The Winter’s Tale (Lyceum:10 February – 4 March ’17)

l-r: Maureen Beattie, Frances Grey and John Michie. Photography: Mihaela Bodlovic

l-r: Maureen Beattie, Frances Grey and John Michie.
Photography: Mihaela Bodlovic

“Go with an expressive meld of The Proclaimer’s evergreen ‘I’m Gonna Be’ and the absolute integrity of Paulina”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

Accept that the Oracle at Delphi is a DNA lab – and why not? – and that no Bohemian sheep shearing feast is complete without See You Jimmy hats – ‘perhaps the most potent symbol of national self mockery in the world’ – and then you create a ‘Winter’s Tale’ to die for. And indeed little Mamillius does die, and the good lord Antigonus does get ripped apart by a bear, but that’s tragicomedy for you: part psychodrama, part romance, and now part ceilidh; all startlingly well realized in this Lyceum production, directed by Max Webster, designed by Fly Davis and with music by Alasdair Macrae.

Delphic maxim, admonition and genetic instruction, the aphorism ‘Know thyself’ would be a three-in-one cure all for Leontes, King of Sicilia. He might have found the motto in his Christmas cracker. Unfortunately, he doesn’t and goes insanely jealous instead: losing his wife, his son, his new born daughter and his best friend in the process. That’s roughly half the play, an hour or so, and then after the (16 year) interval there’s sixty minutes of making jolly good, when that lost daughter finds her Prince, the friends are reconciled and – miraculously – love between husband and wife is restored. Sweet? Nah, not when Jimmy Chisholm’s Autolycus is around, fleecing ordinary folk, pinching their gold, selling dodgy CDs and hawking his ‘delicate burdens of dildoes and fadings’ (that’s Shakespeare, not James Robertson’s proud and vernacular Scots). If it’s continuity you’re after, to oppose Leontes’ psychosis, then go with an expressive meld of The Proclaimer’s evergreen ‘I’m Gonna Be’ and the absolute integrity of Paulina (Maureen Beattie), as audacious in the face of power as you could wish woman to be.

The Winter’s Tale is late Shakespeare so it’s always interesting to see how a thoughtful production brings its mature ‘status’ into play. Rulers, Polixenes (Andy Clark) as well as Leontes, are petty tyrants in this telling. They act beyond reason, expecting loyalty and deserving none. Their women are their subjects. When Hermione (Frances Grey) pleads her innocence she knows that Leontes, husband, judge, and executioner, speaks a ‘language that I understand not; [that] My life stands in the level of your dreams’. In 1611 it was possible, and probably necessary, to admit that Leontes has regained his authority by the final scene; but not in 2017. The deluded male is busted and a near broken John Michie does it very well. It’s the same with position and rank, for who would be liege-men to lords such as these? Prince Florizel’s love for his common shepherdess (tho’ she’s not really!) cannot be doubted and Bohemia looks just the kind of subversive place where young people should grow up.

Jimmy Chisholm as Autolycus.

Jimmy Chisholm as Autolycus.

The binary nature of the piece – Sicilia vs. Bohemia – locks it together. One is urban and a touch swanky with its musicians in a recording booth, expensive and insulated; whilst over in Bohemia, or is it in a field near Auchtermuchty?, Autolycus is on the make and Annie Grace plays her Border pipes on a makeshift platform and it’s all in for a Canadian Barn Dance. Perdita (Fiona Wood), pranked up in her goddess claithes and pink Converses, is made-for-Fife. ‘Too noble for this place’ reckons Polixenes. Prat!

Yes, judgements come fast and sure in this tale. The opening signal is a beautiful arrangement of ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, whose plaintive ‘What can I give him?’ is Hermione’s anguished, unanswerable question. Mamillius is the sacrificial lamb – and bear. Rustics, pre-eminently John Stahl as the Shepherd are as funny, honest and whole hearted as they are gullible and foolish. Autolycus, complete with paper crown around his neck, is the disgraceful Lord of Misrule, whom you shouldn’t care about, just delight in.

