The Plays, Poems and ‘Panels’ Project

The other day I happened upon a copy of The Tempest and was struck by the thought that despite having studied English at university my knowledge of Shakespeare is actually pretty woeful. A trip to my local library led to me coming away with stacks of the things and a resolution to fill these gaps in my knowledge.

But while I was there I thought, why limit it to Shakespeare? There are loads of other great plays out there that I’ve never seen performed and can’t know for sure that I necessarily ever will… So I grabbed some of them too.

And why limit it to plays? I’ve mentioned before on this blog that my poetic knowledge is seriously lacking, so I popped a few volumes of poetry in the pile too. I was also interested to see recently that a graphic novel, Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, has been longlisted for the Booker Prize, sparking discussions in the press and online about the comic-book art-form, and I realised that (apart from my childhood favourite Tintin of course) I’ve never read any of those either.

I now have a heap of around thirty plays (from Euripides through to Moliére, Aphra Behn, Henrik Ibsen and Harold Pinter), ten poetry books (eg Lorca, Yeats, Neruda and Wendy Cope) and ten graphic novels (such as Maus, Persepolis and The Sandman) that I’m going to plunge into and write about on here as I go.  A slight broadening of my reading horizons hopefully awaits! I’m going to call it the 4P’s, or the Plays, Poems & Panels Project (that’s panels like the artwork boxes in graphic novels? I scraped the barrel really, anything for alliteration…). I hope you enjoy it!

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Book Review: Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897)

“My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side. Your girls that you all love are mine already. And through them you and others shall yet be mine, my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed.”

I really dig a good vampire story, and yet somehow had never properly read the Big Daddy of them all, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’ve seen and enjoyed quite a lot of film versions of this story, from Nosferatu to Hammer Horror to Coppola, but I’d say this remains the top of the tree and the bee’s knees.

I’m sure most people know the plot already. It begins with callow young solicitor Jonathan Harker travelling to meet his firm’s new client, a mysterious aristocrat, at his Eastern European castle to conclude a land deal. Once there he quickly realises that there’s something a bit off about the count (spoilers: he’s a vampire!). Later, back in England, Harker bands together with some friends to track down and destroy Dracula before he spreads his malign influence over the world…

I’ll try to rattle through some of the main reasons why I loved Dracula and why it stands up so well. Firstly, it’s an epistolary novel, with all the action pieced together as it happens via the letters and journal entries of a wide cast of characters. I always like this storytelling method – it’s a clever way of building tension, providing believable exposition and giving a fun range of perspectives and voices. The characters Stoker uses are generally Victorian heroic standards but are different enough from each other to provide some variation and are all likeable (apart from the irritating Professor Van Helsing – stop being twinkly and gnomic and just tell them what you know, darn you).

Secondly, I found it unexpectedly frightening in parts, despite the whole concept being so clichéd and well-known nowadays. I think this is mainly because the character of Dracula himself doesn’t really have any of the campness of Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi; on the page he’s more elemental, savage and demonic than I’d expected. The way Stoker describes the look and smell of his wet, blood-engorged mouth was genuinely unsettling, and certain set-piece scenes worked really well, such as the account of Dracula’s voyage to Whitby, and Harker’s encounter with the vampiric ‘brides’.

Thirdly Dracula reflects a lot of contemporary cultural anxieties from the fin de siècle, a time of fascinating upheaval. The role of women in the novel is very interesting, with Mina particularly standing out as a new kind of literary heroine who actively gets involved in the adventuring herself and is not just a damsel in distress. There’s also a lot of thematic stuff about sexuality in society, with parallels being drawn between Dracula’s seizing of and feasting on women and unfettered sexual desire and weakening public morals. There’s also a connection between Dracula’s attacks and infidelity, with the male characters’ fears over this seeming to reflect a general male anxiety over keeping hold of their wives in this new era of sexual revolution. Another interesting thematic thread is that of xenophobia, with the idea of Dracula as a foreign monster coming over to civilised England to corrupt society and sully its women clearly underpinning the book. The rise of psychiatry and the growing knowledge of mental health is also an intriguing feature, in the context of Dr Seward and his relationship with his patient Renfield, as well as the conflict between modern scientific advances and folkloric tradition in the context of Van Helsing’s practical treatments for vampirism.

