Tuesday 26 July 2016

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

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Lee’s acclaimed novel is told through the eyes of young Scout Finch. The prevailing public perception of the novel is that of the trial of Tom Robinson for the rape of Mayella Ewell. This does form the centrepiece, and by far the most gripping section of the novel, but the majority of the book is devoted to constructing the environs that Scout and her brother Jem inhabit. This is more than mere scene setting, it is essentially the heart of the novel. In giving so much time to the every day Lee allows a deep understanding of the kind of society the events happen in, so constricted by a sense of the way things should be, blind to the potential benefits of allowing some deviation from the ‘norm’.

To Kill a Mockingbird is in many ways a coming of age novel. We see Scout wrestle with the expectations and unknowns of growing up – from her first day of school where she is told she must stop reading until she reaches the designated year to wondering at Jem’s change of behaviour as he reaches puberty. She is constantly being told how she should behave - Jem and their friend Dill laugh at her for acting like a girl and she also has to contend with the opposing pressure of Aunt Alexandra who is shocked at her perceived lack of appropriate female behaviour. The roles and expectations of people in society is a theme that arises throughout the novel whether it be the Finch’s reclusive neighbour Boo Radley, Scout as a young girl, Tom Robinson, or Atticus Finch, Scout’s father and of high regard, they are encouraged to conform to the roles and behaviours expected of them.

Atticus is painted as a moral figure, facing the backlash of his peers for taking on Tom’s case. The fact that he is doing so because the judge chose him to is somewhat brushed over but can leave the reader a touch disheartened. Be that as it may, he does a fine job, indicating that he is not as close minded as many of the others who would not necessarily have done their best in a similar situation. The trial itself is intense and incites outrage in the reader at the injustice. By setting the Ewells, a family shunned by the neighbourhood, against Tom, Lee skillfully emphasizes just how bad the prejudice is and how little hope there was.

Scout and Jem are witness to the trial and their reactions are an important indicator of the morals they will take on. This exposure to injustice strips them of their innocence and is a significant moment in their transition toward adulthood. It is telling that Scout can pick up on the hypocrisy of the adults condemning the prejudices of Hitler’s actions whilst happily sending an innocent man to his death for nothing more than the colour of his skin. The use of a child narrator adds to the poignancy of the tale.

It is always interesting encountering such a well-known story for the first time. Less of the book is given to what I’d always believed to be the main thrust of the novel, but it is in these other sections that the characters and settings are built, and the themes are dealt with more subtly. It also serves to show the characters who could easily be condemned for their prejudice as human, and as the norm. The world may have moved on (to an extent) but this story is still relevant, and Lee’s writing remains gripping.

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Thursday 14 July 2016

Unreachable, 13th July 2016, Royal Court Theatre

Anthony Neilson’s latest offering opens on a sparse stage. Tamara Lawrance walks to centre stage and delivers an emotive monologue as an audition for successful director Maxim’s (Matt Smith) epic film Child of Ashes. The intensity dissolves instantly as she reverts back to herself, an ability Maxim struggles to understand throughout, determined there must be some real life pain at the root of her moving performance.

The play quickly descends into humour, bordering on farce with the introduction of Ivan ‘The Brute’ later in the act. The audience are witness to the raw and unpleasant life inside the film business. Maxim is temperamental, self-centred, and outrageous in his demands. His child-like behaviour has only been heightened by his recent award of the Palme D’Or. He delays the filming almost endlessly, apparently over his concern for capturing the perfect light but in reality masking his anxiety over completing the film he has been working on for ten years. Director of Photography Carl (Richard Pyros) loses patience and can’t understand Anastasia’s (Amanda Drew) seemingly endless devotion to him.

Anastasia is manipulative, using Carl’s feelings for her in order to get what she wants, and casually offering sex when she needs to relax. Her commitment to Maxim’s films is evidenced when she reveals that she missed her mother’s funeral because she was on set with him. This should be a shocking revelation but the lack of emotional depth in the characters makes it almost a throwaway line.

As the play progresses we see the characters pushed to their limits in terms of what they are willing to sacrifice for their art and success. Despie the serious themes present the audience was in raptures, especially in response to Jonjo O’Neill’s hammy performance as Ivan. The star performance for me, however, was Lawrance whose versatility was apparent in Natasha’s ability to switch on any emotion thrown at her by Maxim.

