Sunday, 25 November 2012

Theatre Review: Doctor Faustus at The Globe

I recently managed to see the Globe’s production of Doctor Faustus at a local cinema (Globe Onscreen is this brilliant initiative that allows you to view a stage production in the comfort of an Odeon or Vue, complete with popcorn).

All I can say is: WOW.  Seriously.  Doctor Faustus is perhaps one of my favourite early modern plays.  It’s a weird mix of medieval morality and burgeoning renaissance interiority, plus it has demons, devils and necromancy.  Christopher Marlowe’s play follows the story of an arrogant and clever scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power, wealth and most importantly knowledge.  But after his twenty-four years are up the prospect of spending an eternity in hell doesn’t seem quite so attractive.

Matthew Dunster’s production is a complete baroque spectacle.  The comic scenes are pushed right to the forefront in all their ribald and Bakhtinian excesses, while the scenes between Faustus and Mephastophilis alternate between a kind of budding bromance and chilling master/slave relationship.  Arthur Darvill plays Mephastophilis, thrown out of heaven for conspiring with Lucifer against God.  He’s deceptively gentle, waiting till the end to show his true metal.  Paul Hilton is a kind of world-weary, down-to-earth Faustus.  He rolls out Marlowe’s mighty lines like he’s reciting it to some mates down the pub, but I kinda like it - Faustus as one of us.  This pair is a kind of odd couple, bounding around the stage doing all sorts of hi-jinks.  They even wear matching skull caps and red capes at one point – uncanny doubles of each other.  Their buddy relationship is so disarming that it genuinely shocks when you realise Mephisto still is very much Satan’s minion. It’s a really visual and mesmerising production all round. The good angel and evil angel are dramatised almost like anime characters; they run onto the stage, performing high kicks and screams that wouldn’t look out of place in Mortal Kombat, and we get an actual dragon.  Yes, a dragon.

And Lucifer – words cannot describe how AMAZING he is.  He’s actually a satyr, a dirty old man-goat lurching and leering around the stage, rubbing his grubby paws up and down his legs at the thought of Faustus’ lovely soul (all swollen with pride - extra yummy). Watching the final horrifying scene as Faustus realises his time is up and he panics, while Lucifer gloats at the side of the stage is totally disturbing and aided by increasingly increasingly chaotic music (Dunster’s production follows Text B rather than the shorter Text A. In Text A Faustus is alone for most of the final scene).  And finally, Faustus is dragged to hell.  Well, he kind of crowd surfs actually, physically hoisted up and carried in through those gates by all of Lucifer’s cronies (they carry freaky puppets that they stretch and torture).

Being a Globe production we get a little dance at the end too; Faustus and Mephisto jam together on guitar. I like to imagine them together, down in hell talking over old times.  What more could you want?

Friday, 2 November 2012

The Horror...The Horror... Best Halloween Movies

There's not much I like more than a good horror film.  Well, actually, there's a lot I like more, now I come to think of it.  But I do like horror an awful lot.  For the month of October The Hollywood News did a run-down of top terrors, and I wrote about five of my favourites.

The list goes as follows:

The Exorcist
Trick 'R Treat
The Haunting
Don't Look Now
An American Werewolf in London
The Descent
Let the Right One In
The Innocents
The Devils
The Woman
House of 1000 Corpses
Friday the 13th
The Wicker Man
The Blair Witch Project
Evil Dead II
The Omen
Eden Lake
The Thing
The Shining

You can read the complete run-down here.

Incidentally my choices were Antichrist, Suspiria, Eden Lake, The Devils and Don't Look Now.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Book Review: Firefly: A Celebration

Firefly. Sigh. Don't we all miss it? It seems so ridiculous Fox network axed it, especially when you compare the quality of S1 of Buffy and Angel.

S1 of Buffy was good, don't get me wrong, but it certainly wasn't a series at its prime and it showed. And S1 of Angel is the one you need to get through to get onto the good stuff. It's the identity crisis season - the season of dead end plots (and that annoying detective, Kate). But Firefly S1 was just ... pure brilliance. It makes me wonder, on some long and lonely nights, about what might have been.

