Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Westbury White Horse

According to my father, the first word I spoke was horse. A strange choice as I don't come from a 'horsey' family, so either I had a grasp of the English language from a very early age, or my dad was telling tales and I burbled 'dada' just like all small people!

I say this, but to be fair to my dad, my earliest memories are of horses. I was obsessed with them. One of my earliest memories was being in a hospital riding on an old fashioned wooden rocking horse. My brother was ill at the time, but that is the only thing I can remember, the wooden horse! Unsurprisingly the earliest toy I can remember was a rocking horse I called Bluebell (after the donkey in Ivor the Engine) I still have her, the rockers were removed for ease of storage, but Bluebell remains in the loft, my black and white piebald pony. She taught me all that I know about horses. I wasn't allowed riding lessons as a child, lots of various reasons that I don't intend to go into, but my parents would pick up books about horses at car boot sales and I would learn how to apply exercise bandages, how to plait manes and tails, and how to mount a horse correctly. It came as something of a shock when I mounted a real horse for the first time. To be honest, the number of calamities I have had over the past twenty or so years have amazed, bemused, and thoroughly entertained many of my close friends. They look at me with disbelief, then remember who they are talking to, and then they exclaim that they don't know how it is that I'm not dead yet! I have no idea either, but if there's one way to go, instantaneously doing something you love can not be a bad way!

So there's the background, I've always loved horses, and growing up I have seen the image of horses cut into hillsides and I've always wanted to go and see them. The area of Wiltshire has several of these horses, and the Westbury of Bratton White Horse is the oldest of them. It is carved into a hillside just below the remains of an Iron Age hill fort. The horse stands at 180 feet tall and 170 feet wide, and was restored in 1778. This restoration has caused arguments about the original Westbury Horse, as there is an engraving from the 1760s which shows a smaller horse which faces in the opposite direction. There is insufficient evidence however that there was anything carved into the hillside before 1742.

I therefore decided that a Sunday was the perfect day to go for a walk and to view this interesting part of history. Despite it being a little bit windy, I drove off to Westbury. Well they say that a Sunday walk can blow the cobwebs away, and by the time I reached my goal, there were no cobwebs left! The wind had picked up and by the time I reached the top of the hill, I was experiencing gusts of wind at over 50 mph hitting me, and the darkening skies were a stark warning that torrential rain was about to hit!

Windswept and looking like a drowned rat, I plonked myself back in the car and headed off to find a pub, preferably one with a roaring fire! As I sat with my pint of well earned Guinness, I couldn't help but smile. I can be very bloody minded and I was going to see that carving of the horse 'come hell or high water' as the expression goes...and for once, whilst standing in that howling wind and teeming rain, it really did seem to have come to that!

Saturday, 28 November 2015

A Victorian Gothic Revival

I love Gothicism. I grew up wanting to live on the wild Yorkshire Moors, where remote landscapes were the playgrounds of vulnerable heroines, and supernatural occurrences were hard to explain. Vampires and bats held a strange fascination, and quite frankly still do! As a young teenager my brother took me shopping for some new clothes in Manchester to a place called Affleck's Palace. This place was mesmerising and full of the most delightful vintage garments. Black silk, satin and velvet dresses, with long laced cuffs which fell over your hands, all called out to me. Not only that, but gothic architecture was beguiling, grand designs reaching to the heavens, pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, terrifying gargoyles and ornate decorative stonework. I haven't even mentioned the literature or what most people associate with the genre, music!

Back in 2002 I read that the National Trust had acquired a property which really interested me! It's a four hour drive down the motorway from me, and to see a house just doesn't warrant such a journey, so I have been patiently waiting until I was in the area to visit Tyntesfield, which is described as a Victorian gothic style mansion!  If that didn't excite me, the fact that the 2006 version of Dracula was filmed there did! I find it great fun visiting a place and seeing the differences between what you see on camera and what is actually there on the ground!

It was an awful day with heavy squally showers, but strangely this added to the atmosphere to what was already a dramatic landscape!  The house was bedecked with decorations for Christmas, and the National Trust staff were all dressed as members of the Gibbs family who previously owned the estate.  As you walked through the house you encountered different members of the family, including their servants. As I walked into the library, which was dimly lit with a couple of floor lamps, I interrupted a family member who was reading. She decided to share her book with me, and therefore read to me from A Christmas Carol, very apt for the time of year!

Interestingly, the property has been used for several TV drama's and if you look carefully at the latest trailer for Sherlock, you can see Tyntesfield. Shots of the front of the house, the chapel and the library were used in the programme. The filming inspired the National Trust to create their own adventure mystery "The Adventure of the Tyntesfield Carbuncle" and as I went around the estate, several clues had been left for the visiting Sherlock Holmes who was staying at the house with the family for Christmas! It was a great way to show how a house would have looked for a Victorian Christmas, and it was as though the house was alive again!

Friday, 27 November 2015

Bath (Christmas Markets, Fashion Museum & Dr Seward)

I'm not quite sure how I've ended up at the Christmas markets in Bath, I wanted to go to the ones in Vienna! Actually I do know, the times of the flights were dreadful, and the attributable costs seemed rather extreme to what would equate to 48 hours in Vienna, so having heard good reports about Bath, I found a charming and cheap cottage to rent in a nearby village!

Now whilst working out an itinerary for my stay, I realised that the 2006 version of Dracula had been filmed in the surrounding area. Obviously I would need to track down these locations as they would make an interesting article for the third issue of TB Online Magazine! (Did I mention that I told Tom about the magazine and he didn't think we would have enough material to fill it?! Oh clearly he does not know about the tenacity of Burketeers!)

Once I had located and photographed the area in daylight, I decided I had better check out Bath, and maybe come back later for pictures in the dark to echo one of the scenes in the film! Now I'm not going to ruin an article I have not yet written by putting on here all the details of my research, but suffice to say there is at least one scene filmed in Bath!

I love fashion, I'm not saying I'm fashionable, but I'm interested in it
and Bath has one of the best fashion museums in the country. I popped along hoping for a quick look around, but upon arrival I was told if I wanted to wait 5 mins there would be a guided tour. Imagine my surprise when I found I was the only one on the tour! Tracy, my guide, explained about their current exhibit in great detail. It was Georgian fashion, but the most surprising thing I realised was that clothing is not just pretty bits of fabric, it is a social commentary of the time.

It is possibly the most interesting tour I have been on as I was able to chat to Tracy and discuss what she was saying, rather than it being a dry "this is what this dress was for" "this is a frock coat" quick walk around the exhibits. I was able to discuss the changes in society when George I came to the throne from Hanover in Germany. It was a major turning point in British society. If you had a trade you could make something of yourself, it did not matter if you started off poor, and this was reflected in the clothing of the day. There was a beautiful yellow embroidered dress at the beginning of the exhibition, and this dress belonged to a merchant's daughter, not a member of nobility.

There were about 30 dresses in this exhibit, gowns were made of richly embroidered fabric, and a man's court coat was embroidered with silver thread which has tarnished with age, but you could imagine how it would sparkle under the lights in the King's court, making the wearer something of a focal point!

We think of 'planning' our wardrobe, but this was nothing in comparison to Georgian society. Cloth would be woven into intricate designs, and people would buy this fabric and store it for years until the right event happened for the cloth to be made into some spectacular garment. It took teams of people to work on each dress, each person having their own skill, from pattern cutters, to sewers, to embroiderers. Whilst a client may have held onto their fabric for years, once a garment was required they wanted it quickly and were not prepared to wait for more than a few weeks!

We consider the rags to riches stories to be a modern day phenomenon, but it's not. The Georgians created this attitude of bettering yourself, history then took a backward step for a time, until once again, society dictated you could be anything you wanted to be!

The exhibit also contained three stunning court dresses, or Mantua's, again the hand embroidered garments were amazing, and the attention to detail is something to behold. Flowers were not generic shapes, they were recognisable as roses, honeysuckle etc, and different coloured thread were used to create a three dimensional effect, as though it were a painting of a flower, not just some stitching.

There were only about 30 families of nobility in the Georgian era who would be attending court, balls and various functions. Each function would require a new dress, and each dress had to be elaborate to show the wearers standing in society.

