Sunday, 7 October 2018

Lethal White – R Galbraith

I was chatting to someone recently…they thought I read a lot; this amused me as I don’t think I read much more than most people. They also pointed out that once upon a time, if I read a book I thought people would find interesting, I shared it here on my blog and I should consider doing that again. Apparently, it had helped them pick some books that they would never usually consider, and they had really enjoyed them. So that was a nice thing to say...and so here I am with a bit of a book blurb!

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the fourth instalment of the Cormoran Strike novels; I wanted to know what happened next in Strike and Robin’s journey. I picked the book up on its day of release and started reading. By day two it was finished and I tweeted I had enjoyed it but thought it a bit long-winded. The reaction was mainly surprise that I’d finished it, rather than the “how dare you say anything against JKR” but I think that was possibly more to do with the fact that most people were still reading the book at the time. Now they’d probably turn on me and say it was the perfect length!

Before the book was released, Robert Galbraith/J K Rowling posted various teasers on Twitter, from headers showing a wooden anatomical horse (which artists use for form and perspective when drawing) Benjamin West’s painting “Death on a Pale Horse” a reference to the biblical passage from Revelation “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was death,” to a picture of a USB stick in the shape of a white horse announcing the book was finished. All of these pictures made me think Lethal White would be set within the confines of the equestrian world. I was rather excited, as a child I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things equestrian; if I couldn’t have a horse as a child, I would damned well know all I could about them for when I’d grown up!

Overo lethal white syndrome is a fatal, inherited condition found in horse breeds with white coat patterns. It is probably most renowned in the American Paint Horse, but can also be found in miniature horses, Thoroughbred and part-Arab horses. The affected foals are born with a white (or nearly pure white) coat due to a lack of melanin-producing cells, plus an impaired intestinal tract. At birth they look like any normal white foal (not all whites foals are affected by OLWS by the way) however as the infected foals cannot digest food properly down the intestinal tract, once they start to drink the mare’s milk they start showing signs of severe colic. An affected foal can usually show signs within the first 12 hours of birth and death can occur with 48 hours as the abdomen distends and becomes increasingly painful. There is no cure for OLWS and so the kindest thing is for the foal to be euthanised.

It seemed an odd title for a book, naming it after such a horrendous condition, but then the promotional excerpt about Lethal White came out…”I seen a kid killed…He strangled it, up by the horse.”  Hmmm. Nope. OK, so probably not a story set in the horse world at all…up by the horse could be anything. A pub (let’s face it, there are a lot of pubs called The White Horse) or perhaps a famous British landmark…a chalk horse (there are plenty of them cut into British hillsides…from the Kilburn White Horse in the North York Moors National Park, to the Westbury White Horse of Wiltshire and beyond.) There was only one way to find out…read it! 

The first thing I noticed flicking through from cover to cover was that each chapter starts with an excerpt from Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm.  Ibsen's politically biased play covering scandal, corruption and an unhappy marriage (the characters in the play being based on the real life elopement of a fiesty young countess who ran off with the husband of one her relatives, a Swedish poet, who were guests of Ibsen for a short period.) One of the themes in the play is the folklore of the White Horses of Rosmersholm.  The play was originally written under the title White Horses and later changed to Rosmersholm, so it was a tangible use of his work in her book.

Now I don’t intend to spoil the book for those who have not read it by writing spoilers. The book does start where we left off in the last one, at Robin’s wedding. Whilst there is no hard and fast rule as to how long a prologue should be, I think it should be limited to no more than five pages. It opens up a story, giving background details and context, and helps establish the story going forward. Now when I finished Career of Evil, I was desperate to know what happened between Robin, Strike and Matthew but I wasn’t expecting a warts and all start to the book. I read the (very) long prologue thinking, “well this is all very nice…but is this supposed to be romantic fiction or a detective novel…and when are we going to move onto the crime bit?” 