Anyway. Enough of this lamentation and misery. It's gone. And it's been gone 10 years!! So to celebrate the momentous anniversary of Firefly's birth, there's a new book out called Firefly: A Celebration. And if you follow this link you can see what I thought of it in a review I wrote for The Hollywood News.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Theatre Review: Troilus and Cressida at The Swan 2012 (RSC & Wooster Group)

Stratford Upon Avon always looks amazing in the sun

What could be more tempting than watching a play that’s rarely performed?  And about the classical world?  I’m a complete sucker for anything vaguely to do with togas.  So when I saw that Shakespeare’s little staged Troilus and Cressida was coming to the Swan this year I had to get tickets.

This was my mum’s first introduction to live action Bard.  Should we go to Much Ado? I pondered.  It did seem a safer bet. 

‘Mother,’ I said, ‘would you like to go and see a romantic screwball comedy with lots of witty wordplay and an almost tragic plot but not quite?’
‘Hmmm,’ she said.  ‘I think I’d prefer something a bit more, well, sad.’
So, Troilus it was.

A quick character map of Troilus and Cressida - yes I know,
I always forget Shakespeare calls Odysseus 'Ulysses'

Troilus and Cressida is about the two eponymous lovers and the breakup of their relationship, set against the backdrop of the Trojan war.  They’re both Trojans, but Cressida’s father is a turncoat and in the Greek camp.  When he asks that his daughter joins him she can’t say no.  Sounds familiar?  Well, this is where it all ends.  The rest of the play is a strange mish-mash of manly virtue and anger, fight scenes and anti-climax.  It’s a strange beast and has won the dubious honour of being called “problem play”.

The 2012 production is an ensemble cast featuring both the RSC (the Greeks) and the American Wooster Group (the Trojans).  It’s part of the World Shakespeare Festival, but did this collaboration work?

Right.  First things first, I’d like to say I have mixed feelings about this performance.  Let me start with what worked.

Stratford upon Avon. Can I move here right now?
The Greek Camp: The audience feels pretty safe in these guys’ hands.  Scott Handy in particular is effortless as Ulysses.  Joe Dixon’s Achilles is all shades of manly.  He’s kind of mesmerising actually – the stage works by rotating and the sight of Achilles slowly inching into view leaping around on an army bed to loud music, towel about to fall off is er, memorable!  He comes across as a petulant boy, refusing to fight for whatever sulky reason his teenage brain can devise.
I like the concept of the set and staging too.  The Greeks are the British army while the Trojans, Native Americans.  But more of this later.

Some of the Trojans are strong – Hector in particular.  And I did like Pandarus’ body language and way with words. There are some genuine laughs too.  The excellent Scott Handy plays Helen in super-camp mode.  And what better way to undercut the weight placed on the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’ than by turning her into a joke?  Paris started a war – for this?  The Trojans have no choice but to step in line, support their prince and fight.

So let’s move onto those parts that were a bit more questionable.

If you’re a theatre follower you may know this production got a bit of a roasting.  And it’s true, I did notice a fair number of empty seats after the interval.  What wasn’t working so well then?
I have to say it but I found (on the whole) the Wooster Group’s performance weaker than the RSC’s.  That’s not saying there weren’t some great moments there, but I’m not sure I really “got” everything that was going on.

Firstly this interpretation as I’ve said had the Trojans as Native Americans.  I did love their wardrobe – a mixture of traditional costumes and skins married with broken Greek statues (as kind of capes) and the detritus of western society.  I like the fact that these guys carry basketballs around and use them as temporary seats – it’s like they were living in a bubble for years and then, wham! their culture’s been surrounded by this new one and they’re going to take aspects from it.