What is apparent throughout is clear-cut. Indeed there’s a thematic insistence upon narrative clarity and serious moral direction that other productions can lose sight of. No chance here: not only is the lighting plot instructive, there’s even an ultrasound to pay attention to and, remarkably, an apt reference to the human genome project:

‘Your mother was  most true to wedlock, prince;

For she did print your royal father off,

Conceiving you.’

Invention does not diminish Shakespeare.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 14 February)

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Interview with Lisa Kowalski, producer of Ten Years of Taylor Swift

“Taylor Swift is not only an amazing songwriter with relatable and eloquent lyrics, an incredible singer, but she’s also just such a lovely person

Lisa Kowalski is a young Scottish singer songwriter and performer – and most of all she is a huge Taylor Swift fan. To coincide with Taylor Swift’s ten year anniversary as a performer Lisa decided to celebrate and to put on an event to bring together all those ‘Swifties’ out there. Well, some of them at any rate.

Lisa’s event ‘Ten Years of Taylor Swift’ was held in Glasgow and Edinburgh and featured a fantastic collection of young upcoming musicians from around Scotland who each performed their own versions of Taylor Swift classics, from her earlier country tunes to some newer pop princes anthems.

Ten Years of Taylor Swift Show (organised by Lisa Kowalski, January 2017). Our review here.


Why Taylor Swift?

She’s not only an amazing songwriter with relatable and eloquent lyrics, an incredible singer but she’s also just such a lovely person. She’s so kind to her fans and she’s so real. I also just connect with her lyrics and how passionate she is about songwriting. Writing music is my favourite thing to do and she’s really inspired me to be brave and vulnerable when I write my feelings into songs.

How big is the Swiftie community in Scotland?

Taylor sold out the Hydro in minutes, so I would say there’s a fair amount of Swifties! I’ve made lots of friends in Scotland that are her fans and it’s nice to get to talk about her and her music to people without them getting sick of me.

Have you had support from Swifties outside of Scotland?

We had a Swiftie from England fly up to Scotland for the last show which was pretty insane! He also helped us to set up a promotional website for the event which has ended up being really useful.

For this year’s event we had someone from America ask to play and cover all of the plane costs herself! Unfortunately we had all of the acts sorted but it’s pretty insane to have so much talent asking to perform and going to such great lengths to do it.

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You had a fantastic line up of young artists performing in your show. How did you bring the talent together?

All of the acts are people I’ve seen perform at gigs that I’ve also done! I chose these people not only because they’re all absolutely incredible singers and performers but also because I consider them all good friends of mine now! The show really brought us all together and I’m grateful for it.

They’re all so different from each other in the way they sing and perform – some prefer acoustic, others prefer the band. Some have higher voices, others have low. Some have loud voices, others have softer voices. Either way they’re all extremely talented in their own special way and I could never choose a favourite.

Were all of the artists who performed already devoted Swifties before the show?

Not all of them are huge fans but they still managed to take the songs, make them their own and perform them with so much passion. Everyone who performed likes different kinds of music and writes their own amazing songs but they all came together to celebrate one pop/country artist and they did it amazingly.

220px-p1070865_louvre_tc3aate_de_fausta_ma4881_rwkHow did the event in Edinburgh compare to the first event in Glasgow?

Both events were so amazing but the Edinburgh gig was in a smaller venue which I preferred. It made the show more intimate as everyone was much closer and you could see everyone dancing and smiling a lot more clearly which was really nice.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known starting out on this journey?

There’s going to be some ups and downs but it’ll be worth it! Working really hard is definitely the key for success but when it pays off you’ll be so relieved and happy that you devoted as much time and energy as you did.

Do you plan to organize more shows in the future?

There’s a lot of factors to consider before we dive into organising another event as it definitely isn’t easy but I would definitely love to! Making other artists and an audience happy made me really happy and I would love to do it all again.

