Forbidden Stories (Traverse: 17/18 May ’18)

“You can almost smell the emotion”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Cyprus. A country torn apart by colonisation, occupation and civil war throughout the 20th Century – the repercussions of which are still deeply felt by its people today. The aptly titled Forbidden Stories is part documentary, part theatre piece bringing new life into the previously untold stories of many of those affected by the political situation on the island over the last 50 or so years.

The stories presented are an equally heart-wrenching and heart-warming collection, with comical, childish moments positioned alongside angry, confused and overjoyed perspectives from all sides of the conflict, dating from the 1960s until the early 2000s. And as a collection it feels like a fair representation of the truth, without ever swaying towards bias for any group or individual.

Much of the staging is basic, reflecting the sense of people at a loss with minimal possessions, and while the presentation in this performance sometimes verges on feeling a bit too low-budget and ill-conceived, the power from this piece comes from the delivery of the stories by the ensemble. Given the strength of the multi-talented and multinational cast, the sense of individual voices comes powering through – you can almost smell the emotion of families being forced to leave their homes or being reunited with their communities, thanks to the subtlety of the acting and deep personal connection with the text. At times it’s almost impossible to consider that they are indeed actors sharing someone else’s words rather than their own experiences.

Yet what a strictly Verbatim-style piece brings an emotional honesty, it can lack in cohesion and narrative, so while there is much insight to be gained from each story, the piece as a whole feels very fragmented, and some of the stories a little hard to follow. What’s disappointing from a theatrical angle is not being able to see individual stories and characters evolve over the duration of the piece to create more narrative drive – I really wanted several of the characters presented to come back and share more of their journey to bring a greater sense of resolution – though the chronological structure of the piece does go some way to completing this loop.

As an educational documentary production, Forbidden Stories is a unique and personal way to learn about the history of Cyprus from the people who lived through it, and it really hits the mark in that respect. As a theatrical performance in its own right, it feels somewhat unfinished and rough around the edges, but still very much worth watching.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 17 May)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

“Flippant answer is no guns. For an adventure story, this really makes a difference.” – Author Adrian Goldsworthy discusses Vindolanda

“There was a rich haul in last summer’s excavations, and no doubt there will be plenty of surprises once they are deciphered.”

“(1st hand) Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present (?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. (2nd hand) I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.”

Sometime between the years 97 and 103 AD, the wife of one senior Roman officer dictated an invitation to a birthday party in the far north of the Roman province of Britannia. Under her secretary’s formal message she added her own, heartfelt postscript.

19 centuries later, this everyday example of life on the Roman frontier inspired British historian and novelist, Adrian Goldsworthy, to spin a yarn. To the slender threads provided by such miraculously preserved writing tablets as Claudia Severa’s invitation, he has added the steadily accumulating wealth of archaeological evidence documenting the Romans in Britain. Goldsworthy brings his readers to the borderlands, two decades before the first builder sucked his teeth, shook his head, and told the Emperor Hadrian that his proposed wall “was gonna cost ya.”

Goldsworthy, a celebrated academic with several shelf-benders to his credit, is also the author of two previous novels – both set during the Napoleonic Wars. His latest novel, Vindolanda, takes its title from the Roman Fort to where Claudia Severa’s invitation was sent. Vindolanda is the first adventure for Titus Flavius Ferox, centurion of Legio II Augusta and a man torn between two worlds. His grandfather was one of the great chiefs and war leaders of the Silures, the tribe living in what is now Goldsworthy’s native South Wales. The young Ferox was sent away as a hostage, to be educated and raised as a Roman, and was made a citizen and later commissioned into the Roman army. Years later he returns to the province of Britannia, oathsworn to the emperor of Rome, but still in his heart a warrior of his own people.

Vindolanda was published in June 2017 by Head of Zeus. To find out more click here.


Why Vindolanda?

First and foremost because of the writing tablets discovered there. When you read something like the invitation to her birthday party sent by Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina it lets you glimpse something of ordinary life nineteen centuries ago. These two women were married to Roman army officers, and if it was not for this and a few other tablets we would never have known they existed. Instead, we can read as they ask about each other’s health and families, and plan visits.

