Thursday 30 June 2016

Eugenius!, 29 June 2016

In the final stages of production, Eugenius! had its premiere in concert form in front of an enthusiastic audience at the London Palladium. Telling the tale of a teenaged comic book geek dreaming of making it big with his originally named characters Tough-man and Super Hot Lady. With the encouragement of his love interest, luck is in his favour and his story is taken on by a Hollywood studio where it is swiftly adapted beyond recognition. Little did he know that when the characters appeared to him in a dream they were in fact depicting real life aliens and before long Evil Lord Hector, played brilliantly by Warwick Davis, is crashing the shoot and plotting ‘Tough-man's’ demise.

Eugenius! seems on first appearances to be a standard teen romance with the predictable rise of the underdog, but with the presence of a spaceship it takes on a rather bizarre, alternative identity. I’m reliably informed that the musical is littered with 80s references, which may well be lost on younger audiences, as well as plenty to keep superhero fans entertained. It feels like it would appeal to a younger audience, even if they are oblivious to all the pop culture references from the era and to the many sexual innuendos.

The stellar cast shine on stage and the lack of costume and sets does not detract from their skilled performances. David Bedella as the director is confident and domineering, his assistant, Samuel Holmes, brilliantly comic in a more subtle style than Daniel Buckley’s Feris, who gives an excellent comedic performance. The choir and dancers from Arts Ed and Laine Theatre Arts are well directed to create atmosphere and touches of humour.

The dialogue and songs were on occasion stilted or overly cheesey but I can’t deny I’ve had ‘Go Eugenius, go Eugene!’ from the theme song stuck in my head all day. Kudos is due also to the musicians who successfully transported the audience to another world.

An ambitious new musical that takes a refreshing step away from the standard fare on offer in recent years. This is a high energy, fun production that certainly has potential. I’ll be interested to see what they do with it in full production.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Hay Festival 2016, Part Three

Germaine Greer on Shakespeare’s sonnets:

Germaine Greer led a close reading of four of Shakespeare's sonnets. She started the session by introducing Shakespeare as poet and discussing the printing of the sonnets. She pointed out that although today he is best known for his plays, during his life he was famous for his poems, indeed he may have been quite obscure as a playwright, not an uncommon situation for members of the profession at the time. He shot to fame in 1593 with Venus and Adonis which went through at least sixteen editions before 1643. As he wrote the poem in the vernacular women and slaves could read it, giving him a much broader readership. His sonnets were published in 1609 and only thirteen of the original editions survive. Greer warned against taking the text to be entirely accurate, likening it to a fossil. Much of this unreliability comes from the bad printing of the originals, which were hastily and messily produced. In addition, Shakespeare did not see it through the press as he had with Venus and Adonis. 

The first sonnet to come under Greer's close inspection was sonnet 57. She pointed out that it begins with a question, as if we have dropped in mid-conversation, evidence that the sonnets are like mini plays. The tone is domestic, hinting that the speaker may be a woman. In Elizabethan times women couldn't follow their husbands unless called by them to do so. Greer questions whether or not it is slightly over-dramatized and remarks on the unconventional structure - the two parts of a sonnet are meant to contrast, but here they do not. She also takes issue with the final rhyming couplet, a common problem she sees in Shakespeare's sonnets, that they don't quite fit with the rest of the poem, suggesting that he should perhaps have used the twelve line form instead.

She focussed briefly on sonnet 94 which she sees as having a completely different pace to 57. The  subject being of people who manipulate others taking the glory while those who show their emotions are losers. This she sees as relevant to today, being particularly evident on social media. Greer concludes her discussion of sonnet 94 by highlighting the similarities between psalms and sonnets in that they are addressed to someone who is away, who will not hear or respond.

The final sonnets to gain her attention were 110 and 111. 110 has an air of cockiness about it, a feeling of the cavalier. The speaker is saying that by having relations with others they have realised that the subject is their best love. 111, by contrast, reads more as an apologia in which the speaker bemoans their lack of integrity and having fallen into what people think they are.

