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Drunk Theatre: “Hamlet” by Hiraeth Productions, Riverside Studios

Photo by Adam Trigg.

Adam Lawrence as Hamlet. Photo by Adam Trigg

 

I went to see Hiraeth ProductionsHamlet thanks to what is unquestionably the best email I have ever gotten, which began, “Hi Kerry, We at Hiraeth Artistic Productions loved your drunk review of our Richard III so much that we wanted to invite you along to review our next production”.

LIFE SUCCESS, GUYS! Truly I have forged an excellent future for myself in this important line of drunk arts criticism and it’s all G&Ts and midweek press nights from here on out: life sorted! Now however I went to the show in early June and it closed in late June, and if you’ve spotted the flaw in the fact that this post is going up at the end of July then congratulations you and well done on self-sabotaging your glorious would-have-been future me, and I deeply apologise to Tabitha, Hiraeth’s very kind press officer.

Nevertheless: The second Saturday in June was the first warm weekend day of the summer, and in the afternoon I went to Hammersmith to eat tacos and drink pitchers of margaritas, followed by prosecco followed by cider followed by gin, in the park by the river with Ewan and two single friends who I was idly hoping would hit it off. It was a very warm day and we got through A Fair Bit Of Booze before two of us peeled off to the Riverside Studios, where it remained very warm inside the theatre. This caused the actors to get a bit sweaty (helloooooo) and also resulted in me doing something I am very not proud of.

(Did I order another drink for the first half? I think so? Why did I do that?)

Director/HAP artistic director Zoe Ford picked out the concept from one of Hamlet’s more melodramatic lines, and set the story in a literal prison. Hamlet (Adam Lawrence) came on in a funeral suit and changed (onstage, helloooooooo) into grey sweats; the guard bringing him back inside murmured, “I’m sorry for your loss”. First question: why is Hamlet in prison? It’s presumably not for his father’s murder if he’s just been let out to go to the funeral; has Claudius framed him for something? Has young Hamlet actually killed a man, like Moses? Are they a mob family and has Hamlet been charged with something that stuck? Is he a fall guy?

The lack of explanation isn’t a fault with the concept, it’s excellent. Shakespeare has no problem throwing unexplained setups at us (Why is Lear splitting up his kingdom? Why did Duke Frederick depose Duke Senior? What war are the Dons coming back from?) and the imprisonment of the crown prince was the same thing, a fact that told us a lot about the rules of the world were dealing with – one in which it is acceptable to jail the queen’s son – and the character of this Hamlet – violent and very capable of decisive action.

Claudius (Russell Barnett) and Gertrude (Joyce Greenaway) were like George and Lucille Bluth played straight. Gertrude was naturally concerned for her son but I think slightly relieved that she didn’t have to deal with him at home any more. When she spoke with him after The Mousetrap, it was during contained visiting hours, and was broken up by a guard. When she drank from a poisoned water bottle, Claudius stepped back and watched her fall.

Ophelia (Jessica White) was a therapist who led group sessions among the prisoners (a lot of rejigging of lines here: The Mousetrap was awesomely staged as a therapeutic work that Hamlet’s parents were grudgingly coming to see, like parents to an awful primary school play). Her affair with Hamlet was a transgression in the opposite direction than it usually is, since inside the prison she had more social power than he did. Administrator Laertes (Darcy Vanhinsbergh) and warden Polonius (Antony Kernan) warning her off him was shaded by that implication that she was taking advantage of him, as well as potentially getting in over her head with a convicted felon.

The setting also brought out how much in the play Hamlet prefers the company of outsiders. He wants to leave Denmark for Germany; he blows off the royal family and the aristocracy to hang out with non-courtier Horatio and the palace guards; he overidentifies with Norwegian prince Fortinbras, and bonds with pirates and gravediggers. The grey prison sweats and the physical separation of bars and visiting hours really underlined that solidarity with Horatio, Bernardo and Marcellus, and distance from Ophelia, Laertes and the royals.

I can’t remember what they did with the gravedigger scene but I really liked it. Ditto the line reading of “Well, well, well”. These are scrawled in my notebook with big tick marks next to them, which is how I know they were good. I do remember the excellent lighting design when Ophelia killed herself; I can practically still smell the chlorine of the institution’s swimming pool.