I guess the book relies on both the crime element, and the romantic notion of Strike and Robin’s relationship, but I thought it took too long for the book to really get started…it was a very slow burn and it wasn’t until I’d got to about the 24th or 25th chapter that I actually thought the book took off. Strike’s success in a Career of Evil has meant that his agency has grown and he is now able to employ some contract staff to assist him with investigations. He receives a visit from a young man, Billy Knight, who claims he witnessed a murder and the burial of someone when he was younger. He’s an agitated character with a history of mental illness, and he runs from Strike’s office before identifying himself. Strike however catches up with Billy’s brother Jimmy, an activist opposed to the up and coming 2012 London Olympics, who tells Strike his brother is an unreliable personality and not to be believed.

The meeting of Jimmy and Strike is noticed by Jasper Chiswell – the Minister for Culture – a politician plagued by scandal who, he tells Strike, is being blackmailed by Jimmy. Strike takes up the case and places Robin undercover at Westminster to find out what is going on behind closed doors. Robin, unsurprisingly, is not having the best of times with Matthew, and so is eager to accept her latest assignment. She meets a number of characters including Geraint Winn, the husband of the Minister for Sport (Della Winn) who wishes to destroy Jasper’s career…however, whilst undercover, Robin finds out that there are other things he’s guilty of! The plot weaves back and forth through a myriad of characters which we are introduced to in Rowling’s distinctly verbose style.

As the investigation continues, Strike is drawn to a painting, possibly painted by the Liverpool artist George Stubbs of a horse mourning the death of her foal (which has died of lethal white.) For my A-Level art exam I had to write a thesis, my subject was Equine Metamorphosis…looking at the changing face of the horse from Albrecht Durer to Franz Marc. As someone who had easy access to the Liverpool art galleries, George Stubbs featured a lot in my research, although I can’t ever remember seeing a painting matching the description in the book! But that is neither here nor there, JKR has done her research and embedded as many horse connotations into her book as possible.

By the end of the book I was full of mixed emotions. I enjoyed being reacquainted with Strike and Robin. JKR has created two beguiling characters that you can’t help falling in love with. I enjoy a good crime/detective novel, and in essence these books do have a skilfully weaved storyline but I just wish there was tighter editing. All characters, including incidental characters, are described in so much detail that the flow of the story wanes. I also got the feeling that JKR was distracted when writing the book, there is repetition in some areas and mistakes in others, and I found it unnecessary to keep describing Strike’s missing leg in so much detail so many times. We’re meant to believe that Strike is not defined by his injury, yet at every given opportunity a paragraph will be given to how he lost his leg. For an audience with the intellectual capabilities of processing a passage of Rosmersholm per chapter, the author should trust the same audience to remember (if you tell them once per novel) how Strike sustained his injury. As the story progresses it is perfectly acceptable to say the pain shot down Strike’s leg as an adequate reflection of when he is suffering, rather than the pain shot down Strike’s missing leg which he had sustained…blah blah blah. The constant reminders just irritated and distracted me.

I think JKR is blessed with a vivid imagination and an ability to create a good story. She creates interesting, complex characters and has a great feel for the human psyche; she is also very visual and this translates well to film and TV, however her publisher really needs to be brave and cut the extraneous material. The various flaws (e.g. an item mysteriously changing into something else) should also be ironed out when proofreading because they stand out, particularly if you read the book over two days! (At one point in the book I was reminded of Tom Burke’s character, Norbert, in the short “One Wrong Word.” A novelist is trying to get his book published, but the text just isn’t quite right!)

Despite my grumbles, I did enjoy the book! I’m looking forward to the TV adaptation (Tom back on my telly…of course I’m looking forward to it!) and I have a great desire to find out what happens in the next stage of Robin and Strike’s journey. I just hope that we might get to see some more of Shanker in book 5…I do like him!

Friday, 28 September 2018

"You never can tell with bees" Winnie the Pooh

Bee book - Chetham's Library
Manchester is synonymous with the worker bee. It has been used as a symbol to represent the history of Manchester's industrious past. In the 19th century, Manchester was a hive of activity during the industrial revolution and wherever you walk in Manchester you will see a bee, whether that's as emblems on the city bins and lamp-posts, or on its heraldic coat of arms.

Art trails have become a fantastic way of getting people to visit cities and raise money for good causes. From Liverpool's Superlambanana's, the international Cow Parade, and Bristol's Gromit (Wallace and Gromit) Unleashed Trail, Manchester has taken its famous bees to the streets this summer in the shape of 101 super sized bees and 131 smaller bees, all decorated by different artists celebrating the uniqueness of Manchester.

