Category Archives: theatre

Unscorched – play review

I was intrigued that a provincial small amateur theatre had taken on a recent national prizewinning play on such a difficult subject. I was very proud of Norwich’s Sewell Barn for doing so, and for offering the amateur premiere after a 4 week run at London’s well regarded new writing theatre, the Finborough (close to Earl’s Court), only a year later.

On arriving at the difficult to access venue, 3 miles from the train station and with no pavements around the campus on which the barn is sited, I found out why SBT were especially interested. The writer, Luke Owen, has long been connected with them and lives in the city. But they have chosen challenging, award winning and fairly new plays before.

As a playwright who’d also entered the Papatango competition, I was interested to know what had won it. And for the first scene, I felt sadly disappointed. A man enters an office, makes tea, puts on music and wiggles his bum, to a few audience laughs (not shared by me). A second man, Simon, appears and after a dull and clunky exchange, soon goes into meltdown. It felt over egged and as if they were not quite comfortable on the stage. The first man (Nidge) is ridiculously distracting and almost afraid of his colleague’s grief.

But that was the only duff scene – I think the play would be stronger if it began with scene 2: a young, well turned out keen man in a interview, reeling off his computing prowess. As the ordinary sounding interview progresses, we begin to gather the nature of the job – this isn’t your average IT role. The nature of the work isn’t spelt out. As Tom tries to describe what he sees in the file he’s been handed, with the sense of threshold he is crossing, the play becomes excellent. I felt nervous with Tom about what he’d see and have to tell us – but the play manages to be powerful and uncomfortable without showing or saying anything explicit. I do think following Tom into the video room would have added to the story: not to learn what he saw but to see his reaction, his will to sit through it and to accept the job.

And then there’s a cut to the other story – Tom is dating. And immediately, the obvious “So what do you do?” seems set to squelch any romance with “Tinkerbelle…”- which is where the audience also learns that Tom spends his day looking at images of children being abused, to be passed to the police for action.

We see less of Nidge’s outside life, except the recurring cinematic wordless episodes where he crouches over his model plane to piano music – brave for theatre, but welcome and well used. Nitch has learned to cut out the emotional core of his work and lets daytime TV and X-boxes and absorb the horrors of the video and pictures he has to assess.

The characters’ awkwardness and naturalness was excellent, especially in the dating scenes, due to both acting and script. Emily’s rising end of sentences and trying too hard when not fully socially comfortable – as teens and twenties often do – are perfectly captured theatrically.  The office manager, Mark, could easily feel bland, but this is avoided as he is overly casual with but disconnected from his staff. Only Simon at the start was a problem, and apart from one later mention of his name (we could guess at what that meant) he is never needed or part of the story again.

There was a scene that I felt needed something before it. Tom is head in hands, talking to Mark, but we see no catalyst; it doesn’t follow from the last scene. And it didn’t work for me as a “come in late” and disorientate the audience kind of scene.

The meltdown scene was an uneven increase in the volume and drama; and the final arc, whilst neatly drawn, was to not where I’d hoped. Despite the first scene with Simon, colleagues Nidge and Tom are more articulate and open about feelings than Tom is with Emily. The latter relationship seems emotionally immature, based on only flirting and attraction, with sex being obligatory after their first ‘official’ date. Tom shuts Emily out when she triggers a reminder of his work with her childlike pyjamas and stuffed animals around the bedroom. I didn’t really invest in their relationship, because I could see little real affection or connection or openness.

There are many challenges to the nature of Tom and Nidge’s job: the intensity and boringness of it (ironic for an IT whizz), along with pressure of time and volume of work. It queries that images of adults being harmed are coolly written off as ‘not our remit’. It asks whether becoming inured to horror and tragedy is ever good – and that is a conundrum for all of us. It made me question if any job – including the counsellors with whom it is obligatory to speak  – ought to continually be around such disturbing material. The play asks if talking about the videos – and thus reliving them – helps. It led me to wonder what would alleviate, and also how to deal with the perpetrators, and questions of forgiveness and healing for those who do the ultimate crimes.

The arc of the story is ultimately a sad one. Apart from the scenes I mention, it is a well crafted one, but it’s hopeless and doesn’t go far enough in questioning the job description or letting anyone get to a better place.

