too large for her to reach the handle (and sulking when she realises there’s just no way of reaching it). The picture that I saw several times previous to seeing the show of her  hunched up in a corridor that is obviously too small for her was not in fact just part of a photo shoot, but part of the ballet, Cuthbertson climbing up into the scenery. It’s just fantastic the ways they came up with to deal with the various challenges that arise from the complexity of the story.

Act two leads us on to the Mad Hatter’s tea party. I managed to catch the rehearsal for this during Royal Ballet Live, and it was quite magnificent in real life. The costumes and props were wonderful. Steven McRae made a wonderful Mad Hatter, my only complaint is that we didn’t see much of him! Although in saying that, some productions linger far too long on this scene, I’d much rather be left wanting more than become bored.

Until the final act we have only seen the queen of hearts being wheeled around in a large red contraption, and I was pleased that she didn’t remain in it throughout. Her piece was a particularly humourous part of the evening (and there were several, not something you often expect to find in a ballet). The dancers acted brilliantly, terrified of this bloodthirsty queen, and there was an amusing parody of the rose adagio from Sleeping Beauty. Although only a minor part, I thought the young hedgehog was just fantastic.

There is so much to be said about this ballet; a brilliantly weird construction of the Cheshire cat, endless brilliant visual effects, and utterly wonderful dancing. Lauren Cuthbertson must have been utterly exhausted by the end, having been on stage for pretty much the entirety of the three acts, but didn’t let it show. This ballet would make a wonderful introduction to ballet, but also one not to be missed by long term ballet fans. Playful, funny, clever, eccentric, and wonderfully choreographed and produced, I’ll certainly jump at any chance I get to see it again (and in the meantime might just have to buy the DVD…)

Sunday, 15 April 2012

'The Mousetrap'

Last week I was lucky enough to see Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap performed at St. Martin’s Theatre in London. Approaching it’s sixtieth anniversary (quite an achievement I think you’ll agree), and about to embark on its first national tour, this seemed like the right time to finally find out what all the fuss is about!

The theatre itself is quite small, which was actually really rather nice for this kind of production. There was a board telling you what number performance you were at (I wish I’d made a note of what it was, but alas, did not). They were clearly proud to be housing the world’s longest running play, and rightly so.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the play itself. I’ve only ever read one Agatha Christie novel, and knew little about the plot, so beyond it being a murder mystery, all was to be revealed. The initial murder happens with the curtains down, you hear the drama, and the curtain rises on a guest house reception room. There will be no scene changes (something that is quite unfamiliar to me, being used to large, dramatic ballets and musicals with impressive, ever-changing sets), but it really worked. The fact that it remains in the one room helps draw you in, and creates a real sense of suspense. The characters are trapped at the guest house, a snow blizzard occurring outside (illustrated nicely with snow building on the window ledges, and a wind that blows the window around whilst open, the latch tapping eerily against the pane). In a world where we all carry mobiles on our person most of the time, and feel constantly connected it gives you a real sense of how isolated and cut-off you could become. Imagine being in that situation knowing a murderer was amongst you, terrifying!

The audience is introduced to an eclectic array of characters, all seemingly with a secret to hide. By the interval myself and my friends were all completely bamboozled as to who the murderer was. Agatha Christie lays out the plot fantastically; any of them have the potential to be the murderer. It was fantastic hearing the rest of the audience happily trying to work it out, just what you want from a murder mystery.

There was a fantastic subtlety about the play. When a second murder occurs, the lights go down, and you merely see a silhouette rush across the stage. Suspense is built with a slow opening of a side door, and an eerie whistling, truly creepy, and wonderfully done. I think often with modern works a lot of this subtlety is lost, and this, to me, is a real shame. The audience let out a gasp when the murderer was revealed (proof that we were all kept guessing right up until the very last moment).

A brilliant play that completely sucks you in. I am always in awe of the minds that can come up with such clever plots, and I can certainly see why this play has kept going so long. With twists at every turn, and an interesting back story that is revealed in stages, this is certainly not one to miss. Suspenseful, exciting, and actually very humourous, an utterly fantastic play that I hope will continue for many more years to come.

Monday, 9 April 2012

'When God Was a Rabbit' by Sarah Winman

I didn’t know a lot about this book before starting to read it, just that it had been recommended by several friends. For some reason I’d got it into my head that this was going to be a cheerful book, I was wrong. It has got moments of humour within it however, and the overall message is hopeful. It follows the story of Elly (the narrator) from childhood through to her adult life. The sections of her youth were well described, things seen as they would have been from a child’s point of view, which can seem humourous to an adult reader. There are a few moments that I felt were somewhat unrealistic however, that you just wouldn’t expect a child to have any interest in, or understanding of.

One of the main themes of the book is relationships. Elly’s relationship with her brother, her best friend Jenny Penny, and also with the various adult members of her family. It examines the importance of such relationships, and how they change and develop as people grow. It made me appreciate how important the relationship with siblings is for those who have them; whether you get on well with them or not, they have an understanding of your life that nobody else shares, growing up with you, sharing experiences, and making sense of the world together. We see Elly grow, and have to deal with her brother growing into a young adult, wanting relationships (something which I think can be quite hard for many siblings; suddenly there is someone else taking their attention, someone who could hurt them that you want to protect them from), and having to help him through heartbreak, and the pain of growing up.

We also see her relationship with Jenny change over the years, as they learn things about each other’s childhoods that they couldn’t have understood as children. Although their lives pan out so very differently they retain a bond that never leaves them. This sense of understanding with age also comes with her parents. There comes a time in everyone’s life where they start thinking about the people their parents were before they existed, that they had their own lives, that they have their own secrets and worries, and all this is brought out wonderfully in this novel.

There were moments where I thought it felt as though all these different things wouldn’t happen in an average person’s life, but then realised that actually they weren’t that extraordinary, and that we all go through a lot of similar events that bring us into adulthood (though I don’t imagine people all have the same important events throughout life, everybody has their own history, their own particular story that shapes the adult they become). I liked the fact the author brings in real life news stories and links them into the story, whether they be central to the story or not. We know what year we are in throughout, and so it seems right that they are mentioned, and woven into the fabric of the story.

All in all a great debut novel, although I found my attention wavering at points it generally kept me hooked with a wide range of interesting characters, a story most people can relate to in some way, a series of quite remarkable events that keep you wanting to turn the page, and a rather lovely writing style, I look forward to seeing what Sarah Winman comes up with next.