We then moved onto the Regency period. In France there had been the French Revolution, and in some ways society started to breakdown and even go backwards a little. Fashion became a lot less elaborate, but the simple shift style garments caused more provocation than the heavily stylised dresses of the Georgian court. The court dresses were worn over corsets and panniers or hooped skirts. The female form could not be seen, it was moulded into the ideal shape of the day. The simple dresses of the Regency were worn over simple undergarments, and the fabrics were light and floated along the lines of the female form. It is said that many women would deliberately get wet so that their clothes clung tantalisingly to them! Society had changed a great deal!

Tracy left me after our brief voyage through history, and I continued though the museum to look at the other exhibition Great Names of Fashion. Here you could see evening dresses by some of the greatest names of 20th century fashion, Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, Yves St Laurent and Balenciaga.

By the time I left the exhibition it was dark enough for some atmospheric shots so I wandered back through the Christmas market stalls (yes I did squeeze them in!) and tried to recreate a couple of shots in the pouring rain! Then it was time for mulled wine, hot chestnuts, and back home to a warm, dry cottage!

Thursday, 26 November 2015

A winter break near Bath (& OMG Tom gets a haircut!)

I'm currently in a place called Batheaston, and I'm writing this whilst maybe a little bit intoxicated, which is probably not a great idea, but non the less I shall plough on!

I am having yet another short break, in my mind I'm carrying out research for articles relating to programmes Tom has filmed in. In reality I'm going to the Christmas markets and the Fashion Museum in Bath because I've not been down to this neck of the woods for ten years and I feel I am due a visit again!

I am staying in a very cute cottage on the outskirts of Bath. It might be incredibly sad of me, but as I pulled up at the cottage I was delighted to find I'm staying next to a large. Church with an impressive graveyard. There is something about this time of year that makes a misty graveyard an incredibly interesting place to be.

First things first, need to grab a few supplies, so I wandered up to the local farm shop. You can tell we are nearing Christmas as there is this intoxicating aroma of resinous pine in the air. You can tell you are in the country, the farm shop wall is covered in IOU notes, and you help yourself to what you want and pop the money in an honesty box. It's like going back in time to a better way of life where people actually trust one another!

As dusk fell I grabbed my camera and took my first walk among the gravestones. There is something curiously satisfying about a good old graveyard. I remember when I did A level art, one of my projects was based around churches and gravestones. My teacher found it all rather macabre. He hated it. I got a 'D' and on that basis I decided I was obviously dreadful at art and I threw in the towel and transferred my attention to English Literature instead! The nightmarish tales of Alexander Dumas and Edgar Allen Pope kept me entertained, and these thoughts whirled through my head as I snapped away tonight. It's not the most enchanting graveyard I've been in, but there was still a dark mystic romanticism about it. It was hauntingly beautiful yet tinged with sadness.

Later in the evening I went out for a bite to eat and took a quick look at Twitter. Bless him, Tom has had his haircut and a multitude of people have figuratively had meltdowns! It's strange because at the weekend I was chatting with a few people and wondering how many people liked Tom and how many people liked Athos, and whether once The Musketeers ended, how many Burketeers would suddenly leave the fold and move onto a new "hero".

Well I'm in a conundrum on this one, I don't want to choose, so I'm not going to! I was an Athos fan first... about 30 years ago when I first read the D'Artagnan Romances! Then I became a fan of Tom's, hmmm when did POW come out, about 12 years ago? Tom being cast to play Athos was just pure genius, favourite character and favourite actor in one perfect package. I'm pleased that he brought my paperback Athos to life, however, if the amount of tissues that I've used during the course of the book is anything to go by, if anything happens to Athos in this final series, well let's just say buying shares in Kleenex is looking like a pretty good investment at the minute!

Anyway, I digress, back to Tom's new look, he looks happy, I'd imagine playing Athos for three years would become draining both mentally and physically so it stands to reason he would want to shave and chop his hair off and feel like himself again. It's strange how people can not differentiate between actor and character. I can't wait to see what is in store for us and him in the future. Does this mean I've somehow answered my conundrum? For now though I'm content to wait for War & Peace, and get copious amounts of tissues in stock, you know, just in case series three doesn't go quite the way I want!!!

Monday, 23 November 2015

Comic Con - Tom goes to Newcastle

I'm sure if my butterfly brain could keep a grip on reality I would come up with a better title, but I have spent the last six hours threatening to sit down and write about yesterday's events at Comic Con and I have failed. I keep getting all excited, doing a silly dance around the living room and then reading Twitter, just in case I missed some gem that Tom said which I may have missed.

To be fair I did go missing for 3/4's of an hour and everything seemed to happen during that time. Polly met Tom for the first time and Sharon gave him a Scrabble mug I had designed. If I'm honest I'm glad I wasn't around for the mug unveiling, I'm great at chatting to complete strangers about their lives etc but self-promotion? No, can't do it! I would have died a death as she waved her hands in my general direction saying "Sioux made that"; thank goodness I'd gone AWOL!!!

So where do I start? Well unusually for me, let's try the beginning! I was invited to stay in South Shields by one of my Tom Burke friends (Burketeer) so that I wouldn't have to drive from Wales to Newcastle and back in one day! I drove up on Saturday and it was wonderful because a few of us were staying there, so the Tom party started straight away! Obviously lots of tea was drunk, and maybe a bit of Prosecco ;-) It was wonderful to meet a lady called Angie, who is the person who created the tomburkeonline website and forum. Her hard work has given us loveable nutters a safe place to get together and chat away with likeminded people. Whilst it is nice to chat to people online I'm really wary of it. It might seem strange that someone with a blog and a Twitter and Facebook account can say such a thing, but I am a relatively low profile person on the internet. I've always preferred the face to face approach to meeting people, so it was such an enjoyable time getting to know everybody and setting us all up for the big day!

Sunday dawned and there were mixed emotions between all of us ranging from excitement to being so nervous breakfast couldn't be eaten! We were chauffeured to the Newcastle arena by two Burketeer husbands and whilst waiting in the queue I realised I had left my phone in one of the cars! We all went inside and organised ourselves and then I heard my phone was being brought back to me so I went outside to meet it! Somehow I missed the car, so Polly got my phone then couldn't find me! After half an hour I went back in, and fell over Lesley who had just arrived. A security guard then said my bag had become a security alert as my friends had walked off leaving it there! So, bag handed back, Lesley and I went in search of Tom (well where else would good Burketeers be?!)

Tom has shaved his Athos beard off. Obviously this news nearly broke Twitter! I can't say it bothered me, he looks as gorgeous as ever. In all honesty I just want to be able to have a chat this time. I was such a blathering wreck in London I felt I had wasted a golden opportunity. Fortunately Newcastle was really quiet, well apart from the area near Tom, so people were able to go and have a natter with him. I took my sketchbook with me and asked the ladies which drawing I should have signed and I was told the one from S2 Ep 5 when Athos returns to Pinon, so I went up and got the drawing signed and asked how he was feeling now the Musketeer adventure was over. Understandably he has mixed emotions, but I imagine that as it's only been over for a couple of days it's hard to really know what you're feelings are.

I then asked him if he could tell me which of the Prague tea rooms was his favourite. I felt I could ask that now, as when I go back again in the Spring, I won't be worried I might bump into him! It turns out that his favourite is one of my favourites too, so we discussed the nuances of the place, and I'm glad to hear he could sit being ignored for ages, it wasn't just me that happened to! Strangely that was the appeal of the place to me, it was so relaxing after a day of walking, it was great to sink into an arm chair, get a book out, and then at some point, order some tea!! I told him about Tea Mountain in the Karlin area of Prague and then Tom mentioned a place near the castle, and he said they do the most amazing crab dumplings/spring rolls etc. I guess that will be a new place to try on my next visit. I really should have taken a note book with me to jot everything down, I think only half of what he said sunk into my addled brain! It didn't help that he has the most mesmerising eyes and you just sink into them. Think Kaa from the Jungle Book and you have some idea of how hard it is to concentrate!