I would still encourage people to see it for themselves and for a welcome change to the usual theatre we get in this region.

New Writing needs more platforms!

Unscorched is showing til Dec 6th 2014 at Sewell Barn Theatre, Constitution Hill, Norwich NR3 3BB, and directed by Michelle Montague.

http://www.sewellbarn.org or 01603 628319 (Prelude Records on St Giles St)

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City of Churches I: Norwich vs Bristol

Is Norwich the best city in England for parish churches?

Norwich often boasts of having  “more prereformation churches than anywhere else north of the alps.” ! You can see from the chart in my last post that Norwich and London each have many more churches in their old centre than the British cities with the next most; but I have squashed Norwich’s claim put about for 40+ years from that John Betjeman documentary about having more than York, London and Bristol together. My chart in the previous post explains.

An old video on Norwich named “City of Distinction” called the collection “an embarrassment of riches”. The fact that Norwich’s are nearly all perpendicular (late gothic) and made of dark flint is both something that makes it special, and potentially boring.

ALL PICTURES ARE MINE, PLEASE DON’T USE WITHOUT PERMISSION

MY PICTURES ARE BEING NAUGHTY AND NOT DISPLAYING AS PLANNED

In my editing screen, they are beautifully lined up with their captions. Please imagine this if they are not

Think it doesn’t help, Word press makers, that what we edit in is not the same width as the published page!

St George and Bacon House NorwichSt Laurence Norwich

St George’s Colegate (right) and St Laurence’s in St Benedict’s St, both Norwich

I even had a little mental exercise with distilling the overall number to a tiny proportion of the best, keeping them as varied as possible. I do it to Norwich and various other cities and areas, especially the ones featuring in these 5 posts on cities of churches. It’s usually easy to pick a few really good ones – though none are perfect. What would be missing is their place on the townscape. St Benedict’s Street in Norwich is characterised by its churches; much of the street is churchyard. The towers welcome on corners and end vistas. I also realised these offer functions which are important to the life and character of the city: not only would some  mean a loss of a particular kind of congregation, but that there’d be no puppet theatre or artist run exhibition centre or community spaces. Separate buildings mean that not only can congregations diversify, but so can other uses – all artists don’t have to vie over the same space under the same management. But I’m not suggesting we actually pull any churches down, just analyse where the really good ones are.

I thought that Bristol’s bunch might beat Norwich because Bristol’s so varied. Norwich has no Georgian churches – I can think of only 2 in the whole of Norfolk (plus a private chapel). But Bristol has one whole one, two part ones and three in suburbs, including a Gothick one. Bristol can claim to have important church buildings from 1160 -1960 (1140 actually but 1160 has more of a ring about it). To be fair, in that statement, I am creaming from the entire city. In walled Norwich, there are no modern churches or major furnishings (save the new Cathedral windows and two in St Margaret’s) and nothing of interest in the suburbs – not in my opinion. The only church within the whole extra mural conurbation of Norwich that I’d single out is at Eaton for having a thatched roof next to a modern extension.

Inside Christchurch Bristol Bristol churches10

Christ Church, Bristol in and out; and with tower of All Saints (right)

It’s not true that Bristol has a wider selection of gothic than Norwich; it too focusses on the last period, including St Nicholas which was rebuilt in pastiche by Georgians (and again after being bombed). Neither city has anything seriously Early English, both having their best examples in Victorian neo Gothic churches (Christchurch Clifton and St John’s Catholic cathedral in Norwich).

But actually, several of Bristol’s churches are not of interest. I’m not missing any of the ones destroyed by bombs, only the leaning tower of Temple – I’d have preferred the earlier round church for its main body.

Bristol bombed churches Bristol abbey gate

St James Bristol Temple church Bristol

All Bristol c-wise: St Peter’s, Cathedral gateway, St James, Temple 

The Norman of Bristol other than the cathedral’s chapter house and arch of its gatehouse is quite mediocre (St James and a few bays of All Saints) and if we’re bringing cathedrals in, Bristol has nothing on Norwich cathedral which is one of the very great Norman churches of Europe and thus the world (a statement sure to please Norwich organisation HEART).

