I remember the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to refer to gin as Mother’s Ruin, and, watching April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers’ new musical about that particular demon drink, it’s no surprise that she did! Apparently, there was a time in the 18th century when the average Briton drank 1.5 litres of the stuff a day, not that any of them would have had a clue what a litre was. Then again, I don’t think they took measures into account; a dram of mothers’? Just swig it, knock it back, get it down you. It was, after all, just an easy exit into oblivion away from the hardships of the world.
Meet the ladies of Gin Lane, and listen to their tales, not only of drunkenness, but of rape, prostitution, murder, robbery, degradation, imprisonment and so on. No wonder they turned to a spot of Gineva to make it go away. There’s Suki – everyone knows Suki, always happy to help you out if you’ve got a baby you can’t afford to keep; she’ll make sure it’s safely looked after. There’s Moll, with her ready wit and personal charms who’ll always let you have your way with her if it keeps her in gin for an hour or so. There’s Lydia, selling top quality gin from her barrow, with her friend Mary; they’ve both got secrets – and you know how secrets have a way of finding you out. And there’s Evelyn, selling her lousy gin and losing her custom to Lydia and Mary; but revenge is a gin best served icy cold.
We also encounter novelist Henry Fielding, who went on to become a magistrate and co-found The Bow Street Runners with his brother John, and we meet his sister Sarah, also a writer and early feminist, encouraging (but not too much) well-meaning but impoverished young women to improve their lot. But how do these historically real people fit into the fictional (?) world of Gin Craze!? You’ll have to see the show to find out.
This magnificent show has success written through it like a stick of rock. Hayley Grindle’s set – a labyrinth of stairs and scaffolding – suggests the dingy streets and sordid alleyways of a Hogarthian London, and the costumes are fantastic – billowing gowns that you can imagine were once grand, but years of grime have worn down; wealth and poverty brought together in sharp focus. April de Angelis’ book and characters are full of wit, depth, and emotion, and there’s a fascinating and strong moral compass at play. Lucy Rivers’ music is melodic, reflective, and engrossing, whilst also capturing a spirit of raucous entertainment. I could list the songs that I enjoyed the most, but I found I was listing almost all of them, so there’s no point doing that! As a mark of a decent musical, each song either extends our understanding of the character singing or progresses the plot so that you never leave a song in the same place that you entered it.
As for the performers, it was one of those rare occasions where every single member of the cast delivered a performance that was 100% faultless, in word, in action, in voice, in musicianship. They form a most extraordinary talented ensemble. This is one of those on-trend productions where each of the cast members also plays an instrument, and the music and book integrate seamlessly. At the heart of the show is the partnership between Mary and Lydia, conveyed perfectly by Aruhan Galieva as Mary and Paksie Vernon as Lydia. Their harmonies when they sing together are just sublime. Ms Galieva has a deceptively simple way of making our heart melt when her character is in trouble (which is a lot of the time) but also rejoice along with her when things are going well. Using the awkward J word here, Ms Vernon delivers a strong and convincing performance of a character who goes on an extraordinary journey throughout life, adapting to her circumstances, surviving against all the odds, until making a final devastating sacrifice. It’s a fantastic performance.
Debbie Chazen is also superb as Moll, who may be addled with alcohol but still has a remarkable eloquence and gives the show huge boosts of humour every time she appears. She is also hilarious as the ghastly Germanic Queen Caroline, wrapping her vocal cords around such delightful phrases as “when things go Titten hoch” with tremendous gusto. Rachel Winters is great as the super-posh Sarah Fielding, slumming it in prison to do research for her latest book, drilling Mary in the ways a woman might succeed, extending her charity just so far – but no further. Rosalind Ford plays with the audience’s emotions in the difficult role of Suki, conveying the fine balance between anger at her deceit and sympathy for her plight. And Paula James is very entertaining as the furious Evelyn, who then becomes a victim of her own heart; her reaction to why her love cannot be requited gets the biggest laugh of the night.
And I haven’t mentioned the gents! Alex Mugnaioni is brilliant as the urbane Henry Fielding, delivering witty (but inappropriate) after dinner jokes about Plato, failing to conceal his automatic stiffy when in a clench with the maid, although later becoming an ultimately callous magistrate. I also liked him very much as Jekyll the courtier and the Constable, torn between not agreeing with the new laws but having to enforce them. And Peter Pearson is also excellent as the hypocritical reverend Thomas Wilson and the blind John Fielding, identifying drolly through sound alone which items of crockery are being smashed around him.
This show just blew us both away with its brilliant mix of comedy and sadness, the quality of the story-telling, the beauty of the music, the wit of the language, the excellence of the performances and the sheer joie de vivre of the whole gin-soaked thing! It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 31st July but it would be a crime against theatre if this didn’t go on to have a long and successful life hereafter. Also – a cast recording please!
P. S. By the way, this is a very bawdy show; no nudity or anything like that, but the language could, in Henry Higgins’ words, make a sailor blush. Definitely not one for the kids, and possibly not one for Granny either, depending on her sensibilities – but always remember, never underestimate Granny; she’s seen more years than you have.
It’s not often that one feels bound to include the word joyous so early in a theatre review, but these are exceptional times, and no other word expresses the true delight everyone felt at being back at the Royal Shakespeare Company in their wonderful new garden theatre. It’s always a treat to enjoy this most accessible and light-hearted of Shakespeare’s plays, although, amongst the fun, director Phillip Breen has emphasised all its darker and more uncomfortable elements. The result is a cross between a traditional, riotous fun-and-frolic-type approach and an unusually close inspection of the discomfort and detachment experienced by its characters.
The RSC is to blame for my love of Comedy of Errors, having sat in the front row of the Aldwych Theatre in December 1977 agog at the magnificent production by Trevor Nunn, which remains the best production of a Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen (and – joy of joys – was recorded for posterity). The play adapts superbly to a summer outdoors setting – and the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Theatre provides both extremely comfy seating and an extraordinarily clear view of the stage. You can be sure, by the way, that the RSC has adopted a strong Covid-secure protocol not only to look after its audience but also its cast and crew, with a longer than usual interval (vital to get visits to both the bar and the toilets done in ample time) and excellent attention to social distancing and hygiene requirements. The super-helpful and plentiful front of house staff did a tremendous job.
You don’t need me to outline the story of the Comedy of Errors (but I will anyway). The states of Syracuse and Ephesus are on a war footing and Syracusan merchant Egeon is under arrest on penalty of death unless he can raise the thousand marks the law requires to save his life. Egeon has nothing to offer save his eloquence, but has no knowledge that one of his sons, and his son’s servant – and, indeed, his wife – have been living in Ephesus after they went missing in a sea disaster. Meanwhile his other son, (and other servant) turn up in Ephesus, looking for their brothers, and get mixed up in a comedy of mistaken identity – because they’re all identical twins. Plautus recognised a good joke when he saw one, didn’t he? I’m not breaking any spoilers when I tell you that Egeon doesn’t die.
Max Jones has created a simple but extremely effective set, with a tiled floor that recreates both cobbled streets and wealthy flooring, plus a back wall that parts in the middle to suggest the all-important abbey where the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio take refuge. Dyfan Jones’ sound design is superb; in particular, the comic scene between A of S and D of S, about the countries embedded in the realms of Luce’s body, works incredibly well with the sound tricks played by the imaginary microphones. One reservation though; at times, the sound of the four beatboxing vocalists became slightly overpowering. More of them later.
It’s the off-beat moments where the production strays from the typical reading of the play that gives you pause for thought. Sound and visual effects emphasise the cruelty of the beatings that Dromio receives from Antipholus of S; we see it as an abusive relationship, like a dog who keeps coming back to its master out of natural devotion but knows it’s only minutes till he will flinch again. And when Antipholus of E is locked out of his own home, the cacophony of howling ridicule that comes from the crowd is enhanced as a mental paranoia that profoundly disturbs and menaces his brain. No pantomime this. The ending, too, is strangely cold; whereas normally you might expect the two Antipholuses to clap each other on the back in an ecstatic reunion, here they’re barely able to look each other in the eye – and the text backs this reading up. The two Dromios consent to leave hand in hand, so a more physical reunion is appropriate; but their long, silent hug becomes uncomfortable as you realise that this is all too much for one of them.
