[Review] The Lying Life of Adults – Elena Ferrante

I’m in the September issue of the Literary Review, with my review of Ferrante’s latest novel, (out now in translation in Europa Editions). I do get further than “dun like”, promise. I love the headline, too (not my choice) – “In All Honesty”. My other Literary Review pieces can be found here.

Hope you enjoy!

[REVIEW] Why Women Read Fiction

I reviewed Helen Taylor’s marvellous new book, Why Women Read Fiction, for Literary Review this month (Feb 2020). The magazine is out now, and you can also read my review online here!

REVIEW: The Swell Mob, Flabbergast Theatre *****

I have bequeathed both my eyeballs to a redhead named Tabitha. Don’t blame me: it’s the fault of The Swell Mob, ninety minutes of supernatural skullduggery above and below ground in the COLAB factory, Borough. Such is the pull of this immersive piece, set in an 1840s hellmouth with an aesthetic resting heavily on bowler hats, moustachios, and dead girls with terrible backstories that there now exists a document entitling Tabby Skinner (taxidermist; bookmaker; menacing pair of scissors) to both my eyeballs in the event of my death. This was in exchange for a fairly savage tarot reading. 

The Swell Mob. All photos (c) Rob Penn.

If you like your fun frenetic, frightening, and with a strong flavour of Undead Bill Sykes, this is the show for you. You start off in a pub on surface-level, peopled by welcoming/vicious patrons and madmen, all eager to prise from you the five pound coins with which you’re issued on arrival. Whether you choose cards, bareknuckle boxing (observation only), or weaving into dark corners to open drawers and examine mirrors, what follows unites and divides the audience as you try to solve the mystery of the Swell Mob and their dastardly (and diminutive) Master. The pub setting initially feels quite Punchdrunk, reminiscent of the Manderley Bar in Sleep No More – however, your ticket includes two free drinks, making this the polar if not the global opposite of Punchdrunk and all their works. I advise you to get on with drinking those quite quickly, in order to disinhibit you during what follows. 

Try your luck at the card table…

There are different types of immersive theatregoer. I’m an explorer – I want the weird dark corners, secret passages and demonic contracts to be found inside The Swell Mob’s unlocked drawers, subterranean caves, and behind-the-bar lairs. Give me your bones, your suspended doll-limbs, and let me get my grubby hands on them. The Swell Mob does not disappoint. Despite the relatively small space, there’s ample opportunity to wander, and superb details that’ll leave you longing to return. The trip down to the cellar passes the building’s pigeonholes with plastic-wrapped post visible in the slots. Audience noises from COLAB’s other shows are intermittently audible. Unexpectedly, this really works – the fact that these underworld darklings unconcernedly pass circuitry and plumbing almost two centuries their juniors only reinforces the idea that the bloodshot, sweaty Swell Mob are the supernatural cellarage of redeveloped Bermondsey. Without giving too much away, the plot progresses quickly. On press night, the audience warmed up hugely in the last 30 minutes, as gin entered bloodstream and little teams of explorers tried to solve the mystery of the Master. Occasionally, you feel the pressure of time: I worry I derailed matters by being distracted by Tabitha and tarot moments after I was told to hand an important plot-point to the woman with white feather in her hair. Mid-way through the one-card character assassination, I looked up to find the woman with white feather standing beside me: had the poor girl been forced to seek me out, and was she now not waving so much as drowning? 

The Master (Henry Maynard) and Elizabeth (Jordan Cooper).

Probably not. The cast are made of sterner stuff. It’s not clear how deep the specific 1840s connection runs (I withheld comments about Jane Eyre and the possibility of European revolution), but the cast’s commitment is total. There are some electrifying performances; online details of the casting are deliberately sketchy, to preclude spoilers, but Louisa (Jordan Cooper), Elizabeth (Jordan Chandler) and Tabitha (Rosy Pendlebury) are outstanding. This is a vital show that proves that stories can be immersive and compelling without a vast budget. There are moments when you start to think and feel like a character in the story, genuinely scared and exhilarated. I’ll be returning on my own time and dime, and there’s no greater tribute. Whatever your inhibitions or misgivings – and this is not a show for the passive observer – The Swell Mob’s spell lingers. Returning to the surface, the streets outside seemed colder as I made my way to Borough Tube. Visible from the station is the spire of St George the Martyr: the church against which the Marshalsea prison once stood, where Dickens’s father was imprisoned, along with all the other victims and villains of the real Victorian era. When the church crypt became too crowded, the Victorians extracted nearly 1500 crumbling coffins and sent them off to Brookwood Cemetery, created by the London Necropolis Company to house the overcrowded, graveyard-bursting dead. Against that backdrop, The Swell Mob’s story seems only too plausible – and the London evening stayed just that little bit murkier.

