Thursday, 29 October 2015

Restoring my faith…

I wrote the other day that “Music used to be my drug. Now, it is words….” This doesn’t mean that I am not still addicted to the “moody food Of us that trade in love” – just that, as my hearing slithers down the audiological scarp, I have to find different ways to satisfy my craving.

At home, I increasingly listen to works that have sparse orchestration – especially chamber music: and particularly string quartets (my favourites being Bartók’s: which I can easily listen to, straight through, over and over again, for hours, discovering something new every time; and which is why I have so many different recordings…). And it is becoming readily apparent that, from such experiences, something wicked this way can come. (Sorry, Will.)

This was made clear (ahem) to me, at the recent Orchestra of the Swan Battle of Agincourt ‘entertainment’: where the instrumentation demonstrated “the purity and strength of a small ensemble” – which was bright music to my dull ears. I could discern every instrument, every line of the score: especially, when, in the second half, of OOTS’ usual string section, only the cellos remained. (The harmonics – a subset of overtones – which even a medium-sized group of stringed instruments produce – and especially at the ‘top end’ of what is left of my range – can easily confuse both my hearing aids and what’s left of my brain’s interpretative ability.)

One of the other ways I can experience music fully is through a learned familiarity with it; or a reading of the score. So, hoping to prove that my enjoyment of a single concert wasn’t just a fluke – but with a mixed, pessimistic strain of esperance (and fingers crossed, whilst touching wood; but not wearing my clothes inside out…) – I booked tickets for the final concert of the Stratford on Avon Music Festival: Eboracum Baroque (above, in rehearsal) presenting a lovely selection of Handel, Purcell, and Vivaldi.

Apart from the overture – to Atalanta, “the most festive and idyllic of Handel’s operas” – I had either sung, played in, or conducted, all of the programmed pieces. However, I have to be honest, and stress that none of my interpretations could even have reached base camp of the towering peak – revealing new aspects and associations with almost every bar – generated by “some of the most promising young singers and musicians around today”. (If an absolute measure of the greatness of a performance is how motionless I remain during it – and the consequent increased pain and stiffness, the following day – then, on Sunday morning, I was sorely in need of the services of Aphrodite. As well as a new book of superlatives….)

I could spend as much time as the length of the concert itself trying to describe just how wonderful it was… – but, instead, here are a few of the highlights….

One of the key attributes (for me) of any directed group of musicians (even when small in number) is the attention everyone pays (or should) to the conductor (although I could be biased). It may not always be readily apparent from observing the performers’ faces: but it was obvious on Saturday evening that the members of Eboracum Baroque – and especially when the choir came on stage after the overture – are incredibly cohesive and attentive: to each other, as well as to engaging director Chris Parsons (below). There was an instant and perfect control-and-response in dynamics and tempi of both instrument and voice. Truly astounding – a quality that reflected an innate flexibility; as well as collegiate respect, engagement and enjoyment.

The maturity of the voices – for an ensemble only formed three years ago at the University of York – was particularly glorious: but I was especially taken with the richness of bass John Holland-Avery (and I don’t think a comparison with Samuel Ramey is out of order, here) and countertenor Mark Williams – whose astonishing knee-weakening purity and heart-stopping range in Purcell’s Sound the trumpet caught me completely off-guard. (The obvious analogue would probably be Andreas Scholl – but, to me, here is another James Bowman in the (already almost fully-fledged) making.) The female soloists – Lottie Bowden, Amber Rutterford, and Naomi Sturges, sopranos; and Alexandra Osborne, contralto – also seem to have been born with voices and technique perfectly-honed. It’s just a shame we didn’t have a tenor solo, as well: as their paired voices also sounded keen and flawless, just like their colleagues’ – especially during Vivaldi’s Gloria (“his most popular choral work”), which ended the evening.

It may have helped that the group had the perfect setting in Holy Trinity – although I was sat near the front; and I know from experience that the acoustics can suffer, becoming a little woolly, further down the aisle. It was just a shame the audience was so, erm, exclusive. (“But we in it shall be rememberéd – We few, we happy few….”)

At the Agincourt concert, The Good Lady Bard had expressed concerns about the average age of the audience (a familiar shared lament arising from regular attendances at Wigmore Hall): asking who will come to such events in the future? But, after seeing Eboracum Baroque, I do not think we need worry: these youngsters (and this is a laudatory description that reflects more on my age than theirs…) “at the start of their professional careers” prove that there is an excellent, guaranteed future for classical music – not only in their mature voices, but through their well-developed, well-informed attitude to its performance and presentation.

I think it also bodes well that, like David Curtis, artistic director of the Orchestra of the Swan, Parsons takes time to talk informally to the audience. This added to the involvement – especially when we had a quick and light-hearted impromptu tour around the instruments being played: explaining their rôles, as well as introducing the performers (“And, tonight, on chamber organ…!”) – and demonstrated how much fun there is to be had, even when performing serious, intensely religious works (although Christopher Hogwood proved long ago that, as with this concert, music performed on such ‘original instruments’ can be utterly emotionally engaging, for both performers and audience).