But let's put our bees on hold for a moment. As this trail takes you the length and breadth of Manchester, we decided to take a closer look at one of its historic buildings first. People who read my blog post in February will note that I took a behind the scenes tour of the Principal Hotel/Refuge last time I visited the city. This time I'm going behind the scenes of a library...something that's right up my street!

Chetham's Library

Founded in 1653, Chetham's Library is the oldest surviving public library in Britain. Humphrey Chetham (1580-1653) was a Manchester landowner, banker and textile merchant who established the library under his Will. He also stipulated a school should be created for forty poor boys, and chained libraries should be placed in five local churches to assist with community learning. 

The medieval complex, originally built in 1421 to accommodate the priests of the local church (now Manchester Cathedral) create a unique place for visitors and scholars alike, and even TV production companies! During the Civil War, the college had been used as an arsenal and prison and subsequently fallen into neglect and so a great restoration project needed to be undertaken.

Until Humphrey Chetham's library was created, there were no places for independent study in the north of England. His library changed that, acquiring a huge collection of manuscripts and books which could rival those held at Oxford and Cambridge college libraries. The earliest purchases were all made from the same London bookseller and covered subjects such as medicine, science, history and law; the aim of which was to assist local doctors, lawyers and clergymen.

In order to protect the books from the damp, they were held on the first floor and they were chained to the bookcases. Oak stools, with an "s" shaped hand-hold carved out to carry the stools by, were provided so students could take the stool to the books, as the books could not be taken away from the shelves. The library continues to grow its collection of books and some 350 years later, the library remains an important centre for study.

During term-time, the only part of the medieval building usually open to visitors is the library; however tours are available from

One of the first stops on the tour is the Baronial Hall - a great example of the types of timber framed halls in the north west of England. Originally the timber roof would have been open to allow smoke to escape from the central fire. Over time various modifications were made until we are left with the large inglenook 19th century fireplace that can be seen today.

The Audit Room is highly decorated, most visible is the ceiling which has been divided into nine panels depicting various grotesque designs including the Mouth of Hell. There are similarities in the designs in this room with the panelled roof of the Cathedral across from the library. The large oak table in the centre of the room has a strange mark on it, which legend suggests is from the hoof of the devil. In 1595, John Dee (Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I) took over the wardenship of the college. As well as an astrologer and scientist, he was reputed to be an alchemist and follower of the occult, and his endeavours allegedly resulted in the devil making an appearance in the Audit Room.

Cat flap
The Cloisters are arranged around a central courtyard. If you look closely at the doors, you can see the earliest form of a cat flap at the bottom! The cobbled courtyard, known as fox court, contains an old stone well which has three small openings at its top. If you look carefully through one of the openings, an optical illusion makes you think you can see a trapped fox in the well...hence the pet name given to the courtyard.

Library Books
As I made my way up to the library, I couldn't help thinking I'd seen it before. The librarian had joined the group to give us more of an insight into the working library, and as he spoke about the history of the place and drew our attention to various matters it bugged me that the place seemed so familiar. Impossible...I'd not even heard of Chetham's Library until a friend asked if I wanted to visit. Suddenly it came to me. The actor Mark Gatiss, a huge fan of the ghost-story writer M R James, directed a BBC production of The Tractate Middoth at Chetham's Library. I watched it again when I returned home from my visit (how come each time I visit a Manchester place of interest I end up going home to watch something that was filmed there?!) Upon watching it, I noticed Sacha Dhawen, who played Dr Valentine in the theatre production of Allelujah that I'd recently been to see, was also in The Tractate Middoth. How strange a coincidence!

Reading Room
From the library we moved onto the Reading Room. Housed in the centre of the room is a large table encircled by twenty-four leather backed chairs - both dating from approximately 1650. Above the fireplace is a portrait of the founder Humphrey Chatham, also in the room is a clock, gifted by an ex-pupil in 1695 who left Chethams to become an instrument maker. In the alcove of the Reading Room is a table where Frederick Engels and Karl Marx would sit when Engels was living in Manchester. The spot is mentioned in a letter from Engels to Marx in 1870. The librarian kindly brought out some books of
interest which he spoke about, and then because we were a small group, he allowed us into a small "secret" room for a quick peak. It's an interesting and beautiful building to go around, so if you get the opportunity I would urge you to go.


