Sunday, 29 September 2013

'Live' Theatre on a Shoestring: National Theatre's 'Othello' at Cheshire Oaks


On Thursday evening I went with a couple of colleagues and our A Level English Literature group of 9 to see the production of of 'Othello' which was playing at the NationalTheatre in London, but also being broadcast live in cinemas around the country and abroad.  We gathered at the local Vue cinema, where the usual cinema-going audience seemed to have disappeared to be replaced by a rather older, more sedate group of people.  Few sales of buckets of popcorn or gallons of coke, though Ben and Jerry's did well.  Our group reduced the average age of the audience significantly. (Well maybe not me!).  The event was hugely popular - they sold two full screens, it seems, and we had to rush to find a seat when doors opened.

I have to admit my expectations were not high: televised theatre productions I'd seen in the past had often been disappointing - static camera pointed at the stage mostly.  But this was a fantastic experience as they have improved the way they film the productions so that you can see the actors up close in some scenes but then aerial shots allowed a view of the full set.  And presumably this was done in a way which did not distract the live audience. We could hear the reaction at the National and at times the cinema audience responded in a slightly different way, laughing, perhaps, because we could see a character's facial expression in more detail.  One of our student's boyfriend, who is at drama school in London, was in the audience there and she felt her experience was as good as his as he was in the cheap seats, far from the stage. It didn't feel like film and the only time the illusion was shattered was when it came to the end and the audience in London reacted with applause.  Some of us did too even though there was no one but the Vue ice-cream sellers there to receive it.

And the production of 'Othello' itself was excellent. It was set in a modern day army garrison with one scene showing a drunken brawl between the soldiers. I liked Rory Kinnear as Iago, sounding a bit like Phil from East Enders, in contrast to posh Cassio, who was a kind of Prince Harry figure getting into trouble by drinking with his men.  The scene where Othello (Adrian Lester) overhears Cassio talking of the hankerchief is set in a toilet: he hides in a cubicle.  All of this worked well and showed how the play remains relevant today.  Adrian Lester was a strong Othello though I feel his descent from self-control and love for Desdemona to totally irrational behaviour and murder just happens too fast.  But that's the play I suppose.

I've never seen the play before, but I had read it and taught extracts.  So I knew what was coming and remained dry-eyed at Desdemona's demise.  Behind us someone was sobbing: one of the grey-haired theatre buffs we'd seen queuing up, I assumed.

No - it was one of our students.  You see they've only just started studying the play and they didn't know what would happen.  And this 17 year old girl was deeply shocked by the way Othello treated Desdemona, from the first casual slap to the bedroom scene when he murders her despite her desperate pleas.  She was still crying as we left the cinema; others in the group admitted they'd also been close to tears.  Although sorry to see her so upset, in some ways I was pleased that she's been moved so much.  She'd responded to the play as Shakespeare had wanted his audience to respond the first time it was shown. She'll remember this, probably the first live Shakespeare she has seen, for a long time.

All this for £10 a head.  Thank you, National Theatre.  I want to see their production of 'War Horse'.  It's coming to The Lowry in Salford at Christmas.  Tried booking tickets last week - husband Christmas present I thought.  £50 a head.  Too much.  So I am now waiting to book tickets for the 'live' cinema performance on 27th February.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Longing for the 'sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care'

4am and insomnia again.  At least this time I've taken the advice given in all the books and got up after half an hour of sleeplessness instead doing what I did this time last week: lying there making mental lists of things to do.  I'm drinking tea though, not milk or any of the other vile concoctions that are supposed to aid restful sleep.  And instead of writing this I should be doing something repetitive and boring until I feel tired again.  Like knitting.  But I haven't got the patience for knitting.  There's always the ironing.....