THE SWELL MOB, Flabbergast Theatre, *****, COLAB Factory, London. 4 May–25 August, Thursday–Sunday, tickets £26. Book online or via 0333 666 33 66 (+£1.75 booking fee).

[REVIEW] This Is Shakespeare & What Blest Genius

my Met Gala moment

I am very over-excited to have my first Literary Review byline this month, reviewing two brilliant books: Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare (calmly revolutionary take on 20 of the plays) and Andrew McConnell Stott’s What Blest Genius? The Jubilee That Made Shakespeare (Blackadder Goes Stratford; blissful).

You can read my review here, or – even better – pick it up in hard copy from W.H. Smith etc, while issues still remain unpurchased by my delighted extended family. Best of all, buy the books: This Is Shakespeare (Pelican, £14.79) and What Blest Genius? (W.W. Norton & Company, £14.43).

Advent 21: Pitchmas and the Candle

we-wish-you-a-merry-pitchmas-and-a-happy-new-yearThis evening we went to see Pitch Perfect 3, the final installment of the college-a capella (“aca-stravaganza”) trilogy/franchise with which my wife is so obsessed that at one point I started having dreams about its star Anna Kendrick. This film is magnificent. The writers have freed themselves from the tyranny of plot, and someone has attacked post-production so savagely that 80% of the promotional trailer isn’t actually in the final film. There is a musical number approximately twice a minute, and it’s glorious. The key elements of close harmony,  choreography, syncopated hysteria, and strongly-implied lesbianism survive from the first two films, plus this time Rebel Wilson has learned how to act. I laughed aloud at so many lines, not normally but in my trademark Cinema Laugh, where I emit an involuntary whoop and then laugh again at the same line, from memory, five to eight seconds later. The Sun tells us that Pitch Perfect 3 is a “bad, bad film”, so I expect you to buy tickets forthwith. This film isn’t for The Sun. It’s for people who really like a capella and neurosis. Happy Pitchmas.

That aside, one actress who didn’t make it into the Pitch Perfect franchise is Emma Stone, key member of my ongoing list of “size zero Hollywood heroines who turn are revealed as having been incredibly under-used by absolutely slaying on Saturday Night Live” (the top two spots go to Gwyneth Paltrow and Lindsay Lohan). Tomorrow is the penultimate shopping day before Christmas, a.k.a. Panic Friday, and here is Emma Stone with Kate McKinnon with some essential advice on how to deal with last-minute Christmas shopping and That Person Who Just Gave You An Unexpected Present.

Advent 19: Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas

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For your feminist Victorianist polemical needs, today behind the door of the Blog Advent Window is a BBC documentary presented by Sue Perkins, about the Christmases in the life of Catherine Hogarth (1815-1879), better known as the wife of Charles Dickens.

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The seminal adaptation.

Charles Dickens is responsible, via novels like A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers, for some of the most widely-cherished (and widely-exported) notions of a classic British Christmas. Appropriately for an author whose name-made-adjective gives us two totally contrasting images – lamplit Dickensian rosy-cheeked wassail vs. Dickensian workhouses, poverty, and injustice – Dickens energetically perpetuated a brand based on festive family togetherness while being an adulterous, sister-fetishising bastard. This documentary has it all: Victorian theatrical sex scandals; dashing Magdalen colleague dressing Sue Perkins in drag; striking and revealing insights into the dynamics of the Perkins family household.

True, it inexplicably omits my Favourite Awful Dickens Fact, which is that after her husband cruelly forced Catherine out of the family home, Catherine gave her sister Georgina a ring. Sounds like a Normal Time, perhaps even a sisterly gesture, but Georgina Hogarth had taken her brother-in-law’s side in a separation ultimately caused by his adultery with actress Ellen Ternan.