In conclusion, I would therefore recommend that you order their new CD – hopefully the first of many – as soon as you can: and experience Eboracum Baroque’s enveloping warmth and utter professionalism for yourself – revelling in music that engages the heart and the brain with perfect beauty and spotless accuracy. Utterly, utterly irresistible.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

So good they named it thrice: a photo essay…

While the surface may be interpreted as Victorian in character, Charlecote Park is a layered landscape, belonging to all of history, and to every visitor that has ever been and has yet to visit.
     Landscape, rooted as much in the desire of what is to come as what has already been, is transient and ever changing.

A month or so ago, I wandered around my beloved West Park (which I had to myself) at Charlecote: and even then I could sense the change.

Ahead of the annual rut – which is now underway – the more senior fallow bucks were beginning to claim advantageous (and traditional) corners of the parkland for themselves.

The breeding herd was also a lot more skittish than normal: running and pronking away in series – often at the behest of one of those larger ‘master’ bucks – when, during the rest of the year, they would mostly ignore you, and treat your clicking shutter with utter disdain.

“Call me Beyoncé! I’ve been photographed more times than the Queen, you know. Yawn. Here we go again, Gladys.”

On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to be part of a small party observing the deer at daybreak – arriving at Charlecote before 06:30 (for first light at 07:12, and sun-up at 07:47).

However, a couple of hours later, we were rewarded with strong coffee (here served by volunteer – and supreme – photographer, Jana Eastwood) and bacon baguettes: so there was more than enough compensation for the early rising!

And, although – as Adam Maher, ranger (and genial educational genius) explained – it was really too warm (a balmy 10°C, as I parked the Bardmobile) for us to witness the rut in full swing. In fact, there was only one real brief-but-memorable moment of antler-on-antler action.

Nevertheless, throughout the stroll, we were so well-entrenched in the natural world (my boots still smell of deer) – “It may be fenced, but this is truly wild…” – that only a professional churl could have been in any way let-down.

The echoizing call and return of tawny owls accompanied our dark walk to the parkland; and, as the crack of dawn widened (and our pupils similarly adapted), it became obvious that, whilst we meandered between the serried lime-trees, we were being silently policed by a sparse cloud of bats, gracefully skimming the air just above our heads (another indication of a mild dawn, we were told).

Throughout, a sporadic, confrontational soundtrack of groaning, deep-belching bucks – a noise also redolent to my failing ears of a wooden ruler being repeatedly vibrated against an old school-desk: establishing and reinforcing hierarchy, as well as having a go at (but not always succeeding in) impressing the ladies, of course – scatter-gunned across the park.

One of the many fascinating facts of Adam’s that I will never forget is that the trees’ canopy in the park is a uniform and signature 1.7 metres from the ground – a true mark of the herd’s ability to gobble up tree-shoots and flail the bark; and cause major damage, if not carefully managed.

This is not helped at this time of year, firstly, by the incessant antler-rubbing – removing any remaining velvet before the rut; as well as then gathering ‘decorations’ of leaves or grass – and finally the scent-marking of branches, using glands above the bucks’ eyes.

However, if your palmate antlers aren’t symmetrical – like this poor guy I stumbled upon, pretending he wasn’t there, hiding in the grass – you may find that all this is for naught: as the does are less attracted to you. It seems that it’s not just human beings that are fussy about these things!

West Park had undergone a transformation since I was last there. Huge, dark stands stained the ground (which, in turn, besmears the bucks: who cover themselves in their own urine in the way we might use aftershave…) – strategically placed and constructed “to attract sufficient does to herd them into a harem” – although the leks (“a gathering of males engaging in competitive display to attract potential mates”) morphed lazily, this morning, as the younger bucks somewhat lethargically challenged and withdrew.

Occasionally, a doe would make a treacherous bid for freedom: and only then would the energy of the deer become apparent: as the master bucks dashed away to corral the errant female.

“You can see why the bucks can lose 40% of their body-weight during the rut,” commented Adam (who does a mean doe imitation call: a sort of whistled, feline mew, or squeak). And I thought to myself how much hard work it must be… (without drawing any parallels whatsoever, this time – please note – between creature and human…).

So – following a sleepless night; and a deep frost – I decided Sunday’s dawning might bring forth a little more “action”. In one way, it did: the sunrise was glorious. However, the majority of the deer – apart from one lone master buck: groaning and corralling his increasing harem – were extremely somnolent.

This ‘time-out’ allowed the other bucks to grab a bite to eat; preen; practice their stances and belches – half-heartedly, it has to be said – and then ruminate on their stands. “Nothing to see here.”

So, after well over two hours of well-layered and gloved perseverance – silent standing, mixed in with a little slow-motion strolling along the public footpath in West Park (the only access at this time of year); as the mist crept in hesitantly from the River Dene – I left the deer to it. No doubt, as soon as I left, they all went berserk – finally stuck in a rut….

Although my galleries are in desperate need of an update, my earlier deer photos can be found here – as part of my larger Charlecote collection: which also includes the many wonderful trees of West Park.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Code green: “You shall not pass…”

I know, as a lifelong (but now decelerating) walker, that I have a duty to the owners and tenants of the land I cross (not that we aren’t all “tenants”, really…). But, of course, this is a reciprocal responsibility – and one, that from my perspective, isn’t being upheld – not everywhere, anyway.