The plays has a hard core of four central characters – the Antipholuses and the Dromios – two additional essential characters – Adrianna and Luciana – and a wealth of lively side characters, who, for me, really made the night. Antony Bunsee’s Egeon is the pinnacle of enfeebled dignity, holding everyone’s attention with his powerful tale of woe, who causes Nicholas Prasad’s excellent Duke Solinus to show unusual compassion. The two characters make a stark visual comparison, with Egeon’s faded glory juxtaposed with Solinus’ smart claret and blue uniform – obviously a member of the West Ham United Light Infantry. Bringing Egeon’s story to a happy conclusion is a fantastic performance by Zoe Lambert as Aemilia, setting the bar for Aemilias of the future, with her hard-hitting no-nonsense Yorkshire bluff providing an excellent comic presence but a perfectly accurate reading of the character.
There’s an extremely funny and vivacious performance by Baker Mukasa as the perplexed goldsmith Angelo, trying to balance his debtor and creditor with beaming but unsuccessful interpersonal skills until the money just isn’t there; I loved Alfred Clay’s Doctor Pinch, portrayed as a yogic charlatan in posing gold lamé; and Toyin Alyedun-Alase’s wonderful Courtesan creates a very striking figure as an almost-dominatrix, alluring and threatening at the same time – you wouldn’t want to cross her. William Grint breathes new life into the character of the gangster second merchant with some fantastic physical comedy, and together with his bodyguard Dyfrig Morris, show how disability can be a positive force on stage. Riad Richie, Patrick Osborne and, audience’s favourite, Sarah Seggari, all bring terrific comic support to their variety of roles.
Guy Lewis captures all Antipholus of Syracuse’s fish out of water status, but very nicely combined with that slight arrogance that accompanies the seasoned tourist traveller. Wonderful use of pauses highlight his polite confusion, and there’s a brilliant bit of comic business with a hand sanitiser that unites the problems of today with an age-old issue to genuine guffaws. Rowan Polonski channels his inner Rik Mayall with a frenetic Antipholus of Ephesus, wrapped up in his public image and desperate not to get a bad camera angle. He provides another strong physical comedy performance which gets him into all sorts of torturous bodily positions.
Jonathan Broadbent’s Dromio of S comes across as one of those servants who pretty much think they’re as important as their master with a degree of detachment and seriousness that helps him escape most of the on-stage madness; perhaps unlike Greg Haiste’s Dromio of E, who throws himself more into the traditional mayhem and comic physicality. When the back wall opens up to allow the brothers all meeting, Mr Broadbent is sat on the back wall, way backstage, deliberately visible and disconcerted, wondering whether he should get up and join the rest of them. That final scene of the long uncomfortable hug cleverly shows the difference between the two personalities. Hedydd Dylan’s Adrianna successfully conveys the character’s frustrations and anger at her husband’s inexplicable behaviour, but I didn’t think she always revealed the warmth or humour that lays beneath the exasperated surface. Avita Jay, though, is excellent as the spirited yet strictly non-feminist Luciana, who avers that a man is master of his liberty and is shocked at what appears to be her brother-in-law’s inappropriate behaviour.
One major bugbear with this production though: the music. It’s a personal thing, and I absolutely accept how skilful it is, and that I may well be out of kilter with everyone else; but I really dislike constant bombardment with vocal shenanigans beatbox-style. And the trouble is that these musical interludes not only separate each scene, but that they also drown out some important text (poor Egeon’s big speech at the beginning is basically ruined by their disrespectful soundtrack) and all to no end. Not only does the music add nothing to our understanding of the story, but it also actively gets in the way of it. Oh – and I didn’t understand all the shopping bags everywhere either.
I admired this production for its boldness in exploring the darker side of the play, and for revealing some essential differences of character between the two sets of brothers. And it’s also studded with some brilliant supporting performances. Not perfect, but certainly entertaining, and a wonderful return to live theatre from this amazing company.
Those lovely comedy lovers at the Comedy Crate had already resumed residence in the back garden of the Black Prince a few weeks ago, but this was the first show that we’d been able to catch – and my first non-Zoom comedy gig since their show last October. Such are the ways of the pandemic. The line-up had unavoidably changed a bit between being first announced and the show on the night, but that’s often the way with live gigs!
Our MC for the night was Jenny Collier, whom we last saw on one of the Comedy Crate’s online gigs earlier this year. She’s a sparky presence, with her charming appearance and cut-glass accent acting as a great juxtaposition to some ribald language. She’s been working as a GP receptionist for some of these Covid times, which was a source of some excellent material. However, I most enjoyed her account of giving a – I can’t dress this up in any other way – stool sample for the medics to explore. We were an occasionally unruly crowd, so she had a lot on her plate for the evening, but she was great fun and kept the show going at a great pace.
Our first act, and one of my all-time favourite comedians, was Olaf Falafel, whom we’ve seen many times in Edinburgh. In his trademark stripy blue sailor’s shirt, which makes him look like an extra from There is Nothing Like a Dame, he attacked us with some brilliant material, playing off the crowd beautifully, and ending up with his famous biscuitology routine. His comedy is a wonderful mixture of the absurd and the childish, but with lots of devastatingly clever observations and woefully funny puns. Great to see him again.
Next up, and new to us, was Toussaint Douglass; a naturally funny guy with a very relaxed style but with some strong punchy material full of surprises, including some challenging stuff about race. A very likeable personality, with some nice self-deprecating observations, he struck up an excellent rapport with the audience. Very enjoyable, and someone to look forward to seeing again!
For our headline act we had the rather wacky and unpredictable Tony Law, whom we’ve seen a few times before and sometimes he goes down a storm, and sometimes he doesn’t! I very much liked his use of accents in his act, and he’s supremely confident with dealing with the crowd; you either “get” his flights of fancy or you don’t and, personally, on the whole, I don’t! But the majority of the audience did, so I admit it’s my problem not his!
There’s another Comedy Crate in the garden of the Black Prince on Thursday 19th August. We’re going, are you?
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first big musical hit the stage running on Broadway back in 2008, and there was an instant interest in making it into a film. But, as often happens, those plans stalled, and it wasn’t until after the smash success of Hamilton that work on In the Heights The Movie got going again. I thoroughly enjoyed the stage version (although I didn’t see it until 2016) and so was naturally keen to see the film – and, for the most part, it doesn’t disappoint at all!
Like the show, the film offers a snapshot of a few days in Washington Heights, a Dominican-American area of New York (or Nuevo York, to make it clearer), and sets Usnavi at the centre of the community, running his little bodega at all hours of the day, accompanied by his smartass cousin Sonny. Stanford University undergraduate Nina arrives unexpectedly, much to the delight and concern of her father Kevin, who runs the local taxi company, and even more to the delight of Benny, the taxi controller, whose tongue hangs out (figuratively) every time Nina appears on the scene. But why has she returned? Meanwhile, Vanessa, who works at the beauty salon, dreams of getting her own place, and Usnavi dreams of having a relationship with her but she’s just too beautiful for him to dare make the first move. Will they get it together? And who is the lucky winner of $96,000 in the lottery?
Yes, there are a few plot and sequence changes from the original show; always a risky undertaking if you’re showing the film to a purist. I did like how Usnavi’s future relationship with Vanessa was left to your imagination in the stage show, whereas that’s not the case in the film; and there are a couple of times where the film’s approach to the tough reality of life is a little blander – Usnavi’s shop doesn’t get ransacked during the blackout, for example. Either way though, it’s a good story, well told.
