Review: Je Christine

Thanks to Robert forwarding me an email, I ran off to catch this performance at Bard yesterday. I always wish that Bard were better about letting folks know about things happening on campus. I hate hearing about them afterward!

A small but appreciative audience shared the experience and stayed to talk with Suzanne Savoy (who has an impressive list of accomplishments beyond television work!). She had been intrigued long ago by that wonderful image of Christine writing away in her chamber and while working on a very ‘painful’ television series (hmmm, wonder if it’s this one) decided to create a one-woman show in order to enjoy having complete control.

Savoy worked on the translation of Christine’s writings herself; having grown up in Montreal, she was inspired by the older nuns she knew there and their particular cadences of French. The play begins with the very medieval notion of Dame Fortune’s changeability and traces the ups and downs of her life and times from favoured child of her philosopher father to desperate woman in exile. Savoy has skilfully knitted together Christine’s texts with a few augments for context to bring to vivid life this extraordinary woman with passion, humour and grace. Moving around the compact yet evocative set, she gave a moving performance that made Christine’s skill and conversational style so clear, engaging the audience directly at times. The power of her delivery–even under thundering rain that started falling during the performance–made Christine’s timeless words reverberate. And we all agreed afterward that when she declared the storm would be over in war-torn France the rain actually seemed to slow at that moment.

And she’ll be at Kalamazoo, talking about her translation with the Christine de Pizan Society.

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[Yes, I know I need to write up my two conference trips for your vicarious pleasure — soon!]

Interview: Madonna of the Wasps

dvnrqmpuqaazeskFor those not on the ‘book, you can still see my interview with Chris Roy at Scream Hard Reviews here. I may be giving too much away with that picture of the outline of Madonna of the Wasps¬†in my notebook, but I trust my handwriting is so bad that it’s pretty much indecipherable. ūüėČ (Also note Stephanie’s SpeakEasy design mug, Karen Jolly’s Anglo-Saxon charms book, Heyer’s¬†Arabella, and the eyes of Hello Kitty).

Also The Blood Red Experiment has gained a few reviews, including a nice one here.

Review: Girl from the North Country

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Image via London Theatre Guide

I’ll be honest: I really really wanted to see Mosquitoes. I queued twice to try to get tickets. But I was denied the two Olivias (sob!). So I went to the Tkts booth intending to maybe see¬†Hamlet but there being only obstructed view, I decided to go with¬†Girl from the North Country. Advertising worked: I had seen that poster everywhere. Besides, the trip had picked up a musical theme somehow so it fit.

What a cast! Shirley Henderson, Ciar√°n Hinds, Bronagh Gallagher, Ron Cook, Jim Norton, Sheila Atim, Arinz√© Kene. Of course, the underlying strength of Dylan’s songs had to count for a lot too: and then there was the script and direction by Conor McPherson.

For me, it just didn’t work. There was so much that seemed like it would be right: the Great Depression setting, the diverse cast of singers, the potential for drama inherent in the songs. The performances were a knockout: the songs were wonderful to hear in a completely different way. Thoughtful interpretations of old favourites — though I could have done without the bros next to me singing along with Jokerman. Hearing Dylan’s songs in a new way that was more bluesy than the usual Broadway show tunes style made them a new experience. The cast, especially Atim, brought the tunes to life. All of them were wonderful in the songs and the arrangements were innovative and interesting without feeling like they were going for deliberate novelty.¬†The band was tight!

The script on the other hand — ugh! When you start out the play with a character introducing and setting up the scene, then saying ‘but I don’t come along until later’ — well, you’ve started out on the wrong foot. Theatre should throw you into a world, make it live. I’m hoping this is a work in progress because it definitely feels like one. The ideas are there but I didn’t believe even one of the characters. They felt like plot points. It’s to the credit of the stellar cast that they poured themselves into these characters. I felt for the actors but I never much felt for the characters.

Everything about it felt anachronistic. There’s so much here with potential: the economic hardship, the precarious difficulty of being a carer — Henderson’s character seemed to be as ‘crazy’ as the plot required at the moment though she wrung a good bit of sympathy out of this difficult woman, while the characterisation of the apparently autistic boy felt too much like a plot idea that never came to life — and the racial tensions which are brought up and then kind of sidestepped. I realise in a musical people might want to avoid getting too dark but seriously, it’s the Great Depression. You’re going to have to embrace the dark.