The only bit I didn’t feel quite came together in the prison setting was Laertes’ part in the second half. In the play it’s really Laertes, not Hamlet, who leaks the outside world into the palace, when he opens the doors to the commons and threatens to lead a popular insurgency against the royals. In Hiraeth’s production the ‘court’ world was (intentionally) much more vague than the prison, so it wasn’t clear what a crowd calling “Laertes shall be king!” meant. His fight with Hamlet was heart-in-mouth – boxing with concealed shivs – but it didn’t have the weight and feeling of tragic balance that it can have when Laertes is grounded politically as well as emotionally.

To be honest I’m not sure if that could have been brought in while keeping the prison setting, and anyway I don’t need all Shakespeare productions to nail every part of a play; I expect in a few years there will be a fringe production that’s All About Laertes and leaves the audience going ‘wait, who’s that Horatio guy?’ or something. (And I will be there every night because Laertes is the besssst.)

Anyway, now that I’ve seen two Hiraeth productions I’m a definite, committed fan, not only because they don’t seem to mind when I turn up plastered and enthusiastic. They do Shakespeare energetically and really seem to enjoy cracking apart the plays and working them over to see what happens. They’ve also got over the slightly hand-wringy hesitance some fringe companies have, of feeling like they have to justify Doing Shakespeare, King of the Dead White European Men, and so treat him distantly, gingerly or ironically. Hiraeth is more like, because he’s a genius that’s why (and he is a genius), now everybody sit down and let’s theatre.

Characters in Hiraeth productions also take their shirts off and say “Fuck” a lot, choices I strongly approve of. So I’m planning to keep going to see them. And you should too! Only you can’t see their Hamlet because it closed last month. Sorry.

0

Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Road

Foyles Charing Cross Road
Foyles Charing Cross Road
Foyles Charing Cross Road
Foyles Charing Cross Road

Aren’t bookshops great? Apparently when I was a wee Portlander of six or seven, I asked my parents if Powell’s did birthday parties (it doesn’t, which in retrospect is probably one of the main reasons I fled America for the land of my ancestors). Powell’s is an excellent bookshop and probably one of the world’s best, although like most of Portland it suffers from overexposure these days among the twee bourgeoisie (I include myself in this group). It has very high shelves of medium brown wood, big crowded rooms organised by topic, and my favourite ever sign in a bookshop or any shop: Nautical Fiction / Erotica.

Foyles is the exciting big bookshop where you want to have your birthday party of London. It’s the best in the country (Blackwells is better organised, therefore less interesting), mostly because it’s trying to be a Bookshop in the way I think a bookshop morally should be, getting people excited about books as well as putting on really good events for people who are already excited about books and want to share that with other excited people. It puts on international literary tours and live-action Where’s Wally? hunts for kids and says lovely earnest things like, “Wherever possible we make our events at all of our branches free of charge so that everyone can experience the joy of hearing an author talk about or read from their work.”

In June the main branch moved a few doors down Charing Cross Road to a bigger space, in the building that used to house Central Saint Martin’s art college. In an Age of Dying Print and the Rise of the E-Book I find it very pleasing that Foyles is confident enough to move from its Grand Flagship to a Grander Flagship. Chris Foyle, the current majority owner (and grand-nephew of the Founding Foyles, William and Gilbert) said in the Guardian before the opening that he intended people to come to the new shop like they do Harrods or Hamleys, for the experience of being in an attractive place selling interesting things.

It’s light and airy inside, which I’m not sure a bookstore should be, but it is very pleasant. On the opening weekend they had displays showing off how much of an Institution Foyles is: a table of proper published books that mention the bookstore, by eg VS Naipaul, Mary Wesley, MC Beaton, John le Carre, and a “literary beginnings” table of (I think) books originally published or championed by Foyles.

The displays in the front room and the entrance to each floor are well spaced out, so you can stop in front of the staff recommendation shelves to look through them without feeling like you’re about to be in someone’s way. Walking up the stairs takes you past a recommendation shelf on each floor, an architectural choice hilariously patterned on Yo Sushi conveyor belts that was very successful for me, at least, as I was trying to speedwalk up to the café but kept going “ooh, that looks interesting!” and pivoting around to flip through books on the history of the drinking horn or the Year of Four Emperors.

The shop’s free wifi sends you to a book search page that shows you the exact location in the shop of the book you want, which is delightful.

Café
Cafe bar at Foyles
Cafe at Foyles

The Jazz Café at old Foyles was a famously great place to park yourself and read, write and generally Do Literary Café Things all afternoon, if you could get a seat. The new one is less cosy wooden coffeeshop and more minimalist warehouse loft. There are exposed pipes, the lights are bare bulbs in mason jars (seriously) and a large stained glass partition blocks off the back corner, which has some faux-Kabbalah designs and the phrase, AN IMAGE OF TRUTH, in block white letters; this is The Gallery and is apparently an installation by a former Central St Martins student. The font in the toilets is Helvetica.