It is all very human, very normal, reminding us that these were people just like us – even if they came from a very different society with very different attitudes. When I first read the tablets many years ago, I could not help wondering about these people and wanting to know more about them and their world. So the novel is an imagined version of this. It’s an adventure story, not meant to be a searing examination of the human experience, but a good story in a world that seems real. I think of it as a Western, but set in Britain at the end of the first century AD. It’s about a frontier, and all the people brought together in a place like that.

If you could plug one gap in our knowledge of Roman Britain what would it be?

The first instinct of a historian is to wish for more written sources. So little of the literature from the ancient world has survived that one of the commonest phrases writing about it is always ‘well, we don’t really know.’ Roman Britain is worse than many other areas, with just a handful of accounts. It would be nice to have the missing pieces of Tacitus’ Annals and Histories even more to have detailed narratives of more of Roman Britain’s history. Vindolanda is set at a time when we know next to nothing. We probably never going to find anything like this, but you can wish.

Still, that’s a modest ambition compared to the big missing piece in almost all of the Roman Empire’s history, because we only really get the Romans’ side of the story. The peoples who lived in Britain in the Iron Age did not write anything down. To have stories from their point of view, of what it was like when the Romans turned up on your doorstep and did not go away, would be truly wonderful. Short of a time machine, that’s never going to happen, so as a novelist you do your best to guess.

What’s the most unexpected item ever found from Roman Britain?

I’ll have to say the writing tablets themselves. We were used to inscriptions on stone, but no one thought we would be lucky enough to find something like this. Since then, some have turned up at other sites, notably in London and Carlisle, and more keep being found at Vindolanda. There was a rich haul in last summer’s excavations, and no doubt there will be plenty of surprises once they are deciphered.

The unusual conditions at these sites allow preservation of things you simply don’t get elsewhere – the wood, leather etc. There are more Roman shoes from Vindolanda than any other single site in the rest of the empire, but one thing that stands out is how fashions were the same throughout the empire. All these everyday objects do suggest that people from opposite ends of the empire dressed in a similar way, ate and drank similar things, and maybe laughed at the same jokes or hummed the same tunes.

Double entry bookkeeping or the steam engine – which might have done more to transform the fortunes of the Roman Empire?

Well, of course, in Alexandria they made a working steam engine, but never seem to have thought of it as anything other than an interesting experiment. The Romans were of their time, used to doing things in set ways, relying on human or animal power. On the other hand, there was progress in technology and some very sophisticated uses of water power. For a while, there was a tendency to underestimate the accomplishments of craftsmen in the Roman period, so that it has taken archaeological finds to demonstrate for instance that carriage was pretty much as sophisticated as anything in the eighteenth century.

Rome was huge and lived in a world without serious economic or military competitors on the same scale, which did not encourage rapid innovation. Even so, its problems had more to do with political instability than economic failure. From the third century AD onwards the Romans just keep on fighting civil wars until the empire rots away and vanishes in Britain and the West. That this process went on for centuries shows how strong and complacent the Romans had become.

What did silphium taste like?

No idea. We don’t really know what it was. A problem generally about food from the ancient world is that even if we have an idea of ingredients, we never get the sort of really detailed recipes a cook would want.

What’s the biggest adjustment required transitioning from writing fiction set in the Napoleonic period to Roman times?

Flippant answer is no guns. For an adventure story, this really makes a difference. You can plausibly have a character point a pistol or musket and tell two or three others to drop their weapons and do what they are told. That’s less convincing if all he has is a sword. However, the really big difference is the wealth of information. For Wellington’s army, you have a host of personal accounts, letters, diaries, etc, and they are written by junior officers and sometimes ordinary soldiers. These tell you about the little details of life on campaign, as well as the battles and skirmishes. You can describe a uniform with confidence, even include jokes and slang that were doing the rounds at the time of the story.

None is this is available for the Roman world, so you have to guess and invent or lift from other periods. Time and again someone would ask me how I came up with the idea for an incident in one of the Napoleonic stories and how on earth did I think of it. Usually, the answer was that it was true. I may have made it happen to one of my characters, but that was what they really did. You cannot do that to anything like the same degree with a story set in AD 98 in Roman Britain. So writing the two sets of stories has been very different, which has been nice. Hopefully someday before too long I’ll complete the Napoleonic series as well as keeping Ferox busy.

The snow that falls on a battlefield settles on the fallen rather than the damp ground – where do details like that appear from?

