Monday, 31 October 2016

Thou met'st with things dying, I with things newborn

Favourite play?

I was often asked by students to name my favourite Shakespeare play or poem or sonnet. I have always found it an impossible task because each work contains moments of sublime stagecraft, astonishing language, profound thematic concepts and fundamental ideas about human existence. And most of the plays contain at least one bit of tatty old rubbish: clumsy characterization, an underwritten scene, some impenetrable phrases, images that no longer make sense and, of course, Shakespeare was writing for a stage with particular constraints (the most glaring being the inability to employ living breathing women as actresses, so female roles are fewer than they should be.) It surprises some people that I am happy to talk about the rubbish bits in Shakespeare, but, for me, it makes his work all the more wonderful for its raggedy unevenness. What I do know is that the best way to experience Shakespeare is to see it or hear it – always my philosophy as a teacher. Simply reading Shakespeare is only a fraction of the experience.

Exit, pursued by a bear - the famous stage direction from The Winter's Tale

Favourites at certain times

A good production can make any play feel like a favourite during its two or three hours length. My first Hamlet and my first Love’s Labour’s Lost were experienced at Bolton Octagon when I was a student in Manchester. I remember the Hamlet starred Douglas Hodge as the Prince and Ophelia’s dead body was brutally zipped up in a body bag on a pile of ruins in a war-torn “Denmark.” Love’s Labour’s Lost was directed by Ian Judge and set in an Oxbridge quadrangle, anticipating the designs for Kenneth Branagh’s film of the play. In both cases the plays were sparklingly clear for me and I became convinced that Shakespeare plays could survive being set anywhere anytime. Whenever I directed students in productions of the plays, each play became a favourite for the time I was working on it. But some plays have always been in the top five and The Winter’s Tale is one of them. Sally and I therefore travelled over to Bolton Octagon to renew my acquaintance with that theatre and had a great evening in Sicilia and Bohemia.

Sicilian scenes in David Thacker's The Winter's Tale at Bolton Octagon. Photographs by Ian Tilton

David Thacker’s production

The cast were uniformly strong:
  • Rob Edwards brought Leontes’s morbid jealousy and consequent grief and remorse to blistering life 
  • Amy Nuttall was a heartbreaking Hermione, dignified and queenly
  • Margot Leicester created a Paulina that was compassionate as well as formidable and determined 
  • As Polixenes, Christopher Wright personified humility (and later paternal rage after some comedy capering) 
  • Christian Edwards’s Young Shepherd and Eric Potts’s Old Shepherd were delightfully unpretentious and endearing 
  • Colin Connor was an engaging and appealing Autolycus 
  • The young lovers, Harry Long as Florizel and Leila Mimmack as Perdita, were direct, vivid and vigorous 
  • Most touching of all, I found Marc Small to be a compelling Camillo; both on and off text the actor was a brilliant listener and reactor to every nuance of every line spoken by every other character.
James Cotterill’s set and costume designs were clear in revealing the play’s moods and David Thacker’s direction was masterful in controlling the pace and the strange changes of tone in this extraordinary play.

Bohemian scenes in David Thacker's The Winter's Tale at Bolton Octagon. Photographs by Ian Tilton

Favourite lines

As well as being one of my favourite plays, The Winter’s Tale contains some of my favourite lines, spoken by Florizel to Perdita at the sheep-shearing festival after she has distributed flowers. The best way to appreciate Florizel’s sentiment is to say the words aloud (gently and calmly) and appreciate how the sound of the words echo the contents of the speech, so that “move still” and “still so” sound (to me anyway) like the “wave o’ the sea” in the previous line….
                        What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I'd have you do it ever: when you sing,
I'd have you buy and sell so, so give alms,
Pray so, and, for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that: move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens.
Florizels and Perditas from the net. Main picture = by Ian Tilton of Harry Long, Eric Potts and Leila Mimmack at Bolton Octagon

Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Entertainer

Postman’s Park

So last Saturday (my birthday, you know) I paid a flying visit to the capital city of this country wot I am Iiving in and ate food, drank wine, went to the theatre and did something old and something new. A suitable celebration for the likes of me! The something new was a visit to Postman’s Park, so-called because of its popularity with postal workers in the nearby GPO headquarters. It featured in the film Closer and has been famous since 1900 because of the wall of tiles, the George Frederic Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. The wording of the stories of everyday heroism reflects the age in which they were written, so there are some gruesome details which seem lurid today; but the overall effect is a moving testament to the bravery of ordinary people who leapt into danger to save others. Behind every word on every tile a whole other world is conjured.