In a short crawl up an extremely windy Windmill Hill, this morning (along the infamous Compton Wynyates cul‑de‑sac…), I encountered two electrified fences (one half-covered – after a tunnel requiring acrobatics and/or body armour – pictured above – one not) barring my way – and in a field with no livestock whatsoever (well, apart from the rare breed of a struggling Lesser-Spotted Bard) – a missing sign (top); a freshly-hedge-trimmed waymarker (which also acts as a support post for those of us crippled enough to struggle with stiles at the best of times – pictured at the bottom, along with the bare electric wire); and, of course, now that harvest has come and gone, paths that are mere palimpsests:

Those who have trodden these before me have done remarkably well to create new, faint tracks on the freshly-cropped and -tilled earth – but these are visible only from certain angles; in certain lights – and, according to the OS map I always carry with me, diverge in several places. Surely it would be easier on everyone – especially as the scattered trees appear to prevent no obstacle – to drop in a few signposts?

Having worked on a farm (dairy and arable) – albeit before the invention of much of today’s automated machinery – I know that keeping public rights-of-way (PROW) maintained and open can be an inconvenience at best; and that those who tread them dropping litter, letting their dogs loose, etc. can be a menace at worst. But this is no excuse – certainly not for the ‘No trespassing: violators will be shot; survivors will be shot again’ sign I encountered last week… – and definitely no reason to dissuade people from enjoying their local patch. Nature – shaped as it is by our very presence – belongs to all of us.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Seeing red…

The one thing that you can guarantee from any visit to Compton Verney is that you will leave with both the physical and mental bits of you well-exercised (and enriched) – from the parkland stretching your legs to the exhibitions expanding your mind. It really is a wonderful and versatile place to have on your doorstep – “a unique cultural attraction that is inclusive and relaxed yet, at the same time, innovative and bold” – whether you are just popping in for a quick snack or a leisurely lunch; exploring the permanent collections; immersing yourself in the current exhibition (see below); treating the kids to well-veiled education (both inside and out); spending an afternoon just pottering around the grounds, admiring the antics of the great crested grebes, for instance; wandering further afield, climbing through the meadows above Compton Pools (aka the lake), and past Boathouse Coppice, following the valley towards Lighthorne (a right of way runs through it…); or simply revisiting an old friend – in my case, a Chinese bird (of which I would like a replica, please, for my walking stick…) –

During the Han dynasty, men reaching 70 years of age were awarded with a wangzhang, or king’s staff, which was topped with a dove-shaped finial. This reward earned them certain advantages and a greater respect amongst the community.
– Compton Verney: Chinese collection

The current seasonal exhibition is Periodic Tales – on until 13 December 2015 – and I accept that it may not, at first sight, be to everyone’s taste (although I do think most children will adore it…). This could be to do with its inherent modernity; or, more likely, it having a foot in each of “the two cultures” of science and art – but, for me, this juxtaposition is where its innate power lies. Experiencing it hopefully challenges any preconceptions you may have….

Neither culture knows the virtues of the other; often it seems they deliberately do not want to know. The resentment which the traditional [literary] culture feels for the scientific is shaded with fear; from the other side, the resentment is not shaded so much as brimming with irritation. When scientists are faced with an expression of the traditional culture, it tends (to borrow Mr William Cooper’s eloquent phrase) to make their feet ache.
– CP Snow: The Two Cultures

Although it is curated by Penelope Sexton, and has taken three years to develop – inspired and prompted by Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ wonderful book Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements – I do think this “elemental feast of contemporary art, installations, sculptures and paintings… alongside significant historic pieces” also reflects the open (and sometimes quirky – which is A Good Thing…) attitude and humour of Compton Verney’s genial director, Steven Parissien – who writes, in the accompanying programme that…

…the elements have always had a particular affinity with art: not just through the colours they have adopted or the paint pigments they have produced, but in the ways they have defined the very nature of artistic production.

And I think this statement gets to the nub of what visiting the exhibition is about: not just looking at the displays, but understanding their relevance, and appreciating the intense craft and conception behind them. Linger awhile, and it will soon get under your skin….

My two favourite works span two millennia: a small, Roman cobalt-blue glass model boat (from AD 1‑50) and Ken + Julia Yonetani’s Crystal Palace: the great exhibition of works of industry of all our nuclear nations (United Kingdom) (from 2013). The former’s delicacy and feat of survival (and with so few scars) astonishes. The latter, with its “nuanced expression of contemporary issues”, simply left me short of breath, once I caught sight of it, high above me… and then grokked its significance.

The display that will remain with me, though – simply because it still feels engraved into the backs of my eyeballs, is Tim Etchells’ something common… – which is cleverly succeeded by Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s Vesuvius Erupting at Night, now glowing voluptuously as your sight adjusts….

It is obvious, as you wander around, that there is a lot of investment going on at the moment – most of it outside the gallery itself – from the restoration, planting and landscaping of the grounds, to the construction of the new Welcome Centre (opening for the ‘Capability’ Brown season in March 2016 – when the Painting Shakespeare – yay! – experience will also start).

But don’t let all this work put you off visiting, next week – especially if you have children to keep occupied…! – as there are lots of activities for families during half‑term – including late opening (from 17:30 to 20:30) on Friday, 30 October 2015, for Museums at Night. A great way to see Compton Verney in a different light….