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Ring given by Catherine Hogarth Dickens to her sister Georgina.

The ring which Catherine gave her sister was in the shape of a serpent.

All this and more can be found at the Dickens Museum on London’s Doughty Street, where much of the documentary was shot. Perkins is scathing on Dickens’s narcissism, and reads brilliantly from his works. The documentary is below – enjoy! And if you want to know more about another Victorian Christmas, try this post.

[REVIEW] Dunkirk (2017), Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk is 106 minutes long and consists of approx. 103 minutes of drowning, in such profusion and at so many camera angles that it makes Titanic look like Lawrence of Arabia. Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh, as head civilian and military heroes respectively, leave some impressive pauses, through which Spitfires could be and indeed are flown. Branagh’s general is Henry V in middle age, eyes set to Agincourt, unsubtlety unenhanced by Nolan’s Churchill-by-numbers script. At one point it looks like a plane might land on Branagh’s head, but it doesn’t. I might have felt more charitable if I hadn’t just seen his trailer for Poirot.

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Harry Styles is on the left. Or on the right. Or in the middle.

As Brown-Haired Boy Soldier No. 3, Harry Styles is far more competent than I’d been led to expect: truly, he is the Lillie Langtry of our time. The further cast includes one black soldier, shoved to the front of a single crowd scene as in the brochures of a left-wing private school, before disappearing forever (as in the brochures of same). A nurse has one or two lines about making the men a cup of tea before she gets blown up, which is historically accurate but also typical Christopher Nolan. I caught about 15% of the Spitfire pilots’ dialogue, but thanks to the Enigma-thumping score, I wept copiously at every appropriate moment. What with that and the UEFA Women’s Cup, my jingoistic shallows are more visible than ever.

The film’s dedication, given at the end since the beginning is mainly exposition that sets up the telescopic time-plot – is to all those whose lives were ‘impacted’ by events at Dunkirk. I suspect that some of the generation who remember Dunkirk would be horrified by the verb, not least the Oxford tutor who once censured me for using ‘prioritise’ with the comment ‘You are not writing for the Guardian’. And of course nor is Nolan, not yet.

A friend of mine was cast in Dunkirk, but they cut his scene, so by rights I should pan the thing entirely. However, he’s still in the credits (at which I gladly whooped and applauded), and the cinematography is stunning, so if I went in for stars, Dunkirk would probably get three out of five. However, I should note that since I am in re. David Suchet what Jane Austen was to English history (i.e. partial, prejudiced, and absurd), Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot is already scheduled for minus ten.

 

[REVIEW] Twelfth Night, dir. Simon Godwin, National Theatre

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Doon Mackichnan as Feste, Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. (c) Marc Brenner.

Appropriately for a play that begins with a shipwreck, Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre left me with a lingering sinking feeling. The production is a watershed (I’ll stop) in cross-gendered casting, with Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia creating a mannequined Miss Hardbroom that kicks over the traces of Sir Donald Sinden, Richard Briers, Sir Nigel Hawthorne, et al. Less prominently, Doon Mackichnan plays Feste as a principal boy-turned-raver, and Imogen Doel carries equal opportunities to its logical conclusion by having to make the best of Fabia[n] – which she does very well, despite dialogue like ‘Sowter will cry upon’t for all this, though it be as rank as a fox’, a line so bad it merits mention in The Art of Coarse Acting. My problem is that this production, lauded for its celebration of race, sex, and gender, inadvertently uses cross-casting to tell a deeply homophobic story.

 

twelfth-night-doon-mackichan-as-festeimage-by-marc-brennerOn the surface, there’s much to like. Soutra Gilmour’s inventive set unfolds from a ship into an endlessly rotating pyramid that’s somewhere between Illuminati shout-out and a tomb by Canova. There’s a jacuzzi in which Phoebe Fox’s Olivia becomes a floozy (mourning garb replaced by a red bathing suit), any number of zooming cars and motorbikes, and a salmon-pink fountain that delights the audience by spurting symbolic jets on cue. The costumes are similarly witty, with Mackichnan’s Feste flaunting a sea-green tribute to Princess Beatrice’s pretzel-themed millinery.

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Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Tim McMullan as Sir Toby Belch. (c) Marc Brenner.

