Saturday, 14 July 2018

Spotlight on Don Carlos - Exeter Northcott Theatre

 As readers of my ramblings will know I'm a huge Tom Burke fan. Ever since I saw him in (frankly not a great TV series) called POW back in 2003 or so, I have enjoyed watching his career grow, and it's great that he is now a household name - it makes life so much easier for me to say "Athos in the Musketeers" or "Cormoran Strike" when asked the question..."who??"

Tom is a brilliant and accomplished stage actor too, so it was no surprise when he announced he was creating his own theatre company ARA (named after his grandmother - who by all accounts was a great character herself!)

Tom's first production for ARA is Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos. Many opera buffs will probably know about Schiller and Don Carlos. I'm not an opera buff. I knew little about either. In fact I only heard who Schiller was back in November because Tom assembled a number of great actors who had worked at The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow and they conducted a read-through of William Tell at London's Bunker Theatre.

After that I saw Schiller's play, Mary Stuart, at The Lowry in Salford (sorry never got around to blogging that one!) I really loved the simple staging of it. I was moved away from the distractive elements of theatre (set, costume etc) and left with the joy of listening to, and taking in the language. I loved it far more than any Shakespeare play I have ever seen. This led me to wonder why, was it because at school you were told what to think about Shakespeare? Passages deconstructed to the last syllable. Read, not watched or performed? Had school sucked the potential joy out of Shakespeare? (My friend's mum said she had studied Schiller as part of her German lessons at school...but then I did French, not German at school and that's the excuse I'm going to stick with.)

I wondered whether it would be a good idea to go to Exeter and listen to a professor explain Schiller to me, however, I knew this wouldn't be a night like any of the English lectures I managed to forget to attend when at university. I would also be listening to the director Gadi Roll about his interpretation of the text and of course Tom would be there supplying his wit and wisdom. (I also noted Judi Spiers would be hosting the event and I used to love her on Pebble Mill on the BBC.)

I have been reading various versions of Schiller texts, including the MacDonald translation that Tom will be using for Don Carlos. One of the most interesting "comparison" texts I've read so far was MacDonald's "Joan of Arc" versus a wonderful translation by Major-General Maxwell called "Schiller's Maid of Orleans." It is the same tale, one quite modernistic in it's language, the other very antiquated, almost Shakespearean in style. I'm not sure when it was published, but the inscription inside is dated 1897, and I have my good friend Nikki to thank for buying it for me. It's a quaint little book to be treasured.

Reading these texts on my own (rather being lectured) allowed me the freedom of taking what I found of value out of the writing. Not, what is Schiller telling me, but, what am I taking from this? It was most interesting, so I stepped up a gear and read some various articles about Schiller, including the introduction from Oxford World Classics, Don Carlos & Mary Stuart, by Professor Lesley Sharpe. Her informative introduction looked at both the significance of the play and how it fitted in with the history of drama. Schiller wrestles with the ideas of a struggle for a more tolerant and humane society, and it is an interesting concept to come to terms with. (It was only after I finally decided to go to Exeter that I realised Professor Lesley Sharpe is an Emeritus Professor at Exeter university!) Suddenly the idea of going was becoming more exciting, an interesting subject with a bit of Tom thrown in...but Exeter is a long way away for a 90 min talk!

Now, I'm not one to delve into detail about my private life online. Suffice to say, things not going too well with "father-in-law" so we're taking good weeks with bad weeks. This week seemed to be a safe week for me to risk driving to the other end of the country. Exeter can be a bit of a pricey place to stay on your own (normally I'd be sharing a room with a fellow Tom fan, but no-one on the WA group had said they were going, and I can't be relied on to organise to go anywhere at the moment without cancelling last minute) however, it was the perfect time of year to grab a bargain priced room at the university. So no more excuses, time to get in the car and have a good night being educated and entertained.

[As an aside, staying on campus was great, it was like I had gone back in time 20 (ish) years, only these days the rooms are ensuite! (The carpet still looked remarkably similar to my old rooms at Preston though!) So, if you're going to the theatre or what not in a university town, it's always worth a look to see if they have any rooms available.]