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

A little touch of Harry in the night…

Henry V – the play; the man – seems to have taken over my life, recently. First, the stunning production currently running at the RSC – which I saw for a second time on Saturday afternoon (and which will be live in cinemas, later today). Then, Janina Ramirez’ insightful documentary series on Chivalry and Betrayal: The Hundred Years’ War, currently on BBC Four – the second part of which deals with Harfleur and Agincourt, etc.. Immersing myself in Laurence Olivier’s wonderful 1944 film (on DVD) – and now that movie’s majestic music (along with some hefty chunks of Shakespeare’s most magical poetry) at Stratford ArtsHouse, last night, courtesy of the remarkable David Curtis and the wonderful Orchestra of the Swan. (Not only do we have one of the best theatre companies in the country – if not the world – but one of the best music ensembles, too!)

Before I get on to the concert itself, I have to say that I found the repeated viewing at the RSC a much more fluid and fluent affair – and Alex Hassell’s performance was more human, more humane, more heroic. (It helped, I think, that the audience were more receptive, more involved….) His immensely physical, breathless rendition of “Once more unto the breach” will certainly stay with me – if only for his potent embodiment of “the action of the tiger” – visibly growing on an empty stage; roaring, rallying on his audience of troops:

Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favor’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height.

By the end of this, I was quite ready to grab my sword – well, walking stick… – and go charging forward with him!

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot!
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge
Cry, “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

I was reminded of this involving call-to-arms, last night, by the wonderful, engaging, embracing narration of James Phelips: who gave his all as both Harry and Chorus during William Walton’s Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario (using words and music from the film). Olivier declared that “William knocked out the most fantastic score”; and this skilful arrangement for chamber ensemble (by Eric Watson) – minus the Swan’s core string section – was proof that the music is not only integral to the action, but describes it perfectly – as Longfellow said: “the universal language of mankind”. (We may have been asked to “eche out [their] performance with [our] mind” both by the Chorus and by conductor David Curtis, before the concert – but with playing this accomplished, it really wasn’t that difficult….)

How twelve skilful musicians can make so much warlike sound is almost beyond me – developing from the soft, moving, tearful Death of Falstaff (also performed before the interval in its more famous string arrangement – by Walton himself – again demonstrating the purity and strength of a small ensemble) to the riotous, clashing, percussion-pummelling battle-scene at Agincourt. You could feel the French hooves pounding through the rain-soddened soil; sense the archers’ unforgiving curtain of arrows “That did affright the air…”.

And, yes, “this cockpit” was indeed a “wooden O” – such great acoustics for this “happy few…”.

In the first half, we were also treated (definitely the right word) to a beautiful selection of Vaughan Williams – the gentle Dives and Lazarus, and his better-known Fantasia on Greensleeves (another Falstaff connection, of course) – as well as Walton’s challenging “one-man opera” Anon in Love (arranged for voice and strings), sung perfectly and beautifully by tenor James Atherton: whose high notes have a rare, round, piercing purity. This music was made for him.

[As I write this, Laurence Olivier’s rendition of “This day is call’d the feast of Crispian” is playing in my ears – reminding me of nothing so much as Dylan Thomas reading his own work (“Old men forget…”). The passion, the poetry, the musicality, the emotion, the transition from conversation to plea, the full boasting, the confidence in man and God, the clarity: there is nothing better crafted in and from the English language… – “From this day to the ending of the world…”.]

Of course, the 600-year anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt itself isn’t until Sunday (including some good workshops on at the RSC – as well as the last local performance of the play). And, although I find it difficult to celebrate an event that was undoubtedly horrific for those involved (which Olivier on film conveys more readily than a staged production can), one must be grateful for the inspiration it provided: both in words and music. “Amen!”

Saturday, 17 October 2015

And the wind came too…

Derbhle Crotty (Hecuba) and Ray Fearon (Agamemnon) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Catharsis. Of course it was. The word I was looking for. Catharsis. A Greek word, of course. How else to explain this addiction to theatre that rips your guts out, and spreads them all over the stage? Two hours, sat stock still: with yet more streams of tears replacing those only just beginning to dry? The sense of loss: knowing that you will never see this again…? Catharsis. κάθαρσις. Music used to be my drug. Now, it is words….

Sadly, I missed Thursday night’s captioned performance of Hecuba, due to the dreaded lurgy – but still, thanks to the ever-patient RSC Box Office, I managed to get last night’s ticket at my preferred left-hand end of a row – as just about always. Which meant that I was very close to the stage (not that you are ever that far away) in the Swan – and not distracted by those wonderful words in lights.

But why were there any tickets left at all for – randomly sampling yesterday’s Tweets – what has been described as an “inspiring production”, as an “eloquent play [that] really deserves to be seen” and “some of the best acting and dramaturgy we’ve ever seen” with “powerful performances from a brilliant cast” – and what I called the “best thing since Oppenheimer…”?

Sometimes, you read a book; see, or hear, a performance; a play; a symphony… and you know it will stay with you for ever: not just because of the greatness of the work itself; the commitment and skill of those producing, directing or acting it; not even because it gets to the heart of being human; and leaves an indelible mark on your heart… but that all these things align for a rare, thrilling, extended moment: to make something unique; something very special indeed.