I've tried all the remedies for this middle of the night wake up which leaves me zombie-like and grumpy the next day.  I've had some success with herbal remedies - valerian, hops and passion flower tablets from Boots.  But last night's red wine probably spoiled their effect.   Could try the Paul McKenna hypnosis tape, I suppose.  (You will follow the rules of sleep....). Hasn't worked for me as I don't follow the rules.  No wine, no tea, no reading in bed - no fun.

One remedy that does work is Nytol - not the herbal one,  the one you have to ask for at the pharmacy which is basically anti-histamine.  The full dose of two tablets taken at bedtime does the trick.  But then I wake up with a dry mouth feeling dreadful even after a full night's sleep.   Even half a tablet  works.  Or a Piriton has the same effect.

I used to worry about not sleeping but recently have learned to live with it.  More time for reading and middle of the night blogging.  Off to bed to try some alternate nostril breathing now.  Or other yoga relaxation techniques.  More nonsense which doesn't work.  Only an hour or so left before teenager starts banging around anyway.  Takes her two hours to get ready for school.  Madness.  Like Macbeth I'll probably 'sleep no more' tonight.  My 'ravell'd sleeve' will remain unknitted.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

One year on from our 9/11

8.10 Tuesday morning; 11th September 2012.  In PJs, my day off and Kate getting ready to leave for school.  The phone rang...a voice I didn't recognise, a stranger. He'd barely said a sentence before fear gripped me.  Husband; accident, on the road to Whitchurch. Did I want to come down there? Asked could I speak to him.  Not at the moment...  Confused. Kate had picked up what was happening and was crying. I didn't know what to do next.  This wasn't the way these things happen on TV.  No police or ambulance drivers to tell me what to do.  Just this stranger.  I asked his name - Matt. It struck me then why he wasn't waiting for the professionals.  He thought Paul wouldn't make it.

 Looking at the car you can see why he thought that.  A heavy metal crate had fallen onto it from a lorry.

I was shaky after the call but put on a brave face for Kate. Phoned a good friend and neighbour to drive me. The phone rang again.  Matt.  Better news. Ambulance was there and fire brigade- they were cutting him out and taking him to hospital.  Sent Kate to school and went to the local hospital to wait.  And wait.  Staff in A&E unhelpful and uninformed and lacking in any empathy.  Said they were expecting a 'RTA', though. Could I take a seat?  Sat there among the sprained ankles and minor injuries.  It all felt unreal. Felt detached, watching myself as if in a soap opera.  Tried not to think about how life might change but my mind running away visualising future scenarios.  How he said he wanted the Hipsway song at his funeral.  Waited and waited.  My wonderful friend still there. 40 minutes passed and then we heard the ambulance outside.

Swung from terror to near elation in seconds.  Ambulance driver smiling and saying it looks worse than it is; Paul talking to me saying he was OK.  In contrast to those in the front desk, staff on the A&E ward were wonderful.  They let me hold his hand as they picked bits of metal from the huge gash on his head and then sewed it up.  23 stitches and a scar which beats Harry Potter.  Scans and X rays revealed no life threatening injuries but there were compressed discs in his spine.  Not much fun, but he'd be OK - eventually.

 Last week, one year on from the accident I was very proud to see him achieve the goal he set himself a month or so later.  He completed a charity cycle ride from London to Brussels for the Alzheimer's Society, raising over £900.  It wasn't easy and his back injury continues to cause him problems, but he did it.

Writing this meant reliving the experience.  But it's good to remember.  I stared into the void but then got my life back.  And it's precious.  I remember too the kindness of that stranger Matt.  I'm not sure I'd have been brave enough to make that call.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Goodbye summer!

Summer has ended abruptly here in the North West with a wet and miserable day yesterday and a chilly one today.  Have even lit the fire this afternoon.  The weather, the darker evenings and the return to work this week has left me feeling a little low.

Time to look back then on a wonderful summer before routine fully establishes itself.  No major holidays abroad, just our week in Cornwall and then several visits to see family and friends.

