Thursday, 10 August 2017

'Effi Briest' by Theodor Fontane

Oh, I’ve worked hard to like this book. All the initial signs were good: female protagonist, cold-hearted man, turn of the last century novel, Persephone reprint. But it took me a month to plough through it… and when a novel takes you four weeks to read but is only 320 pages long, well it’s not a sign of enjoyment.

But boy, I tried. I wanted to enjoy this book and it seemed so promising.

Effi Briest, 16, is a young girl from a privileged German family and she is full of romantic, naive ideas. Then this older guy comes along, Innstetten. He is 20 years older than her and was weirdly obsessed with her mother when they were teenagers, except Effi’s mother married someone else. Never having quite got over this rejection, Innstetten marries his sweetheart’s teenage daughter Effi instead. Which struck me as deeply unpleasant on two counts: less the age gap but more the emotional differences between a 16 year old and a 36 year old; and the fact this older guy was so hung up on a woman he married her daughter as second best. Move on, dude. Stop fixating.

It’s clear from day one that this marriage isn’t going to go well, and of course it doesn’t. Innstetten whisks his child bride off to a small village far away from her home and family and installs her in his gloomy home that is supposedly haunted. Once the honeymoon is over, Innstetten goes back to his work and leaves his lonely, frightened teenage wife to take care of the home: something she has no experience of. And of course, it’s not long before she has a baby… although this baby features bizarrely infrequently, which is also odd. It’s not a spoiler to say that lonely Effi ends up having an affair and being hauled over the coals by her cold, unfeeling husband who feels let down by her. Yes, HE feels let down by HER. Huh! (Men make me so angry sometimes, with their entitlement and false superiority. Urgh.)

The absolute problem with Effi Briest, the reason I found it so wholeheartedly unconvincing and un-engaging, is that its male author Theodor Fontane was 75 years old when he wrote it. How on earth is a 75-year-old man supposed to get inside the head of a 16-year-old girl? This explains the clunky dialogue, the lack of emotional insight from Effi’s perspective, the lack of understanding of how a teenager would react or feel when married to a much older man… It’s an utterly preposterous notion for a book. And more male arrogance, that a man that age would deign to think he could possibly understand a 16-year-old girl.

Yet Effi Briest the book is lauded and admired. It has received glowing reviews in its long history (it was initially published in 1896), is apparently still widely taught in German schools and has been turned into several films. Perhaps as a film, without the clunky dialogue, loss in translation and with a script rewritten by someone who is in tune with how a young girl would actually think, the story works better. But I found the book turgid and soulless to say the least.

I’m sorry. I wanted to like it. I want to like everything that Persephone publishes.


As an aside, I also feel sad that Persephone is reprinting a book by a man. I mean, it’s not up to me and they can do what they want. But Persephone is one of those publishing houses that its readers and fans feel like they own a little, and to me the USP of Persephone is that is republishes lovely, forgotten books by WOMEN authors. And men have hardly had a rum deal in the publishing - or anything else - stakes to date, it's not like we need a publishing house specialising in republishing books by forgotten MALE authors. So although I know they’ve had a small handful of men in their 122 strong back catalogue, I automatically start reading the men Persephones with a sense of ‘You’ve got to really work hard to prove yourself to me here, buddy.’ Sorry. Sorry...

Friday, 12 May 2017

'Medea' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Jack Offord

“What mortal man is not guilty?”

An ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, this modern re-telling of Medea is written by Chino Odimba for the Bristol Old Vic in yet another innovative and exciting production from this fabulous theatre.

In the classic Greek play, Medea is abandoned by her husband Jason (of ‘And The Argonauts’ fame) for another woman, and then threatened with exile from her homeland by his father. And to avenge Jason, she calmly kills their children in an effort to take control of her own destiny.

So buckle up, folks, this is going to be a bumpy ride.