I can even go with the TV screens.  Onstage large screens are positioned high in a few prominent positions and we get to see clips of documentaries and old movies.  When the Trojans have important scenes the actors kind of copy or mirror the actions on the TVs.  This makes for quite disconcerting viewing.  So in Troilus and Cressida’s love scene instead of close actor interaction we get this kind of distancing performance where both actors are looking over each other’s shoulder and mimicking the screen.  What does it all mean?  I was thinking about this and for me I see it as a comment on the outside influence of the media on a more primitive society; they’re starting to look to filmic representation to work out how they should act in their own world.  This distancing is amplified by the Wooster Group’s use of microphones and occasionally a distortion effect.  It’s quite ghostly actually – trying to work out where the voice is coming from.  But herein lies most of the problems with the Trojans – voice, intonation and projection.  Not only is it hard to work out where or who each voice is coming from, but the actors’ unemotional, deliberately stilted and Dalek-esque intonation made it really hard to follow the metre, rhythm or meaning.  Some parts I just couldn’t make out – lack of projection meant I didn’t have a clue what they were saying.  And if you take away Shakespeare’s language, what have you got?

So I really came away from this production a little confused.  Some parts I loved: Scott Handy, Achilles’ well-documented penchant for cross-dressing, Zubin Varla’s bitter Phoenix Nights delivery as Thersites, complete with wheelchair, wig, drag and spotlight.  I was left with some really vivid and often amusing images here, although you could say no revolutionary new ground was covered.  But for some bits in the Trojan camp I felt oddly disengaged.

And my mum’s opinion? 

She says she’d quite like to go and see another play, but maybe not for a while, and maybe not Shakespeare.  

Sunday, 2 September 2012

W-s-M Fringe Festival 2012: Waiting for the Wave

This is happening on Wednesday 5th September at Weston Arts Gallery W-s-M. It's to launch Bob Walton's poetry pamphlet Waiting for the Wave, published by Pighog Press.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Is Hitchcock's Vertigo the Greatest Film of All Time?

Unless you've been living under a stone for the past few weeks you should have heard about this new development.  Citizen Kane is gone!

I've got an article up at The Hollywood News (here) about why Vertigo deserves its place at the top.

So movie goers ... do you agree?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Book Review: Family Album by Penelope Lively

‘Read some Penelope Lively!’ my friend insisted time and time again.  I must admit I did resist.  I’d recently decided I couldn’t stand Ian McEwan anymore and I was worried that another decidedly white middle class read might send me over the edge.  But when I found a copy of Family Album (Moon Tiger is my friend’s recommendation) in a charity shop in Wells it was clearly a message from the great bookseller in the cosmos.

Family Album (2009) charts the story of a Victorian (or Edwardian – it seems to vary) house; it’s a gargantuan structure with a myriad of floors and rooms (it actually has parlours!) and is called Allersmead (surely a better title?).  And in this house live the Harper family: mum Alison, dad Charles, kids Paul, Gina, Sandra, Katie, Roger and Clare, plus the au pair Ingrid.  Alison’s a real ‘70s homemaker – all shapeless smocks and hair buns, cooking like there’s no tomorrow, insistent on the importance of a happy family life.  The book starts with one of the older girls (Gina) and her trip back home with the new boyfriend who’s enchanted by this retro childhood home and Alison’s ideals.  But it soon becomes clear that Alison’s view of their Waltons-like existence doesn’t quite marry up with everyone else’s.

Coming from a single child family myself, some parts of their life did read a bit like a horror story to me.  The named mugs, the hordes of children on a treasure hunt, the enforced family picnics, the lack of privacy.  I started empathising with poor dad Charles, hiding in his study and keeping out of everyone’s way.  And then there’s the strange live-in au pair Ingrid who came over from Scandinavia in the sepia toned ‘70s, never to return.  Instead way past the time the kids have left (well most of them – the one failure, Paul, keeps on coming back) she’s still there, saying things like ‘I am thinking you would like a nice cup of tea now’.  Of course, there’s a mystery here.  We know this from the blurb on the back (‘and one particular devastating secret of which no one speaks…”) however you’ll guess it by page 30.  But here’s what Lively does so well – she reveals it early on too!  Phew.  I thought I was going to have to read the whole thing and act surprised at the end.  So this got me thinking – maybe it’s another secret – and there is one surrounding Charles…

