Much ado in July & August

The advent of the August Bank Holiday in the UK heralds many things. Holiday-makers return home sporting skin ranging from gently flushed to glowing bronze to fire-engine red. School starts again albeit in fits and starts depending on where you are and how much you pay. And the British Summer ends, folding its wings away to let September take flight.

I missed my July out and about update, overtaken as I was by my birthday-ing in Geneva at the start of August. As sharing July’s gadding about is well overdue, this post will bring you a double dose.

Let’s start with a Gidday First.

I had my first open air theatre experience at Morden Hall Park seeing a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. A beautiful summer day had segued into a lovely evening as we shared a picnic supper, made our way through a bottle of wine and watched a full male cast give their multiple roles and catchy ditties a hefty dose of ribald fun. It was full of hilarious moments and I felt that this was how Shakespeare was meant to be performed, to an appreciative audience in the open air without all the smoke and mirrors of modern theatre. I absolutely loved it.

Staying with the Bard, I also saw a live screening of Kenneth Branagh’s staging of Romeo and Juliet starring Lily James (you may remember her as Lady Rose from Downton Abbey). It was my first experience of the stage version versus reading the play/story or seeing it on film – interestingly Branagh’s interpretation had a black and white cinematic quality (nothing to do with being a live screening!) lending the story a 1950s feel. Lily James was an extraordinary Juliet and simply outshone the rest of the cast but for all that, I was reminded why the play, with all of its melodrama and outpourings of eternal love, was never my favourite.

Speaking of favourites, the return of the fabulous Paco Pena to Sadlers Wells with Patrias was quite different from the high energy flamenco shows I’d seen before. His tribute to the impact of the Civil War in Spain was reflective and haunting and I left the theatre incredibly moved by the beautiful music and poignant story-telling.

I returned to Sadlers Wells a few weeks later to see Vamos Cuba!  I was looking forward to being energised by sexy Cuban rhythms but instead of a slick high-octane show, it was bland and limp and actually felt a bit under-rehearsed. I was bored through most of it and struggled to stay engaged – unusual for me. It was very disappointing.

I had a musical foray of a completely different kind with the Sacconi Quartet, a chamber music group who manage to pierce my heart and capture my imagination every time they play. They were as brilliant as always, playing with their usual passion and intensity. However, they had a male soloist join them after intermission and I felt like that got in the way of the music. I experienced the same reaction earlier this year with another quartet I like so I suspect it’s more to do with my preference for ‘unaccompanied’ chamber music rather than the quality of the singing.

I do like a great female protagonist so I took myself off to see the movie Maggie’s Plan starring two fabulous women – newcomer Greta Gerwig and Oscar winner Julianne Moore – and the rather fabulous-looking Ethan Hawke (forgive my objectification peeps but really…*sigh*). Gerwig plays Maggie, the woman with the plan, as adorably gauche while some of the film’s most hilarious moments come from Moore’s world-weary Georgette. The movie wasn’t on wide (or long) release but it’s an absolute delight so if you get the chance, I’d recommend you see it.

I was also thrilled to snap up a Bank Holiday deal to see Sheridan Smith in the musical Funny Girl (see my reaction  here). It was extraordinary and wonderful and all of those great things.

And last but certainly not least, I discovered Divergent. After a run of average-to-good reads over last few months, I was overdue to be blown away and I fairly inhaled Veronica Roth‘s dystopian tale of rebellion and belonging. It follows a similar plot to The Hunger Games but I liked Divergent more, particularly the use of the factions – Amity, Abnegation, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite – and the underlying thread that a little bit of each is the key to humanity. I’ve heard mixed reports about the movie but I’m much more interested in seeing if the second book, Insurgent, is as unputdownable as the first.

So that was July and August and as we leave the heady ‘hot’ days of British summertime behind, September beckons with promises of coloured leaves, cooler mornings and the hope of an Indian Summer. I’ve got a few interesting things booked but like always I’ll be working hard to make the most of whatever opportunities appear…and keeping my fingers crossed for a deal or two.

Have yourselves a fabulous September.

Boudicca

Real-life female protagonist Boudicca overlooks the River Thames from her chariot (in the shadow of the tower of Big Ben).

The test of time

There’s a lot of change being debated in the UK at the moment. The election for next Mayor of London – aka “on ya bike, Boris” – seems to be a bit of a two horse race and the EU referendum is looming in a matter of weeks. Everyone has something to say about it, including those from many a foreign shore, and it’s dividing both nations and political parties.

At the same time some of the world’s great voices – Alan Rickman, Sir Terry Wogan (the voice of Eurovision for many years), David Bowie, Jon English, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Prince and Phil Sayer (we hear his dulcet tones telling us to “Mind the Gap”on London’s Underground network) – have died in the first few months of 2016, leaving a swathe of public tribute in their wake.

In the midst of all of this comes the Shakespeare400 celebration.

On the 23rd April in 1616 – that’s 400 years ago – William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil. He was 52 years old, a husband and a father of two daughters as well as a playwright and poet. He was a contemporary of other literary greats like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe and left a legacy of 38 plays – comedies, histories and tragedies – and hundreds of lines of verse in his sonnets and long-form poems. In short, he was a man of many, many words and Shakespeare400 was designed to celebrate his contribution.

I attended a live screening of Shakespeare Live! from the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon last night. Shakespeare is viewed by many as hard going with its tangled prose and its forsooths and makeths, but this show was fantastic. It was a mix of some of his most famous scenes – A Midsummer Night’s Dream was brought to life with much hilarity by Judi Dench as Titania and Al Murray as Puck-turned-donkey – as well as other performances that have been inspired by his works. Romeo and Juliet has spawned the likes of the musical West Side Story as well as a ballet score by Prokofiev and choreography by Kenneth MacMillan. Another Broadway musical, Kiss Me Kate, is a re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew, whilst the bloody tragedy of Macbeth has been transformed in cultures as disparate as Japan and South Africa. And we were treated to all of these and more over the two and half hours.

Hamlet is enjoying quite a resurgence in the UK with actors such as David Tennant (2008), Jude Law (2009) and Rory Kinnear (2010) as well as Maxine Peake (2014) and Benedict Cumberbatch (2015) taking on some of literature’s most famous phrases. One of the highlights of last night’s show was this year’s Hamlet, Paapa Essiedu, receiving a note on his “To be or not to be” from Australian comedian and composer, Tim Minchin…and a slew of other British acting royalty. I don’t seem to be able to embed the video code for you to watch but it is on youtube here for you to enjoy.

Anyway, the point of all of this is that William Shakespeare stopped wielding his pen four centuries ago yet his work remains prolific, whether as inspiration for other artistic expression – dance, opera, musical theatre, hip hop and the big screen (think of Baz Luhrmann’s brave and modern take on Romeo and Juliet in 1996) – or in its original form, on the stage.

Shakespeare’s work was written for everyone, from monarchs to the man on the street, and last night I left the cinema thinking how relevant and powerful his stories remain some 400 years on. Whilst current propaganda and politics may change the course of history, I wonder who in today’s pantheon of cultural expression will be as celebrated and accessible 400 years from now as this talented wordsmith from Warwickshire.

william shakespeare

Memorial plaque on the site of the original Globe Theatre in Southwark, London