Double espresso (£2.25) was good and it was easier to find a table than it was at the old one, at least at 11am on a Thursday. It’s light and exactly noisy enough that you can eavesdrop if you want to or pay attention to your book if you want to. I wavered about having lunch there or one of Soho’s many very good restaurants, and decided to stay put as the food seemed good value; this was the wrong choice. “Free range chicken pomegranate salad with giant couscous” (£8.50) sounded peppy but was commitedly tasteless; the chicken was pale, soggy and flaccid, the pomegranate was unripe and the couscous was like eating soft clumps of white noise. It was a completely joyless dish and I felt sad and embarrassed that an animal had died for it.

That said, I partially blame myself since bookshop cafés (like National Heritage sites) are traditionally not great for meals but usually good for cakes. I tested this and it was borne out at Foyles too. Orange lavender slice (£3.50) was lovely, thick, ideally iced and exactly the right place on the dry-moist spectrum to be beautiful with tea. I ate it and watched some builders wandering around the next level up, where there is a piano and a mic stand, implying there will be a dedicated music space like the old café had (hooray!).

I like a little bit of nook and cranny in my bookshop and the new Foyles does have a few among the straight clean lines and natural light. Half the third floor is foreign-language books, since in 2011 Foyles bought Grant and Cutler, then the biggest foreign-language bookseller in the UK. Crime and Sci-Fi are right next to each other, as are Film and Philosophy. It’s easy to accidentally go up or down a floor, which is fun. It’s a good building to wander around in. And yes, it does birthday parties.

1

“It’s a bad country for Jews”: Anti-semitism in Europe when Israel and Palestine fight

Statue of Alfred Dreyfus at the Jewish Art and History Museum in Paris

 

To hear some of my friends tell it, moving to Paris meant plunging into a roiling pit of anti-Semitism, Vichy, Le Pen and the Dreyfus affair all rolled up and ready to attack.

“You know France is really anti-Semitic.”

“It’s the largest Jewish community in Europe,” I said.

“It’s because of their history.”

“Actually, France was the first European country to make Jews full citizens.”

“The leftist movement there is really anti-Semitic.”

“Oh, the leftist movement everywhere is a bit anti-Semitic.”

“The number of people making aliyah from France is massively increasing.”

“That’s just scaremongering.”

“It’s a bad country for Jews.”

On Friday, the day after I left Paris, someone firebombed a synagogue in Belleville. In my last week, a 17-year-old Jewish girl filed a police report saying she was pepper-sprayed and called a ‘dirty Jew’ near Canal St-Martin. On Sunday, protesters attacked synagogues off Place de la Bastille, about ten minutes’ walk from my flat, trapping people inside for hours until the police used tear gas on the crowd outside.

Ewan came down to see me the first weekend of July, and we visited the Jewish museum. “I really hope there isn’t an attack!” I said. “I hope so too!” Ewan said cheerfully. There had been a shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels a few weeks before. I didn’t really doubt there would be something similar in Paris soon; I was just hoping it missed us.

I am of course much safer than people in Israel and certainly than people in Palestine. Friends in Israel have been watching the Iron Dome destroy rockets aimed at them a few hundred feet above their heads, and making black jokes about waiting for ‘the boom’; friends in Palestine, who don’t have the same access to social media, have still been able to share stories and pictures of the rubble of their homes and communities.

(I’ve never been to Israel or Palestine, despite the gentle pressure, which I suspect comes both from the religious community and Israel’s tourism board, to visit Israel as some kind of Jewish duty; my opinion of what’s happening there is a fairly basic “HEY GUYS MAYBE STOP TRYING TO KILL PEOPLE?” But then again I am not a specialist in the region.)

Still, safer doesn’t mean safe: when ‘tensions’ (bombings and deaths) rise in Israel and Palestine, people start attacking Jews in Europe.

On Sunday night I was at a pub in north London watching the World Cup final. When an early Argentina goal was declared offside, a drunk Germany fan whooped and gestured at the screen with his right hand, palm down, arm stiff. “…I think that guy just did a Nazi salute?” I said. My friends looked up. He was waving both arms around. “Mm, I think he’s just drunk.” Twenty minutes later when Germany came close to scoring he did it again, then faced the room and did it to us. “Oh. No, okay. Yeah.”