In this new version, Odimba weaves Euripides' ancient world with a contemporary story of a single mother Maddy who faces losing her children and home following 11 years of marriage after her husband Jack takes up with another woman.
Performed by an all-female cast and using the tribal power of song while led by director George Mann, this production asserts Medea as a powerful female character who fought against the injustice of the patriarchy at all costs.
The strength of an all-female cast is undeniable; there is something very powerful about seeing a group of women working together for the same purpose. And the six cast members deftly flit between the contemporary and classic story, largely playing their character’s counterpart in each version.

Akiya Henry as Medea/Maddy is truly stunning, and demonstrates her mind-blowing versatility as an actor, while Jessica Temple who plays Medea/Maddy’s confidant Naomi is equally impressive - and her singing talent really makes you sit up and listen. Akiya has excellent comic timing - a skill you wouldn’t necessarily think was required in a play this intense and harrowing. But while singing her plea to Jason's father, she is genuinely hilarious in her tone of voice and knowing facial expressions to the audience. Bravo, Akiya, bravo.

While the story of Medea - the ultimate scorned woman - is millennia old, the story of a woman mistreated by a selfish man who wields all the power is as relevant now as it was in 431 BC. Which is utterly depressing. When the original Medea is overlooked by Jason for a newer model, she no longer has any claim to live in even the same land as him because he has all the power. When contemporary Maddy is abandoned by her husband Jack (who stops paying the mortgage on the house which is only in his name), she is evicted and made homeless with her children. These stories are as relevant today as ever they were.

 
Photos: Jack Offord
The character of Jack (Stephanie Levi-John) is very interesting. In two separate speeches he illustrates the hatred, disgust and disregard that certain men show for women, once they no longer serve a purpose. Jack’s repulsion of Maddy, and apparently women in general, is grotesque and fascinating. He is a vocal version of the hate spewed at women every day by faceless cowards online. Jack thinks women are the cause of all the misery and suffering in the world, with their only purpose being to breed children.  

The lack of loyalty that the men show towards the women in their lives is staggering, considering the loyalty Medea and Maddy showed Jason and Jack. And the disregard that Jason and Jack show for the work of motherhood and homemaking is extremely unpleasant; they see Medea and Maddy as having enjoyed easy lives while their husbands have toiled and sweated. Compare this to the loyalty and compassion shown by the women in this play towards other women and it’s not hard to join up the dots and see what’s going on here.

But it is the unity of women that shines through. The support networks, the sisterhood, the strength to hold each other up while men try to knock us down. On the cusp of a general election, at a time when the government is doing its best to marginalise women and push us into a domesticated box, while the cuts continue to disproportionately ravage services that prioritise women who have been mistreated by men… Jesus! We need a play like Medea more than ever.

The privilege of men makes them blind to their monstrous behaviour. And so even though Medea herself behaves, err, somewhat irrationally, by the close of the play when we see her standing firm, halfway up a white staircase that extends and unfolds all the way into the skies of the Bristol Old Vic’s stage, it is clear which is the dominant gender.

Please go to see it.


For more information and to buy tickets, please click here.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

La Strada - at Bristol Old Vic

Photo - Robert Day 


"If you spend long enough on the road, you forget what home is", or so says Zampanò in this new production of La Strada.

***

I mean, really, what’s not to like? Directed by Sally Cookson? Check. New musical score by Benji Bower? Check. Starring Audrey Brisson? Check. Yep, everything is in place to make Bristol Old Vic’s latest production La Strada a hit.

Based on the 1954 Federico Fellini film of the same name, La Strada (aka The Road) is set in Italy in the years after World War Two and follows a young woman called Gelsomina (Brisson) whose mother sells her to a cruel and intimidating strongman street performer named Zampanò (Stuart Goodwin). Given that Zampanò had previously taken Gelsomina’s sister Rosa on the road and that Rosa had perished within a year, her mother was utterly desperate or she would not have allowed her to go.

Zampanò takes Gelsomina on the eponymous road and by brute force teaches her to work in the carnivals, but his cruelty takes its toll on her spirit. When they hole up in a circus and Gelsomina befriends another street performer, the kindly but mischievous Fool (Bart Soroczynski), the tale unwinds.