The British Library

The something old on my birthday weekend was a visit to the British Library near King’s Cross on the way home. If I have a spare 30 minutes before a train going north I have regularly popped in to the Treasures Room at the Library and drooled over the Shakespeare First Folio, Jane Austen’s writing desk, the writings of Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens. This time I was excited to see stages of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea on display. And, memorably, we took a backstage tour to see the Reading Rooms, the Map Room, the book delivery system and learn about the building, its history, its capabilities, its ambition and its future. There are some things that are still great about Great Britain and the British Library is one of them. Thank you, Nigel, for the personal tour.

Don’t clap too loudly, it’s a very old building

In John Osborne’s The Entertainer, the Music Hall is a microcosm of the British Empire, a garish and confident entity that is nonetheless dying and fading. Christopher Oram’s set design for the Rob Ashford production starring Kenneth Branagh as Archie Rice made the crumbling Empire visible throughout the running time so the dysfunctional family at the heart of the play is seen desperately trying to negotiate their futures amongst the wreckage. The family were played memorably: Gawn Grainger’s set-in-his-ways patriarch, Billy; Greta Scacchi’s loyal (second) wife, the drunken Phoebe; Sophie McShera’s politicised and simmering daughter Jean; and Jonah Hauer-King’s eager-to-please-his-dad but gullible son Frank. Seeing the play in 2016 made me think Osborne had underwritten the roles for Jean and Frank, perhaps giving too much voice to the cynicism of the older generation. Though the play was first staged in 1957 there are plenty of modern resonances to the politics of today, but most effective, I thought, was the sense of a family ploughing on through the confusions of modern times (“foreigners…. tax-evasion…. war-mongering…. the futility of political protest…. a crowd wanting entertainment not knowledge…. bread and circuses….”) The family were clinging on to elusive (and shifting) values that are constantly undermined and changed by the march of time. As all humans do.

Branagh and Olivier

Kenneth Branagh’s career has been an echo of Laurence Olivier’s in so many ways – directing films with great verve (far more than Olivier now), starring in key texts like The Winter’s Tale and The Entertainer and working as an actor-manager with some distinction. I have read about Olivier’s performance as Archie Rice so can only imagine its impact but feel Branagh successfully brought the monstrous old hoofer to life, creating an extra layer of faded glory in 2016 knowing that Olivier had also played the role. Archie is a sad, sad character whose attempts to stay chirpy and upbeat are tragic; he seems to have terrible self-knowledge – “I’m dead, just like the whole dumb, shoddy lot out there” – making the play itself seem to implode, as if the protagonist himself loses impetus and Great Britain (Archie Rice? the family? the Music Hall? the theatre? the town? the country? the continent? the world?) is an empty shell of what once was. Excellent production but not a feel-good play by any means. Somehow the productions of 400-year old Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale gave me more hope than Osborne’s more-modern text. The Branagh residency at the Garrick has been a fantastic achievement for the casts and production team involved so I hope that more actor-managers will manufacture opportunities like that in the future.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Let old wrinkles come

Another October 15th another birthday

With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come (The Merchant of Venice)
Two years ago I was just getting used to returning to Yorkshire from our temporary time in Dorking. One year ago I was celebrating the removal of a cyst from my back. Time continues. Another birthday arrives – this time I’m 56. Thank you to family and friends for cards and Facebook messages. How different is my life from any other year? Older? Yes. Wiser? Debatable.