Bristol has Britain’s very greatest gothic non cathedral, in my opinion and in old Queen Bess’s – St Mary Redcliffe. It’s supremely satisfying and apart from adding a little more colour, there’s nothing I’d change or add, unlike almost any other church – including cathedrals and abbeys – that I an think of. Best of all is the gilded stone ribbed vault – only one other British parish church has one, to my knowledge (St Mary Otterly in Devon).

Redcliffe porch St Mary Redcliffe with graffiti

St Mary Redcliffe Bristol – porch (left) and with some contrasting local specialism – graffiti

Inside St Stephen's BristolSt Werburgh's Bristol by meBristol churches3

St Stephen’s (inside and out) and St Werburgh’s (with corner turret), Bristol

Also late gothic, St Stephen’s isn’t in the same league but it is consistent and satisfying. It  could be merged with the Lord Mayor’s Chapel (not counted with parish churches) for its similar long box shape and gilded flat wooden roof, adding the Lord Mayor’s fan vaulted chapel; but tall, pinnacled, traceried, Somerset-like St Stephen’s tower is far more striking than the Lord Mayor’s hidden one. Displaced St Werburgh’s also has a good tower – once at the crossroads of the old town, it’s now a climbing centre in a eco conscious suburb.

I like the idea of a church on the town gate, but the church of St John’s itself does little for me.

Bristol churches6 St John's Bristol

Crypts of St Nicholas (top) and John; St John on the Wall, Bristol

The interior of St Thomas has something that Norwich hasn’t and I quite like the Classical/gothic mix and match idea, it’s just not successful here. St Michael’s and Pip ‘n’ Jay are not architecturally interesting, I think.

St George's Bristol Inside St George's Bristol Although Anglican: it resembles a Baptist chapel

City wide, if I were to choose my favourites for outstanding or varied examples of churches in Bristol, I’d pick Regency St George’s (the concert hall) and the glass from the two 1960s Pembroke Rd offerings in Clifton; Georgian Redland Chapel and possibly the displaced medieval St Werburgh’s, now of the hippy suburb of allotments.

I’d keep Christchurch (old city) as the all Georgian church, possibly swapping the spire for neighbouring All Saints’ cupola.

St Paul's Portland Sq BristolSo Bristol perhaps isn’t richer in some ways than Norwich, but it does have that superlative medieval church, the only one in the country that completely satisfies me, and it also has Georgian and modern. Although Norwich has more medieval undercrofts than any other British city, I don’t know of any crypts under its churches (only the Canary Chapel in the Close), but Bristol has at least the two pictured. There’s no tower as good as St Stephen’s Bristol in Norwich and no ceiling there like Bristol’s St Stephens’ and the Lord Mayor’s Chapel have. Bristol’s red and light stone give a warmth not found in Norwich, although the grey stone is duller than Norwich’s ubiquitous flint.

Left: St Paul’s in Portland Square. Unnerving eh?

I would like to borrow some of its churches for Norwich – as I’ll summarise in the last part.

I’m fond of Bristol, as a city, and its church collection. I may well do a post with pictures of all Bristol’s central churches and chapels, on my new blog.

Next time, we go to three other cities of churches….

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Dickens’ Christmas Carol

I feel sorry for Scrooge.

His workspace is intruded on by presumptive, manipulative money grabbers.

Christmas cheer is an irritating concept and to many, salutations can be cloying, especially if said without meaning, and if your season is anything but merry.

Scrooge, as the Muppets point out, is alone and has been for many years. It is pointed out that he thinks of no-one, but who thinks of him? His partner is long dead and he since youth has never had any of the romantic kind; friendless, his business is all he has to focus on.

His cruelty is stuff of pantomimes, throwing people out of homes and jobs at Christmas and almost relishing it.

I enjoyed the insight into Scrooge’s past – a lonely boy sent to school by a volatile father. What really turned him so nasty?  Love of money does not seem suffice.

Scrooge makes an interesting point: he gives to a system – why should he give again to charity canvassers? Does he mean through taxes, or is he referring to private gifts?

Such an attitude to workhouses and prisons for the poor is not at all far from government and right wing thinking – work or starve… it is very close to how we think about animals, including those in ‘rescue shelters’. It is frightening that an old story often filmed, dramatised and even Muppetised feels so fresh.