So back to the bees. Once we left the library it was back to our mission of locating the bees of Manchester. We had loaded the app to our phone and managed to work out how to use it. Having managed to spot a bee outside the railway station and a couple on our way into town, it was now time to take a tour of as much of Manchester as time, and our feet, would allow. By the time we'd marched up to what we thought were "empty" bees, there would be a swarm of people hovering, making picture taking difficult. No-one wants a stranger taking a picture of their kids, and to be honest, I didn't want a stranger's kids on my pics either...but perseverance paid off and we got a few nice shots of the bees.

We managed to walk about 8 miles, seeing parts of the city I'd never been to before, and we found 41 of the large bees...not even half of what was laid around the city. But with sore feet and a setting sun it was time to throw in the towel. We'd already walked past the bee at House of Fraser. The app said it was inside the store, so we raced in like Anneka Rice on Treasure Hunt, racing around trying to find it until some poor soul directed us back outside and told us to look at the window display. If you can walk past a huge bee, which has signs pointing it out, and you can't see it, you know it's really not worth carrying on. We couldn't even be bothered walking to find a bus...a taxi was heading towards us and before we knew it, we were in it heading home!

It was a great day out and hopefully when the bees are auctioned off they will raise a large sum of money for the Lord Mayor of Manchester's We Love MCR Charity. If there are any of these art trails somewhere close to me next year, I'll be heading back out there, camera in hand. Only this time, I might get the map beforehand and plan a route around the city!

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

"What were you in life?" - Allelujah! London Bridge Theatre

On paper, Allelujah didn’t sound that promising. Set in a old style Yorkshire hospital, The Bethlehem, which is facing closure, it tells the story about a group of patients on a geriatric ward. It was typical Alan Bennett. Strong, straight talking Yorkshire dialogue about various political issues past and present. The afternoon could have been a preachy and tedious couple of hours, however this was a light-hearted piece about serious issues and I’m pleased I went to watch it.

Alan Bennett is something of a national treasure. Now in his 84th year, he still has that ability to make you think about the days of "good ole England" when life was simpler, and people had time for one another. And what better place to show that lack of empathy the nation has with people, especially the older generations, than a geriatric ward on a hospital.

Capitalism has taken its toll and paved the way for a less caring society. Often we mean well, we intend to see people, to contact them more, but those good intentions are lost through working long hours, commuting further to earn the money to buy the nice things advertisers tell us we need. If we don't have the latest technology we're scared of being left behind; scared of what others may think of us. Bennett takes us back to the conversations we had as children with our grandparents, when we had the time to sit and listen to them reminisce about their pasts. Pasts which they held dear, memories that they wished to share so they wouldn't die with the person; a reminder for other generations to learn about their individual histories.

Colin works for the health ministry, a management consultant who wants to assist refresh the ailing health industry. The old-fashioned idea of a local cradle-to-grave hospital is no longer sustainable and despite the endeavours of the staff making it a fully functioning cost-effective business. In the eyes of the ministry a well-run business is just one more reason why the hospital needs to close. "The state should not be seen to work." But the Bethlehem is not going to go quietly, the Chairman of the hospital trust has seen to that by inviting a camera crew to make a documentary about the place and its patients!

The hospital is a cheery place, the patients are encouraged to join the choir "those with dementia can sometimes sing even when they cannot talk." And so from the start we are transported to an upbeat world of song and dance to keep everyone's spirits up, somewhat reminiscent of the stories of communities singing to Vera Lynn to keep their spirits up during the war. But amidst all this gaiety, serious issues arise.

Sister Gilchrist, played so heart-warmingly by Deborah Findley, is up for an award.  An "old school nursing mentality, you don't mess with her, but her hearts in the right place. She cares. She cares about her patients and she cares about her ward. "The first priority is to keep them clean. And I don't mean clean as masked by air freshener...Pine Fragrance, Forest Glade...because you know that underneath there is the smell of urine." "I like my wards to smell of fresh air or smell of nothing at all." So it makes the closing scene of Act One even more poignant as the play breaks questioning her efficiency.

