Tag: comedy

Theatre Review: The Tempest

Well, this review is well out of date, I’m afraid. I managed to catch what I think was the last performance of the RSC’s The Tempest at the Barbican, directed by Gregory Doran, on the 18th August, a good two months ago.

I’m reasonably familiar with the play – I did a close reading of “Come unto these yellow sands” as part of the coursework for my degree, and I’ve read it a couple of times – but I’ve never seen it on stage before. So this is not so much a review as a series of scattered thoughts.

My general impression was that Doran didn’t particularly have anything to say about the text. Its USP, so to speak, involved giving Mark Quartley, who played Ariel, a motion-sensitive camera and projecting a CGI sprite on hanging screens at particularly dramatic moments. Which, given that you can access CGI literally at the flick of a switch nowadays, feels like a bit of a cheat onstage, and too over-the-top for The Tempest anyway; perhaps it would work in something like the riotous Midsummer Night’s Dream, but The Tempest is subtler and sadder and stranger, and, to my mind anyway, needs a magic more tenuous and less obvious.

Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero, on the other hand, was fascinating and not at all sympathetic: veering unpredictably between generous patriarch and jealous, insecure tyrant, afraid of losing what power he has over his daughter and the people of his island, but tired of his isolation. If the Barbican Tempest was about anything, it was about the tragedy of old age, the loss of it. In this context, I found the final speech of the play – “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/Let your indulgence set me free” – really quite interesting; a fourth-wall-breaking appeal to the audience to applaud Prospero, end the play, redeem his faults, give his story meaning and purpose through the closure of an ending. I actually did some work on similar endings to plays of the period for my degree: plays like Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Apprentice and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, which end in judgement scenes which also tend to break the fourth wall. There’s a sense in which Doran’s Tempest leaves the questions and contradictions of Shakespeare’s text open for the audience to judge.

The play was most unsatisfactory, though, on its treatment of Caliban – in fact, I’d say it revealed exactly how much of a problem Caliban is in the original text. Like Prospero, Joe Dixon’s Caliban was unpredictable, veering between sympathetic and abhorrent; unlike Prospero, however, he was never given the benefit of the doubt – we were supposed to see him as comic relief at best, as monstrous at worst. It’s become commonplace to read Caliban as the colonised Other, and Doran’s refusal to engage with that, his decision to allow Prospero to drive Caliban off, the only character not to receive a consolatory happy ending, was vaguely troubling.

The Tempest as text is quite notoriously slippery – it’s been categorised by some critics as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, precisely because it’s difficult to say exactly what it is and what it’s for. In this context, the little uneasinesses of Doran’s Tempest make a sort of sense: they’re an attempt to render the text reasonably faithfully onto the stage; to create a kind of “neutral” theatrical version of The Tempest. In other words: this is conservative Shakespeare, an attempt (despite the CGI gimmickry) to represent Shakespeare’s text authentically. It’s a job that it does well! As you’d expect from an RSC production, it’s very competent indeed – well-acted and well-staged. But it’s not a memorable thing.

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Top Ten Underrated Fantasy Novels

