Sunday, 29 January 2017

To Walk Invisible

Jonathan Pryce, Finn Atkins, Adam Nagaitis, Chloe Pirrie and Charlie Murphy with contemporary images of Emily

Where the wild wind blows on the mountainside

One of my favourite programmes over the 2016/17 New Year period was the Sally Wainwright-penned snippet of “Brontëana” To Walk Invisible. It was a treat to see the location-shooting (some sets were built on Penistone Hill, not far from Haworth, and the costumes and set dressing were impeccable.) The actors were uniformly strong:
  • Charlotte, determined, industrious and judgmental: Finn Atkins 
  • Emily, fierce, private and funny: Chloe Pirrie 
  • Anne, generous, peace-loving and wise: Charlie Murphy 
  • Branwell, disappointed, frustrated and self-sabotaging: Adam Nagaitis 
  • Reverend Patrick Brontë, stoical, dignified and proud of his daughters: Jonathan Pryce
Moors above Haworth
Blazing imagination
What I found most impressive about the production was the selection of detail, given the amount that could have been included. I think Sally Wainwright’s script had a distinctive “take” which captured less mythologised aspects of Haworth’s famous inhabitants:
  • the blazing childhood imaginations run riot
  • the importance on Anne and Branwell of the Robinson household at Thorp Green Hall
  • the focus on the three years of reunion (1845 – 1848) which brought the remaining family together after various working excusions
  • the shocking impact on the whole family of Branwell’s complicated demons, petulant behaviour and fatal illness
  • the believable relationships between father and offspring, between Emily and Branwell, between the sisters 
  • the distinctive qualities of each member of the family
  • the palpable presence of the Brontë neighbours, servants and friends
  • the comic thrill and awe of Currer and Acton turning up at George Smith’s office in London
New Year's Eve 2016 with Michael, Janet and Alex walking to Top Withins

Emily Brontë’s undated untitled poetry

I’ve quoted from the following stanzas before (here, in July 2016) but I thought I’d put the whole sequence down in celebration of To Walk Invisible, in tribute to the glories of the Yorkshire moors and in memory of what I did in the hours before the Murder Mystery Game Death by Chocolate. Wherever I go, whatever I do and whatever happens after I am long gone, the moors above Haworth will remain. I’ve already recorded that it’s one of the best places I know to blow away cobwebs and get perspective. In her stanzas about walking, Emily Brontë makes the point that walking is the place to leave behind “busy chase of wealth and learning” and she goes where her instincts take her, to a place where you can see Heaven and Hell clearly, a place where the contrary sides of human experience can be “centred.” Since the stanzas are undated and untitled, I’ve taken the liberty of giving them a title, snatched from a repeated phrase inside the sequence.

I’ll walk…. by Emily Brontë

Often rebuked, yet always back returning
To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

To-day, I will seek not the shadowy region;
Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;
And visions rising, legion after legion,
Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I'll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.

I'll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Saltaire Advent Windows

Midwinter Saltaire Advent Windows - the opening "Number Ones"

Counting down to Christmas

Every year since 2006 residents of Saltaire have decorated a series of windows in local houses that stay on display for visitors until Epiphany. As of today, Saturday 28th January, there are only 330 days to the next Christmas Day so posting 2016’s images is just a reminder that Christmas will come again. Measuring life in hours, days, weeks, months, seasons and years is a compelling human activity and has been complicated over centuries as we have come to understand the orbit of the Sun and the tilt of planet Earth. Every now and again seconds are shaved off the year, days are added in Leap Years and, once, eleven days were entirely removed from the calendar.
Windows 2 to 10 in 2016 (Saltaire Advent Windows)


English folk went to sleep in 1752 on September 2nd and woke up on September 14th in order to join Pope Gregory’s newly calculated calendar of 1582 with which the rest of Europe had been synchronising during the previous 50 years. Britain wasn’t the last country to catch up, by any means. Russia waited until after the Russian Revolution in 1918 and Greece held out until 1923. In my fantasy saga, The Rhenium Tales, there are 100 minutes an hour, 15 hours in a day/night cycle, 10 days a week, 10 months a year, 50 days a month, 5 seasons a year, 50 weeks a year and therefore 500 days every year. It was a bugger working it out but is entirely feasible, in my universe….
Windows 11 to 24 in 2016 (Saltaire Advent Windows)

Friday, 27 January 2017

Death by Chocolate

First there was Who Murdered Rick Toad

Then there was Stiffed at the Speakeasy

Now, it is 1900 Paris*

*otherwise known as New Year’s Eve 2016 Shipley….
The very upmarket Parisian hotel, Hotel Paradiso, is full. Millions of visitors are arriving for the opening of the International Exposition.

Celebrity Visitors include

Monsieur ‘Chocolate’ Bertrand – the leading Belgian chocolate manufacturer
Marchioness Duchamp – a notorious avant-garde artist
Dr Doris Johnson – an eccentric amateur archaologist
Maria von Schnapps – a young and important figure in the chocolate industry
Dame Barbara Carthorse – an English romantic novelist
Dr Sigmundia Fraud – the controversial Viennese psychologist
Mike Bison – an American boxer from New York


An explosion rocks the peace of the hotel. The foremost chocolate manufacturer from America, Mr Billy Bonka, has been found in the ruins and rubble of his hotel room. Who delivered the exploding chocolate to his room? How involved were the guests with the mysterious Billy Bonka? Who could have the motive and means to enact such a dastardly deed? Did Detective Hercule McClue solve the Mystery of the Death of Billy Bonka? Discretion prevents this blog from revealing the guilty party!
Dr Doris Johnson proffers a marshmallow to the chocolate fountain - is it a clue?