In case you’ve never experienced it yourself, I can tell you that it’s very difficult to sit in a room and enjoy a football match when someone is gesturing, “I think exterminating you and all people like you is a good idea or at least an amusing one” ten feet away. I’m slightly embarrassed to say I felt personally unsafe, even though in the end he didn’t do anything more aggressive than blocking the view and expanding his repertoire to the quenelle (très international!).

The worst part is you really have no idea when something is going to kick off. Jewish museums and synagogues are obvious targets, but it could happen anywhere. Aside from avoiding synagogues and Jew-y places like museums (which I’m not going to do) and not looking obviously Jewish (which I’m not ethnically; I’ve also stopped wearing my chai necklace in public for now), I don’t think I can really do anything but reiterate my main opinion on the whole mess: HEY GUYS MAYBE STOP TRYING TO KILL PEOPLE?

0

Ten Things I Hate About Paris

Don’t get me wrong, Paris is brilliant. This is a list I’m making so that, when I go back to London in a little over a week, I’ll be doing it gracefully and not while uglycrying and digging my nails into the Eurostar check-in desk.

1. Parisians don’t quite understand what the handrails on the Metro are for.

Example:

Guys, what am I supposed to do with that? I’m assuming they’re Parisians because they’re the ones speaking French and archly smirking as we wide-eyed foreigners look baffled about where we’re supposed to put our hands and try not to fall over, but hey Jean-Paul, can you not instead just déplacer tu derriere?

2. Everyone here speaks English.

How is this a problem, you ask. It’s because I am IN THEORY here to improve mon francais, but what has instead happened is that everyone listens to me speak for five words and then cuts gracefully in in English. The result of this is that now when someone approaches me and speaks to me in French, or I meet one of the few people here who doesn’t speak English (usually someone in a shop when I am trying to find plastic cups to drink wine out of at a picnic, or something similarly urgent), I go “Uhhhhh, uhhhhhhhhhhhhh, le, um, oh god I’m so sorry” and run away. (Not chic.)

3. My flat has a few issues:

  • It is up six flights of stairs.
  • There is no oven, or microwave, or any way to heat things other than two stovetop hobs.
  • The stovetop hobs are currently covered in books and empty wine bottles (to be fair this is my fault).
  • The washing machine doesn’t work. I discovered this after attempting to run a load of laundry, and when I emailed the landlord (Airbnb renter) to ask about this he went “Oh yeah, I should have mentioned that! There’s a laundromat just around the corner! Really easy!” “Great,” I muttered as I stared down at my damp powder-covered underpants.
  • Toilet makes gurgling noises and pipes knock randomly, meaning I am in constant fear of a sewage explosion.
  • Lots of great bars and cafés around means I am staying out late drinking avec locals and watching la Coupe de Monde, leading to sleep deprivation, grumpiness, purple hollows under eyes, puffy face, etc. (NOT CHIC.)
  • Has a view of the Eiffel Tower, but you have to wedge yourself into a really odd corner next to the stove, so you’re either uncomfortably going “Hmm, yes, that is the Eiffel Tower all right! It sure is tall and iconic!” or comfortably sitting somewhere else going “HEY WHY AREN’T YOU LOOKING AT YOUR AMAZING VIEW OF THE EIFFEL TOWER RIGHT NOW, PARIS WASTER???!!?!”

yes good can I go to bed now

4. Really pushy dudes.

Really pushy! Sometimes they are grabby-pushy (I had a lovely experience with a guy who didn’t even seem very drunk, who grabbed my arm when I was walking home from house party near Pere Lachaise at 3am and, when I tried to keep walking, shouting some very rude words at me) or sometimes they just slide up and sit next to you while you are reading at a bar or café and start talking to you without checking for any kind of interest whatsoever, but either way I am really missing the awkward London don’t-make-eye-contact stranger shuffle.

5. Walking all across the city in any spare time is wearing out my favourite shoes and sometimes scraping the skin off my feet.

(Of course the alternative, which would be not walking around Paris all the time whenever I can, would still be worse.)

6. Gorgeous fluffy crisp-crusted baguettes for less than a euro fresh-baked at every hour of the day or evening

wait that’s for the other list dammit

7. Deodorant is five euro.

Not even posh deodorant, but the Monoprix own-brand stuff that slowly comes apart in your hands after a few days and drips on the floor when you’re putting it on. Yesterday I came home and saw three drops of thick white fluid drying on the floor, so of course I immediately thought, Is that semen? Has someone been sneaking into my flat to masturbate? Is that something that’s likely to have happened? My laptop and camera are still around so probably not? Anyway it doesn’t smell like semen? So I wiped it up and forgot about it until this morning, when I picked up my deodorant and it was OOZING. Floor semen mystery solved! Why this cheap plastic applicator costs more than £4 = case still open.