  1. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Nobody talks very much about Palimpsest, but it might actually be my favourite of Valente’s novels. The city of Palimpsest is at once beautiful and magical and painful and terrible; reading the novel makes the world seem wide and wonderful again.
  2. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Hardly anyone outside academic circles has heard of Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which seems ridiculous, because it’s had the most enormous impact on fantasy as a genre. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste: it is dense, baroque, Gothically overwritten. I love it.
  3. A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge. Hardinge actually seems to be getting more press since The Lie Tree won the Costa; at least her new novel A Skinful of Shadows is being advertised on the Tube, which, surely, must be an Author Goal? A Face Like Glass is wonderful in ways that are similar to Palimpsest: the world where it’s set is horrifying and dystopic, but also lush and full of wonders.
  4. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. The few reviews I’ve read of Oyeyemi’s collection of linked short stories have been vaguely critical of its unfocused nature; but to me that’s a feature, not a bug. I love the messiness of the book: again like Palimpsest, its inconclusiveness leaves doors open for wonder to creep in.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. Ben Okri is hardly underrated; nor is he a fantasy author, strictly speaking. But I’d never heard of Starbook before I stumbled across it in the library, which is a shame, because, although it has problems, it’s also very beautiful. It’s rare that anything I read really makes me see the world differently, and Starbook did.
  6. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. Lud-in-the-Mist is a novel from a genre completely overshadowed by Tolkien and his literary descendants. Published in the 1920s, it’s a story of Fairyland – where Fairyland is at once alluring and perilous, sitting just out of reach over the horizon. It does wonder very well indeed, maintaining Fairyland’s mystique and magic right through to the end.
  7. Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho. This is a fun, diverse Regency romance that draws on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Like Clarke’s novel, it also scrutinises the self-defeating nature of institutional oppression.
  8. The Book of Taltos – Steven Brust. I’m not sure why I haven’t heard more about Brust’s novels: The Book of Taltos is one of the very few epic fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed recently, precisely because it doesn’t take itself very seriously. And because, I suspect, of its moral ambiguity: its protagonist, after all, is a wisecracking assassin.
  9. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven feels more like fantasy than SF: it’s about dreams becoming reality, and nothing is more fantastical, probably, than dreams. I also get the impression that it’s one of Le Guin’s minor works – which still makes it better than whole swathes of SFF by other authors.
  10. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I reread this first book in Reeve’s MG series about mobile cities preying on each other recently, and was seriously impressed by a) how steampunk it is, and b) how aware it is of institutional oppression. It’s a very sophisticated work of MG, and I want to get round to reading the sequels again soon.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Fictional Characters Who’d Be in My Friendship Group

  1. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. She works in a library and she doesn’t like talking to people, but she has a rich inner life. I mean, she’s basically me. If I worked in a library.
  2. Hermione Granger – Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling. Basically because she’s bookish and academic and we would bond over our shared dislike for rule-breaking.
  3. Ponder Stibbons – the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. Ponder is just a complete nerd. And he takes life seriously. So, naturally, he would be my friend.
  4. Meggie Folchart – Inkheart, Cornelia Funke. She sleeps with books under her pillow! And has read all the books! My kind of person.
  5. Katin Crawford – Nova, Samuel Delany. Katin’s a little bit anxious, and he’s working on a long pretentious novel even though the form’s been obsolete for centuries. Yep, sounds like my kind of person.
  6. Fuschia – Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake. Fuschia’s another character with a rich inner life and a less-than-satisfactory external one. She’s prickly, but once you were friends with her you’d be friends for life.
  7. Rosemary Harper – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. Rosemary is geeky about paperwork, and also does not like breaking rules. Check, check.
  8. Nutt – Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett. Nutt is just adorable: achingly polite, intensely clever and, oh, an orc.
  9. Arthur Dent – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. There’s a bit somewhere in the trilogy where Arthur breaks the spaceship because he’s trying to get a proper cup of tea out of the vending machine and YES.
  10. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne Valente. November’s intense, lonely, focused, fascinating.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Told by an Idiot

I’d never heard of Rose Macaulay before my housemate lent me her Told by an Idiot, and while I don’t necessarily think it’s the most consequential work of literature out there I’m certainly glad I read it.

Published in 1923, the novel looks back over the last years of the Victorian age, following the Garden family over three decades between 1880 and 1914, roughly. Mr Garden (or papa) is a clergyman who loses his faith and finds a new one on a regularly rotating basis; his six children, Victoria, Maurice, Stanley, Una, Irving and Rome handle this and the various vicissitudes of the years in various ways. Our implied point-of-view character is Rome, a detached and rather cynical observer who, after a brief and tragic love affair, essentially opts out of the sound and the fury of it all, in order to enjoy the circus of life as best she can.

Reading Told by an Idiot, I found myself thinking of Jane Austen’s description of Pride and Prejudice: “light and bright and sparkling” – despite the novel’s apparent pessimism. It’s a witty book, written in wry, pacy prose:

You may, for instance, inquire of a popular preacher, or any one else, who denounces his countrymen as “pagan” (as speakers, and even Bishops, at religious gatherings have been known to do) what, exactly, he means by this word, and you will find that he means irreligious, and is apparently oblivious of the fact that pagans were and are, in their village simplicity, the most religious persons who have ever flourished, having more gods to the square mile then the Christian or any other Church has ever possessed or desired, and paying these gods more devout and more earnest devotion than you will meet even among Anglo-Catholics in congress.

