Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Winter's Tale

Can one have too much of a good thing?

The new RSC production of Shakespeare's strange and entrancing The Winter's Tale was not my first experience of the play. I've seen at least half a dozen varied stagings over the years, stretching back to the celebrated 1969 show in which Judi Dench played both the wronged queen Hermione and her 'lost' daughter Perdita.

Then, only just over two years ago, there was Dominic Cooke's daring staging in the tiny Swan Theatre, with actors and audience sharing the performance space, creating a sense of truth and immediacy, and reducing many to tears during the extraordinary twenty minutes at the end of the play.

For this production, director David Farr and his design team have had a 'big idea'. The play opens in the chilly court of King Leontes, the stage dominated by two towering, packed, bookcases. Hmm. Symbolism?

The first half of the play is almost unbearably tragic. Taken by a bolt-from-the-blue fit of jealousy, uptight Leontes (Greg Hicks) is convinced his hugely pregnant wife Hermione (Kelly Hunter) is about to give birth to the child of his best friend.

Cue a grotesque 'trial' in which the wronged wife nobly defends herself, dressed in the bloodied nightgown of her recent delivery. As the news arrives of the unexpected death of her and Leontes' first child, she falls to the ground, presumably dead.

Meanwhile, at Leontes' orders, the newborn child is being conveyed out of the kingdom and abandoned, prior to rescue by, you've guessed, a kindly shepherd.

Not surprisingly, these seemingly chaotic events take place against the background of a massive storm. At its height, the bookcases tilt giddily forward, spilling all their contents onto the stage as a violent gust of wind deposits a few reams of printed papers among the scattered volumes.

A thrillingly huge bear, made entirely of flapping sheets of paper, emerges for the unlucky baby-carrier to 'exit pursued by'. Are we getting the metaphor?

A twenty-minute interval zooms us forward by sixteen years - to the pastoral scenes in which we follow the story of Perdita, the 'lost' princess. The booky theme continues with paper trees and, most memorably, in the 'exploded book' costumes of the very rude sheepshearing dancers.

It's hard to gauge if the director intends all of the consequences of having so much paper under foot - and frequently stuck to foot. Funny at times, but I felt for the actors in the sublime final scene, speaking the verse to the accompaniment of A4 scrunching beneath shoe.

And yet, thanks to the clear, heartfelt performances of the actors, the 'concepty' staging didn't over-distract. And once again the magical, epiphanic final scene delivered its message of grace and truth with power and breath-stopping beauty.

Here's Michael Billington's review in The Guardian and, from the Telegraph, Charles Spencer's.

Monday, 23 March 2009

To the same tune

Having discovered, late in life, an inexpensive, infallible, instant route to pleasure and delight, I'm thrilled to learn that the remarkable Brian Eno is on to the same thing.

Want to know more?

Check here

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Schoolboy saint

For a fan of 'fame culture', growing up as a Catholic in the Sixties offered a double portion of celeb-related info.

One the one hand the Beatles and Stones were at the pinnacle of the pop pantheon, their every movement, whim and peccadilo chronicled by an insatiable press - not to mention those of lesser luminaries from PJ Proby (those predictably unpredictable velvet trousers) to Dusty Springfield ('Is she? Really? She can't be!).

Meanwhile, at school, we'd receive monthly holy handouts from The Apostleship of Prayer, each one carrying a mini-biog of a saint for us to emulate. A sort of Halo! magazine....

Splendidly inclusive, there was equal billing for male and female sanctity. And it was cheering to learn that sainthood was a career option to which anyone could aspire - one didn't have to be a priest, monk or nun to make it to canonisation.

I went through a stage of definite hankerings in that direction - as long as martyrdom wasn't involved. Gridiron, the wheel, flaying alive, hanging, drawing and quartering? No thank you.

I was intrigued by some modern examples of holy fast-tracking. For instance the schoolgirl Maria Goretti, murdered in 1902, was canonised in 1950, with her mother and siblings present at the ceremony.

I'm ashamed to admit that I fantasised regularly about my own saintly demise - from a trying, but not-too-agonising consumption, nobly borne.

This was swiftly followed by the inevitable canonisation in St Peter's Basilica, attended , of course, by my entire family, all of them praying to me like mad and wishing that they had been a teensy bit nicer to me prior to my journey aloft.


The picture above is of the real thing: St Dominic Savio, a boy of remarkable kindness, generosity and unselfconscious holiness.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


High on Mr Gnome's list of Desert Island films is Billy Wilder's 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot.

It's one of those rare works of art where all the elements - script, casting, photography - come together with zinging, can't-imagine-it-otherwise perfection.

Small-time Chicago bandsmen (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) find themselves needing to get out of town fast having been spotted by the Mob while witnessing the St Valentine's Day Massacre.