There are also some excellent performances. Excluding Greig, chief of these is Daniel Rigby’s pink-suited Andrew Aguecheek, who, as Bertie Wooster with a manbun and an energetic vogue for disco, overshadows Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby, a rat-bitten roué.

Oliver Chris’s Orsino is the first truly loveable one I have seen, a superhero Prince Charming whose spoilt temper is sublimated into boxing, and who takes the audience into his confidence with winning ingenuity. He tussles readily with Tamara Lawrence’s Viola, an unusually even-tempered, cheerful heroine whose tendency to take all the verse at full pelt robs her bittersweet dialogues with Orsino of all their self-concealing pathos. She calls her situation a ‘barful strife’ but laughs her way through the first two acts, until the joy of being mistaken for a still-living Sebastian (‘Prove true, imagination, O, prove true’) yields the first moment of emotional connection.

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Oliver Chris as Orsino and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner.

This is a production where love electrifies and mobilises: Olivia gyrates to the onstage musicians’ elevator music, while Viola wriggles and hoots after Orsino gives her a kiss to deliver to Olivia. Ultimately, these are twins whose highest priority will always be each other; Daniel Ezra’s pugnacious, sexually opportunistic Sebastian (an excellent performance) seems bemused by both Antonio and Olivia’s devotion, but adores his sister.

 

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Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner

And then there’s Greig’s Malvolia. Every time she takes centre-stage, she brings with a consummate skill in verse-speaking that is sometimes absent elsewhere. Godwin’s production seems uneasy about the text: switching pronouns and honorifics in line with gender leaves characters ‘lady’-ing each other in the manner of vintage Coronation Street, but more important is the overriding feeling that the text is an impediment to the evening; a struggle to be overcome. One oddity is that Lawrance plays Viola with a London accent, while Ezra sounds West African; while they can’t be visually or acoustically identical given their biological sex, giving them such different accents is a baffling test of audience credulity.  Monologues are largely galloped through, Belch supplies ad-libs (Maria is a ‘dirty little girl’) but loses lines that illuminate, including Olivia’s revealing reluctance to ‘match above her degree’ by marrying the count Orsino. This is key to the psyche of the only Shakespearean heroine who uses her last line to insist she pays for her own wedding. Greig gives an electrifying performance, beginning as an obsessive-compulsive spinster, all angular bob, geometric gestures and gym shoes.

Every sympathetic Malvolio incurs tragedy when his passion is mocked; Greig intensifies this, partly by being pitched against an unusually unlikeable gang of ruffian sots, and partly through her bewitching incredulity when she believes her love for Olivia is returned. Her cross-gartered yellow stockings are tights with a pierrot jacket, the latter removed to reveal a primrose bodice and hot pants. Blindfolded and bound, her bare skin increases her vulnerability, and the denouement completes her humiliation – worse than her imprisonment is the realisation that her employer does not, after all, share her feelings – something this single-minded Olivia reveals with remarkably little sympathy.

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Oliver Chris as Orsino and Daniel Ezra as Sebastian.

Greig is an accomplished comedian, whose wit and timing provide all the necessary laughs before the swoop to tragedy: she is an hilarious and heartbreaking Malvolio, and this Olivier production a worthy forum for her talents. Simply making Malvolio’s desire for Olivia same-sex does not necessarily make Twelfth Night a homophobic production, or even a more homophobic play: poor old Antonio must necessarily watch his beloved pair off with Olivia. And there are some genuinely gender-queer moments of light-hearted comedy – Orsino, on his last lines, accidentally snogs a cheerfully acquiescent Sebastian.

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Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Phoebe Fox as Olivia.

The wider tone disturbed me. Antonio is probably textually gay; this Malvolia pines for her mistress. But Twelfth Night stages a third great losers in love: Antonio, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew – and in Godwin’s production, Sir Andrew is also queer-coded, from his pink clothes and long, frizzy hair to his penchant for cuddling up to both Sir Toby (much to the latter’s disgust) and to the teddy bear Orsino gives Olivia. This is troubling not because it queers a Shakespearean icon, but because it does so via unimaginative stereotypes, as if Agucheek’s incompetent flirting and cowardly duelling mean only one thing. Rigby is an accomplished comic, but the net result is a production with three queer characters, who are also the three to end up humiliated and alone.