Then I pootled off and went to speak to Alexandra Dowling who plays Queen Anne in The Musketeers. What a beautiful and lovely lady she is. I gave her a sketch I had done of her in character and she wanted to see the rest of my sketchbook. As she went through it she asked if Tom had seen it. "No, I'd die if he did" I said! She said I'd captured his eyes perfectly which was a very kind thing to say, because I think the eyes can make or break a portrait. (And as I have said, he has amazing eyes!) We then chatted about her costumes, and she said the mourning outfit from series 2 Ep 1 was her favourite. We then spoke about the change of designer for S3. She said Phoebe was more historically focused, whereas Hayley is a bit more avant-garde! She told me one of her new dresses this series has tiny lights sewn down the front so that it sparkles. I think it will be really interesting seeing what the costumes are like this series! I asked if she would be doing any of the publicity for S3 and she asked what publicity! We chatted about how difficult it must be working on something fans like, but then getting a lack of backing from the broadcaster. At least the actors know the audience loved and appreciated the show even if the BBC was rather lacklustre!

I then asked her the same question I asked Tom about how it felt now that The Musketeers was over. She said it was a bit surreal, and she said that her last scenes were her on her own. She said that when they announced the final cut, she stopped acting, looked around and she was just there, no-one else in the shot, and it felt quite strange and a bit sad. Then she said she left where she was filming and others were around for her to talk to which cheered her up a bit! She said it was nice for the three series to build up a character but not get bogged down by it. She said sometimes you can play someone, and you start to get bored of the character and that shows in the acting/camera and isn't nice for viewers.

After autographs the Burketeers headed off for a cup of tea...what else? (I'm ignoring the coffee drinkers!!!!!) Then we headed off nice and early for the Q&A session that Tom and Ali were doing. Well we thought we were early. Obviously nothing is ever straightforward for a Burketeer so we headed off in the right direction, got lost and then asked a member of staff where we should be. She didn't know, so we merrily followed her around the arena, which took us back to the start, where some other clever Burketeers had saved us some seats at the front! Whilst we waited various tunes were playing, then suddenly the theme from Thundercats, a cartoon I watched when I came home from school started playing. I merrily started singing along thinking 'this is a blast from the past', when suddenly Tom and Alexandra appeared. Tom was wearing glasses and I thought they really suited him - turns out they are for real, not just a fashion statement. Tom made a remark about us expecting Thundercats, and the compare said, "well you chose the music!".

Tom and Ali were very entertaining and Tom regaled stories from his childhood and his teens which had me in stitches. I could listen to him talk all day long! "My father is still alive" he said nonchalantly as we listened to the compare wax lyrically about how good his dad had been in Sherlock Holmes (playing the role of Dr Watson!) As a child Tom had thrown water at a solicitor, this mischievousness did not go down well with the solicitor, unlike the actor friends of his parents. He decided he didn't want to grow up like the solicitor, he preferred the actors! I don't blame him...I dealt with some really surly solicitors during my years administering trust funds! Actors seem far more fun and certainly entertaining! (At this point I don't want all my solicitor friends disowning me - some of you are ok!)

Tom also gave us an insight into the Burke way of life, his dad did not know what 'mayo' was, so Tom explained it was mayonnaise. His dad was not impressed, but I certainly laughed my head off at the images conjured up in my head!

Tom was sporting some pale blue nails, and when asked he said they had been filming some fights shots under water and his hands had been dyed blue from the colouring in the gloves. Fortunately he had managed to get rid of the blue hands, but the nails were still being somewhat obstinate! He also told of the production team trying to wheel him around the set to do some certain shots with Treville, but it looked so ridiculous he couldn't do it without laughing, so just told them it was never going to work! He also mentioned that by the end of this series there will not be four Musketeers anymore. If Athos dies I will never recover. It takes days for me to get over "book Athos" dying and I've read the Romances 5 or 6 times, you'd think by now I'd come to terms with it, but Tom Athos dying? I'll be in therapy!!!! I'm hoping that he was being really evil and that Athos retires from The Musketeers and goes back to being the Comte de la Fere!

The man doing the interview was very good, and asked questions that fans wanted to hear, he did however open up the floor for questions, and it was nice to see people who were probably not Burketeers asking Tom and Ali questions. It turned out that Tom is probably a ski-fi geek, he knew who the costumed individuals asking him questions were. Someone asked what advice he would give someone wanting to be an actor. He said go to drama school for three years and read. Read lots! Three years will fly by and it will open up all sorts of avenues that university doesn't.

Q&A's over, we went for some lunch, and then back to Tom! This time it was photo time, so we all formed an orderly queue to get our mug-shots done! I asked Tom for a hug and he was most obliging! I am proud of myself, last time I just hurled myself at him, this time I remembered to ask! Photo's collected we then made our way back to the signing tables and Tom agreed to do another group photograph! I hope he knows this is going to be a tradition! We then decided he needed something to do, so we started going back for further autographs!  I had recently found a book in a second hand store entitled Tom Burke of Ours, so I asked him to sign it. He was most interested in the book (if I'm honest I wasn't going to take it up as I thought he'd think it was terribly sad of me) but now I'm so glad I did. He showed it to Ali and she was correct when she said, "that was serendipity". Yes I rather think it was!

So then I did what I have wanted to do for ages, talk books with Tom! You can not be that interesting and have such a good vocabulary or imagination without reading copious amounts of diverse literature. I want some of that knowledge, I thirsted for it at university, the well dried up, but now it's refilling and I'm desperate for some decent book recommendations. (I once asked in work and got told 50 Shades of Grey, I never asked again!) It 's not the best environment for a civilised conversation, looking down on someone behind a table, but I did ask him for some book recommendations. I will read anything, well not Joan Collins et al, but I am open minded, and I knew he would suggest something bizarre that I have never heard of. As he was telling me about them I thought, no, you're brain will not take this in, so I asked him to write it down for me. I will bring pen and paper next time! I am such a trouble maker. Paper finally found, I have two book suggestions, and they are already bought and winging their way to me as I type!

I really love the fact that one of the books is really rather dark. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror. The author normally writes horror fiction, but this is a nonfiction book that basically states that most horror is found in the real world and humans. It's apparently a pessimistic view on human behaviour, and to be honest, having read some of the comments I have on Twitter I often go down into my little dark world wondering why people can be so hateful and behave in the manner that they do. I've always been the person that retreats into the darkness to think and reflect and try to answer the burning question... Why? The book also looks into the thoughts of authors, so I'm already intrigued and imagine this will not be an easy, but certainly a thought provoking read.

The other book is called Sway by Zachary Lazar, and is about the early years of The Rolling Stones (no I know nothing about the band), a union of Charles Manson fans, and a film maker called Kenneth Anger. Again it is another dark and possibly disturbing book. (I think I may end up doing more research as I read the book...wonder if Tom knows how many books I read with post it note attachments so that I can do further research?! - that by the way is a rhetorical question, of course he doesn't!)

I'm not sure whether I should worry that a complete stranger thinks I will be interested in such dark matters, or whether Tom's just a good judge of character! It did make me wonder what he would recommend to other people if they asked him. I then said I'd seen a photo of him holding a copy of Jake Arnott's The House of Rumour so we had a chat about that too! I would never have read that book, but I remember thinking it was a great piece of speculative fiction. We are a gullible and susceptible race and this book shows this brilliantly. I found that it was like being at a cocktail party and as you float around you hear the same story but from different viewpoints, each person telling the areas of the story that he defines as important. In the 40s and 50's everything was amazing, and it is hard for us to remember that. Conspiracy theories were rife, and occultists held in high esteem, because the occult was literally the unknown, so it was a great novel interspersing real life events with fiction that had possibilities. It was not without its flaws, but generally speaking an enjoying and thought provoking book. And how have I started a book review when I'm meant to be talking about Comic Con?!

I can't remember at which point in my conversation with Tom that my friend Polly popped her head in to say "Has Sioux told you about her blog? She has read all of your plays and critiqued them?" "No" said a bewildered Tom. Oh it's called..." and Polly proceeded to tell him!

You know when you really want the floor to swallow you up? Oh yes, that!  (Still if you do read the summations Tom, please could you explain The Cut to me one day? Thank you very much!)

Having recovered from that monumental embarrassment, I found that a stall was selling TB photo frames, well come on, it had to be done, despite the hole for the picture being landscape and our photo's being portrait format, three of us bought the frames! One of our Burketeers however decided to grab Tom and take some more impromptu photographs to fit in the frames we'd bought! Thank you Nikki, I think it's a lovely shot, and it was a brilliant idea of yours.

Then it was time to say our goodbyes to each other and to thank Tom and Ali and say goodbye to them too. It was a truly memorable day and so much better and intimate than London!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Macbeth (film)

I seem to be do nothing but going to the cinema. My blog has turned into a film critics ramble!

