Tuesday 18 October 2016

The Tempest, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells, Friday 14th October 2016

Pre-show talk:

The audience at the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s penultimate performance of The Tempest in London this season were treated to a pre-show talk with Kit Holder, Lachlan Monaghan, and Sally Beamish. Holder introduced the evening, speaking of the Company’s focus on Shakespeare in this anniversary year. The only production that hasn’t been related to Shakespeare this year has been The Nutcracker - its sheer popularity making it nigh on impossible to cut. The Tempest is the final production in this year long celebration and they invested in it fully, commissioning a new score and set.

Sally Beamish spoke of her pleasure at being commissioned to compose a ballet, a first for her, and something she has desired for some time. She talked of the creative process – that David Bintley (Choreographer and Director of BRB) sent her a storyboard which included how long each dance would be and who was in it, but not what emotions were being expressed. This was supplemented by Skype sessions before she started work on a new scene in which they would discuss issues of character and emotion, to make sure they were both focusing on the same ideas. It took her eighteen months to compose and unusually she wrote it as an orchestral score and then had to create a piano version for rehearsals (composers would ordinarily do the reverse).

Beamish and Monaghan went on to speak of how the dancers responded to the music and how different it was to have in mind the dancers’ needs when creating. The emphasis on clear beats, albeit not so far as to make it monotonous for the audience to listen to, was a new challenge for Beamish and Bintley rejected some sections as too lyrical, meaning the dancers would have struggled to know where they were in it. The cast themselves didn’t hear the full score until two nights before opening night and had some moments of difficulty trying to pick out beats that had been obvious from the piano but once they were woven into the percussion suddenly became more difficult to discern.

Monaghan spoke briefly of the pleasure of having a piece created on him. Neptune was created for him, and although he is Caliban in the second cast he was still witness to a lot of the creative process. Neptune is not a character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and so was an entirely new character, there were no previous examples for him to look to. For Caliban there have been various versions to draw from, and he watched this version being created for Tyrone. He spoke of the need to make a role yours, whether it be one that has been performed many times by many performers or a brand new role. He spoke of Bintley’s skill at bringing out individual strengths. Having delighted the audience for half an hour, the dancers had to rush backstage to prepare for the evening’s performance.

The show:

The stage is set as a watery expanse, gold glimmering in the centre. Ariel (Max Maslen) floats to the gold, swimming through the ‘water’ elegantly. Before we know it there are waves crashing across the stage, a skillful use of billowing silk, strobe lighting adds to the drama, and it is a spectacular start. The staging throughout must be commended, Rae Smith (of War Horse fame) having done a first class job transporting us to a magical, ethereal world. The costume is also a delightful mix of the Elizabethan and the magical, and yet the choreography does not quite hold up to the impressiveness of the aesthetics. When I think back to the performance I barely remember any sequences of dance, what remains is the staging.

The dancers are not to be criticized, they showed their skill, of which they have plenty, yet there was something missing. The complexity of the characters was not developed and although the narrative was carefully followed it lacked the power of the play. There was humour with Trinculo and Stephano, their drunkenness and circus-esque performances added a light tone to the evening but Prospero, despite his impressive standing does not have opportunity to show his struggles. The divertissements of Act Two, although perfectly pretty, are too lengthy, reminiscent of the Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty where you are left wondering if it is really necessary to give so much time to extraneous characters.

There are moments of stillness with almost the whole Company on stage which were quite stunning but the movements themselves did not encourage the audience to engage with the narrative. Beamish’s score adds atmosphere to the proceedings, and is a pleasant change with the prominence of percussion. Overall, a visually and aurally enjoyable evening that could be great with a little more attention to the choreography.  

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Michel Faber in conversation with Stephanie Merritt

Continuing London Literature Festival, Michel Faber and Stephanie Merritt sat down in front of an enthusiastic audience in London’s Southbank Centre to discuss Faber’s two latest books – The Book of Strange New Things and his first published collection of poetry, Undying. Both of these books came from an incredibly difficult time in his life – the novel was written during the period his wife Eva was battling with incurable cancer, and the poems were written in response to her illness and death, and the grieving process that followed.