8. THERE ARE PEOPLE EVERYWHERE.

Yes, I appreciate that I am also a tourist and therefore also clogging up the streets with people who are goggling around going “ooh look it’s a big famous thing! Or a café! Or a dog! Que Parisien!” and taking lots of photos.

“Look, a street with a restaurant on it! I must photograph this immediately for such things do not exist anywhere else in the world”

EG Shakespeare & Company is objectively a fantastic bookstore, but it’s also crammed (when I walked by there was a queue to get in!) with 19-year-old Americans who think Jack Kerouac is deep, and while many of us have been such a 19-year-old American, that doesn’t mean I particularly want to spend time with them now. I am particularly resentful about this because the sort of pretentions expats I want to hang out with aren’t around during the summer: my attempts to lurk around the Sorbonne and eavesdrop on arguments about political philosophy have been thwarted by classes being out.

9. I am legitimately coming close to finding out whether there is such a thing as peak baguette.

10. The fact that this, whatever it is, took place before I got here but the poster is still up in my favourite local wine shop, taunting me:

Guys, I have no idea what’s going on here but I really want in on it.

14

I have seen the face of Parisian cool, and it is not me

Yeah, after last night I can confirm that I am definitely not cool. Don’t get me wrong, I am pretty great, but I’m great in ways that are not cool. I found this out when I accidentally invited myself to a house party of extremely cool strangers and it was awful.

After the Portugal-Ghana match, I went to dinner at Candeleria, a trendy Mexican bar/restaurant in the 3rd. Standing next to me at the bar was a rail-thin woman in a tied-up crop top that was basically a long-sleeved bra, who was pouring drinks all over herself (and me) and wailing insincerely in an American accent, “I’m soooooooo sorrrrrrrrrrrry!” In an attempt to set a good counterexample of My People I sat up straight and pointedly read Eric Hobsbawm, although this was on my Kindle so I think the snobby leftist intellectualism failed to come across. The bartender was an exasperated geek girl aged about 20 in a white-and-black-striped cotton shirt and dark blue skinny jeans, who looked like Velma from Scooby Doo and had not yet learned the Parisian customer service art of blithely not giving a shit.

I ordered a plate of guacamole and a chorizo taco (both excellent) and a SoCal-Mexican-style frozen margarita. The bar had two frozen margarita mixers, one pale green (lime) and one red (hibiscus). The man accompanying the drunk American woman pointed to the red one. “We’ll have two of those, I guess?” He was also American and had a beard and looked like an annoying Ryan Reynolds. Young Velma poured them and handed them over with a hopeful openness that made me want to take her home and explain about everything terrible in the world.

Two minutes later the woman, who I am going to call Heidi on the basis that I once met a Heidi who looked and acted a lot like her, had a sip and set the drink back on the bar, and waved over Young Velma. “I’m soooooooo sorrrrrrrrrry,” she said. “But I don’t know how it happened, but we ordered regular margaritas?”

“…”, said Young Velma.

“I just,” she said to the man, “I can’t.” She gestured. “Drink this, I can’t. Drink it.” To Velma. “I ordered a normal margarita.”

“…”, said Young Velma. After a fifteen-second eye contact standoff that I don’t think Heidi understood was happening, Velma poured a regular frozen margarita and handed it across to her.

I moved the hibiscus margarita away from the edge of the bar, as I was wearing a blue and white sundress and Heidi had been tipping drinks all over the place. She knocked back the one in her hand in about five minutes and started holding onto her man friend like he was the hand rail in a metro carriage. He looked torn between feeling like he should be delighted at having a Hot Drunk Woman in his arms and genuine concern for her wellbeing. Heidi looked around. “Where’s my drink?”

“You drank it, hon,” he said.

“No. There it is!” she said, and grabbed the red margarita. A third of it went onto my skirt. “Oh my god, I’m sooooooooooooooo sorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry!” she said.

Young Velma wordlessly ran a clean dish towel under the tap for ten seconds, and handed it to me to dab at my dress.

I got stain out and decided that was about as much Cool Bar as I had the energy for, so I finished my own drink, paid up and tipped Young Velma 50%, and slid past Heidi’s man, who had moved through confusion into full anxiety (“Hon, don’t you think you should have some food?” “People are always saaaaaying that! You sound like my rooooooommate!”).