Nadia Albina (Cassandra) in background; Derbhle Crotty (Hecuba) in foreground – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

With the breathing-space afforded by the fortnight following my second close encounter with the marvel that this is, you might have imagined that I would have succeeded in distancing myself a little from the play’s compelling potency, its undeniable overwhelmingness. But, anticipating – nay, preparing for – tonight’s performance, I found myself (as with Oppenheimer, above) unable to take an objective stumble backwards – or even a painful glance over my shoulder – and gain even a hint, a particle, of true perspective. I must bear this too it seems.

Clichés remind and reassure us that we’re not alone, that others have trod this ground long ago.
– Miguel Syjuco: Illustrado

It is a cliché that words and tongues have might – but some are more (thrice?) puissant than others – especially if you are receptive to them – An assault on the soul if you still had one. Brought to life by as talented, persuasive and expressive a company (and I must include the creatives) as that currently performing in the Swan Theatre (albeit completing its short run later today…) – “with fatal mouths gaping” – you are as vulnerable as the French at Harfleur: “and down goes all before them”.

In a way, though, I thought I was prepared: forewarned… and all that. However, being so close to the action – eyeball-to-eyeball at some points – and perhaps aided by this being my third visit (accompanied by two, gripped readings of the text: familiarity breeding consent, perhaps…) – there were some intimate moments (of what I can only describe as ‘crystallized grief’) that will stick with me for a very long time. Chu Omambala lifting Derbhle Crotty from her knees – And my proud mother who has never knelt for anyone, kneels now, pulls at his sleeve – from where Hecuba begs for mercy. The horrific realization in Odysseus’ face as he gazes deep into hers – She’s gripping my hands so tight it hurts.

And then the tears glistening on Agamemnon’s cheeks (reflecting ours), as Ray Fearon howls the climax of his soliloquy (possibly the greatest moment in the whole play) at the skies, mourning the betrayal of his own daughter – you call yourself King they said….

And the long silences: including that before the house-lights dimmed. The audience knew….

How do you measure great theatre…? By what has gone before; or by its effect now…?

You thought Troy was untouchable. You thought your gilded life would go on forever…. Nothing goes on forever.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Being you is not a crime…

According to police guidance, a hate crime is any criminal offence which is perceived – by the victim or any other person – to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race, religion, sexuality, disability or gender.
     Hate crimes are targeted and personal, and this makes them different to other offences. Victims are targeted simply because of who they are.
– Dr Loretta Trickett: Nottingham Post

It’s National Hate Crime Awareness Week – and I’ve been struggling, so far, to come up with something pithy to say on the subject. (And I’m still not certain that I’ve succeeded – although, hopefully, after reading this, a few more people will be aware….) Probably because, having been at the receiving end, myself, it’s hard to be dispassionate about an act that blights so many individuals’ lives. (From my perspective, if you’re disabled, you’ve probably got enough undeserved shit to be dealing with already, without others flinging more at you….)

Police recorded crime
In 2014/15, there were 52,528 hate crimes recorded by the police, an increase of 18 per cent compared with the 44,471 hate crimes recorded in 2013/14, of which:
• 42,930 (82%) were race hate crimes;
• 5,597 (11%) were sexual orientation hate crimes;
• 3,254 (6%) were religion hate crimes;
• 2,508 (5%) were disability hate crimes; and
• 605 (1%) were transgender hate crimes.
It is possible for one hate crime offence to have more than one motivating factor which is why the above numbers sum to more than 52,528 and 100 per cent.

Throughout the week, Warwickshire Police (who I personally found very clued-up, thorough, and immensely helpful) are also blogging on the subject – and their posts are a great introduction to what the offence constitutes; why “Being you is not a crime: Hate crime is”; and why – and how – you should therefore report any incident to the police (whether you believe it to be criminal or not).

There are many misconceptions about what is – and is not – a hate crime. There is also no such thing as a “minor” hate crime, and hate crime is an issue for all of us, which can only be tackled by us all working together.
     Hatred is a strong term that goes beyond simply causing offence or hostility. Hate crime is any criminal offence committed against a person or property that is motivated by an offender’s prejudice or hatred of someone because of their differences.
     There is a misconception that hate crime can only happen to people from minority groups. Whilst it is true that very sadly some members of society are disproportionately more likely to be a victim of a hate crime than others, absolutely anyone can be a victim of a hate crime. We all either have a religion, or do not have a religion (a crime committed against someone because they are atheist is still considered as a religious hate crime for example). So potentially we could all be a victim of a religious hate crime. We all have an ethnicity, so could all be victims of a racial hate crime. And so on.
– Adrian Symonds, West Mercia Police’s Equality and Diversity Advisor for Worcestershire and Herefordshire: There’s no such thing as a minor hate crime

However, on my way into Stratford-upon-Avon, yesterday evening – whilst being threateningly tailgated on the A422 (defined as a “medium-high-risk road” by the Road Safety Foundation) at exactly the 50 mph speed limit – I realized that a lot of such “personal” crimes stem not just from differences between people (we are all unique, of course: something that scares the ignorant; and/or draws despising or patronizing pity from the arrogant), but perceived ‘failures’ to comply with the warped expectations and senseless criteria that govern (if that’s the right word) the lives of the many who would seek to instantly judge us. [By the way: I struggle to separate the two qualities(?!) of ignorance and arrogance – as it seems almost impossible to have the latter without the former.]