Both the show and the film suffer from the same overload of exposition in its first half-hour or so. There’s a lot of information that is hurled at the audience right from the start, that it’s impossible to keep up with everything you’re being told – particularly when so much of it is coming via the medium of hip-hop/rap/Latin lyrics. There are big dance numbers which overwhelm the senses, and whilst they look and sound great, they can have the effect of getting in the way of the storytelling. In fact, it’s only when the music stops that you can really give yourself a chance to reflect and take stock of what’s been happening. As a result, quieter scenes such as the confrontation between Kevin and Nina concerning her Stanford career, and Usnavi’s important discussions with his accountant, stand out for their clarity. It also tends to dip into sentimentality a little more than I’d like – there’s only so many times you can watch Usnavi get misty-eyed over the four youngsters to whom he’s telling his story.
But there’s no doubt that the dance numbers form most of the stand-out moments of the film. I particularly liked The Club scene, which felt just a hair’s breadth from West Side Story, and the Carnaval del Barrio, which genuinely shows how dance can emerge as an organic reaction to the steamy Latin conditions of life. A personal thing, but I was irritated by the occasional moments when the dance scenes moved into the surreal – such as Benny and Nina dancing on the walls of the block, or the guys on the street plucking seemingy tangible shapes out of mid-air. Those gimmicks didn’t enhance the songs or the dance. Musicals are already one step away from reality; in my humble opinion, they don’t need to be made even more impossible to believe! However, we couldn’t help but laugh at the use of Hamilton’s You’ll Be Back as holding music on the phone; they must have had a lot of fun at that idea.
It’s studded with excellent performances by a young company of largely impossibly beautiful people. It goes without saying that all the performers are supreme singers and dancers, bringing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs and Christopher Scott’s empowering choreography to ebullient life. Leslie Grace is stunning (in all ways) as Nina, looking fondly on her old neighbourhood friends but with the slight distancing of someone who has been subjected to more intellectual challenges. Melissa Barrera is also fantastic as Vanessa, trying for a better life, opening the door for Usnavi to approach her. Daphne Rubin-Vega is brilliant as salon owner Daniela, challenging the neighbourhood to get a life, and young Gregory Diaz IV turns in a quirky and lovable performance as Sonny – he’s obviously going places.
Abuela Claudia is played by Olga Merediz who took the part on Broadway, so it seems only right that she should have the role here, but I couldn’t help but think she seemed a little young to be playing a character who dwindles away with old age before our eyes. But it’s Anthony Ramos who takes control of this film as Usnavi, perfectly conveying the character’s Everyman-type role; eminently likeable, full of empathy, with a wry sense of humour (is it just me who thinks he looks like a Puerto Rican Jon Richardson?), perfectly playing to the camera in his role as narrator. A first-rate performance.
It’s not a perfect film – at two hours, twenty minutes it felt a little long, and occasionally self-indulgent with the sentimentality; and sometimes the immense pizzazz of the whole thing obstructs the clarity of the storytelling. One of my pet hates in a musical is when its songs neither further our understanding of the characters nor push the story forward, and In the Heights is occasionally guilty of this. However, I think I’ve been more critical about this film than it truly warrants. It’s extremely enjoyable, there are huge dollops of feelgood factor, and it has that wonderful, sometimes elusive element, a happy ending!
Burmese Days was the first full-length novel that Orwell wrote, using observations he made during his years with the Indian Police Service in Burma. He wrote the first draft while living in Paris in the late 1920s; then revised it in 1932, with its final version fully written by early 1934. However, it was rejected by Gollancz, who had published Down and Out in Paris and London the previous year, due to their fears of libel. It was clear that Orwell’s fictional location for his story – Kyauktada – was in fact the real town of Katha, where Orwell had served in the Police Force. In fact, the European Club, the jail and the police station are still in existence today, and, if you needed any further clues, the map that Orwell reprints at the beginning of the book makes it all too clear that Kyauktada is indeed Katha. It was feared that the characters bore too great a similarity to people he met whilst stationed there, and Gollancz was not prepared to take the risk. Orwell offered the book to Jonathan Cape and Heinemann too, but they turned it down for the same reason. However, it was accepted by Harpers for publication in the United States, where it was finally published in October 1934. On the understanding that Orwell could demonstrate that he had not named real people, Gollancz finally accepted it for publication the following June.
When I started my George Orwell Challenge a short while ago, I decided that it would be both big-headed and redundant of me to try to add to the weight of literary criticism about any of his writing. I just wanted to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to what he wrote, and leave any greater insights to brains much more accomplished than mine. So let me start by saying that I had no real expectation of what this book would be like. But you know the kind of book where you’re gripped from the first page, you resent time not spent reading it, and you can see the characters in your mind’s eye, and hear their voices and their accents, and see the locations, and feel the emotions of everyone involved in the book? This book is that book. I REALLY LOVED THIS BOOK!
So what is it about this book that made it stand out for me? I answer by directing you to the four things that most people would want from a first-rate novel. A strong, credible story; vibrant, memorable characters; eloquent use of language; and conveying truths and insights that makes your brain work. And Burmese Days has these four assets in spades. If you haven’t read the book yet, and don’t want to see any spoilers, please stop reading here, go and read the book this instant, and then come back! It’s going to be impossible to write about this book without giving away vast amounts of the plot – and its shocks and surprises.
Let’s start off with the strong, credible story. John Flory, thirty-five years old, English timber merchant and long-time resident of Burma, doesn’t fit in with the other Englishmen at the Club; primarily because his best friend in the country is the Indian Doctor Veraswami, and pukka sahibs in Burma are only meant to mix with other white people. A decree has gone out, that the club must elect one non-European Member, in an effort to improve relations with the local people. Subdivisional Magistrate U Po Kyin, corrupt and ambitious, has his sights set on being granted this honour; the thorn in his flesh is Veraswami, as the most likely other person to be elected.
Meanwhile, Flory is otherwise sad and alone, and can see no way out of his miserable lifestyle. Enter Elizabeth Lackersteen, twenty-two and a highly eligible Englishwoman, newly arrived in Burma from living in Paris. Flory sees his chance and does his best to arouse her romantic interest. But there are two problems; one – he is cultured, well-read and artistic, all characteristics that she loathes. And secondly, he has a large and unsightly birthmark on his face that he finds hard to cover up and which takes away a lot of his confidence; will the birthmark make a difference to how Elizabeth sees him? Not only that, but a rival appears on the scene – military policeman Verrall, a handsome but vain man who loves his polo. But does he also love Elizabeth? I don’t really need to outline any more of the story here; this just gives you a hint of the intrigues at play and the possible outcomes.
What about those characters? Looking at it from an old-fashioned moral standpoint, there’s one out-and-out good person, one irredeemably evil person, and everyone else falls somewhere between the two. Dr Veraswami is, maybe not goodness personified, but still a thoroughly decent and honest man, which makes the attempts to discredit him even more telling. He respects the authority of the British, he does everything he can to be a good friend and host, and when push comes to shove, he is there to support Flory in quelling the rebellion. In the opposite corner is U Po Kyin, an outright villain with no redeeming features, corrupt to the nth degree; a murderer and rapist, likened by Veraswami to a crocodile in that he’s always out for a kill and will always go for the weak spot to secure his evil wishes.
As those two characters occupy the end positions in the goodness/evil scale, although they are well drawn and entertaining to read about, perhaps they are slightly less interesting than the more complex characters. A case in point, and somewhere in between them, is Elizabeth Lackersteen, whose experiences in Paris have affected her detrimentally, so that when she arrives in Burma she is extremely vulnerable. She is pretty and presents herself well, and at first appears to be a charming young lady, but she has a very black-and-white view of what’s good and what’s not, and primarily it comes down to money – due to two terms at a very expensive and posh school. “Thereafter, her whole code of living was summed up in one belief, and that a simple one. It was that the Good (“lovely” was her name for it) is synonymous with the expensive, the elegant, the aristocratic; and the Bad (“beastly”) is the cheap, the low, the shabby, the laborious […] Everything from a pair of stockings to a human soul was classifiable as “lovely” or “beastly”.”