As I walked towards Republique metro station, from a first-floor window I heard glasses clinking, people laughing and someone playing a guitar and singing in a French accent one of my favourite ever songs: “Well, our luck may have died and our love may be cold, but with you forever I’ll stay/We’re going out where the sand’s turning to gold…”

I stopped to listen. I felt a very simple happiness. I started to sing along quietly.

An incredibly handsome man sitting at the window noticed me. He leaned out and said, “Bon soir!”

“Bon soir!” I said. I was embarrassed and lightly drunk.

“You like it?”

“I like Bruce.”

He laughed. “Come up! I mean it. The door code is B1467.” I had to make him repeat this three times. I crossed the street and buzzed inside. Upstairs he had opened the door to the flat, and greeted me with two cheek kisses and a hand grazing my lower back.

Everyone in the room was very good-looking and (this is crucial) cool. The women were thin, with long, unbrushed hair and bright red lipstick; they all looked like Kate Moss body doubles. The men were also all thin in a wiry-muscly way, and were wearing white or blue button-up shirts and pressed jeans, and everyone – everyone – had a glass of wine in their right hand and a cigarette between the first two fingers of the same hand. I was immediately and unquestionably perceived and treated as The Fat One. (I am a UK size 14.)

A Belgian woman named Mathilde introduced herself (everyone also spoke English). “So what are you doing in Paris?”

“Er, je suis journaliste.”

“Oh, de la mode?”

“Uh, no, de, um, terrorisme.”

Wide eyes. “Wow! …Do you read much about fashion?”

I determined that Everyone usually met at this place before going on to Wherever. “How do you know Michel?” she asked. Michel was presumably the ridiculously handsome man whose flat it was. “Oh, I don’t actually, I was, um, just passing by after dinner–” “Oh, you’ve had dinner? Already?” It was 9pm.

Michel slid by and pulled me up by the hand. “You can drink whatever you want!” he said, guiding me to the kitchen bar. There was a bottle of room-temperature rosé and a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels; I poured myself a full glass of the rosé.

I went back to the sitting room, where after the contractually obligated singalong of “Wonderwall”, Michel announced, “OK, bar! We are leaving here in two minutes!” I thought, what the hell, it’s only nine-fifteen, I’ll go on to the second location (which by then was technically my fourth location). It was after dark but still so pleasant that no one needed a jacket. As we walked over to a bar I chatted with a tall woman from Thailand. “You live in London? You’re so lucky!” She was extremely pretty and turned out to be a model.

At the bar drunken conversation followed and I hated all of it. Every time I made a joke people looked blank and smiled politely, and I don’t know whether it was because I couldn’t speak French and they were all getting back at me by pretending to not get jokes in English, or I’m just not very funny, but each time I felt more insecure and retreated, so my contributions got more and more obscure and incoherent until I was just chugging red wine and paraphrasing All’s Well to make myself laugh.

I finally decided to cut my losses and go home, and au revoired everyone, who half-heartedly waved me off and kept talking to each other.

Michel stopped me on the corner with a hand on my wrist, and slid his arm around my waist.

“But, you’re not coming home with me?” he said. He seemed genuinely confused. “I thought we were going to sleep together.”

Reader, he was banging hot, and I had a sudden flash of what it would be like to kiss him, and it was very excellent indeed. I was sincerely tempted to go back to his flat and make out frantically for twenty minutes before jumping up and running home in a fit of self-loathing (this was my MO in university). But I discovered I really didn’t want to, because I love my husband so much.

It was one of the most illuminating moments of my marriage. I’ve never had such an enticing temptation so obviously laid in front of me, or had such a clean response to it. I could see that it would be a delightful experience, but also I just didn’t want to do it.

When I got together with Ewan I was much younger than I thought I would be when I met my husband – I was 23 – but I have never felt anything that was automatically so right and made me feel so happy, except maybe moving to London when I was 20. I can’t believe that I’m 27 and I’ve been married for three years. 22-year-old me would be so skeptical. But getting married to Ewan was both the easiest major decision I’ve ever made and the one that has made me the most happy every day since making it (you’ll be excused to go vomit in a plastic bag).

Anyway, I couldn’t remember whether I’d mentioned my uxorial status, but I thought my ring was a clear signifier, so I said, “Um, I’m married…?”

Michel shrugged. “Not in Paris.”

