Gentlemen & Players: Joanne Harris

★★★★

It’s funny really: I’ve spent most of my life with completely the wrong impression of Joanne Harris, writing her off as an author of cutesy French tales like Chocolat (which perhaps isn’t particularly cutesy itself; I must reread it). And yet she’s so much more than that. She’s written ironic mythical fantasy (The Gospel of Loki), nuanced historical fiction (Holy Fools) and now, I discover, gripping thrillers. I came to Gentlemen & Players because I have a soft spot for fiction set in schools (blame The History Boys, I suppose), and I was attracted by this book’s setting at St Oswald’s: a self-consciously old-fashioned private school for boys. But I stayed for the increasingly compelling tale of Machiavellian revenge, as the school unwittingly nurtures a viper in its bosom: someone with an old grudge against St Oswald’s, who has finally decided to take down the school bit by bit from within. And, when I finished the book, I was sorely tempted to go right back to the beginning and start again, because Harris pulls off a piece of narrative legerdemain that is so completely brilliant that I wanted to revisit everything with full understanding.

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Tamburlaine: Christopher Marlowe (1587)

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★★★★

(Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 25 August 2018)

Something is brewing in the Scythian steppes. As the power of once-mighty Persia begins to wane under the rule of foolish Mycetes, rumours reach the court of a new leader rising in the north: a former shepherd, who has gathered a band of thugs and thieves and believes he is destined to rule the world. His name is Tamburlaine. Christopher Marlowe’s play is rarely performed, which is a pity because it has powerful resonance in the modern world. The RSC’s production, directed by Michael Boyd and designed by Tom Piper, was first staged in New York in 2014 and boils down Parts 1 and 2 into a single three-and-a-half-hour behemoth of death and ambition. (Imagine seven seasons of Game of Thrones condensed into 180 minutes and you have some idea of the amount of blood involved.) These cuts emphasise Tamburlaine’s dizzying rise to power, and the whole play is anchored by a magnificently charismatic performance by Jude Owusu.

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The Merchant of Venice: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare: Merchant of Venice

★★★★

(Illyria Theatre at Arundel Castle, 18 August 2018)

Riotous isn’t usually a word that I associate with The Merchant of Venice, but it’s really the only word that does justice to Illyria’s madcap outdoor production currently touring around the UK. Performed by a band of only five actors, who don a breathless variety of roles by running round the back of the stage and reappearing with a new coat or hat (leaving us in tears of laughter while doing so), it was perfect summer Shakespeare. Plus, before I get going, here’s a funny story: we’d also meant to see an outdoor Merchant at Westminster Abbey earlier this month, but as the day moved into evening and the sullen rain strengthened, we decided to chicken out. Imagine our amusement when we arrived at Arundel Castle for our Illyria expedition, and realised that the Westminster show had been Illyria too! We could well have ended up seeing the same show twice. Not that this would have been any great hardship, I hasten to add.

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An Almond for a Parrot: Wray Delaney

★★★

Some weeks ago, I wrote that I was weary of Victorian jail-fiction, so you may think it strange that here I am, posting on another novel about a woman in prison. But this is different to the likes of The Corset: there are no naive lady visitors, no stern matrons, nor are we in the prim 19th century. No: it’s 1756, in the very bosom of the Georgian age, and this is a racy fable full of rogues and ladies of the night, and touched with odd, piquant flashes of magic. Tully Truegood is in Newgate, awaiting trial for murder, her life briefly secured by the child growing under her heart. She has been many things – a daughter, a whore, a sprite, and a magician – and, as she waits, she feels a compulsion rising in her to tell her story to the one man, now long absent, that she’s ever loved.

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Much Ado About Nothing: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

★★★★

(Antic Disposition at Gray’s Inn Hall, 21 August 2018)

There will be a number of theatrical posts over the next few days, for two reasons: first, I have seen an awful lot of plays recently and, secondly, I still have to catch up with some plays I saw earlier in the summer. Fortunately, they’re all terribly good. This is one post, however, that’s pretty quick off the mark: it was only this week that I went to Gray’s Inn Hall to see the ever-brilliant Antic Disposition and their current production of Much Ado About Nothing. The company always performs their plays in France over the summer before coming to London and that’s had two important influences on their reading of Shakespeare’s delicious romantic comedy. They’ve adopted a mixed French and English cast for Much Ado, with some familiar faces from the blended cast of their magnificent Henry Vand Messina moves from Sicily to become a small French village, just after the end of the Second World War. The stage is set for love, longing and a merry entente cordiale, as romance blossoms over a lazy postwar summer.