I had heard that the recent film version of Macbeth was really worth watching, and I need to write a play review as Tom Burke was in a stage version of it too, so I thought, hang fire on the play review, watch the film, and then do the two reviews one after the other!

Now I love the play of Macbeth, and having watched the film, I'm not sure if that has been a hindrance or not. I'm not sure whether turning Shakepeare's plays into films for the big screen always works.

The first change to the script is that we are not introduced to the story by the Weird Sisters incantations, instead we see two distraught parents standing over a pyre containing the lifeless form of a small child, and then the pyre is set alight. From the beginning  we know this is going to be a very bloody film, nothing like the stage play we are used to, and this is the thing, because it is a film dramatic visuals are going to be of paramount importance.

War is bloody, and during the period that this film is set, I am aware of Scottish bloodbaths and the horrors of war, indeed Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most brutal plays, however, this film seemed to revel in the almost macabre telling of the tale with endless slow motion close ups of throats being cut. This distracted from the actual telling of the story, as these battles take a long amount of cinema time, and therefore the poetry of character build up in the play gets lost,

The beauty of Shakespeare's work is that we are told the story of a man who has aspirations, and he will do whatever is required for him to achieve his desires. That said, once he has achieved his main ambition, his conscience starts to get the better of him and drives him into insanity.

For anyone who does not know the plot of Macbeth, his ambition is to be King. His wife Lady Macbeth convinces him that killing King Duncan is the right thing to do, and they plan that when the King is asleep, Macbeth will kill the King so that he will take the crown.

This is a strange film in that some parts of it are so slow paced and rather laboured, that the lady next to me actually fell asleep,  but in other areas, important parts of the play were rushed through and not given much thought, especially in the change of character. Macbeth's descent into madness is so quick, and it is hard to decipher if what he keeps seeing is real or just an apparition. Many of the important speeches have been removed, and the story tinkered with, so that we end up with a very basic storyline. Macbeth, once becoming King descends very quickly into madness, but he also quickly rejects his position, giving up on his throne and living via the words of the Weird Sisters, rather than trying to prove them wrong.

I think to enjoy the film you need to leave your perception of the play at home, and just enjoy the film for what it is. Cinematically it is filmed beautifully, there is a constant use of black and red visuals which create a feeling of drama and horror and this feeling that Macbeth is something more than a man, that he is this mythical creature who will win at everything. It is brutal on the senses as we see the atrocity of war, slowly staged on cold, misty, brooding moors, and the slow, agonised death of King Duncan as a dagger is plunged again and again into his squirming body. But, I left the cinema feeling cheated. I felt like I had sat through a long story, where the narrator had described the setting beautifully, but then omitted to put in any coherent dialogue!

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Oh, what a feeling (when you're dancing on the ceiling!) Tom & Ali Announce Newcastle Comic Con

Just heard that Tom Burke and Ali Dowling will be appearing at Newcastle Comic Con on 22/11/2015! Cue ridiculous skipping round the house in a demented fashion as I unleash the ten year old child within!!!

I can't believe it, I thought seeing him in the summer was going to be it, although I did have my fingers crossed that he may attend a Carol Concert event in London in December, but this is just such an unexpected and fantastic bonus. Only thing is, it's a 200 mile journey (one way) to Newcastle, but there again it was a 200 mile journey to London so really I can't use that as an excuse, although the trip to London is quicker and I can go by train, this time I have to drive over hills and moors.

On impulse I have bought a ticket and then started worrying about the practicalities and whether anyone else will be going. I know I have friends in The North who would want to go, but at such short notice and near December, they might already have other plans.  Fortunately by the evening I have found out that a number of people are going and one of my friends has invited me up on the Saturday so I don't have to do a really early start on Sunday. I can't believe how happy and excited I am. I'm in my 40's for goodness sake, you'd think I'd have grown up by now, but upon reflection I never was a big fan of any particular person/band when I was growing up. I was interested in a lot of things so I wasn't your massive fan-girl type, so perhaps I'm just making up for it now!

I think the closest I got to being a fan-girl was being a fan of Let Loose when I was in my 20's. I joined the fan-club to get some signed photo's and that was that. I saw them a few months later when they performed at my university and I met them and got "proper" autographs, so there was no real point in joining the fan-club. I didn't follow them, I didn't make friends through it, it was all a rather pointless affair, and then the group split up never to be heard of again!

The Burketeer's however are a completely different ball game. There isn't a fan-club, instead a group of like minded individuals have formed over time (and mainly Twitter) and become a group of friends who have Tom in common. I think we now live in world that relies so little on face to face human interaction, that it's nice to find that the people who you chat to online, and have a chance to meet in a safe environment (Comic Con) can escalate into genuine friendships where you meet up, have a pot of tea and chat about this, that and everything! That is a wonderful thing.

This has led me to think about fandom. Is it wrong to claim to be a fan of someone when you are past your 20's. Should we just grow up?

There are a number of people who scoff at me for being a Tom Burke fan, in fact some of his fans are too ashamed to say out loud that they are a fan, they keep quiet so that they are not mocked. Why? Why should we be ashamed? And why do some fans ridicule and taunt their "hero?" That is another act that I equally do not understand.

Being a fan means you love everything about the person who you follow. You love the way they look, you admire photographs of them, you love their talent, whether it be acting, singing, general performing, the way they dress, their smile, sense of humour, and most of all you love being respectful of them. I'm not saying that you will always agree with them, there will be times when you see a picture and you think "Bless you, what were you thinking of when you wore that?" But you don't say anything cruel or shameful in public; you might say it privately with your friends, but why would you try to belittle someone you are supposed to admire?

This is obviously something I have thought about for a while. I think whether you are a fan of someone or not you should still be respectful about them (even if they have made some dire professional choices in their past!) I don't think it is acceptable to send tawdry images viral over the internet, and just because you're reposting someone else's work, well, that is not an acceptable explanation. Would you like your past mistakes plastered all over the internet? No? Well then why would someone more famous that you like it? I think in this computer driven age we forget that what we post is often about another human. Fame doesn't take away the insecurities that the rest of us have, so perhaps before you hit that "post" button, think for a moment. Is what I'm sending really funny? Am I sending it in the right context, would I die on the spot if someone posted me doing this/saying that about me?

But I digress, there is an enterprising side to being a fan, and perhaps that is what I should focus on. Since meeting the Burketeer's, I have found some genuinely lovely people to chat with. My love of reading, writing and drawing has been re-ignited (thank you Mr B!) And as a group we have raised thousands in about 12 months for three charities close to Mr B's heart (at the last count I think it was in the region of £25,000 - or nearly £29,000 with gift aid). We have set up an online shop and created an online magazine, and encountered the many pitfalls that setting up these things bring with them! We have learnt so much, and so for those who say being a fan is a childish and ridiculous thing, however long the Burketeer's may last for, they have left a legacy which will have helped so many people, and if that's what it is to be a fan, well that is no bad thing!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Suffragette (film)

Spent this weekend catching up with a friend. We decided to while away a dark night by going for a meal followed by a trip to the cinema. We chose the film Suffragette and hoped that Hollywood hadn't changed the course of history as so can often become the case!

Carey Mulligan plays the fictional role of Maud Watts, a 24 year old who has worked in the local laundry since she was a child. One day she is asked to deliver a parcel to the West End, and as she does, she is caught up with some suffragettes throwing stones at windows, one of whom (Violet) she recognises from the laundry.

Leaving work a few days later, she hears the wife of a local MP encouraging the women to speak out to parliament to help secure the vote for women. Violet advises she will give a testimony to the court, however, she has been badly beaten, and it is decided she would not give the right impression if she was allowed to deliver her testimony, so Maud ends up speaking instead. Having given her testimony, Maud is spurred into the hope that parliament will listen to women and they will get the vote, she therefore heads off to parliament to see if they have won the right to vote. David Lloyd George addresses the crowd to say parliament has listened to them, but they have not secured the right to vote. The crowd turns ugly and the women are beaten mercilessly by the police and arrested. Maud has to endure a week in prison, and upon returning home she finds she has been ostracised by both her neighbours and her husband.