Lisa, you also performed at the show. As an artist do you have anything exciting lined up for 2017?

Within the next month I’ll be releasing my debut EP of original songs! I’m really proud of all the songs on there and I can’t wait for people to hear them in a new way! I’ll be performing at the VAMOS festival this year which is exciting!

If you could ask Taylor Swift one question what would it be??

It’s hard to just choose one question! I would probably ask for advice on making myself known in the music industry and building a loyal fan base.


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RSNO: Remmereit, Bryan. Vaughan Williams, Martin Suckling, Ravel. (Usher Hall: 3 Feb ’17)

The Lark Ascending

“In Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The RSNO chose interesting, offbeat fare for their Sir Alexander Gibson Memorial Concert on Friday night, by way of complete contrast to what will be an immensely popular Rachmaninov/Tchaikovsky melange this coming week. Good for them, and I am sure that the great man, who brought so much to the RSNO in his extraordinary twenty-five year tenure and yet died at the relatively young age of 68, would have thoroughly approved.

The first piece was not without controversy: Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending transposed for flute by the RSNO’s Principal Flautist, and soloist on the night, Katharine Bryan. This well known work – indeed, it is number one in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame (make of that what you will) – while for some overexposed, is to me almost sacred. I first heard it as a schoolboy played in a concert in Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire by one of my peers, Richard Deakin, who went on to teach music at the Royal Academy and found the Orchestra of St John’s Smith Square. An early summer evening by the Thames with the fading sun streaming through the Abbey’s stained glass windows … and the piece moved onto my spiritual and emotional hard drives for ever.

To transpose it to flute had me and a number of others worried. Yet for me, full of reservation, it was a triumph. The warmth and roundness of the flautist’s timbre brought a new dimension to the work outwith the capacity of the violin. Bryan’s playing was exquisite: her control of her breathing in long passages extraordinary, her phrasing superb, her control and precision utterly convincing. So much so that I shall buy the recording. Now there’s a compliment in this age of streaming and downloads.

Composer Martin Suckling came on next to introduce his world premiere performance of our next piece,  The White Road. Interesting as this prologue was, it later became clear  – as our flautist returned  in a shimmering white dress rather than her earlier red version –  that this was a fill in. No matter, it gave the next quite difficult fifteen minutes some context.

Notwithstanding the composer’s aspirations the work essentially was a back and forth between sharp musical bites from the flute echoed by percussion, with minimal brass, wind and string support and unconvincing body bops by the soloist to accentuate the to and fro with little added value from the microtones. Melody went missing until the end of the work and I found it unremarkable. Fairly typical of the modern genre, I suppose, but it really only came into itself at its close.

Our nerves were soothed by Bryan’s blissful rendering of Massenet’s Thais as an encore, accompanied only by harp. Luscious.

Following the interval we were treated to Daphnis and Chloe Suites No’s 1 and 2. This piece is a conductor’s nightmare in terms of its fluidity and apparent lack of time signature, so it would be timely to point out that the baton was being held on the night by Arild Remmereit standing in for the indisposed Peter Oundijan. A fine job he made of it (and for the rest of the evening, too). You never felt the orchestra were out of control and their disciplined playing impressed. The work opened with a flute solo and lo and behold, there was Katharine Bryan again, now in black dress, back in her familiar principal flute’s chair. The Danse Guerriere at the conclusion of the first suite showed real verve and the Lever de Jour opening Suite No 2 was well realised and convincing. Remmereit got everything he could out of the band in the Danse Generale which ended our evening with a – or rather, several – bangs.