That sort of thing comes from accounts from other eras, and looking at film and pictures and what you see around you. I have always had a interest in most of history, with a particular fondness for military history. My mind seems good at remembering the obscure – and less good at something like remembering a phone number. For Vindolanda I have lifted bits and pieces from other periods and cultures to fill in all the gaps in our knowledge. I’ve seen horses close up to the one in front so that its tail helps waft the flies away, so there doesn’t seem any reason why the Batavian’s mounts in the story would not do the same thing.

One thing that is important to me in both Vindolanda and the Napoleonic series is that there is a sense of humour running through it. Partly this is because I find a thriller or adventure story without humour rather dull, but mainly it’s because all the soldiers I have known and read about have laughed a lot. The humour is often quite black, but it helps them to cope. So to me, to make the story and characters plausible the characters need to joke and laugh.

You’ve got a one-way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family. When and where are you taking them?

So many choices. It would be something to see Rome at its height – both the grandeur and the squalor. Some the slums probably resembled the poorest areas of Calcutta than our imagined city of gleaming marble. I suspect the smells would be pretty overpowering. Be nice to see an army base and see how close we have got to the reality from the archaeological remains – or Hadrian’s Wall. Still, if you wanted a holiday, perhaps just a comfortable villa somewhere.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the Library of Alexandria. Which do you choose?

As a historian hard to resist a library, although an archive somewhere less famous or at an army base might provide fascinating if less dramatic information. Hadrian was probably tough to be around, and I suspect you would spend most of your time listening and saying how right he was. Caesar had charm, and giving my interests seeing the real Roman army in action would answer a lot of questions. It would be a grim business though.

What’s next for Flavius Ferox?

A new novel, The Encircling Sea comes out on 1st June. Without giving too much away, this takes Ferox to the far north and across the sea, and features some old and some new enemies. I’m finishing off the third novel at the moment and that will be out in 2019.


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“I’m thinking at this point that I may leave Russia behind for a while.” – Author William Taubman discusses Gorbachev

“A true believer and an honest man, he also knew how to maneuver and play the game of bureaucratic politics.”

“At 33rd Street you pass the Empire State Building, which for many years was the tallest building in the world and is still a VERY tall building indeed. But when you pass it in a car there’s this phenomenon – a kind of parallax phenomenon – that any building that’s nearer it, or even a person, will seem taller because you can’t gauge it’s full height until you get a bit of distance. And if you get a good run of green lights on 5th avenue and you look out of the back of the taxi as you go down and down and down the Empire state building rises and rises and rises – like a rocket. It actually goes up and up and up as all the buildings close to it are revealed to be so much smaller.”

Stephen Fry’s comparison of the emergence of Oscar Wilde from his 19th century milieu as being like the emergence of the Empire State Building on the New York Skyline might also stand for Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Gorbachev was born in the Stalin years. He lived through the Soviet Union’s decades of turmoil and decay. He rose from the humblest of origins to become one of the most revered and yet reviled statesmen of the 20th Century. Fry’s summary of Wilde’s reputation – “The best of his age and getting taller and taller with every decade which comes” – might also stand for the man who led the Soviet Empire to its peaceful dissolution.

William Taubman is the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Amherst College. His biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. Taubman is also the author of Stalin’s American Policy: From Entente to Détente to Cold War, and co-author with his wife, retired Amherst College professor of Russian Jane Taubman, of Moscow Spring. He has received the Karel Kramar Medal of the Czech Republic and the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Gorbachev: His Life and Times was published in September 2017 by Simon & Schuster. To find out more click here.


Why Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev?

Gorbachev changed his country and the world, although, it must be added, he changed neither as much as he wished. All political leaders have power—by definition. But some, like Soviet leaders, unencumbered by the rule of law, constitutional constraints, or a free press, have more than others. Moreover, Gorbachev used that power in a way that was unique; No other Soviet leader would have done what he did. And that uniqueness cries out for biography–to try to explain how his character helps to account for what he did.

If Plutarch were to parallel the life of Gorbachev, whom among his contemporaries outside the Soviet Union might he select?

The two American leaders to whom I most often compare Gorbachev are Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Since the two of them were so different (an arch-conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat), how can Gorbachev resemble both? Reagan and Gorbachev shared a commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. But in addition, personal similarities (including some striking parallels in their marriages to Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev) created personal chemistry that, in turn, led them toward major agreements that ended the cold war.