It was a 5-10 min walk to the theatre which sits atop of a steep hill. As I staggered into the bar, I was asked if I was ok. Yes, I replied, at least once you've given me a pint I will be. £4.50! £4.50!? It was a £1 a pint at wonder I didn't spend much time in lectures! Anyway, as I supped on my beer and read through some Schiller notes I'd made, I heard a familiar voice. Tom had walked in and was greeting some people. Tom wandered over to the bar and I thought, I know those faces too, it's the WA group, so I wandered over to say hello, at which point Tom turned round and came over and said hi to me! Bless him...that certainly made the 5 hour drive all the more worthwhile.

The free event was put on by the Northcott Theatre and featured Professor Gert Vonhof, Associate Professor in German at Exeter, specialising in German Poetry from 1750-1850 and an authority of Friedrich Schiller; the director Gadi Roll and Tom, who plays Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. Don Carlos is a story told against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, it is therefore a tale of ruthlessness, power and passion.  Tom and Gadi last worked together in 2007 in a production of Ödön von Horváth's Don Juan Comes Back From the War. It was clear from the evening they were good friends and enjoy working together, so it was interesting to hear their thoughts on the play, and their ideas and insight for creating a unique and dramatic staging of a theatre production. After hearing what they had to say, I'm really excited to see the play in October and to return to the Northcott.

In a first for the theatre, the event was live streamed, so rather than writing about what was said, I've attached a link below to Exeter Northcott Theatre's Facebook page. The link below should work until Northcott remove their video! Note it only starts playing at about 12:30 otherwise you sit watching Tom's static face... which is obviously not a problem!!!!

After the Q&A's ended I headed back to the bar and sat with the rest of Tom's fans. Judi Spiers came over to say hello and we managed to persuade her to sit and chat with us! Tom also joined us all and chatted for a short while before leaving with Gadi. It was a lovely end to the evening and after they left, I ambled back to my room, watching the students larking about, and I was transported back to my student days when I would go to the theatre and come back to my digs to do a write up for the next day's journalism lecture. Well, at least I didn't have to worry about that this time...instead I could just make a cuppa and watch the world go by!

Don Carlos is on at the Exeter Northcott Thursday 11th - Saturday 20th October, before it tours at
Nuffield Southampton - 23rd October to 3rd November and Rose Theatre, Kingston 6th to 17th November.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Witness For The Prosecution - Agatha Christie @ London County Hall

“GUILTY.” A man is sentenced to death in front of your very eyes. Then comes the audible gasp of the audience as the stage in front of them transforms into a gallows and a terrified young man screams his innocence as he looks deep into the abyss below. The audience is mortified…what if he is innocent? What if the jury have got it wrong? Are they sending an innocent man to his death?

Witness for the Prosecution was adapted for the stage by Agatha Christie and the premiere was held in 1953 in the Winter Garden Theatre, London. Peter Saunders, Christie’s theatre producer, had suggested that she adapt her short story “Traitor Hands” for the stage. Her response was to tell him that if he wanted a play he’d have to write it himself. Saunders duly took up the challenge, but Agatha was not impressed with his work, dismissing it and writing it again from scratch.

Leonard Vole has been accused of murdering a wealthy widow for her money. This is life or death for Vole. As each witness is brought forward, can he convince the judge and jury (and the audience) of his innocence? Both the setting and the outstanding performances from all involved keep you gripped throughout the proceedings. In a tale of murder, passion, betrayal and justice, the scales keep falling from one side to the other and his life hangs in the balance.

On the one hand you can watch the play as a nice Agatha Christie Who Dunnit, but on the other hand it leaves you wondering about how flawed the justice system is. People are so easily manipulated. In these days of a consumerist society, we are so easily swayed into buying or even doing things that we don’t want/to do. We’re unable to say no to our children anymore for fear of being disliked or embarrassed as we’re screamed at and publicly humiliated. In a society that now seems to be unable to think for itself, what makes us believe that our justice system is fair? What if a jury could be so easily manipulated…what if the jury members can’t face the prospect of perhaps being the only one in the room to stand their ground for what they believe to be the truth?

A good criminal can ensure that their lawyer believes every word that they say. A good lawyer, a lawyer that has been taught to win an argument, counter every move, dispute the oppositions claims, has the ability to throw a jury off the scent. But just because the lawyer can win the argument, it doesn’t mean that justice is done or that all of the evidence in the trial is valid. Truth, can be twisted. The “facts” presented to the jury can see an innocent person hang and a guilty person walk free.