It's a large cast of 25, and there are some fantastic performances throughout. Samuel Barnett as the aforementioned Colin, shines as he cycles onto stage fully kitted out in lycra. It turns out he hasn't arrived at the hospital for work reasons, he has returned home to see his dad who is a patient at The Bethlehem. But it speaks volumes that this young, time deprived man, chose to cycle 198 miles from London to Yorkshire rather than nipping up on the train, the reluctant visitor as echoed by Charles Causley's poem which is alluded to in the play.

Sacha Dhawan is also impressive as Dr Valentine, the amenable doctor who takes great of his patients, but despite this, he entered the UK on a student visa and his position has become precarious. Will this illegal immigrant be able to fight to stay in the country he now classes as home and one which he pays his taxes to?

Bennett's writing has echoes of Rattigan's Separate Tables in the character of Ambrose, the scholarly teacher waiting patiently for the visit from a former student that is unlikely to ever happen. Simon Williams stands out playing this sharp witted, educated man who still enjoys reciting poetry and helping Dr Valentine learn about the UK, but he is subjected to the daily unwanted attention of Hazel...

Hazel "I was singing it for you."
Ambrose "I wouldn't bother."
Hazel "You wouldn't say that if I was Dorothy Squires."
Ambrose "On the contrary, I would say it if you were Kiri-Te-Fucking-Kanawa."

Arlene Phillips choreographed some great ensemble routines and the choice of music made you want to sing along in the aisles as this great bunch of actors showed there are no limits to old age, and a reminder of happier days.

Allelujah runs at The Bridge Theatre until 29th September 2018.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Beautiful Fashion Shouldn't Cost the Earth

Lear finished rather late, but luckily I arrived at Waterloo station just before M&S shut; this meant I was able to grab a cuppa and an iced bun for supper before falling fast asleep at my hotel. (Supper from where I come from is a cup of tea or hot chocolate and biscuit or a bun just before bed - not a full on evening meal!) Whilst it is nice to share a hotel room, the benefits of being on my own was not lost on me. By 9:30 am, I was already showered, packed and breakfasted and ready to make the most of the day. I dumped my bag at reception and headed to the V&A for their exhibition “Fashioned from Nature.” I’m aware of the use of animal fur etc in the fashion industry, and cheap labour giving us cheap throw away fashion, but I wanted to find out a bit more about issues we might not think about. It’s all very well asking the question “who makes my clothes” but for me, often the answer is myself. The question that I should be focused on is “how is my fabric produced and by whom?”

The exhibition was split as usual at the V&A into two areas. The more informative exhibits focusing on the history of the fashion industry were downstairs and the displays of dresses and clothing were upstairs. Naturally I wanted to make a bee-line for the dresses upstairs, however, I followed the history of using animal fur to make felt hats, whalebone to make corsets and small brightly coloured birds to make earrings or to adorn hats feeling more and more contempt for the industry. 

But killing animals directly for fashion is only the start of the problem. We think we stop being cruel to animals if we use natural fabrics such as cotton, or artificial fabrics such as rayon; however it was interesting to learn just how much water is required to create both types of fabric. Water courses have been redirected in order to sustain the need to feed factories, which means lakes and rivers drying up and changing the ecology of an area and therefore the death of indigenous species. It’s not only the amount of water that is required, but the volume of chemicals which are needed to obtain the fibres from the plants. The noxious chemicals reach the watercourses and cause health issues for both man and beast, and with our desire for throw away fashion, the fashion industry has become the second most polluting industry in the world. 

Glass beads -
not animal pelt!
The exhibition starts circa 1600. During the 17th & 18th centuries, exploration of the globe led to the sourcing of new raw materials for the fashion industry. New flora and fauna was discovered; botanical prints could be used as patterns, or creatures and their pelts used as fabrics. In the 19th century, new transport, the opening of museums and access to cheaper publications allowed fashion to extend to the working classes. The production of cotton became Britain's most important textile industry. Large mills were created in the industrial north of the country which adopted new mechanised approaches to spinning and weaving, allowing cloth to be created on a faster and greater scale. Railways allowed for the transportation of material in an easier and quicker manner than the old canal networks. New technology allowed for the creation of chemical dyes, however, it was still impossible to recreate the iridescence of colours found on certain birds and shells which were popular with the masses. This desire to follow fashion led to the endangerment of many ecosystems and the possible extinction of some wildlife.