It is not particularly interested in the inner lives of its characters; its main point, made a number of times over the course of the novel, is that there is nothing new under the sun, that young people of each generation are always thought more daring than any young people ever before, that life is, in fact, a sort of inconsequential merry-go-round, ridiculous and occasionally wonderful.

Like many witty novels, it has at its heart a vein of frustration and bitterness. The Gardens are a middle-class family; they never really have to worry about money; they are as privileged, really, as anyone could have been in the late 1800s without actually being members of the aristocracy. And yet they are prevented by their society from fulfilling their potential in a number of ways. Maurice becomes trapped in marriage to a beautiful but selfish woman who won’t give him a divorce until he’s too old realistically to consider marrying again; and Stanley becomes trapped in a marriage to a man who cheats on her repeatedly, only to insist on his love for her. Perhaps most interesting is one of Stanley’s daughters (whose name I cannot at this point remember), a girl and then a woman with a highly developed inner life in which she sees herself as a man – a man who can go sailing on the high seas and fight in wars and battle Red Indians in America. (Stanley’s daughter is, unfortunately, quite racist.) This doesn’t get explored very much, but it’s present enough as a storyline that I wondered if it can’t be read as an early trans narrative.

And yet. I think, ultimately, the novel’s answer to these frustrations is insufficient. It’s essentially a novel about Rome: a woman who chooses to step away from her society, to remain unmarried and cynical and jobless – all the things that a woman isn’t supposed to be. She simply chooses not to participate, in an era that involved among other things the suffragist movement and the Boer war. She chooses apathy, the comfort of telling herself that the world cannot be changed. And, through her, so does Macaulay.

In other words, it’s a novel that’s conservative at heart. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it: it’s a wonderfully light read given its age, and a fresh look at a period that often feels all too familiar. It does mean I didn’t agree with it. And that’s fine! We don’t, after all, have to agree with everything we like.

Review: Shopaholic to the Stars

I am at Nine Worlds! So this review will be short.

Shopaholic to the Stars annoyed me. Not because it’s a sex-and-shopping novel about an utterly self-centred and totally vapid woman, because I expected that, nay, sought it out in fact. I read it in that one weekend in May when it was utterly gorgeous outside, and a light, fun, predictable, brain-fluff read was exactly what I wanted.

No, Shopaholic to the Stars annoyed me because it ends on a cliffhanger.

It’s the seventh entry in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, which follows the misadventures of, um, shopaholic Becky Bloomwood. Becky moves to L.A. when her hot-shot (and, obviously, just hot) husband Luke gets a job representing a Hollywood star, Sage Seymour. Becky sees this as a huge opportunity to launch a career as a Hollywood stylist, and of course gets into all kinds of shenanigans, which get worse and worse until her marriage runs into trouble and her best friend’s husband joins a cult and her best friend hates her and her nemesis makes friends with her best friend and everything, obviously, is terrible.

And then it just stops, as Becky embarks on a journey to go rescue her best friend’s husband. Then there is an advertisement for the next book. The commercial equation could not be clearer.

Look: a romantic comedy like this has one job, which is to reinforce the status quo by disturbing it and then remaking it, only better. That means all the problems have to be solved by the book’s end, because it’s not actually doing any other work that justifies a cliffhanger. So, Shopaholic to the Stars is not, in fact, a novel. It is half a novel. Which makes it bloody annoying to read on a summer’s day when all I want is a light, funny story with a consolatory ending.

I will not be seeking out the next book.