Dickens’ Christmas Carol feels very apt this year especially. It is easy to update Scrooge. But he seems more complex than the villain who has given his name to meanness, who goes from hard master to a giddy weak character, enjoying silly games. His is not a religious conversion and if he finds a true meaning in Christmas it is a surfacey one, having little to do with the Nativity and more to do with fear of death, loneliness and being reviled. He gives into Christmas by buying large carnivorous gifts, joining in party games, and smirking benignly at all he meets, by making a large donation to the poor, and drinking. That sounds like commercial festivities rather than anything profound.

Scrooge is a charismatic man, who we enjoy booing but don’t really hate, although our modern real Scrooges incite a different reaction.

It is right that a change of heart is what Scrooge most needs and an understanding of what people really think and what his decisions do to poorer people. But the twee, unspiritual end of conforming to a false jollity is not a satisfactory wrap. What then instead? Perhaps a question for the Occupy camps as well as the literary adapters and analysts.

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Anne Boleyn at the Globe

I am having a summer of Tudors. I have had many such summers as I have studied these over a period of 11 years, but I even when I spent a year studying their popular depictions, I have never seen so many plays on Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn in a few months.

I have just seen the production at the neo-Elizabethan Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London, on its opening weekend – a new play which sold out last year, as was the performance to which I went.

In his introduction to his script, playwright Howard Brenton quotes the views of historians David Starkey and Antonia Fraser, reflecting the likely opinion of the public. He does not mention Prof Eric Ives and Joanna Denny whose prominent books depict a very much more positive Anne. Joanna especially – as does Karen Lindsey – writes of the systematic demonisation of Anne’s character. All three remind that our few historical contemporary sources are chiefly Anne’s enemies, none of whom featured in Brenton’s play. Books – both novels and academic – have been ahead by 30 years in showing Anne as a national heroine, but stage and screen still cast Anne as the ambitious, hard siren. Philippa Gregory’s 2002 novel and ensuing films have done much to reverse this positive literary view, which has become in vogue again with most recent publications.

Brenton’s 2010 play promised a view closer to the one I adopted: the Reformist queen, as Joanna Denny calls her: ‘Esther not Jezebel’ – a title I borrowed for my 2006 dissertation. American author Robin Maxwell had Queen Elizabeth reading her mother’s words in her novel The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn; Howard Brenton has King Authorised Bible James reading Anne’s annotated Christian book and realising his connection to the fallen queen of two generations ago who suffered the same fate as his mother. (I never use the phrase that the blurb does – his debt. As you’ll see from my Justice in Banking blog on this site, I have strong views against debt culture). Note too that being executed does not denote failure, but rather a brutal signal of mission accomplished.

I was interested that a play was picking up the religious theme, as often theology is seen as too heavy and dull for entertainment, particularly when we are a multi and often no faith society. But the themes of tolerance and violence and faith recur, and spirituality is again popular though not always in established, orthodox ways. And this 16/7th C period is a seminal one in our history in which the burgeoning of new beliefs is central.

I was drawn to the play because it was written by a man who evidently could see Anne’s merits, significant as I felt anne appealed most to women. But it was Eric Ives in 1986 who said that Anne was an appropriate vehicle for feminism – though few have picked up that gauntlet – and it’s women who have written many of the works which fuel popular imagination that recast her as Jezebel.

It may seem obvious given its performance setting, but I didn’t expect Howard’s play to feel so Shakespearean, in the rowdy audience, bawdy and earthy kind of way. The experience of the Globe merits a few lines – booking fees, standing without umbrella or stick for £5 or, of if you pay £15-37 for a seat, there’s charges for cushions (and the wooden seats have lips which I think are designed to make you need one – but I managed without);- and a foreign group behind me who whispered throughout (translating to a child who was too young to be there) and put their feet on the seats. The atmosphere was closer to comedy than serious theatre, though there were both elements in the play. King James romps in a dress with ‘interesting stains’ with a male courtier whom he kisses; the ghost of Anne brings her severed head out in a bag; and it ends with an all cast jig.

