Big Trouble on Little Campus

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The Devil and Webster   By Jean Hanff Korelitz    Faber £12.99

What happens when college president Naomi Roth, an erstwhile radical whose mantra has always been ‘speak truth to power’, finds herself the subject of a student protest? This is the conflict, both public and personal, at the heart of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s latest novel. At an elite liberal arts college in New England, a ‘halcyon, evolved, rarified, creative, and intellectual college campus, where you are free to learn and nap and make things and have sex and get high and change your fucking gender even’, a disruptive and dangerous force erupts. Thus we are drawn towards a classic motif of the campus novel: paradise disrupted.

https://literaryreview.co.uk/current-issue/456

 

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Dear Oscar Wilde,

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‘Salomé’ at Swan Theatre. Photo: Isaac James

I saw another incarnation of Salomé last night. It was extraordinary – exquisite I might go so far as to say. I think you would have liked it. No, no – I know that you would have fallen in love with – if not the production – then with Salomé herself. Yes, certainly you would have done that! 
 
As I sat there, in the circle, looking down from a height, I am sure I made out your considerable form. You were on the front row. I was as transfixed on you as you were on the performance. You had one leg crossed over the other, a wan smile fixed across your moon face. Rings of smoke rose up to me from your serenely poised cigarette. The ushers would have spoken to you, I am sure, about 21st century laws on smoking, but you would have wafted them away. “Talk to me not of bans and banishment,” you might have said, “for I know of both.” And they would have looked at you, quite at a loss. “Why, I am Oscar Wilde,” you would have uttered in simple explanation, “come to see my play. Didn’t you know?” 
 
You must think them foolish, these letters of mine. I do not blame you for not answering them. I imagine that either you cannot respond, or simply that you choose not to. Who am I to you, after all? Just another critic, and one you’ve never met at that, and you were abused by enough of those in your life time. But in case that phantom form I spied was not you at all but, more likely, a conjuring of my diseased imagination, let me describe what was offered in your name. 
 
An ambiguous, industrial setting – bleak grey, apocalyptic almost. And in this god-forsaken space four twisted rigs rise up, a gibbous silvery moon suspended behind, and in their shadows the revelry of the damned. Who are these people, these stupid and superstitious people? From what swamp and century, garbed as they are in fancy-dress from across the ages, have they been drained? 
 
Iokanaan – ah now, there is a man! Such contours, such finely chiselled masculinity! Quite topless, yes, and smeared in the animal filth of captivity, dropped into the depths of some stinking cistern so that his prophesies, so much like the rantings of a madman, and yet so like the divinations of a wise one, may go unheard by those who fear them.  
Read full letter in Exeunt Magazine here

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Don’t mention the f-word – oh fuck it!

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JOE:    You do not Frack, Hal, you explore for shale gas. You extract shale gas. You provide shale gas. You use unconventional extraction techniques. You employ enhanced methodology. You use stimulation techniques. You mine non-conventional hydro-carbons. But you do not frack.

HAL:   Why not?

JOE:    It’s just a terrible word to be associated with. Partly because it’s got that hard aggressive ‘k’ sound in it. As in suck. Muck. Kick. Dick. Stick. Knock. Cock. Nasty in-yer-face k-words. But mainly because it sounds like fuck. And we do not want to sound like fuck, do we?

Thus do we find ourselves in the world of Alistair Beaton’s Fracked! or, Please Don’t Mention the F-Word, a satirical play in which Hal (Michael Simkins), company director and traditional oil man, seeks to frack his way across England’s green and pleasant land.

Joe is, as you might have gathered, a master of spin, a Machiavellian PR man who is more than passingly reminiscent of The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker. Despite their shared belief in the transformative power of language, at least in the public sphere, theirs is a private world crammed with compulsive obscenity. If “Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off” was Tucker’s most enduring phrase, Joe makes up in quantity what he lacks in syntactical elasticity: “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! Chased by a fucking bull, can you believe it? Fucking outrageous. The fucking thing should be shot. The fucking farmer too. Not to mention Elizabeth fucking Blackwood, and her fucking husband, who set me up, I am sure they set me up.”

