Saturday 19 December 2015

Jane Eyre - National Theatre, 8th December, 2015

The stage is set with a wooden framework and ladders, musical instruments nestled at the centre of this construction. There are no grand sets, everything is very minimal, and yet the audience is drawn in, very much present with the characters, in Thornfield, at Lowood. The lack of heavy, claustrophobic period sets indicates that this is going to be very much about the people, about the heart of the story and the issues it touches on that make it endure through the ages.

Originally staged as a double play at the Bristol Old Vic, it has been condensed into one show for the National. A reasonably long play admittedly, but so enthralling it doesn’t feel it. There are no younger actors to depict Jane in her youth, we are instead greeted with Madeleine Worrall moving around the stage, emitting eerily accurate baby cries. Time is taken on her younger years, allowing the audience to understand the influences on her psychology. The oppressive red room, the terror she feels when locked inside, the intimidation and humiliation at Lowood are all there, as well as the loss of loved ones as they descend below the stage, this physical act a powerful representation of death.

Felix Hayes as Rochester is commanding and has great presence. His chemistry with Worrall is spot on and the energy in some of the more impassioned scenes is quite something. The ensemble is central to the success of this play – the small cast taking on multiple roles regardless of gender or species. They provide a voice for Jane’s conscience and skillfully give a sense of the different environments.

The lighting and use of music throughout are important for setting the mood as well as adding emotional depth. Melanie Marshall’s presence throughout is an interesting move, her Bertha all the more intimidating for her calm presence. The use of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy as her final song has the potential to feel quite out of place but her version is strong, it works brilliantly.

An altogether wonderful production of a much-loved novel. It may look different to how you’d imagine but it captures the very essence of the novel. Tickets are limited, but if you have opportunity you’d be fool to pass it up. I’d happily experience it again. Playing in the Lyttelton Theatre until 10th January, 2016.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Ann Veronica Janssens: yellowbluepink, Wellcome Collection

This installation is the first part of States of Mind, the Wellcome Collection's year-long exploration of human consciousness. Before entering the space filled with coloured mist you can see the tantalising glow of pink through the entrance. Queueing is to be expected but fear not, there are tablets along the waiting area with various examples of optical illusion and tricks of perspective, focussing the mind on the way our vision and brain work together and how they can fool us in to seeing things in a false way.

When your turn arrives and you step into the mist it is like entering another world. Making your way through the different coloured mist other visitors will emerge as if from nowhere, a wall will appear moments before walking in to it. If you go in a group this may all feel like a fun, unusual experience, but step away from them and venture solo into the mist and suddenly your point of reference is gone. The mist feels oppressive, as if the colour is pressing against your eyes, all sense of perspective and depth gone.

Disorienting it may be, but certainly worth a visit (and do brave some lone wandering - it makes the experience far more powerful). Yellowbluepink only runs until 3rd January 2016, but I look forward to the next instalment of this fascinating exhibition.

Friday 27 November 2015

Wuthering Heights – Northern Ballet, Alhambra Theatre Bradford, 21st November, 2015

It was with much excitement and some slight trepidation that I entered the theatre for Northern Ballet’s Wuthering Heights. A combination of two of my favourite things could prove wonderful, or perhaps I would struggle to see beyond all that was missing.

The curtain rose to reveal a sparse, eerie stage, the moors an appropriate place to start. A young Heathcliff prancing around the stage went on a tad too long for my liking but it was important to demonstrate who the younger characters were. The continual reappearance of the youthful incarnations of both Cathy and Heathcliff served as a reminder of the carefree nature of their time on the moors, giving evidence as to why they continually long to return to it. There were some nice moments of choreography with both the younger and older Heathcliff dancing on stage together – separate but connected by the mirroring of movement.

Overall I found the first act too lighthearted, both the music and choreography felt too jolly and time was wasted in unnecessary comedic scenes. The novel is loved for its dark and moody nature but come the interval I felt this interpretation lacked much of the novel’s intensity.

The second act fared better. There was wonderful contrast between the bright, celebratory wedding of Cathy and Edgar and their beautiful pas de deux and the darkness of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff and Isabella’s pas de deux was a highlight for me, brilliantly capturing the conflicting emotions Isabella feels for Heathcliff. It was almost uncomfortable to watch the dominance he holds, the threat of violence and her fear of him alongside an obvious desire to please and be loved by him.