To host a close reading with such a large audience is no mean feat but Greer handles it well, providing an hour of entertaining, engaging thought. She left us with the challenge to learn the sonnets by heart, a challenge I'm tempted to take on.

Caitlin Moran in conversation with Stephanie Merritt:

Caitlin Moran spent an entertaining hour talking to Stephanie Merritt about her latest book Moranifesto,  which lay the way clear for discussion of pretty much anything. She gave her opinions on the Internet - an invention that she sees as extraordinary for its ability to allow people to communicate unmediated for the first time. She spoke of its benefits of connecting people, reducing feelings of isolation, and its power to help bring about change. That's not to say it's not without its problems of course, she admits that it is still a baby and has its tantrums but that it will mature. She also spoke of the importance of girls learning to programme. In the digital world it is the language of the future and if you don't know it you will be excluding yourself.

Talking of exclusion, she moved on to the narrowing of voices in the media. She decried the uniformity caused by the current culture of lengthy spells working for nothing to gain experience, excluding all but those whose families are able to support them while they do so. She pointed to the loss of libraries in having a huge impact on the widening of this divide. Before I go off on a vociferous rant in agreement on the state of the employment market and the crushing loss of one of the public's most valuable commodities I shall leave you with Moran's excellent statement - equality is not a luxury, it is absolutely essential for our happiness and progress.

John Crace and John Sutherland: a Brontësaurus:

The end of my Hay experience this year came with John Crace and John Sutherland portraying the Brontës in very different styles. Crace performed a short parody of Jane Eyre which drew a fair few laughs from the audience. Staying with the novel, Sutherland's discussion was somewhat darker, touching on an aspect of the historical context that had never occurred to me before. We know, of course, that Bertha is not English, but he goes further in the thought process by considering where Rochester's fortune comes from - Jamaica, linked to slavery. Even further still - where does Jane's eventual inheritance come from? Madeira, again from work reliant on the toil of slaves. This puts a rather different spin on their 'happy' ending.

In his hotchpotch overview of select academic thought on the Brontë sisters Sutherland's focus rests predominantly on the defiant nature of all three. He points to Patricia Beer who highlighted the defiance of the well-known phrase 'Reader, I married him.' She married him, not the other way round, not an even 'we were married'. At the time of publication this would have been a shocking concept.

Emily is known as of fiery temperament and with little interest in social customs, but Sutherland claims that what she left in her second novel was so shocking that Charlotte is suspected as having destroyed it. One can't help but wonder if given the chance she would have done the same to Wuthering Heights, as both she and Anne were shocked by the content as they worked on their novels alongside each other (thank goodness it did not suffer the same fate!). Her second novel, of which I knew nothing previously, seems set to remain a tantalising mystery. He spoke of her killing herself, a questionable assertion, by refusing to eat, that she'd obviously found something in the world she couldn't cope with.

He turned finally to Anne, the sister so often over-looked in the face of the passionate, unforgettable characters created by Emily and Charlotte. Sutherland claimed that she was the most disobedient of the three, an assertion that sparked questioning murmurs from the crowd. Calmly, he explained that in her final weeks she refused to go to her sick bed but instead demanded that she go to Scarborough via York. Testament to her strength of determination that it was in Scarborough that she spent her final moments, and to Charlotte's charity in burying her there, where she had been happy, rather than bringing her back to lie with the rest of the family at Haworth. 

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Hay Festival 2016, Part Two

Peter Carey talks to Martha Kearney:

A less coherent event in which we learnt far more about Carey’s (sometimes controversial) political opinions than we did of his books and writing techniques. He spoke of often thinking that what he is creating is original and very different to anything he’s done before and then being somewhat disappointed to discover that there are definite patterns in his writing.

Kearney commented that many of his books are set in the past, although they wear the research lightly, and asked about his processes in creating a believable world that he has never inhabited. Carey is very against being referred to as an historical fiction writer but admitted that a lot of research goes in to being able to put in the little details that make the fictional world feel real. Oscar and Lucinda was the first book he really researched deeply as he realised that he had to. He argued, however, that it should always be the story that is the main focus, not just a vehicle for showing off all the research you’ve done.