I didn’t have the skill or sobriety to argue against such urbane sophistication, so I stepped back and said, “Okay, bye,” and shook hands with him and walked off through the Marais back to my flat. I got in about 1am and I’m pretty sure I was still drunk in the morning when I got up and went to work.

I think a cool person would have been comfortable at the crowded noisy bar and resigned to Heidi dumping drinks all over the place, at home in the strange house party, and possibly even okay with having a one-night affair with the hot (he was so hot) Frenchman who was so clearly into me. But guys, I am really not cool. Even including the first and last extremely flattering exchanges with said Frenchman, I was uncomfortable and awkward in every conversation I had. Not that the people weren’t nice – they were, or seemed to be, generally good-natured, friendly and welcoming, and even Michel took rejection very easily, with a Gallic shrug and a handshake – but because I just didn’t have anything to talk about with them.

Really what I think this means is that I need to get a paper copy of Hobsbawm, so that when I am stroppily reading mid-century revolutionary theory in a trendy bar, I can do it at people.

7

Richard II: Flint Castle, Wales

It’s either ironic or very appropriate that I’m writing this from Paris as the sun sets and the sky turns from blue to pink to gold; Wales was rocky grey and green and very dull. Not all of Wales, of course! Hay on Wye is rightly famous for books and Hereford for cider. But the north coast of Flintshire is neither inspiring nor interesting, especially in January, which is when I went. After a sunny Saturday afternoon lunch in London with friends and lots of fizzy wine, I got on the Tube and sat across from two women with no overnight bags who I realised were getting the same train I was. “It’s at four forty-six, do you think we’ll be all right for seats?” one said.

“Yeah,” the other said, with an undertone of obviously. “Not too many people going up to the coast this time of year, are they? All cold and wet and black?”

“I suppose so,” her friend agreed cheerfully. “It’s grim!”

Dark fell just after we left Euston. Stations were further and further apart as we passed through the Midlands into Wales, long stretches of black between flashes of gold lights. It was raining when we got to Flint three hours later, and I pulled my overnight bag across the uneven two-lane road to the Swan pub.

I had booked a room there a month before, by calling on a phone and speaking to another person who was also on a phone, and seemed to be opening a physical paper book to check room bookings and writing my reservation in with an actual pencil. She didn’t tell me how much it cost and I was so flustered at having to use words to talk to another person instead of clicking buttons online that I didn’t ask. I got out £100 from the station cashpoint.

The woman behind the bar immediately knew who I was before I opened my mouth. “Two nights, yeah? That’s thirty pounds.” I was briefly confused, since £15 was clearly an absurdly low rate for a private room, but I realised she must mean per night, so I handed her three £20 notes. She blinked at them and handed me one back, then a £10 note from the register. So, apparently not so absurdly low!

I left my bag in my room (dry, warm, what more do you need) and walked to Flint Castle. It’s two minutes from the pub – I would say ‘the centre of town’ but that implies there is enough of the town to have a centre – on the bank of the River Dee where it opens out into the Irish Sea. The river used to be higher, coming right up to the castle wall so kings and soldiers could arrive by boat, but now there’s about three hundred yards of marshy grass between the river and the castle. On the other three sides of the castle is a dry former moat with steep slopes. At night it was black on black, very difficult to see, and the high stone walls and slanting rocky slopes were throwing off my perspective, so it kept jumping out at me and feeling much closer than I thought.

I turned around and went to Flint’s one sit-down restaurant, a curry house, where I had an approximation of a medieval meal: tandoori lamb chops and naan flatbread. Everyone around me had figured out that the restaurant was unlicensed and BYOB, and were carrying white and red plastic bags from the Bargain Booze (“It’s What We Do!”) across the street. I read a doorstopper book about the Percy family and resentfully drank lemonade.

Flint Castle was my choice for Richard II because it’s the setting in the play where the power really shifts from Richard to Henry Bolingbroke. In the first acts Richard has been blithely and confidently throwing around regal power, but when he goes to Ireland to put down a rebellion he returns to find his own country has deserted him. He kisses the beach when he arrives, but the land revolts. He’s captured at Conwy and brought to Flint to await Bolingbroke, suddenly everyone’s favourite candidate for king, who will take him to London as a prisoner.