I explore such similarities in my book, but recently Jack F. Matlock, Jr., American ambassador to Moscow during the Gorbachev years, confirmed them. I was describing my impression of Gorbachev during the eight interviews my wife, Professor Jane Taubman, and I had with him over the course of ten years: he was warm, natural, informal and with a sense of humor. Lacking similar exposure to other world leaders, I told Matlock, I couldn’t compare Gorbachev with them, but I doubted many of them came across the same way. “There’s at least one such leader who did,” Matlock replied. “Ronald Reagan.”

As for Gorbachev -Obama parallels, I’d list the following: Both were highly educated and thought of themselves as intellectuals; both were deeply devoted to their wives; both tried to reserve supper time for dining with their families rather than politicking; both wanted to carry out radical reforms in their countries; both failed in the end to achieve their grandest goals owing to the fierce political opposition they faced.

Nixon and Reagan occasionally met off camera during the latter’s presidency – is there any evidence Gorbachev once had / or is having a similar direct input into the thinking of his successors?

On the contrary. Gorbachev initially praised Putin when the latter assumed the Russian presidency in 1999-2000 and supported him for reelection in 2004. But they have since become estranged and have rarely, if ever, met since Putin was elected again in 2012, Gorbachev seemed closer to Dmitri Medvedev, who served as president between Putin’s second and third terms, but he evidently had no direct input into Medvedev’s thinking either.

Has Gorbachev found a meaningful role beyond the Kremlin?

After being forced out of power in December 1991, Gorbachev established a foundation, the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (also known as the Gorbachev Foundation) which, in addition to charitable endeavors, has sponsored conferences and publications on issues domestic and international. He has also chaired Green Cross International (an ecological organization), and the World Political Forum. He has commented regularly on political issues, and in 1996 he ran for the Russian presidency, but received less than one percent of the vote.

The portrait you paint is of a true believer coming up through an undergrowth of hacks, cynics, and hypocrites. Might Gorbachev have found more success if he had been more cynical?

Gorbachev was brilliantly successful at rising through Communist party ranks to become Soviet leader–successful because although he was a true believer and an honest man, he also knew how to maneuver and play the game of bureaucratic politics. He was equally adept at using his power as party general secretary to browbeat his more hardline colleagues into supporting radical reforms that transformed the Communist system. But Gorbachev wasn’t nearly as skillful at playing the new game of electoral politics (Boris Yeltsin turned out to be more adroit), and he shrank from using force to hold the USSR together when that might have discouraged restive ethnic minorities from breaking away.

Wasn’t the ultimate problem, for anyone trying to maintain the USSR, the inescapable reality that, despite everything, so many Soviet citizens simply didn’t want any part of it?

It is true that by 1991 many Soviet citizens did not want any part of the USSR. Not only non-Russian republics, but many Russians, too, preferred national sovereignty and independence. Since then, however, many Russians have missed their inner empire (the USSR) and their outer empire in Eastern Europe, and hence have strongly supported Putin’s efforts to resurrect Russia as a great power.

The role of China is relatively peripheral in the story you tell. Is that something later authors are likely to revise as new sources and perspectives become available?

Many observers have wondered whether Gorbachev could have been more successful if he had adopted the Chinese model of reform: if had prioritized radical economic reform while maintaining authoritarian political rule (as the Chinese did when they crushed the massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square). But if Gorbachev had done so, he would not have been Gorbachev, the man determined to democratize the USSR.

At least one recent book, Chris Miller’s The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR, argues that quite a few Soviet experts tried to direct Gorbachev’s attention to Chinese economic reforms, but that powerful interest groups (central ministries in Moscow, the collective farm lobby, and the military-industrial complex) were strong enough to resist such reforms, whereas in China, weakened by the effects of the Cultural Revolution, they were not.

In his biography of Scott of the Antartic, Ranulph Fiennes urges armchair historians not to take the catty carping in primary sources – such as expedition diaries – too seriously, lest what is safely and quietly vented into private journals be mistaken for a precise record of the moral and material situation. Is there a similar danger with the testimony of close aides to public figures – after all no man is a  hero to his valet?