Watching a murder mystery play staged in a court room as historic and beautiful as London County Hall is not to be missed. From the moment you are summoned to take your seat (a plush leather seat where no view is a bad view) you feel as though you are inside The Old Bailey. It is mesmerising watching this small stage space transform from dock to chambers and back again, but it is also a reminder that the law is based in theatrical rituals, if it wasn’t; there wouldn’t be so many court room dramas on the TV schedule. The set, the production and even the echoed sound of usher’s summoning the witnesses to the stand, all reinforce that we are in a criminal court rather than a theatre.

Witness for the Prosecution is an entertaining play, with a thoughtful and unsettling reminder about how many innocent people may have seen the hangman’s rope. The play has been extended until March 2019, and it is definitely worth seeing, whether you are a fan of Agatha Christie or not. You have therefore been summoned. I’ll see you in court!

Friday, 15 June 2018

Pressure, Ambassadors Theatre, London

We Brits do love to talk about the weather. It’s like some compulsion programmed into our DNA to call over to complete strangers “lovely weather we’re having” or “I don’t like the look of those clouds, storm approaching don't you think?!”

So, on this grey, overcast day, with the wind blowing the washing dry (perfect weather for a washing day) I’m sat in the garden with a cup of tea reflecting about the weekend that has passed and the various plays I have seen.

I don’t recall learning much about WWII at school. My dad loved war films and war planes, especially Spitfires and so most of my teachings probably came from him. A few years ago, I stayed at a friend’s house in Normandy and we visited the beaches of Gold, Omaha, Juno, Utah and Sword. We drove up to Pegasus Bridge and the museum there and so I knew a little bit about how weather had played an important part of the D-Day landings, but I wasn’t fully aware of James Stagg’s involvement in the success of the mission.

David Haig has changed all of that with his play, Pressure, which tells the story of Dr James Stagg, a Scottish meteorologist charged with forecasting what the weather would be like on Monday 5th June 1944. Weather forecasting had been around since the 1860’s, but the science behind it was still in its infancy. Stagg was convinced that changes in Earth’s magnetic field affected the upper atmosphere which in turn effected the world's weather. His work led him to holding the position of Chief Meteorological Adviser to the supreme commander of the allied forces in Europe. Stagg was charged with forecasting the weather conditions for the D-Day landings, a task confounded by working with Colonel Irving P Krick, an American meteorologist who had conflicting views and opinions on what conditions would be like on 5th June 1944.

Krick had been employed by the US Strategic Air Forces in Europe in the Weather Information Centre. He joined Stagg as part of General Dwight Eisenhower’s team, however, his methods were dramatically different to those of Stagg, preferring instead to pay attention to historical weather charts rather than embracing new science. 

KRICK:- "There's no proof the jet stream exists."

KRICK:- "Okay. This is the weather chart for June 2nd, 1923. And I could have given you June 3rd 1919, or June 10th 1926, all three identical to this chart on the wall."

STAGG:- "Not identical."

KRICK:- "Virtually."

So whose word are you going to follow? The man of new untrusted science, or the man who thinks the weather will follow a similar pattern to his previous years charts? The play beautifully illustrates the pressure that Stagg, Krick and Eisenhower were under to ensure that the D-Day landings would be as successful as possible. David Haig plays the brusque, bad-mannered Scot who as the play unfolds becomes this endearing character that you cannot help but warm too. It was his tenacity that made Eisenhower listen to him. Stagg stood his ground, he didn’t tell Eisenhower what he knew he wanted to hear like Krick did. Stagg believed in himself, and with that he helped save the lives of potentially 80,000 men, by predicting the violent storms that would have capsized the flat-bottomed boats that were due to ferry men across the English Channel. 

This was a beautifully written piece of history, both compelling and laced with humour, showcasing what was a severely stressful situation people were under. The scenes between both Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair) and Kay Summersby (Laura Rogers) and  Stagg and Summersby were particularly poignant and added depth and humanity to the piece.