Some parts of the novel were a bit repetitive and began to drag, especially the section focused on Lucy Westenra’s illness. But in the main it does nip along, which is nice particularly since it’s a Victorian novel and some rambling is expected. It also remains fresh and exciting in spite of all the piles and piles of cultural baggage it has acquired over the last century and change. In conclusion, I give it two big thumbs up and leave you with this bit of delightfully horrid description:

The cheeks were fuller, and the white skin seemed ruby-red underneath. The mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran down over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood. He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion.

Edition:

Vintage | 2017 | 421p | Paperback | Buy here

Book Review Round-Up: The Party (Elizabeth Day, 2017); Smut (Alan Bennett, 2011)

Here’s a double dollop of mini book reviews, please enjoy thank you.

#1: The Party (Elizabeth Day, 2017)

I romped through this thriller, a cocktail of Highsmithian amorality and Riot Club style upper-crust hedonism.

It opens in medias res with ex-public-school-boy art expert Martin Gilmour being interviewed by the police about an ‘incident’ at his friend Ben Fitzmaurice’s birthday party, and then we slide into flashback to see the history of the two men’s relationship, and what it led to. It quickly becomes clear that Martin is a distinctly Ripley-esque protagonist, with a chip on his shoulder, an obsessive personality, a dysfunctional upbringing and a troubling proclivity for animal cruelty. Ben Fitzmaurice meanwhile is an effortlessly charming old-money hedge fund manager who hobnobs with prime ministers and actresses and lives in a converted monastery. The twists and turns of their decades-long friendship are enticingly drip-fed to us by Martin while we also edge closer and closer to his account of the eponymous climactic party.

Elizabeth Day is very good at creating recognisable and believable characters, as well as immersing us in specific settings; her descriptions of life at an all-boys boarding school in particular are startlingly accurate! Although it is somewhat generically derivative it’s a gripping story written with aplomb and I’d strongly recommend it as a great holiday read.

Edition:

4th Estate | 2018 | 292p | Paperback | Buy here

 

#2: Smut (Alan Bennett, 2011)

On the other hand… this was actually a bit of a let-down. I’ve enjoyed the other Alan Bennett books and plays that I’ve come across, particularly The Uncommon Reader and The History Boys, but I found the two stories contained in Smut to be a bit twee and rather less funny than I’d expected.

The first story is ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’, the tale of a middle-aged widow who signs up to be a fake patient pretending to suffer from various maladies to help train young medics. This gives her a taste for role-play and she ends up extending this new interest to other aspects of her life… The second story is ‘The Shielding of Mrs Forbes’, in which Mrs Forbes’ handsome but horrid son Graham gets married in order to disguise his secret homosexuality, but is then blackmailed by a male lover.

The main sense I got from reading these was that despite them being published and presumably set in 2011 or thereabouts they really felt like they belonged in another time. The characters in both stories were very buttoned-up and Hyacinth-Bucket-esque – Mrs Donaldson particularly, with her cold cream and her hair rollers and her respectable suburban propriety just felt more like she’d walked out of the 1970’s. The characters’ attitudes likewise seemed dated, and the comedy mostly stemmed from things that I feel were perhaps intended to be scandalous but only really managed to be faintly naughty. Frankly that’s a bit of a shame in a book called Smut! It’s gently amusing but in the end forgettable – perhaps one just for hardcore Bennett fans.

Edition:

Profile | 2012 | 189p | Paperback | Buy here

Book Review Round-Up: Lustrum (Robert Harris, 2009); Conqueror (Conn Iggulden, 2011); The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson, 2006)

That last reading roundup was all very well you say, but have I read more books this spring? Why yes I have and these are they.

#1: Lustrum (Robert Harris, 2009)

This is the middle volume in Robert Harris’s superb trilogy about the life of Cicero and the fall of the Roman Republic. Harris is a novelist whose every book is a highlight of my reading year, without fail, and I’m yet to read a duff one. Even among the quality of his oeuvre, I think these Cicero books are his masterpiece (for sure helped by me being a bit of a Rome nut).

The first book, Imperium, ended with the great orator on the up and up after being elected consul, and Lustrum then focuses on his tenure in that office. This mainly revolves around dealing with the Catilinarian Conspiracy, and Cicero’s battles for dominance with the other big dogs of the Republic: Caesar, Crassus, Pompey, and Clodius.