During pre-Gorbachev Soviet times, it would have been impossible to interview Soviet leaders or their close aides. Post-Soviet Russians who write memoirs or give nterviews became much freer to tell the truth, but only as they remember (or choose to remember) it.  Many of them have long-standing scores to settle, which they do with more relish than regard for the facts. In that sense, documents now available in archives provide an important corrective to memoirs, which in turn check them. In the case of certain former Gorbachev aides who had become his mortal enemies (such as Valery Boldin, Gorbachev’s chief-of-staff who joined conspirators in the anti-Gorbachev coup-attempt of August 1991), I was careful to use only selected bits of his testimony which had the ring of truth.

Does Gorbachev consider himself to have been a success?

One of Gorbachev’s greatest admirers, the late Soviet historian Dmitry Furman, wrote that for Gorbachev to have resorted to force and violence to hold on to power would have been “a defeat” since it that would have gone against his principles. In the light of those principles, Furman continued, Gorbachev’s ”final defeat was a victory.” Well, it certainly didn’t feel that way to him at the time.  Later, when he seemed depressed, friends assured him that he had given his people freedom, and that if they had made a mess of it that was their own fault.

Gorbachev’s latest book, published in 2017, is titled, I Am Still an Optimist. He still insists he is happy. If so, that is because he rightly believes that he laid the foundations for eventual democracy in Russia—by sponsoring the first free elections since 1917, by establishing a genuine working parliament to replace the rubber-stamp Supreme Soviet, and by turning glasnost into virtually free speech. How long it will take for Russia to be more fully democratized is another matter. Gorbachev himself has said that it may take “decades,” even “the whole twenty-first century.” But in 2011-2012, when demonstrators swarmed the streets of Moscow protesting against what they called rigged elections, Gorbachev couldn’t contain his basic optimism, his hope that the march toward a freer country had begun again.

What (or perhaps who) will your next big project focus on?

I’m not entirely sure what my next project will be. I’m thinking at this point that I may leave Russia behind for a while and that, together with my brother, Philip Taubman, former New York Times correspondent and editor, I may write a book about the late American Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.


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“I’m not keen on speculation.” – Author James Shapiro discusses The Year of Lear

“I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation?”

Was Shakespeare an Elizabethan English or an early British Jacobean playwright? Was he a fully fledged European, forged in the classical, moulded in the renaissance? Was he a proto-American laying the groundwork for the intellectual and political revolutions fermenting across the pond? Rhetorical questions will tend to take centre stage in Shakespearean studies, while concrete answers will sink the over-confident scholar beneath a tide of uncertainty and lack of material evidence.

James Shapiro is the preeminent walker of those fine lines between what we know, what we think we know, what we are yet to know, and what we would like to know about the inscrutable Swan of Avon. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Shapiro has degrees from Columbia and Chicago. He has strutted his professorial stuff in the US and abroad, serving as the Samuel Wanamaker Fellow at the restored Globe Theatre, London. Shapiro is the recipient of more laurels, prizes and plaudits than Katharine Hepburn got Oscars. His critical treatment of the Oxfordian Theory (that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare) has been described as “decisive.”

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear was published in October 2015 by Faber & Faber. To find out more click here.


Why 1606?

Why not 1606? It was a year in which Shakespeare was working on three extraordinary tragedies –Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra – in the immediate aftermath of a failed terrorist attack (the Gunpowder Plot), during an outbreak of plague that reached Shakespeare’s doorstep.

Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous plays after James VI and I came to the English throne. Why do we tend to think of him as an Elizabethan playwright?

I am as guilty as the next person for speaking of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan, but after 1603 he was
Jacobean – and English subjects (as far as King James was concerned) now British ones. Shakespeare’s career (from now on as a King’s Man), and the political and religious concerns of his audience certainly shifted once a Scottish King succeeded the last of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth.

As a ruler (and as a man) did James VI and I confirm, alter, or refute his English subjects in their anti-Scottish prejudices?

That depended on which subjects you asked. The Gunpowder plotters might have offered one answer; those who profited by James’s reign another; English courtier displaced by new Scottish favorites yet another. There were very few Scots living in London under Elizabeth, so I’m not even sure how deep anti-Scottish sentiment ran.

Shakespeare used his history plays (on both British and classical themes) to reflect the concerns of the paying punter. Your work unpacks the social, cultural, and political content subtly packaged by Shakespeare. Did the early Stuart establishment share your sense of Shakespeare’s value as a political weathervane?