As I write, the great British weather does its thing…the sun is now poking it’s head from behind a cloud trying to make up for the morning misery. As Stagg tried to explain to Krick:- "Ten o'clock in the morning, it's baking hot, the beach is packed. By midday, there's a howling wind and the Punch and Judy man has packed up for the day. By two o'clock, the rain is horizontal, but by four o'clock...the sun is beating down again and it's eighty degrees. Nothing is predictable about British weather, that's why we love to talk about it."

And despite our unpredictable weather, a man was asked, without the aid of modern computer charts, to predict the weather in the channel to save the lives of men. Who say's the British weather is boring?!  (And yes...we did go to The Ivy for dinner first!)

Pressure is playing at The Ambassadors Theatre, London until 1st September 2018.

Follow the link for tickets:

Monday, 21 May 2018

Credited with a Warm Scottish Welcome

I’m driving from Flintshire to Edinburgh to see a play. It’s a bit of a way to go just for a play, so I figured that I should turn the trip into a long weekend away with a likeminded soul. My friend Nikki is a theatre fan, a great photographer and interested in ornithology, so we got our heads together  and booked tickets for the last night of Creditors by August Strindberg at The Lyceum Theatre. Nine months lay ahead to decide and plan where we were going with our cameras!

The play was scheduled for the 12th May and on the 1st May we realised there was still no timetable set as to what the hell we were doing. Another friend had leapt in to save the day (we could stay at her house) and as I seem to have no time for anything at the moment (hence lack of/late  blog posts) I just relied on Nikki who was more on the ball than I, and had heard about a Red Kite trail in Galloway. We had been toying with the idea of watching Kites in Wales, (and yes I haven’t got around to organising that either) so that idea got a big tick straightaway! An even bigger tick was when she asked if I thought we’d be able to get to Wigtown. “Wigtown is full of books Nikki…of course we can make it!”

“How about lunch at The Witchery on Saturday?” “Oh my God woman, you’re on fire! That sounds amazing – just my kind of place…and I can wear my cat boots. Very witch like!!!” “Have you any ideas what you want to do, I feel like I’m hijacking the holiday?” “Nope, it’s all sounding perfect but I’ll get my thinking cap on.” I didn’t. The only effort I can honestly say I put in was buying lots of gluten free goodies and Prosecco…but every girl needs Prosecco, right?!


After a long cross country drive we arrived in Wigtown on a grey and gloomy morning. We headed towards our first bookshop and were approached by a chap carrying sound recording equipment. Turns out he was from Radio 4 and needed an audience in the book shop. It didn’t seem an onerous task so we went in. A band (made up of one male and one female) were playing songs about books, they were brilliant and it was easy to get involved with cheering and clapping for the radio listeners…however, what we were not prepared for was to be interviewed afterwards. Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot, had stated that all the elements of an education could be obtained by reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf. The question was set, what books would we put on the bookshelf? 

Now, I read quite a bit, but to be asked whether I’d had a favourite textbook at school was a bit of a curveball which left me dumbfounded. I can’t remember textbooks at school, let alone a favourite one. I could only just about remember Longmans Audio Visual but seeing as my French is dire that was hardly something to put forward. As I scratched around the farthest reaches of my brain it occurred to me that I must have been asleep for most of my years as a student; the only textbook I could remember was my Norton Anthology of English Literature…and that’s only because I still dip in and out of it. I finally recorded some arty reply about a book that had a profound effect on me, but don’t hold your breath that I’ll make the radio cut. (I wouldn’t broadcast it if I were in charge.)
As Nikki and I headed off for lunch (Cauliflower Cheese soup – it sounds disgusting and we told the waitress so, only we found out it’s quite a taste sensation and we wanted the recipe) we laughed at how the morning had panned out.

The Galloway Kite Trial

I love nature and the opportunity to shoot raptors on the wing (with a camera!) was just too appealing. I dug out my Cannon EOS 700D and mourned the loss of my my favourite 500mm "wildlife" lens which somehow had grown fungus inside it (don’t ask) so I was reduced to a 300mm lens for trying to get some shots of the kites with. I didn’t think I would get any decent shots at all. I thought if I was lucky I might get the odd blurred shot of a bird, or more probably a load of indistinct tail shots; however, when I was finally brave enough to look at the results on my computer, I was pleased to see that there were a number of shots to be proud of, especially as I'm more familiar with taking still shots. I’m not going to become Chris Packham overnight, but I thought for a first attempt I had something positive to work with and improve upon!