So… I should not be upset that the “fool” behind me is breaking the 0.2‑second rule with alacrity (whilst simultaneously failing to communicate his thuggishness with some sort of gittish sign language) – never mind the more sensible and commonly-accepted 2‑second version. Nor that he expects everyone to ‘drive’ like him (or simply get out of his way: which I eventually did, for safety’s sake…) – and waaay beyond the speed limit (a maximum, remember; not a target…). Nor that he obviously knows better than everyone else about the road conditions and concomitant speed suitability, and the handling prowess of his tatty transport. Nor that he then ran a red light at the roadworks at Goldicote (because he couldn’t possibly brake in time…).

In his world – and with his tiny little mind (oops: I nearly wrote another word there – sorry…) – the Highway Code doesn’t (and shouldn’t) apply to him, though. He is superior (as are the majority, of course) to everyone else: in both skill and bloodymindedness. Pity the poor deer that crosses the path of his unlit grey van at dusk – and in rutting season, too… – whose fault it will undoubtedly be (for existing) when they collide, bloodily….

I can’t for the life of me – already ruined by a similar speeding maniac (exactly ten years ago, tomorrow…) – explain, therefore, how I ended up just a couple of vehicles behind him, a few miles later, on Seven Meadows Road…. (Perhaps Aesop can help, here?)

What a sad world we live in, though, where bullying others becomes the norm for some (so many) folk – obviously not helped by this sadistic Government’s leading-by-example… – because those “others” (and it is ‘otherness’ that is crucial, here…) don’t fulfil someone-else’s bizarre, skewed definition of what that “norm” should be….

From where I wobblingly stand, it is these buckoes, though, who are to be commiserated. Their singular lack of empathy must lead to such high contempt from so many (some). “What a wretched existence.”

Monday, 12 October 2015

Of a free and open nature…

Picture courtesy of the RSC Press Office

When I came here I was like a child in a sweet shop: the diversity of Britain is so exciting to me – I had never even seen a black person before I lived here. Multiculturalism is the best thing about Britain, and people from immigrant communities often know that better than most.
– Qerim Nuredini: The Observer

It’s an odd old place, Stratford-upon-Avon – one of the most curious (“terrible”?) aspects (to me) being the three-way incongruity of its resident lack of ethnic minorities; the global reach of its tourism; and the discrimination-demolishing diversity of our “most renowned” local theatre troupe (a worthy trait even present in its ‘audience development’ campaign).

…there is real value in diversity. Different people generate different thinking. Difference is always interesting and seldom a threat. It may be disruptive, but the arts should always be open to disruption; it’s what they do best. By being more open, democratic and equal, and by spreading opportunity more fairly, theatre may start not only to reflect the world in which we live, but also to help itself, by throwing off accusations of elitism.
– Lyn Gardner: The Guardian

The first facet of that unholy trinity was reinforced for me, again, last night, sitting in the RSC: waiting for the traditional Sunday‑night darkness to be lit up by Shappi Khorsandi, Seann Walsh and Mark Steel.

Despite my lack of keenness for reviews that reveal some of the punchlines, I think this is a pretty reasonable summation of the evening – one that was definitely worth me dragging myself from my stricken-with-man-flu ‘deathbed’, anyhow… – and that write-up, of course, saves me from also trying to capture the ineffable….

Funny(?), though, that…

For all his hints that Stratford might need to see a shrink about its slight obsession with a long-dead former resident, Steel encourages the town to stay unique, to keep its Tudor ducks and daft shop names, and not to give in to corporate attempts to homogenise our colourful country…

…and yet he must have been astonished – although he’s obviously an intelligent chap: and would have realized that, as a ‘socialist’ comedian, like Jeremy Hardy, he was risking becoming Daniel when he entered the lion’s den of Conservatism on the canted holographic, hallucinogenic Henry V stage, to catch sight of nothing but white faces (bar one: as far as I could discern, from my vantage point, stage left – and I don’t mean Khorsandi: whose hyperactive, happy, honesty was highly hilarious…)! At the RSC, despite Stratford’s low immigrant make-up, this is a highly-unusual state of affairs.

Picture courtesy of the RSC Press Office

It was no surprise, therefore, that mentions of Jeremy Corbyn, and criticisms of the current Government, were kept to an anomalous minimum – which, for me, despite my mirth, somewhat lessened the set’s impact. Steel had obviously done his research: but it seemed a shame that his normal “rapier wit” was, last night, a little more rounded than usual.

To be blunt, I therefore found Walsh’s laconic, lugubrious routine somewhat more chortlesome – and both he and Khorsandi did well in coping with a couple (sat directly in front of me) who had obviously only bought tickets (at £21 a pop) to engage in constant barracking: and who were therefore politely asked, first, to tone it down; and, finally, at the end of the interval, to leave – which they kindly did. (Kudos to the RSC staff who also dealt with this so very patiently.)

Picture courtesy of the RSC Press Office

Our job is to give the best possible experience of Shakespeare and live theatre to the widest possible audience, and to inspire a lifelong love of his work and theatrical performance.

My belief is that the theatre should host many more of these events. How they ensure that “the widest possible audience” attends, though, I am not so sure….