James (Garnon/Stuart) perhaps was the most charismatic character on the stage, his strong Scots accent mixed with a tick, his camp manner helped by his shoes and beard. While we’re on accents – I am infuriated that the country folk once again got that generic West Country which is insulting and ignorant. There are many Eastern and southern counties accents, all quite distinct, and they sounded no more convincing than the Worzel’s Combine Harvester song, which was at least meant to be comedic. It’s like getting all North American or Celtic accents muddled. Actors and dialect coaches, take note!

I was not pleased at Anne’s physical appearance. She is famous for being dark, though Joanna Denny believes this is part of the demonisaton programme as ‘swarthy’ skin was seen as a sign of diabolism – appalling as that notion is. Denny believes that Anne was dark auburn, as per the most likely genuine contemporary portrait of Anne – but nowhere have I heard of her as blonde. Couldn’t Miranda Raison have dyed her hair or worn a wig? And couldn’t Henry be red haired? And why did Cardinal Wolsey have a beard?

I did not like the gore lust of the opening but I did like that Anne begins by assuming the knowledge of her death – which we never see – and by establishing a rapport with the audience. I liked the originality and pertinence of linking her and King James and the amount of material covered in an engaging way. Anthony Howell made a positive King Henry, kind instead of raging over the birth of a girl; but the man who had so many butchered in his name is relieved of too much of his violent, cruel and inhuman side. My favourite Henry remains Ray Winstone, whose complex depiction was the first to show me a man whom I could weep for as well as despise. Sometimes in Howard’s version, earthy comments – such as what Henry really wishes to say in his letters to Anne – mar the real point – the vulnerability of Henry’s enduring, consuming passion which must extend further than his tights to have raged so long and moved so much to be with her.

The audience was too quick to laugh at anything. The person who called out ‘ah’ in sympathy with broken Cardinal Wolsey was more correct that those who giggled, but either response turned this into a panto rather than the moment of pathos. When an important theological tenet dawns on Henry – that he could be king and head of the church without need of the pope and thus have his new wife – again, there was laugher. But it wasn’t the point; it was the turning point of the play and British history. We spent too much of the play in Caliban mentality rather than the Prospero and Ferdinand.

My gripe had been til this weekend that no-one has explained Anne’s swift demise satisfactorily. Brenton shows something I have not found in my research or other books – I hope to discover where he found it. But if it is true, it does account for the scheme to scaffold that in 3 weeks had the most powerful woman in the kingdom’s head in a basket. If Anne knew that Cromwell was embezzling ex monastic funds meant for charity, she had the key in which to bring about his downfall as Wolsey and More. (No temperate, cuddly Mr Northam here; this [absent] More is a torturer). Cromwell would take his advice to Anne earlier in the play, and strike before struck. The charges of multiple adultery and incest – treason in themselves – seem ridiculous, but perhaps an insecure king who could love and hate in equal measure could be persuaded in a very intense period to sign the death warrant.

But the frustration is that Brenton potentially closes one mystery but leaves something else unsatisfactory. The villain we focus on, particularly after Wolsey leaves, is Thomas Cromwell. The slippery faced multi officed politician always features heavily in Tudor plots, and he is usually credited as being the man who brought Anne’s death about. I have not seen him before portrayed as a fellow in faith, aiding illicit Reformist texts and their author’s passage out of the country. Yet his secret Protestant beliefs clash with his vile practices of threats and spying. They also don’t prevent Cromwell’s clandestine bond with Anne turning sour very suddenly and without enough explanation. One moment, they are sharing a prayer; suddenly he’s arresting her, banning her from speaking to or seeing her husband, and making up charges against her. The play – as with many other stories – does not say that Cromwell is executed during Henry’s reign, rather less efficiently than Anne’s French swordsman.

The jaunty dance at the end ruined the power of the ending. It should have ended with the ghost of Anne taking James’ hand – a quiet, poignant gesture. Instead the 150 minutes is augmented by cheering stamping dances that aren’t even fitting, and those final moments are quickly forgotten in their wake.

Ultimately, I am a little disappointed, but that is because it didn’t show my Anne; but that is good, because it leaves the way open for me to do so myself.

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Fallen In Love

A review of a new production on ‘Anne Boleyn’s secret heart’

I was very excited to see this new play by Ipswich based theatre company Red Rose Chain, who say they had people crossing the Atlantic to see it and reviewers from all the national papers. They quote historical biographer Alison Weir’s positive comments, although she is thanked in the acknowledgements as being a key part of the research.