Read full review at Exeunt Magazine here

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The shadows of madness lurk about me…

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I live alone and I write in solitude. I write more than is good for the soul of a man. Hours of crepuscular isolation, in a darkened cottage, in a forgotten crevice of Worcestershire. I sometimes fear the shadows of madness lurk about me.

Powick is an apt place for such fears. Locals of a certain age take Powick as a byword for the controversial lunatic asylum that was once based here. It was controversial for the horrific conditions it inflicted on its patients, but also for the ‘mind loosening therapy’ it did with LSD in the 1950s, except that the therapy went out the window and minds were loosened for good. Powick broke many minds over many decades.

I fear that one day those shadows may close around me so completely that I will pass through into madness without even being aware of it. As Dr. Farquhar (Michael Sherwin) says in Mindgame, “Thinking there is nothing wrong with you is part of what’s wrong with you!” This is the perfect, pleasing paradox of insanity. Joseph Heller captures it eponymously in Catch 22: “Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.”

Read full review here.

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Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC

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Iqbal Khan’s swiftly moving, ever-bustling production of Antony and Cleopatra superabounds with sex, death and exoticism. From the outset we are invited into a world that is Other: a hypnotic tribal dance dissolves suddenly to reveal a sexually-charged, post-romp exchange between two radically divergent figures. This spectacular clash of cultural and physical difference sustains our wonder for a good while: a tall, black, slender Cleopatra prowls the stage like a feline on heat, while the pink-skinned, ginger-haired Antony is more porcine than cat. Cleopatra is royalty born and bred, bidding and dispatching her many minions with cruel capriciousness, while Antony, clearly of common stock, comes soaked in the sweat of battlefield and barracks. While opposites, as the adage goes, attract, this takes us to a whole new level.

Read full review here

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Not Dead Enough, Bristol Hippodrome

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The murder mystery play lends itself to a certain theatricality, indeed, may be considered an essential part of its DNA. Think Poirot with his silly Belgian accent and his equally silly hirstute upper lip, or Holmes with deerstalker, pipe and ornate turn of phrase – both singular eccentrics surrounded by outsized characters, with their lisps and their limps and their monobrows and their monocles, any one of whom may have ‘dunnit’, for revenge, with the meatcleaver, in the drawing room. Not Dead Enough unfortunately lacks many of the long established theatrical elements required to engage.

Apart from the deranged killer, whose favoured modus operandi takes on a sadomasochistic quality, the leaden characters and their clunking dialogue were as dull as the set: the clinical grey of a mortuary, and the granite grey of a police headquarters, do not an alluring backdrop make.

If I was on the edge of my seat at all it was to hear what was being said: I strained to hear much of the dialogue until the amplification system kicked in, and even then I struggled. Shane Ritchie is competent as the no frills detective with a troubled past (sound a little too familiar?) but he shares little chemistry with pathologist partner Cleo Morey (Laura Whitmore), a beautiful Irish girl who skitters carelessly across the stage in her unlikely portrayal of one who must deal daily with death. DC Roy Grace sleuths alongside Branson (Michael Quartey) who, perhaps mindful of the sound issues, bellows his lines across the auditorium as if he’s in a builder’s yard.

Based on the hugely successful novels of Peter James, this gritty procedural will transfer well to the television format. where the noir-ish elements can be explored and there is room to dig inside the characters’ skin. On the stage, however, it simply feels like a genre misapplied. Not Dead Enough was simply Not Alive Enough for my money.

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A Telegram from the Unconscious: Martin Amis on Creativity and Style

Martin Amis (Berlin 2015)

Martin Amis (Berlin 2015)

Was it simple coincidence, or had Martin Amis heard that I was in town and in need of some high-semantic stimulation? Either way it was with surprise that I discovered he would be launching the German translation of The Zone of Interest, a novel which somehow blends love, sex, satire and the holocaust in one compulsively readable whole, at the Berlin Literary Festival a night before I was due to leave the city. My friend and I secured tickets at the last moment with ease. His German readership, it seems, are a diminutive crowd (my Berliner acquaintance was an Amis virgin), and in fact for commercial reasons his usual German publisher had declined to come aboard with the book at all.  (Read here) 

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