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.