But I seem to be in a minority here, so see it for yourself and tell me what you think.

FFB: Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe

porterhouse_blue_bookI have been thinking about academic novels lately because I am — much as I swore never to do so — working on a roman √† clef called Hire Idiots (the topic of which ought to be abundantly clear). I taught Lucky Jim in my senior seminar and enjoyed my students’ reactions to it. I’ve been thinking of re-reading Waugh’s Decline and Fall, but I can’t seem to find it. I’m not sure it’s even possible to write satire anymore as reality outstrips it, but now that I’ve started I want to finish.

I had not read Tom Sharpe’s novel of a fictional college at Cambridge. He’s probably best known for the Wilt novels. There’s no Jim Dixon or Paul Pennyfeather to fasten our sympathies to in this novel: everybody is kind of awful in a cringingly realistic way. There is the poor post graduate student Zipser who commands our pity if not sympathy, but alas, he exits the story rather early on. There are some great comedic scenes.

What’s fun about this book is the horrible way the petty politics quickly ascend to the heights of absurdity as the new Master of Porterhouse arrives and intends to make big changes. In the cyclical nature of politics (which I suppose ought to give us some hope at the moment) this 1974 novel gives us a college of hidebound tradition faced with the liberalising force of a reformer. Sharpe makes all the partisans ridiculous, but not without sympathy. The bullying Master is bullied by his wife (women are either harpies or sexpots if they appear at all, alas), the deaf Chaplain is mostly kind, the put-upon Bursar leaps from frying pan to fire, and the snobby porter has been grossly misused.

Anyone who has been in academia (or academia adjacent) will appreciate the humour here — especially when the score-settling tv host who’s also an alum arrives. Sharpe’s humour mostly rests in good and bad intentions going madly awry. I’ve got the mini-series based on it to watch when I get the time. Some quotes:

‘As far as the College Council is concerned I think that the best policy will be one of…er…amiable inertia.’

‘There’s nothing like prevarication,’ the Dean agreed, ‘I have yet to meet a liberal who can withstand the attrition of prolonged discussion of the inessentials.’ [ouch]

With the experience of hundreds of hours in committees behind him, the Master anticipated the arguments that would be raised against him by the Fellows…It was precisely on such divisions of opinion that he thrived. The original issue would get lost in argument and he would emerge as the arbiter between divided factions.

But first he needed an ally. He ran through the Fellows in search of a weak link.

‘We shall muddy the issue until it is uncertain…If there must be dirt let there be lots of it.’

‘Trouble with you academic wallahs,’ said Sir Cathcart finally…,’is you take things too seriously.’ [cringe]

‘In my opinion genius is by definition a capacity to jump the whole process of taking infinite pains, but then as I say, nobody listens to me.’

There was something perverse about English political attitudes that defeated logic.

His had been an intellectual decision founded on his conviction that if a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, a lot was lethal.

See all the neglected books over at Patti Abbott’s place.

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The Secret to Life

Featured Image -- 9079…can be yours for just $19.99 down and $19.99 a month until you finish buying all my books which should take less than a year, I expect (someone do the calculations: I can’t be bothered). Everything I’ve published over decades could be read in a year. Humbling, eh?

Is that a sufficiently clickbaity title? Apparently that’s all that matters anymore. Nothing has legs, nothing lasts past the news cycle. Let us all hope that tomorrow brings an end to some of the madness. As I said to a friend on the Facebook, I hope after tomorrow I can stop worrying about the destruction of the planet quite so anxiously and get back to worrying anxiously about the destruction of higher education.

(-_-)

But the secret to life: it was there in my review on Friday, right at the top. It is there in my humorous volume How to Be Dull, too — though a bit hidden behind the amusing digressions. It’s even in the pages of my ongoing #NaNoWriMo novel between the murder mystery and social commentary (and you can give a $1 to help kids find the joy of writing).

WWWBD? I have that on the corkboard in my office. What does William Blake say?

  • Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
  • If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
  • The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
  • No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.

Or in other words, take care of your self with kindness, pursue the things you love, when troubled create something you enjoy, take pride in your work. Blake died penniless and forgotten, but he was a genius. There are no guarantees in life. If he had been famous, I suspect he would never have trusted it. All he trusted was his inspiration. Be inspired.