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Giulio Cesare: George Frideric Handel (1724)

Handel: Giulio Cesare

(directed by David McVicar, Glyndebourne, 20 July 2018)

It’s always nerve-racking when you go to see something you love live for the first time. What if it doesn’t live up to expectations? What if one of the cast has a sore throat? What if, horror of horrors, the manager comes onstage to announce a substitution? But at the same time, how can you resist? My opera buddy H and I had decided that we would pay virtually anything to see the revival of David McVicar’s marvellous Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne, and our resolution was put to the test when the more affordable seats were snapped up within seconds after going on sale. However, our budget-stretching seats in row B were absolutely worth the cost. Many of the cast from the 2005 production returned, with Sarah Connolly triumphant in the title role, and we could admire every little detail. Coupled with a lavish picnic and a gang of equally excited friends (inevitably christened Team Giulio), it made for a perfect day out, and I can promise you that it did live up to all those months of anticipation.

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The Thirteenth Tale: Diane Setterfield

★★★★

When I reviewed Bellman & Black, some years ago, several of you urged me to go back and read Diane Setterfield’s earlier novel The Thirteenth Tale. And so I have! You see, I do listen. It just takes me five years… And it was worth the wait, for I thoroughly enjoyed it. Setterfield weaves a modern Gothic tale full of mystery and tragedy, spiced with congenital madness, the crumbling rooms of a remote old house, and twins. Better still, it has a genuine bibliophile as the heroine and a reclusive writer as its enigmatic object. In fact, the whole story is a love letter to the power of fiction, which can sweep us away from the world around us, provide a retreat in hard times, and even transform our own pasts.

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The Hall of the Mountain King: Judith Tarr

★★★½

The Avaryan Rising Trilogy: Book I

I’ve wanted to read more by Judith Tarr ever since finishing A Wind in Cairo and, thanks to a very bountiful visit to Hay-on-Wye, I now have quite a few of her books lined up. The opening salvo was this high-fantasy trilogy, combining court intrigue with an elemental struggle between light and dark. It begins with a loss: the disappearance of the old king’s daughter, chosen as his heir but consecrated to the Sun God. She leaves on the traditional Journey of a trainee priest; and never returns. For twenty-one years, the old king stands waiting every morning on the battlements of his mountain-locked castle, hoping that his beloved heir will return. One morning, he has an answer, in the form of a young man, a stranger, who bears an almost incredible message. He is Mirain, the son of the lost princess, fathered by the Sun God himself, and he has come home. His arrival brings joy to the heart of his aged grandfather, but alarm to the court – for this stranger has, at one stroke, destabilised all the hopes of the king’s illegitimate son…

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Tongues of Serpents: Naomi Novik

★★★½

Temeraire: Book VI

Speaking of dragons, it’s been ages since I caught up with Temeraire and his captain Laurence in Naomi Novik’s lovingly-created alternate Napoleonic history. Luckily the library had just the right book at the right time and so I plunged in with gusto. Novik’s novels choose a different part of the world each time, to add variety both to the adventures and to the kinds of creatures we encounter: for this is a world full of dragons, serpents and other strange creatures. And our heroes’ current location is home to some of the strangest creatures even without the blessing of fantasy: as the curtain rises, we find gentleman and dragon newly arrived in Australia, exiled as punishment for their supposed treason. But it’s a sensitive time in the colony and the sudden arrival of two dragons (not to mention three soon-to-hatch eggs) adds a new frisson to the prickly aftermath of the Rum Rebellion.

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Monet and Architecture

Monet: Houses of Parliament

(National Gallery, London, closed on 29 July 2018)

And I’m late again in posting about an exhibition. Sorry about this: summer travelling really isn’t conducive to getting things done on time. Anyway, it’ll be a good way to look back on a lovely show. Now, I’ll be upfront: I have not traditionally been a great fan of Monet. I don’t dislike his pictures – he doesn’t make me shudder, as some late female nudes by Renoir do – but, when I’ve seen his paintings in museums, they’ve rarely moved me to anything more than dutiful appreciation. As ever, much of my indifference was due to a lack of understanding. And that’s why the National Gallery’s present exhibition was such a revelation to me, because it rescued those waterlilies and seascapes and rivers from their chocolate-box ubiquity and reframed them as part of a dynamic story of experimentation and evocation. Monet was a painter of light and air and water, but he was also an inveterate painter of architecture, and this exhibition shows how he used a variety of man-made structures to order his compositions, emphasise the interplay between man and nature, and display the transformative power of light.

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