As we get to know Elizabeth more, we realise that she is appallingly and unashamedly racist; when Flory introduces her to some local people she quickly loses any sense of decency (“how revoltingly ugly these people are […] so coarse-looking; like some kind of animal […] what absolutely disgusting people”), and this sets her against Flory: “He was forever praising Burmese customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to contrast them favourably with the English. It disquieted her. After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a “subject” people, an inferior people with black faces. His attitude was a little too tolerant.” We also discover that she is romantically – even sexually – aroused by watching violence. She is desperate to kill anything that moves when Flory takes her on a hunt, and when he talks animatedly about shooting, “she really loved him when he talked like this”. When she shoots a pigeon, “he put it limp and warm into Elizabeth’s hand. She could hardly give it up, the feel of it so ravished her. She could have kissed it, hugged it to her breast […] She was conscious of an extraordinary desire to fling her arms around Flory’s neck and kiss him; and in some way it was the killing of the pigeon that made her feel this.”
She’s also a cultural philistine, finding the local pwe dance “beastly” and wanting to leave early, thereby offending the local performers; “Elizabeth watched the dance with a mixture of amazement, boredom and something approaching horror […] Surely it was not right to be sitting among the black people like this, almost touching them, in the scent of their garlic and their sweat? Why was she not back at the Club with the other white people? Why had he brought her here, among this horde of natives, to watch this hideous and savage spectacle?” She hates the word “Art”, because her mother was a martyr to Art in Paris, and she equates it with poverty and pretentiousness, dirt and foreigners. “Elizabeth had no friends in Paris […] Elizabeth saw only foreigners, and she disliked all foreigners en bloc; or at least all foreign men, with their cheap-looking clothes and their revolting table manners.” As a result she’s a truly bad romantic match for Flory, for whom culture is very important. She would have hated knowing that he likened her to Rosa Dartle, a character from David Copperfield, as she would find all literary allusions “beastly”.
Other notable characters include the drunken Mr Lackersteen, Elizabeth’s uncle, who perpetually makes lecherous approaches to her; his manipulative and shallow wife, whose only intention is to marry her off, so that they no longer have any responsibility for her; Ma Hla May, Flory’s vengeful ex-mistress; Ellis, the vindictive, cruel racist businessman who never misses an opportunity for violence against the locals; Verrall, the dismissive military policeman who is only happy on horseback; Deputy Commissioner Macgregor in charge of the Club; and Ko S’la, Flory’s devoted and long-suffering servant.
Which leaves the central character, Flory; a fascinatingly flawed anti-hero. Never comfortable with the other pukka sahibs, he despises their racism but is weak to call them out on it. When Ellis organises a petition against Veraswami joining the Club, Flory signs it despite acknowledging his disloyalty to his friend because he doesn’t want any confrontation. He treats Ma Hla May with total disrespect, using her only for sex; he gets so drunk he has to be undressed and put to bed by Ko S’la. He makes himself look foolish in comparison with Verrall with his lack of horsemanship. Nevertheless, it’s Flory who dares to swim the Irrawaddy to alert the police in the town that the Club is under siege, possibly saving lives in the process. It’s Flory who rescues Elizabeth when she fears attack from a water buffalo. It’s Flory who appreciates the Burmese culture and respects the local traditions. And it’s Flory who genuinely tries his hardest to court Elizabeth and do his best for her. The reader wholly identifies with Flory, so that you forgive him his flaws and misjudgements. And it’s those flaws and misjudgements that make him a supremely believable character.
Orwell constantly delights us with his immaculate use of language; his narrative style is clear and full of imagery, flashes of humour, surprises and sideswipes. He starts with an ironic but wholly appropriate epigraph from As You Like It – “this desert inaccessible Under the shade of melancholy boughs” – equating the Forest of Arden with the jungles of Burma. He relishes the opportunity for regular descriptions of jungle fauna and flora, evoking all the senses to convey the setting to the reader. Take, for example, these few lines from the scene where Flory escapes into the jungle because he cannot sleep at night. “It was scrub jungle at first, with dense stunted bushes, and the only trees were half-wild mangoes, bearing little turpentiny fruits the size of plums […] there was a poisonous, ivy-like smell of crushed leaves. It was still hot, though the sun was losing his glaze and the slanting light was yellow […] at the edge of the stream there was a huge dead pyinkado tree festooned with spidery orchids, and there were some wild lime bushes with white, waxen flowers. They had a sharp scent like bergamot. Flory had walked fast and the sweat had drenched his shirt and dribbled, stinging, into his eyes. He had sweated himself into a better mood.”
And there’s more. “Here a peepul tree grew, a great buttressed thing six feet thick, woven of innumerable strands of wood, like a wooden cable twisted by a giant. The roots of the tree made a natural cavern, under which the clear greenish water bubbled […] a flock of green pigeons were up there, eating the berries […] the whole tree was alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were shaking it […] then a single green pigeon fluttered down and perched on a lower branch, It did not know that it was being watched. It was a tender thing, smaller than a tame dove, with jade-green back as smooth as velvet, and neck and breast of iridescent colours. Its legs were like the pink wax that dentists use.”
It’s a barrage for the senses. The colours: yellow, white, green, pink; the smells: turpentiny, ivy-like, lime, bergamot; the liquid: the stream, stinging sweat, bubbling water; the fruits, trees and flowers: mangoes, plums, pyinkado, orchids, waxen flowers, peepul, berries. It overflows with lush description, almost too much to take in, overwhelming – just like the jungle would be. Orwell equates the vegetation with the Burmese people. On the first page of the book, he notes that “the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits swelling.” With such regard for the flora and fauna, it comes as a shock to the reader when he describes Flory and Elizabeth on their hunting expeditions; with such an eye and ear for the sights and sounds of nature it’s grotesque when its animals are shot.
Orwell tells us of a time when Flory was trying to impress Elizabeth with tales of shoots he had been on before. “She was quite thrilled when he described the murder of an elephant which he had perpetrated some years earlier.” The word murder, an act he perpetrated, is normally only used of human beings, but here Orwell raises the sense of crime involved – which I’m guessing would have been very forward-looking at the time. During Flory’s erroneous attempt to impress Elizabeth with his horse-riding skills, Orwell affirms that “he knew that, like nearly everyone, he looked his best on horseback”. Association between people and animals is shown positively unless it involves the animal’s death. When Elizabeth wounds and then Flory kills the leopard, “they stroked his beautiful white belly, soft as a hare’s”; but after the pelt has been cured and prepared as a gift for Elizabeth, “the skin had been utterly ruined. It was as stiff as cardboard, with the leather cracked and the fur discoloured and even rubbed off in patches, It also stank abominably. Instead of being cured, it had been converted into a piece of rubbish.”
Elsewhere, Orwell’s style just captures the reader, with originality and imagination, always truthful and insightful. “Next day the town was quieter than a cathedral city on a Monday morning.” “Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work.” “On board ship everyone behaves as though he were rich.” “He was an intelligent man and an able servant of his firm, but he was one of those Englishmen – common, unfortunately – who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.” “There is a humility about genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways.” “Is there anything in the world more graceless, more dishonouring, than to desire a woman whom you will never have?”
There’s frequent, almost random use of the N word, by characters such as Ellis, for whom the Burmese and Indians are nothing but scum beneath his feet, but also by Flory and Orwell as the narrator, imbued with irony and exposing the racism of others. “When a man has a black face” says U Po Kyin, “suspicion is proof”, encapsulating the idea that there’s one law for one and one for the other. This lack of fairness is why Flory doesn’t fit in with his white colleagues; and Orwell’s narrative subtly switches between simply giving an account of Flory’s life and commenting on the morality and decency of those who make a living from the British Empire. “There is a prevalent idea that the men at the “outposts of Empire” are at least able and hardworking. It is a delusion. Outside the scientific services – the Forest Department, the Public Works Department and the like – there is no particular need for a British official in India to do his job competently […] it is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code.”