Shakespeare gives Richard more agency than the historical record: on hearing that the northern lords have left him for Bolingbroke, Richard chooses Flint to make his last stand. He may not be able to prevent his downfall, but he can control the dramatic narrative: he poses on the ramparts and offhandedly compares himself to a sun god before consenting to descend. (The staging of this in the recent Hollow Crown series, with Ben Whishaw in gleaming gold armour smirking down at Rory Kinnear’s scruffy awkward Bolingbroke, is excellent.) Although he officially abdicates in Parliament in London, the moment Richard steps down from the height of Flint Castle is the moment he lets go of his own kingliness.

In the morning I woke up early to catch the sun rising over the castle. Like a lot of medieval castles in England and Wales, Flint’s was wrecked after the Civil War so it couldn’t be used again for in a military conflict.

Until very recently the ruins were open to the public, with picnic benches and iron handrails around the flat grassy donjon. A friend of mine who grew up in the area remembers playing D&D inside as a teenager, and it does look like an absolutely perfect place for bored north Welsh seventeen-year-olds to drink cider and mess around with orcs. But it’s locked up now, and the council implies people were behaving badly and it was too difficult to keep safe and clean. I don’t know whether there was a genuine ASBO problem or the council just didn’t make the castle a priority in a probably-squeezed budget, but it seems a shame that people can’t go inside any more, especially since all the work to make it visitor friendly has already been done and there’s no cost other than maintenance.

The sunrise was beautiful, although after standing still in the marshy grass for twenty minutes I felt water seeping into my right sock and realised my boot was leaking. I took a few more photos, walked back to my room at the pub to change shoes and hang up my socks on the radiator, and realised it was nine a.m. and I had seen everything there was to see in Flint.

(I’m being unfair. There’s also a Tesco.)

Now (stay with me here) I don’t really get on with Richard as a character. I admire his language, but I have difficulty empathising with him. His lyrical speech and royal identity crisis to me just feel like an argument for republicanism and state-sponsored poetry. Bolingbroke is obviously not exactly elected either, but if he isn’t chosen directly by the people he at least seems to be trying to represent their interests. Basically as far as I can tell,

Richard II: Born in warm, sophisticated Bordeaux. Passionate about doing food properly and invented the fork. A great patron of the arts, he liked affection so much that he did that classic medieval king thing of handing away money and titles to charming young men who appeared to like him. Slightly androgynous or at least consciously played up Male Beauty in a queering way. Really enjoyed orgasms (his and other people’s). Likes: women and men equally as long as they are charming and attractive, wine and glittering things.

Henry Bolingbroke: Born in cold, rocky Lincolnshire. Simple and Rough and Northern. Did not shave often and had perennial stubble in a Harrison Ford kind of way. Trusted no one, not even his own children (except his second son John, who took after him in seeming earnest while really being a sneaky little shit) and was so stingy with favours that it prompted the Percys, his former BFFs and the family that had helped him yoink the throne, to join with the Welsh (the WELSH!) and rebel against him. Had stoic Northern sex with his wife to produce the requisite amount of identikit sons (four), and avoided eye contact with everyone the next day. Favourite food: chips and gravy eaten out of a paper cone while standing next to a stamping horse and listening to an arms report.

So when I watch productions of Richard II it’s mostly to see what they do with Bolingbroke, who as written by Shakespeare can be earnest, calculating, ambitious, generous, chilly, warm, self-knowing, self-delusional and any combination of the above. For Richard, aside from delight at watching good actors have fun with his performativity (Ben Whishaw again deserves mentioning, as does absolutely the best Richard II I’ve ever seen, Sami Metwasi), he mostly makes me want to jump onstage, tear down the throne room walls and start waving the red flag.

But sitting in that tiny pub room in the far end of Wales with wet feet and nothing to do, I would have killed for a museum or a wine bar, or even a cinema or bookstore. And I was very uncomfortable because I know which of those two rulers would have founded one for me. I have always liked to think of myself as someone who prefers industrial cities and working-class locals’ to fancy upper class toffbait, and although that’s true, the fact is I’m still writing this from a flat in Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower and a glass of bubbly next to me and not from, well, a pub in north Wales.

Not that Flint is a total shithole! Everyone I met was lovely (if not very chatty), the food, wine and lodging were cheap and good, and the air smelled cleaner than it ever gets in any city. However, it is about as far as you can get from London without hitting Scotland. You can hardly even spend money there; I left with around £45 even after paying for two dinners and two nights’ accommodation. And they’ve locked up the most interesting thing in the town! I’m still not going to turn Ricardian any time soon but I do have a lot more sympathy for Team Art And Nice Things now that I’ve spent a Saturday night and Sunday trying to amuse myself north Wales style.

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Header art by Tod Wills.