Generally Speaking

A grain or two of truth

W.S.Gilbert put a lot of himself into Jack Point, the tragic jester in The Yeomen of the Guard – the nearest thing to serious opera he and Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote in their long partnership.

Yeomen of the Guard 2004 me as Jack Point

I was lucky enough to play Jack Point myself, one of a number of roles I had over the years with Alton Operatic & Dramatic Society our small town’s own company – AODS for short.

Naturally, people see Gilbert first and foremost as a jester – his wit and brilliance with rhyme and meter have rarely if ever been equalled.

But I remember being aware as I played Jack Point that there was another side to Gilbert, that he also wanted to say serious things about human nature, about society, about scandals in high places. Which is exactly what he is saying as he describes the power of the jester’s role in “I’ve jibe and joke…” the great song that I – a recently retired doctor in the town, no less – had the joy of singing:

Winnow all my folly, folly, folly and you’ll find
a grain or two of truth among the chaff

A grain or two of truth. Gilbert’s librettos were full of truths, surely one of the reasons why so many amateur companies did little but ‘G&S’ – and in some cases nothing but G&S – for generations.

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Kew Gardens and the Dale Chihuly glass sculpture installation

Dale Chihuly’s blown glass sculptures were a memorable feature of our visit to Seattle three years ago, and when we saw that Kew Gardens has a major exhibition of his work running this summer we decided to visit.
Our arrival time, after an hour’s drive, worked perfectly so that we were in position just as Sunday parking on the road outside became legal at 10am.

The whole visit to this superb garden was an absolute delight. So I thought I’d share some of the pictures in the hope of encouraging others to go as well.

‘2071’ by Duncan Macmillan and Professor Chris Rapley, CBE

This is an extraordinary production. And, the Royal Court run being completely sold out, we were lucky to see it yesterday.

It is extraordinary because it is not presented by any sort of actor but by a top international scientist, and one who obviously believes that doing this – presenting climate science as clearly as he can to two London theatre audiences a day – is the most important thing he has to do at the moment. And as we read from the free handout that one of his many professional roles is Chairman of the Science Policy Advisory Committee of the European Space Agency, we could well imagine, on what was the day of maximum tension after their triumphant comet landing, Professor Rapley would rather have been much closer to the action .

But onto the stage he walked, without the slightest showmanship, sat down, and talked quietly for 70 minutes about the situation that faces the world.

Behind him, and perfectly synchronised with his words, were steadily-evolving images, graphs and diagrams on a huge, kaleidoscopic back-drop.

2071 - Chris Rapley

The fact that these graphics were almost entirely monochrome made the occasional use of red extremely striking. The sound track was equally subtle; gently supporting the narrative and punctuating it with hanging silences while he took a sip from his water glass. In all it was a deceptively sophisticated telling of a story which is, of course, far too dramatic to require theatricality. To my mind it was perfectly judged, and absolutely convincing.

Professor Rapley had been Director of the British Antarctic Survey and was particularly authoritative about the collapse of Antarctic Ice Shelves; now happening far more rapidly than ever expected. And as past Director of the Science Museum and Chairman of University College London’s Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science he presented a masterly overview of all aspects of his subject. He described this year’s report from the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, with its unequivocal call for action, as the most audited document in history. One easily-understood implication of this report being that three quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if humanity is to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences of a more than 2°C rise in global temperature over pre-industrial levels. We have already had 0.8°C of that.

There were lots of young people in the audience, as well as older folks like us. But deniers were not at all in evidence. One day such people must realise that they have grandchildren too (Professor Rapley’s oldest will be the age he is now in 2071 – hence the title). Unfortunately, as things stand at the moment, that is going to be too late.

Inca stonework visited

Ever since I first heard about the Incas at high school in the States I have wanted to see the famous mortar-less stonework in Peru and find out how it was done.  One of our guides in Peru last month told me the answer. Big smile, palms up and wide apart, he revealed it to me at last – “It’s a mystery“.

The corridor leading to the temple of the Sun at the top of the citadel at Olantaytambo

Some mystery. No metals harder than copper (or at least bronze); no wheel; no arch; no writing; no horses, no cattle – just camelids. Primitive ceramics, primitive art. Yet here is masonry without any explanation that I find remotely plausible. Huge stones fitted together. Perfectly, not just at the surface, but in three dimensions. Some of a  softish stone, but also some of granite. People kept muttering about “trial and error” but they can’t ever have tried leveling the legs of a chair that way.