Rhenium Tales

Heaven knows whether or not the saga I’m writing as my retirement hobby will be called Rhenium Tales by the time I’m prepared to show someone the chapters. But that’s what it is called at the moment. So that’s what’s mainly different about Me, Myself and I in 2016. Three days a week (at the moment) I’m locking myself away and aiming to churn out 1000 words each day. During some writing spurts I feel like an award-winning writer of unquestionable genius; and at other times (sometimes on the same day) I feel like a writer of turgid cliché who can only write unwieldy passages of ham-handed incompetence. Hey, ho – is this the promised end?
Is this the promised end? (King Lear)

Monday, 10 October 2016


Wonderful friends, wonderful time

Barcelona is full of wonders. On a recent trip I went with Sally, Nick and Graeme. I was lucky enough to visit about ten years ago one New Year’s Eve when Spaniards smashed many a bottle around us on La Rambla as we stuffed grapes in our mouths (all in traditional celebration of course) and drank Sangria (we meaning Sally, Emily, Harriet, Sue, Brian and me.) On that occasion Sue and Brian (moored in the docks there) wanted to show us the Magic Fountains but they were turned off for the night so on our return visit last month, the fountains were on the to-do list.

Magic Fountains of Montjuïc

Retirement joys

I don’t think I will ever underestimate travelling during school term time. It is a privilege and feels a bit illegal and I can’t be the only retired teacher to feel so. Our holiday base overlooked the hill of Tibidabo with its retro fairground and the spires of Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor. Sally, Graeme, Nick and I stayed in a stylish AirBnB apartment with a terrace for continental breakfast and evening beer. Thank you, gracious hostess, Anna.

Blowing the cobwebs away

I probably over-use the phrase “blowing the cobwebs away” but it’s an image that works for me. Disrupting routine and walking somewhere surprising is a great way to look back, be in the present and look forward.
Docks of Barcelona

Tourist times

On the first afternoon we did an orientating bus tour round the eastern part of the city and admired the sea front, the gothic quarter, the bold architecture and the brash, youthful city centre. Plenty of people-watching even though my pics are all of buildings and scenery (discretion, you know.)


Eating and drinking was on the itinerary, of course, and tapas was the order of the day most days, though there were some fish dishes that were as tasty as any I’ve known.


Antoni Gaudí i Cornet’s work dominates the visual side of the city, although there are plenty of other bold and successful architectural statements. Gaudí’s work is so very distinctive. I love his references to the natural world, his use of colour, ceramics, stained glass, ironwork and swirling, pouring materials.

La Sagrada Família

If I’m alive in 10 to 20 years time it would be great to come back and visit the (hopefully by then) finished basilica of the Holy Family. It’s hard to take it all in – the soaring vaults, the fluted columns, the remarkable colours, the mix of straight lines with spheres, fruit, foliage and animals, the sense that the whole building is dripping upwards.

Miracle of design, engineering and building

Visiting a cathedral in the final years of its building is a mind-bending experience. I found myself thinking about the visitors who saw the laying of the foundation stone in 1882; and the visitors 500 years in the future who will wonder how long it took to build.

The Quarry

Equally impressive was La Pedrera (The Quarry) or, officially, Casa Milà, named because of the couple who commissioned it: Pere Milà i Camps and his wife Roser Segimon i Artells. The astonishing outside and inside contains algae-coloured designs, curves, waves, balconies from fairy tales, ergonomic door knobs, fancy lintels, suggestions of bone and an attic space that feels like the skeleton of a snake.

The garden of warriors

The undulating roof with its primitive steps, warrior chimneys, skylights, tiles and embedded broken champagne bottles is a magical space and it was hard to leave the aeriel wonderland.


The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art is an austere white temple to performance and abstract art. There was a fascinating exhibition of 100 candid photographs by Hans-Peter Feldmann showing black and white portraits of different individuals (twins in one case) at each age, from 8 weeks to 100 years old. Some looked to have secrets; all had stories to tell. One exhibit involved putting two ice cubes (one sweet, one salty) in your mouth and walking into a gigantic wooden cylindrical tunnel whilst a fan blows you from the other end…. Very contemporary….