I was strongly reminded of a theme that Orwell had written about in both Down and Out in Paris and London, and in his essay on Common Lodging Houses – that of profiteering from the misfortunes of others, at their expense. The prisoners’ food is prepared by the wife of a constable, “a stout Burmese woman”, who Orwell describes as “kneeling outside the cage ladling rice and watery dahl into tin pannikins.” He explains: “the Government provided for the prisoners’ food at the rate of two annas and a half per meal per man, out of which the constable’s wife looked to make a profit of one anna”. Just like the meal ticket swindle, for those staying in lodgings, where vouchers worth sixpence were given to the tramps but were redeemed at an eating-house for only fourpence worth of food, it’s a scandal that is still found everywhere today. Elizabeth’s observations about her mother’s poverty-stricken life in Paris were doubtlessly based on Orwell’s own observations whilst living there in the 1920s.
But it’s not all heartache and savagery. Orwell has a lightness of touch that turns to gentle humour with delicate ease. From colonial jokes: “Reminds me of the old colonel who used to sleep without a mosquito net. They asked his servant why and the servant said: “At night, master too drunk to notice mosquitoes; in the morning, mosquitoes too drunk to notice master””; learned jokes: “at least you have brought to us law and order. The unswerving British Justice and the Pax Britannica.” “Pox Britannica, doctor. Pox Britannica is its proper name”; pricking pomposity jokes: “How slow you are! I should have thought even a fool would have seen that I am raising this rebellion merely in order to crush it. I am – what is that expression Mr Macgregor uses? Agent provocateur – Latin, you would not understand”; irony jokes: “the editor will get six months’ imprisonment for this,” he said finally. “He does not mind. He says that the only time when his creditors leave him alone is when he is prison.” And so on. Reading Orwell is always full of unexpected pleasures!
It’s not a perfect book by any means. There are a couple of dubious plot devices that make you think of Thomas Hardy at his worst – like the earthquake that just so happens to coincide with Flory attempting to say something very important to Elizabeth, and a kind of fatalism overshadows the ending that suggests that it was never going to be end happily for our hero. But then, Orwell did state that he wasn’t the kind of writer. From the essay Why I Write: “I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days…is rather that kind of book.”
Orwell ends the book with a lively round-up of what the characters are all up to now. It feels like an extremely modern tactic, such as would end a TV reality/documentary series. “Ethel is now back at home and getting to grips with her new hip” or “Fingers Dolittle was given a ten year prison sentence”; except that here the loose ends of all the major characters are tied up, largely to the satisfaction of the reader – except that, of course, Orwell would never give it a happy ending.
Despite those couple of minor quibbles, I think this is a terrific book. A subtle – or maybe not so subtle, you choose – indictment of the British Empire, from one who worked there and decided that life in Blighty was best. I don’t think this book is anything like as well known as it deserves to be, and I am currently pestering all my friends to give it a read. I think you should too! I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts, so please add them in the comments below. Next in my George Orwell Challenge comes his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter. I have no idea what to expect, so I’m looking forward to reading it over the next month or so and then I’ll put pen to paper and write something about it. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.
Ballet Boyz Encore – Milton Keynes Theatre, 2nd May 2007
Still trading under their name George Piper Dances – for perhaps their last time? – the Balletboyz returned for their Spring Tour with the show Encore. Unfortunately their dancer Oxana Panchenko sustained an injury during rehearsals and they had to change the programme substantially in order to provide a show to their paying audience – so only half of the expected programme could go ahead. So that night we saw Satie Stud, followed by Jjanke, and then Propeller (with Amy Hollingsworth dancing instead of Ms Panchenko) and then Michael and Billy had to bring back Russell Maliphant’s Torsion for the second half – but that was always a thoroughly enjoyable dance, so I don’t suppose we were particularly affected by the change!
The Entertainer – The Old Vic, London, 7th May 2007
We went with our friends Paul and Pauline to see John Osborne’s famous play – the first time I’d seen it – with the huge attraction of seeing Robert Lindsay in the part of Archie Rice. Even fourteen years ago, The Entertainer was something of a period piece; let’s face it, few of us remember the Cheeky Chappie Max Miller nowadays. It’s still a landmark work though, and Mr Lindsay was as brilliant as you’d expect.
Evita – Adelphi Theatre, London, 19th May 2007
This was my third visit to see a production of Evita, but there was such a vibe about how good Elena Roger was in the part that we thought we simply had to see it; and indeed she was. The evening was kind of ruined by a very noisy, drunk and fidgety couple behind us; they didn’t take any hints from the people around them that they basically needed to shut up, and at the end several punters from the nearby seats rounded on them in complaint. As a result of their behaviour, not much of the rest of the production has stayed in my head. Shame when that happens!
Nederlands Dans Theater 2 – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 6th June 2007
Always a delight to see NDT2, the young company of the Nederlands Dans Theater, on one of their regular tours. The programme consisted of Jiri Kylian’s Sleepless, then Lightfoot/Leon’s Sleight of Hand, and finally Alexander Ekman’s Flockwork. I entered a competition by Dance Consortium to win a signed programme – and I won! So a couple of week’s later they sent it to me – as you can see in the pictures. Sadly this was the last time we saw NDT2 until 2016.
Coppelia – Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome, 9th June 2007
I’d always wanted to see a production of Coppelia, and this new production combined the original Petipa choreography with some new moves by Enrico Cecchetti and Peter Wright. Laura Purkiss danced the title role, with Nao Sakuma as Swanilda, Chi Cao as Franz and Michael O’Hare as Dr Coppelius. Highly enjoyable!
Chicago – Milton Keynes Theatre, 13th June 2007
This was only my second time of seeing Chicago (and Mrs Chrisparkle’s first) and I knew it had undergone a huge structural revamp from its original 1970s production – so I wanted to see what the fuss was for myself. I don’t have much recollection of it – but we didn’t know any of the performers, and my guess was that it was about now that I started to realise that (shock horror!) I don’t really like Chicago as a show much – I dislike the way it celebrates the bad and mocks the good. But that’s just me!
Kismet – English National Opera at the London Coliseum, 7th July 2007
I had been looking forward to seeing this show so much – I had seen Kismet only once before as a teenager and I loved it, and it was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourite shows too. The production was beset by problems with key personnel walking out and what we saw was an under-rehearsed, under-presented mess that rightly received shockingly bad reviews. Nevertheless, it was Kismet, and I still loved it! Michael Ball was Hajj the poet and Alfie Boe the Caliph.
The Drowsy Chaperone – Novello Theatre, London, 21st July 2007
More shock bad reviews for a show that had done so well on Broadway and should have set the capital alight – but we really enjoyed The Drowsy Chaperone, a clever, well-presented show with an excellent cast, lots of humour and surprises. Elaine Paige was the Chaperone herself, with Steve Pemberton giving a terrific central performance as the Man in Chair, plus performers of the likes of John Partridge, Nickolas Grace and Summer Strallen.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 28th July 2007
A two-show visit to the gardens of Wadham College – fortunately the weather was perfect – first to see the OSC’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed with all their usual brightness and humour; I particularly remember a lovely moment when Hermia is hauling her suitcases over the rough terrain and Demetrius is simply carrying his toothbrush. Great stuff as always.
Romeo and Juliet – Globe Touring Productions at Wadham College, Oxford, 28th July 2007
In another part of the gardens, for the evening we saw the Globe Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet; and I’m afraid we didn’t like it much. Modernised but in a rather brutal and distancing way, we couldn’t get into it. A good cast nonetheless, including a young Richard Madden as Romeo… I wonder what became of him?!
It’s heart-warming to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – or at least the string section – back to the Royal and Derngate for their first concert here in over 16 months; yes, who would have known that Dvorak’s New World Symphony on 9th February last year would have marked the last of the RPO’s classical treats for us all this time until it’s just about safe enough to put our (fully-masked) heads above the parapet?