The thing I really love about this trilogy is the characterisation. Harris makes these historical figures really come stand out in all their flawed, scheming glory, and in their hands the horsetrading and politicking that makes up much of the plot, and which could otherwise be pretty dry, flares into life.

Cicero himself is one of those brilliantly attractive protagonists, a bit like Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, whose actions are often pragmatic, politically expedient and not necessarily morally right, and yet we love him for his charisma, intelligence and essential nobility in spite of his flaws. I’d say that, particularly for those interested in Roman history or politics, this trilogy is right up there with Robert Graves’s I Claudius books as the cream of the crop.

Edition:

Arrow | 2010 | 452p | Paperback | Buy here

 

#2: Conqueror (Conn Iggulden, 2011)

Conqueror is the last in Conn Iggulden’s epic five-book series about Genghis Khan and his descendants. While the first three (Wolf of the Plains, Lords of the Bow and Bones of the Hills) specifically told the story of Genghis himself, the fourth (Empire of Silver) then moved on to cover the reign of his son Ogedai, and this final one takes in the successive khanates of three of Genghis’s grandsons, Guyuk, Mongke and Kublai.

Although most people will have at least heard of Genghis Khan, I don’t think that the extent of the Mongol Empire and the scale of what was achieved by the khans and their armies is that well known – it certainly wasn’t to me. Within just three generations Genghis and his successors had united the disparate Mongol tribes into one nation and then swiftly and brutally conquered Persia, China, Russia and Eastern Europe. These guys were the toughest of tough nuts, metal AF.

Conqueror’s main focus is Kublai’s coming-of-age as a commander as he fought an exhausting war of attrition over many years in Sung Dynasty China. There are plenty of battles and Iggulden writes them well, but the grinding nature of this particular conflict means that it’s not always totally thrilling for the reader and gets a bit repetitive. However, Kublai himself is very appealing and is the highlight of this final book; his intellectualism and flashes of humour make him stand out from the crowd of grim vicious bastards that constitute the majority of the rest of the cast of characters.

For sheer epic sweep these books can’t really be bettered, and Iggulden does a fine job evoking an era and a culture little covered in historical fiction.

Edition:

Harper | 2012 | 576p | Paperback | Buy here

 

#3: The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson, 2006)

I know, how have I not read this already? Everyone did the Salander trilogy years ago, and I missed out for some reason, but, a decade later, this is being rectified.

I quite liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when I read it back in 2011, but I didn’t love it, mainly because Mr Larsson rambled on far too much at the beginning and the end, packing in endless extraneous detail and extending the novel to about twice the length it should have been. And sadly in this, the sequel, he did the same thing!

Whereas Dragon Tattoo was a whodunnit murder mystery, TGWPWF is more of a conspiracy thriller, with the main theme being the Swedish sex-trafficking industry. Two journalists are murdered at the beginning but it’s pretty clear who’s responsible, and the rest of the story consists of the titular Girl, super-hacker Lisbeth Salander, being framed for the killings and going on the run. 

Once the plot got going it was an exciting enough read, and Lisbeth is a fun spiky protagonist, but I thought it was just too baggy. In my view, thrillers like this generally benefit from being trimmed down to their lean mean essentials. 

Edition:

Quercus | 2009 | 608p | Paperback | Buy here

Book Review Round-Up: The Silkworm (Robert Galbraith, 2014); The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton, 2014); Lullaby (Leïla Slimani, 2014)

I’ve been reading quite a lot recently but have been neglecting my reviews, for shame. So here’s a trio of topped and tailed juicy review gobbets, with some more to follow soon. Get hype.

#1: The Silkworm (Robert Galbraith, 2014)

The second instalment in Robert Galbraith’s crime series starring hirsute one-legged Cornish war hero / private detective Cormoran Strike. I really enjoyed the first one, The Cuckoo’s Calling, last year, and was excited to get to the sequel as I’d heard that it’s set in the world of publishing and is influenced by Jacobean revenge tragedies – tick and tick, right up my street.

As with the previous book The Silkworm benefits hugely from it’s engaging heroes, Strike and his assistant Robin Ellacott, and their relationship is the best thing about it. I didn’t quite find the story that revolves around them to be as fascinating as the one in The Cuckoo’s Calling though. The mystery here focuses on the disappearance of a controversial novelist who’d supposedly just submitted a viciously libellous manuscript, and it all eventually becomes a bit too Jacobean and grand guignol.