Some parts of this read are a little clich├ęd.  I mean, the statuesque Scandinavian au pair with the long blonde hair, the protective earth mother and the distant father all seem familiar.  And despite the back cover’s tempting whiff of a hidden scandal there is no shocking revelation.  But what’s really compelling here is Lively’s style; she effortlessly segues between past and present, action and memory, and between characters.  One minute we’re listening to an omniscient narrator charting the history of the house before 1914, the next we’re in Alison, or Paul, or Gina’s psyche – sometimes in first, sometimes in third person.  But it never jars.  Instead we’re given a fluid exploration of family, memory and perception that’s always immensely readable.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Theatre Review: Danny Boyle's Frankenstein at the Curzon

Something’s stirring in the depths of the cinema…and it ain’t the remains of a sodden bag of cheesy nachos.  Ye gods, can it be…?  Surely not?  Oh no, no – IT’S ALIVE!!!!
Yes in case you hadn’t guessed I went to see Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein the other week.  I missed it on the stage but luckily for me it’s been filmed for National Theatre Live; a scheme that allows us to watch theatre productions in local cinemas.

Now first of all I have to say something about the cinema I saw this in.  I had a choice of all the local Odeons and Vues and Cineworlds, but I decided on the Curzon in Clevedon, North Somerset.  This is simply the most amazing cinema I’ve ever been to.  It first opened in 1912 and is one of the world’s oldest working cinemas.  It’s now owned and run by the local community and shows a mixture of new and classic films.  The inside is spectacular; it still has original (along with replica) Art Deco features throughout and you can even climb the stairs to see an exhibition about its history and visit the old projection room (I did wonder if I was supposed to be in there for a moment but I think it was okay!).  In the actual auditorium there’s an organ in front of the screen (my mum reliably informs me sometimes it’s played!) and a little kiosk that lights up and sells you snacks.
[the outside of the Curzon taken with Instagram]

So the Curzon seemed the appropriate venue to watch Frankenstein somehow, with its fusion of new and old – and Danny Boyle’s interpretation certainly takes Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel and, well, whacks the viewer round the face with it repeatedly.  Albeit in a good way!  The set is captivating – hundreds of flickering lights hang over a womb-like structure sat in the centre of the stage and a heartbeat starts to  reverberate…something is about to be born! The creature burst out of its motherless womb and emerges into the world: naked (well almost apart from a pair of pants), confused, terrified.  Not a daddy or mummy in sight.  And this is the angle Boyle’s production (and Dear’s script) takes; we start with the creature and his loneliness.  We’re forced to watch as he slides and struggles across the stage for surely a good ten minutes before the errant parent, Frankenstein, finally arrives only to drive his “son” away in revulsion.  I must admit I thought of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser at this point – you know, the bit when the skinless Frank newly back from hell pulls himself across the floor.

*** plot spoilers ahead!! ***

Of course this is a departure from Shelley’s novel where we only hear the creature’s voice in the centre, once he’s already started to torment his creator and murder those Frankenstein loves.  But with Boyle we sympathise immediately with the ‘wretch’ as we follow his miserable journey, spurned by pretty much everyone he meets from day one.  No wonder he descends into such a murderous rage.  But this change in structure makes for some interesting audience effects.  In Shelley’s novel we only get to know the creature once he’s murdered Frankenstein’s younger brother William; we find out what the creature is capable of first but still come to love/forgive him.  However in Boyle’s production we witness more of a fall – we move from feeling empathy and sorrow for him to pure revulsion – it’s hard to continue to sympathise with a character who rapes then murders the one person (Elizabeth) who’s trying to help him.  Whoah – hold up.  This never happened – there was no funny business in the book!  Well yes, not exactly, but I do think it holds true to the text in essence at least.  The creepiest line in the novel has to be the creature’s veiled threat “I shall be with you on your wedding night” that he snarls when Frankenstein destroys the creature’s bride (and I love the fact Frankenstein doesn't even consider the threat to be directed at his new wife!  It's always ME, ME, ME with that inventor).  But Boyle’s interpretation is a logical one that works with the sexual implications of that line.  Still – it’s pretty uncomfortable viewing and nearly put me off my Maltesers.