In these uncertain times, it’s impractical (and potentially dangerous) for too many musicians to rehearse and perform together, let alone have a full audience in to enjoy their show. So this programme of three pieces of string music, performed by a group of 25 musicians, is the perfect way to try to reintroduce classical performance to our wounded live entertainment industry.
For this socially-distanced performance we couldn’t take our usual seats in row H of the stalls but decided to plonk ourselves right down at the front – in any event, an interesting experiment to gauge the difference of sound (if any). Verdict: it’s not quite as rich a sound that you get further back but you do feel like one of the orchestra! Duncan Riddell, the RPO’s regular Leader, was in charge of letting the strings swing in a 75 minute, no interval, programme of music from all over Europe.
In the absence of a proper programme – presumably a Covid Cutback – it fell to Duncan to introduce the first piece. He started to welcome us, but not using the microphone stand on the middle of the stage. “Can’t hear you – use the mic” said someone from behind. So he did, but reluctantly as he said that now that he has used the mic no one else can – one of those Covid rules – and he had intended someone else to use it later. The performing arts are just full of Covid problems!
Our first piece was Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, written in 1884 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the famous Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (err…who??) Originally composed for piano, Grieg adapted it for strings the following year. I confess it was new to me, but it’s a delightful composition in five movements. For the Rigaudon final section, I was expecting something akin to the Norwegian Dance No 2 – or as I know it, Freddy and his Fiddle from the Song of Norway. But no, it was much more like the hornpipe in Pomp and Circumstance. Beautifully done though, with Duncan turning forwards into full performance mode for his virtuoso bits.
Next up was Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No 10, introduced by Principal Second Violin Andrew Storey; a short, lively piece written in B minor, and all in one movement. Felix Mendelssohn was a bright kid and wrote this String Symphony in the 1820s when he was aged just 14. I thought the guys on the double bass added significantly to this performance, great stuff sirs!
Our last piece – the Headline Act if you like – was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, introduced by (I think) Jonathan Ayling, Co-Principal Cello. It’s a wonderful 1880 composition, in four movements. It starts with a Sonatina style piece in homage to Mozart; then a well-known waltz is the second movement, an Elegie follows, and finally an ending that borrows from some Russian folk tunes. Allegedly Tchaikovsky liked this to be played by as large a group of string musicians as possible, but I’m sure he would have been thrilled to have these 25 players giving it their all as they did. It was absorbing, luscious and exquisite.
As a thank you for coming, they generously gave us an encore – the slow movement from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. Hugely entertaining and a great return, the audience were thrilled to have the orchestra back, and the orchestra seemed to be thrilled to have the audience back. Win, win! It felt safe, comfortable, friendly and intimate – the personal chats from the individual musicians were a really nice touch that more than made up for the lack of programme! Above all, it was a great privilege to witness the return of the Royal Philharmonic to the Royal and Derngate. They are back again next Wednesday with The Music of Bond. We can’t be there, sadly, but that shouldn’t stop you!
As a diversion away from my usual book challenges, my friend Gary asked me if I had ever read Avalanche! by An Rutgers van der Loeff, a children’s book written in 1954, which won the Best Children’s Book of the Year award in the Netherlands that year. Neither the book nor the writer triggered any childhood memories, so Gary sent me a copy to read and ruminate about! And I have to say, as soon as I opened up the package and saw the cover of the book, I did remember it being in my junior school library… but I’m pretty sure I never read it, nor any others by Rutgers van der Loeff.
The blurb on the Penguin edition reads: “Avalanche! is an unusually fine story about a party of boys and girls from the Pestalozzi Children’s Village who went to a high Alpine hut to ski. Their adventures began as avalanche after avalanche came down, slowly at first, then spreading and gaining speed […] It is a grand book, infectious in its feeling of courage in adventure, and is warmly recommended for boys and girls of 11 or 12 and upwards.”
An Rutgers van der Loeff wrote over fifty books between 1941 and 1985, but only nine were translated into English. Her most successful book – and one of her earliest – was De Kinderkaravaan, translated as Children on the Oregon Trail. Avalanche! was first published in the UK in 1957; its original Dutch title, Lawines razen, translates literally as Avalanche’s Rage. It was translated into English by Dora Pound, and illustrated by Alie Evers; and I can find out very little about either of them.
Beware – Spoilers!
The Story. The book is a bittersweet tale of a Swiss boy, Werner, son of the village schoolteacher, who accompanies his father on a rescue mission to lead some boys who have been staying in a mountain hut safely back into the village in the face of oncoming avalanches. These are boys from the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen (which really existed – and indeed, still does.) Werner and his father successfully lead the boys back to safety, although one, little Paolo, a lively Italian boy, is caught out by a small avalanche and trapped, as his inexperience prevents him from escaping it. Werner keeps hold of Paolo’s hand whilst trapped, effectively making both of them at serious risk of death. But another Italian boy, Giuseppe, finds them, and with them both safely rescued, Paolo now looks on Werner as his best friend and life-saver.
The rest of the book traces Werner and Paolo’s friendship through further avalanche incidents, the uncertainty of whether Werner’s parents have survived a massive snowfall on their house, the evacuation from the village, first to Glarmatt then to Brachen, the appearance of a new refugee from an avalanche, Klaus, and the furious digging to find his parents and his sister. When the imminent danger is over, the boys return to their Children’s Village, with the promise that Werner will visit them; he keeps his promise, but there are more surprises in store right at the end.
The Writing Style. Rutgers van der Loeff has a lively and exciting writing style, that can rush ahead with itself when she’s thrilled with her own story-telling, and then pauses more thoughtfully as she delves deeper into her characters, their thoughts and their motives. It may be a children’s story, but she never shies away from the harshness of life, looking tragedy full in the face at times. There’s no room for sentiment at the sight of an avalanche; the snow may be pure and white, but she describes it simply as “white death”. There’s nothing romanticised or sweetened for a child readership. And an avalanche can start so easily – just the noise of a child’s tantrum is all it takes. “Even a shout can do it. The silliest trifle can suddenly loosen the treacherously piled mass of snow and start it roaring down the slope in a cloud of dust, sweeping away everything in its path and crashing down to the valley.” The harshness of life is everywhere in this book. When Paolo suffers a fit of uncontrollable crying, through stress, cold and grief, Hans Peter, the Austrian assistant, firmly slaps him in the face to make him stop – much to the disapproval of Mr Hutamäki, the Finnish teacher and leader of the expedition.
Elsewhere, the narrator tells the truth about the avalanche’s victims plainly and factually. “No dead bodies had been recovered. There were thirteen people injured, two of them seriously. Five were still missing. These were the three Altschwanks and Mr and Mrs Gurtnelli.” When they ask a medical orderly how Klaus’s sister, Marie, is, he replies “It’s not certain yet that she’s dead”, lacking any empathy with the plight of the potentially bereaved. Not known for his sensitivity, Hans Peter doesn’t hold back from delivering the news: “Marie’s alive, but they don’t know if she’ll pull through […] and they’ve found the parents, they were both dead […] and Klaus is very ill. He’s delirious.”
It’s not only death that Rutgers van der Loeff addresses in a forthright and brutal manner. It can be anything. For instance, Werner is apprenticed to Regli, the carpenter, whom she describes as “a good carpenter but he had a slut of a wife and was a bit short-tempered at times.” That word (slut) has always had a double meaning of both being slovenly and sexually promiscuous; we’re not quite sure what she’s getting at here but it’s a tough word to use in the context of a children’s book. There are, however, also some nice lighter comic moments, such as the appearance of the ticket collector on the train, who “moved on, handing out cheery remarks like pills”.