My kids will say they are African British, but me? I am an African woman with a British passport. You try to be part of the society you come into. I adapted: I loved fish and chips but it was bland, so I added chilli. I’ve done the same with Britain – put my own spice into it.
– Rebecca Sesay: The Observer

Friday, 9 October 2015

The vasty fields of France…

Alex Hassell (Henry V) – photo by Tristram Kenton/RSC

I was very tempted to entitle this review “A Welshman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a war…” – all will become clear later (which, unconvincingly, makes it look like I have a plan – which I don’t…) – but Oliver Ford Davies’ astonishing, audience-encompassing and world-conjuring performance as the leitmotiv Chorus (below) was the undoubted highlight of last night’s Henry V at the RSC: and so, the line is deservedly his. (As the applause refused to fade, he left the stage, gently, slowly, arm-in-arm, with Jane Lapotaire – a wise, charismatic, majestic Queen Isobel; who also commanded the stage – a paired model of grace; and perhaps an apt moral, too: encompassing wisdom, maturity and expertise.)

I’ve said it before – but it really is worth repeating… –

…his apparently natural – but deeply thoughtful and intelligent – approach to stagecraft wipes everything else from your mind: bringing him into rapid, but lingering focus. Feelings flit across his face; a variance in tone heightens the impact of a word; a throwaway gesture pulls the audience with him – rendering all those around him suddenly a tad less effective; until he generously encompasses them in his talent, letting them, too, shine with him – and then in front of him. His timing is perfection.

And so it was, last night. Strangely – but bringing another wry smile to my face (helping eradicate yet more Shakespeare-inspired tears…) – after such a mighty performance: in his baggy, avuncular cardigan, professor’s scarf and tatty cords – no-one seemed to notice him mingling with the sated crowds leaving the theatre: his only real disguise a pair of subtle spectacles. (As I have suspected for many a year: the man truly is Superman!)

Oliver Ford Davies (Chorus) – photo by Keith Pattison/RSC

Rhetorically, of course, Ford Davies begins by asking…

…Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

…knowing that the answer is an undoubted “yes”! Not just because of his pleading “invention” – O for a Muse of fire…! – repeatedly prompting and prodding our imaginations – For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings – but helped, definitely, by Gregory Doran’s (probably deserved and appropriate) appropriation of the lion’s (or artistic director’s) share of this season’s scenery budget: producing another intelligent, transparent, well-crafted, classical interpretation.

The artful set design (again – as with the previous histories in this sequence), by Stephen Brimson Lewis (with lighting by Tim Mitchell), uses elements from both Richard II and Henry IV – which, I suppose, should make the staging of the whole King and Country cycle (of which this is a fitting and rip-roaring finale) at the Barbican that much simpler. (Moan, moan, grumble, moan: why do we not get this series at the supposed ‘home’ of our beloved theatre company…? You’d think London was where Shakespeare wrote and staged his plays – or something.) And we thus first see Mr Chorus ambling around backstage, during the mandatory ‘mobile phone’ announcement, before the houselights eventually dim, checking the props; then coming forward – in a humorous move that both anticipates our many moments of later mirth – and prompts the arrival of Henry himself: for one brief, jealous, twinkling of eye and crown. As the action is transferred (although the Chorus continues to interact, throughout) to the rest of the cast (beginning with the cunning, wonderful, sympathetic, authoritative, genial Jim Hooper – reappearing later as Sir Thomas Erpingham: he of the cloak – commanding the stage as the prolix Archbishop of Canterbury), almost unnoticed (mainly because of the high quality of delivery), the scenery manifests itself around them. Only at the epilogue – Which oft our stage hath shown; and for their sake, In your fair minds let this acceptance take – will we once more, fittingly, see through the breach of the old proscenium arch to the deep back wall of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

The Chorus – laying these rude mechanicals bare – is, of course, Will himself (although maybe also deputising for the director?) – apologizing for his “rough and all-unable pen”, pursuing…

…the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.

…and, after the startling Hecuba – where each actor also characterizes, “in turn, therefore, the rôle of the traditional ‘chorus’” – you realize just how ingenious “Our bending author” has been in his adoption and reinvention of this pragmatic classical device (as well as how what I described as “other pertinent parallels” – not only between the two dramas, but different styles of theatre – are drawn to the fore).

It is a play I have loved from a very early age – mostly due to Laurence Olivier’s Academy Award-winning 1944 ‘propaganda’ film: “a triumph of colour, music, spectacle and soaring heroic poetry”; and which may well be the origin of my lifelong adoration of the Sweet Swan of Avon. And I do not think it is a leap too far – jumping o’er times, Turning th’ accomplishment of many years – to cite “the first Shakespeare film to be both artistically and commercially successful” as one of this production’s inspirations. (See it: and see why.)

[Oh, and incidentally… some of that movie’s awe-inspiring music – by William Walton – will be performed by the Orchestra of the Swan, at Stratford ArtsHouse, at a special commemoration concert, The Battle of Agincourt: 26 October 1415, on Tuesday, 20 October 2015. (Leslie Bridgewater’s moving music from Anthony Quayle’s 1951 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre production – part of the Festival of Britain; and memorable for the casting of the then-almost-unknown Richard Burton, aged 26, in the lead rôle… – also features on the Henry V Music & Speeches CD that accompanies this production.)]