I’m not quite sure there was a Scottish establishment in the modern sense you suggest. I’m not entirely sure that King James and those in his immediate circle – who saw many of Shakespeare’s plays staged at court – fully grasped their full range of historical and political concerns. I’m not sure I do either, for that matter. So I don’t quite know with confidence, nor did they, which way that weathervane pointed.

Original pronunciation is helping to clear a fresh path in performances between texts and audiences. Has OP any academic value to scholars?

I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation? Why not other aspects of original staging – natural light performances in the afternoons, bear-baiting next door, nobody showers for weeks before entering the theater, urinating in the corner of the theatre, paying a penny for admission, real weapons used in stage combat, sumptuary laws in place concerning what playgoers could wear, etc. Why privilege pronunciation over other aspects of original performance?

Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote his plays, but is there anything to suggest that he took an active role in editing them for print? Could Shakespeare have had any role preparing the First Folio, eventually published 7 years after his death?

There is no evidence whatsoever that Shakespeare was involved in preparing his plays for publication in the 1623 Folio. But that hasn’t stopped speculation. I’m not keen on speculation. I tend to put myself in the camp that believes that Shakespeare wrote primarily for the stage (from which he earned a living) rather than the page (from which he earned little besides our infinite gratitude centuries later).

If you could ask Shakespeare one question, what would it be?

Why are some of your plays – like The Comedy of Errors – so short, and others, like Lear and Hamlet, so much longer, impossible to stage in two or even three hours?

If you could take credit for having written one line of Shakespeare’s (and get away with it) which would it be?

One line is not much to brag about. But I’d take any of them.

You’re working on a new book. What can we look forward to?

I’m writing about Shakespeare in a divided America. The history of Shakespeare in America is markedly different from that in England, Ireland, Germany, etc. As Shakespeareans increasingly turn to a global perspective I thought it a good time to focus on the local. The book should be out before the next presidential elections here.


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Gut (Traverse: 20 April – 12 May ’18)

Kirsty Stuart and Peter Collins.
Photos. Mihaela Bodlovic.

‘Feel it!’

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

Turning over a toy box can be messy but upending the presumption of innocence is in an altogether different ballpark. What happens when a nice kind man in the queue at a place to eat helps grandma out and takes your three old to the toilet? You’re allowed a gut feeling about this one and it’s probably the right one? But are you sure, really, really sure?

OK, it’s not The Place to Eat up in John Lewis’ – writer Frances Poet can only go so far – but it might just as well be. As it is, Fisher-Price’s Laugh and Learn puppy takes the biscuit for product placement. Dad, Rory, another nice bloke, hasn’t found puppy’s On-Off switch and its happy-happy tune is doing his head in. It is not so funny for Mum, Maddy; not funny at all, for where there’s an edge in this ninety minute drama she is well and truly over it. And there’s no soft play area on the other side. Is it The Stranger who pushed her or did she do it all by herself?

It could not happen to a more ordinary, youngish, couple, which is precisely the point. We even have a Glasgow address: 65 Kelvindale Road – and Joshua (3) goes to Nursery and Granny Morven (Rory’s mother) helps out a lot, to begin with. First it’s the baby monitor and then it all goes wrong, which is where is the creative team get it just right. There’s a broad set, minimally dressed: a table and three chairs stage left, and a garden swing stage right; large rectangular panels, one of gauze, at the back. Colours are muted, contemporary greys and creams. The exceptional lighting design by Kai Fischer marks off areas that quickly isolate and focus attention. Various Strangers cast shadows, open to frightening doubt, that contrast with the chilling white of Maddy’s psychiatric stay. Michael John McCarthy’s music is spare and quietly ominous while Zinnie Harris’ direction is one keen judgement call after another. The overall effect is a silent ‘House’ in the grip of a familiar, media churned nightmare that cannot be shaken off.

George Anton and Kirsty Stuart.

The script is conversational, inviting immediate and natural responses that seem at odds with the enveloping paranoia. Kirsty Stuart as Maddy is never more convincing as a loving mother than when she details her appalling behaviour. Rory (Peter Collins), who loves her to bits, can sort out toy trucks forever and still not get close to her. His mother, Morven (so believable by Lorraine McIntosh) can only be bewildered and hurt. George Anton is seven different Strangers, sympathetic in one light, scary in another. Presence is all and Anton delivers each time. The impassive concern of his police officer is especially alarming.