Mlindi Kulashe played an excellent Hindley, and Tobias Batley expressed much of Heathcliff’s inner torment through his eyes. Rachael Gillespie embodied the free, perhaps sometimes excessively childlike, nature of young Cathy and Martha Leebolt made a confident Cathy.

A slightly dubious start there may have been but the cast was strong, the music memorable, and the challenge of condensing this complex novel into a two act ballet was tackled admirably. Act two was far more emotionally charged and intense and the stronger moments made it worth watching.

Saturday 14 November 2015

National Theatre Platforms: Charlotte and Jane, 13th November, 2015

To celebrate the National’s current interpretation of Jane Eyre and Claire Harman’s new biography of Charlotte Brontë a mini panel chaired by Kate Mosse discussed these two remarkable Victorian women. The panel evenly represented the three Brontë sisters, each championing a different. This serves as a reminder that although they are often lumped together, their work discussed as part of the same oeuvre, they were very different people and had very individual, distinctive writing styles. In saying this however, their shared experiences and working practices clearly impacted on their work.

Lucy Mangan believes the isolation that the sisters experienced gave them a freedom of voice that enabled them to produce such remarkable literature and which may have been stifled in a different environment. She followed this with a comment reassuring us that she does not doubt that they would have been remarkable anywhere.

We kept returning to the image of Anne, Emily, and Charlotte writing together, sharing their work with each other. Mosse believes that they shared a sense of the importance of writing, and that Charlotte especially felt a desire to put the things she felt so deeply on paper so as not to let go of them. Harman agreed that much of the intensity of Jane Eyre comes from the intensity of its author, that she offloaded a lot of very intense feeling in to her work.

It was questioned whether Bertha Mason serves as a vehicle for the visceral rage that was too much to put on Jane. Mosse asks why we see her as mad rather than angry. She does after all have excellent grounds for anger – she has been taken to a foreign land, given a different name, and locked in an attic. Is this society’s inability to accept a woman who did not fit Victorian ideals? The idea of rage is continued through the discussion of Jane, who speaks of rebellions beyond political ones – the anger bubbling under the surface of everyday life. This they believe Charlotte saw as an illness of the whole of society.

Focusing deeper on Jane’s character and the revolutionary nature of the novel discussion turned to Jane as feminist figure. Mangan points to the strength of her convictions, that she will not bend from what she believes to be right. It is not only her headstrong beliefs that mark her out but also her desire for equality in her relationship with Rochester. In what is known as the idyllic period in the middle of the novel when Rochester encourages her to choose fancy dresses she will only accept demure outfits. Further to this she wishes to earn the money and pay him back, knowing that until then she will feel degraded – an opinion that would have been quite alien to contemporary readers.

Mangan believes that the novel can be read as a warning against bending to convention, of not following your heart. Harman points out that although it is common to draw autobiographic detail from Charlotte’s writing, she did in reality write a letter claiming that one shouldn’t fall in love until at least six months of marriage. Although satirical, Harman believes this not to be entirely devoid of her true feelings. She argues that none of the sisters were particularly concerned with marriage. It may come as some surprise that Charlotte’s short but content marriage did not come from a great romance but out of practicality and sympathy. Harman speaks of how broken Charlotte was after the death of her siblings and that her marriage could be seen as a sort of suicide for one who would never commit the physical act.

Discussions could happily have gone for hours but alas our time was up. I left with a renewed sense of the importance and revolutionary nature of the novel, and as ever, a great respect for the author.

Monday 2 November 2015

While I’ve Been Away, Part II

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy – I’ve always been slightly intimidated by the prospect of reading Tolstoy, and judging from people’s reactions to me reading this I’d say I’m not alone in this. However, it quickly became apparent that this was entirely unjustified. Yes, Tolstoy had a tendency toward long novels, but this was so easy to read, honestly. It focuses not merely on the Anna/Vronsky/Karenin complicated tangle of relationships but also on a rather sweet romance between Levin and Princess Kitty. Many issues are dealt with throughout – financial concerns, the importance placed on social class, familial politics, love, jealousy, and much more beside. At turns intense and dramatic, a must for any lover of nineteenth century literature.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell – In this popular psychology book Gladwell explores the human ability to thin-slice (making judgements intuitively). It’s an interesting read that demonstrates how thin-slicing can sometimes prove more accurate than careful analysis of large volumes of data, but also how this can sometimes have disastrous consequences. He also gives examples of how biases can be so ingrained that when thin slicing we make judgements based on this even when consciously we reject such biases, a fact I found quite disturbing. He uses real life scenarios from museum curators debating the validity of an apparently ancient statue to music, advertising, and even speed-dating. For the lay reader it’s a fascinating, thought provoking read but received a fair amount of criticism from professionals for exaggerating the power of the unconscious.