So in conclusion,  this was a concert that entertained with the familiar, challenged with new takes on familiar themes, and also with new material. Sir Alexander would have been proud of his orchestra’s playing and in Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 3 January)

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Lysistrata (Kings: 27 – 28 Jan.’17)

Cait Irvine, centre (Lysistrata) Photo: Greg Macvean

Cait Irvine, centre (Lysistrata)
Photo: Greg Macvean

“5th Century revel disarms ‘Call of Duty’”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars: Outstanding

This is a tumultuous inaugural production by the Attic Collective. It has that shameless tumescent quality that really would ‘Make Greece Great Again’. Athens/Attica was still big in 411 BC but had been sorely bashed in Sicily and was hurting. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata must have been excruciating, urgent fun back then and it is remarkable that – in the right hands – it can still have the same effect.

As a play it’s less in-your-face than in-your-crotch. Just look at the tall curvy door, upstage centre, and reckon, pretty confidently, that it’s all about Pussy Power. Then there are the phalluses, not one of leather, but several of rubber and latex, and all impressive, but none more so than the Spartan emissary as gauche walking dick. Naturally enough there is supplication to Zeus for relief from priapism.

The men suffer because the women have crossed their legs. Lysistrata leads a women’s revolt that denies sex to husbands (and wives) until the Peloponnesian War ends. They occupy the Treasury – a smart kick in the balls –  and wait for their men to come to their senses, as it were. They are finally brought to it by the body beautiful of Kim Kardashian, aka. Aristophanes’ figure of Reconciliation. Of course, the women are frustrated too and invent desperate, hilarious, excuses to return home.

Conor McLeod (Men's Leader) and Megan Fraser (Statyllis)

Conor McLeod (Men’s Leader) and Megan Fraser (Statyllis)

This is when a 5th Century revel disarms ‘Call of Duty’. ‘Tits not Targets’ is the message. It’s summery: the men are in a uniform of white shirts, cropped chinos and canvas slip-ons. Not a spear or bronze helmet in sight. Just helmets from the Urban dictionary. Cinesias (Adam George Butler) has his shades. Their leader (Conor McLeod) is a dapper, convinced and convincing kind of chap. Meanwhile the women are a riot of colour with their white faces and ‘war paint’ and they soak the men with Water Blasters. It’s loud too, especially when Charlie West hits his box drum.

Arguably the on-stage debate is one-sided. Determined Lysistrata (Cait Irvine) and cocky Stratyllis (Megan Fraser) reduce the men to defensive huddles and oddly impotent hakas. Deciding  to dump the split Choruses of the old men and women of Athens does tilt the balance in favour of the youthful and the libidinous (no real loss!) and the sense of the words can go AWOL in dionysiac chant and jabber but there’s no doubting the drive and sense of the piece as a whole. Director Susan Worsfold and Musical Director Garry Cameron succeed in sustaining dramatic form, resolved in celebration, from a plot that is about as carnal and abandoned as it gets.

By the by, a Belgian lady senator called for a sex strike in 2011. It was meant as a provocative joke but it excited the Christian Democratic opposition to remark that “Politicians are not there to strike. On the contrary, politicians are there to arouse the country.” Hear! Hear! (Aristophanes).

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 27  January)

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Mack the Knife (Bedlam: 25 – 26 Jan.’17)

mack-the-knife

“Lady, ‘the hottest ticket in town’”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

There’s a virtual Hall of Fame in this show: Brecht, Weill, Lotte Lenya, to start with; and a few music greats – Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Sinatra – and then Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin with the title song. If you want more, there could be Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s The Lady is a Tramp and a passing literary reference to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller would channel them all through his play. It’s a clever and applaudable conceit but the interference is too much. Too many signals from too many sources.  A mellow jazz intro’ – nice – leads into Oh, Lady Be Good which given what follows is practically hilarious. ‘Lady’ sings that she’s ‘all alone in this big city’ but for all her lonesomeness she is plainly making out just fine. It helps that the competition in the other clubs is thinning out, alarmingly so in fact, and the police appear clueless.