But I think where Rutgers van der Loeff succeeds most is in conveying the double-edged sword of the snowy environment. “And then it happened. In the middle of the night. Just below the top of the Kühelihorn a great mass of snow broke loose with a crash like an explosion.” And in an instant, the village is deluged by snow. “Man can build snow-breaks, he can put up wedge-shaped barriers at threatened points, he can dig trenches and plant trees, but once or twice in a century man is beaten.” Towards the end of the book, Werner takes time to think and reflect on everything that had happened. “It was all so improbable: the terrors of the last few days, the strain of this strange night. None of it seemed to fit the deceptive loveliness of the white peaks against the blue sky and the sunny peace of this upland valley. Here death walked abroad, and the white terror still lurked.”
It’s interesting that Rutgers van der Loeff’s main characters are all male – the few females involved have very peripheral roles and only two – Aunt Augusta and Tishoo – have anything approaching a strongly written character. All the plot is driven by the male characters, primarily the boys; and I would wonder if today this book would have much to appeal to a young female readership. I’ve not read any of her other books, so I don’t know if this is typical of her output.
The villagers. The book starts with an introduction to the small, traditional Swiss village of Urteli, Werner’s home, and we meet some of the locals and tradesmen, and get to know their characteristics and relationships. Werner’s parents, for example; the brave and decisive Hans, who never questions whether going to rescue the boys in the mountain hut is too risky, and the reticent and timid Maria Altschwank, desperate for him not to go, and not to take Werner with him, but knowing that it was pointless to argue. Then there’s the baker, whose first thought when his village is under threat is to look after his own and not have a care about anyone else. He resents providing bread for foreign boys: “they’re foreign brats! I’ve never heard so much queer babble in all my life […] in times of shortage I bake for my own people first”. That’s an attitude which, almost 70 years later, you’d still find today.
Little vignettes criss-cross throughout the book, giving an intimation of happy or dissatisfied lives in their tiny community. We meet the cantankerous Aunt Augusta, who softens when she’s faced with hardship; never ceasing to be independent, and determined to look after Maria once she’s out of medical danger – and later realising the error of her ways. We meet Mr Taureggi, who generously offers his cowshed for the boys to take shelter, and allows his house to become a first aid centre. There’s Old John, the road-mender, wise but quirky, fit beyond his years, devoted to his wife. Mrs Rähmi, with her perpetually crying baby; Finetti, the butcher and sausage-maker, quietly hoping for a little bit of disaster in the hope of seeing his son, stationed locally; Mr and Mrs Gurtnelli, who own the café, and their son Bartel, confident and go-getting. All human life is here; which makes it all the more poignant when the village has been besieged by an abnormal amount of snow. From the perspective of today’s multi-media, Internet-driven age, it’s hard to imagine quite how isolated the village is – and that the mountain hut has absolutely no connection to the outside world. No telephone, no wireless, nothing.
Pestalozzi. Alongside the villagers we also meet the group of boys who have been sheltering in the hut, and whom Altschwank and Werner rescue. Because the Pestalozzi Children’s Village houses children and orphans from all over the continent, Rutgers van der Loeff reveals fascinating culture clashes between the locals – some of whom have rarely been out of their village – and the foreigners, with their different ways of looking at things and behaving. Antti, for example, shows typical Finnish quiet and reserve, whilst Greek Nikolai is gregarious and talkative. When Werner visits the home at the end of the book he meets another Greek child, Sylvia, nicknamed Tishoo because she can’t stop sneezing, and she has all the confidence and assertiveness you would expect from someone who has thrived from their education and upbringing, despite the odds. But none is livelier and more unpredictable than little Paolo.
Werner and Paolo. They say that opposites attract, and there could be no greater disparity between the boys than that between Werner and Paolo. Werner is a serious boy, one who takes on everyone’s problems for himself, respects his elders and is desperate to do the right thing. Paolo, on the other hand, is a flighty type, who can’t conceal his emotions, cries at the slightest provocation, sings at inappropriate moments and is cheeky with adults. Paolo thrives on adventures, both real and imaginary, making up stories to entertain the others, weaving imaginary events in with reality, so that you can’t tell where one ends and one begins. Werner, however, keeps his head below the parapet, is rooted in reality and can be trusted to provide practical solutions. As such, he decides he needs to stay close to Paolo in the rescue mission, because the latter needs help more than any of the others. That’s not to say that Werner feels no sense of emotion; when he walks back with his father, he is overwhelmed by a sense of security and safety that his father’s presence gives him. No wonder he’s struck dumb when he fears his parents have died.
Fate throws Werner and Paolo together when Werner catches the boy’s hand emerging from the avalanche of snow that has trapped him. For seven minutes they lay trapped under the snow until the Italian boy Giuseppe finds them. Paolo is very stressed from the experience and cannot stop crying. Convinced Werner saved his life, Paolo cannot bear to be separated from him. This emotional challenge catches Werner on the raw and he finds it difficult to know how to react.
“He was attracted to the boy, though he did not know why” adds the narrative, in a manner that suggests there might be some kind of homosexual awakening in Werner. I’m still undecided about that; that might be a very 21st century interpretation! It’s true that the two try to spend time together whenever it is possible. At one point, when Werner is recovering from being trapped by the avalanche from the Kühelihorn, dazed and anxious about his parents, “Paolo sat on the floor by the camp bed and began to stroke his hand softly, as one might stroke a cat. Werner said nothing, but he did not pull his hand away.” Another time, “Paolo was the only one who had been lucky enough to drop off to sleep. He lay like a little child with his head against Werner’s shoulder.” Near the end of the book Paolo finally tells Werner how old he is, despite the latter’s asking so many times. He’s 14 and 3 months, so not at all the little child that he might otherwise appear to be. There’s definitely a physical connection between the two, almost always initiated by Paolo, whose demonstrative Mediterranean ways must have been something of a shock to the reserved Germanic Werner. There’s a moment when everyone on board the train tells Werner they will always be his friend, when Werner and Paolo exchange a look. “It was a look of understanding, such as old friends exchange”.
What is a man? That’s the question that Werner asks himself as he comes to the end of this crisis. There’s a very strong scene where a soldier takes Werner to task for his irresponsible actions in separating the boys away from the group and digging for Marie and her parents, in isolation from any more experienced rescue workers. The ironic thing is that they do indeed save Marie – but it could have led to a much more dangerous outcome, so the soldier is both furious with Werner and impressed with him. Confused and tired, Werner’s initial response is to laugh. “Werner began to laugh helplessly […] till he suddenly felt he wanted to lean helplessly on the man’s shoulder and laugh and cry at the same time. And that, of course, was one of the things a boy did not do. Paolo might do it, but Paolo never gave the impression of being a real boy. Or was he? He had stayed to go on with the digging, though he admitted being the most frightened of them all. And didn’t that make him the bravest?” Despite Paolo’s girlish behaviour, despite the fact that he likes strip cartoons that feature “great big strong men”, despite flying into rages, despite (or maybe because of) his fury at the others’ insensitivity when they play a game about what they miss and want right now, Paolo’s resilience, spirit, imagination, fierce loyalty and sheer bravery make him more of a man than all the others. To take just one example, only he has the insight to realise that Klaus and Marie should not be split when rehoused. He shows wisdom that Aunt Augusta lacks. “The child is father to the man,” as Wordsworth put it.
To sum up: “Misfortune shakes you awake, and you’ve all had a jolly good shaking up and are wide awake, but it’s only when you’re awake that life becomes quite real, because you’ve learned what it’s worth.” So says Hans Peter, quoting the Head of the Pestalozzi village, summing up what’s happened to all the boys as a consequence of the events of the book. And that’s very much the awakening that Werner is forced to undergo. A study of an unlikely but deep friendship between two very different boys, caused by their being thrown together as a result of life-threatening danger. I enjoyed this book very much; you could never tell which way it was going to end up. I did find the character of Paolo occasionally irritating, and when he and Werner have arguments, I always found that I was on Werner’s side! But it’s a very positive tale, bringing out the best of people under extreme circumstances. If you’ve read this book too, I’d love to know your thoughts about it. And if you’ve read any other books by An Rutgers van der Loeff that you recommend, please drop me a comment below!