Inca masonry in a street in Cusco

Of course we saw the big, famous places, and as it happens all of my photos of those, apart from the ones I took on my phone, are lost on a faulty memory card. But luckily I filled the doomed card and switched to the one from my wife’s camera for the last few days. And I want to share some pictures taken after that, while we were still in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. I think they illustrate something about this new world masonry which is radically different from the classical architecture with which we are familiar. I mean the way the South American stonework ‘grows’, almost organically, out of the natural bedrock.

I hope this little gallery of pictures will illustrate what I mean:

Quite apart from the beauty of the wonderfully interlocking stonework, evolved to withstand earthquakes, the intimate way it is fitted to the underlying rock seems as different as it could possibly be from the formally planned foundations of, say, a Greek temple.


The Tempest – growth towards freedom

Three weeks tonight we open Shakespeare’s Tempest at the Alton Maltings Centre.

Me (Prospero) ‘giving’ Miranda to Ferdinand

We took some publicity pics at yesterday’s rehearsal – some for the local paper, and some for our website.

What an incredible privilege to be getting to know and performing these fabulous words. Five of us drove up to Shakespeare’s Globe on Sunday evening, parked free in the street nearby and stood right in front of the stage as ‘groundlings’ for what is still that amazing £5.00. Which must be one of the best entertainment deals anywhere in the world. We were transfixed by the superb performance, and me especially by Roger Allam‘s quite wonderful Prospero. We came back bursting with enthusiasm and inspiration for our own, so much humbler, but nonetheless valid in its own way, effort.

I am of course immersed in the play. I go through my entire part every day. I am getting quicker because I don’t have to check for accuracy so often now, but it still took me an hour and ten minutes this morning. I walk round and round the lawn in what has been, at long last, glorious sunshine. And I never tire of the beautiful words with their endlessly emerging layers of meaning.

One thing that is fascinating me is the way the language Propero uses in addressing his two servants evolves during the play; his symbolically contrasting, light and dark ‘slaves’, Ariel and Caliban. It seems to me that this aspect, which I haven’t found much commented on, is really important. He begins by treating both of them with a chilling autocracy, and sometimes with real cruelty. “Thou liest, malignant thing” he says to an abject Ariel in Act 1 Scene 2. “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself upon thy wicked dam” to Caliban in the same scene.

His language to Ariel gradually softens as she (famously gender-neutral, but played by the wonderful Barbara Rayner in our production) delivers everything he asks:
Later in the long A1 S2 “Spirit, fine spirit, I’ll set thee free for this
Then in A4 When Ariel says: “Do you love me, master? No?” He replies: “Dearly, my delicate Ariel
And then at the final parting, at the very end of A5, the last words of the play apart from the Epilogue: “My Ariel, chick […] then to the elements be free, and fare thou well“.  I hope we can make this the touching moment it deserves to be.

Prospero intervenes between Caliban and Miranda, Ariel watching

What was much less obvious, at least to me, but which they brought out beautifully at The Globe on Sunday, was the final softening to Caliban. Only a page before the parting with Ariel, comes this parting with Caliban. And for the first time Prospero addresses him, not as ‘slave’, but like this:
Go, sirrah, to my cell; take with you your companions; as you look to have my pardon, trim it handsomely.
He is now a person, a ‘sirrah’. Caliban responds with a contrite determination to be wise henceforth, and all Prospero says in parting is: “Go to; away!“. It could be peremptory, unforgiving. But at the Globe, Roger Allam said this very slowly, and momentarily touched Caliban. That made all the difference, and that is how I am doing it now.

So we have this theme of growth towards freedom, culminating, of course, as its third element, in the famous Epilogue, in which Shakespeare seems to be saying his own farewell to the theatre. Freeing himself of that burden, as burden it must have been. Building on the wonderful ‘cloud capped towers’ speech A4 which makes my spine tingle to think about, let alone to actually perform. And again, very near the end, “...thence I will retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave”.

That’s enough of me thorts for another few days. But even if nobody ever reads this, I wanted to write this down.

Buying an LP as a birthday present in the 1960s

BBC Radio 3 Breakfast came on at 6.25 as usual this morning, my wife’s birthday, in the middle of a movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. An LP of which, strangely enough, was one of my first birthday presents to her – in what must have been about 1962, years before we were married.

I remember going then to choose it in the record department of Russell Acott’s in Oxford High Street. Waiting for one of the listening booths to be free. Then taking the records they had looked out for me and listening to them one at a time, through big, black headphones. Did I put them on the turntable myself? That seems incredible now, remembering how easily LPs were damaged. I vaguely remember being asked to be careful with them, but nothing more formal than that. There must have been a big profit margin for the shop.