Top Ten Authors by Number of Their Books I Own

  1. Terry Pratchett. Good old Sir Terry wins by a considerable margin: I have most of the Discworld books, plus the first three Long Earth books, the Bromeliad trilogy, the Tiffany Aching series, a couple of Science of Discworld books, two Discworld spin-offs (Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook and The Discworld Companion), and a number of one-offs like The Unadulterated Cat and The Carpet People. And Good Omens, of course. 90% of everything he ever wrote is awesome.
  2. Brian Jacques. A family friend gave me a whole load of Redwall books when I was younger, and I bought a couple more: I read and re-read them endlessly.
  3. Enid Blyton. I have about 15 Famous Five books: lovely centenary hardback editions, given to me by my grandparents when I was small. Every time I went to see them they’d have another book for me. Obviously I can’t get rid of them.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien. I have a relatively small number of Tolkien books – 11, and that’s bulked out by French editions of The Lord of the Rings and a Latin edition of The Hobbit. I’ve never particularly been interested in the wider Legendarium, fragmentary and heavily edited by the Tolkien estate as it is – The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings are enough for me to visit Middle-earth. I also have Tree and Leaf, and Unfinished Tales, but that’s it.
  5. Eoin Colfer. The Artemis Fowl series was another that I loved as a child – I grew out of them after Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony (which was also, incidentally, when twelve-year-old Artemis and hundred-year-old Holly started crushing on each other, which, ugh).
  6. China Mieville. It is no secret that I am a massive Mieville fangirl, even though I only enjoy about half of his books. I have Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council, The Last Days of New Paris (signed!), Un Lun Dun, Kraken and The City and the City. Funnily enough, I only really like the first three of those; the other two I’ve loved, Railsea and Embassytown, I borrowed from the library. Oh! I also have the short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion on my TBR pile.
  7. Stephen King. The Dark Tower series, despite its disappointing back half, is still one of my favourite fantasy series, for its sheer ambition, its disjointed strangeness that echoes our world so terrifyingly.
  8. J.K. Rowling. I think this is probably a mandatory entry for anyone of my generation: I have the whole Harry Potter series, plus Quidditch Through the Ages. (My sister also has The Tales of Beedle the Bard and the scripts of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’m pretty sure I also used to have a copy of the spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but it’s been lost along the way.)
  9. Catherynne M. Valente. Valente’s lush prose and wild, strange worlds mean I basically hoard her books like treasures. I have four of her Fairyland books, Palimpsest and Six-Gun Snow White; Palimpsest is my favourite of the ones I own, but my very favourite is one I borrowed from the library, Radiance.
  10. Charles Dickens. Four of the Dickens books I own – Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son – are a set, given to me by my grandmother (not the one who gave me the Famous Five books). The other – David Copperfield, my least favourite – I bought in a second-hand bookshop.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Characters I’d Want with Me on a Desert Island

  1. Granny Weatherwax – the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. I reckon Granny would be great on a desert island; she’d get me to pull my socks up and get on with building a shelter and finding food and making a fire signal. I’m not saying it would be a fun experience, mind.
  2. Juliette Nichols – Wool, Hugh Howey. Juliette’s got a practical mind: she’s an engineering problem-solver. She’d be good at survival.
  3. Sam Gamgee – The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Sam is a sweetheart who never gives up. As the LOTR musical had it: “Wouldn’t retreat, just followed his feet/Now and for always.”
  4. Alana – Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Alana is badass and sassy and sexy and determined.
  5. Rosemary Harper – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. Another practically-minded woman who just gets on with things. Good in a crisis.
  6. Vlad Taltos – The Book of Taltos, Stephen Brust. Again, Vlad just seems very matter-of-fact; plus, he has survival skills, which seems an important quality in a desert island partner.
  7. Breq – Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. I’d want the Breq from later in the trilogy, the person who manages and politics her way to the most pragmatic and most equitable solution she can reach for everyone under her command. She’s someone who protects.
  8. Luisa Rey – Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. A quick thinker with a highly-developed sense of morality. Yes.
  9. Saltheart Foamfollower – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, Stephen Donaldson. The Giant Saltheart Foamfollower would be endlessly cheerful, and have an endless store of stories. “Joy is in the ear that hears.” He’d just be awesome.
  10. Dirk Gently – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams. Dirk would be infuriating, and in all likelihood very sexist, but also probably highly amusing. And amusement is at a premium on desert islands.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)