I have been passionate about Anne for several years and she formed a major part of my research degree. I was interested in how popular contemporary sources portray her, and how things have entered the canon of knowledge -ie what is seen to be true at any one time.

The canon regarding Anne has changed since the 1980s. Her enemies’ vilification programme was successful for 4 centuries, until several independent researchers of different backgrounds realised that there was another Anne than the Jezebel-esque ruthless upstart. Film has been slower to catch up, still portraying her broadly this way, and Philippa Gregory’s novel and now movie have tipped popular perception for the initiated back towards negative.

This summer, I’ll see two new plays on Anne, hoping that they might offer more of the fresh perspective that sees her as a heroine as Jean Plaidy, Vercors, Joanna Denny and Eric Ives have done.

Fallen in Love was disappointing for its portrayal and its execution – and no, not the one at the end of the play.

It wasn’t that I could detect historical inaccuracy, but that the portrayal fitted the conventional old style view – Anne as perhaps complicated, perhaps with a sympathetic motive, but not even as Prof Ives said – someone one admires but not likes. Naive Anne suddenly becomes hard, and we miss that trajectory out due to a major shift in time. The naiveté is shown through silly voices and exaggerated running about and frivolity.

I confess that I have never warmed to George Boleyn, and it is a shame that he is such a part of this play. Writer and director Joanna Carrick gives him the best lines – making out that it is he (not Anne) who is the religious reformer, the one who hates corruption but can also see genuine faith in some of the monks who are being so horribly butchered. She even lets George say the wonderful alleged final speech that Anne wrote to Henry about being raised from Commoner in stages to the highest honour of all – martyr.

A story about Anne that does not feature Henry feels odd. Small casts are tricky, and this duo didn’t hold the necessary interest for me. I didn’t know that it would just be Anne and her brother, and when this became apparent, my enthusiasm sagged. I also didn’t like the casting of Anne – again, a personal matter, but she didn’t act in a way that made you understand why the most powerful monarch of the western world was so smitten with her that he took such great steps to be with her. And – why this woman was deemed so dangerous that she was killed swiftly and then demonised.

That last part is something I have never found to be satisfactorily explained.

Fallen in Love is not the strongest title, suggesting a chick lit appraisal of one of Europe’s great moments of history. I had expected, therefore, a love story – and presumed this would be one of the few that would show Anne in love with Henry: often the affair is portrayed as onesided. I believe one intended interpretation of the play’s title is, as Gregory and Warnicke alone suggest, that Anne’s incest charge was actually accurate, with which I and most other scholars vehemently disagree.

I have particular tastes in theatre, leaning towards physical theatre and cross media as ways to best use the stage as a way of telling a story powerfully. This was a very traditional talk continuously play with too little room to act physically; the set is designed round a bed which also holds up the tee pee. The epic story doesn’t work in a small tent with not much of set. The post death scene with feathers and dancing was the best -for theatricality and innovation, and a welcome break from over egged young thespian voices.

Practically, there were also problems. Passing trains and football in the park didn’t help the authenticity. The tickets are expensive for what they are – £15 to sit an a marquee on uncomfy chairs with poor toilets, and a simple kiosk for refreshments. They have 2 evening shows back to back, meaning you can’t get in the carpark until the previous show has gone. This contradicted the ticket’s advice of arriving at least 15 minutes early. It wasn’t clear from the crude map that the Hall is not accessible from Gypeswick park, although it seems logical to assume it is. Retracing steps, having found the prohibitive high fence, wastes several minutes.

There was a free short aftershow by a community theatre. As much as I wish to encourage people to find their artistic feet, I have to say that this was a painful experience. What jarred most was not poor acting quality, but the incessant swearing. Dramatically, to swear constantly means you have played your trump card until it has no meaning. There are no more organ stops to pull out when the tension rises. The director warned it may offend ‘sensitive’ people, but sensitivity and a dislike of foul language are not connected. The action and dialogue were lost under the cursing. Group penned Guiltless Ghost is a play about transposing Henry, Anne, George and Jane Parker to a group of four friends on a modern housing estate, all on mobile phones and in chav gear. It forgets the high born grandeur, religion and politics at the heart of the Tudor story, and that Anne Boleyn does not lend herself to a kind of Gavin and Stacey directed by Shane Meadows or Peter Mullan. The bit that made me scoff into my hands was the closing voiceover quote that gave the piece its name. Halting, with a very Ips-witch rising accent, it made what might have been an interesting idea into a farce.