Nudity beneath the snowstorm

The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia (aka Barcelona’s Gothic Cathedral) was a total surprise. The remains of St Eulalia are grandly presented in an ostentatious crypt, the least the Catholic church could do for someone who the Romans stripped in public but then, were so angry when a miraculous snowfall obscured her naked body, that they pushed her into a barrel, stuck knives through it and rolled it down the street now known as Baixada de Santa Eulàlia. Just to be sure she was fully violated poor St Eulalia was then decapitated, but, to the Romans’ surprise, a white dove flew out of her gushing neck! If all that truly happened then she deserves the magnificent cathedral that has now been raised in memory of her martyrdom. I’m not sure I entirely understood why geese were occupying the cloisters, but the Roman Catholic church is full of surprises....

Two pieces of music

Like Paris or Rome, I hope to revisit Barcelona one day. Two pieces of music have been playing in a loop round my brain since returning: one is Ismael Lô’s Tajabone from the score of Pedro Almodóvar’s film All About My Mother (a transition point in the film when the story moves to Barcelona) and the other is the theme from the Barcelona Olympics sung by Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé. You can hear the first one HERE and the second one HERE.
Lyrics for Barcelona (by Freddie Mercury and Mike Moran)

Barcelona – Viva (Barcelona – Live!)

I had this perfect dream
    Un sueño me envolvió (A dream enveloped me)
This dream was me and you
    Tal vez estás aquí (Perhaps you are here)
I want all the world to see
    Un instinto me guiaba (An instinct guided me)
A miracle sensation
My guide and inspiration
Now my dream is slowly coming true

The wind is a gentle breeze
    Él me habló de ti (He told me about you)
The bells are ringing out
    El canto vuela (The song flies forth)
They're calling us together
Guiding us forever
Wish my dream would never go away

Barcelona - It was the first time that we met
Barcelona - How can I forget
The moment that you stepped into the room you took my breath away
Barcelona - La musica vibró (The music vibrated)
Barcelona - Y ella nos unió (And she joined us)
And if God willing we will meet again, someday

Let the songs begin
    Déjalo nacer (Let it be born)
Let the music play
Make the voices sing
    Nace un gran amor (Born a great love)
Start the celebration
    Ven a mi (Come to me)
And cry
    Grita (Cry out)
Come alive
    Vive (Come alive)
And shake the foundations from the skies
Shaking all our lives

Barcelona - Such a beautiful horizon
Barcelona - Like a jewel in the sun
    Por ti seré gaviota de tu bella mar (For you I will be your beautiful sea gull)
Barcelona - Suenan las campanas (Bells ring)
Barcelona - Abre tus puertas al mundo (Open your doors to the world)
If God is willing
If God is willing
If God is willing
Friends until the end
Viva Barcelona (Live Barcelona)

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Scotland's Game of Thrones

Soap opera, history lesson and universal themes

Twice this year, in Manchester and Newcastle, I enjoyed the National Theatre of Scotland’s epic trilogy of Rona Munro’s The James Plays. I love seeing a group of actors in a series of plays when individuals appear in small parts in one play and then emerge in a major part in another. This is one of the joys of seeing an acting ensemble perform Shakespeare’s History Cycle. The eight consecutive history plays of Shakespeare are a revelatory miracle when encountered in one fell swoop, but The James Plays are up there with the best “Shakesperean” experiences I’ve ever had.

A bit of everything

Like the greatest soap opera sagas, this “history lesson” contained it all: family love, family feuds, husbands and wives, parents and children, friendships, men, women, betrayal, loyalty, secrets, power, sex, government, nationalism, tribalism and a healthy dose of comedy.