There were some excellent performances but none of the characters were particularly likeable and I struggled to connect with any of their stories. The set design helped create the oppressive environment of the studio and the final scene was a credit to Chloe Lamford and Chahine Yavroyan’s set and lighting designs. Not quite to my taste but clearly very pleasing to other members of the audience, this unusual play runs until August 6th at the Royal Court Theatre, London.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey

The novel opens with Catherine Gehrig having recently heard of the death of her long term lover, Matthew. Her disorientation and confusion at the world continuing as if nothing has happened is well drawn, and the reader is led to put aside curiosity over their thirteen year affair to contemplate the agony of having lost someone so dearly beloved and yet having to hide the depth of feeling. Her senior, Eric Croft, is aware of the situation and gives her a project to work on away from the Swinburne museum at which both she and Matthew worked.

Her task, to reconstruct a mechanical masterpiece from the nineteenth century, leads us neatly into the split narrative form Carey is known for. Alongside the numerous parts of the duck-cum-swan are the diaries of Henry Brandling who commissioned the piece in the desperate hope that it would save his ailing son. Brandling comes across as somewhat bumbling but well intentioned, enraging his wife with his endless optimism. His quest leads him to the Black Forest, renowned for its ingenious clockmakers, and to Herr Sumper, a curious, perhaps brilliant, mechanical worker who is not satisfied with merely creating the duck that Brandling so desires.

Catherine, in her grief-stricken, increasingly unreasonable state, steals the diaries and becomes obsessed with his story – grief and longing connecting them across the years. Her struggle with Matthew’s death is most explicitly portrayed in her reliance on alcohol and difficulty interacting courteously with those around her. Carey does not leave it on such a superficial level however, detailing her constant thoughts of Matthew’s decaying corpse and her anger at those who go on living when he is gone. Death and decay hang over the novel in the descriptions of every day life – the tube is described as having ‘committed suicide’, the sky said to be ‘bleeding’. The tone of the writing does not let you forget.

An intriguing premise for a story which leads you along two vastly different narratives that nonetheless fit together well enough. Carey explores the power of the object through Brandling’s obsession with his mechanical duck, as well as Catherine’s attachment to his diaries. The strength of this encounter at one remove is mirrored in her assistant Amanda’s fixation on the live footage of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In this way Carey attempts to explore universal human responses to disaster and pain.

There are some interesting ideas nestled within this book which at a cursory glance is not particularly enthralling. In saying this, however, there are mysteries to be revealed, not least the absent Matthew, whose character and feelings are revealed to us in a slow trickle.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Laurie Lee

In 1934, aged 19, Laurie Lee left his Gloucestershire village home for London, on foot, with only the sparsest of supplies, a thought that is likely to stir wanderlust in the heart of the reader. After having witnessed the sea for the first time (a deliberate detour on his way to London) his travels eventually lead to Spain. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is his recollection of this trip, a sequel to Cider With Rosie, but perfectly readable as a standalone.

His path is by no means easy as he is constantly having to find shelter, relying on the kindness of strangers and his busking with a violin to provide sustenance, a not infallible plan. This is not to mention the physical exertion required to travel by foot, although he does comment on the ease of this in youth that quickly diminishes with age. At times the terrain and weather create an intense challenge, particularly notable as he struggles across the Pyrenees in a snowstorm toward the end of the book. Hardships aside, his road is filled with wonderful characters, comradeship, and a fair few sexual liaisons. He describes the landscapes he passes through with poeticism and provides a vivid snapshot of the places he visits, oblivious to the fact they are on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War. The sudden shift is horrifying as corpses are found on the road. The reader is shocked into the realisation of the harsh realities of war in otherwise peaceful communities and we witness Lee struggle with the opportunity to escape to safety.

His journey is by no means a privileged Grand Tour, but rather the story of a young man enjoying the freedom of movement that would shortly be stripped away. He steps beyond the grand streets and experiences life as it is for the inhabitants of the time. A wonderful memoir of the wonder of exploration and the fierce loyalty that can spring from new encounters.

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