Writing retreat

Last weekend I went to a cottage in Somerset with two friends in my writing group. We met two years ago, when we all took a non-fiction writing short course at City University (it’s taught by Peter Forbes and is excellent), and one of us who is much more organised than I am took the initiative to start monthly meetings. All of us have time-eating things going on in our real lives – combinations of work, grad school, a toddler – and the idea of the weekend was to clear some space and let ourselves think fully about our writing projects.

It went GREAT! At the end everyone said they were pleased at how productive we were, despite also getting a fair bit of walking and sight-seeing (and board games, and drinking…) in on the sides. Here are the things I think helped, and which I’m going to try to do in real life as well as idyllic rural weekend life:

Goals: We took a small amount of time on Saturday morning to think about what we wanted to do over the weekend. My goal was to look at my chapter ideas from fresh: the structure of the book has changed a lot since I first talked about the proposal with Lydia, my agent, and I wanted to set aside the accumulated version and “tell myself the story” from the beginning. I also wanted to think about what research exactly was needed for each chapter, and where I would go to do it. Read more...

Much Ado About Nothing @ Shakespeare’s Globe, seen August 27 2017

Thanks to Twitter conversation with Hailey Bachrach and this post by Holger Syme for helping me clarify thinking about CONCEPT

The best production I’ve ever seen of The Two Gentlemen of Verona was set in Amish country (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2006, dir. Bill Rauch). Verona was a Mennonite community, Milan was a swish Stepford-in-Brooks-Brothers villa, and in Act 5 a rave full of Goths popped up. It was the most ludicrous thing. It sounds like what happens when a director loses a bet with a sadistic dramaturg. But it really did work, and it made the play work.

Two Gents is not a great play, okay. It’s about a love quadrangle among Proteus and Valentine (best friends from Verona), and Julia and Sylvia (women from Verona and Milan respectively). Proteus starts out interested in Julia, then he and Valentine travel to Milan and both fall in love with Sylvia, who has fallen in love with Valentine. Julia disguises herself as a boy (drink!) and travels to Milan to be near Proteus, there’s a bit with a dog, at the end everyone runs off to the woods and Proteus tries to rape Sylvia, and everyone who has lines afterwards seems basically okay with that (nb who doesn’t have lines: Sylvia). It is, as they say, problematic. What the Amish setting did was suggest how Julia – who otherwise seems clever, sensible and observant – could have reasonably fallen in love with Proteus – who takes all of five seconds after leaving home to betray his friend, his fiancée and do a bunch of stupid, malicious things – without Julia just being a giant gooey idiot. Maybe Proteus is a sheltered guy newly out in a world he’s been told is dangerous and immoral, and he doesn’t have the toolbox to participate in it ethically. (It doesn’t at all excuse Proteus from behaving horribly – but it explains why Julia missed the signs.) Now if I remember correctly my 2006 play programme, the idea behind the CONCEPT was that the director was having trouble differentiating between “Verona” and “Milan” in the play. He decided to make them as radically different as possible: Verona insular and superficially strange, but deeply supportive and loving; and Milan welcoming and attractive, but with underlying danger if strangers don’t conform. In the woods, a bunch of “outlaws” terrify Valentine, then befriend and help him; these became the Goths, who seem terrifying to upper-middle-class dads but are actually laid-back and benevolent. It made so many of the characters’ odd reactions and quick turnarounds plausible. Read more...

“Hamlet”, Almeida Theatre (Andrew Scott/dir. Robert Icke)

We had tickets to Hamlet for the evening of 20 March, and early on 18 March my father died, after a heart attack six days before that he never woke up from. So I’m not really sure how much of the show felt raw and fresh because it was a really good production, although everyone says it is, so it must be at least partially that, and how much of it is because, you know, my dad had died forty hours before, pretty suddenly, and Hamlet isn’t exactly a show lacking in “sudden dead dad” emotions.

A surprisingly helpful thing about grieving in my tradition is how prescribed the activities and times are. There is an extensive framework that walks you through things: what you do (and don’t do) the first week, the first month, the first year. Each period of grieving eases you into the next one, and they don’t exactly taper off but there’s a feeling of being able to let each emotion inhabit fully in the space, giving you room to breathe it in and experience it properly, and knowing that it’s okay to do it fully because it has an end time and it’s not going to be this big forever.

Hamlet hasn’t had a proper mourning space: he’s barely processed the fact of it before his mother’s wedding celebration breaks into the space of family grief, and suddenly everyone’s going “cheer up Hamlet!” and “get over it!” and “come on, it’s only natural, everything dies! get a move on and grab a glass of champagne already!” Read more...

“The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” (BBC Two, 2016)

Note: I wrote a first draft of this last summer with the idea of shopping it to an American outlet before the new Hollow Crown series aired there in December 2016, but whenever I tried to revise it for publication, I kept getting madder and adding more wordcount, and, well, here it is.   

BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown (2012), a starry adaption of Shakespeare’s history plays Richard II, Henry IV Part One and Part Two, and Henry V, was successful enough to easily justify a second series, adapting the next four history plays: the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. But the announcement and production were a long time coming, and the second series, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses only aired in 2016. I suspect the problem was hesitation over the source material, specifically the three parts of Henry VI.

The Henry VI plays, according to common wisdom, are just not very good. Shakespeare’s earliest work, and not even all by him, a tangled mess that needs trimming and rewriting for audiences to understand. In the 20th century, major British theatres usually cut the trilogy down to two plays, most famously as The Wars of the Roses at the RSC in 1963, extensively rewritten by John Barton. The cuts usually fall heavily on Henry VI Part One, which was written as a standalone prequel, after the other two: while Part Two and Part Three focus on the civil war between York and Lancaster in England, Part One tracks the rise and fall of Joan of Arc and the English wars in France. In most of the 20th-century British productions, the abbreviated pair of Henry VI plays were followed by a Richard III – a more popular history play that is considered good enough to stand by itself. This is the tack The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses took, cutting most of Part One and rewriting the other two parts heavily, much more than any of the other plays in The Hollow Crown series. Read more...

All the theatre I saw in 2016, ranked

(nb: most of this was written on the train on New Year’s Eve, so “last night” = Dec 30th.)

In 2016 I saw 41 plays (and three staged readings, which were interesting but it feels unfair to put in with the rest because they’re not supposed to be fully realised pieces of theatre). Drunk Theatre stalwart Louisa and I tried to clear out the bottle-ends in the booze cabinet before the New Year, and carried out the immense task of force-ranking all our 2016 plays with Post-It notes. (for the record if you are also looking to clear out your drinks bottles, the “Monkey Gland”, a 1920s? cocktail involving grenadine and absinthe, was surprisingly all right.)

Bottom to top:

“Hedda Gabler”, the National Theatre

Oh IVO, it was all going so well.

I’m always up for a Hedda Gabler, it’s just such a fun and well put together play. “Didn’t they just do one?” a coworker said when I mentioned it. “At the Old Vic? Sheridan Smith?” Yes they did and it was great so shut up. This one at the National Theatre stars Ruth Wilson (off the TV apparently, I haven’t seen her shows but she was great and sharp as Hedda) and is directed by Ivo van Hove, the so-hot-right-now avant-garde director who’s been packing out all the London theatres: the National, the Young Vic, the Barbican, even sharing the big box out the back of King’s Cross with the Donmar. As far as I can tell from production photos and reviews, this Hedda is a straight revival of his 2004 production at the New York Theatre Workshop – the same set and staging, down to the placement of the piano, and the same ‘shock moments’ (of which more later). Read more...