His latest novel, Amnesia  is far more obviously a modern novel (he likes to think of them all as such), dealing with technology and its impact on our lives. He spoke of Julian Assange as being part of the inspiration for it, the sense of people getting excited over someone they’re calling a traitor without knowing what they did to their country. He was quick to point out that the hacker in the novel is very different to Assange, the most marked difference being that his character is a teenage girl. When asked whether or not it was difficult to get into the mind of a teenage girl Carey replied that he’s received comments that it was astounding how well he’d achieved it. The factors he cites as having helped with this are the fact that everyone has been young and you don’t forget that but also the importance of being aware of what people are going through.

BBC Storyville: Notes on Blindness:

We were privileged to be present at the discussion with filmmakers Peter Middleton, James Spinney, and the wife of the subject of their film Notes on Blindness, Marilyn. It was a moving evening hearing of John Hull’s rapid move into blindness and the challenges and triumphs it led to in their young family. John recorded his experience of blindness on audio cassettes and it is these recordings that have been used as the basis for the film.

Middleton and Spinney first heard of his remarkable story  in 2010 and spoke of being drawn to the poeticism of the recordings. The tapes show a journey of loss and grief leading to a sense that by the end his blindness was seen more as a strange kind of gift.

Marilyn spoke of the ways John learnt to adjust to his new life and find his own identity. Part of this was to deliberately forget what colours were and more difficult still, what his wife looked like. These painful decisions were essential to accepting himself. She spoke not only of the losses but also the way in which he gained through other senses, for example the sound of falling rain allowing a space to become 3D.

Middleton, Spinney, and the Hulls had clearly developed a great trust between them. They had conducted a number of interviews with John and Marilyn, encouraging them to talk to each other more than to them. These later recollections are merged with the original audio recordings in what promises to be a sensitive, moving piece. The film is due for release in UK cinemas on 1st July and more details of the project can be found here.

Christiana Figueres talks to Nick Stern:

Christiana Figueres and Nick Stern discussed climate change and the 2015 Paris Agreement. Figueres spoke of the practical factors that contributed to success in Paris such as the drop in price of sustainable energy but also of a general change of feeling, a realisation that it’s not a competition and that collaboration would benefit everyone. She also stressed the importance of the US and China wanting to do something together, at home, and to set an example, without which the Paris Agreement would not have been possible.

They went on to discuss the voluntary nature of parts of the agreement. Stern expressed the view that people are often more devoted and co-operative when it is voluntary and asked Figueres to explain the mix of voluntary and compulsory in the Agreement. There is a legally binding end point and an expectation of constantly increasing performance and collaboration but there is no set contribution between each five year checkpoint. This decision was made partly due to the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to predict.

This is not to say that they are lax in their expectation or sense of urgency – both Stern and Figueres emphasized how critical the next twenty years are. Figueres claimed that as difficult as Paris was it was the easy part, it is what comes now that is hard. Ever the optimist, and wanting to end on a positive note, she spoke of being in a strong position with both the technology and its costs being with us now.

Sunday 5 June 2016

Hay Festival 2016, Part One

A.C. Grayling: The Age of Genius:

Grayling began his eloquent talk with two images – one, someone looking up at the night sky in 1600 and seeing a beautiful display created for human pleasure, the Earth at its centre, man at the heart. Second, the same action but in 1700, this time seeing a vast spread of space from a small pinnacle, aware of how tiny our planet, our lives are. He questioned why this drastic change in mindset had occurred, listing other examples as evidence of intellectual change such as the execution of Charles I a mere generation after Macbeth premiered, a play based around the idea of the divine right of kings.

He points to the Thirty Years War as a catalyst for change, as war so often is. It was the most destructive war Europe had seen at that point and it took some areas two centuries to recover, yet it allowed great genius to flourish. Practical changes such as the breaking down of barriers allowing easier movement and greater transfer of ideas contributed to the advance of progress. He also cited the breaking of the Church’s power as a major influence. It had prevented development with its harsh regime of punishing, even by death, anything that went against the orthodoxy. This meant research and experimentation had to be carried out in secret, severely stunting its potential spread. When the chains are loosened progress will naturally follow.