The initial setup is a little shaky, rather plastic. Can Maddy be that brittle? But if that’s a weakness the stage work carries it all the way. Gut succeeds in demonstrating that once parenting turns into child protection then it is a nervy, mind shredding issue. Feel it! Stand behind a swing and you risk getting your teeth knocked out but you can get thrown off a see-saw and bang your head just as easily. That, for me, is the audience’s experience. Up and down, up and down, see the Stranger, and then it’s touch-and-go (so to speak) whether it’s playtime or, ‘Wallop!’ “Mum’s out of it”.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 24 April)

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Dunedin Consort, Vivaldi’s ‘La Favorita’ (Queen’s Hall: 6 April ’18)

Dunedin Consort: Vivaldi’s La Favorita

“The very essence of live music making”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

 

Was this going to be, if not too much of a good thing, well, just too esoteric? It was a risk, and, while the stalls were a little over half full and just a few concertgoers in the balcony, such attendance levels are not unusual at the Queen’s Hall for chamber music. With Vivaldi, take away The Four Seasons and the Gloria and what have you got? A series of mostly string concertos that all sound very similar.

 

That is the perception. Friday’s concert by Edinburgh’s own Dunedin Consort proved it wrong. A cleverly chosen selection of seven string concertos from a cache of 27 manuscript volumes of composition discovered in Northern Italy in the 1920s provided a glorious treat of baroque music that whilst not having the gravitas or structure of his German contemporary Bach was a rewarding example of the Italian Baroque, and in many ways gentler on the ear. If Bach is the master of counterpoint, then surely Vivaldi is the master of ritornello? The tutti passages are more rounded.

 

The programme was titled La Favorita and this writer’s wicked sense of humour wondered if it was sponsored by a smart Edinburgh pizza group with its blinding, wood-fired, Cinquecentos. Not so, the title would have referred to one of the star female pupils under Vivaldi’s tutelage at the Ospedale della Pietá in Venice for whom a number of these works were written, possibly the mysterious “Anna” about whom we know very little. The boys learned a trade and had to leave the orphanage when they reached the age of fifteen. The girls received a musical education, and the most talented among them stayed and became members of the Ospedale’s renowned orchestra and choir.

 

La Favorita was reincarnated in a sense in the concert by Music Director and Soloist Cecilia Bernardini, leader of the Consort, who backed by two violins, cello, bass and harpsichord led us though an assortment of musical treats that entertained from start to finish.

 

The band kicked off with “Il Corneto da Posta” (RV 363), a joyful, simple work with a highly effective interplay between soloist and cello (honourable mention to Andrew Skidmore throughout the evening) in the first movement. Each work followed the classic three movement construct that was Vivaldi’s late Baroque hallmark. The Concerto for Strings and Basso Continuo (RV156) did everything it said on the tin and was an excellent, satisfying example of the continuo genre. There followed two Violin Concertos (RVs 387 and 224) where the players brought real verve and commitment to the music that otherwise might have seemed repetitive. We were being treated to some seriously good playing by the ensemble as a whole.

 

Following the interval came three more works, the first, very much in the Venetian tradition, being played up above us in the balcony, with the exception, for logistical reasons, of the harpsichordist. Stephen Farr wittily told us that the music he was reading from his iPad was an early 18th century Venetian model. Well, I guess we were only a few days past April Fool’s day. The Violin Concerto “Il Riposo” (RV270a) was tranquil, calming, and beautiful. A further Concerto for Strings and Basso Continuo (RV 128) and Violin Concerto (RV283) and a charming pizzicato encore brought the evening to a close.

 

In trying to summarise what made this evening so special, when to many a collection of unknown minor works from a late Baroque Italian composer famous only for a couple of numbers might seem at best, obscure, I have concluded that there were two drivers. Intelligent programme selection, and – here I am again extolling the joys of live music – truly excellent, committed playing on the night. The very essence of live music making. Bravo!