The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness – I somehow left it two years between reading The Knife of Never Letting Go and this, its sequel. It did not take long to once again become engrossed in the world that Ness has created. With a split narrative and our two protagonists having very little contact throughout we are given an insight in to how they are being manipulated, and see how far their loyalty is being stretched. The reader is left constantly guessing as to whose intentions are honourable. With some harrowing scenes Ness certainly knows how to pull on the heartstrings. Don’t be put off by the YA labelling, this is a series worth reading at any age.

Notes from an Exhibition, Patrick Gale – This had been sitting on my bookshelf for what must be close on ten years, but I’m so glad that I finally picked it up. It tells the story of the recently deceased artist Rachel Kelly and her family, using notes from a retrospective as a way to shape the story. The narrative jumps from the present to Rachel’s first pregnancy and subsequent child-rearing offering the reader simultaneously both the back story and the effects their bi-polar mother’s parenting has had on her now adult children, an engaging technique. Full of interesting characters and a complex family history that is revealed gradually, this well-written novel is certainly worth a read.

The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman – This story of a woman sent mad by being confined for recuperation is a powerful, haunting portrayal of the powerlessness of women in the nineteenth century. Rarely have I come across a short story that is so immersive and affecting. This particular edition is accompanied by two of her other short stories – The Rocking Chair, and Old Water, both disturbing and engaging. A real gem of a book.

Sunday 18 October 2015

While I've Been Away, Part I

You may have noticed that there’s been rather a long silence since my last post. Other commitments sadly got in the way and although I kept intending to post it never quite became reality. Before (hopefully!) getting back to my more regular posts I thought I’d write a few short words on some of the things I’ve been reading in the meantime. My memory not being perfect and my notes sadly having been lost short words they must be, but I’ve read some great books that it would seem a shame not to share.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace – This behemoth took me something like three months to plough through. It’s a complicated set of stories based variously around a Tennis Academy, a drug and alcohol recovery house, and a group of wheelchair assassins. It’s not until quite near the end that the links between the different narratives begin to become apparent. Some tough subjects are touched upon – addiction, domestic abuse, suicide, and difficult family relationships and the traces they leave. This may not be the easiest book to get through, and the infamous endnotes are certainly something, but it was absolutely worth the effort. Quite honestly I felt like I was being given an insight in to the mind of a genius.

The Engagements, J. Courtney Sullivan – Five stories spanning the past 80 years linked together by an engagement ring. From Frances Gerety, the woman who coined the phrase ‘a diamond is forever’ finding her place in a man’s world through to 2012 and a woman who mirrors Gerety’s refusal to conform to gender stereotypes. The book deals with the nature of love and marriage, no romantic delusions present, but also covers some critical social history. Although I’m not a massive fan of the neat linking up of the different narratives, this is an engaging, thoughtful read.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood – A dystopian novel set in a time where the role of women is carefully controlled. The handmaids are kept for reproductive purposes, their old names forgotten, new names assigned to them indicating which man they are currently in dominion to. The flashbacks to the protagonist’s previous life gives an unsettling sense of the helplessness of her situation, of how easily freedom can be snatched away. A genuinely disturbing novel, well deserving of its place on most ‘must-read’ book lists.

Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig – I’m a big fan of Matt Haig. I loved The Humans and have read a lot of the articles and blog posts he’s written. I even went to a talk he did about this book. I think this may have been part of the problem – by the time I actually read the book it didn’t feel like there was all that much that was new in it. In saying this, if you haven’t followed Haig quite as avidly but are interested in depression then this is a great read. It’s honest and funny and in explaining his techniques for coping with depression he gives some sound advice.

How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran – A coming of age novel focusing on a teenaged girl trying to lift her family out of poverty one music review at a time. It’s amusing enough and she learns some important lessons along the way, ones that some women far more advanced in years would benefit from remembering. At times I found her oblivious self-centredness a tad exaggerated and mildly irritating. An easy read that is ultimately heartfelt and hopeful and will provide a few hours of light entertainment.