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I, Elizabeth review

by I, Elspeth

The play is a one woman show where the audience become privy to Elizabeth’s more private thoughts on the pressures of her to marry and to execute her Scottish cousin who had just landed in her realm, seeking solace, and to name or produce her heir, in a time of acute religious upheaval. It is all actual quotes, arranged to tell a story.

Writer/performer Rebecca Vaughan knows her stuff to an impressive level, and is just as articulate out of role as when playing the great queen. If your local theatre has a question time opportunity, I recommend staying after this 70 minute play and be amazed at her energy to discuss her subject with such enthusiasm and knowledge.

The original inspiration was the collected works of Elizabeth I, which led Rebecca to a vast amount of primary source research. She chose out of that 70 year life and two score year reign one year (1568) where lots of dramatic possibilities were happening. Like the first Cate Blanchett film, Rebecca found that the pre Gloriana era, the not yet supreme, assured, and avowed Virgin Queen was more interesting to write about than the later reign that perhaps is still firmer in popular memory.

It might seem a feat to keep us interested for over an hour, without a set change, any music, obvious scene breaks, or any props save a chair. Those who have had the pleasure of seeing Austen’s Women know that Rebecca Vaughan is capable of commanding our attention in that scenario, but I, Elizabeth is even a greater challenge: playing one character in one time, continuously talking, and hardly moving. The only feature to mark it out is the zinging light, a deliberately vague device to suggest another presence or tension, whether it be time, God, her own mind; but it gives a sense of urgency and unpredictability to the play.

It takes a while to adjust and immerse oneself in the Tudor language, though methinks it was more convoluted at the start. It becomes more modern, and sometimes more familiar. As someone who has also studied Elizabeth academically (though Rebecca’s learning is superior) and especially looked at her presentation in modern fiction, I have got used to hearing certain alleged sayings, often modernised. There are some which may be apocryphal which enter the cannon. Here, Rebecca has only used Elizabeth’s own words, and the only changes are to insert the name of a person or to change the tense. It is startling to learn what Elizabeth did actually say, and how popular sayings have been altered and re-entered popular collective history in a modernised form. As one audience member commented, this is easier to understand than Shakespeare is to the uninitiated.

I, Elizabeth by Dyad Productions premiered at the Edinburgh festival in 2010 and is continuing its nationwide tour in 2011.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I have just seen the play. It is not a good one – not that the performance of it at Nottingham’s Lacemarket Theatre was poor: quite the reverse. I do not claim to have a special understanding of Muriel Spark’s book, but I am sure that the adapter, Jay Presson Allen, does not. The playscript is very offputting, with stipulations about the size his name should be printed on posters. And then follows royalties, permission, and an exacting list of costumes, like the Marcia Blain School for Girls would send to parents.

Miss Brodie is often described as dangerous, but Allen’s scripts are. Not only has he written an internationally travelling play, regularly staged, but an enduring screen version that starred Maggie Smith in 1968. (I can hear her saying that as Miss Brodie). I understand about adaptation, being a writer of various media myself, and I believe that you can translate most things between media through utilising the possibilities of the new medium. Both scripts do not exploit these possibilities and are very conventional narratively and stylistically. The film is the worst as it is without Sister Helena, who is the point of the story. The film contains only a linear going forward in time, but the book is full of time changes. The scripts are without the richness and rhythm of the book and do not attempt to include the inner life of Sandy which is so distinct and important in the novel. Sandy’s showdown with Miss Brodie is neither part of Spark’s work, nor a well written scene. The intended nuances are not clear on a stage without seeing Allen’s intrusive set of stage directions. The play and film need a narrator because that omniscient voice is part of Muriel Spark’s literary device with its own disembodied predestination and oversight. The poetic, Biblical style is all lost in translation and the time period simplified to point of P-E-T-R-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N of the source material.