It is hard to imagine anyone more perfectly cast as the innocent Gelsomina than Brisson. In a beautiful homage to the emotional yet slapstick performances of both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Brisson manages to convey the willing enthusiasm and big heart of Gelsomina, combined with a feisty determination to keep true her promise to her mother and to ultimately do the right thing. In many ways, Gelsomina is Chaplin's Little Tramp in female form. Despite being on stage for virtually every scene, Gelsomina has remarkably few lines compared to the overbearing Zampanò, yet she steals every moment with the expressions she conveys via her facial gestures and body language.

In addition, Bower’s musical score performed by the cast of actor musicians perfectly supports the narrative without being intrusive, and without realising it the audience are tapping their toes in the stalls… and still humming a few bars as they leave the theatre.

Sally Cookson as a director is a good choice for this production of La Strada. Via Peter Pan, Jane Eyre and Sleeping Beauty, she has already shown us her flair for imaginative productions with strong female leads - something theatre generally needs a hell of a lot more of. And in her hands, the theatrical version of La Strada is a tour de force.

Photo - Robert Day
La Strada is on at Bristol Old Vic until 22 April 2017. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.




Thursday, 30 March 2017

Long Live The Great Pottery Throwdown



Farewell to The Great Pottery Throwdown for another series. While millions wax lyrical about The Great British Bake Off and are angsting about its move to Channel 4, I’m much more excited about its younger BBC2 cousin The Great Pottery Throwdown.

Despite having no particular interest in pottery and absolutely no desire to get my hands dirty myself, I bloody love this show. Presented by the joyful Sara Cox, and judged by pottery giants (or so I’ve learned) Kate Malone and Keith Brymer-Jones, The Great Pottery Throwdown is the televisual equivalent of putting on your comfiest PJs and curling up to spend an hour reading a Persephone book under a fluffy blanket.

Each week, the contestants are tasked with one mammoth make (anything from an entire dinner service to a, err, toilet) that takes days, as well as two surprise tasks: a spot-test (where they are judged on skills including sponge decorating or sculpting the torso of a finely toned man), and an against-the-clock quick-fire task with a special judge (Johnny Vegas turned up one week with his one-minute teapots, which was a delight).

You know the formula, you’ve seen it in a load of similar shows (sewing, painting, baking, cooking…). And it’s easy to see why it’s so popular - with a bubbly host, passionate judges, and contestants we come to care about, it’s a gentle escape from the tedium of everyday life. We watch people who are, to all intents and purposes, just like us, but doing impressive things that we dream we might be able to do with a bit of effort (there is nothing stopping any of us from throwing a pot, if only we’d get off our sofas and attend a pottery class) but we can relax safe in the knowledge we know it’s unlikely to happen.

But the reason I watch The Great Pottery Showdown over any of its sibling shows (full disclaimer - I find Bake Off extremely dull: I know I’m in the minority but I find watching cakes bake as dull as watching paint dry) is the personalities. I love Sara Cox. I love her Radio 2 ‘80s show, I love it when she fills in for Chris Evans on the breakfast show… she’s fab. So I watched the first series of The Great Pottery Showdown simply because of Sara. And I watched it all in one go one day when I was off work ill - it was perfect, and compelling, and I was devastated when it ended. I genuinely felt like I was left with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode, despite the essentially gentle nature of the show.

It’s a drama in itself. Will the pots crack in the kiln? Will Keith cry? How many times will Ryan mention his granny? Will Coit ever get anything into the drying room on time? Who will go at the end of the episode? The tension!

And I disagreed with the judges. (I’m assuming you’ve seen the final, if not, look away as I’m mentioning the winner in a moment). While I had Ryan pegged as the winner from the first episode, I also had Clover and Richard down to leave in early weeks. I had Nam down as a finalist (and I think he would have been, if he hadn’t ballsed up his Russian dolls), and Freya deserved to go through as well. But what do I know? I’m a humble viewer. Not a master potter like Kate and Keith.

So long live The Great Pottery Throwdown. Please return for a second, third, fourth and more series. Please put Sara Cox in front of our TV cameras all the time - the world needs more joy and she delivers it in spades. And I’m glad that the right potter won last week.