Grayling expertly demonstrated the move to the liberty of conscience and the further move to liberty of thought. He spoke of the realisation slightly before this period that history does not merely show decline but that progress has been made and that predecessors had not had the knowledge, the equipment available to them to make further discoveries. This realisation of potential, and greater freedom of expression and transfer of ideas made the period ripe for genius. He conclude that the impact of this had far greater reach than being confined to the time, but allowed our world to be born out of it.

BBC Radio 3: Free Thinking – New Generation Thinkers with Rana Mitter:

New Generation Thinkers is an initiative run by BBC Radio 3 with the Arts and Humanities Research Council, bringing exciting academic research to the public through radio programmes. Rana Mitter introduced the ten winners of the title this year and we were given a snapshot of their research.

Varied and unusual are their current projects, from the scientific instruments used and made by medieval monks to the history of hairdressing to the child’s voice in contemporary fiction on Biafra, and the relationship between the telephone and literature. This was a tantalising glimpse into the broad range of topics being explored. They will be appearing on BBC Radio 3 throughout the month to share more details of their investigations.

Russell T. Davies and Maxine Peake: A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Russell T. Davies and Maxine Peake discussed the creation of their new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which aired on BBC One the day after their talk, Monday 30th May 2016. They did more than speak about how it came aout however, discussing how important it is to introduce people to Shakespeare, to allow them to enjoy it. Peake admitted to having left RADA without having ever performed in a full Shakespeare work and felt for many years that it wasn’t for her, something of a contrast to Davies who knew by the age of 21 that he wanted to create a version for television.

When asked about the challenge of condensing and whether or not he’d had any difficulties with people being too precious over it he responded that he hadn’t met anyone like that. He pointed out that there is no definitive version, and that every production does something different, which can help to keep it fresh. He spoke about his decision to cut all lines referring to women killing themselves for love. He wants to engage girls with the story and wouldn’t have felt right leaving such lines in, something that he was clearly passionate about.

Both Peake and Davies described their version as dramatic, that they’ve made Titania a strong warrior and Bottom less annoying. Despite the drama and comedy they spoke also of the underlying love and the references to peace. They see the story as relevant to today with links to environmental issues.

Thursday 2 June 2016

Jane Eyre – Northern Ballet, 1 June 2016

Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre is backed by Patrick Kinmonth’s sparse, modern set evoking the windswept moors yet successfully transforming into Lowood School and Thornfield Hall. Stylised choreographic motifs are established early on with a young Jane (played expertly by Antoinette Brooks-Daw) being tormented. The use of these throughout and the free-flowing exchange of Brooks-Daw and Dreda Blow as adult Jane serve as a constant reminder that her strong character, her tics and preoccupations are direct results of her difficult childhood.

In her first interactions with Rochester (a confident Javier Torres) we see this deviant spirit present as he tries to exert his dominance over her. Even in the more intimate scenes she never becomes submissive, staying true to the feminist figure she is so often interpreted to be. Both their movements soften, however, as they melt into their beautiful pas de deux, so wrapped up in each other that they fail to notice Bertha’s stalking figure behind them. Marston cleverly re-uses movements later with slight variations in how they’re danced to show the tortured, necessary separation of the lovers and their desire to stay together.

The staging creates great atmosphere and the small space is used to great effect. Jane’s separation from Rochester and his wealthy guests is highlighted by the colours of the costumes, the different stances of them, raised on a rostrum at the rear of the stage with Jane in her dreary dress down stage, visibly unhappy. Recognition must also be given to the choreography and performance of the character of Adèle – childlike, playful, and with a huge grin plastered on her face throughout she captures perfectly the energy of Jane’s charge.

This is a quality addition to Charlotte’s bicentenary celebrations, and one that I hope will make many reappearances over the years - Brontë’s famous novel is masterfully condensed into less than two hours. The staging, movement, and music are modern and yet pay homage to the traditional. Philip Feeney’s score is beautiful and memorable, wrapped around the skillful performance of the Company. The production is faithful to the original whilst doing something new with the material, very appropriate for a novel so ahead of its time.