Maud promises her husband she will have no more to do with the suffragette movement, however, when she was in jail she met with Emily Wilding Davison (real person) who was a confident of Emmeline Pankhurst, the British political activist and head of the Suffragette movement. Maud is invited to listen to Pankhurst speak at a rally, and once again is arrested but this time she is delivered straight back to her husband. Her husband is livid with Maud, and throws her out onto the street and decides he will take sole responsibility for their young son. At this moment we are shown a thumbnail view of what domestic life was like for women at the time. They would do as their husbands said, and they had little say in matters including what was right for their children. The law favoured the husband and the law was the law, no further discussion was necessary.

Now she is destitute, Maud becomes move and more involved with the suffragette movement and the women become more radical in trying to get their voices heard. The suffragettes start by targeting methods of communication, cutting telegraph wires and bombing post boxes, to the more drastic bombing of Lloyd George's holiday home. Non of the activities the women embroil themselves in get reported in the newspapers, and therefore they believe even more drastic action is required. They decide they will get publicity if they travel to the Epsom Derby, and wave their banners at the cameras recording the event. Tragically whilst the race is in full flight, Emily steps onto the track and in front of King George V's horse and is trampled to death.

The funeral of Emily Wilding Davison was recorded on TV and in the newspapers, and it was inspiring to watch the current film transform into the actual black and white coverage of the event. This small element of the production really brought home the fact that whilst most of the film was fictional, it highlighted what these women of history went through to secure women the right to vote. What was particularly interesting was at the end of the film it showed what year women were given the vote in different countries, some only recently, and the fact that in the middle east, women are still not allowed to vote living in the shadow of men.

This is a movie that has not had any glitz or glamour thrown at it, it is a simple portrayal of what London in 1913 was like. It tells an important story, and opens up a good forum for discussing whether the intentions of the activists have been achieved. Women do now have the vote in the UK, but they are not treated as equals to men. In some respects the tables have turned full circle, and now it is generally the woman who will make decisions about the welfare of their children in any separation and the man now has to seek equality.

It also opens up the question of militancy. We view these women as heroines, but it can't be forgotten that peaceful protesting turned into wanton destruction. Houses and refreshment rooms were targeted by arsonists, museum exhibits attacked (British Museum and National Gallery), bombs placed in Westminster Abbey and St Pauls Cathedral and the attacks on communications as shown in the film. We see students rioting in modern day Britain for their beliefs and we castigate them.  Are they really that far removed from the suffragettes? As I say, the film opened up the possibilities of endless debates, which is often a sign of a good film!

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Crimson Peak (film)

This week I have written four articles for the Tom Burke Magazine, and managed to get two threads running on my blog, which is something of a miracle, because whilst I can use a computer to type, and use various work related packages, I am not a computer expert! I therefore treated myself to a sneaky rendezvous with Tom Hiddleston in an afternoon showing of Crimson Peak. I had heard it was really scary, but I am a fan of anything gothic, so it didn't worry me about going on my own. I didn't realise it would be a private viewing though, I've never had an entire cinema screen to myself before!

I must say I really enjoyed the film, but I think that was because I loved the costumes and I really wanted to live in the house, (although I would have needed to get the roof fixed!!!!) As the film neared its end however, I found myself shuffling in my seat thinking, "well things are starting to get a little bit silly now!" This was a shame, because the ending seemed to be rushed and just an excuse to spill as much blood as possible.

The story starts in America when aspiring writer, Edith Cushing has just finished her first novel. She is not taken too seriously by her contemporaries, they mock her for being a spinsterish Jane Austen, and the film does seem to be a mix of Austen like love and dark romance, edged with Edgar Allen Poe's disturbing gothic horror.

Edith is swept off her feet by Sir Thomas Sharpe, a character that her father doesn't trust. Sharpe is looking for funding for a revolutionary machine he has invented to mine the red clay from his estate. Whilst the potential investors are unimpressed by his presentation, Edith falls for his charms and she moves from stylish USA to a disintegrating gothic mansion in the middle of wild, windswept UK moorland.

Once in the house we are treated to a dark, crumbling pile, which requires a vast amount of work to make the place habitable. You can imagine immediately how bone numbingly cold the place must be, and in the darkness the mind can play tricks on you, so no wonder Edith is permanently alarmed by images of ghosts making contact with her. The scene is set for the house to reveal the true horrors it has witnessed over the years, there is even a Dorian Grey style painting of "Mother" looking down disapprovingly from the walls, echoing that all is not right at this house and dark secrets must be unearthed.

The film has some outstanding cinematic images, and whilst I can understand people being scared during the film, it has been proven on several occasions that I don't scare easily, so for me it was just pure visual entertainment. This isn't simply a gratuitous blood and gore movie, but be warned you will see a lot of blood, literal and figurative. Blood seeps from the open wounds of both human forms and broken skeletal bodies haunting the heroine of the story; it rises from the floorboards (the house is sinking into gooey blood red liquid clay) and is even reflected through the vivid red dress of Lucille, Sharpe's contemptuous sister.

Overall the film has the main elements that you would expect from a gothic horror, a haunted house, extravagant costumes, ornately macabre sets giving an uneasy and atmospheric feel to the movie, and some shocking violence. The film isn't ground breaking in any way, shape or form, in fact at times it reminded me of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, but it is enjoyable, especially if you are a fan of the genre.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Spectre (film)

Went to watch Spectre tonight...I can't say that I was impressed. I like Daniel Craig, I used to drink in his dad's pub in Frodsham back in the day; I met a couple of actors in there and got their autographs too! So I'm not a huge fan of his, but I like him, and if this was to be his last outing as Bond, then I wanted to come out of the film thinking he had gone out on a high note. I left feeling somewhat disappointed that it was just another formulaic Bond film.

I think Sam Mendes did a great job of directing, and visually I enjoyed the film, but I think the script left something to be desired, and I honestly believe half an hour could have easily been cut from the film. It just rumbled on for too long and I could feel myself checking my watch to see how much more I had to endure.

I was gripped at the start of the movie; Bond is in Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebrations. The costumes are fantastic, and it doesn't take a genius to work out that Bond is the one going back to the hotel in the skeleton suit! He then changes back into the suited Bond we all know and love, and in full sniper mode, alarmingly manages to destroy several buildings! It is fast paced, gutsy, and slightly tongue in cheek as he is saved by a sofa and then jumps onto a helicopter for a fantastically shot fight scene which takes place over a huge crowd of people. This was possibly the best part of the film.

We soon learn that Bond has taken on this mission without the knowledge of his supervisors. There is a new head of the British Intelligence Service, C, and he wants to shut down the 00 program, and insists that the only way forward is to move towards a 24/7 around the world surveillance program. There is no real explanation as to why we should think this is a bad idea, but already the audience knows that they shouldn't trust C.

As the plot thickens, Bond uncovers a plan which pulls all the open ends of Craig's past three films together. Bond needs to find the headquarters of a terrorist organisation called Spectre. Once there we meet Oberhauser, the head of the organisation. It seems he has a connection to Bond, but this is not really explained until the very end, so I couldn't understand what his motivation was for trying to destroy Bond, and after a short time I found I didn't really care either. Unfortunately, the film centres on this rivalry, so perhaps that is why I just wanted it to end so I could find out why they hated each other so much.

As usual there is the plethora of beautiful women who fall at Bond's feet, and the usual set up of "we've just successfully killed a baddie so lets go have sex" approach, but at least this somewhat comical element lightened the boredom. So too did the high-speed car chase scene, and the chase through the mountains in the aircraft, again the visuals were brilliantly filmed. The script was just too tired, and the dialogue dull, nostalgic and a little forced and confused. Speaking of confused, the opening titles, what did an octopus and weaving tentacles have to do with the movie? Answers on a postcard please!

Monday, 2 November 2015

The Doctor's Dilemma - George Bernard Shaw. The Royal National Theatre, July - September 2012.

This play was first staged back in 1906 and centres around Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Aden Gillett ) a doctor who discovers a cure for tuberculosis. The dilemma the title refers to, is to whom the doctor should save when he only has a limited supply of this life saving drug. Should he save the young talented artist, Louis Dubedat (Tom Burke) who happens to be the husband of the prosperous woman he is in love with; or should he save the life of his poverty stricken friend and colleague Dr Blenkinsop (Derek Hutchinson).