Stella McCartney -
George Stubbs design
During the twentieth century many further advances have been made in technology. It is quicker and cheaper to manufacture clothing. 24 hour news showcases the latest fashion trends, and for those who can't afford designer goods, they can buy cheap imitations imported from China on the high street. But at what cost? Faux fur items that those concerned with animal rights might buy have been found to contain real fur. High Street retailers have used suppliers who have mislabelled items, and they have been guilty of selling real fur from who knows where. Which leads me to wonder what it really is that I'm buying when I go into a store. Can I really trust what is written on the label? As we enter present day, technology allows us to use our knowledge more wisely. Designers such as Stella McCartney highlight the darker side of the fashion industry, and she's making it trendy to care about what we wear. The culture of consumption can be changed, a common threads initiative of Reduce, Repair, Reuse and Recycle was advertised for Patagonia in 2011, encouraging shoppers to think about the environmental impact of buying new clothes.

It is a brave and inspiring exhibition that the V&A has chosen to put on.  It has given me food for thought about how wasteful the industry is and whilst I've never been a follower of fashion, as can be seen by the contents of my own wardrobe, it has made me think about making more classic items for myself, and recycling some of those old things that no longer fit before I think of throwing them away!

Orla Keily - Looking Forward to the Past

The V&A exhibit took me longer to get round than I expected, so I had to forgo my elevenses in their gorgeous cafe and hop on the tube to London Bridge instead so I could visit the Fashion and Textile Museum (created by Zandra Rhodes).

Every trip I’ve made to London I’ve promised myself I would seek the museum out. The opportunity has never arisen though, but here, with time to myself, I could go and find out what it is all about. It’s a lovely small space which doesn’t house any permanent exhibits. Instead it exhibits one collection for several months before clearing it out and putting something new on display. On this occasion, the Irish designer Orla Kiely was the focus. I like her designs so I was thrilled that I had got up early and was able to view both it and the V&A display.

Orla Keily is an Irish designer, well renowned for her retro patterns. Inspired by the upbeat design of the 60's and 70's, Orla's designs can be recognised on coasters and oven mitts, handbags and smock dresses. The designs look simple enough, regimented patterns repeated like soldiers on the parade ground, but it is this seeming simplicity that made her globally successful with her signature style. The patterns are not trendy and up to the minute, they hark at times past, so they have the potential to always be on-trend.  But success sometimes comes at a price.

What started out as a business making felted hats, expanded to handbag design, because whilst not all women wear hats, all women carry bags. The success of her "Stem" pattern allowed further expansion into the world of homeware, wallpaper, bedding, candles, shoes, ready-to-wear fashion...the list went on. But whilst this exhibit was showcasing the designers hard work and success, behind the scenes her company was making losses leading to the company heading into administration. The news was confirmed on the 17th September 2018 that her fashion business had ceased trading. Sometimes less is don't want to be wearing an expensive dress in the same pattern as the duvet cover on your bed; or worse, to turn up to a house party and find you're wearing the same design as tea towel someone's mopping up spilt wine with!

It was a fabulous exhibition, now tinged with a little sadness, but one that reminds me that "better a little which is done well, than a great deal imperfectly." (Plato) Perhaps if she had designed with specific products in mind than a one size fits all approach, consumers may not have fallen a little out of love with her.

I had lunch at the museum and then wandered down to Tower Bridge to take a few pictures before meeting friends for a matinee performance at The Bridge Theatre. A play about patients on the geriatric ward of a closing down hospital...I was wondering why I'd agreed to go and see it, but that's a different story...

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” King Lear – Duke of York’s Theatre, London

Happy Birthday to me! I’ll be 25 again (give or take a couple of decades.) For my birthday I headed to London to see King Lear. I knew the basic premis about the play but I was certainly no expert. I knew that there are parts which are quite gruesome and I knew it wasn’t going to be a laugh minute but more of an intense experience; so you may ask, why would I want to see it? The answer was simple, Sir Ian McKellen was playing the titular role and this was potentially my only opportunity to see him take on such a demanding role. (I really wanted to see him and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land, but the closest I got was the NT Live version…a shame because I rather like Harold Pinter plays!)