Paul Englishby’s stirring score, though, is more redolent of “the sparseness of voice and brass” (the supreme pairing of Andrew Stone-Fewings and Chris Seddon on modern baroque trumpets) of Doran’s Richard II than its overly “starring rôle” in Henry IV – “punctuating and announcing scenes with perfectly-nuanced, repeated themes” – although (and maybe it’s to do with my deafness – and there were captions, thankfully, last night, as well) I do wish directors would not force their actors to compete (especially when there’s singing) with what is supposed to be background atmosphere. Either let it finish; or tone it down! Please!

So, what of Alex Hassell (top) as “The well-appointed king” Henry – who I have previously described as “less fluent… less convincing” than those around him…?

Well, do you want the good news or the bad? The good, eh? Okay. Well, I think – unlike Burton – he is more suited to Harry than Hal: his macho, jaw-jutting posturings (which seem to have attracted almost Harry Styles-like devotion amongst certain, er, audience demographics) befitting his well-fitting sway and suit of armour (part of a wonderful array of almost steampunk-like outfits created by the mega-talented RSC Workshops).

And the peak of this performance has to be his controlled and skilful rendering of the St Crispin’s Day speech: which, as a set piece, is utterly mesmerizing – beginning slowly, sotto voce, and crescendoing, accelerating, to a peak fortississimo. He addresses “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” in the audience as an integral part of his company of soldiers; and we are completely at his command. His authority is unquestionable. We have watched him grow; develop the “conscience of the King”; ruminating out loud, almost Hamlet-like; but growing in confidence: and this moment is where it has to – and does – all come together. (In a way, it is also similarly enthralling to then watch that painfully-constructed confidence crumble instantly in the presence of “Fair Katherine, and most fair”.) He has agonizingly explored what it is to be royal, authoritative: and it is this arc, this journey, which pulls us along with him. But…

But – of course there’s a but; the bad news… – there are too many times when his timing appears to fail or falter: and he runs sentences together, maiming the poetry, inserting breaks in strange places. His emotion is still not always believable; and sometimes feels quaintly automated. (The part has over eight-hundred lines – a third of the total – and I must admit to being impressed, nonetheless, at Hassell’s apparently easy command of memory and language….) And, although I know he is trying to communicate his inner battles, I just wish he would sometimes simply relax – study Oliver Ford Davies, Jim Hooper, Jane Lapotaire! – for once, ceasing his aim to “Be like a king, and show my sail of greatness”, and concentrate on the humanity of the part: which never feels quite fully-developed, even when “Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent… and visits all his host… a little touch of Harry in the night”.

This is not to say that Hassell does not make a good Harry: he was actually a joy to watch; and part of an excellent – and large – ensemble. I just have a constant, nagging feeling that there is something being held back. But perchance the loosening (and true, innate greatness) will emerge with greater age.

Of that ensemble, it is hard not to want to list everybody. But I shall try and keep it short – to admit th’ excuse Of time, of numbers, and due course of things, Which cannot in their huge and proper life Be here presented.

A standout performance, for me, was Martin Bassindale, as the Boy – almost the still, central conscience of the play – accompanying the terrible trio of Bardolph; the immensely versatile Christopher Middleton’s Nym; and Antony Byrne’s gripping, poetic, piratic, and finally mournful Pistol. The moment Bassindale appeared on the balcony, with the other victims of Agincourt, during the roll-call of the dead, opposite his French counterpart (who he tried so hard to save), brought Wilfred Owen’s harrowing Strange Meeting to mind (as well as some small tear to my sentimental eye). Similarly, Keith Osborn’s authoritative Montjoy: stalwart, sympathetic and serious – a true match for King Henry.

The Welshman, Irishman and Scotsman – bringing much-needed laughter to the stage, as a counterpoint to the griefs of battle (as with Doran’s direction of Death of a Salesman, “What I found enlightening were the frequent moments of humour that emerged”) – were twinkle-eyed Joshua Richards (also wonderful continuing value as ruddy-nosed Bardolph) as Fluellen, master motormouth historian and – look you – leek-wielder; Andrew Westfield as grenade-juggling Macmorris; and Simon Yadoo as Jamy – who also gave a heart-warming rendition of one of my favourite Shakespearean characters: cynical, honest Everyman, Michael Williams.

The overconfident French trio of Robert Gilbert as the Dauphin (Wig of the Night award); Sam Marks as the Constable; and Evelyn Miller as Rambures (also a very cheeky Lady-in-Waiting) were highly entertaining and involving – but their portrayals did make me wonder if such parts were the inspiration for the French Knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail…? Additionally, Leigh Quinn (so very funny in Two Gentlemen) as Anglophile Alice, and Jennifer Kirby as “de Princess” Katherine, milked every mispronunciation and mot à double entente for all their worth: getting some of the biggest belly-laughs of the night!

I will try to go again, therefore, in the final fortnight of its local run… I thought, “transported, gentles” to home, through the mist-beribboned night….

But no “country cocks do crow”; although, certainly, timely, “the clocks do toll” – St Mary’s bell marking the last hour of the day, “sad and solemn”, so it seemed, as I passed by. No moon, however; no “horrid ghosts”: just two barn owls – hoary feathers radiant in my car’s white headlights – gliding purposefully, low across the vasty fields of Warwickshire.