This summer I:

Visited my sister in Sussex and spent a day Brighton, exploring the Lanes and vintage shops with our teenage daughters.

Had a day out in London on the same trip.

Revisited Camden Market in London after a gap of around 25 years.  (Used to go their on Sunday mornings years ago to listen to jazz in Dingwalls)  Loved the Turkish lighting stalls and one of the desk lamps is on my Christmas list.

Sampled the food from the many ethnic food stalls on Camden market.

Then, in complete contrast, went to Harrods and travelled up the Egyptian escalator to the sound of an opera singer performing 'Land of Hope and Glory' live

Joined another sister and her young family in Northern Ireland for a family get together on the August Bank holiday weekend.  Took the children to a Princesses and Pirates day at local National Trust property Springhill.

Supported my husband and two brothers-in-law as they took part in 'Lap the Lough', an event where 2000 participants cycled around Lough Neagh.

Attended the 100th birthday party of a neighbour in Northern Ireland in this beautiful garden Although a little confused, she certainly enjoyed the occasion, entertaining her guests by singing and playing the mouth organ.

Went on daytrips locally here in the North West.  Got together with old friends from primary school days. Kids got muddy on Manley Mere adventure trail and another day we had a very breezy walk on the beach from Hoylake to West Kirby.

Hired a pedal boat on the River Dee in Chester and sat back enjoying the sun with a friend while our daughters did the hard work of pedalling.  And squealing loudly.

A memorable summer.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Blackberry Picking: a tribute to Seamus Heaney

The blackberries on the cycle path where we walk the dog are finally ripe and as I ate the first few last week I remembered the lines from Heaney's poem, Blackberry Picking

Late August,given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine, summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

And now he's dead.  I was very sad to hear the news, having loved Heaney's poetry since first being introduced to it by a wonderful English teacher in the early 1970's. He read us The Early Purges, which is about kittens being drowned on a farm and it contained the line 'the scraggy wee shits', which of course scandalised and delighted our class at that time,  Like Heaney as a child I lived on a farm in South Derry, so I recognised  the things he wrote about: gathering potatoes; picking blackberries.... and kittens being drowned.  Poetry had been mysterious and distant until then: I hadn't realised it could be about things I knew about.  In some ways it was this experience that set me on the route to my career as an English teacher.

So now I introduce Heaney's poems to the classes I teach: he's been on GCSE syllabuses for many years now.  Although few have much experience these days of collecting frogspawn or picking blackberries, the poems still  resonate with them, a  favourite being Mid-term Break, Heaney's early poem about the death of his 4 year old brother Christopher in a car accident.  

In 1995, I wrote to Seamus Heaney and told him about how I loved his poetry. I described my memories of growing up in Ballyronan which is about 6 miles from Toome and how much his poetry had influenced me when I was young.  I was taking a group of 'A' level students  to hear him speak at a conference in London on the 17th March that year and cheekily asked him if he'd like to join me for a drink to toast St Patrick.  I didn't really expect to get a reply as I'd sent the letter to Faber and Faber, but I did.  He not only wrote me a letter, but phoned me up to apologise: he was already committed to lunch with others that day. I thought it was my dad on the phone - he sounded just the same with his South Derry accent. And then when we were at the conference during the break there was an announcement asking me to come back stage.  My students were very impressed: my 15 minutes, or 5 seconds, of fame.  

And so I met him.  He was a lovely, modest, genuine man.  We talked of home: he knew John McGlone in the garage across the road from us and how his wife is from Ardboe, not far from Ballyronan.  I was a bit overwhelmed and didn't really say any of the things I should have said. And I couldn't stay long, being in sole charge of a group of students.  Even so this was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. 

When I left that school in 2001, my leaving present was a copy of Heaney's latest collection, Electric Light with a signed dedication from Heaney. This is a very precious possession.

 I'll leave the last words to Heaney.  This is from Clearances which he wrote after the death of his mother:

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.