Cue the comic set-up that drives the plot - Joe and Jerry transform themselves into Josephine and Geraldine to join an elite all-female combo: Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators.

Enter down-on-luck vocalist Sugar Kane (the touchingly incandescant Marilyn Monroe) and Joe and Jerry are falling over each other to gain her attention.

So far, so farcical.

What sets this film in a class of its own is Wilder's teasingly sophisticated take on the cross-dressing theme.

In particular, as the film progresses something weird, worrying and very funny starts to happen to Jack Lemmon's Geraldine. Fifty years on, his journey still seems transgressive and loopily subversive - it's about so much more than a bloke in a frock.

The film is packed with glorious moments: the scene in the sleeping compartment, the bowtie-twanging bell-hop, the bicycle gags and the incomparable Joe E Brown as the millionaire with the hots for Geraldine ('Zowie!').

And, of course, it's Brown who gets to utter the film's glorious, shining, immortal final line.


Monday, 16 March 2009

Hair apparent

Mr Gnome relishes a classy biopic and, naturally enough, was eager to see the new movie The Young Victoria.

The film takes a leisurely stroll through the early years of the Queen Empress, sketching in the dynastic intrigues surrounding her not entirely smooth path to the throne.

Nice to see her portrayed as the vivacious, passionate woman that her diaries so cleary reveal. Prim, she wasn't.

And very worthy of screenwriter Julian Fellowes to give us so much of the political background.

Lovely frocks, of course.

One remained fully conscious, though not exactly gripped by the ambience - think of a costume version of OK! magazine: 'Oh look, there's the Duke of Wellington.'

But what the movie lacked in action was more than compensated for by the aspect that kept one's attention at eye-popping alert throughout: the thrilling array of outrageous wigs sported by the male members of the cast.

Lord Melbourne's hair-do was a blond candyfloss concoction of such delicious magnificence that actor Paul Bettany couldn't keep his hands off it - pat, poke, prod, non-stop.

The ever-reliable Jim Broadbent's portrayal of King William IV was loopily enhanced by what appeared to be a snowy white shaving brush attached to the royal bonce.

And it was a pleasure to see tip-top thesp Michael Maloney dropping in as Sir Robert Peel, his small but pleasing features overshadowed by a bouffant barnet of Braggian splendour.

Hurrah! Good value.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


There's something particularly satisfying about a book that (a) has a terrific first paragraph and (b) fulfils all the expectations of that high-octane opening.

Mr Gnome and I agree that the text pictured is a tip-top example of a smashing start.

From that first warning 'If' we know we're contemplating potential transgression. We're invited to cross a boundary from the safe world of 'being told' to the altogether more alluring possibilities of finding out for yourself.

Temptation has rarely seemed more irresistible.

I've read these words aloud to umpteen groups of children over the years, and they 'work' every time. Like a spell.

No prizes for the title of the book. But Mr G and I would welcome news of similarly sensational starts.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Father Matthew

Mr Gnome and I have recently discovered the internet broadcasts of this cheerful, intelligent Anglican cleric from Rye, New York.

This one gives a taste of his thoughtful, attractively untraditional, traditional approach.

Our favourite, however, is his rather brilliant explanation of the Ascension, based on (what else?) the Mary Poppins narrative.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Mother of a good idea

For the past ten years I've tended to ignore the hoopla of the annual run-up to Mothering Sunday, what with it no longer having an immediate personal relevance.

But now, thanks to a splendid idea from (who else?) The Mothers' Union, I feel once again motivated to join in.

MU's splendid aim and purpose is 'to demonstrate the Christian faith in action by the transformation of communities worldwide through the nurture of the family in its many forms'.

I've just discovered their 'Make a Mother's Day' scheme, whereby a donation can purchase very practical gifts to improve the lives of mothers and families in developing nations worldwide. Click the link to check out the options.

My only problem is choosing the gift that would have given most pleasure to my mother, a woman of definite views who, on a good day, could make Lady Bracknell appear vague and vacillating.

In the end I've decided to fund some poultry and a hen house - and thanks to this very inclusive scheme, I shall be able to tag my gift 'in memory' of my mum, pictured here, with friend, at work on the Home Front in the early days of WW2.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Rising above

Were he still with us, Nikolaus Pevsner would probably give minimal attention to the 'built environment' surrounding my workplace on the edge of a Midlands town. The Acropolis it's not.

We have a business park, a retail park (but sadly no park park), plus a pizza restaurant, McDonalds and a bowling alley.

Little wonder, then, that amidst so much visual 'blah', heads are turning to view the remarkable building taking shape between Sainsbury's and Tenpin - a Gurdwara, or Sikh Temple, looking for all the world as if a glittering Arabian Nights palace has floated down in the middle of suburban Warwickshire.