I found reading the play to be a slow moving affair. Act 1 centres around Dr. Ridgeon's consulting-room. A myriad of doctor's arrive and depart, and the conversation is verbose and becomes increasingly difficult to remember who is who. We are informed that Sir Ridgeon can only treat ten patients. From fifty patients, he selects the ten that he believes to be the most worthy of receiving treatment. He is then approached by Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O'Reilly) who pleads with him to save the life of her husband. Ridgeon admits he could save one more person, but that person would have to be worth saving and be of a high moral character.

Ridgeon invites the young couple to dinner so that he and his colleagues can establish whether Dubedat is worthy of receiving treatment, yet no sooner have they decided that perhaps they should save him, they soon start to question his morality. If that didn't raise a query as to whether he should receive treatment, a colleague reveals that he himself is in dire need of treatment. Therefore the dilemma begins again, just who should receive this revolutionary new drug?

This play shows the difficulties that doctors in the early 1900's faced, and shows that a poor doctor would be tempted to treat a patient with costly but ineffective treatments. It points towards considering paying doctors a fixed salary, by the state, so that patients would all receive fair treatment, and there would not be this tiered society where those who could pay would be helped and those who could not pay be left to die. Essentially, what the play skims over is the development of our modern NHS!

Interestingly the play should resonate with a modern audience, because we find that now the NHS deals with the ethical dilemma's whether they should treat a patient who is obese, or who smokes. Those who cannot afford treatment are reliant on the NHS, and those who can afford to pay can get treatment more quickly in the private sector.

Unfortunately I found reading this play hard work. Whilst I do like George Bernard Shaw, I sometimes find his writing cumbersome to read; which is a shame, because I find he can be both witty and scurrilous writing about social reform. Shaw has contributed extensively to Anglo-Irish literature, and as a drama critic he was renowned for being provocative stirring up new ideas and broadening the depth of his readers knowledge.  I was therefore disappointed that I could not engage with this play as much as I had hoped to.

Reasons to be Pretty - Neil LaBute. Staged at the Almeida Theatre, November 2011.

Before the play starts there is an introduction by the writer asking the question who invented mirrors, and why did they feel the need? Why do we need to look pretty, why can't we be happy with ourselves just the way we are? Why are we always looking to the future? Why don't we just live in the here and now and enjoy what we have?

He creates a series of deep and thought provoking questions, and if we are honest, they will resonant with everyone of us. Whilst we are wanting to look pretty enough to be taken seriously, or at least not laughed at, the fundamental question is, what does it actually mean to be pretty?

Greg (Tom Burke) is confronted by his girlfriend Steph (Sian Brooke) that she has heard he has told his friend he doesn't think she is beautiful, but that he wouldn't change her for the world. Greg cannot understand why Steph is so devastated and angry, he doesn't think he has done anything wrong because he loves her despite her looks. He spends the majority of the play trying to explain himself to others, which he fails to do without causing anger!

Kent (Kieran Bew) Greg's best friend is forever boasting about how beautiful his wife Carly (Billie Piper) is, however, despite him thinking that she is beautiful, he can't help but chase after a new attractive colleague. Kent is the complete opposite of Greg, he is foul mouthed and obsessed with appearances. He even chastises Greg for eating a cereal bar after his dinner because it will make Greg fat!

Steph is adamant she wants to end the relationship because she wants to be with someone whip thinks she is beautiful. In order to hurt Greg like she has been hurt, she reels off a list of all of Greg's inadequacies, both physically and sexually. Later on in the play Step has moved on and accidentally bumps into Greg who points out that at some point he new date will probably hurt her unintentionally too.

Carly becomes pregnant but is concerned that Kent is cheating on her. She asks Greg who say's he hasn't seen much of Kent recently but doubts that he would be unfaithful. Greg then meets with Kent for a softball game, however, Kent is his bullish obnoxious self and Greg finally stands up to him. When Greg next meets Carly, he tells her that perhaps she should take a night off and go and spend it with her husband.

Whilst the play is very American in language, the themes are very much a global affair. We are forced to consider what beauty is. Can it be just as much a curse as a blessing? The play is in fact the final instalment of a trilogy about the obsession that society has with the way a person looks.

I really loved this play. It showed how a casual remark can be taken out of context, but then also how much importance people stake on their appearance. They don't just worry about their looks, but people's perceptions of them, and they will do anything, anything to fit in, whatever the consequences. By the end of the play there is an optimism for each of the characters and their futures.

Design for Living - Noel Coward. Old Vic, London September 2010.

A great romantic comedy set around three principal characters, Gilda (Lisa Dillon), Otto (Tom Burke) and Leo (Andrew Scott). Gilda is an interior designer and is in a relationship with a painter, Otto. She previously was intimate with Leo, an author, and Leo and Otto are great friends. The fourth main character  in the play is their art dealer friend, Ernest Friedman (Angus Wright).

The play opens in Otto's studio in Paris. Ernest is excited because he has obtained a new Matisse painting, and he wants to show it to Otto. Gilda advises that Otto is ill in bed, Ernest asks Gilda why she hasn't married Otto, and her reply is that she whilst she loves him, she would find being legally tied to him as "repellent".

Ernest updates her on the fortunes of Leo, who is apparently making a success of his life in New York, but has returned home and is staying at the very stylish The George V hotel. Whilst the conversation is in full flow, Otto enters from the street carrying a case, and it is clear he has been travelling, not ill as Gilda has suggested. Ernest leaves with Otto to visit Leo. In transpires that Leo has not spent the night at the hotel, he has spent it with Gilda! On Otto's return, Leo and Gilda tell him that they have spent the night together. Otto, understandably is furious, and leaves in a great temper.

Act two continues the ménage a trios story some 18 months later. Leo and Gilda are living together in Leo's flat in London. Leo's plays are very successful, and during an interview with a journalist, Leo remarks that he finds success a rather shallow affair.  In the next scene, Gilda is chatting to her housekeeper and asks if she should marry Leo, when she is surprised to find Otto standing on her doorstep, who too has become successful in New York! Otto is invited to stay, although Leo is not at home!

Ernest calls on Gilda the next day, and Gilda announces she is leaving Leo and departs with Ernest. Leo returns home to find his friend Otto has stayed the night with Gilda, but that has left them both, and so the two drown their sorrows in the way two close friends would!

Two years down the line and we are now in Ernest's New York apartment. Gilda has become and is throwing a party. Ernest is away and Otto and Leo gate-crash the party. The next morning Ernest returns to find Otto and Leo at home and wearing his pyjama's. He believes the whole three sided affair between Gilda, Otto and Leo disgusting and storms out in a fury, whilst the three protagonists of the play fall rapturously together weeping with laughter.

Design for Living is a riotously, darkly, romantic comedy written with perfect proportion and balance. It is a fast paced, slick tongued piece of writing with some amusing quips and one-liners, despite the some times annoying condescension shown by the characters to their "inferiors".
There's a symmetry in each character going to New York and becoming successful. As each character goes away, another arrives just in time to throw disruption back into the mix. Gilda is clearly unhappy and restless; not sure what she wants from either life or love and therefore plays this femme fatale who can capture any mans heart. Leo is a pampered individual but is really a child in a mans body, prone to throwing tantrums. Otto too has his issues, and whilst not as child-like as Leo, he constantly seeks the emotional support of Gilda and Leo as he is indulged and cosseted in this tale of dependence, obsession and love.

Restoration - Rose Tremain. Salisbury Playhouse, 2009

I have not found a copy of the play version of Rose Tremain's Restoration, so instead I have read the book upon which the stage play was based. If anyone out there knows where I can obtain a copy of the play, please let me know!

The novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, follows the voyage of Robert Merivel, as he starts his life in the court of King Charless II. Merivel was a surgical student, however the King employs him to look after his dogs! He falls from grace, and the novel follows his attempts to try to regain favour with the King. It is a journey of self-discovery for Merivel who is a simple character, easily charmed by his opulent surroundings.

Merivel is materialistic and in awe of the King and deeply in love with the idea of society and status. The King believes Merivel is a half-wit that he can easily manipulate to his own purposes. This book reflects the contradictions of the time, but it also has a contemporary link with modern society and those who are trapped between wanting wealth, and what they have to relinquish in pursuit of this desire.