It is not that I necessarily highly esteem the novel. Most ingratiatingly, the Penguin introduction says that not a comma is out of place. Therefore I read the book looking especially at commas; some of the sentences jar in the way they are punctuated, as does the repetitions of phrases such as ‘being famous for sex’ or ‘running hither and thither in the flames’ and ‘the crème de la crème’. I understand that this feature is part of the Biblical style that’s key to emphasising the central theme of Presbyterianism vs Popery.

I too have seen the parallel between these competing strands of Christianity, just as there are parallels in between the Brodie set, the Fascisti, and Girl Guides. Predestination and Calvinism are not brought out enough in the adaptations, and without Sandy’s defecting to the other religious team as well as leaving the Brodie set, the film is as ridiculous as Miss Brodie is made out to be.

Sandy is given script lines which denigrate the career of her lover that are not in the novel. It seems that Allen has made the story about a snotty school girl speaking hard satisfying truths. He inserts comments like ‘you went to bed with an artist but couldn’t cope that you woke up with a man’. Miss Brodie never sleeps with Teddy Lloyd in the book. It shows how badly a Scottish women’s story can be retold by an American male, who desperately latches on to the one minor character the author could possibly re-nationalise as his own – the visitor to Sister Helena.

Allen seems to see Sandy as some avenging angel who ‘puts a stop to Miss Brodie’ and the philandering art teacher, and that we as an audience should agree with her. Again, this misses the nuances out and badly misunderstands the story. It also distorts some facts: Mr Lloyd is one armed, and red haired like Mr Lowther. Mr Lloyd does not harangue Miss Brodie in the ladies’ toilets, as Maggie Smith’s real life husband to be does in the film. He is also not guilty of underage relationships with pupils as Sandy is 18 and has left the school when they become lovers for a summer. Mrs Deirdre Lloyd is kept out of Allen’s work, but Teddy’s wife has several lines in the book and becomes Sandy’s friend.

It seems to me that Sandy is also one of the unrequited lovers of Miss Brodie looking for substitutes. Briefly, Sandy decides that Brodie is a lesbian, although I see no evidence for it. However, there is plenty that Sandy is. She fantasises over the policewoman she never meets who helps Jenny after being accosted by a flasher by the Water of Leith. It is Sandy who most loves Miss Brodie. I see her affair with Lloyd as a way of ‘working it off’ [her own crude phrase] on someone else as much as he is, or Miss Brodie does on Mr Lowther. Perhaps Sandy’s feelings are more complicated than romantic love; perhaps it is what she ascribes to Brodie’s affair with the autumnally fallen Hugh: that they were above being physical; a purer love. It might be more what we’d facetiously call a lady crush, but the power of Miss Brodie was enough to send religionless Sandy into a convent, a broken woman.

This act isn’t fully and satisfactorily explained. It says in the book that Sandy extracted Teddy Lloyd’s religion from him ‘like a pith from a husk’, but that does not suffice. Was to to fill that void of not having any religion to rebel against which Sandy speaks of when visiting St Giles’ Kirk? Was it to spite Miss Brodie, who hated Catholicism? Sandy never speaks of a religious calling, a falling in love with God. She does not go out and find other lovers as the rest of the Brodie set did. Sandy hasn’t just renounced the world, she has renounced love because of her broken heart and guilty conscience over Miss Brodie. She has well chosen her nun name to be ‘of the transfiguration’ for she too has tried to metamorphose and has been unable to. Holding the bars of the convent grille is the act of someone desperate and imprisoned, not striding out of the school gates scot free, as in the movie, with Sybil Thorndike’s high and noble mien.

Miss Jean Brodie is a hard woman to ultimately admire as she does not bring out of her class, and she swamps Mary Macgregor’s confidence. To modern teachers, she is especially inappropriate in her dealings with pupils. Whereas we may sometimes sympathise, no character is appealing, especially not Sandy, whose story this really is. And that ultimately weakens the story. It’s a book I want to like more than I do, and when I arrived at the end, there was a sense of dissatisfaction, of being taken on a pretentious ride that didn’t take you anywhere particularly although you feel you may have not taken in all the journey’s details on the way.

I’ve also written about “Leading out or Thrusting in – Miss Jean Brodie on teaching”  – an admirable speech that is preached but not practised. I may repost it here as this link may not still work.

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Filed under cinema, literature, spirituality, theatre