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Home from home

Secret Santa Home from home

Home from home

I understand Americans use the phrase home away from home whereas people in Britain use home from home to mean being somewhere that you are as comfortable and relaxed as you are in your own home. I feel that way about visiting the Thompsons in Badby, Northamptonshire. I first met Michael at the Royal Shakespeare Company summer school in 1986 and Janet and Sally met soon afterwards and our daughters have been friends with each other ever since their arrival on the planet.
Mini campanology home from home

Escaping to a better world

I hope 2017 turns out to be a fulfilling year and that the political realities (Brexit and PresiTrump) somehow produce a better world. Time will tell. Maybe writing a speculative fiction saga as a retirement hobby is my escapist way of coping with the harsh truths (or post-truths) of the fall-out from 2016.
Caspar and Alex unaffected (as of now) by PresiTrump, afternoon tea at Fawsley Hall, beware the RSC bear!

Culture endures, friendship remains and Christmas will come again

In the midst of the political turmoil, though, the village of Badby still stands. We will see productions as inventive as Greg Doran’s The Tempest again. We will eat delicious food and drink quaffable wine. We (the human race) will survive at least another year. Yes, Winter is coming (literal and metaphorical) but so is Spring and, before long, Christmas will come again.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Such stuff as dreams are made on

Emily, Harriet and Alex conjuring the storm in the RSC's display of Prospero's cell

Indiscriminate audience member?

I sometimes wonder whether I have a very child-like approach to entertainment. It is rare when I don’t enjoy something at the theatre, at the cinema, listening to the radio or watching TV. This sometimes annoys family and friends and I could be accused of having little discrimination. But at the theatre, for example, if the story doesn’t grab me I can imagine the rehearsals and production meetings and work out why the cast and crew have made the decisions they have. In a musical or large-cast production I imagine the director working out how to get everyone on and off slickly and working with lights and sound to create the atmosphere. I always find something to occupy my imagination.
Cast of Greg Doran's production of The Tempest at the RSC; photo credits by RSC website and Topher McGrillis

O Brave New World

In December (and currently still running and about to be broadcast in the cinema) I saw Greg Doran’s production at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is a play I have seen many times before and taught to both younger children and A-Level students since the focus can be on the weird story, the magic, slapstick comedy and amazing spectacle or on power, betrayal, art, love, the illusion of justice, masters/servants, appearance and reality, enslavement by parents and colonists and probably many other themes that are not springing to mind right now. Of course A-Level students still want to know about the magic, comedy and spectacle; and indeed many younger children can see Prospero’s (potentially abusive) treatment of Miranda, Ferdinand, Ariel and Caliban reflected in their own lives on a daily basis. It is a rich play, simple and complex at the same time, knotty and poetic all at once.
The extraordinary Andy Serkis as Iago, Monsieur Rigaud and his Performance Capture work. Mark Quartley rehearsing Ariel in the centre.

In collaboration with Intel

For the first time, as far as I know, a theatre director worked with Andy Serkis’s Imaginarium Studios. This Performance Caputre studio was founded as a result of Andy’s expertise creating cinematic characters like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, King Kong in Peter Jackson’s film and Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes films. With technology provided by Intel, the RSC production of The Tempest is indeed a visual treat, not only with the sight of Ariel growing, flying, swimming and concocting the illusions that frighten the shipwrecked characters, but also with beautiful artistic film and video by Finn Ross and lighting by Simon Spencer. Every production department works together in an example of total theatre. Greg Doran believes the effect might be similar to the original audience’s experience of the masque within the play, a convention that pushed the Jacobean theatre to its limits and, of course, pleased the theatre-loving James I.
Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale in the RSC's The Tempest

These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits

In the midst of all the technology, though, the characters emerged strongly:
  • Simon Russell Beale was at times a frightening and neurotic Prospero whose performance captured Prospero’s sad grandeur, his complex feelings of love and feelings of terrible guilt at his past actions. As always with this actor he commanded the stage in a sympathetic and winning way, able somehow to draw you in to his thought process with gesture, facial expression, volume, inflection, pitch and pause
  • Mark Quartley was a muscular and dangerous Ariel with a face of profound concentration and compassion
  • I thought Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda was spunkier than usual with more than a hint of rebellion and a sense that she would rule both Daniel Easton’s gentle Ferdinand and the kingdom with more force than her father ever could
  • Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder made welcome returns to the RSC with bold performances as Stephano and Trinculo, the former a bully and the latter a bit sly, both of course very funny, stupidly drunk and clearly the best of friends
  • Joe Dixon, one of my favourite actors, was an imposing, poignant and at once both aggressive and charming Caliban, a performance that allowed every thematic complication of the character to be palpable
  • The “court” characters were also clearly and strikingly played: a grief-enraged Alonso by James Tucker, Oscar Pearce’s deliciously evil Antonio, a dimwit Sebastian by Tom Turner and a more-knowing-than-usual Gonzalo by the gorgeous Joseph Mydell 
  • All the courtiers, mariners and spirits operated fluently and fluidly to suggest this was indeed a busily inhabited island, even if most of the inhabitants were in the imagination.
Stephen Brimson Lewis has designed this production and, in my view, is building up a legacy as one of the greatest theatre designers in history following his body of work, both for the RSC and elsewhere.
Simon Russell Beale in a performance of great power and variety