Blake Imagined

Review: Radio Girls

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Sarah-Jane Stratford

The Great War is over, and change is in the air, in this novel that brings to life the exciting days of early British radio …and one woman who finds her voice while working alongside the brilliant women and men of the BBC London, 1926.

‘If we have the sense to give [broadcasting] freedom and intelligent direction, if we save it from exploitation by vested interests of money or power, its influence may even redress the balance in favour of the individual.’

Hilda Matheson, Broadcasting (1933)

Did you know talk radio was started by a woman? Did you know she wrote a handbook for radio broadcasting in 1933? And was also an agent of MI5? And worked with Lawrence of Arabia and Lady Astor? Does it sound like too much to pack into a novel? Are you now shouting aloud, ‘Why has no one told me about this amazing woman before!’ because I certainly was. Hilda Matheson was a pioneer, a visionary, spy, writer, insightful revolutionary, lover of Vita Sackville-West — well, it’s all gilding the lily a bit. If she hadn’t existed, you’d have wanted to invent her.

In this novel Stratford does a very wise thing: she looks at Matheson through the eyes of a young Canadian-American expat whose life is transformed by working with her. In so doing she gets to use all the fun of a novel (adventure, romance, intrigue, friendships) to show the glories of the beginning of the institution that is the BBC. It was once full of women who were over time systematically driven out. As I’m also immersed in early electronic pioneers Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, it’s easy to see how women keep getting nudged out of history by neglect because men are trumpeted for genius and women are loathed for it.

Stratford’s protagonist, Canadian-American Maisie Musgrove, is gauche and a bit overwrought at first, but this allows us to see the peculiarly British system that makes up the BBC. It’s one that has the latitude to offer opportunities to women — when everyone thinks it will fail — and then squeeze them out casually once the power of the institution becomes clear.

Musgrove’s transformation is gradual and affecting. Though desperate for a job, any job, at the start she soon comes to realise the power of sound and voice. She begins to listen to the people on the trams, the click of heels on lino, and appreciates the artistry but also the science behind the broadcasts. When an emergency requires use of the old 2LO transmitter, Hilda introduces Maisie to its intricacies and she’s captivated by its magic ‘but it wasn’t magic. It was better. This was the result of endless questions, the search for answers.’

The pace is breezy: I read two-thirds of it in one evening, but there’s a lot of history and information here too. In the lead up to the second world war, there are a lot of people who want to commandeer the power of the new medium and very real intrigues went on behind the scenes. Matheson’s determination to keep the plurality of voices represented is something, alas, the BBC seems to have lost.

I appreciated the author’s note at the end and just ordered Kate Murphy’s Behind the Wireless: An Early History of Women at the BBC which Stratford recommends. The book is out in the US too (though the cover isn’t as pretty, as usual). A very fun read that’s also chock full of interesting history.

Review: Much Ado about Nothing @DundeeRep

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I am grateful to have so many opportunities to enjoy Dundee Rep, though I am shaking my fist to know I will miss for the second time my pal Gary Robertson’s latest play Scaffies which will be on in late January after I have to return stateside. However, I’m looking forward to their production of The Scottish Play in the Botanic Gardens: what a great idea!

Saturday we caught Much Ado about Nothing, the Bard’s light-hearted tale of trickery, mockery and a little love. Designer Ken Harrison prepared what seems like an enormous castle with a lot of different spaces for people to listen and mishear. Director Irene Macdougall has the actors making good use of all the walls, pillars and corners even between the acts, as there is no curtain.

The cast were all terrific. I loved that the evil Don John is costumed as a kind of Puritan or maybe Huguenot in contrast to the other merry folk. I particularly liked Jo Freer as a bawdy Margaret and Anne Louise Ross (Granny Island!) did doubly duty as the solemn Friar or Abbess and as the stiff comic foil Verges with Anthony Strachan’s Dogberry. Great comedy work there.

Of course the heart of the story is the witty battle between Beatrice and Benedick. Robert Jack brought a great physical ease to the role which often tends to rest on the words alone. Lots of fun. Emily Winter was in every way his match, confident and strong as well as hilarious. Beatrice is a complicated role because she also has to make you weep for poor, wronged Hero (Marli Siu) and Winter really tore your heart out with the speech that includes those indelible lines, ‘O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.’

Running two more weekends. Go see it.