I knew nothing of this film in advance, apart from the fact that it concerned dementia and that Anthony Hopkins has been widely acclaimed as having given one of his best performances ever. If you haven’t seen the film, I think it’s best to stay in blissful ignorance about most of its content so that it’s endless shocks and surprises hit you with all possible force. However, if you have seen it, or are prepared to risk reading more about it in advance – please continue!
There’s nothing Florian Zeller likes more than to deceive his audience. A few years ago we saw two of his plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory, The Truth and The Lie, both ridiculously entertaining plays involving deceit between couples but also leading the audience up several garden paths with hardly any way of knowing which is the right one. And now Florian Zeller has directed his own 2012 play The Father for a cinema audience; so the one thing you can be sure of is that you can be sure of nothing.
What you can reasonably assume is that Anthony has dementia and his daughter is trying to find a way for him to receive the best care treatment possible. Anything beyond that, and you’re straying into the world of the uncertain. But the delightful (if that’s the right word) web of confusion that the film weaves gives us a brilliant, albeit awe-inspiringly tragic, insight into Anthony’s true lived experience. After sleeping on it, I decided on my own interpretation of what was real and what was not. My interpretation is that the first scene is true; Anthony has dismissed his carer Angela in a whirlwind of insults and accusations, and daughter Anne says they have to find a better solution for his care, as she will be moving to Paris to live with her new partner, and will no longer be able to pop around all the time. The last scene is also true; Anthony is now living in a care home, with a kind nurse Catherine to look after him and take him for walks in the park. Everything in between is the mass of confusion in Anthony’s mind as he copes with (or fails to cope with) moving from his flat into the home.
This superb film can trigger a strong emotional response. Whether it is because of pent-up frustrations leading from months of lockdown, or because it reminded me of my own mother’s descent into dementia I’m not sure (I suspect the latter), but once the film had finished I had massive tears in my eyes, and, once out back on the street, I confess I bawled my heart out for about five minutes. So be warned!
The screenplay is perfect – Zeller in collaboration with his frequent partner/translator Christopher Hampton – and contains so many of the tell-tale phrases and obsessions of a dementia patient, such as “so you’re abandoning me” and being convinced that their possessions are being stolen. And the use of music is brilliantly integrated into the film, particularly the frequent repetition of what was presumably one of Anthony’s favourite pieces, Je Croix Entendre Encore from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers – an aria appropriately about memory and recollecting distant moments of love. I also admired the fact that the film told its story fully and compactly, all within the space of 1 hour 35 minutes, continuing to prove that old adage, that brevity is indeed the soul of wit.
Without question, Sir Anthony Hopkins is absolutely at the top of his game with his portrayal of his namesake Anthony, a wonderful mixture of the irascible and the helpless; the kind of character who can sometimes “present well” when trying to make a jolly impression on his new carer, who carries on regardless when a circumstance arises that clearly makes absolutely no sense to him, who can lash out with vicious verbal spite and cruelty, and who can dwindle away into infantile crying – the perfect representation of Shakespeare’s Seventh Age of Man, in fact.
The ever-reliable Olivia Colman is also excellent as the much put-upon but kindly Anne; her eyes conveying all the love in the world for her dear old father even though she knows that caring for him is both beyond her capability and also not what she wants from life. Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Olivia Williams and Mark Gatiss all give strong supporting performances, drifting in and out of his life, and not always as the same character.
A hugely impactful, stunning film. Whilst there is always a kind of gallows humour to be found in dealing with dementia, if you’re expecting a lot of laugh out loud moments, you’ll be disappointed. Instead it offers you a remarkable insight into the tragedy of a jumbled mind; don’t forget the Kleenex.
T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets comes to the Royal and Derngate hotfoot from its opening at the Theatre Royal Bath last week, with star of stage and screen Ralph Fiennes ambitiously presenting these four connected poems as a theatrical event; the perfect antidote to COVID, as it’s a naturally socially-distanced play in front of a socially-distanced audience, and lasting 75 minutes so that it needs no interval. It examines the concept of time, and who wouldn’t wish to go back to the relatively carefree days of 2019 when all we had to worry about was who would win the General Election.
Personally, I’ve always struggled with the Four Quartets. The first poem, Burnt Norton – which isn’t an obscure colour on an artist’s palette but a manor house in Gloucestershire – was published in 1936 as a stand-alone work. Later, Eliot decided to write three more poems, sharing the same five-part structure, to create an extended collection. Each poem starts with a series of statements and counterstatements; then moves into a more lyrical mode; then movement becomes the central theme; then a short lyric precedes a final resolution. Reading them, some of his lines bounce off the page with elegant clarity and inspirational thought. The still point of the turning world, for example, is a phrase that has seamlessly floated into everyday language. Other parts come across as intractable and turgid, and you resent Eliot for being just too darn clever-clever for his boots, with his classical allusions, religious façade, and use of deliberately obfuscatory language. No wonder Toilets is T. S. Eliot spelled backwards.*
Back in the day, Eliot recorded a reading of the Four Quartets, and his recitative skill was utterly abysmal. Every word sounds the same, portentously, and dully given the same emphasis. It’s a very boring experience. The challenge for Mr Fiennes is to make the four poems come to life as a dramatic narrative, that either clarifies their meaning for us, or makes us look at them in a new way, or somehow gives us something more than just sitting down and getting our old Faber edition out.
And Oh My Giddy Aunt does he succeed! From the moment he gives extra, inquisitive weight to the word perhaps in the second line of Burnt Norton, you know this is going to be a real interpretation of Eliot’s words, not mere recitation. Imagine that Mr Fiennes is Mr Eliot, trying to grapple with a complicated concept that is emerging in his brain, speaking out his mind’s words to see if they make any kind of sense; if they do, he runs with it, excitedly giving them meaning and truth; if they don’t, he falters, his words fall away and we all feel as though we’ve reached the same dead end. If the Four Quartets were a game of rugby, and Mr Eliot the fly-half, he winkles an idea out of the scrum and either scores an instant try in a blaze of glory, or gets tackled by half a dozen burly opponents and gets squished. Either way, Mr Fiennes takes us every step of his journey, and it’s irresistible.
There’s no doubt that he is helped by Hildegard Bechtler’s domineering and eerie set – two big revolving drab slabs that evoke the dry concrete of Burnt Norton, Christopher Shutt’s sound designs that bring the crashing waves of the Dry Salvages thundering into the auditorium, but above all Tim Lutkin’s superb lighting that guides us through the sections of the poem, radiating light onto Mr Fiennes’ face when the surface glittered out of heart of light, beaming red to evoke pentecostal fire in the dark time of the year. Dressed in sombre colours and barefoot, Mr Fiennes takes Eliot’s words and eludicates and clarifies them, entertains us with them, surprises us with them, invests them with humanity rather than just dry and dusty theory. He demarcates each individual section of the poems with a change of tone or stance, so you always get a sense of the progress being made. He brings out the very slight moments of gentle humour; Eliot would be aghast at how populist his twittering world could be interpreted in the social media age.
From the audience’s perspective, the show can be as active or as passive as you wish it to be. The beautiful glossy programme starts with a quotation from Eliot’s own The Frontiers of Criticism: “As for the meaning of the poem as a whole, it is not exhausted by any explanation, for the meaning is what the poem means to different sensitive readers.” It’s entirely up to you. You can listen and watch, alert as a rabbit with your whiskers twitching, munching down whatever meaning you feel appropriate from the words and movements; or you can recline back, and let Mr Fiennes’ voice simply wash over you. Because I have always found the Four Quartets very hard to understand, I really wanted to come out of this show feeling better acquainted with it, with greater insights and awareness of what’s going on. And Mr Fiennes gives us that with huge generosity and patience. I can’t imagine how anyone could have converted Eliot’s words into a stage show better.