Detective Foster (Paddy Echlin) likes his work. He’s had lessons in psychological profiling and Jack the Ripper is on his mind rather than Georgia but he’s a poor sap. He has the sharp trench coat and the 50’s trilby but is not the hard-boiled character that he thinks he is. More a marshmallow with a toy gun.  Deacon (Jacob Brown), Lady’s trumpet player, is more on the case and knows a set-up when he sees one but unfortunately his incredulous WTF’s don’t help him. As for Lady, ‘the hottest ticket in town’, Jo Hill enjoys herself. She’s sassy at the mike, sings confidently, and is audacious beyond reckoning.

And here’s the rub. Lady’s luck – call it ‘cool’ if you must – is something else. It turns tension into the comic macabre, not least when she kneecaps herself and stays on her feet. Maybe her aim was off but even a flesh wound must hurt like hell. Then there’s the absolute gift of a police detective who ‘packs heat’ like Clouseau on holiday.

Will Briant on piano and Vebjorn Halvfjierdvik on bass give the piece a tempo and style that if extended – for the Fringe, say – could lift the play into the lighter, skilful register that Brimmer-Beller is reaching for.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 25 January)

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Ten Years of Taylor Swift (The Mash House: 14 Jan ’17)

taylor-swift

“A fun and fantastic showcase”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Not being a huge Taylor Swift fan myself I was slightly apprehensive before the show. However, I must admit I was very pleasantly surprised. This gig was set up by 16 year old Lisa Kowalski, who with some help from mum managed to put on an entertaining evening any event organizer would be proud of.  The three hour set – a good length! –  showcased a range of Taylor Swift’s material – from her younger country days to newer pop songs.

Before the show there was an excited buzz around the room and I could immediately tell I was surrounded by some devoted Swifties. There was not much in a way of an introduction before singer Matthew Gibb, together with the backing band, started off the night with his original version of ‘Blank Space’.

Soon it was clear to see that despite their young age these are all very talented singers and musicians including The 45 and Beth Swan. Although the backing band added an extra kick of enthusiasm to the night I was glad that there was an acoustic session in the middle, where you could clearly hear each performer’s voice.

Each act enjoyed great stage presence but there were three performers who really stuck out – Ashleigh Burns, Olivia Dawn Haggerty and Lisa Kowalski herself.

17 year old Ashleigh from Glasgow gave an impressive performance with her versions of ‘Love Story’ and ‘Trouble’. Her strong, soulful voice in combination with a charming presence and confidence on stage made it a great set. Olivia impressed with her beautiful ballad version of ‘All Too Well’ whilst Lisa was not only good at talking to and entertaining the crowd, but vocally she also did well, with a good range and a convincing ‘attack’. Although not pitch perfect at all times these girls have serious energy and potential.

All night everybody’s enthusiasm was so contagious that I couldn’t help bopping along and I even got caught up in the whole sing-along spirit of the night! I can only recommend this particular show if you are a big Taylor Swift fan but I really loved the whole idea behind it – celebrating an artist together with lots of like-minded fans. The whole event was brilliantly organized and you could clearly see the huge effort put in from all parties. It was definitely a fun and fantastic way to showcase young talent from across Scotland.

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Reviewer: Iona Young (Seen 14 January)

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“I like having a central character who’s rather out of his depth among the intrigues, but with the willpower to battle through them. A just man in an unjust time, perhaps.” – Author Ian Ross discusses The Twilight of Empire IV The Mask of Command

“I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling.”

When a treacherous act of murder throws the western provinces into turmoil, Aurelius Castus is ordered to take command of the military forces on the Rhine. But he soon discovers that the frontier is a place where the boundaries between civilisation and barbarism, freedom and slavery, honour and treason have little meaning.

At the very heart of the conflict are two vulnerable boys. One is Emperor Constantine’s young heir, Crispus. The other is Castus’s own beloved son, Sabinus. Only Castus stands between them and men who would kill them. With all that he loves in danger, Castus and a handful of loyal men must fight to defend the Roman Empire. But in the heat of battle, can he distinguish friend from enemy?.