When we arrived at Bellymack Hill Farm, it was feeding time. We’d just missed the start due to our inability to negotiate either road signs or the ubiquitous SatNav that sends you where it wants to go and not where you think you’ve programmed it to go. As we raced to the back of the car to grab our camera’s, the air above was dark with the wingspans of dozens of Kites circling around. We raced to the viewing platform, throwing admission money at a bemused lady behind the counter on the way, and grabbed a spot to watch these majestic creatures in action. Red Kites have faced persecution in the UK, nearly dying out, but they have successfully been re-introduced back into parts of Scotland, England and Wales and they are now thriving. The Kites at Galloway were reintroduced back in 2001, and it was a joy to watch these gregarious birds swoop down, talons outstretched to grab meat from a large platform, and rise on the updrafts for others to take their turn.

Whilst it could be argued that this isn’t really watching the birds in their natural environment, it does give you an opportunity to get up close and see how beautiful these extraordinary creatures are.


The day we’ve been waiting nine months for! The sun was beating down; I was carrying a leather jacket and starting to wish I’d left it at home, the shops were calling and a castle needed visiting. So of course we headed off for Lunch at The Witchery. Let’s be honest, you can’t do anything on an empty stomach. I wore my Gothic-esque cat boots as I thought they would be rather fitting, and I sat in amazement soaking in the gorgeous dark wooden interior of the restaurant. The waiters were welcoming and made the experience incredibly relaxed and the food was sensational. Nothing was too much trouble, even when there was a Pescatarian and a Gluten Free diet to take care of!  I heartily recommend anyone visiting Edinburgh to book a table there. OK, it’s a little bit pricey, but it’s a Michelin starred restaurant and well worth every penny for the full dining experience. 

Creditors – August Strindberg.

This play was drawn to my attention because in 2009, Tom Burke won the prestigious Ian Charleson award for his performance as Adolf in a production directed by Alan Rickman. Not only did it feature Tom in the cast, but another favourite of mine, Owen Teale and the utterly brilliant Anna Chancellor. It has always been a regret that I didn’t get to see that particular production, so I was thrilled to be able to watch it this time around. 

Free-thinking women are a danger to society and it is best to show who is in control from the start. Of course, Gustav’s views are not because he has a vested interest in his ex-wife, but just a reasonable viewpoint that men should consider for the benefit of all society.

Strindberg’s play is a raw and brutal look at the ease in which someone can be manipulated into questioning both themselves and those that surround them. Tekla, and her younger second husband Adolf are on holiday at a seaside resort, when Tekla spends a day away from Adolf he is befriended by a stranger, Gustav. Adolf is both full of youth and optimism, but prone to moments of dark thought and his ease at offloading his worries to this stranger makes it easier for Gustav to manipulate and impress on Adolf that his fears are not unwarranted. It is only as the play unfolds that we see Gustav has more at stake than just giving friendly advice to Adolf.

This was a superb production by Stewart Laing. I particularly liked the scene breaks where by a group of silent Girl Guides robotically march on stage making fires, waving flags in semaphore, symbolically communicating with the audience in a strange but almost comforting manner which helps set the finally emotionally charged ending. The eerie music and the use of black and white live recording from inside Tekla’s beach home adds to the dramatic climax, as we bear witness to the relationship of all three parties, but from a distance, as we watch it played out on film.

Follow the Badger

The final full day had us heading not far from our holiday home to the Falls of Clyde. Whilst there were various routes you could take, we decided on simply “following the badger signs” on a short walk along the River Clyde from the World Heritage Site which passes a series of waterfalls through a beautiful woodland setting. We returned the way we came, however, if you have the time and energy, the walk can be extended by returning via the opposite side of the river in a more circuitous ramble. 

The reserve is home to over 100 species of birds, including kingfishers, yellowhammers, spotted flycatchers and ravens.  In the evenings Daubenton’s bats swoop over the river to catch their supper, whilst otters play along the riverbanks and badgers start foraging in the undergrowth for juicy earthworms and other tasty treats. If the wildlife isn’t playing, there are still the scenic woodland walks, carpeted with bluebells in the spring, and if it’s been raining, spectacular waterfalls to view en route, including the impressive Corra Linn, standing at 80ft high.