James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock

It’s interesting that all the events depicted in The James Plays were happening during England’s War of the Roses. We met the future James I (a soulful and vulnerably funny Steven Miller) as a helpless prisoner of the English King Henry V. James II’s “homecoming” as King of the Scots proves dark and dangerous when the regents who have been “minding the throne” for him prove to be an ultra-violent bunch whose matriarch, Isabella (played attractively and frighteningly by Blythe Duff), is a she-wolf in the mould of Shakespeare’s Margaret of Anjou. Only the crafty Mudac (the charismatic John Stahl) manages to prevent all-out massacres; the Scottish clans were not impressed by James II’s ideas about collecting taxes for the royal household so political manouvering had to be devious as well as, eventually, brutal. The play also benefits from some joyous female perspectives between spirited Queen Joan (a funny and touching Rosemary Boyle) and her blunt companion Meg (Sally Reid.) Shakespeare’s histories suffer from the convention of all-male acting companies but Rona Munro in these plays gives the voices of women a significant presence.
James I - The Key Will Keep The Lock

James II – Day Of The Innocents

Recurring nightmares prove to haunt the days and nights of Andrew Rothney’s vulnerable James II with his vermilion facial birthmark and lonely existence, often hiding in a trunk. His main consolation comes from William Douglas (a complex portrayal by Andrew Still), a best friend who has father issues of his own; the growing friendship between James and William is the core of the second play and how it strains (fatally) when James marries a confident Dutch princess and William becomes Earl of Douglas following his bullying father’s on-stage death. The play was the darkest of the three but was brilliantly acted by Rothney and Still showing two damaged boys developing a bromance that breaks under the responsibilities of adulthood.

James II - The Day Of The Innocents

James III – The True Mirror

The final play includes joyous kilt-swishing whole-cast songs and dances; wouldja believe Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, Lorde’s Royals, Pharrell Williams’s Happy and Human League’s Don’t You Want Me Baby? The elegant and dignified Danish Queen Margaret (a beguiling Malin Crépin) copes with and manipulates her bisexual and unpredictably stubborn husband, James III (Matthew Pidgeon), steering the country through crisis after crisis. This was the funniest play and, in some ways, the most disturbing by showing the dangers of monarchy if the monarch is anything other than a cipher. James III lounged on cushions, spent money recklessly on rare wines and flattering choirs and avoided all kingly issues. The son of Margaret and James (Daniel Cahill in a performance of volcanic energy) emerged from the wrangling mess, wrapping his own naked flesh in barbed-wire chains, remembering his mother’s advice that what we wear against our skin should reflect the person we are. James (IV) thereby ends the triilogy determined (masochistically) to make Scotland a brutally realist kingdom, steering its own course in the future. Coming in the wake of the campaign for Scottish Independence, I found myself wishing for an Independent Scotland, partly because (having also travelled there recently) I do feel they do things differently there. The air is different. The history was certainly different.

James III - The True Mirror

True reflection or distorted fiction….

One scene has been seared into my consciousness. James III, hoping to taunt his wife with a reflection of mortality and aging, presents her with a novel Italian import, a full-length mirror – a medieval luxury and a miracle of engineering. He sees his own wrinkles and decay – and even sees blemishes in other people that look into this new invention. Margaret, however, peers in and likes what she sees (“I like this woman!”) Because, of course, she is at peace with her own internal self. The on-stage spectators, built into the set like a jury, reminded us subconsciously that we look into mirrors of the past and see either true reflections or distortions. We see what we want to see. We interpret what we want to interpret. Powerful leaders must learn to behave like leaders; but we must also learn how to treat them like leaders. We must look into the mirror and see what is real, not what is a distortion.

Congratulations to:

  • the National Theatre of Scotland
  • Laurie Sansom who directed (with pace and inventiveness) nine hours of sterling theatre
  • Jon Bausor who designed the arena-style setting with its emblematic objects and levels of indoors, outdoors, scaffold, beach, bedchamber, battlefield, dance floor, playground, dreamscape….
  • the cast who entertained, provoked, educated, thrilled, moved….
  • and, finally, to Rona Munro who has written a trilogy that I hope will be staged again by other companies with its fruity, lyrical, rhythmic, realistic, dramatic and surprising language

Jon Bausor's setting with the onstage "jury"