I knew the piece I wanted for her, the violin was my instrument and I knew she liked the Mendelssohn, but there were half a dozen different versions available. So I took my time agonising backwards and forwards before making my precious purchase. Eventually I bore the David Oistrakh version away lovingly. That crisp and precise last movement settled it.  We still have it somewhere (…found it – see pic…). Can’t bear to let it go.

Birthday LP

She used to play it on her Bush record player. Which was itself probably her present from her parents that year.

Where would you start making a list of the ways this is different from today? And ways in which this is different from the popular image of student life in the 60’s?

Birthday LP-002

The surprising payoff while learning a big part for a play

I am nine weeks out from playing the part of Prospero in Alton Fringe Theatre‘s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. And I want to write about the surprising fact that learning a part like this is far from being the miserable slog that most people expect it to be. And, even more surprising, that it is possible for someone like me, who was particularly bad at memorizing almost anything at school, to do it at all !

Years ago Edward de Bono, he who coined the expression lateral thinking, pointed out that surprise is a sure sign that you have spotted something which conflicts with your existing picture of how the world is. And – assuming your observation is correct, as I have no doubt in this case it is – it must mean there is something in your understanding of the world that you need to change. So here we go:

Of course these are beautiful words, and supremely worth studying and getting to know.  But I keep getting the feeling that there is more to it than that. There is this positive pleasure you get when you run through, preferably out loud, something that you have got established, perfectly, in your mind. The buzz of knowing it is right, and exactly right, is just as real as the buzz that keeps you solving crossword clues (or trying to) or getting a game of patience to come out. It is as though we are hard-wired with a reward mechanism for accurate recall of surprisingly long texts. And the only reason this fact is surprising is that, in our modern, literate culture, this is an ability we hardly ever use, except when some of us are mad enough to land ourselves with a big part in a play.

But in an ancestral, pre-literate culture, such as prevailed during all but the last, infinitesimal proportion of humanity’s evolution, the accurate memorizing of lore of all kinds – stories, poems, ballads, not to mention travel routes – must have been a vital part of our intellectual equipment. So it is not really surprising that we find we are good at this sort of thing when we allow ourselves to try. Or that we get a physical reward for doing it well. Because it stands to reason that until the modern era this was a human need which was  just as vital for our success as a species as others for which nature has bequeathed us the built-in payoffs we know so well.

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
and ye that on the sands with printless foot
do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
when he comes back…

That was from memory, I promise.  And I did get the wonderful payoff as I typed those words. I promise that as well. Three and a half of my 600 lines.  I’ve just checked the passage, from Act 5 Scene 1 in our script, and I did get it exactly right, punctuation and all.   I don’t know about you, but I still find that surprising.

PS  If you like this sort of thinking about thinking there’s lots of it in my first book, The Paradox of Progress

‘Our Country’s Good’ at St James’ Theatre

Our Country’s Good was a great treat this afternoon at St. James’ Theatre, London. The production capitalised on the intimate atmosphere of this brand-new theatre, with the superb sound creating a realistic impression of being surrounded by Australian wildlife.

We know this play well having produced it with our local group some years ago, but what a superb piece it is. Based on a true event it tells how the enlightened governor of an 18th century prison camp in Australia stuck his neck out and got one of his officers to organise the prisoners into producing, of all things, a play. Trying to introduce some civilisation amongst the savagery. And ultimately succeeding.

So we have a scenario for discussing what plays, and indeed art itself, are for. And we have a contrast between the brutality and degradation of daily life in the camp, depicted here in horrible detail, and the emerging humanity of the disparate cast. A clever device, which we also used to the full in our production, was the doubling of parts. So that, for example, the gentle and reviled prisoner who has been forced into the role of hangman becomes, by donning a wig and uniform jacket, the most vicious and sadistic of the officers. Thus the fact that there is a common humanity beneath the most contrasting exteriors is symbolised in the very structure of the play.

There are really beautiful scenes: I remember loving the  prisoner explaining his passion for words when we did the play years ago, this afternoon it was all the more moving to hear it again, and so beautifully performed. There is the hilarious first rehearsal of the play when a prisoner who once saw Garrick himself perform insists on overacting. Another in which a trustee takes his sulking woman out for a trip in a rowing boat and she gradually unbends to him. And so on. It is a parable of so much that is important today. It’s a superb production, in a superb new venue, and we are aglow with the memory tonight.

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