The King requires Merivel to marry his mistress Celia Clemmence on the understanding that this a marriage of convenience, and that Merivel is not to fall in love nor treat Celia as his wife. On this understanding, the King gives Merivel an estate, Bidnold in Norfolk, and Celia a house in Kew to which the King can conduct his secret liaisons from. Obviously, there would be no story if Merivel did not do the inevitable and fall in love with Celia. The King is obviously incensed, and so Merivel is banished by the King and so starts his downward spiral into poverty. He loses his home, his money and has to take refuge in a psychiatric hospital run by his old university friend, Pearce.

Pearce is the opposite of Merivel, and does not condone the hedonistic lifestyle to which Merivel aspires to. He is constantly telling Merivel that his lifestyle is sinful, however, he is hopeful that with the help of the Quakers, if he stayed at the hospital and honed his surgical skills Merivel would rediscover his medical vocation, and thus find a purposeful life which would make him happy. Merivel lets his desires take over from his head, and embarks on a secretive affair with one of the patients and gets her pregnant. Coincidentally Pearce dies, therefore there is no-one to fight for Merivel and so he and Katherine are expelled from the hospital and head towards London.

This is the time of the Great Plague, and therefore Merivel is required to continue practising medicine. Katherine gives birth to a baby girl, but tragically dies during labour. As well as the plague, it is also the time of the Great fire of London, and Merivel gets mixed up with trying to save an elderly lady from her burning home. It is this unselfish action which finely gets him the attention from the King which he has craved all of his life.

The title of the novel reflects both the period in which the novel is set, and the redemptive process Merivel goes through to end up back in Court. The novel has many elements of a farce, especially Merivel's partying and debauchery, and so it makes for a light hearted historically based piece of fiction. What it isn't is a factual portrayal of the time, and therefore some annoying historical inaccuracies need to be forgiven to enjoy the rest of the book.

I wasn't sure how well the book would transfer to the stage without being able to read the actual play. The play appeared to be in receipt of mixed reviews, but most stated that the play was slow paced, lacked direction and was ambiguous and confused. There was also discredit given to the stage settings, the actors being left to flounder on a virtually empty stage, which seems rather strange considering the opulent surroundings in the novel.

Whilst the reception of the play was weak, there were contradictory comments received about the acting. Some reports suggest Tom Burke was a "tour de force" and hardly ever off the stage during the 3 hour performance, whilst others described his portrayal of Merivel as a "grinning idiot delighted by his lack of self-knowledge".

Creditors - August Strindberg. The Donmar Warehouse, London September 2008.

The play I read was a version by David Greig.  The play opens in the lounge of a seaside hotel, and the two male characters Adolph (Tom Burke) and Gustav (Owen Teale) are deep in conversation. Adolph is sculpting a statue whilst Gustav watches and passes comment. Gustav, we find, has persuaded Adolph to move from painting to sculpting, but now he is advising that sculpting might not be his genre either. We constantly hear Gustav manipulating Adolph's gullible mind, and conversation turns to Adolph's wife who has gone away for a few days. As we watch the insecurities of Adolph's mind develop, we, as an audience start questioning Gustav's motives. What is his relationship to Adolph's wife? Why is he so intent with filling Adolph's mind with such dark thoughts?

Half way through the play we are introduced to Adolph's wife, Tekla (Anna Chancellor) a bright and somewhat flirtatious character. Gustav has left the stage, and so Tekla is unaware of his presence as Adolph moves the conversation from light greeting, to darker vexatious exchanges whereby he is pulling her character to shreds. Adolph leaves the stage confused and frustrated, and Gustav then reappears, and we realise that Gustav and Tekla have a history as old wounds are laid bare, and the darkening psychological exchanges continue.

I found this to be a compelling play to read. It was comical, but also dark and at times disturbing; especially as it shows how easy it is to manipulate someone. An interesting play about getting revenge and obsessional love.

I'll Be the Devil - Leo Butler. Tricycle Theatre, London, February 2008

The play was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, as an answer in response to Shakespeare's The Tempest. Is a barbaric journey to 18th century Limerick, south-west Ireland, and covers two stormy nights approaching Easter.

The play has a cast of twelve characters, but the from the very start we know this is not going to be an easy play to read. Dermot (Tom Burke) has been placed in standing stocks, so has an uncanny resemblance to the crucifix. He is wearing rags, caked in dried blood, and his eyes have been gouged out.

A soldier from the English Army [Lt Coyle] has two illegitimate children [Dermot, and Ellen] via his Irish mistress [Maryanne]. He is due to leave for England, and this abandonment of Maryanne and her children sparks a dramatic series of events.

Dermot becomes a mechanism for Maryanne to seek revenge against Lt Coyle. Dermot is caught massacring cattle which are on a farm which had belonged to Lt Coyle's Catholic brother, but had now been commandeered by a British colonial. Coyle tries to protect his demented son, but has to be careful, or he risks exposing his historical Catholic ancestry.

Maryanne has difficulty in weighing up her desire to go to England, with her loyalty to her kinsmen and hatred of the occupying army. Her lover witnessed the execution of her husband by the English, but he has now joined forces with them in order that he can put food on the table.

In order to get an understanding of what is going on, it helps to know something about Irish history at that time, otherwise the play does not give us enough of a commentary to fully understand the situation the characters find themselves in. Penal Law at the time gripped areas like Limerick when anti-Catholic discrimination was rife, it would have been an unimaginable place to live if you were Catholic. It is not really clear who the Devil that Dermot refers to at the start of the play is, and are the pigs the Irish traitors who are ignoring their faith in order to fill their bellies (such as his own father)?

As Coyle betrays his son in a pub in town, claiming he does not know him, we see matters turn uglier, from forcing Dermot to drink a cup filled with Capt Farrell's urine, to the tavern becoming a raucous torture chamber.The torture continues further on in the play as we experience the rape of Coyle's daughter right under her mothers eyes.

By the end of the play we know that Dermot is responsible for gouging his own eyes out, and is ready to die for the religion he is too naïve to understand. This is a play which gripped me, but I was also repulsed by the violence and graphic depiction of mans inhumanity to man and the often coarse dialogue.

Don Juan Comes Back From the War - Odon Von Horvath. Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Nov 2007

Don Juan (Tom Burke) is a lost wandering soul in a desolate Berlin wasteland in the aftermath of the First World War.

He was an infamous libertine before the war, with a seductive tongue, surrounded by women, and fleeing from angry husbands! He doesn't try to be sexually attractive, it just happens, women can't help but fall under his spell. He lived through the ravages of war, but now he is suffering with a weak heart, a survivor of the Spanish flu epidemic throughout the country, and still attracting the attentions of many women.

After an opening scene of drunken debauchery, Don Juan suffers a heat attack, and the second scene sees our hero recuperating in hospital. Whilst two nurses discuss his infamous history, a woman sneaks into his cubicle and stabs him. Whilst the wound is not a mortal strike, it allows Don Juan to become reflective, to realise that he is now old, mortal, not the young buck he was before the war. He had been hospitalised once before, when a jealous husband attacked him. As he reflects that his hospital room had been filled with flowers, a riot of colour everywhere, showing how much he was loved, he now has nothing. No visitors with flowers, just visitors with knives!

He is a man desperately seeking atonement, searching for the fiancée that he jilted before the war started. He returns to a house looking for the person who stabbed him. He is soaking wet and exhausted when he visits, the woman who opens the door is full of angst. She sees him as a Devil, handsome, charming, he can make a woman become stupid, leaving her heart in pieces! He begs for her to bring death to him, but it isn't the same woman he is seeking, and whilst she immediately recognises him, he has no idea whose house he is in. Hers is just a face of many.

He flees a false allegation that he has raped a teenager, into the snow covered wasteland where his fiancée lived, only to find his quest has been futile. He then encounters some prostitutes who make him reflective. They treat him how men have treated women and suddenly now the roles are reversed the infamous lover is no longer willing to be party to such games. In a final act of contrition, he ensconces himself in the deep snow to consider all the women he has had in the past, and finally he is aware of where his heart really lies.

It is a mature piece of writing, which could make you wish to hate Don Juan and his philandering, but whilst you are angered at his irreverent treatment of women, you can't but help to find that you have developed an empathy toward the character by the end of the play.

Glass Eels - Nell Leyshon. Hampstead Theatre, June/July 2007

The play is set in Somerset during a hot August, focusing on the sexual awakening of a young woman brought up in an all male household and the loss of the rural way of life/eel fishing.