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 April)

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The Sorcerer, EUSOG (Pleasance: 27 – 31 March ’18)

Photos. Erica Belton

” A hoot from start to finish”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Nae Bad

 

As one who grew up when the D’Oyly Carte closed shop was in full swing this writer was perhaps somewhat of a trailblazer in being one of the first to take part in an independent production in 1962 while at prep school (the copyright on Gilbert’s words having expired in 1961). I was the Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance, probably the one and only time this Bass part has been sung by a Treble. It was thus with almost a sense of ownership that I went along to see the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group’s presentation of the relatively unknown Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Sorcerer, set  in 1969’s Summer of Love. (Well, that was ’67 if you went to San Francisco, Ed.)

There is a long history of The Savoy Opera Group introducing topical elements into the songs and dialogue. However a “modern dress” production (albeit from the 60s) is rarer, more common in Shakespeare or Grand Opera, perhaps like the new production of Cosi Fan Tutte premiering at the Met in New York this very Saturday that is set in Coney Island ten years earlier.

So. A relatively unknown work. A hippy production (I show my age).  A student company. In a word, a risk. Did it work?

The costumes paid only a passing reference to 60’s fashion: the occasional mini skirt, Aline’s dress, floral crowns for the female company and the occasional floral shirt and scarf for the men. Not a single hipster bellbottom or Zapata moustache in sight. But actually none of this really mattered and was presumably a way of keeping down wardrobe costs. After all, this was essentially pantomime. And it was a hoot from start to finish.

The Sorcerer made its debut in 1877 and was the first Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration in which the two had complete control of the production. It was highly successful for its time, which encouraged the author and composer to continue working together and expanding the possibilities of satiric operetta. The Sorcerer introduced the comic duet, the patter song, the contrapuntal double chorus, the tenor and soprano love duet and the soprano showpiece aria that became staples of all the G & S productions that followed.

The Sorcerer also introduced W. S. Gilbert’s passion for satirizing the excessive focus of the English on class differences with a plot that turns the entire social order upside down. As the operetta begins, the villagers of Ploverleigh are celebrating the betrothal of Alexis, son and heir of Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre, to the only maiden of suitable rank in the neighbourhood, Aline, daughter of Lady Sangazure. Alexis and Aline sign the marriage contract, but it appears that Alexis, despite the fact that he loves Aline, does not share his father’s outmoded notions that only men and women of equivalent rank should marry, without regard to such nonsense as romantic inclination.

Alexis has, in fact, hired a sorcerer, John Wellington Wells, to test his theories. Wells casts a spell and creates a love potion that is administered to all the villagers through tea poured from a large teapot during the banquet following the betrothal. All who drink it immediately fall asleep, just as Wells has predicted. When they awaken, he promises, each will fall madly in love with the first person he or she sees (shades, obvs, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and why not of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club too?). Those who are already married are conveniently immune.

As we might anticipate, when the villagers awaken at midnight, chaos ensues. Sir Marmaduke himself, much to his son’s displeasure, falls in love with the lowly and elderly Mrs. Partlet, the pew opener. Lady Sangazure falls in love with the sorcerer himself, who spends most of the second act trying to elude her grasp. Even Alexis’ own betrothed, the lovely Aline, drinks the potion and falls out of love with Alexis and in love with the vicar of the village. Order can be restored only by the sacrifice of either Alexis or Mr. Wells …… But does it work out OK? Well, go and find out for yourself, but you can probably guess.

Did the players bring it off? Yes they did. Right from the start the opening ensemble inspired one in their confident, loud singing and homogeneity. I thought they were all miked up, such was the pleasing volume level, but, no, that was only the Principals. The chorus sang and acted enthusiastically, convincingly and were thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, particularly when the yummy potion took effect.

As for the Principals, I do question the choice of a female playing Alexis and dressed ambiguously with fitted shirt, trousers and cravat – again token costuming –  and Tilly Botsford handled the lower register singing only adequately, but acted convincingly. The finest singing came from Julia Weingartner’s Lady Sangazure with some hilariously over the top potion-induced amorous attention paid to the wickedly well played John Wellington-Wells (Angus Bhattaharya). The other Principals, Olivia Wollaston (a suitably pure Aline), Gordon Home (a well portrayed Pointdextre), Georgia Maria Rodgers (a frustrated adolescent Constance), Ewan Bruce (a suitably troubled and decent Dr Daly) and Niamh Higgins (a scream as Mrs Partlet) all drew us into the performance and had us rooting for them.

This was an evening of huge entertainment. Great singing, convincing acting, and tremendous fun. Everybody from Producer to orchestra member should take a bow.

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

 

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 March)

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