It’s also a tad overlong – the barbed portrait of the nastiness of the publishing industry is mostly fun but it begins to drag a little over nearly 600 pages. But two of JK Rowling’s great skills, creating charming protagonists and conjuring a vivid and filmic sense of place, are certainly in evidence, as is her page-turning narrative prose style. I’ll definitely be picking up book three, Career of Evil – I’m very much in Cormoran’s corner and just want the grumpy sod to find happiness.

Edition:

Sphere | 2015 | 592p | Paperback | Buy here

 

#2: The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton, 2014)

This is wonderful, deserving of all the love it got on its release. The Miniaturist is set in 17th century Amsterdam and tells the story of 18-year-old Nella’s marriage to wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Her new husband’s household, ruled over by his grim Puritan sister Marin, is overwhelmingly oppressive and crammed to the gunwales with secrets and mysteries, and the unfolding plot is full of unexpected twist and turns, several of which genuinely made me gasp out loud.

Burton’s descriptions of the smells and textures of the grand Brandt mansion are fantastically rich and evocative, and the supporting characters, particularly Johannes and Marin, are so complex and intriguing. The portrait of the precariousness and the strait-laced hypocrisy of Amsterdam’s wealthy mercantile society is beautifully done, and I loved the creepy sensation-novel-esque atmosphere of the house and its secretive inhabitants. Not every element of the plot worked perfectly – there’s a supernaturally-tinged element involving the titular enigmatic miniaturist which I didn’t think was wound up satisfactorily. But apart from that it was very well done indeed, and I’d definitely recommend it. The recent BBC adaptation was pretty near perfect as well.

Edition:

Picador | 2015 | 448p | Paperback | Buy here

 

#3: Lullaby (Leïla Slimani, 2014)

This prizewinning French novella is a shocking and thought-provoking book written with economical elegance. Its opening lines tell of a hideously violent double murder – two small children bloodily killed by their nanny Louise. The rest of Lullaby is then a flashback showing Louise’s months spent with the family, filling in the details of her troubled past and of her increasingly untethered mental state to explain why she ended up doing what she did.

Its a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit, so rather than the climactic killings coming as a horrific surprise you spend the whole novel in suspense waiting for the violence to burst out. This made it a stressful book to read, and I’m glad it wasn’t longer because it would have become quite unbearable. As it is, the tension is perfectly judged.

Lullaby confronts the reader with several issues, like the difficult realities of motherhood and fatherhood, returning to work, loneliness, poverty, class, race, mental health, and the risks involved in entrusting your child to another person. None of this is belaboured – Slimani uses short flashback chapters to gradually and quite delicately shade in parts of the picture. It adds up to an impactful and intelligent book that really gets under the skin.

Edition:

Faber & Faber | 2018 | 224p | Paperback | Buy here

Theatre Review: Mary Stuart (2016)

Dense Elizabethan political wrangling lifted and galvanised by an enthralling script and powerhouse performances.

Friedrich Schiller’s play Mary Stuart was written in 1800 and is set in 1587, but this adaptation by Robert Icke feels as current and involving as any top modern political drama. As a politics and history dork I was pre-disposed to like this, and ended up loving it, hanging on every word, machination and double-cross.

The play specifically focuses on the final days of the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle. Judges have voted for Mary’s execution for treason, but Queen Elizabeth I has so far held back from allowing the sentence to be carried out, fearing that it will spur the Catholic powers of Europe into invasion and the papists of England into rebellion. While Elizabeth is pulled this way and that by her councillors, Mary herself frantically tries to plot her way out of the ever-tightening grip of her captors.

This production’s special conceit is that at the start of every performance the cast assembles on stage, with the two leads, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson, staring each other down at the front. Another actor silently kneels between them and spins a silver coin, the result of which is projected on screens on either side of the stage. One of the leads calls heads or tails, with the loser then playing Mary Stuart and the winner playing Elizabeth I. As soon as the result is clear, the whole of the rest of the cast instantly bows deeply to the new Elizabeth, while the actress playing Mary is swiftly and brutally disrobed and bundled off stage. It’s a thrilling moment.

When I saw it, Williams played Mary while Stevenson played Elizabeth, and they were both fantastic, each steely yet vulnerable. I would be fascinated to see the performances the other way round, but it seemed to me that Williams’ smaller stature and Stevenson’s more sonorous voice seemed to lend themselves to this particular power configuration.