The central character is Lily (Laura Elphinstone) a 16 year old emotionally fragile girl, battling with her emotions as she comes of age. Her mother drowned when Lily was a child in the river near her home where the eels swim free. She still mourns the death of her mother, and keeps one of her dresses hidden under her bed. Her father finds it difficult to speak to Lily about anything, but especially the death of her mother.

Lily finds she can only relate to Kenneth (Tom Burke) a man old enough to be her father, and a family friend who has known her all her life. Lily's mother died when she was child, Kenneth's father died when he was a child. Lily's father is the undertaker, taking on the role of his father before him. Lily is treated as a skivvy, running around after her father, and her chair bound, constantly hungry grandfather. She cannot talk to them about the death of her mother, so her only outlet is to talk to Kenneth, a man of few words who has feelings for Lily, but does not appear to be in love with her.

The theme of life and death runs continuously throughout the play. Life is shown through the eels, they come back to this river from the Sargasso Sea, with an instinct to mate there and lay their eggs in the silt and the mud, and new life awakens in their silvery glass like bodies. Lily and the eels are both attracted to the river. The eels mate at the river, and the river is where she will seduce Kenneth on her nightly visits there.

This is not a fast paced edgy drama, but an ordinary tale of a sweet, slow burn coming of age story. The play is packed full of symbolism, the image of a fly trapped in a glass window pane and the cornered eels in a bath, mirror the life of Lily, trapped in a dilapidated house, and oppressed by the heat of the summer and the confines of her home.

The language of the play is slow paced and the characters are often reluctant to speak to each other, therefore it seems as though a lot of the communication would be through knowing looks rather than dialogue. For a sweet love story with hidden depths, this was an enjoyable and emotive read.

Scenes From an Execution - Howard Barker. Hackney Empire, 2006

This play is set in 16th Century Venice, so for me, I'm already intrigued as I have a prior interest in the history of the Doge and his palace.

Galactia, a female painter, is commissioned to paint the Battle of Lepanto. The Doge wished this to be a celebratory canvas of the triumphant victory of the Holy League Alliance, however, as Galactia paints, she is determined that she will stay true to herself and instead depicts a scene of the atrocities of war. She depicts blood and guts and the suffering of the soldiers, which is an embarrassment to The Doge.

In real life, The Battle of Lepanto was a horrific battle, and the last major naval battle to be fought entirely by galleys in the Mediterranean. A Venetian colony at Famagusta in Cyprus had been besieged by the Turks, following the fall of Nicosia. The Venetians had surrendered, having been told they could leave Cyprus, however, the Ottoman Commander reneged, imprisoned the Venetians, and beheaded the Venetian commanders. A fleet of ships from the Holy League sailed towards the Gulf of Patras where they met the Ottoman fleet. They engaged in combat and the Ottomans were decisively beaten after a four hour battle. 40,000 people were killed in those four hours.

After pushing The State (The Doge) too far, The Doge became worried that he has commissioned the wrong person, she was a wild card in a dominant male society. The painting she is producing is too real, it is too close to the truth and she can not be allowed to continue with it. Her disagreement with The Doge leads to an encounter in which he accuses her that her painting shows nothing but a slaughter and therefore she is an enemy of the Republic. He has no choice but to imprison her.

Galactia's young lover Carpeter (Tom Burke) is also a painter, but of the same regurgitated religious paintings, (Christ amongst the flocks) he has not got the visualisation of Galactia to take up the commission of such an epic painting. Nevertheless he is approached to take over from her, and he takes the opportunity to make a name for himself, however he has to paint under the critical eye of The Doge rather than being allowed to express his imagination.

The play exploits several themes, that difficulty between doing what is asked of you and staying true to yourself. Should your personal ambitions take priority over morality? Throughout the play Galactia is almost on a mission of self-destruction, ignoring the words of those around her, including her two daughters Supporta and Dementia, who are both worried about their mother's state of mind.

This is an interesting play, which is poetically easy to read, about one woman's battle through her art in pushing the establishment too far.

The Cut - Mark Ravenhill. Donmar Warehouse, London, February 2006

I have to be honest, I have read The Cut twice and I don't really understand it. The play is ambiguous in tone, but it is this ambiguity that causes frustration. It is as though Mark Ravenhill had an idea, but was not able to fully understand where he was going with his thoughts. The play has the bones of something deep and controversial, but it needs some sort of padding out. I felt like it was a wire frame and clay had been added, but no defining features had been carved or moulded into it!

The Cut centres around Paul (Sir Ian McKellen), a government official who administers "The Cut" to usually sick people. He is unnerved by the entrance of John, a man who desires to have "The Cut" because he think it will offer him freedom. It is obvious that the outside world believes The Cut will offer some sort of salvation, that it has some merit or virtue in being performed. Paul starts to crack under the strain of his job, and shows that he is tortured by what he has to do. He is not used to seeing someone wanting The Cut, he knows how painful The Cut is, and how little this dystopian society truly knows about what is going on.

Paul's wife is seemingly unaware of what her husband does for a living, and therefore conversations with her become strained. She can not begin to understand why he is always upset, but we see him trying to wrestle with his conscience as the conversation turns sour and confrontational.

The play ends with Paul, now in prison, following the introduction of a new Government and the removal of The Cut. He is visited by his son Stephen (Tom Burke) and he shares another disturbing conversation with him, he is seeking punishment for what he has done. He wants his son to admonish him. There is the inferred hope of a utopia for all, but a realisation that such a thing never really exists despite a person's hopes and best efforts. New Governments will come in with their way of doing things, or the Government in power will sooner or later backtrack into the way their predecessors did.

We are never told what "the Cut" actually is. We know it is some form of painful but ambiguous surgery, it is obviously some form of death, but is the death a part of a person and if so which part and why? The play shows a person not happy in their job and needing a way out from the political cruelty of the state, but for me the dialogue was lacking and the play was stilted. It may be one for the stage rather than the reader!

Incarcerator - Torben Betts. Old Red Lion Theatre, 2005

I wasn't sure what to expect from this play, it opens with a prison officer delivering a monologue about the perplexities that may befall the inmates mind.

The play then moves to the first scene where we see a man getting ready to be married. The tone of the play has changed as it is written in rhyming couplets which makes it fast paced, quick, slick, witty. As we go through  the play, we find that it is largely written in these rhyming couplets, and Betts' ability to play with language shines through.

The play is akin to Jacobean drama, gone is the romantic love of a Shakespeare play, and instead the rhyming verses are concentrating on the moral corruption of a modern society. It is a modern day darkly domestic tragedy which exposes the complications of wealth, debt and greed; love, sex and adultery. It is often pessimistic in its tone and attitude towards people. The play focuses on six characters, each person given both a name, and a description.

The Incarcerator [CHORUS] is a character of many faces. He is the figure of authority, the law enforcer. He tries to keep society together, but society does not conform.

The Independent Man [Stu Morris] an alcoholic loving the corporate high life. Fond of women, drinking and drugs and happy to flash his cash. He taunts Lee that marriage will suck the life out of him whilst continuing to lend him money so that he can pay for the demands Vic makes of him.

The Lusty Youth [Lee Jessop] can not control his desires, he just wants to be able to please his new wife, but she doesn't come cheap. Lee can not say no. He is impulsive, he doesn't think things through, to hell with consequences, what are they? He is a man getting out of his depth in debt, how can he keep the wolves from the door and the sharks at bay?

The Innocent [Liddle] (Tom Burke) a man with a world of opportunity ahead of him, but will he take the path of righteousness, or go back the way he came? He is like an excitable child full of wonder and innocence, but is anxious about what lies ahead of him, and therefore an easy character to mould or manipulate.

The Egotist [Vic Smith] materialistic, has very expensive tastes and won't take no for an answer. She is demanding and determined to get what she wants.

The Frustrated Intellectual [Laura Fisher] is in love with Lee, but he is marrying her friend Vic. She has a sharp tongue and a quick wit, but can she use it to make her dream a reality, or will she forever be jealously looking on?

I would imagine it is a both a difficult yet enjoyable script for an actor to perform. There is a juxtaposition of deep venom and thoughtful eloquence which gives the characters a depth and personality. There is increasing chaos and a mad violence which is almost comical, and it ends with me thinking I will never look at a fondue in the same manner again!