After a day out rambling, ensure you leave enough time to pop into the visitor centre for some locally inspired crafts in the gift shop and a tasty ice-cream. I heartily recommend the Irn-Bru ice-cream as a break from the normal vanilla!


Monday, 7 May 2018

The Turn of The Screw (Theatr Clwyd) - and a Brilliant Bank Holiday!

A Bank Holiday filled with sunshine! Well that’s a first! Despite “Derek The Weatherman” promising a nice break I didn’t believe him, so I was caught somewhat by surprise. I thought I’d enjoy some R and R in the garden before realising that a) the garden didn’t exist – instead a patch of overgrown wasteland had been deposited outside my back door, and b) the garden parasol had been left out all winter, the wooden pole had rotted through, and the remains of spiders, flies and god knows what showered on my head as I tried to open it up. Having lost the cat in foot long grass, which I swear at one time had served as a lawn, the restful weekend turned into locating a machete and making the place look like it’s inhabited.

Radio 4 has turned into my Godsend these last few days, there were several plays I popped on as I set to work in the blistering heat. The ground has been cleared of weeds, not sure the frog was too happy about that, but I found room to leave him and the local hedgehog a large shallow dish of water in a shady spot near the back of the shed, so I suspect I’ll be forgiven.

The patio has been cleared of weeds and jet washed and is now ready for the summer pots to be planted up…although they’re in the greenhouse and that seems to have become a dumping ground for all the rubbish I brought back with me when I vacated my allotment. That’ll be the next Bank Holiday’s job then!

So after all that hard work, I felt I had earned a new patio brolly, so having bought some tropical parrot cushions for the chairs, it seemed a subtle lime green parasol was the way to go! So, just as the Bank Holiday is waving goodbye, and work come beckoning, I’m ready to sit in the garden with a G&T Popsicle and start writing about what I’ve been up to regarding theatre land.

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James (Theatr Clwyd)

The classic ghost story brought to life by Daniel Buckroyd, tells the tale of a governess in 1840 who agrees to look after two orphaned children. Shortly after arriving at the country house in Bly, the governess sees the image of a man and a woman who she later finds out are former employees at Bly, now deceased. The governess feels compelled to do everything she can to keep the children in her care safe, but at what cost?

Why I am drawn to ghost stories is anyone’s guess, but they are an intrinsic part of our literary heritage. From Hamlet to Jane Eyre; Green Tea to The Woman in White, the UK is richly furnished with tales of ghostly goings on. There is something strangely comforting about sitting in a darkened theatre having the wits scared from you, to breathing a sigh of relief when the lights come on and we are back in the normal world.< The Turn of the Screw is a disturbing tale and ambiguous in that one cannot be sure whether the ghosts are real or not. The tale has inspired many writers including Susan Hill – the image of a woman in black and a chair that rocks on its own – are both elements borrowed for her own famous tale, The Woman in Black.

Skewed proscenium arches framing the stage, dustsheets covering items of furniture, subtle lighting where gaslights flicker, silhouettes appear behind frosted windows, lightning flashes giving a glimpse of bodies, together with an evocative music score, the eerie stage is set! 

What I really loved about this version was that whilst it stuck pretty close to the original book, I left the theatre pondering what had really happened. Tim Luscombe’s adaptation picks apart all the contradictions in James’ book, giving a layered production which takes the now grown up orphan Flora (played by Annabel Smith as both the adult and child) to question the governess about what had happened to her and her brother during her childhood years.

I had taken the book at face value, just a ghostly tale, had the governess seen the ghosts or were they just a figment of her imagination? Admittedly I had read the book quickly, but I hadn’t really given any thought as to the actual state of mind of the governess. Was this the mind-set of a sexually repressed governess, or a woman suffering from depression, or was some deeper Freudian thinking necessary? Carli Norris’ knock out performance changed my thoughts on the book and gave me some deeper, complex, food for thought. I drove home seriously questioning those ghosts, were they real or not?! I think another, considered, reading of the text is probably in order!

The play is still touring until 26th May 2018, catch it if you can.