The version I saw had Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankestein and Johnny Lee Miller as the monster – they swapped roles on consecutive nights.  The pairing really worked, and brought out the textual echoes between the two characters – the delicate relationship between master and slave – as we become unsure of who’s actually in control.  This relationship is drawn to its full extent in the final scenes as Frankenstein chases (well, drags himself along the ground) after his nemesis.  The monster seems to be in full control here.  In a topsy-turvy reflection of the birthing scene the creature now walks tall and pulls the strings as the creator scrabbles around on the floor.  But the creature still needs his creator – without each other they are nothing.  Everything else dear to both of them has been destroyed and they only live to torment/love each other.

One thing I really loved about this version is its sly sense of humour.  Despite the creature’s articulate use of language he uses a broken, halting, garbled pronunciation throughout – definitely a few laughs when he recited Milton word perfect.  Elizabeth is great too – she’s a much more forceful and solid character than in the novel.  When she asks to travel with Frankenstein and help with his studies he says she wouldn’t understand.  She retorts that it’s only because she’s been denied a proper education, what with being a woman and all.  However I would say the script’s a bit dodgy in places – especially in the beginning (“Piss off” yells a swarthy type at the creature.  It’s all for a gag later so the monster can echo it back to the old Delacey) and sometimes it verged on the edge of being a bit too self-aware and forced.

And the experience of watching theatre on screen at the cinema?  I can honestly say I didn’t feel distanced or unconnected at all.  In fact the varied use of other camera angles among the long shots allowed perhaps a better view than live at certain moments.

So this was a visual feast – dynamic, fast moving, shocking and true to the ethos of the novel.  Even if the dialogue was a bit cringe-worthy in places.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Theatre Review: Julius Caesar at the RSC 2012

Got a review up of the RSC's latest production of Julius Caesar over at The Hollywood News.  I loved this production; it was also televised a few weeks ago on the Beeb as part of their Shakespeare Unlocked season.  Not that I could watch it again as it clashed with a certain England football match...

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Kissing Frankenstein and Other Stories

Introducing the Flash-Fiction South-West Anthology Kissing Frankenstein and Other Stories.

Featuring a collection of teeny tiny flash fiction stories from all over the south west of the UK in celebration of Flash Fiction Day 2012.

I'm really excited to have one of my stories 'Little Bug' in here! You can buy it here as a printed book and I believe a Kindle edition will be following.

Definitely looking forward to getting this and reading through all the other flashes :)

Film Review: True Grit

I finally got round to watching the Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010).  You probably know there's a late '60s version with John Wayne starring as the anti-hero Rooster Cogburn.  You probably also know it's based on a novel by Charles Portis (no I haven't read it).  To be honest you've probably already seen it anyway.

Well it ticks all the appropriate Western boxes.  It has "sepia tones".  It has a grizzly boozy Marshal on the fringes of society, although I'm not really sure why he would so easily throw down his life to rescue the precocious and slightly weird Mattie Ross by the end of the film.  This may have had something to do with my only being able to understand every fifth word Jeff Bridges said.  I probably missed some important plot development there.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Reading 2012

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin (loved it!)

Children of Men - PD James (I was expecting to love it, but found it strangely disappointing)

Of Mice and Men - Steinbeck (can't believe I hadn't read this before. Bit miserable ain't it? Dead mice, dead dogs, dead puppies, dead women...)

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte (a re-read for work)

A View from the Bridge - Arthur Miller (another re-read for work)

A Clash of Kings - George RR Martin (I still love it!)

Notes on a Scandal - Zoe Heller (enjoyed this)

No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy (cinematic prose)

Night of the Iguana - Tennessee Williams (sultry, seedy and um, lizardy)

A Storm of Swords - George RR Martin (I was reading this for bloody weeks. Need a break!)