King Lear was booked a while back, in February to be precise, but it was surprising just how quickly the time flew and I found myself travelling down to London to see it. It seemed like forever since I’d been down there, but thinking about it, I was actually there in July to watch The Cure perform in Hyde Park. (A most excellent evening that I neglected to share with you all.) The person I was due to share a room with could no longer make the trip, but fortunately I’d booked a hotel in a familiar part of Lambeth, so I was quiet happy to be able to do my own thing. I made myself at home in my room, had a cuppa and a butty and freshened up before heading towards Covent Garden. Now I like to walk to places if possible, you’ll hardly ever find me hailing a taxi, and as it was rather a balmy afternoon I walked from my hotel down to the South Bank and over the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s cathedral. I then headed up along Fleet Street and towards Trafalgar Square where the art galleries cried out to me to pop in for a quick wander. I then got my bearings to where the theatre was and then headed into the market place of Covent Garden to get a bite to eat and to watch the street entertainers before meeting up with friends by the theatre. (After checking my app - and let's face it apps run our lives now - I'd covered 14.39 km - or 8.9 miles!)

The Duke of York’s Theatre was opened 10th September 1892, it’s a beautiful, if small and cozy looking theatre. For this production the space was made even more intimate by the removal of 12 rows of seating from the stalls to install the Lear Lounge at the rear where people could enjoy a drink or two. A central runway was also incorporated between the back of the theatre and the stage, allowing the actors to bring the action even closer to the audience. 

The play commenced with a beautiful aria sung by the cast, it sounded like something you would hear in high church, however, as the production continued we moved between the paganism of the Celtic King, to modernistic office scenes; soldiers wearing army desert camouflage uniforms carrying rifles, to a scene of armed combat with daggers. Oak paneled rooms gave way to a stark clinical torture room or the bare wasteland of Dover. It all seemed a bit contradictory and confused, although despite these inconsistencies, I found the evening highly entertaining and I relished the opportunity to see Sir Ian shine as the tormented king battling dementia.

Lear is an aging king who has decided to step down from his throne. His kingdom is to be divided equally between his three daughters, however, they must first express their love and devotion to him. Whilst Goneril and Regan are happy to testify, Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter refuses and she is banished from the kingdom. Lear begins to question whether he has made the right decision, beginning to realise that Goneril and Regan are betraying him and undermining what little authority he has left, and slowly his sanity wanes. McKellen is spellbinding as he takes a journey through the frailty of old age – from a strong, vicious and cruel leader, to a weary, forgetful man suddenly aware of his own mortality.

Image taken from programme
McKellen’s poignant portrayal of this beleaguered king is in stark contrast to that of his somewhat disturbed daughter Regan. A nobleman, Gloucester, realises that Lear’s daughters have turned against him and therefore he tries to help Lear despite the dangerous repercussions of such an act. Regan finds out and accuses Gloucester of Treason and has his eyes gouged out. It’s a distressing and stomach churning scene, however this Regan appears sexually aroused by this malicious act and screeches around the stage like a demented harpy. Another character prone to exaggeration is the Fool, but this George Formby, ukulele playing comedian was too gimmicky and overbearing for me and served more as a distraction than as the character who used his position to give Lear advice as he embarked on his adventure into the wilderness.

Whilst this play had the opportunity to highlight political authority descending into chaos, and how unstable a governing body can be when external influences thwart it, this production seemed to concentrate more on the personal journey of a man and his family and the consequences of how cruel people can be to those they love. Is there any justice in the world? It’s a hard question to answer. The wicked get their comeuppance and die, but those that have done no wrong also die. So, probably the answer is no, there is no real justice in the world. But whatever niggles the production had, McKellen’s performance was a shining beacon in this dark Shakespearean tragedy and I'm thrilled I had the opportunity to witness it first hand.

Image taken from programme
King Lear runs until Saturday 3rd November at The Duke of Yourk's Theatre, London. If you can't buy tickets, NT Live is streaming the production to theatres on 27th September 2018 - see link for details.