Ian Ross was born in England, and studied painting before turning to writing fiction. After a year in Italy teaching English and exploring the ruins of empire reawakened his early love for ancient history, he returned to the UK with a growing fascination for the period known as late antiquity.

Ian has been researching and writing about the later Roman world and its army for over a decade. His interests combine an obsessive regard for accuracy and detail as well as a devotion to the craft of storytelling.

The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire IV) (published by Head of Zeus, December 2016). To find out more click here.


Why the age of Constantine?

The Roman era is always going to attract the imagination, I think: perhaps it’s the combination of the recognisable and the very alien, or just the sheer scale of the empire and the drama of its history. The early fourth century is probably rather less familiar to many people, but it was a fascinating period, simultaneously gloomy and ornate, sophisticated and brutal. The empire had been through tremendous upheavals and was in a process of transformation; it was still a resolutely Roman culture and society, but the old certainties of the classical world were gone. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to sense the gathering storms of the empire’s collapse, so there’s a sort of background of darkness that makes the action stand out in even greater clarity.

I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling. We also have a reasonably good idea of the main events of the time, and a cast of extraordinary historical characters!

Did your research include much travel? Are there places where the visitor can catch a glimpse of the world your characters inhabit?

I’ve tried to visit all of the main sites I write about in the books, yes – an advantage, as I find travel sharpens the imagination greatly. My research so far has taken me from Scotland to Turkey, but this book is mainly set on the north-west frontier of the empire, along the lower Rhine and its hinterland. In Cologne (Colonia Agrippina in the novel, Castus’s centre of operations) you can see the remains of the Roman praetorium, or governor’s palace – and an extraordinary stretch of old sewer tunnel beneath it, which found its way unexpectedly into the novel! In Trier the audience hall of the imperial palace still stands, an enormously impressive building, while in nearby Mainz you can see full-size replicas of the smaller type of Roman river galley.

Downstream at Xanten there’s an entire Roman legionary fortress, with some excellent reconstructions. Often it’s the smaller finds that draw me, though – those glass cases in museums filled with everything from kitchen implements to dice, bits of armour to votive figurines; the things that people of the distant past would have handled in their everyday lives.

When did you first “meet” the hero of the novels, Aurelius Castus? When and how did he first appear in your mind’s eye in roughly the form he takes in the novels?

Castus appeared to me very quickly; I found I could picture him distinctly almost from the first moment I started thinking about the story. I wanted a protagonist who fitted with the era, rather than a sort of superhero figure, but someone with the depth to develop and remain central to the successive stories. Castus is a traditionalist, fiercely loyal to his own rather idealistic sense of the empire and the emperors, and he has a blunt and straightforward view of the world that often makes him clumsy in social situations. But he has a strong sense of ethics and honour, that throws him into conflict with the more duplicitous morality of the times.

The later Roman Empire was a complex and often murky place, with emperors rising and falling, and murderous conspiracies and treacheries on all sides; and I like having a central character who’s rather out of his depth among the intrigues, but with the willpower to battle through them. A just man in an unjust time, perhaps.

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Where did Castus learn to fight i.e. where did you learn to write authentic battle accounts and war stories?

I’m glad you find them convincing! I would guess it’s safe to say that few, if any, people today know what the actual experience of fighting hand to hand in ancient battles would be like, so authenticity is hard to judge. We have accounts from the period, some very vivid, that can tell us how Roman soldiers fought, how their formations were arrayed, and how particular clashes developed. There are reconstructions and re-enactments that can tell us even more. But beyond that it’s a matter of imagination and a sense of empathy, I think: we all know what fear and shock feel like, what adrenaline does to us, and fiction can build on that knowledge and take it somewhere new.

All novels are about empathy in that sense, about imagining the experiences of somebody else doing something entirely unfamiliar, and when that person is living in an historical era the imagination has to stretch that bit further. So when I’m writing these scenes I’m trying to evoke the sense of action and speed, the sense of danger, but keep everything focussed on the experiences of the individual man, Castus himself, who actually feels quite at home in the violent world of the battlefield!