Also disconcerting is Orsino’s suddenly-averted gay panic when Viola turns out to be a girl, not a boy: a common moment in productions, but especially jarring when Oliver Chris’s Orsino had shown so little sign of desire for his page. In a production more sensitive to queer identity, the denouement might feel more ambivalent, but clichés abound. The Elephant (an Illyrian tavern, and Antonio’s intended lovenest) appears as a gay nightclub, in which understudies for The Village People hear a black drag queen perform Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech as a torch song. This showcases Emmanuel Kojo’s considerable singing talent, and provides an enchantingly funny moment when Rigby’s Aguecheek instantly corrects his ‘Now, sir’ to an ad-libbed ‘Sorry, miss’. But the interposition of another play’s text only reiterates this production’s discomfort with its own, and the gratuitous, glamorous drag queen affects an inclusivity the production doesn’t really possess. Elsewhere, the straight characters’ homophobia is largely played for laughs, and despite Greig’s brilliant, innovative performance, this ‘genderfluid’ Twelfth Night ends up feeling straighter than ever.

 Twelfth Night will be broadcast live as part of NTLive on 6 April. For more information, including the programme of education events, see the National Theatre website.

 

[REVIEW] Suddenly Last Summer, ETC, Oxford Playhouse

Here is my mini review of Suddenly Last Summer: Mary Higgins should be booked in to play Hecuba twice a term until she graduates. Ideally in a newly-discovered translation by Sylvia Plath. She rises with red hair and eats men like air as the disturbed Catherine in this disorientatingly ambitious version of Williams’s Dead Gay New Orleans Play. Derek Mitchell plays Violet Venables as a geriatric Blanche du Bois, successfully crossed with the disembodied head of Madame Leota. The results are horribly brilliant.

The experimental score is the most ambitious and perhaps least successful bit of the production, stuck in an aural aesthetic standoff between Teutonic techno and Lana del Rey. The onstage singer and guitarist (Georgia Bruce) is brilliant. Suddenly Last Summer is a one-act (keywords: lobotomy, cannibals), which director Sammy Glover has expanded with movement sequences that initially made me worry she’d have preferred to shoot a music video, but in retrospect illuminated the play.

The supporting cast are strong – especially Ell Potter and Aaron Skates, who as Catherine’s mother and brother make fireworks out of the first and second prizes in the Tennessee Williams Most Thankless Supporting Role competition. Skates’s Louisiana accent is particularly spot on (I say this with all the authority of someone who’s spent precisely a week in New Orleans and bored people with the Instagrams ever since. ‘Ah, yes, Garden District,’ I smugged during the performance, in a manner more usually seen by people cleverness-signalling at Jacobean comedies).

But, yes. Mary Higgins and Derek Mitchell. Casting Mitchell as Violet may have been ‘controversial’, but as it turns out, nobody could better depict that she-pander (nails grappling for purchase on your forearm, wig bobbing incessantly) than a second-year undergraduate. As for Higgins, Tennessee Williams only wrote two female characters (groteseque whore/saviour-wife), and sensibly Higgins and Glover have conspired that the former shouldn’t play either. As I said – Hecuba. It’s ages til finals.

[EXHIBITION & TALK] Magdalen’s Wilde

wilde-poster-1-768x1086The current Old Library exhibition at Magdalen is on Oscar Wilde – I curated it, alongside our former Fellow Librarian Christine Ferdinand. The exhibition is open to the public on 15, 22 and 29 November, and at other times by appointment (contact library@magd.ox.ac.uk ). Displaying the very best of Magdalen’s holdings on one of our most famous alumni, the exhibition includes a little-known MS of Lady Windermere’s Fan, an array of first editions (and pirated editions!) from the UK and Europe, odd appropriations, Cecil Beaton costume designs, theatre programmes, salacious details from the trials, and (slightly heartbreaking) original letters.

On 21 November at 5.30 p.m. I’m giving a talk to accompany the exhibition, followed by a reception and viewing of the exhibition. To attend the talk, please email library@magd.ox.ac.uk – it’d be wonderful to see you there. Pia de Richemont reviewed the exhibition for Oscholars over the summer: read her review here.

P.S. this is a (reasonably) rare opportunity to get inside Magdalen’s beautiful Old Library and see the petrified wig. To give you an idea, it’s the central image in my blog header (if you’re reading this on RSS, click here).