Naturally then, conversation turned to Eva frequently throughout the evening. He spoke of her determination that he should complete his novel and desire to be involved in the editing process as she had been with his previous works. The poems that came to him during the final months of her illness are very frank, almost brutal – a style that is rare in poetry on this topic. His intention had not been to publish them, he spoke of feeling that it would be perverse not to write them down. It was only when he read some at events that he realised they were affecting people, that it was not just him offloading.

He spoke heartbreakingly honestly about his failing memory, and the fact he is already losing parts of their early marriage. It was something they were both aware of and had to come to terms with. He is writing her biography for the family so he will have that when the memories fade but most poignantly he keeps her memory alive in the way he behaves – not reverting to how he was before they met. He also commented that this loss of memories means he does not have the same tools that many authors draw on – mining their youth for inspiration for their novels.

Faber spoke often of his wife but what also became clear was his passion for effecting change in the world. He sees his novels as always having multiple layers, that they always have a political or social angle. He spoke of his anger and feelings of helplessness in major political decisions such as the Iraq wars. He was so disillusioned by what he referred to as ‘humans and their incurable stupidity’ that he stopped writing for a while and then thought of writing a novel purely about aliens, with no human characters. Although this idea proved impossible it did feed into The Book of Strange New Things. In contrast to the norm for human characters in sci-fi he made his almost supernaturally tolerant, as he believes they would need to be in such situations.

The conversation then turned to deeper topics still – questioning if we need the bad in life to have the good, if being a bit messed up is an essential part of what it means to be human. He also tackled the question of religion. Both himself and Eva were brought up in religious homes but lost their faith. He makes it quite clear however that he would not make fun of religion, that the faith involved is something he wishes he could have. He spoke of the terror of living in a world where there is nobody to look after us. The ideas of loss and how to deal with it are themes in The Book of Strange New Things.

The talk wasn’t relentlessly heavy however, he also touched on his writing habits – not particularly rigid as some writers claim to maintain, he writes until there is no more, and perhaps unusually for an author, only rarely reads fiction. He also mentioned that he has no intention of writing another adult novel, partly because he likes to write in different genres to make it interesting for his readers, and has used them all now (except crime). For those feeling bereft at the idea of no new Faber prose to devour – he aims to turn his attention to Young Adult writing and produce something utterly magical.

We may have only had an hour but Faber was fearlessly honest about his views on the world and his personal tragedies. It was fascinating to hear how he approaches his writing and admirable how present he is in the real world, how deeply he clearly cares.

Thursday 6 October 2016

The Time Machine, Southbank Centre London

Opening London Literature Festival 2016 audiences were treated to a very special reading of a much beloved tale – Christopher Eccleston performing H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. On entering the Royal Festival Hall we were greeted with the music of James McVinnie, his mastery of his impressive instrument clear. The stage was bare but for three chairs and accompanying microphones, the huge organ standing proud above. Three figures walked on, all in black with top hats on (which thankfully didn't remain), the lights went down and the transformation began.

Eccleston made a humourous, somewhat eccentric Time Traveller who was not without his integrity. There were clearly many fans of his other famous time traveller role, spatters of laughter emerged at every mention of the phrase ‘time travel’. Nikki Amuka-Bird and Emma Hamilton made the perfect companions, easily slipping between roles and narrating when the Time Traveller had moved beyond the realms of other humans. The occasional moment of panic flickered across Eccleston’s face when one assumes he’s lost his place, but no cues were missed, and the three brought the story to life wonderfully. The lighting and music added atmosphere, the swirling lights of the time travel induced sympathy for the nausea induced by the experience for our pioneering protagonist.

I had forgotten quite how wonderful a wordsmith Wells was, and it was extremely pleasant to have his prose performed by such actors, able to bring the text to life as their voices resounded around the Hall. His famous story is said to have laid the foundations for many a time travel tale that have come since and his thinly veiled allusions to the prominent fin-de-si├Ęcle themes of his day are not irrelevant to modern audiences. The helpless Eloi and violent Morlock are characters who form the basis for many futuristic visions created today.

This incredibly influential book, adapted into an hour and a half of intense performance, continues to enthrall. We may have entered the Hall on London’s South bank but we were transported across the centuries by this thoughtful adaptation. An excellent start to London Literature Festival 2016.

The full festival listing can be found on the Southbank Centre’s website.