Castus is the hero, but he is not the narrator. Did you ever consider telling the story in the first person?

I didn’t really, no – Castus is a man of relatively few words, and his taciturn nature wouldn’t really suit a narrator’s role. He’s always going to be at the centre of the story, although I have increasingly used other character’s perspectives alongside his own. In this book, there are viewpoints from Fausta, the emperor’s wife, and a certain rather dangerous eunuch as well; I often find it appealing to write from the perspective of people very dissimilar to myself.

220px-p1070865_louvre_tc3aate_de_fausta_ma4881_rwkYou’ve been researching the period for over a decade. What’s the greatest liberty you have taken with your sources in order to tell the story?

I’ve always tried to take as few liberties as possible with the historical facts – which isn’t actually all that difficult, as our sources tend to be pretty scanty for this period, and there’s plenty of leeway for interpretation! But I haven’t deliberately changed anything so far, and only start inventing things once I reach the furthest borders of the evidence. With the new book, The Mask of Command, I’ve had to be a lot more inventive though: the historical record tends to follow Constantine quite exclusively, and in this book my story leaves him in the eastern provinces and heads back west to the turbulent Rhine frontier.

We know there was some sort of war with the barbarians, and the emperor’s son Crispus claimed a victory, but beyond that things get a bit hazy. So my reconstruction of events is necessarily speculative, although almost everything that happens is at least based on something recorded from the surrounding era. More generally, though, I’ve never found the facts of history – or what we can establish of them – to be a hindrance in storytelling. It’s a lot more fruitful, I find, to try and build a story around the surviving fragments of the past, with all their awkward gaps and contradictions, rather than trying to bend history into a new shape that fits the ideas I already have.

Which novelist of the Roman Empire have you most tried to emulate, or is there one you’ve tried hard to avoid?

There are plenty of great writers around at the moment producing stories set in the ancient world, but I think with my own books I was trying consciously to reach back to works from a previous generation, the sort of thing I read when I was younger, and perhaps more impressionable! Rosemary Sutcliff would be obvious choice – mainly her novel for adults, The Flowers of Adonis, which is fabulous. Also Mary Renault, Wallace Breem and Alfred Duggan, and Robert Graves of course. I’ve tried to capture something of the subtlety and detail of those writers, and combine it with the more action-driven sort of narratives that we’re familiar with today.

If you could meet one of the historical personalities featured in the Twilight of Empire series who would it be?

There are quite a few! Fascinating as it might be to meet Constantine himself, I doubt he’d reveal much beyond his public persona. Actually, it would be more interesting to meet his wife: Fausta plays a significant role in the novels, but she’s a shadowy historical figure, the daughter, mother, and wife of emperors, but perhaps very conflicted in her allegiances. No doubt she could give an illuminating insider’s view on what was really happening in the imperial court! Maxentius, who appears in the third book, would be fascinating too, I’m sure: the pro-Constantine propaganda portrays him as a monstrous tyrant, but he was very popular at the time, and I suspect he was a lot more sympathetic than he often appears.

The Mask of Command is the 4th book of the series. What’s next?

There are going to be six books in The Twilight of Empire series, covering a period of about thirty years. I planned them, rather roughly, before I started work on the first, and I’ve just finished the fifth. Despite all the planning – I try to plot everything out in as much detail as I can before I start a new project – things do always change once I’m into the writing process, so the story can always develop in unexpected ways. But you can expect further challenges for Castus, a lot more conflict and imperial intrigue, and some dramatic new locations too.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Twilight of Empire IV The Mask of Command?

I never listen to music when I’m actually working, as it’s too distracting, although when I’m in the planning and preparation stages I sometimes do: anything from Holst to medieval Sicilian music, whatever helps to summon a certain mood. But if anyone wanted a musical accompaniment to reading the book, I’m sure the soundtrack to Gladiator would be quite suitable!


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