Besides the outstanding leads, the supporting characters were also very well played. We meet young Mortimer (Rudi Dharmalingam), a secret Catholic plotting to free Mary at the Pope’s behest, and whose fiery intensity drives much of the play’s action. Then there are Elizabeth’s machiavellian advisors, Lord Burleigh (Elliot Levey) and the Earl of Leicester (John Light), whose agendas pull the queens this way and that. The wonderfully oleaginous Burleigh, a sort of Elizabethan Humphrey Appleby, is a cold-blooded pragmatist and eminence grise, urging execution at every turn, while Leicester is desperately scrabbling to save his own skin, having been lover to both royal ladies.

The main theme of the play is elegantly put across, namely that both Elizabeth and Mary have a great deal in common, and would likely be close friends were the situation different and were they not being manipulated by powerful men. In this way it reminded me a little of the superb recent TV series Feud, which portrayed the vicious and unnecessary rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It’s sad to think what could have been if other interests weren’t at stake.

It’s a wordy play, but in the tradition of great political dramas like The West Wing or James Graham’s This House, when the words are this tightly and propulsively written and the stakes are this high the time just flies by. I urge you to try to see this if you’re in London before it ends at the end of March.

Book tickets here.

Written by: Friedrich Schiller, 1800; adapted by Robert Icke, 2016

Directed by: Robert Icke

Seen at: Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 2018

Book Review: Milk and Honey (Rupi Kaur, 2014)

In which I briefly delve into the world of trendy millennial Instagram poetry.

Over the last couple of years there has been a mini-explosion of interest in poetry amongst the young, brought about, at least partly, by the online success of a group of accessible millennial writers like Rupi Kaur, Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest.

I really don’t know a great deal about the world of poetry in general, and even less about this specific movement, but I read a few articles about it and about one anthology in particular: Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. This 2014 collection, Kaur’s first, had sold a very impressive 1,000,000 copies by April 2017, and has been reviled by some for cheapening the form and adored by others for rejuvenating it. I thought I’d see what the fuss was about.

Like I say, I don’t claim to know much about poetry. But I could instantly see the problem many people had with Milk and Honey – namely that it’s often eye-wateringly trite, as well as aphoristic in an irritatingly social-media-ready way. But that doesn’t mean that I totally disliked it.

The book is divided into four thematic sections: ‘the hurting’, ‘the loving’, ‘the breaking’ and ‘the healing’. Kaur’s poems are almost all very short and are all written without punctuation or capital letters, and they tackle topics such as sex, falling in love, heartbreak, childbirth, domestic abuse, and what it means to be a woman. They’re also interspersed with simple drawings done by Kaur herself, which add to the occasional sense of flipping through an earnest teenager’s ‘profound’ diary entries.

Here’s a taste of the triteness:

we are all born

so beautiful

the greatest tragedy is

being convinced we are not

and here’s another:

you must

want to spend

the rest of your life

with yourself

first

The ones with this sort of tone just made me shrug my shoulders – is that it? They’re really not very deep or thought-provoking, neither are they artfully constructed. Many of them reminded me of the sorts of ‘inspirational’ quotes that crop up all over Instagram – which I believe is how Kaur did in fact start out, posting easily-shareable epigrams on her social media account. She certainly does that now, and has a cool 2.3 million followers to show for it.

However, there were a handful of pieces in Milk and Honey which did work for me. I found that some of the poems focusing on break-ups successfully walked the line between hackneyed cliché and relatable insight, and a few of those that took an empowering feminist stance were also rather powerful. A few of them.

Kaur’s poems have clearly resonated with a huge number of readers who have found a lot more to enjoy in Milk and Honey than I did, and that can only be a good thing. Many high-minded literary types may sneer at these verses for not being ‘proper’ poems but I think it must be positive that millions more people are reading poetry, whatever its calibre, and being inspired by it. And while these particular ones may not be complex or earth-shatteringly profound, they still have good intentions and an emotional honesty behind them.

It will be interesting to see where this poetic trend goes next, and whether it will encourage more people either to try their own hand at writing poetry or to read the work of others, when they may not have done so otherwise.

Edition:

Andrews McMeel | 2015 | 208p | Paperback | Buy here