White Oleander - Janet Fitch (don't be sucked in by the poetic prose - it's just chick lit)

Home - Toni Morrison (a bit underwhelming)

We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver (pretty dire)

The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks (a re-read. Enjoyable but typical Banks - great premise and build up but shame about the ending)

As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner (absolutely brilliant)

Even the Dogs - Jon McGregor (weirdly I read this after As I Lay Dying - which it's directly influenced by. I quite enjoyed a lot of it, but sometimes it seemed a bit forced)

Brick Lane - Monica Ali (couldn't finish it. Page 178).

The Song of Achilles - Madeleine Miller (essentially a romance genre novel wrapped up in a bit of Homer. Quite disposable)

Oedipus the King - Sophocles, trans. Robert Bagg (a more modern translation. Jarred in a few places. I'd also prefer a bit more gloomy melancholia)

Just My Type: A Book about Fonts - Simon Gafield (loved it! Who doesn't love a good font/typeface?)

The Penelopiad - Margaret Atwood (quite fun but a little forced in places)

Much Ado About Nothing (a re-read for work)

The Lacuna - Barabara Kingsolver (I found this a bit of a drag in places but some of the American history was quite interesting - McCarthy era red witch-hunts)

A Feast for Crows - George R R Martin (a bit slow in places and missing loads of characters.  Definitely the weakest of the bunch so far)

Family Album - Penelope Lively (my first by her. Terribly middle class but quite enjoyable. Not sure there really was an awful dark family secret though)

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood (a re-read. She's still one of my favourite writers)

22.11.63 - Stephen King (seriously is this for real? YAWN)

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins (yeah this was quite fun)

Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates (despite some really moving parts didn't grab me as much as I thought it would)

Sunday, 5 February 2012

I heart I Claudius

I've just finished re-watching the BBC adaptation of I, Claudius (1976).  I've always been a sucker for Roman history.  I even stumbled through a Latin A-level.  Some of my fondest school memories are of Metella est in atrio, and Grumio est in culina and poor bloody Cerberus est always in via.  I use "fond" in the loosest sense you understand.

Whenever it was time for a "fun" lesson our Latin teacher would whack a creaky VHS of I, Claudius into the VCR.  Being a teacher now I can appreciate the inward sigh of relief about a "fun" lesson spent watching something vaguely relevant.

They're all a ghastly bunch of course.  The Romans I mean.  The Julio-Claudian family were poisoning each other left right and centre.  That's probably because they were all hugely inbred, what with the marrying first and second cousins and nieces and all that.

But the BBC do it well.  No special effects, no snazzy edits.  Just good solid British drama and the cliche of wobbly sets (this actually happens).  Some of the microphones aren't properly set up either so you can't hear some of the lines.  All the high class Roman families and senators speak with perfect RP.  They all get terribly shocked by the scandals going on around the Palatine.  We get treated to an array of acting heavyweights too: Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips, Brian Blessed, George Baker, John Hurt and Patrick Stewart.  Patrick Stewart!  He's the 'got ideas above his station' Praetorian guard, Sejanus.  Still speaks impeccably though.  Perhaps the chief of the guard was an Equestrian?  One of my favourite parts has to be John Hurt prancing around in make-up and women's underwear as Caligula in his 'I'm totally mad, me' phase.

Of course, all the rest of the army - the grunts and shafters - speak with regional accents.  From wherever you like.  As do all the workers.  Love it.

Sunday, 8 January 2012


Some of my poems are now up over at Danse Macabre. Two (The Collector and Fault Lines) are in the Isotropic poetry section, and one (On the Couch) is part of their "Du Jour" teaser. I'm putting the links here but I think the second one might change later on.

This all made me very happy! Danse Macabre has some really wicked themes and the quality is always high. The theme for this issue is "Strontium". According to DM:

"Strontium is a soft, silvery metal most widely known for the synthetic isotope strontium-90 (90Sr), a product of nuclear fission. Strontium-90 is present in radioactive fallout (aboveground testing 1945-1980) and releases from nuclear power plants (e.g., Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima last year)."


"STRONTIUM, however, is different. This time, you bring the context with you."

Book Review: Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Theroux’s Strange Bodies is an immensely readable literary thriller which actually works quite well. It follows a strange but recognisabl...